It was Sunday night when Geo climbed into my room from the fire escape. I was painting my toenails and listening to the sounds of the city: police sirens, pulsating bass, the kids in my tenement running guitar riffs back and forth with the street musicians on the sidewalk. That was the year I turned sixteen and took a two-month vow of silence to honor the death of autumn. A premature snow had robbed the season of its delicate warmth and color, forcing the maples to weep their leaves into the gutters. All that rainwater, all that decay. How could anyone create when October was dying outside their windows? Pete and Jake practiced acoustic that entire month. The rest of us were too fragile to play in suicide weather, when the right chords might move us to open our veins.
Geo sat down next to me, examining my bottle of red lacquer. "'To Eros is Human,'" he read, and rolled his eyes. "I'll keep that in mind."
I offered him my shoebox of nail polish. He selected a purple the color of opium poppies. I uncapped a pen and wrote on his arm as he painted tiny swastikas on his nails:
Why aren't you at the Church?
The gay club down the street. Its clientele was stylishly flamboyant, all checkered newsboy caps and French cigarettes and silk suit jackets with pinstriped lapels. Geo's kind of place. That was where he met Roger That, his current boyfriend, and Inga, a strange Russian waif whose arms were stained copper with henna. She'd recently bleached all the color out of her waist-length hair, which was wiry from years of electroshock therapy. Geo loved braiding that hair, feeling the strands crackle between his fingers. Inga never let anyone else touch her. "Earth element absorbs lightning," she said. "Geo means 'of the ground.'"
Geo was born Charles George DeWing. We'd called him Charlie until he heard his name in street-context; Heroin Charlie, Charlie who'd pay anything to kiss Sweet Lady H. It sounded ugly on the lips of his dealers. Now he introduced himself as Geo and shot up as Charlie, so he could feel clean at least half of the time. I wanted to ask him if it really worked that way, achieving transcendence by severing his egos. Amputation of the psyche sounded like it destroyed a lot more than it repaired.
Geo read my question and shrugged at me. "It's a stay-at-home night. Sometimes, you know, it just feels good to sit still."
Outside, Pete picked out a wobbly, caterwauling solo on his twelve-string, immortalizing himself in hundred harried echoes. Pete was the best guitarist in the neighborhood. Geo and I had known him since we were children, before we had Kate on bass, Jake on backup guitar, and Kyle Smile singing like a huge light in a dark room. Our collective sound was like a puzzle piece snapping into place. Unaccompanied, Pete's music was adept and lonely, fading up into the sky like an unfettered spirit.
Geo stopped painting his nails and looked at my vanity case. "Do you have any concealer?"
I checked my drawers. My mom worked the cosmetics counter at the corner drug store, and she brought home different colors every time the season changed. I still had all my autumn bronzers and dark orange blushes, too vibrant for the ivory of Geo's complexion. He was a winter. I found an oval compact full of chalk-colored Pancake and tossed it to him.
"Thanks," he said. He fished out the sponge, licked it, and began patting the makeup onto his face. He paused when he saw me staring. "I've got oral herpes," he explained. "The doily dykes were making fun of me. Gem kept kicking. Got a Morse code of stiletto prints on my ass. It says 'ow, fucking ow.'"
My eyesight was poor and I didn't wear glasses. In bohemia, it was usually better to be blind. I leaned close until I could see the bumps on his lips and chin, swollen constellations that no one would ever name. I picked up an eyeliner pencil and drew a large question mark on his arm.
He powdered it away, layering the false skin over the smooth slopes of his cheeks, under his jaw. He was prettier than me. He had lazy junkie eyes, heavily lidded with mascara and fatigue, a heart-shaped mouth that always trembled a little before he lied. No one in suburbia would put him in a glass cage for display, but he was urban-beautiful, rough around the edges. He carried enough baggage to stay real.
"I did it because some guy offered me a couple of joints," he said finally, lowering the compact. "How's that for you? He looked like a leper, and I still wanted to try it. I thought it would make me feel real."
"Geo," I said, before I thought to stop myself. Both of us blinked at the sound of my voice. Before Kyle Smile, Geo had been our lead vocalist, and I'd been backup. We'd learned to harmonize, to speak with the same inflections. Now even my own voice was startling. That meant Geo was eons away from me, from all of us, trying to find some quiet planet to explode on. A breathing time bomb. After all, he'd always talked like a ticking clock.
He picked a white stick of eyeliner from my vanity and traced the curve of his upper lip without a mirror. I didn't understand how he could know himself by heart without having any idea who he really was.
"I wish I could be you," he said. "I want to be able to keep my words inside of me. But everything I feel seems so uncontainable. Like if I don't get it out, it's going to crush me."
I was thankful he didn't expect an answer. In all my sorrow, I knew nothing of creatures who could put their mouths on someone's blisters, nurse their disease to feel human. I'd grounded myself well below the tightrope of self-destruction. There was no view here and the air wasn't as clear, but I didn't have to constantly fight for balance. That was something. It had to be something.
"Male," he said, and for a moment, I thought of licking stamps. Then he added, "It makes things different," and I knew, oh, the type that's harder to address.
A car alarm went off outside. Geo sat up right away and checked himself in the mirror again, smiled his slow smile, the family-portrait pose borne into his bones.
"Ready to face the world again," he said. He paused at the window, seeing all this in my eyes. "You understand it," he added, soft. "Wish I weren't so transparent."
I watched him leave the way he arrived, scaling the fire escape, watched as he touched the pavement and melted into the crowd. People parted for him; his presence was that colossal. And I thought, Diamonds are transparent. You didn't need to be opaque to be precious. Diamonds, so like everything else in the mess of our world, falling through the cracks of some unforgiving space, becoming lost. But strong enough to control their own mortality. They could only be destroyed by themselves.
Geo committed suicide last March, leaving his legacy in black eyeliner on the bathroom mirror. As befitted a bohemian of his caliber, he went gracefully, but not without making one final stand: perched on the balcony of his tenement, he performed an epic soliloquy about the evils of nuclear warfare and carbohydrates. All sensitive cities resonate with doomed voices, and ours is no different, echoing with the songs and prayers and furies of a thousand faceless casualties. I hear Geo best in the early morning, when no one else is awake to eavesdrop.
There are few relics from our childhood, the shared history that gathers dust in the unknowable corners of our hearts. Our only photograph is severed into a jigsaw puzzle Jake made in shop class, unable to resist the delicious symbolism of self-reassembly.
Sometimes, when I'm alone, I open the box and pour the pale yellow pieces onto my countertop. I seek out the soft piece that bears the logo on Kyle Smile's shirt, building outwards from his heart, where everything began and ended. Peter snaps together cleanly, crisp and easy to complete, and I am next, auspiciously intact. Jake's black jacket blends in with the shadows. Kate is missing a piece. And then there's Geo. Geo's standing at the far end of the picture, smiling and barely there, comprised mostly of the sharp edges that Jake forgot to round off.
This is how my friends are now: I build them piece by piece, one fragment at a time, a smile, a wrist, a shoulder. Whole or not, we existed in the same slot of time, flawed, serrated, human in our incompletion. It's beautiful because I know it was never really like this. We were never so simple or easy to put together.