Carlos was sleeping in his oven when we found him. The gas stove on, unlit. Empty liquor bottles rolled through the cramped apartment, their quiet tinking vibrating the empty walls.
This was not the first time.
I didn’t visit him in the Mental Health Crisis Center. Our friend Sarah called me with news and updates. I thought of all the Smirnoff I had mixed into his drinks over the years, the Gatorade bottles with booze that we had carried around campus, the pacts we made before parties to not let each other do something stupid, the frightened morning-after STD tests.
But I was clean now, out of college, getting engaged and applying to grad school.
I led a community writing group, and through the musk of stale whiskey that swirled over the table, I wondered if Carlos looked like these people now, with their murky brown coats and tenuous sanities. The young man who stared at his nails when others talked. Did Carlos sit in his psych ward bed with his hands splayed like that, trying to find himself through the fleshy webs between his fingers?
Borderline personality disorder. Alcoholism. Depression. I sounded these words out in my head, these words that taste like steel.
We both feel the brand of our brown skin, our dark hair. His body hair is sparse, mine is abundant. We took salsa classes, and shocked the instructors by wanting to learn the opposite parts: I wanted to lead; he wanted to follow.
Carlos had no family. His mother was dead, his siblings like strangers. He hadn’t talked to his Tex-Mex extended family in years. A ward of the state.
He had trouble remembering. He couldn’t recall his high school years, how he had flirted with suicide over a lost lover. He couldn’t remember the friends he had made.
In college Carlos was my wingman. It was his responsibility to keep me from bounding over chess boards to make out with butch lesbians; it was mine to keep him from humping men on the makeshift dorm-room dance floors.
“You get lucky,” he told me once. We were on the swings at a park close to my apartment. We were both single, both dating, both looking. The sun was low, the moon already rising from behind the university smokestacks. “You meet good people,” he said.
I didn’t go to see him until he got out of rehab.
He got strange when we talked about the past. He didn’t want to fudge truths, was hung up on the small details of dates and times, the numbers of people at parties and what we ate. To me, it didn’t matter if it was January or February. But for Carlos everything hung on these details. He was attached to the characters of his memory. He couldn’t let them go, couldn’t blur the lines of their existence.
Two years after he got clean, I ran into Carlos at a bar. Whiskey burned on his breath. He wouldn’t meet my eyes. He promised to call me to make plans for dinner or lunch—or brunch like old acquaintances.
He never called.
When I stumbled into soberness, Carlos didn’t follow. Or maybe I didn’t lead him well enough.
He hung the paintings on his new living room walls in the halfway house where we drank coffee every Sunday morning.
Canvas after canvas: a pale, blond young man crucified with swords; a gremlin surrounded by thick blackness, screaming in silence; a field of daisies, streaked with black from where a cold wind had taken life.
SJ Sindu received an MA in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Sindu’s creative writing has appeared in Brevity, Water~Stone Review, Harpur Palate, and elsewhere. Focusing on traditionally silenced voices—the immigrant, the poor, the queer, the female-bodied—Sindu is working on a novel and a collection of nonfiction essays.