With Friends Like These
Greg peered into the fridge, not seeing the smeared take-out boxes and stale bagels anymore. Bending to the lowest shelf, he grabbed two of his roommate’s juice bottles. The smoked glass clinked as he stood and shut the fridge, having to give it that backward kick so it wouldn’t drift open again. Joe’s music was cranked, the classical music vibrating the silverware in the rusted sink. He’d tell him to turn it down, but the only time his roommate played the 1812 Overture was when he was trying to impress his latest girlfriend.
Smiling faintly, Greg ran a hand over his late-night stubble and turned to the living room. Night had made the two large windows with their broken blinds into black mirrors. Shuffling to the couch, Greg twisted the cap off the first bottle, taking a swig of the tomato juice/body-building protein drink before falling back into the worn leather. The smell of the puke of Joe’s girlfriend from last week puffed up, and he shifted down without a pause. Setting the second bottle on the scratched glass table, he stared at the big blank flat-screen TV, wondering if it was worth the effort to get up and find the game controller. Though the rest of the apartment sucked, Joe had the latest and best when it came to gaming. No one could say Joe didn’t have his priorities in order.
The music from Joe’s room started to build, right along with the feminine gasping moan, and Greg reached for the remote, turning on the TV and hitting the volume to try to drown it out. Damn, he didn’t know how the guy got the girls like that. It had to be his rep because he wasn’t much to look at, thin from his running despite the high-energy protein he slammed down. Greg stood almost a foot taller than him, muscles defined from the running track in the corner, and still, when they went to the bar it was Joe who got the hot girl and he was left with her ugly roommate.
TV blaring, Greg wedged his steel-toed boots off and kicked them to the side where they lay , the heavy dark mud from the September rains caking off to add to yesterday’s dried clay. His gaze wandered over the pizza boxes from two weeks ago, the mismatched furniture, and the bare, cold walls devoid of anything soft or clean.
The upstairs, two-room apartment had seen too many college parties and slipshod landlords to be considered anything but a place to crash for four years and forgotten about. A mishmash of styles from previous tenants had left their mark. A dusty beaded lampshade from the sixties dangled over the linoleum table. Beside the corded wall phone, a fuzzy print of Elvis was scrawled with the phone numbers of girls long since having gained their diploma, fifteen pounds, a mortgage, and two point five kids. The matted shag carpet with an ocean of sand underneath was wall-to-wall ugliness, worn to nothing by the door. This wasn’t where he was going to be forever. It was temporary.
Yeah, temporary, he thought, sitting up in the flabby leather cushions when the buzz from the drink began to hit him. He’d moved in with Joe almost a year ago, a fight between him and his girlfriend over WOW forcing the move. He had offered to make her an avatar so they could kill pigs together in the woods, but she kicked him out after one too many LANs with the guys. He hadn’t seen any of his old friends for months. Between classes and work, it was all Greg could do to remember to eat. Thank God for energy drinks, he thought, lifting it in a silent salute.
The moaning from Joe’s room was reaching a desperate crescendo, climaxing in time with the music—cannons, drums, horns, and one frantic woman going off all at once. Greg couldn’t help his smirk. The guy had talent.
Greg was mindlessly channel surfing when the door to Joe’s room was flung open, hitting the wall to make the dent just a little deeper. “Hey,” the lanky guy said as he crossed the living room to get to the kitchen, his quick strides making him almost a blur in his black boxer shorts.
He grunted something back, turning down the volume before the neighbors began pounding on the walls. Flicking through commercials, Greg paused to watch the one with the caveman. Ooooh, poned again.
Joe was on his fifth year of a four-year running scholarship, abusing the system that paid for everything as long as he kept coming in first. From his room came quiet panting and the soft strains of violins. It was a weird mix, Joe’s classical tastes and low-income clutter. Greg figured Joe had money somewhere. Maybe one of those hard-ass families that wouldn’t let you dip into the family fortune until you turned thirty or something. Joe had the attitude of killing time while he waited for something. TV and electronic equipment had come with a service plan, not scrape marks from the back of someone’s truck.
Greg’s eyes flicked into the kitchen at the snap of Joe opening his own bottle, downing half of it as he came into the living room. He was clean shaven despite it being night, smelling faintly like the girl’s perfume and the shower he’d probably taken before she came over. His boxers hung lose on him, and sweat still shone on his shoulders between the new red marks from the girl’s fingers. Eyes bright from the sex and exuding energy, he stretched out in the chair kitty-corner to the couch. A heavy sigh came from him, and his foot jittered. Up and down, that was Joe. If he didn’t know better, Greg would say his roommate was an addict, but he’d never found a pill or syringe. Maybe he was just careful.
“Rough night?” Greg asked sarcastically.
“Rock and roll, baby.” Eyes on the TV, Joe stared, lost, but his hand came out and they bumped knuckles. “Can’t live with them . . .”
Greg sipped his drink, feeling it wake him up. “And you can’t shoot ’em.”
Joe laughed, still high on the woman in the next room. Greg clicked it to MTV, dropping the remote and stifling his envy. He’d been living like a monk the last eight months, not daring to bring a girl here. Not only would he have to clean, but Joe would give her that little grin of his, toss his hair, and she’d be singing soprano to the 1812 Overture in three days.
“I wanna go for a run,” Joe said, slamming the rest of his drink and standing. “Get up.”
“Now?” Greg looked at the black window. Yeah, it was Friday, but he was too tired from his shift to hit the bar, much less the streets. “It’s almost midnight.”
“Chicken?” Joe started to do warm ups. “Get up. Don’t make me run down there alone. All kinds of weird crap out there.”
“Which is why I don’t want to go running in the middle of the night.” Greg settled back into the cushions, eyes going to the mud he’d tracked in. Maybe he should vacuum tomorrow. Buy a mud mat with his next paycheck instead of beer. Did they even have a vacuum? “Grow up, will you?”
A soft, slow laugh came out of Joe, and Greg looked askance at him, thinking his eyes were unusually bright. “The boogie man?” Joe intoned, wiggling his fingers at him. “Vampires going to get you? Ooooh You’d better watch out. You’d better not cry.”
“Piss on it.” Greg began to click the remote. Pow—blow away the preacher man. Pow—waste the western. Pow—Billy Mayes hawking super knives, cut down midshout.
Joe laughed, and Greg’s eyes squinted in anger even as he warmed. “Then you tell me how a freaky white kid can run up the side of a building,” he said, eyes flicking to the open bedroom door as the sound of the shower filtered out. Yeah, it was embarrassing, and yeah, he might have been drunk at the time. But he had seen it, and his heart pounded just remembering it. It had given him the creeps, watching the dark-haired, small figure run straight up like he was some kind of superhero.
“Dude, I told you to lay off the drugs.”
“I don’t do drugs, and you know it,” Greg said sourly as he went back to clicking. The bottle was cold against his knee, and he downed it.
Joe had his leg up against the wall by the TV, almost doing the splits as he stretched. “I’m talking your food, man. The stuff they put in it. Look at my juice. One hundred percent organic. None of that MSG, pesticide crap. It’s going to kill you. Harden your cells till they can’t move, stick in your brain and make you dumb. Look at me.” Joe leaned in to his stretch to become about a foot thick. “No pesticides in this body. I’m keeping it clean. Only put top-grade into it.”
Greg put his empty aside and cracked open the second. It burned going down, the heavy tomato flavor spiced with basil and some kind of pepper. The buzz was kicking in good now to make him feel alive. Joe got it where he worked when he felt like it at an organic food store. Greg wouldn’t touch half the crap in the fridge that Joe brought home, but the juice was okay.
“Come on, run with me,” Joe coaxed as he brought his foot off the wall and did a smooth, effortless back arch into a stretch against the floor. Okay, maybe that’s how he got the girls. “We can take the river route. Look at the hookers,” he added, grinning.
Greg threw a T-shirt at him that had been wedged between the cushions, and Joe put it on, hiding his thin chest and the new passion marks. “We’ll look like a couple of gays down there,” he said, remembering the feeling of watching eyes on them the one time they’d taken the river path after dark.
Joe leaned the other way, hamstring stretching. “Not if we’re looking at hookers.”
Staring at the TV, Greg tried to find a way to say no without looking like he was scared. The river route was a dark stretch of winding pavement between the bar district and the carnival about two miles away. During the day, the long riverside park was the realm of mommy daycares and lunchtime athletes, but at night, it became the property of gangs, dealers, and stupid-asses that were too stupid to stay out of the stupid park after sundown.
“Come on, it’s only a mile, then we’ll loop back through the city,” Joe coaxed. “Seriously. If I don’t get out and move, I’m going to explode. Unless you think your vampire is going to come back? Bring your dog sticker if you’re afraid.”
Dog sticker. It was a shiny length of collapsible steel that he used to beat off pony-size poodles and yappy terriers who thought a running man was fair game, but the shiny point on the one end when it was extended would beat off muggers, too. Not that he’d ever had to use it.
Groaning, Greg clicked off the TV, getting up and stretching for the ceiling to feel his back pop and crack. It would be nothing but crack heads, shooters, and human trash down at the river once they got past the bars, but like Joe said, it was only two miles before they got to the better lit path beyond it. And he liked to run with Joe, especially at night when the air was cool and it felt like the world was sleeping. He had never been a slouch, but Joe pushed him. One more block, one more mile. He was in the best shape of his life for all the pizza and beer. “I don’t know how you talk me into stuff like this,” he grumbled.
[. . .]