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**PRINT: FRIENDS FROM CINCINNATI: Installment 24 features this part coming-of-age short by Chicago's Patrick Somerville, author of the Trouble collection of shorts out in 2006. | PAST BROADSHEETS |

Thinking about the end inevitably brought me to reflect upon the start.

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 pressed the intercom button labeled 202-Swanson and waited for Shelley's voice to query the 1AM call. It didn't: she buzzed me directly in. I stood there, wondering whether or not she knew who it was outside, and almost forgot to lean against the door before it locked itself again. I couldn't have pressed that call-button a second time.

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 whisper of silk sheets around an oak newel post. A glimpse of peach.

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.

Apartment 202. I knocked and the door opened with a push of my fist. Anyone could have strolled uncontested into her apartment, but I think she knew that.

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.

Six months after she split from Other Guy -- I can't bring myself to say his name -- Shelley turned up at my place. Sublimely erratic, she stood window gazing, finger flexing, talking of golden moments, languishing in memories from our time together, crying, laughing, crying and laughing, acting like a paranoid neurotic and yet somehow remaining the missing link from my life, the final feng shui ingredient to complete my room. She seemed to have something to say but could not find the right place to start. I thought pride was trying to muscle out an apology, that she'd appeared at my door seeking reconciliation. But when she pointed out how good I looked, I knew she was bullshitting, killing time before a cliff jump. So, I tried to give her the push I thought she needed by kissing her, only when my hand moved to her breast she pushed me away.

"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."