Setting Fire to Sleeping Giants


Rich Mallery

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 119 in August, 2009.

"What time is it?"

I had miles to go before I could even think about opening my eyes, so I responded with an unintelligible grunt. Imagine a sumo wrestler squatting its gargantuan ass on your brain while your drunken step-dad slammed a sledge hammer into your skull. Multiply that by ten and you might come close to how I felt. The mattress was sticky with sweat from last night's sex and squeaked as I squirmed away from the body lying beside me. It jumped out of bed and thudded against the windowsill.
"Don't even tell me it's Saturday," Jazzie blurted. "Rich, wake up."
I grunted again and tried to burrow under the itchy, wool blanket. Jazzie muttered a few more sentences under her breath. She was infamous for crack of dawn outbursts like this, so I ignored her as she frantically paced around the room, hurriedly throwing on whatever clothes were strewn across the floor. Chances are, this emergency was nothing more than she had forgot to pick up her dry cleaning or we were out of cigarettes. I flung the blanket on the floor and groaned.
The heat in Jazzie's apartment was permanently busted so a steady blast of hot air perpetually rattled through the air vents. Even in the winter if we wanted to breathe, we needed to leave the windows open, which meant the room was always sub zero. This morning was no different. I shivered and blindly reached on the floor for a t-shirt. I found one of hers and stretched it over my torso. It stunk of Red Bull and vodka sweat.
Someone aggressively knocked on the front door. It was the same obnoxious pattern the super used when we played the music too loud or left trash bags in the hallway. If it was him, we were totally screwed since we were about four days late on the rent. Although his bark was way worse than his bite, right now my head was throbbing too hard to handle a Chihuahua yipping at us for being deadbeats.
"One second," Jazzie called to the door. "Be right there. Rich, please. You have to get dressed. It's my parents."
I rolled onto my back. The ceiling spun and sickness cycloned in my stomach. I stumbled out of bed and crawled towards the bathroom. The sunlight beaming through the window was too much for my eyes so I closed them and clumsily bumped my head on her dresser. It shook and a glass crashed onto the floor. It shattered and spilled a dark liquid everywhere, a mixture of dirty tap water and American Spirit ashes.
"One second. Rich, here." Jazzie tossed a pair of jeans and a button down shirt that didn't belong to either of us at me. It didn't occur to me to ask what guy left it here. Even if it did, I don't think I would've cared. The only thing keeping me from straying from her was the same thing keeping me from running in the New York City marathon; I didn't have the motivation or the lung capacity.
"Put that on," she said, jerking a sparkly, pin dress down to her waist. "And clean yourself up."
"What's going on?"
"Quickly. My parents are here. Damn it, there are drugs everywhere."
Jazzie fell to her knees and shoved the cookie tray covered in last night's party under the bed. She raced around the room trying to hide any trace of what we'd been doing for the past month. I slid into the bathroom and held my face under the faucet. The water was thick and stunk of rust. It didn't help me feel any cleaner, but the pressure did wake me up slightly.
"I'll be right there, mom. One second."
Jazzie flung open the bathroom door and shoved her way in front of the mirror. She tried to rub the red from her eyes, but had little luck. She coated a handful of powder on her face. I sneezed and tiny specks of blood flew onto the mirror. Jazzie huffed and rubbed them off with her fist.
"Do I look ok?" she asked.
"What are your parents doing here?"
"I told you they were coming. I even marked it on the calendar. I must've mixed up the dates. What day is it? What the hell have we been doing?"
I shrugged, not really sure of the answer either. I remembered getting high at Aces on Tuesday night. I remembered having sex on her floor and not being able to come for over an hour. I remembered ordering pizza and Jazzie freaking out because I said something insensitive and flinging the slices at my head, missing and then maniacally laughing as they slid down the wall trailing smears of tomato sauce and chunks of mozzarella cheese.
"I look like a war zone. Good thing my parents are so self-involved they wouldn't notice if I answered the door missing half my limbs." Jazzie shoved her hair to the side of her face. Her skin was bumpy and blotchy. She looked like someone had rubbed a cheese grater over her cheeks.
A freebase tan covered her once china-white skin, the black under her eyes creeping down to her cheekbones. When we first met, she looked like a porcelain doll. Now, she more closely resembled a porcelain doll whose face was smashed with a hammer and then crazy-glued back together. I might've been less than zero, but from where I stood, she was more than a few rungs down the ladder.
"Pull yourself together," she ordered, spinning around to stop me from muttering an excuse. "Give me a kiss."
Jazzie's lips gently grazed mine. My reflection watched us, a shadow that looked somewhat better than I felt. My stomach contracted. I turned up the faucet pressure to cover the sounds of my dry heaving. I couldn't remember the last time I ate anything. The thought of the pizza, still stuck to the wall, made me dizzy. I clutched at an imaginary spot on my shirt and bent over the toilet.
Kneeling on the black, fuzzy bathroom rug, my head hovering around the porcelain rim, I didn't have to turn off the faucet to hear Jazzie's shaky voice. She was on fire, a bull released from its pen, ready to bury its horns into a matador's chest.
"We have food poisoning I think. Bad sushi. We've been sick all morning. No, I'm fine. Never been better. Or it could be that swine flu that's going around. Everyone we know has it. I think there was a news report on CNN about it. But, we're doing amazing. Sorry everything's such a mess. We've been working so much. Maybe that's it. I'm run down. Yeah, I haven't been sleeping. They've been doing construction and every morning all I hear is hammering and drilling and what do they call that? Oh yeah, jack-hammering."
I didn't hear her parents' voices so either they spoke softly or she didn't give them a chance to answer. Her voice rattled on, occasionally cracking and my face felt like it was also cracking, so I splashed more water on it and watched it drip down the side like yellow tears. I slipped on the clothes Jazzie threw at me and dried my clammy hands on the thighs of my pants. My reflection practiced a smile and I wished myself good luck.

Even though it was obvious I was nodding off, Jazzie's parents were too consumed by her word salad to notice. To stay conscious I tried to focus on whether or not we had ordered yet or if we were still waiting. There wasn't a menu in front of me, so we probably did. I didn't remember opening my mouth since the car ride over, but I'd been running on autopilot so anything was possible. I wished my body would melt to ooze so I could slide under the table and escape.
Jazzie's parents sat stiffly across from me, their freshly-tanned skin covered by pinstriped vicuna suits. They were also wearing sunglasses so I left mine on. Theirs were Burberry; mine were the eight dollar ones I bought from one of the Arab street vendors on St. Marks. Her father glared at me with the same disgust white-collars reserve for the homeless. Her mother was on the verge of tears and her filed down nails clutched the straps of her Louis Vitton handbag.
At the table next to us, our waiter read off the specials. He spoke with a fake French accent and every time he used the word "sauce" or "glazed", I struggled to keep from vomiting bile. I started constructing a game plan on how to get the two valiums I had hidden in my sock down my throat without arousing suspicion.
"Rich, tell them about it."
It was an effort to raise my head but I stared at Jazzie confused, hoping she would telekinetically tell me what the hell she was talking about. It didn't work, but luckily she was on a roll and answered for me.
"Rich is going to be a famous author one day, you'll see. He really is brilliant. Tell them about the book you're writing."
"It's still a work in progress, but-"
"I wish you would've brought a sample chapter," she interrupted. "Anyway, Rich is super-talented. He's so creative. Some of the stories he comes up with. Like he'll describe something and it's like you're totally there."
"Jazz, we need to talk to you about something." Jazzie's father pretended to squirm and nervously tap on the table with a butter knife. His movements and concern was as choreographed as Michael Jackson's Thriller. "You're not going to want to hear this, but-"
"What now? Why are you both ganging up on me? I should've known. It's always the same thing with you two. You always have an anterior motive. Can't we for once just have a nice, family dinner?"
"It's ulterior, honey," Jazzie's mother said to her reflection in the mirror behind me. She blinked and plucked an eyelash off her cheekbone. Carefully, she placed it on her napkin and folded the corner over it. "You always have an ulterior motive. Anterior means frontal."
"Ulterior, anterior what's the god damn difference? You know what I meant."
"Still, there's no reason to not use proper English. We didn't spend a fortune sending you to private school to have you speak like an immigrant."
"God, you are impossible."
"Now Jazz," her father interrupted. He paused to mentally double-check the script he prepared when he planned out this intervention, a combination of after-school specials and prime time sitcoms where at the end of the half hour everyone lives happily ever after. "You know that both your mother and I love you very much. You are our daughter and we are always here for you no matter what."
"You're the one that's impossible," her mother scorned. "We take you and your friend to Emeraudes and you can't go ten minutes without picking a fight? Do you know the favors your father had to cash in to get us a res on a Friday night?"
"Picking a fight? Mom, you're the one who's starting. I am so sick of you always correcting me. Nothing I do is ever up to your standards."
"Jazz, you're being ridiculous," her mother snapped, turning towards me. "Is she always like this?"
I shrugged my shoulders and folded my napkin into an origami dagger. I imagined stabbing the three of them in their ribcages. The waiter returned and set our plates in front of us. My hands were trembling so bad, I could barely hold the fork and knife, but somehow I was able to cut a few bites. My arms throbbed and my jaw was so tightly clenched I had to almost swallow the food whole.
"Can we please discuss this rationally?" her dad interjected. "We only want what's best for you."
"What's best for me is the two of you leaving me alone."
"Maybe if you acted like a grown up every now and then we would."
Jazzie went from zero to sixty before her mother finished the sentence. She jumped up from her chair so suddenly; she knocked into the waiter behind her. He stumbled and the tray of dishes he was holding crashed on the floor by his feet. Jazzie pointed her finger and shook it violently at her mother.
"A grown up? You always have to have the last word, don't you? Well, I hope you're pleased. You've just set fire to a sleeping giant."
"What does that mean?" her mother questioned, unaffected by the scene her daughter was creating. Her father buried his face in the menu. Behind us, the waiter scrubbed sauce off the carpet and apologized for the noise.
"What it means, mom, is that tonight I'm going on a bender that would make Sid Vicious hard. If I overdose and choke to death on my own vomit, it's on your conscience."
"Jazz, don't joke around like that," her father said from behind his menu. "You remember what happened the last time."
"I'm not joking, dad. Start planning the funeral guest list and sending out save-the-date cards."
"Jazz, stop it."
"Relax, Bill. This is another one of her cries for help. She does this every time."
"Well, consider this the last time," Jazzie spit. "I'm out of here. Come on, Rich."
Before I could stutter, "Thank you for the meal," Jazzie was out the front door, hysterically waving her arms to signal a cab. In the sunlight, even from behind my dark sunglasses she looked terrible. Her skin looked even more abrasive and coarse than it appeared under the forty-watt bulbs in her apartment. If she scratched any more at her face she'd probably draw blood. Her unwashed hair was fried from over-bleaching and stuck out in pyramid clumps. Her wrinkled dress hung off her skeleton and barely covered her breasts. She squinted as a yellow pulled up to the curb.
"79th and Lex," she scolded the driver. She turned to me wearing the scowl of a child who opened up a Christmas present expecting a toy and finding a hideous sweater instead. Her two front teeth grinded into her lower lip. "What are you waiting for? Get in."
To avoid a conflict, I climbed in beside her. I watched the restaurant door, waiting for her parents to rush after her, but they didn't. They'd seen this show a hundred times before. They knew the ending as if it were scripted. Nine out of ten this was nothing more than another scream for attention.
Jazzie reached into her bag and tapped out a bump on her wrist. She did another and her nose streamed blood almost instantly. She covered one nostril and shot a scarlet clump of snot out of her nose. It stuck to the photo of the driver on the seatback in front of her.
"Can you believe the nerve of them?" she said, fanning her face with her palm. "It's like a sweat box in here. Open your window."
My window was already rolled all the way down, but it was pointless to argue. Jazzie hoovered another bump and then mass-texted her dealers. She slapped her phone shut and bounced it on the armrest between us.
"I apologize for my parents," she said in a soft voice I hadn't heard her use in months. "You're lucky your parents are dead."
"My parents aren't dead," I said for the hundredth time. "My mom lives in East Flatbush and my dad's over in Jersey."
"Whatever," she huffed. "What I meant was you're blessed you don't have to deal with the same drama I have to. Sometimes I think that if they really loved me they would've died in a plane crash or something and left me all their money. I mean, they always give me cash when I need it, but I have to beg. I'm twenty-four years old. I shouldn't have to beg my parents for money. I should just ask and that should be enough."
The phone vibrated on the armrest. Jazzie snatched it up and flipped it open.
"Driver," she whistled. "Change of plans. Take us to First Ave and Tenth."
Jazzie smiled for the first time today. She exhaled and coughed more specks of blood into her palm. She wiped it off on her jeans and rested her head on my shoulder as the cab slowed down for a red light. The driver blared his horn at the traffic jam in front of us. He squeaked an assembly line of curses in a foreign language.
"I really do wish they were dead," she sighed. "Maybe I should call them and smooth things over just in case something tragic happens to them. I'd hate for them to cut me out of the will."
Jazzie reached for the phone and dialed.