by Tamuira Reid
I met Arnie at a Cocaine Anonymous meeting the year before I got sober for the first time. I was high as fuck, eyes lit and hands fidgeting in my lap, then my jacket pockets, then my lap again. Maybe I thought being in a room full of non-high people would help even my scorecard with God. I had a lot of interesting thoughts back then, but I was usually smart enough to keep them to myself.
Arnie was wearing a neon orange trucker hat with the word “Grandma” scrawled above the brim in what looked like sharpie. His long, sixty-something body stretched out from beneath a threadbare track suit, and his sneakers were both untied. I remember being distracted by this, the laces calling my name, Tamuira, Tamuira! Come tie me! I would later learn, over our decade of friendship, that he was claustrophobic, and his feet needed so be able to “breathe better”.
And this was what I found most comforting about about Arnie; his weirdness, his eccentricities. He didn’t need drugs to take him into an altered state because he was already in one.
“Wanna get coffee?”
I rolled my eyes and lifted up my Styrofoam cup, thinking he was just another gross old-timer in the program, picking-up on a newbie.
“I have a sponsor already.”
“I’m not hitting on you, honey. I’m gay,” he said, grabbing a cookie off the table and breaking it in half. “Straight guys don’t do neon.”
“I’m not really sober right now,” I confided. Partly to get rid of him, partly to ease my guilty conscious.
“I can tell. Your jaw is like a goddamn meat grinder.”
Arnie had a massive – by New York standards, anyway – railroad apartment on Orchard Street. His grandmother, Esther, a Holocaust survivor and dressmaker, left the place to him in her will. “She married well, a banker who was obsessed with her. Everyone was. She was a fucking beauty.” Arnie wasn’t too bad himself, attractive in an odd kind of way. Big eyes, big body, big presence. He filled a room. “She loved me, even if my mommy didn’t. Mommy was a bitch.”
Arnie let me do coke at his dining room table, assuring me he had absolutely no intentions of ever using himself. That shit’ll kill you, he’d warn me, a mug of chocolate milk in his hand. He taught chess at that same table, to little kids from old money, whose parents dragged them down to the bowels of the Lower East Side for an hour of Arnie’s time. They watched from an old velvet couch adorned with cigarette burns and newspapers and and wads of foil pushed into its cracks. A trash can sat unused in the corner. They watched for the entire hour, pretending they understood what was going on, pretending to follow. Excited and confused by each cry of “check!”. Trying to decide if Arnie was a crook or a genius.
“My college roommate taught me to play. I’m pretty good considering I learned as an adult. But I don’t tell the parents that. Just let them believe whatever they believe.”
“Do you believe I’m depressed?” I asked him, not looking up at the dollar bill I was meticulously rolling.
“No. You’re just a drug addict.”
We talked openly and often about my habit. I compared my drug use to elector-shock therapy – it’s like my brain is suddenly being jolted back to life – although I had absolutely no point of reference for this. Zero judgments here, he’d always reassure me. He wasn’t the first person to tell me this, but he was the only one who actually meant it. To Arnie, nothing was black and white. People were “beautifully complicated” he’d say, and then he’d make a reference to both The Golden Girls and Malcolm Gladwell in the same sentence. Complicated indeed.
When Arnie called to tell me he was dying, I had just cut up the better part of an eight ball – I was expecting friends – and still had wet hair from the shower. Funny what I remember and don’t remember about that phone call. I can’t remember the tone of his voice, but I can remember that I had wet hair. I can’t remember what type of cancer it was, just that he was dying.
The months ahead would involve the usual cancer drill. Chemo. Radiation. Bad jokes and other diversions. Binge watching reality shows that had been canceled after just a single season.
Sometimes I slept over, in his bed next to him, a hand pressed into his back. I missed him already.
Arnie’s lone sister inherited his apartment, moving her family from Tel Aviv to Orchard Street.
She had something to give me, she said. Arnie left specific instructions in his will. Come soon.
Money? Doubtful. He was adamant about it all going to charity, to research, not to his greedy-ass family. The car? He knew I would never drive in the city. What was left?
I walked up the four flights of stairs, the way I had a thousand times over, but this time it felt different. She swung open the door before I even had the chance to knock, my fist mid-air.
“Yes. Hi. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Well, if you heard from Arnie, then I’m sure it was all bad.” She wasn’t entirely wrong.
Two little girls played behind her, and an older boy did a puzzle at the table. The chess board was gone.
“I’d invite you in, but we are about to leave,” she said. She was in her bathrobe and the kids were half-naked. “Actually, no, come in, he’d want you to meet his family.”
Kids muttered names. Coffee was offered. I used the bathroom and sneaked a peek into the medicine cabinet. Nothing good. Time passed slowly and my skin itched. Arnie’s living room felt unfamiliar and dry. They had cleaned-up, thrown-out, re-done. They made it their own. I couldn’t figure out how a place could lose its energy so quickly, like Arnie had never been there. I wanted to go home. I wanted Arnie back. I wanted the fucking chess board.
“So, I have something from my brother.”
“Oh, yeah. Okay.” I waited as she disappeared into the back of the apartment and returned with Rue.
That motherfucker, I thought. He left me his motherfucking mouse. I took the cage, said something nice-ish, and took a cab back uptown. I was with him the day he bought her, from some teenager on Craigslist who was hoping to go away to college sans rodent. She scratched at my fingers through the metal slats. I never liked Rue. Two decades in the city and mice still scared the shit out of me. I could hear Arnie laughing somewhere, enjoying all of this. Fucking snake bait, I whispered to her, to him.