I was standing on the walkway of a second-floor apartment complex, knocking on a door no one was answering and beginning to think I was going to have to wait outside a little. Not that it mattered. The Midwest was having an unusually balmy October that year and a subdued, yellow current was running through the air, circling the fall leaves around. If I peered down over the walkway railing, I could spot a courtyard, wide as a park, littered full of them. The view was nice and made me feel a type of wholesomeness that was okay with being nice; almost inspiring, kind of. I guess it had more to do with being around so many other young people like myself, for once. I’d noticed it all on my walk into town; that this was something different I would’ve probably never experienced back home, simply stuck crossing the same county lines over and over. Here, every block had seemed a sort of opportunity waiting to happen, or at least presented itself as an illusion of such, which was plenty fine with me; I liked magic.

Maybe because of this, the walk had taken me several hours longer than intended and had left me exhausted, so, seeing as I had seen others doing so, I figured no one would mind and swung off my backpack to rest by the apartment door. I stayed there, seemingly appearing to count the cracks off my phone, not being paid much attention to at all, until a passing, brunette-haired girl asked if I’d locked myself out again.


“Yeah. You okay?”

“I don’t live here. I’m just waiting on some family.”

“Oh my God! I thought you were Martin! You look just like him!”

Martin was a cousin of mine, a cousin that I hadn’t spoken to in some four or five years. Not because of any one event; simply life. I had asked him if I could visit for a few days, and by visit, I’d meant the university he was studying at. I wasn’t sure if the request had been uncomfortable for him or not, or if he’d even thought twice about it at all. When we’d been kids and growing up just a couple houses down from another, only a year apart in age, turning up uninvited would have been the norm. Over the phone though, when I’d called, he’d sounded unenthused, maybe more like he just hadn’t had the time. He’d said sure in the end but, I think, a little begrudgingly. The truth was, it didn’t really matter, because being a social inconvenience was something I could tolerate with what I was being paid to make the trip.

“But his roommate should be home, no?”

“I tried knocking already.”

“Let me see.”

The girl proceeded to tap haphazardly against the door, as if in some fingernail Morse code, while yelling for someone named Chris to open up. The ritual lasted for only a few seconds before a guy dressed in salmon shorts and a tank-top appeared at the door. He came apologizing for the wait, claiming to have not heard any knockings prior. I told him that it was fine and that he didn’t have anything to apologize for. In turn, he introduced himself as Chris and said that he vaguely recollected Martin mentioning something about a cousin visiting. He went on to move aside from the doorway, telling me to make myself at home while he and the girl finished up chatting amongst another. The apartment was small with a front door that opened directly into kitchen-space, followed by the living room area further along: a standard, two-bedroom apartment designed for off-campus student housing. By the living room, I circled around a rug and Formica table until stopping to examine a landscape hanging off beyond the apartment’s far back balcony. Outside, the sun was setting, lowering itself into the backside of these faraway, grey houses, the tallest of which crowned with four corner spires on top its roof, piercing through obscuring mountains and oak trees.

“Sorry about that,” said Chris. “You want a beer?”

“No, I’m good,” I said. “Thanks, though.”

Without really waiting for my reply, Chris motioned for me to follow him into his room to reveal a rummaged mess of a place where a guy Chris called “Traggs” sat in a barely recognizable state for any person to be considered alive and well. He was conscious and responding to commands, yet that was essentially it. Chris would laugh and attempt to slap him awake, only to further laugh when it proved to be of no effect. At one point, as we sat ourselves down, he commanded Traggs to move and make way for me, and, in the process of, the zombified lad completely slipped over himself, violently, onto the floor with such force that it had almost appeared as if someone had sniped him from afar. He stayed there, eyes lifeless and dry, sideways to some of Chris’ dirty laundry the remainder of our time in the room.

“Don’t mind him, that guy’s been going overboard all the time lately.”

We both sat down and it dawned on me that unbeknownst to me, muted pornography had been playing off three television screens inside the room, all along with an assortment of torn credit cards scattered about the foot of each as well. The scenes were rather confrontational and extreme, but low budget, resembling the type of videos where petite Eastern European women claimed to be “Teen Stacy” or “Barely 18 Kelly” when it was obvious they were much more likely the victims of human trafficking. Were the credit cards his, though? I’m not sure what was up with them and was unsure of if to comment or not; instead, our conversation fell into a momentary rut while Chris browsed through his laptop, muttering aloud what, I assumed, was his train of thought: “Yeah, he’s fine. It’s annoying having to look after him, though. I would’ve just let him walk home alone last night, but the neighborhood we were in, where the party was at, fucking full of blacks, man.” Apparently, Chris and Traggs had gotten home last night from a party and had gone on to do some Adderall to stay awake, going on to drink well until the next day. Chris himself was still crushing the pills right there in front of me from out a container labeled with the different days of the week, snorting them while wading his free hand inside a Styrofoam cooler by his bedside for a beer after, the cooler full of mostly melted ice by now. Following, he told me to “check this out” and clicked on a few links, commencing to play a type of happy hardcore rave music off his laptop speakers. He tried to raise the volume, but his computer speakers couldn’t really max out any higher. Nonetheless, he bowed his head over and over again in sync with the music. As for myself, I was increasingly filled with a discordant revulsion to the scenes playing out in front of me, all the screens of slapping and choking over one organ or another while high-pitched vocals echoed over accelerated 4/4 beats, the wholesomeness gone.

“—You ever see a girl you know end up doing porn, man?”

“Like from high school?”

“No,” he said. “Younger.”

But before Chris could extrapolate, we heard the front door open, prompting me to leave as soon as I could stand, murmuring something about going to see if my cousin had arrived. Chris didn’t say much in response, just, “Sure, sure, you do that, man.” I stepped out the room and walked back toward the kitchen-space entrance to discover my cousin dragging in a couple bags of groceries. From the looks of it, he was really into making pasta. “Hey,” I said, as I moved in to help him with the jars of sauce.

“How’ve you been?”

“Can’t complain. You?”

“Pretty good. Yeah.”

I never got how others saw so many similarities between us. He still didn’t look anything like me in my mind. I guess maybe as a frailer, more malnourished version of me. Of course, the reality of the situation was the exact opposite. After helping him put away his groceries, he had asked me if I wanted to set my stuff down inside his room since he was having people over later. I’d said sure, and in the process saw he had tubs full of GNC products and supplements, medals from one city marathon after another, an assortment of free weights and Nike-branded running gear. He asked me if I wanted to play FIFA, but I’d said not really. For some reason, I’d been surprised he still even played video games. The last time I’d touched them had probably been back in his room when we’d been teenagers. Now, the concept of them was just begging to feel alien to me.

“You still play real soccer? Still got your cleats?” I asked him.

“Nah. You?”

“I try to here and there.”

“The same guys still play on Ewing? Or is it Thursdays at Rowan?”

“Alphabet Town? No. The Mexican place. La Canchita, I think it’s called.”

“Oh, yeah. Never checked it out.”

After the superficial, we responded in positive yet vague answers, mentioning small tidbits about how the family was, the last time we’d seen this person or that, if me or him were still with that one girl or that girl, and then, when nothing else, sports teams on TV—the Bulls sucking versus the Pacers running the Eastern Conference with Paul George—seeing who could be the least specific, while the other the most ambivalent about it. Eventually, he asked if I wanted a beer, and the truth was, even though inside my right pocket I’d been thumbing over a small, four-month sobriety chip, it’d been a silly achievement that I didn’t really feel all that proud in. So I’d said yeah, sure, “Let’s have a beer,” and we grabbed some from out of Chris’s cooler—Traggs still on the floor, music still playing, porn still muted—and walked out onto the back balcony viewscape, leaning by the railing as a dirty dawn sky fell bright tangerine behind us, beers dangling, eyes scanning the parking lot sprawl, voices silent.


About an hour later, we were sitting in the back of a university bus, our legs raised over the opposite seats facing us, the long, stretching vehicle practically empty, so much free space we could afford to enjoy the seats in front of ours and more. Martin claimed that not many students stayed in town on Friday or Saturday nights, choosing instead to travel to one of the nearer cities to catch concerts or stay with friends, attend faraway parties. This was a bit confusing considering all the people I’d seen on my walk into the town. I’d tried to explain it to Martin, but he hadn’t been sure what I meant. He said that everyone he knew couldn’t wait to drive out for the weekends, the end result of a recent shooting happening at some Greek party. Besides that, not much more was thought of to talk about, and, eventually, the residual weariness of my trip, combined with the drifting wheels of the bus, rocked me to a sleep where my thoughts stirred into dreams, dreams of stowing away and becoming a sailor or fisherman, traveling upon a boat hearing orcas roaring beneath me, a dream that quickly shifted into another, my mind’s eyes vanishing into the gaze of a whale’s blackened mass beneath the sea, being transported instead to where memories bled into dreams, and I was standing inside an empty glade, two dead cars stalled beside me, roadside flares tossed above the grass, sirens…

But the bus’ horn blared, and the dream petered out. I awoke, turned against a moving window, facing right, then to the left, the comforting dark outside now fully settled, Martin talking to a stranger. Turning back to the window, I looked and stared; I saw small, back alley streets meshing into a brush of forest, and then what had to be a barefoot, adolescent young boy—far too young to be at college—running away without a care on his face, a contorted look of desperate wonder glazed over.

“Do you see that?”


“Did you see it?

“See what?”

“There was a boy running practically half-naked down the alley.”



We got off the bus near a campus dining hall and walked two blocks north. We talked about the weather and little else, and mostly in fragments, snippets about the past when never ending winters had engrossed our early youth. The destination grew closer and Martin asked if I could spot it from afar. I looked, and, through the shadows of overgrown oak and neighboring solid stone, my eyes rose to spot the same familiar four-spired building from before. Through heavy double doors, we pressed forward to step foot inside a dark linoleum floor space crowded full of costumed others, a masquerade ball being smeared in a light of primary colors while a projector somewhere paled them and us in translucent CCTV imagery, and reels of forgotten cartoons interspersed with vintage family recordings, all reflecting off black lace vestments and half-covered faces.

We walked around the perimeter and my cousin explained to me that he believed most likely no one in attendance was even a current student to the school. Who it was? He didn’t know. They had only started being thrown a few years ago according to him, with every passing year becoming much more ostentatious in promotion. Most of his friends had found the idea of attending any of these “balls” silly, yet a curiosity had lingered inside him; a small crack of our shared genetic predisposition to openness? Doubtful; there simply hadn’t been much else going on the weekend of my visit.

“Thanks for the effort,” I’d said to him.

“No problem,” he’d responded in blunt sarcasm.

The place was decorated not with chandeliers or candlelight, but with frayed couches and solitary sofas, forgotten bookshelves and abandoned dressers turned sideways to the walls with legs of tables hanging out, all appearing very much layered in a muck, as if picked up from off the streets of a downed city in an urban war. Stretched-apart cobwebs hung off the ceiling corners, maybe for decoration; the further crevices covered in filth and vermin nests, an incredible humidity present and persistent due to boarded-up windows, most ridiculously of which this one giant, multi-paned set that had to of once been made of stained glass, now nailed top to bottom with dark, wooden panels.

“Who would go through the trouble of doing this for a party?” I asked.

“It’s been boarded up.”

“Feel the wood. It’s as if they brought it fresh out the yard this morning.”

“Learn that from the Cal Harbor?”

“The what?”


My cousin’s words had caught me off guard. It was a strange reference to make. Coming from the same shitty Hegewisch parts of South Chicagoland where our earliest memories had to have been waiting across the banquet hall from the Mug’s Bunny Tavern for our dads to finish drinking on our birthdays, we knew the Cal Harbor as the local lumberyard. I’d worked there under the table the last few years back when we still talked, me 19 and Martin still a senior in high school, both of us dating the Menendez girls, a group of cousins that all lived under the same roof with their grandmother. I asked him if he remembered about it and he told me he was sure they were all pregnant by now. He then asked if I remembered that last Halloween we’d spent together, when we ended up in one of their aunt’s parties, eating hot dogs and drinking beer, and then later waiting outside their grandma’s house for the girls to sneak back out.

“Really, I haven’t thought about it in years.”

“It was just the last Halloween we spent together; it’d been in my head.”

“There a bathroom around here?”

“Think I heard someone mention it being upstairs.”

Sure, there wasn’t much of a difference in who we were then and where we were now, and maybe that was why the history of it all, or at least a concept of a history to those times, seemed locked off to me. The warm nostalgia Martin’s eyes saw was inaccessible to mine. I told him I’d see him in a minute and headed off through the crowd of bodies, the consistently cordial and polite endlessness of costumes and marionette-warped faces, burying thoughts away, and stopping only to notice the unclothed face of an attractive girl dancing through epileptic silver strobes, the lights shining on and off her, rendering her skin almost ghostly. Pressing herself back as if against an imaginary man behind her, her hips moving with a feigned attachment, a lock of her blackened brunette hair slowly curling to fall across her brow, her grinning face completely visible. It’d been a relief, really. As I had walked to the bathroom, I had begun to wonder, perhaps if only to occupy my thoughts with something else, that maybe there was a reasoning for the masks that didn’t have all to do with only the festivities. Apparently not.


The men’s room was a tarnished and mildewed chamber full of yellow walls inscribed with blood rust and grime in between the tiling, piss moisture of a foul stench visibly splashed over the floor. I fumbled to take my phone out as quickly as possible, almost dropping it into a flooded stall clogged to the seat cover with sewage, struggling to clear my throat.


A voice on the other side picked up, but I couldn’t bring myself to respond; down the short hall of stalls, the sound of muffled gruntings followed by the thrusting of body against body had begun. Even though the pornography in Chris’ room had been muted, there had been nothing more memorably discordant than the damn music that he’d played over it. Perhaps because of this, the rhythm of this body pounding against the door had instantly synched; the fault of having brains wired to find patterns, I suppose. Shrugging it off as best I could, I spoke into the phone: “Hey, did they get the car? Find the keys? Everything good?”

“Yeah, yeah. They got it all. Take a bus back home in a couple days and everything’ll be golden. Where’d you say you’re staying again? Your cousin’s?”

“Something like that.”

“Got it.”

“I’ll see ya.”

I hung up and contemplated washing my hands, unsure if I’d catch more germs from the water running out the faucet than the ones I’d already surely gotten from simply stepping foot inside the room, while the thumping sounds of body against body against door continued until coming to a slow, full stop. Quickly, I decided on washing my hands after all and headed out the door in such a hurry that I bumped into an entering pair of figures.


“—Hey, you’re new, right? New here?”

They had their masks off, held onto at their sides, yet dressed in plum-feathered robes. From the look of their faces, they had to have been around my or Martin’s ages, somewhere in their twenties. They asked me again if I was new and I explained to them that I didn’t go to the school. They wanted to know what school I did go to and I told them I didn’t go to any school at all. I guess this had not been what they wanted to hear and their faces broke with disgust and anger. They asked did I not know that the event was for students only and suggested that I leave. I asked if they were even students, causing them to reveal to me that they had long ago graduated, mentioning the name of some school that I’d never heard of before, not that I knew of many university names to begin with. As they grew impatient and began to insist on following me out, the shortly forgotten sounds of fucking down the hall resumed with a vengeance, shutting us all up as we turned our heads in its direction.

Martin and I left the faggy “ball” not long after.


For all installments of “A Sigh from the Depths,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1