February 05, 2008

Benson and Hedges

By Paul McGuire © 2007

Late nights, when insomnia struck, I would sit in the dark and listen to jazz albums from Ornette Coleman and Charlie Mingus and Bird. I'd open every doorway inside the hallways of my mind and let my thoughts wander. I always hoped that if I let it run amok long enough, my wound up mind would eventually grow tired and I'd finally be able to shuffle off to slumber. That never worked.

The last time I can recall being able to obtain a steady sleep schedule was when I lived in Seattle in the late 1990s. Towards the beginning of my stint there, I would have the occasional sleepless night and would drive around and get lost all over the city. That's how I got to know Seattle much better. I'd drive around with the windows down and listen to the radio since I didn't have a CD player or even a tape player in my 1984 Chrysler La Baron, the same car that I wrecked a couple of months after I moved to Seattle.

Once I lost my car, I had nothing to drive around in on sleepless nights. On restless nights, which occurred every few weeks, I sat on my porch in the dark and listened to the rain. My roommates and I used an old Folger's coffee can as a communal ashtray which we sometimes left it on the ledge of the railing and the ashtray would get soaked in a soupy like substance of dirt, ash, used chewing gum, matches, and cigarette butts... a few of them were green because one of my freaky roommates used to wear green lipstick.

She painted her fingernails black and wore weird jackets with ruffles or feathers, and sometimes both. She always looked like she just woke up. It was probably all the Valium she digested on a daily basis or the myriad of bong hits she ripped moments before she stepped out of her secluded museum to herself which was room #5 in the Big Red House. I only got to see her room once, and that's when the light blew out and she needed "someone tall" to stand on a chair and screw in a new one. She said she was a poetry major at UW and her floor was littered with crumbled up pieces of paper. Those were "unconnected thoughts" she explained. She could not connect what was inside her mind to the outside world and physically from pen to paper. There must have been almost a hundred of little balls of paper all over the floor, underneath her desk, and at the end of the bed.

She had random CDs cases, most of them empty, scattered throughout her room and on her bed. Her brother worked for Sub Pop and she got dozens of promotional CDs from random bands like The Helio Sequence or The Reverend Horton Heat or those dykes from L7.

She didn't say much and out of all my roommates that could consider commit suicide, she was #1 on my list. There was always that possibility that I'd come home from work and find her limp body in the hallway after she choked on her own vomit from swallowing too many happy pills and wine. A couple of months before I moved into the house, one of the guys who lived in the room next to mine had committed suicide. He hung himself in his closet and no one noticed until six days later. The roommates smelled something funky after the fourth day, but they just assumed someone in the house scored a bag of the dankest pot on the planet.

Seattle and the Pacific Northwest was the serial murder capital of the world. The Big Red House was haunted and there were rumors that Ted Bundy lived in the house next door when he was in the middle of his killing sprees. One of his victims was found dead in an alley way two blocks from the Big Red House.

Seattle also had a high suicide rate, especially among females aged 15-21. My roommate was exhibiting classic signs of a potential suicide victim. But she also struck me as the type of girl who would attempt to kill herself but not go all the way... she'd fuck herself up enough to get hospitalized (but not die) and cause a stir to draw up some attention. I looked at her arms and wrists. She didn't appear to be a cutter, but she listened to a lot of angry indie chick rock and idolized Ani DiFranco.

Her sullenness always bothered me. I wanted to try to talk to her, but it was not easy. She used to sit in her room and drink alone. She preferred white wine, the cheap stuff that you saw on sale at Safeway, which she sipped from a purple UW coffee cup. I knew that she drank alone because she would hide the empty bottles in her room and then bring them down to the recycling bin very early in the morning.

She spent most of the time in her room and rarely hung out in the living room or kitchen. She would emerge from her room every hour or so for eight minutes, and migrate to the porch for a smoke break. She smoked Benson and Hedges and my other roommates teased her for her choice of death sticks.

She walked around barefoot and I thought she had sexy feet for such a depressed girl. She painted her toe nails in different colors. Sometimes they were metallic blue or greenish-grey. One time they were pink and I thought that was odd, since pink was a happy girl's color and not brown or black and depressing like most girls I met in Seattle at the end of the 20th century.

She moved out of the house unexpectedly. Before she left, she knocked on my door. I was watching the X-Files and sitting in my boxer shorts. She told me that she was moving into an apartment with her best friend. That was odd because I never saw anyone visit her. Anyway, she held a desk lamp in her hands and presented it to me as if it were an Oscar or a Golden Globe award.

"I wanted you to have a reading light. I noticed that you didn't have one."

She told me to wait right there. So I stood in my doorway, in my boxers, holding the lamp. She returned thirty-five seconds later and handed me a box full of CDs that she didn't want to take with her. I inherited albums from Zen Guerrilla, The Supersuckers, Fluid, Water Of The Delay, Kumquat Orb, and Chartreuse Tick Of The Demonic Fusion. I sold all of those at a used bookstore down the street for about $60. I used the money to buy a Pesto and mushroom pizza from Pagliaci's and a bag of weed, which I smoked on my porch late at night when I couldn't sleep.

A couple of weeks after she moved out, I wondered if she wasn't really moving and decided to commit suicide. In a way, she tried to reach out one last time when she knocked on my door and gave me some of her things. It was kinda creepy how she said, "I won't be needed these things anymore."

I was convinced that she wasn't really headed to a new apartment, rather, she was finally going to jump head first into the abyss. I became obsessed with finding out if she had killed herself. I checked all the newspapers and scanned the interwebs looking for any sign of her. Every day I'd scan the obituaries and ask my roommates who were UW students if they happened to run across her. They always said no and gave me shit for having a crush on the wine guzzling chick with green lipstick.

Two or three months after she moved out of the Big Red House, I sat on a bus returning home from work. I spotted her walking down the street wearing one of her black suede feathery jackets. I got off at the next stop and ran down the street looking for her. I couldn't find her and started to think that I was doing too many mushrooms, or acid, or just seeing a ghost.

Just when I was about to give up, I spotted her standing on line inside the 7/11. She was buying a pack of Benson and Hedges. She gave me a half-smile when she saw me rush into the store. I embraced her and she seemed surprised initially that I hugged her while she waited to buy smokes. After an awkward two or three seconds of silence, she hugged me back. We must have stood there for about fifteen or sixteen seconds total. I finally let go when all that built up guilt inside of my guts evaporated into thin air. I thought that I let her die and she miraculously sprung back to life. I said goodbye and walked out of the store as she stood at the counter completely stunned and confused.

I never saw her again.

Paul McGuire is a writer from New York City.

No comments: