We met in a 70s state of mind. Two strangers in a music store, we both reached for the last copy of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars on CD, over which a brief battle ensued before I graciously backed down (I had the album on vinyl anyway). We talked, clicked, ended up back at hers, where we smoked a pack of cigarettes and effervesced about teenage-dom as though it were several decades behind us when in fact it was not even one. During, Bowie, or Ziggy, played through four times on repeat. By the time Shelley pressed stop I was positive that I never would. Or could.
Thinking about the start inevitably brought me to reflect upon the end.
There was no cute tale to pin on this. The Other Guy. Shelley and he met each other drunk in some bar somewhere -- each thought the other was cute, sexy, or maybe just available. Anyway, they fucked. They fucked a few different times. Hers. His. His again. That's it as far as I know. End of story -- except it wasn't.
I went inside.
The stairwell reeked of stale piss and beer suds, ammonia and yeast, and there were stains down the walls that could have been either. I counted six needles on my way up, six. There was a baby's diaper tossed into a corner of the third-floor landing, pale yellow shit squirting out the sides. I cupped my hand over my nose and mouth and gagged.
Why did you let this happen? I asked the walls, Shelley, myself. The wall answered with a graffiti FUCK U.
The city was going to the dogs.
The sound track: bare feet thumping up carpeted stairs, Shelley out of breath, both of us laughing so hard there were tears in our eyes.
It was a lazy Sunday afternoon and we'd been watching Annie Hall. Allen and Keaton's frolics during the famous lobster scene had inspired our own -- a semi-naked cat-and-mouse. Our first. It was our defining moment, and it stayed with me. Always would.
Thank you, Mister Allen.
I crossed the darkened hall in three steps, edged into the bedroom where a wan 20-watt glow from a shadeless bedside lamp crept across the room, over the bed sheets, and up the peeling walls like a second skin. The room had rank breath and body odor.
Shelley lay on the bed, awake but clearly sick, very sick.
"We can't," she said.
"Why? What's wrong?"
Her eyes were empty windows. "I'm on hiatus."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means we can't fuck."
"What -- right now? Or--"
"Never. We can never fuck again." Weeping, she gestured with her hands as though she had on a dress she hated. "This body could kill you."
My mouth twitched with a nervous smile, but the sight of her, unflinching, made it stop. "Are you pregnant?" I asked.
She laughed through her tears. "There's no life in here, Joel," she said, shaking her head. "I tested positive for HIV today."