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Issue #9 |

The Roommate

brooklyn rooftop view

The night before everything happened, I was cooking an omelet when Finnegan clomped up the steps to our humble railroad apartment. We were on the top floor, our neighbors ghosts who worked night shifts, so I knew it had to be Finn—even before the fireproof door swung open, sharp knob smacking the wall and enlarging what was, two months into our lease, already a sizable dent in the plaster. Finnegan loved a good entrance.

“My play is tonight,” he said. “Are you coming?”

“Isn’t it a staged reading?”

He loitered near the door, like he’d rushed onstage and forgotten his mark. Athletic and lean, a former high-school shortstop, his posture had something of a perpetual crouch about it. He was in terrible shape—ate nothing but cuchifritos, Burger King, KFC—but still he looked energetic, pent-up, prepared at any moment to pace as he ranted about the genius of Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater and the benefits of alienating the audience.

“Yeah,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “A staged reading.”

“You get a haircut?” I asked.

“Kate cut it,” he said.

I imagined Kate—Finnegan’s girlfriend—running the clippers along the side of his head. I imagined her brushing the freshly cut stubble from the back of his neck. At the thought of her servitude—apprenticeship, Finn might say—I tightened my grip on the omelet pan’s handle. Kate was a few years younger than Finnegan, and she had something bird-like about her: light on her feet, a laugh like a chirp. Like Finn, she was an aspiring playwright.

“The haircut reminds me,” Finn said. “Have I told you about the time—”

“Yes,” I said.

“With Kate and the clippers? Onstage?”

“Yes,” I said. “And her parents were there in the audience.”

“Her parents can’t make it tonight.”

“I guess you made sure of that.”

“Tom, you should come,” he said. “Kate’s got a wonderful role.”

“Isn’t she playing herself?”

“It isn’t so easy,” he said.

“I might just stay in,” I said. “Do some writing.”

Finn nodded. In his world, this was the only good excuse. I’d known his play was autobiographical—Kate played Kate, Finn played Finn—and I suppose this should have piqued my interest, but I was tired of Finnegan, who was always so much himself. And lately, things had been weird between us.

I executed a confident flip of my omelet and clacked on the pan’s cover. Finnegan had shed his wool coat and kicked off his sneakers, and now he stood near the couch, excavating his pockets: wallet, phone, receipts, rubber bands, paper clips, pieces of gum, stray coupons. He deposited all of this on the coffee table and then he went to his bedroom. I put down the spatula, went to the coffee table, and plucked out the obvious trash.

“Do you smell something?” Finn called.

His door was ajar. Inside were thick mounds of denim and shin-high snowdrifts of socks. Stacks of books towered over heaps of scrap paper and crumpled-up tissues. Styrofoam containers, most of them open, were scattered on the floor and the bed and the dresser. A cereal bowl propped open the door, its beige ceramic caked with hard sugary barnacles.

“I do smell a little something,” I said.

“Like rotten eggs,” he said.

The pan was smoking. By the time I evacuated the omelet, the eggs were spongey and brown. A burnt crust had hardened onto the pan’s nonstick surface. When I sat down to eat, I poked at the mush, and paused to consider my plan of attack.

“How do I look,” Finnegan said, striding into the kitchen. He’d swapped his ratty white t-shirt for a clean one, his torn jeans for a pair with only minor fraying. He didn’t look stylish, not exactly. But good hair and a symmetrical face will go a long way in New York—and probably everywhere else. Finnegan was attractive, and I felt a certain unearned pride about this, like how a stepdad must feel toward a handsome stepson.

“You’ve got a stain,” I said. “Just under the chin.”

He frowned, inspected the shirt, and returned to his room. I heard him tearing at plastic, opening a fresh multi-pack of white t-shirts. When he reentered the kitchen, he’d donned a new shirt so white it made the rest of his outfit look dirty.

“We really should call the gas company,” Finnegan said, pulling his coat on again and slipping into his sneakers.

“My omelet was burning,” I said.

“There’s another smell in the mix. I’ve been saying this.”

He had been saying this. For two months. And I had been listening, but I had never smelled an odor that couldn’t be explained by the garbage pile in Finnegan’s room. And when he said we should call, he really meant that I should do it.

“You’ve got to come to the show,” Finn said. “You’re on the guest list.”

I said okay, I would be there. But until he’d left and the apartment was quiet, I hadn’t really decided. I sat there at the kitchen table and ate my charred eggs, itemizing the empty Coke bottles, the banana peels, the Cheerios and bottle caps on the floor, the grease stains, the splotches of dirt. If I stayed here, I wouldn’t actually write. I’d tidy. I’d sweep and scrub and vacuum and wipe. Maybe Finn’s play would be the inspiration I needed. Maybe I would even be in it. Cold air gusted in through the open window. After I’d eaten, I shut the window, and then I left for Manhattan.

 

I had met Finnegan in my third year of college. On a Friday afternoon in October, my roommate Bryce Goss and I picked him up from the train. Finn was clutching a paper bag dark with grease, a half-finished meal of fast food. Before he even got in the car, before the two of us even spoke, I knew a lot about Finnegan: he’d gone to high school with Bryce in Los Angeles; he and Bryce were best friends; he went to an elite university in Manhattan, where he edited the literary magazine; he was possibly a genius. I knew Finn had been promising to visit Bryce at our tiny college upstate since we were all freshman. Now Finnegan was finally here.

We got out of the car, and Bryce and Finnegan hugged. He was apparently the kind of person who didn’t have any luggage, and the kind of person, who despite his medium build, made me feel like I should let him take shotgun—which I did, jumping into the cramped backseat, despite having six inches on him.

We drove to our off-campus house, music blaring. Although it wasn’t music, not exactly: it was Bridge Music, an experimental composition that lived on the local radio waves. Bryce and I had discovered the piece thanks to a sign on the Mid-Hudson Bridge. Since that day, whenever we came within range of the weak FM band, we tuned in to 95.3 and bathed in the percussive sounds of the bridge, the smacks and rattles and dings, airing in a permanent loop. We told Finnegan all of this—how the composer had “played the bridge” and recorded himself—and he rubbed his chin for a moment. Then he went off: the whole thing sounded to him like a stunt, a gimmick; all concept, no heart. By the time we’d reached our house and the radio signal had gadded, dissolved into static, Bryce and I were both converts. Thanks to Finnegan, a piece we’d once loved now sounded empty.

We spent that afternoon drinking. In the evening, we went out looking for parties. The suspense of a Friday night like that is unique: you know exactly what’s coming but convince yourself that you don’t. We walked, and Finn talked. We found ourselves at the campus apartments. Finnegan wasn’t high—didn’t need to be—but you’d have been forgiven for assuming he’d snorted cocaine. He had that hard confidence, clenched his fists as he spoke, sometimes shaking them like maracas. “A fine book,” he said, of Ulysses, like he was a sommelier with something to prove and the book was Bordeaux, Merlot—whatever the fancy kind is. Looking back, I can’t help but find him insufferable, but that wasn’t how I felt at the time. Finnegan was engrossing, impressive. It helped that nestled in beside the bits of pretension were phrases of west coast slang so incongruous they seemed extra authentic. When we’d tired of the first party, a dud, he turned to Bryce and me, looking serious. “Let’s bounce,” he said.

Outside, in the raucous dusk, a bleak kind of déjà vu hit me. Finn’s verbal tics were familiar because I said these things too. Bryce, my best friend, was diluted Finnegan Dixon. I was watered-down Bryce; Finn was the original source. From outside a campus apartment, there were certain signs you could safely take as an invite: loud music, strobe lights, a garbage bin of grain liquor. Then there were gatherings you couldn’t be sure were real parties. That cluster of people in the steamy kitchen might just have been a couple of friends. That group circled-up and smoking on the stoop might just have been watching a movie, taking a brief intermission. Faced with these ambiguous situations, Finnegan took his chances. He’d stroll in, ask if there was beer in the fridge, and most of the time, the answer was yes.

It must have been two in the morning when Finnegan led us into a squalid apartment, in which a bunch of big dudes were seated around their kitchen table. Finn delivered his line.

“You got any beer in the fridge?”

No one spoke. When Finn moved to the fridge, the biggest guy in the room stood up and stopped him.

“No beers left,” the guy said, although he held a sweating can of Bud Light. His long dark hair made him look like a medieval warrior. Two of the guys sitting down were familiar; this was the baseball team’s house. The guy challenging Finn had the rebellious look of a pitcher.

Finn said, “That beer looks fresh.”

When the guy didn’t say anything, Finn lunged for the fridge, got knocked back, and Bryce and I began to move toward the door. Then, magically, we were out. The night air was crisp, and Finnegan was there with us, laughing, talking shit as we speed-walked away. When we hit the asphalt path that led through the woods back to campus, I heard footsteps slapping the pavement behind us. It was the pitcher and two of his friends. We stopped, and the pitcher came right up to Finn, towering over him.

“I found you a beer,” he said.

“That’s pretty cool of you,” Finnegan said.

“You just need to apologize first.”

“Apologize?”

“It’s disrespectful, barging into our apartment like that.”

“What about hospitality?” Finn said. “I’m a visitor to your fair campus.”

“You won’t apologize.”

Finnegan shook his head. Before I knew what had happened the pitcher was tipping the beer can over Finnegan’s head, the liquid foaming in his hair and running down his face. After wiping the beer from his eyes, Finn launched himself at the pitcher.

The two of them hit the ground, and, for a moment, I watched them rolling around. When Bryce decked one of the pitcher’s two henchmen, it occurred to me that I was supposed to join in. I looked at the pitcher’s third friend. We made eye contact, and it was clear the two of us had a gentlemen’s understanding: we would be spectators, referees.

The fight only lasted a couple of minutes. A campus security car drove past on its loop, and the officer stopped in the parking lot. We all scattered. I had never been in a fight—never even witnessed one—and I was shocked by Finnegan’s nasty black eye, the pitcher’s bloody nose and sliced cheek. But what shocked me the most was what happened in the morning. Bryce and Finn and I had gone for breakfast to the Big Tomato, our favorite, and there at a table in back was the pitcher and his friends. My instinct was to turn and leave, immediately, but Finn and Bryce went to the back of the room, and soon all of them were laughing, hugging, giving each other pats on the back. The fight had been a kind of theater, a show, and now the show was over. They had bonded over beating each other to shit. I hadn’t beaten anyone up. I took a seat at the counter, and, until the camaraderie faded, I sat there alone and sipped at my coffee.

 

The staged reading was at the Underground Theater in lower Manhattan, and I got there with thirty minutes to spare. This wasn’t the theater district, not even a theater district—barely a district at all, in that the neighborhood was unnamed and had no obvious center. On my way to the theater, it seemed to me like the ever-rising elevator of urban development had stopped between floors, gotten stuck. There were chain restaurants, too, but not the good ones. These chains were all either hyper-local or foreign, doomed Manhattan traditions or faddish imports from Korea or Sweden. There was a bar named Dive Bar, the architectural equivalent of distressed, pre-torn jeans: the bricks were black with fake soot, the neon sign flickered but was easy to read, and the booths I saw through the windows looked like they had been salvaged from older bars that this one had put out of business.

I walked past the Underground Theater two times before I spotted the sign, the beer logos lit up in the window. I’d expected something grander, something more like a theater. Down the dark steps to the entrance I went, thinking Finnegan had oversold the whole thing.  A bouncer stood at attention in the shadows, wearing a self-satisfied smile, presumably at the quip on his t-shirt: Beware of Show Tunes. When he spoke, he projected.

“You’re here for the play?”

“I’m Finnegan’s roommate,” I said. “I’m on the guest list.”

The bouncer pursed his lips and tilted his head. His fiddled with the zipper on his blue fanny pack full of tickets, tugging it open and shut.

“There’s no guest list,” he said. “Money from the door goes to the owner—Finn knows that.”

It was twelve dollars per ticket, he said, which seemed steep. I considered turning around, heading home. But I had told Finnegan I was coming. I was here, and I had fifteen dollars in cash. The venue wasn’t what I’d imagined, and it wasn’t what Finn had imagined either—I was certain of that. Maybe Finn needed me.

Inside, the main room was narrow and dark. Facing the stage, in back, were four rows of folding chairs, all of them empty. A few men sat at the bar, none of them Finnegan. I took a seat at the bar. The bartender, a thin woman whose arms were thick with tattoos, asked what I wanted to drink. I looked for a beer list on the wall and saw a Cash Only sign.

“What will three dollars get me?”

“Hard seltzer’s on special,” she said.

The seltzer tasted like a photograph of a mango. I texted Finn to say I was there, deciding not to mention the guest list. My phone buzzed, and it was Finn, saying he and Kate were in the green room, getting ready.

“Is there really a green room?” I asked the bartender when she passed.

She laughed. “There’s a room backstage with a busted fridge.”

“Is it painted green at least?”

“No,” she said. “So you’re here for The Roommate?”

The Roommate?”

“Finnegan’s play.”

She asked how I knew him. Before I could answer, the lights flicked off and on, off and on. The folding chairs were all empty, but then the bouncer came in and sat down in front. I took a seat in the back.

Finn and Kate came in through a side door and climbed up onstage, each of them clutching a script. With the darkness, and the spotlights, I wasn’t sure they could see me.

“Welcome,” Finnegan said, before launching into the boilerplate. I looked at Kate in the spotlight. I wished she’d meet my gaze, look me in the eye. I felt like she sensed me, there in the darkness, but I couldn’t be sure.

“I’m playing two roles tonight,” Finnegan said. “Because there’s no set, I’m going to ask you to imagine a railroad apartment. A mess. Mugs everywhere. Dishes and plates on the table. Clothes on the floor.”

I looked to Kate, and she was looking at me. She didn’t seem happy to see me. I told myself she must already be acting. Then I remembered she was playing herself.

 

The bad smell had been there from the start.

The term railroad apartment, at first, had made me think of couches on rails, gliding from bedroom to kitchen. Or a decadent sleeper car chugging across the prairie at night. The reality was a hallway. We moved in on the first day of August, hauling boxes and mattresses up three floors of stairs, and then rewarded ourselves with tacos al pastor that were either exceptionally juicy or greasy— I couldn’t tell which. We’d both graduated from college in May. Then, when I’d moved to New York, there was Finnegan: both of us sleeping on couches, looking for work. After a couple of months, Finn found a job at a bar and I landed a magazine gig. We’d spent a solid week searching for an apartment, until we found the railroad apartment in Bushwick. Now, sitting in the kitchen, exhausted, it occurred to me I didn’t really know Finnegan.

“Do you smell that?” Finn said.

A weird smell was in the air—but faintly. Not a stench. A scented whisper. All the windows were open.

“Probably the previous tenant,” I said.

“But they cleaned.”

“Didn’t she own a cat?”

Finnegan was concerned; he went to the stovetop and sniffed.

“You try it,” he said.

At the stove, I bent and sniffed, but smelled nothing.

Our first weeks were like that: Finnegan telling me he smelled something, me claiming I didn’t smell anything. The truth was, I smelled something, but my hypothesis was that Finnegan was the source of the smell. He’d already made a mess of his room. He hadn’t unpacked—wouldn’t unpack the whole time we lived there—and he balanced sour mugs of coffee on top of his wheeled suitcase.

It wasn’t all bad—not at first. Living with Finnegan, my life had a freedom and spontaneity. One night we were sitting in the kitchen and talking when Finn stuck his head out the window, then an arm and a leg. Then he was out on the fire escape. I went to the window and saw him inspecting the ladder to the roof. I climbed out, clanged along the metal platform, which was crosshatched like the top of a pie, and stood next to Finn at the foot of the ladder. We were right outside our neighbors’ kitchen window.

“You sure we’re not bothering them?” I asked.

“Nobody’s home,” he said.

Finn began to climb. Technically, I supposed, I was spotting him. If he fell, there wasn’t much I could do. Due to this sense of futility and my sense that I shouldn’t look at his ass, I looked right into our neighbor’s dim kitchen. Their counters were spotless and clean. On the table, two pink carnations were stuck in a glass soda bottle. A couple lived there—the whole building was couples except for us.

“You’ve got to get up here,” Finn shouted. Looking up, I saw he’d cleared the lip of the roof.

The metal rungs, heated by the afternoon sun, were warm in my palms and sharp on my feet, digging into the thin rubber soles of my shoes. Three floors of fire escape and a concrete patio were below me, and I wanted to look, but I didn’t. I stared at the bricks in front of me, which looked suspiciously crumbly, and then the stone lip of the roof, the flat expanse of pebbly black tar. At this point, I should have kept going, but I paused, briefly terrified, before pushing onto the roof.

Finn was standing on the far side of the building, looking out over Bushwick. For a second, I stayed on all fours, arms and legs quivering with adrenaline. I stood and walked toward Finnegan, the hot tar spongey beneath me, my shoes sticking, then squeaking free with each step. Standing on the lip of the roof, with the cathedral across the street looming domed and gaudy behind him, Finnegan looked like a saint. A high priest of high art. I’d been struggling to write, since graduating from college, and it seemed to me then that Finnegan might serve as my guide. His brilliance, his intensity, his eccentricity—maybe all of this would rub off. Beside him now, I was jittery. He patted me on the shoulder.

“Everything looks good from up here,” he said.

He was right. Bushwick wasn’t known for its trees, but from this vantage point the borough seemed to be full of them, each canopy and its trembling leaves lit up in the low-angled sun. Finn pulled out a box of cigarettes from his pocket. Before lighting up, he offered me one.

“No,” I said. “I’m fine.”

I didn’t smoke—hadn’t ever smoked, besides a few drunken times. And I know saying no is supposed to be the courageous and principled thing, but when I said no to that cigarette, I felt like a coward. To have risked my life climbing the roof and say no.

“Give me one,” I said. “What the hell.”

We stood there, smoking and watching the sunset. In that light, the smoke looked almost solid.

 

Onstage, at the Underground Theater, Finn voiced two roommates, nameless—this was serious art. Kate had a name, for some reason. Her name was Kate. It was easy to tell the roommates apart. Roommate #1 had a deep manly voice, while Roommate #2 was whiny and wheedling. Roommate #1 was concerned with the higher things, with art and sex and death, and Roommate #2—a wannabe artist—was always washing the dishes and sweeping the floor, avoiding the hard work of artistic creation.

The roommates had only just moved into their apartment in Bushwick, and already the bouncer beside me was laughing, along with a growing crowd at the bar—a tour group of Europeans who were blond, attractive, and apparently fluent in English. As Roommate #2 embarrassed himself more and more, my grip tightened on the mango seltzer, denting the can. I had a sudden urge to throw the can at the stage. Then again, perhaps a spectacle was just what Finnegan wanted: like when Kate had buzzed her hair onstage in Finnegan’s previous play. Finn must have told me this story more than a dozen ties. How he hadn’t known that Kate should cut her hair onstage until he saw her parents in the audience, suburban and meek. Kate’s mother had been in tears. At work I’d been reading science articles about parallel universes, an infinite number of them, and it seemed to me then that my presence in the Underground Theater had set The Roommate in motion: if only I hadn’t come, Finnegan would not have done this to me. As the play—a one-act—went along, I tried to absent myself from that basement, from The Roommate. I adopted the crossed-arm posture of someone underwhelmed at a rock show. If I acted dismissive, maybe I could dismiss what was there right in front of me.

When the roommates onstage discovered the ladder to the roof, they climbed up it. In the sun and the heat, Roommate #1 lit a cigarette and offered one to Roommate #2. I watched Roommate #2 shake his head and then stop. And in spite of my attempted detachment, I was rooting for him—for me—to take the cigarette, and to smoke it. Finally, after much deliberation, he spoke.

“No thanks,” he said.

I had smoked that cigarette, I wanted to say. I had gone to bed that night with a bitter taste in my mouth. Of course, I hadn’t smoked a cigarette since. In a sense, Finnegan had gotten it right: I had taken one cigarette, but that was as far as I went. I was still someone who said no, did the dishes, swept the floors, and went to bed early. Sitting there in the theater, I felt hollowed-out and light-headed. Like I’d been cleaning the bathroom, inhaling Windex and bleach.

 

Soon after the roof, the mess metastasized, and Finn and Kate started dating. The first time she came over, the two of them read lines in the kitchen. I cooked myself dinner around them. The second time she came over, Finn actually cleaned, in preparation.

“You should come around more often,” I said. “Then Finn might really start cleaning.”

From then on, Kate and I were always laughing, poking fun at Finn and his wrinkled shirts, his fast food, his bad haircuts. It’s a bonding experience, making fun of someone like that, and I suppose it made me feel close to Kate. That was why I started texting her: jokes at first, about Finnegan’s quirks or oddities I’d seen around the apartment. She always wrote me right back. Once, I asked if she wanted to meet for a beer—Finnegan was out of town, in LA. She didn’t write me back. I did not think I’d done something wrong. I was lonely, and my intentions were friendly, not romantic—but then when Finnegan got back into town, he confronted me in the kitchen.

“You’ve got to stop texting Kate,” he said.

It was like I was on the ladder again, looking down, things spinning.

“She told you?”

“Tom, she’s my girlfriend.”

I stopped texting Kate. Lately, when she had come over, she didn’t smile or joke. Though I understood Finn’s reaction, her silence hurt me. That, and her new habit of leaving mugs on the counters, mugs that I had to clean. The rims of her mugs were always stained with pink lipstick.

Our cabinets were chock full of mugs: matching green ones, white teacups, and garage sale specimens with mysterious corporate logos. We had more than a dozen. Finn was constantly drinking coffee. He seemed incapable of washing a single mug or even performing that most basic of courtesies, running the faucet, filling the mug with warm water. I cleared mugs from every imaginable surface. The floor. The arm of the couch. The top of the microwave. The shower. The top of the medicine cabinet. Balanced on Finnegan’s bed. Tipped-over under his bed. The reason there were mugs everywhere, I began to think, was our mug supply, which was seemingly inexhaustible. Why, I imagined Finnegan thinking, should I bother to wipe down a mug when ten clean ones lie in wait?

One night, when he left for his shift at the bar, I wrapped the clean mugs tight in paper towels and packed their mummified forms into a big cardboard box. The streetlights hummed outside; moths the size of hummingbirds were tapping the screens in the kitchen. I hauled the box to my bedroom. I opened the closet, shifted aside piled clothes, and stashed the mugs for safekeeping.

 

Onstage, Kate’s lips were electric pink in the spotlight. I watched her lips, and Finnegan’s, in the play’s final minutes. It was easier to watch than to listen. As Roommate #2 texted Kate, ineffectively trying to woo her, I didn’t root for him to succeed. I rooted for the play to be over.

When it was done, Finn and Kate took their bows and stepped down from the stage. A few European tourists went up to congratulate Finn. I stood and went over to Kate. I didn’t know then what I wanted from her. Looking back, I’d say I wanted reassurance from her that she didn’t see me this way. Or maybe I wanted one last laugh at Finn.

“You were great,” I said. “Or should I say you were awful? Is it like break a leg?”

“You can say I was great.”

“Well, then. You were great.”

Finnegan craned his neck, looking toward us. He didn’t come over. With no great enthusiasm, Kate said that they were going for drinks and asked if I wanted to come. I thanked her, but said I had to go home and write.

“What’s it like playing yourself?” I asked.

“It’s okay,” she said. “As long as you like who you are.”

Back at home, in the railroad apartment, the smell was overwhelming. Distraught and alone, I sat down at the kitchen table and wrote. In my story, Finnegan was a villain, a madman, a hoarder. I was the victim. The apartment filled up with basketballs and sewing machines, sandbags and bricks, wedding dresses and lawnmower parts, and Finnegan died, drowned in stuff, suffocated.

 

I was at work the next day when it happened—based on the official timeline—but I didn’t get the news until I’d gone on my lunch break. My landlord called and said there had been an explosion. Finn was in the hospital, but he was okay. I’d get the full story later. How Finnegan had struck the match in his bedroom. How his distance from the kitchen—the source of the gas—had led to his unlikely survival. How the gas had leaked from the plastic tube in back of the stove.

Depending on how you wanted to look at it, we were either lucky we’d kept the windows open all summer, or unlucky that so much fresh air had kept us unaware of the leak. We were lucky, unlucky, maybe just stupid. The investigator—and the media—seemed to think we were stupid. In the aftermath, much was made of the mess and the apartment’s terrible smell by the local news.

When I got to the hospital, Finnegan was awake. I knew the injuries he’d sustained were not serious—mild burns, a concussion, nicks and cuts from the kitchen shrapnel—but when I entered his room, he looked completely beaten to shit. He was writing on a napkin, something I’d heard people did. He didn’t see me come in. Apparently, the muses were speaking to him.

“Finnegan,” I said.

“Tom,” he said. “Holy shit.”

He’d been lighting a scented candle, he told me. Trying to deal with the smell.

“What are you writing?” I asked.

“Impressions from the explosion,” he said. “I’ve got to write about it, I think.”

I wanted to tell him about the shut windows. I wanted to tell him about what I’d written. I wanted manly camaraderie, an affectionate pat on the shoulder. I wanted us to hug and laugh and let bygones be bygones, like the fight with the pitcher in the Big Tomato when we were in college. But then I remembered The Roommate, and a nurse at the door asked if Kate could come in. I told Finnegan I was sorry, and I turned and made a move for the door.

“Sorry for what?” he asked.

But I was already out and into the hall.

 

Finnegan’s newest play premiered in the spring. It’s been more than a year since everything happened. After the explosion, Kate took my place and moved in with Finnegan. I got my own apartment in Queens, a place I can barely afford. Finn’s notoriety, post-explosion, helped him to fundraise. We’d been the subjects of a city-wide PSA: Don’t just sniff the burners, the ads said. And the title of Finnegan’s new play—Scratch the Flame and Sniff—had come from a Con Ed mailing, a scratch-and-sniff pile of paper. When I got the invitation in the mail, I’d been meaning to get together with him. I thought maybe enough time had passed. I was lonely in Queens.

The theater was off-Broadway, but this time, at least, it was an actual theater. My seat was front row center. Despite what you might think, it is not the best seat in the house—I had to crane my neck to see anything. As the seats around me filled up I looked behind me for critics, other dignitaries—these people got the seats ten rows back in the center. Although the curtain was down, an odd smell was issuing from the stage. The house manager came over the intercom and said the gas smell was intentional. It was fake. I opened the program and saw the play’s complete title: Scratch the Flame and Sniff, or: The Roommate.

When the curtain went up, I was thinking about my own story, which I’d been trying to publish. Onstage, garbage was strewn across the floor, along with bottles and cans and styrofoam boxes. The whole time Finnegan and I had been roommates, his habit had been to come home at two in the morning and write in the kitchen—I’d hear the click of the keyboard, the whirr of beans in the coffee grinder. Writing did not come to him effortlessly; I doubt such a person exists. But he seemed capable of more effort than I was. Ideas incessantly sailed out of him, detonated by some small spark in his brain. And, in all his plays—the ones he’d told me about—he made things happen; wild things, sensational things. A father and his kindergarten-aged daughter killed a rabid wolf with a shotgun. A Wall Street CEO murdered his secretary. A former Rockette became a martial arts specialist, foiled an art heist at the Frick, and ran for mayor of New York. The subject matter of his plays was either brave and boundary pushing or shallow and manipulative, depending on your point of view. But he made things happen. He crammed each play full of chaos.

I knew, watching Finnegan’s latest play, that the story I’d written hadn’t taken things far enough. What Finnegan had dreamt up was better. In the lead-up to the explosion—the climax—I watched myself, Roommate #2, stick a pin through the tube in back of the stove. I watched myself shut the windows. I watched myself apply strips of duct tape to seal them. I liked what I saw. I wished it wasn’t Finnegan who had written it.

 

Photo courtesy of Collin Erickson; view more of his work on Flickr.

Ben Sandman was born and raised in the Catskills in upstate New York. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Story, Fiction Southeast, Stirring, The Susquehanna Review, The Allegheny Review, which awarded him its prize for prose in 2014, and Stone Canoe, which awarded him the 2015 Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize for Fiction. …

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