“I don’t want to be cold anymore.”
That’s what I said when I moved to Las Vegas from New York City. Grad school was the ostensible reason, but it also had something to do with years of shivering, wearing two sweaters to bed, pacing with teeth chattering on concrete subway platforms, running 10 blocks in 20 degrees with icy blue 30-mile-an-hour winds. Sure, it was a tumble from the icebox straight into the barbecue pit, but my willingness to do so should tell you how desperate I was …
Six months after the move, I’m in an apartment complex somewhere east of the Strip. Squat, sand-colored buildings huddled around a courtyard of straw-dry grass. Inside, dirt-colored carpet, walls the texture of melting ice cream and ceilings like curdled milk. Most of my summer classes are via Internet; freelance writing also entails working at home—fortunate because, once again, the weather is my enemy. I’ve gone from a frozen moon of Pluto to a solar flare front-row seat on Mercury, and I suspect that if I went outside at noon, I would burst into flame like a Spinal Tap drummer.
So I don’t leave. Hell, I barely move—the air conditioning does its best, but like me, its prime was during the grunge era, and neither of us could go full force for days without slowing down anymore. Minor tasks involve a level of planning and motivation more appropriate to scaling Mount Everest or arranging a 500-person wedding: First, I will get off this couch. I will walk across the room, put the book on the shelf, I will go into the kitchen and put the glass in the sink. Starting … Now! … OK. First, I will get off this couch …
But the lethargy extends beyond me and my one-bedroom. In New York, my neighbors were an ever-changing cast, hustling past on stairways and sidewalks; now it’s a half-dozen folks who barely change positions. An old guy with a salt-and-pepper crewcut slouches on a sagging lawn chair, menthol perennially pinched between his fingers, occasionally calling out greetings in a gravelly voice while his daughter’s little white poodle yips counterpoint. A one-armed man scowls in his doorway, except when he emerges to stand over his grill. The college guys across the way slump on their futon, eyes bloodshot, game controllers in hand. The lady downstairs sits in shadow, telenovelas blaring behind the tangle of satin drapes and vertical blinds. She “babysits” about 10 kids, which means she keeps her door cracked open as her squadron of preteens tear through the neighborhood, climbing fences, throwing rocks and ceaselessly squabbling.
What does rouse me from my torpor is the return of my … oh, let’s call him my roommate. (He has moved permanently to the couch, after all.) Fortunately our hours are different, but when we do interact, it’s proof that the most Siberian of emotional chill between two people will do nothing to affect the actual physical temperature of the room. Instead, we have “Hell is other people,” with temperature to underline the statement.
We’re at the point where we have little damned use for each other (though, to be fair, we both are people who normally have little damned use for most human beings), the point at which you’re tired of the situation and tired of each other, but no one is ready to sever the last ties. So we practice avoidance: He’ll stomp out to go skateboarding for a few hours; I’ll sulk and slip out to the library or the pool; he’ll have an urgent, whispered conversation in the hallway and disappear until the next afternoon; I’ll do up my cat eyes and pop my tits into a strapless dress and stay out until 5 a.m. Regardless, someone has to leave; someone has to step out the door and into the blast furnace, into a place where the streets smell like fire and the stagnant air scorches strip-mall signs black.
It’s not that late when I drift home, but the infernal sun has been down for a few hours. Even so, the 30 steps from the parking lot to the front door leave me with a shiny forehead and damp pits. He’s on the couch, watching Platoon, and I sink down next to him. Even at the happy outset, we were better at talking when it did not involve talking about each other. But he begins discoursing on how he’s Tom Berenger and I’m Willem Dafoe. He’s a realist, an asshole, but he’ll survive. I’m a better person than he is, but I’m going to get screwed because of it. I gaze at the screen. Dafoe is trapped in enemy territory, staggering through a wall of flame. Betrayed, stuck, burning. I separate my spine from the couch, the ice cubes rattle as I put down my glass of water and draw a long breath.
“I think it’s time for you to move …”