Losing Your Grip
BY VAN AARON HUGHES
[ ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT LINGER FICTION (Sylvia Hiven, ed.) ]
“Extra large pepperoni and sausage.” I’ve had sausage on every pizza this week. Jeremy hated sausage. “Yes, it’s just for me . . . I understand it’s a big pie. I’m very hungry. Thank you.”
Leaning back, I notice the ceiling is filthy with condensed grease and grime. Why don’t they wash it? Does no one here ever look up?
The ceiling in our apartment was much cleaner than this, even with Jeremy walking on it all the time.
* * *
Maybe four months ago, Jeremy started complaining he felt light-headed. I kept telling him to go to the doctor; he said it was probably nothing.
I figured it was nothing too, until the morning I walked into the living room and saw him watching television, sitting cross-legged on the ceiling.
You have to understand Jeremy loved a practical joke. When I saw him up there, I had no doubt he had super-glued his ass to the ceiling to get a rise out of me. Damned if I would oblige.
“Dude, what’s on?”
“That hot newscaster on Fox. Nobody can make trains derailing sound as sexy as she can.”
“Uh-huh. She look even better upside down?”
“Actually, no. I gotta lay off the dope for a while.”
“You been at it already this morning?”
“Not that I can remember, but I must’ve done. How else could I be up here?”
“Yeah, I suppose that would explain why you feel like you’re upside down on the ceiling.”
“But it wouldn’t so much explain why I see you upside down on the ceiling.”
Jeremy looked at me, and that’s when I knew it wasn’t a joke. “What the fuck’s going on, man?” he whispered.
* * *
I scarf the pizza as fast as I can. By the last two slices I’m feeling stuffed, but I tell myself only an old man stops eating pizza because he’s full.
* * *
You figure your roommate stuck to the ceiling will be the biggest surprise of your day. Not so.
When my girlfriend Alyssa came out of the bedroom she kissed me, then said hello to Jeremy. Looked him right in the eye and just said hello. No, “What the fuck are you doing up there?” No sarcastic, “Ha, ha, very funny.” When I asked if she found it strange that Jeremy was on the ceiling she said, “Quit screwing around.”
At first, I figured she just refused to be drawn into Jeremy’s bullshit. Jeremy and Alyssa never got along real well, you see. Every time I got her to our Nolita apartment, instead of greeting him with a wave, she used to immediately flip Jeremy the bird. This was the one thing Jeremy liked about her.
Alyssa always saw him as a goof. Me she pegged for a normal guy, on whom Jeremy was a bad influence. I worried what would happen when she realized her mistake.
* * *
I have to flag the waitress down three times before I get my drink refilled and my second order of bread sticks. No tip.
* * *
Starting that day, Jeremy experienced gravity reverse to the rest of the world. He could jump “up” in the air and would travel a couple feet toward the floor before falling back, his feet landing with a thump on the ceiling. His clothes didn’t slide down toward the ground, but nothing else seemed to share his unique perspective.
Even the most trivial task became a challenge. For one, he couldn’t drink from a cup without sloshing onto the floor. (If it doesn’t sound hard, try filling a glass with water, tipping it upside down before you drink it, and see how thirst quenching it is.) Drinking from inverted (to him) beer bottles through a straw worked best, but a travel mug would do in a pinch.
It took a couple tries to arrange a workable system for him to use the can. Guess who got to clean up that goddamn mess.
That first day, we worked our way through a series of these complications. Through it all, Alyssa just read the newspaper, watched TV, no reaction.
I decided she was in denial. Of course, a simpler explanation was I had lost my marbles. I clung to the fact that Jeremy saw all the same things I did. Between the two of us, did we have enough mass to generate mass hysteria?
* * *
I order more pie. This time with apples and whipped cream, hold the tomato sauce.
* * *
Jeremy sat around in the apartment for a good week, calling in sick to work every morning, not knowing what to do. Who do you call when you’re stuck to the ceiling? A doctor? (“Oh, yes, this is a documented symptom of a rare kidney disease.”) A physicist? (“Ah, just as Neils Bohr predicted!”) A fireman? (“Whoa, this has it all over the cat in the tree dilemma.”)
Alyssa continued to act like everything was normal when she was around, which wasn’t much. She got suddenly busy around then and had to pull a bunch of late nights at the office.
Jeremy finally screwed up his courage and left the apartment to do a circuit of the building, the ceiling of the hallway to the top of the elevator to the ceiling of the lobby. Everywhere he went people ignored him.
Well, not ignored him. They nodded or said hello, just like any other time. They ignored that he was upside down.
He would say random crap to draw them into conversations, they would answer right back. In the lobby, they had to crane their necks back to talk to him; in the elevator they had to look down to belt level. They all seemed happy to indulge him.
Sometimes Jeremy would bump into people. Ordinarily if you bump into somebody, you do it with you chest or shoulder. Jeremy would head butt people. In fact, he went out of his way to head butt people, and it fazed them not a bit. They’d just throw him a “pardon me” and hurry on their way, rubbing their noggins as they went.
By this point, there was no question. The rest of the world wasn’t crazy. Jeremy was crazy. I was crazy.
They say if you think you’re crazy, it means you’re not. This was of no comfort to me because, even though I knew for a fact I was crazy, deep down I didn’t believe it.
* * *
I’ve decided to blow off the rest of the workday, so coming out of the pizza joint I angle toward home. On the way, I spot a hot dog vendor and stop for two Polish with extra sauerkraut.
* * *
One night making love, Alyssa’s eyes wandered over my shoulder and suddenly widened. I turned quickly, didn’t see anything, but thought I heard a muffled noise. I bet that top part of the door-frame is a bitch in the dark.
Alyssa didn’t say anything about it. I was pissed at first, but not so much when I thought about what kind of love life Jeremy had ahead of him.
Alyssa was gone when I woke the next morning. I found Jeremy in the living room, parked on a bean bag chair he had attached to the ceiling with a good fifty yards of duct tape.
“Man, you’re doing it all wrong,” he told me. “You gotta get your hips up higher if you want to satisfy a woman.”
I frowned. “Yeah? Where’d you learn that?”
“The Complete Dumbshit’s Guide to Fucking. You want to read it, buddy.”
“You figure Alyssa will know the difference if I do?”
Jeremy looked down at me. “No, I don’t.” He pointed at an envelope on the table, with my name in her handwriting.
* * *
Feeling near to bursting, I suck it up and stop for ice cream. Three scoops with hot fudge and butterscotch.
* * *
For a long time, Jeremy refused to go outside. When he finally got stir crazy, we started experimenting.
We found his body didn’t tug him up as forcefully now as it once tugged him down. I could hold him, keep him anchored, and not feel like I was pulling against the weight of a grown man.
At first, we would dash into cabs, me holding on for dear life until the door slammed, going between indoor places. We learned to avoid buildings with those flimsy foam ceiling tiles. Warehouse stores were out.
Eventually we got more bold. We rigged up a harness, sort of like the ones parents use to lug around their kids, so I could take him outdoors. He wanted to tie a string to himself and fly up a like a freaking kite, but I wouldn’t go for that.
A couple times we actually went out wandering Midtown with groups of acquaintances. They’d talk to Jeremy, not batting an eye, then ask me why the hell I was wearing that harness.
Sometimes Jeremy persuaded me to woodsy areas of the Park or spots in the city with enough ledges and windowsills to hang by. For upwards of an hour he would crawl around with his feet in the air like a human fly. This scared the giblets out of me, because every day he was feeling a bit heavier in that harness, like picking up your nephew after a month and sensing a little extra bulk.
* * *
At the confectionery where I last got Valentine’s Day candy for Alyssa, I pick up a pound of chocolates, rip open the box still in the shop. I think I can get them down without vomiting. If I zook, I’ve wasted the afternoon.
* * *
Jeremy worked on me for a week solid before I agreed to take him to a game at the Garden. I steeled myself to wearing the harness the whole time, but he had other ideas. He slipped out of the harness and climbed onto the ceiling, swinging from the scaffolding like Tarzan of the Big Apple. He lay on the underside of the big scoreboard over the court and watched the whole game. Best seat in the house. Nineteen thousand people in there, and I never saw a single one point at him. What would they do, I wondered, if Jeremy pulled out a gun, shot LeBron James, and then stayed up there? Could the cops climb up, haul him back to the ground and still not sense anything strange?
Outside the arena Jeremy insisted on pulling himself along by the long row of bike racks. When I called him reckless, he just got annoyed and more daring. He would release his hand from one rack, then wait a moment while he floated up like Neil Armstrong on the friggin’ moon before grabbing the next. He only let me hold him across the street to get a cab.
When we got out, he still wouldn’t let me grab him, he held onto me. He started in with his aerobatics again, releasing one shoulder with his right hand, catching the other with his left.
It can’t be more than fifty feet from the street to the entrance of our apartment building. Time for five or six releases and catches at most.
On the fourth, he lost his grip and started to fall upwards. I reached for him and missed. His leisurely ascent left me time for two more jumps at his outstretched hand. The first, I only just touched his skin, not enough to grab. The second time I gathered myself and jumped as high as I could. I caught his hand and tugged him down slightly. But he was sweating and being yanked upward with more force than ever before and after only an instant his hand slipped through mine.
His only shot after that was to drift toward the apartment and grab a ledge. But the wind was against him, pushing him gently away from the building.
I watched in silence as he shrank to a point in the night sky, then disappeared.
* * *
I unwrap a candy bar and tear off a large bite. It tastes like sawdust.
That didn’t happen, of course. It could not have happened. Jeremy didn’t fly into the sky until he asphyxiated or froze or popped like a balloon or died whatever death would claim you first if you stepped off the edge of the world and fell up forever.
I concocted that whole scene in my mind. I must have. Jeremy got hit by a bus. Jeremy moved to Cleveland. Jeremy is in the loony bin, saving a bed for his best friend.
I’m home. I take off my clothes and step onto the bathroom scale. I force myself to look down.
I’ve lost five more pounds.
No exercise all week, I’ve eaten as much as I could stuff down, and I’ve lost another five pounds.
I rub my hands over my stomach. It’s flabbier than a week ago. Isn’t it?
I feel my forehead. Am I getting light-headed?
I hope to God it’s my imagination.
© 2011 Van Aaron Hughes