The Last Laugh
by Tracy O’Neill
It didn’t happen for me in New York overnight. I lost the art rag job I’d gotten pretty fast, took the unemployment checks, and called an old friend from college to ask if she’d like to live in the second bedroom as the third. She’d been living in a place she couldn’t have afforded in exchange for changing an old deluded woman’s diapers every night and taking abuse from this old lady in the place of her daughter, a selfish middle-aged woman who wore her mother’s jewels prematurely. It wasn’t a fair trade even for the west village, though how you mint a thing like responsibility, I don’t know.
Before she moved in, I was careful to make clear to my roommate all the superlative things the apartment wasn’t.
“It’s not the nicest,” I said. “Or the biggest, or even the cleanest.”
“And the neighborhood?” Petra asked.
“Not the safest,” I said.
Still, she moved in, which really just meant taking a taxi and lugging two suitcases of her sturdy, practical clothes up one flight. It was harder than it sounds, as we found most of the things we had to do then. There were always people hanging on our stoop at that time, some of whom had been living in the neighborhood since before we even knew there were five boroughs. A little over a year was all that meant for Petra, and though we excused ourselves repeatedly, we had to sliver ourselves up the stoop through laps that had been born, raised, and penetrated on that block to get to the doorway.
Once she moved in, we smoked as though we were the mistresses of Phillip Morris. The wallpaper yellowed with every hour we didn’t work. The rooms smelled of how we spat at questionable futures. It was an apartment that seemed to age, wrinkling in corners, spotting from saggy pipes, rheumy-windowed and curling.
“The apartment always smells like smoke,” the other roommate, an asthmatic, said when he came home from his job at a gourmet coffee shop.
“If you see shit, there must be a pony,” I told him.
It was like that too with pricing. We paid more than we ever had in our lives for toilet paper and fruit juice. The stores either carried organic probiotic drinks or dusty boxes of off-brand macaroni and cheese. Three years ago, eight years, five years ago, two-fifty, five-ninety, eleven-sixty was all anyone spoke of on the stoop or in the deli. They knew if you see a box of cereal for six dollars, there must be young white kids. And we were them. We were there with our liberal arts degrees and cigarettes, tearing to the back of the newspaper because it was a job in the next six weeks or giving up. Five blocks closer to the subway, we saw young people who looked and dressed like us locking up as they left their condominiums.
We came home to a block where the windows let off the scent of heat-crisped fat, nitrates and salt and garlic. It made us hungry for meals our mothers were too cardiac-minded to feed us. So we climbed a floor, had peanut butter crackers and cigarettes for dinner, and snickered at what tomorrows would bring.
The night my roommate tried to eat eight servings of crackers, I warned her. “Don’t go,” I begged. “For the love of God and yourself, don’t go.” She looked skeptically at me over a spread of what would go bad over the trip unless finished it that night, crackers and a carton of milk, tiny champagne grapes and a half-eaten sub sandwich.
“Remember what happened last time you went home?” I asked. “Learn your lesson, girl!” and it was a joke permissible for me and me only because it was at my birthday party a year before that she had stopped hating men—not that she stopped hating any— by meeting her boyfriend, this acquaintance of mine named Martin. The party had been only a week after she’d arrived in the city to complete a master’s degree in social work, when upon landing, she’d been met with a conversation beginning with, “It’s not you” and ending with “Fuck you, Brian.”
“Hilarious,” she munched now.
“Seriously,” I said. “Your boyfriend is the only guy I know in Manhattan or Brooklyn that deserves his girlfriend,” I said. True, he never lit my fire, but at least he’d never wronged her. That raised him up above all the other ones she’d ever dated.
Petra couldn’t finish the almost expired things, and she asked me to take care of the business of perishables while she was away. She cut mold off the bread and handed me the sandwich. Her stomach was pushed out like the stomach of a starving child.
The next day, she crossed the Pulaski bridge, an ocean, and several countries to see her family. I sat on the floor in the living room increasing and decreasing my resume’s font. The house was too quiet without the sound of her perpetual snacking, too stark without the insulation of smoke. I looked at the milk and half-covered stems in the refrigerator and knew I’d break the promise. I pushed aside dry goods in the cabinets and ate popcorn in our bedroom to fill the silence. Then I threw away what Petra had given me. After ten days, when I couldn’t bear to talk to the asthmatic much more, I called my mother from a smelly bus. A little man in the seat next to me ate soup with the bone in it, sewing chopsticks in and out of the broth, pulling noodles to his mouth. To protect my face from the flying spittles of soup and diced scallion, I held a glossy magazine up close and read articles about the dietary pitfalls of mindless eating and how to make your face glow post-coitally.
“Slovakia?” my mother asked. “Is that like Czechoslovakia?”
“That but halved and about fifteen years later.”
“Two single girls in the big city,” she marveled.
“Actually, Petra has a boyfriend,” I said.
“No matter,” she said. “You girls have got to stick together. You’ve got to be your own heroes. Take care of each other.” I didn’t know how each other was possible when taking care of myself was questionable.
After she left for work, I went to the library and looked at books about the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. There were two answers to why it happened, one that pointed to events and the other to inevitability. There were too many names and parties I didn’t understand in the first. The second, being about inbred differences, was easier.
I lost pounds in the apartment. The electric bill was too high without an air conditioner, and I sat by the window curling like a raisin. It was one of those afternoons where suddenly you understand the French Revolution, the heat raising peasant pitchforks to run down institutions and France. You’re not just taking out loans to sit listening to some expert. You want to let someone know in which crevice they can put their cake.
But I’d be damned if my thighs were going to stick to that windowsill, if I were to keep flapping crinkled newsprint at my face. So I went to the Korean for a newspaper and potato chips. Outside kids threw themselves in the way of a broken hydrant shooting water from the projects side of the street. I turned the other way. Two blocks and I passed a neighbor who everyone referred to as a food. Platano said there was something in his pants curved as the fruit, but I never saw it, and even going eye to eye felt like something that could skip a period. I did it anyway to show I belonged.
On the walk back from the deli I was blinded by the newspaper classifieds. Anything, I thought, I’d take anything. And maybe this not seeing, this wanting so much for myself, was why I didn’t see those kids coming and why I found myself soaked, mush of newspaper in hand, as the three of them with buckets ran away laughing. Later the asthmatic asked why someone would do such a thing, and I didn’t know if the question he was getting at was if I had lied to him or deserved it.
Two days later, when Petra returned, I had made a joke come true. History was almost repeating itself and this time around was no easier to watch. Things left at Martin’s apartment by the promise of habit sat in his car at the airport. When the explanation came, he said, “It’s you.” She got in a cab with the things of hers he no longer wanted at his apartment and said, “Fuck you Martin.” At home she wept between her suitcases on the floor.
“Out of nowhere!” we said at the same time.
“Jinx,” she said, and she was right: I’d dared the future with my whimsy. She laughed a little until the crush of it rolled onto her again.
Those were miserable days. The food we ate to save us work wrenched out stomachs. We smoked cigarettes and drank canned beers until our intestines straightened themselves out. At night, I could smell what our neighbors had eaten three nights before rotting in the untended garbage bins beneath our bedroom window.
“You ever wonder what’s going to happen if one of us wants to bring someone home and have sex?” I asked her one night at a new Irish pub in the neighborhood.
“The other of us will sleep in a raincoat,” she said.
“Very funny,” I said. “But seriously?”
“Here I’ve got one for you: an American and a Slovak walk into a bar.” I knew this one.
“So the Slovak says, ‘This is ‘painful’ in English?’”
“This is painful,” she said.
Sometimes, I thought about going home, but my mother was sick, and I didn’t want to be the one on whose watch she died. There are heartless children who can watch their parents perish. I’m not one of them. I will always have an artist’s spirit, even if I never make art. Maybe all this means is I’d rather suffer from myself than suffer anything else.
She was always almost late for school or volunteer work or her internship, so you’d think she’d have barely any time to miss him. What the motivational physical fitness experts will tell you is true, however: you can always find time. The times she did, I lay on her bed while she brushed her teeth, so the half of the pillowcase left would be warm.
These were not the sheets I grew up with by 200 thread count at least.
She asked what I did with my day when she came home tired from all of the do-gooding she did in the Bronx. I told her it got pretty hot and heavy, but no one needed a raincoat.
“Again? Always, these jokes?” she asked. But it was only funny because it was true.
“Wouldn’t you rather get nothing for doing nothing than feel tricked?” I asked.
“I don’t feel tricked,” she said.
“Egalité, liberté, fraternité!” I chanted. “Egalité, liberté, fraternité!”
“You’re nuts, Cecilia.”
“Better than a nut.”
“You know, I’m going to have to go back to Slovakia if I don’t find a job within the next two months.”
“Don’t say things you mean,” I said. But after that night, she’d still say it every so often when we were drinking a beer or smoking a cigarette. “Don’t make me a witness to this exit,” I told her, and she’d think I was joking.
We ate cheap Chinese right out of the cardboard and said when one of us started making the kind of money where you buy place settings, we’d throw a steak dinner. For the time being we made a lot of threats. At the end of the cookie fortunes we inserted the clause “—or else!” Ambition and luck meet in the future— or else! Karma is the joining of intention and action— or else! Old friends make best friends— or else! Mostly we were our only recreation. Once, though, because we thought the stars had more than their share of American money, we snuck into a movie about a woman who sleeps with her husband’s brother when she thinks he’s been a sacrifice to the U.S. Marine Corps. It was one of those irrevocable wrongs, in which the only saving grace is a porcelain face, a face that organizes betrayal into a casualty of war.
“That’s like ‘I didn’t inhale,’” I said after.
“Is that like ‘Live and let live’?” Petra asked. She had been learning phrases like “How do you do?” and “How much does it cost?” when Clinton replaced the first Bush. It was one of the few times I remembered that she wasn’t from here, which is another way of not remembering that she might leave. She never dropped articles or used the wrong preposition. She just didn’t have a history of qualifying guilt with loopholes. This was one of the things that made her better than all the boyfriends I’d had.
It was the time of night that people on the street are either lurching or smoking. From behind velvet and a fluorescent-lit glass façade, a reader called out, “Take heed, young woman! The cards reveal dangers ahead.” I could see the tension of truth rise to Petra’s shoulders. She stopped and for a minute, I thought she’d take out her wallet. Her hand was in her pocket, and she’d turned away from me.
I pulled Petra’s coat sleeve in the direction of the subway. “Yeah,” I called out to the psychic. “And next year I’ll be worth six figures.”
But the next day, this sarcasm began losing its sarcasm. A man who knew someone who knew my father called to offer me a job writing glib one-liners for an advertising agency. I didn’t remember ever applying, either myself or to it. I didn’t know anything about ad copy except that it promised a comfortable desk.
“Drew said you wrote a weekly art column?”
“Who’s Drew?” I said.
“Of course,” I said.
“We’ll just need you to do a little trial copy,” he said.
“I’m good at a little,” I said.
So I lined up a few words, proposed them for Nike, and the next thing I knew, I was moving into a building with washer, dryer, doorman. The truth was, if I didn’t move out of the apartment, I’d probably need to find someone to replace Petra in around a month anyway. So I moved out, so she could find someone instead.
“It will be easier for you to trap someone,” I told her. “You’re much more charming.”
“Then why can’t you wait a month?” she said. “Does this job even mean anything to you?” I didn’t want the job to mean anything. I wanted an occupation to be occupied. It would be easier for me if she already wasn’t home when she left. I thought a lot about how to stay comfortable with sublimation. The ads worked.
It’s been three years since I came home to anyone there. Feeding myself gets to be a hassle, so I laze through the newspaper sitting on my couch and go to sleep parasitic, my stomach eating itself. Petra moved back to Slovakia when she was denied a working visa. There there aren’t jobs consummate with her education or abilities available, but there is the couch, which unlike her childhood bedroom, her parents haven’t rented out. When it’s eight in the evening here and two a.m. there, I’ll want to make a long distance call sometimes. I’ll try to be fair to her and leave her sleeping.
There are other people I can say hello to at parties, co-workers, for example, or this trust fund artist I know named Pansy Malone, a mean waif who knows all the right people. I go home and press a button, surround myself with streams of hot bubbling water. There are silk robes in the closet and in the medicine cabinet skin lotions laced with finely ground pearl.
The next day, I’ll walk to the office and see the disorganization crossing and weaving and waiting in these gridded streets. Gypsy cabs that overcharge careen around corners, startling pedestrians back. Baubles that will turn ears green go for fifteen until some sharp kid pretends to turn away and makes off with them. And on some erection into the skyline, the splay of my copy across besneakered feet informs want for all the people who don’t know what to do with the ravages of their comfortable lives.
I have the office secretary remind me to send flowers on Mother’s Day. I turn corners. I hunt for some happy hour. There is always something that I’ll take on the cheap. I sit and befriend some miserable drunk in the bar, ask does he want to hear a joke and begin, “An American walks into a bar. ‘This is painful,’ she says.” I guess I wish this joke was true too.
Tracy O’Neill is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Literarian and Promethean, and in 2012, she was awarded the NYC Emerging Writers Fellowship by the Center for Fiction. She currently teaches at the City College of New York.