The Sugar Line

Jim Alabaster

‘Get out. Don’t go.’

‘Which?’

Stern, stone-faced, he rolls the gauntness of his naked chest over me, to reach a lighter by the bed. ‘I don’t care,’ he says, and lights up.

I give Joe an ashtray; he rests it on his chest. The smoke seeps from his lips and coats his scant room: wisps pass inside drained Stellas and the necks of Co-op vodka bottles; a wreath wraps dirty plates and spent Durexes; the last clouds gather – in faint grey halos – around strung-up fairy lights.

I put forward two fingers and Joe puts the cigarette between them, soft, his mood already mutable. I put the cigarette to my mouth. ‘Stay, if you want,’ he says.

‘What do you want?’

The smoke I sigh out mixes with the residue of his.

‘Is there anything left?’ he says. ‘I swear there’s one more bottle.’

‘Here.’ I pass him a vodka bottle. Half a litre remains.

He pours a measure, measures, into a pint glass, and supplements it with water. He takes a bag of sugar from the carpet, doses the glass with a steady stream. He stirs it with a finger. Between us, we have just a little money, so we make do.

Joe takes a sip, passes it. I take a sip, and it is too sweet.

We are quiet, for a time. We take in the unfurled smoke, the sickly sugared vodka: our darling poisons. It is midnight, perhaps, and it might be Sunday. We began the day with toast and a pair of strongly spirited Bloody Marys; we followed these with a quarter of a gram. The breakfast of champions, of angels, and the breakfast of queers sick of sad and miserable life. So many of us will gladly eat up this banquet sodden with relief. This morning, when our tomato juice ran dry: water and sugar.

Why do we forgo mixers, if we can afford cocaine? It’s because coke money is its own separate strain of money; it alone has the guile to gather by itself. Once the nod is given, it draws from those coins you’ve set aside for meals and for transport, for stark subsistence, and slyly arranges their amounts into enough for one more gram.

We’ve taken all of that gram today, and most of the next. We’ve drunk, we’ve had sex, and at some point, we slept.

Now, we are not long awake. Joe woke asking me to get out. He has a habit of saying this, and he says it stonily, the words leaving his lips like pebbles smoothed to numbness; and I am sure it is a joke and I am sure it is not a joke, I am sure it resides in both places at once, as a stream of water inhabits both its source and its cease, or, say, as a stream of sugar does, while it cascades softly into a glass. Now, Joe says, ‘I need a piss.’ He gets up, naked, and must turn to a wall to steady himself. His palms hit the paint hard. So hard, that I am sure the wall retreats.

Stop now for a second and look at us: here, naked and alone, in this squalid fourth-storey flat. You wouldn’t think that we met three weeks ago. In a nameless gay bar, in the heat of an unlit haze, where each stranger is just a sheen of shadow-stuff and your hopes of a fuck. Waiting to be served, we began to speak. He said I was cute. I said the same to him. In fact, I could barely see him. He was just an inkling of a presence, an intimation of breath in an airless place. To be honest, that was all that mattered. Half an hour, before we fled our friends for an Uber. Two, perhaps, before we lay back on his scrap of a bed, and opened a bottle. A week, and I was seeing him every day.

It seems that neither of us has anyone else to go to.

I hear, faint, Joe’s pissing. It halts, it is erratic, it is contrary to the steadiness of his hand pouring sugar into the pint glass. He returns; he trips, staggers, falls against walls; he pushes each one away. He gets into bed.

‘So, what do you want me to do? Go, or stay?’

‘Stay, stay,’ he says. ‘I’m sorry about just now. I wasn’t thinking.’ He turns to me, fastens a foot to my ankle and a palm to the small of my back.

‘You’re sure?’

‘Of course I’m sure,’ he says, watching me. ‘I know my own mind.’

Then he is kissing me: the taste of sweat, of sugar-sweetened vodka. His hand presses against my back. My hand strays across him. It drifts, it lingers, it tries to cast his shape into memory, as if it’s a ripple soon to fade to nothing. I shut my eyes, letting go of sight, and let the sense of sight seep into each limb, a blindness of eye ceding to a new intensity of touch. Then he is on top of me, his hard-on against my stomach, and then we are a welt of red skin, caught in each other’s infatuation.

I don’t know which of us catches the pint glass.

But it falls to the carpet, we hear it crack, and then our bodies are our own again.

‘Fuck,’ he says. ‘Fuck, fuck.’

‘Come on,’ I say, ‘it’s no big deal.’ And it isn’t. The glass is in neat pieces, although naturally its sugared guts are spilt. It’s happened on Joe’s side of the bed. He leans over to look: a moment of stillness, of breath, held in. Then his hands dart like a pecking bird, then his wrists are a flit of dark motion, and soon every piece is tossed into the bin. It’s as if he is afraid of them, as if a touch – the slightest touch – might open his skin.

‘Can you get another glass?’ he says. ‘And a cloth?’

When I get back, Joe is taking sips straight from the vodka bottle. He makes to snatch the glass I’ve fetched, checks himself, then gradually unhinges his arm: a door, opening on a drunken scene. ‘Thanks,’ he says.

He mixes another drink: vodka, water, sugar. On his side of the bed, I clean up the remains of the last. There is barely space to kneel between the bed and the wall. There is barely space for his sliver of a bedside table. ‘Why don’t you just push the bed against the wall, and move that table?’

‘I don’t like my bed to be against the wall, alright?’

I stay quiet. The sense of an argument lacquers his words. Uselessly I dab at the spillage. It has saturated a patch of carpet, a patch of his bed. It has left small sugary heaps adrift in moisture, and changed white linen to grey, beige carpet to taupe. These stains are water’s specific shadows, because it is true that a stain is only ever a shadow of what’s passed, one that lingers too long. Then I dab at the bed, and Joe – flinches. He recovers, looks at me briefly, then averts his sparrow-brown eyes. I wonder: is he scared of the cloth, as with the glass? Or – a brief thought – is it that he’s scared of the sugar crystals themselves? Their coarseness, their striations, their tiny saw-tooth serrations, as if the edges of the split glass have been shrunk and packed into a hair’s breadth of white crystal, as sharp as a garrotte, and as lethal.

He says, ‘It won’t stain, will it?’

‘Yeah,’ I say, ‘clear liquids famously leave a mark.’ He is silent, sulking maybe. I look up at him, his short high-fade hair, his thigh corded by veins like rock strata. Through the door, parts of his flat are visible; the sight of them over his ribs: a dull dawn striking crags. We have spent all day in his bedroom. As I kneel here, I have half a mind to be elsewhere, to be – even his kitchen would do. Even his kitchen: a stripe of linoleum with a gas stove. It has a window, set above the sink, with a view of north London streets that are grey, untiringly so. Last night I stared out of that window. The streets were like severed fingers. Each house was a torn knuckle, cars were nails bitten to the bone, and the roads were a lattice of gaunt and grey gristle. There was, of course, no sign of the palm from which they had been cut.

‘Done yet?’ he asks. I don’t answer, just get back in, wrap an arm around his chest. He rests a hand on mine. ‘This is my only other one,’ he says, nodding at the new pint glass. ‘Don’t be so careless with it.’ I want to argue with him, but I stay silent, feeling the warmth of his palm, the heat of it and the heft, the tracery of grooves etched in living skin: the things we will endure, to feel the touch of another.

Later, I tell him I am tired. ‘I know we just got up,’ I say, ‘but really, I’m knackered. There any chance you want to go back to sleep? I’ve got to be up in like six hours.’

‘I’m off tomorrow,’ he says, turning the glass in his hand. ‘Let’s keep drinking. And you hate that job.’ He passes me the glass. Reluctantly, I take a sip. It is still too sweet. ‘I know what’ll help,’ he says, smiling a luscious smile. He retrieves his jeans and takes a baggie from the pocket. ‘Just a line,’ he says.

‘Ah come on, Joe,’ I say, ‘not that.’

‘It’ll help,’ he says.

He pours out the last of the coke, puts paper over it. He grinds it with a debit card – severely, repeatedly – then racks it. Before offering any to me, he takes two: three left. He makes me lean across him. I do, and then head bent, I – hesitate, staring at the corrugation of crude lines stretched out like those London streets, except that these streets are white, not grey, and if I shut my eyes, I find myself imagining that Joe is at their end. Palms open, eyes wide, he has the mien of a ghost. But it is not the ghost of himself. In fact, I am certain that it is my ghost, and it beckons with a finger curled like the human jaw.

I take a line. Two left. I do not think we will buy more tonight. It is true that coke funds itself, but as with everything, there is a limit.

As soon as I am back lying next to him, Joe says, ‘You ever broken anything?’ He sniffs once, twice.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Like, a bone or something?’

‘I broke my toe as a kid, playing football.’

‘You played football?’

‘I stopped.’

‘Why?’

‘I kissed a boy.’

He smiles. ‘That makes sense.’

‘You?’ I say. ‘Ever break anything?’ He raises a knee to his chest, places a hand on his shin. I think, you have broken something, but you’re going to lie about it.

‘No, never,’ he says. ‘Not even a toe.’ The knee stays put. He takes a drink – a gulp. I want to say, why did you ask me then, if you didn’t want to be asked back? But I don’t say it: so much of speech is lost like this, thought of and never said, a library of omitted things. I pull the duvet across my calves.

‘Maybe you broke the glass,’ I say.

He looks at me. ‘You can’t know that,’ he says, fast, as if trying to fly from the accusation. Then he says: ‘Suppose it was you. Go on, suppose. Not me, you.’ He laughs, a wrinkle of his lips. ‘A broken toe, now a broken glass,’ he says. ‘What next? My toe?’

‘I wouldn’t know how.’

‘I’m sure it’s easy,’ he snaps. ‘Is there anything else you’d like to break?’

I glance at his room. ‘It all looks broken already.’

‘Then why are you still here?’

I tug the duvet up to my chest. Neither of us speaks. Joe rolls a cigarette, and the bed carries each of his motions to me. Through it, I feel the bend of his arm as he replaces the Rizlas, I feel the curve of his thigh as he leans for the lighter: it’s as if I too am making these motions. Is it reciprocal: were I to move, would he also feel it, as if he were moving as well? If I leant into him, would this sinewy echo compel him to follow? Or would it ricochet from him, to soundlessly falter and fail?

‘I’m sorry,’ I say eventually.

‘S’alright,’ he says, and reaches out a hand. He smiles. I take it.

‘Maybe I did break the glass,’ I say; and now I am sure that I did not.

We share the cigarette he rolled. The cocaine I took jerks at me. What it wants is to coat my scalp. I let it, as if I have a choice; and there: a quickening, a change of the world so that colours are now imminent, intimate; a change that insists on itself, as it pushes against my eye. Objects are still inside their edges – one line is of no real consequence, if, frequently, you’re having cocaine for breakfast – but I am tired, and I am hungover, and so: those edges are shaking. The walls, for example, they rattle like the bars of a cage. What they want is to be free.

Joe looks at me, smiles. ‘Feel better?’

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Thanks.’

It’s true, I do feel, if not exactly better, then … more at peace, the peace you seek and find when in amity with another.

‘Told you,’ he says.

We are lying face to face now. The coke, the vodka, the tiredness, they burnish the colours of his skin. They make it keener, like a whetted blade. Then – sudden, silent, fast, like the beat of a wing – he spirits the duvet up, to encase our heads.

‘There,’ he says. ‘Even better.’

‘I used to do this as a kid,’ I say.

‘Me too,’ he says. ‘To hide from my dad.’

‘Yeah, I think I was hiding too.’

‘From what?’

‘I can’t remember.’ The truth is, I can remember exactly.

We’re both quiet then, and the world, his room, are disappeared. In their place: his eyes, his eyes and the intuition of a spectral body, tapering toward night. The spilt sugar is gone. The shaking walls are gone. Our walls, now, are flush against our skin, as if nothing is left of the world but our own bodies’ length, and in the dimness, the nearness, of this world reduced, our lips brush, and they brush open tenderness.

I don’t know how long we remain in our half-world. It is like time has paused, to be at one with the dead. But I do know that in the dark middle of Joe’s eye, for a moment, I see a curl of myself, reflected. Then he shuts his eyes, as if to make that curl his own.

Then he says, ‘There’s something in my foot.’

He is briefly and perfectly still.

Then in one action, he tosses the duvet up, back and to the floor, and stares at his foot. A shard of glass is stuck in his ankle. ‘That’s not good,’ he says, laughing: the cocaine must be deadening the pain. ‘Actually, that’s fucking awful.’ He is laughing still but keeps looking at the shard. Perhaps he is daring it to hurt. Suddenly he leans forward, extracts it, and throws it with a deep violence of motion into the bin. Two drops of blood leak from the wound. They stain his sheet.

‘Why didn’t you clean up properly?’ he says. He isn’t looking at me, he is looking at his injured foot, and he is no longer laughing. His voice is flat, like levelled rock. His arms are shaking.

‘I must have missed it,’ I say.

‘Obviously.’

‘Here,’ I say, passing him the cloth. ‘Wipe it up with this.’

‘It’s covered in vodka,’ he says, in a voice that’s been wrestled to a whisper. ‘It’ll sting like fuck.’

‘Fine, I’ll get you a different one.’

In the kitchen, I pick up a clean cloth then put it aside. I pick up another: let’s say it is clean, let’s say that the stains are purely decorative. Inside their edges, the walls are rattling.

To steady myself, I rest a hand on a worktop. That hand disappears inside the Formica; it acquires the veined marble effect, as if it too is made of faux stone. But the Formica also acquires the pallor of my skin. I leave the hand in place, watching these variations of flesh and thick melamine, then I look out, at the London streets, and imagine I can see my flat. I can’t, of course, it’s miles away, and the streets are dark and it’s raining, black water slicing up the sky; and the streets – still – are human fingers, but this evening they appear to be joined, their skin bled together, a union of interlocked bone, a harmony of ligaments cawing in the night. Is it the rain? Is that what’s unifying them: how it falls alike on each street, how it abrades each difference? Or is it the coke, the vodka, the tiredness? Or is it something else?

In the bedroom, I throw the cloth to Joe. He is calmer now but one of the two remaining lines is gone, as is the lion’s share of the vodka. He dabs at his foot, at the sheet. The bloodstain won’t come out. ‘If you hadn’t broken –’

‘For fuck’s sake,’ I say, ‘can you just leave it?’

He meets my eye and keeps it in his gaze. His own eyes widen. He says, ‘Let’s put it back together.’

‘What?’

‘The glass,’ he says. ‘I want to put it back together.’

‘Why?’

Silent, without even a glance at me, he retrieves the pieces. His earlier fear is gone. It’s as if something has deprived the glass of its acuity, or as if a more vital urge has him in its grip. Pale-crested foam from the fairy lights seems to soften his crags with spray.

He lays out the four pieces next to the shard that cut him, still edged with his blood.

‘Got any glue?’ I ask.

‘Don’t need it,’ he says.

He takes the ashtray and makes a well. Cigarette ends spill over the bed, leaving small trails of ash, a charred echo of the smoke that seeped from them when they burned. He settles in the pieces from the glass’s base, packing ends around them. He rests the other pieces in their places. The rebuilt glass holds. But it does not seem like a glass filigreed by fractures; it seems like fractures that just happen to be encased in glass, as if they – not the material that carries them – are the crux of the object, at once broken, at once intact. There is a gap – gently, he slides the shard in. The fractures disappear, almost, inside the glass’s hollowness, but that line of blood is still there, halfway up: an eye, sewn shut. ‘Now it doesn’t matter who broke it,’ he says.

Is this a peace offering, this statuette of what’s been broken; is it an outstretched hand?

I get into bed. Joe decants the rest of the vodka, adds sugar. Together, we finish it, and share the remaining coke.

Then everything becomes subtly, pleasantly unreal; then everything threads itself through the drug’s antithetical eye: its slow speeding up of the world, its sluggish fastness.

‘Feeling it?’ I say.

‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘everything’s gone good.’ And as he speaks, the walls slip their edges. They fall back, receding so far as to nearly disappear, as if they envelop the world, but at the same time, they draw close, half an inch from my face, softly insisting on their nearness. It’s like an ocean’s tide translated into geometry, the wash of waves and the splash, the breakers, the spitting crests, all rendered as a ferment of paint and plaster, a calm riot of surface and sheer verticality. I am lucid for this: that is the conceit of cocaine, a change of speed, a change of sight, but with rationality (more or less) maintained. The rebuilt glass watches over us, with its shut eye. It seems to grant a license to whatever we do, it seems to say: any injury you cause, it can be repaired.

But just like Joe did, it is lying.

We are out of vodka now, out of coke. We talk amiably for who knows how long – ten minutes, two hours? – and then tiredness washes in with the walls.

‘Let’s go to sleep,’ I say.

He hesitates, his body stops: a valley of stillness in a restless room, a stain of inertia; but ruts score his forehead. Then he jerks round to me, says, ‘You won’t sleep.’

‘I’d still like to –’

‘There’s no point.’

‘– have a go.’

‘We need more vodka,’ he says. ‘That corner shop might still be open. Maybe I can find a tenner, so d’you …’ He pauses. ‘I’ll go, if you want.’

‘You’re not listening,’ I say. ‘I don’t want to drink. I just want to sleep.’

‘Why?’

‘I just do, alright?’

‘But I’ve offered to go get the vodka.’

‘What’s the point?’ I say. ‘You’ll only spill it everywhere.’

A pause, then, ‘Why don’t you just piss off?’

‘Nothing would make me happier.’

I get out of bed. The coke’s effects have lessened a little – we must have talked for some time – but the room is still at sea: the walls still slide from distance to vicinity, and the heap of clothes, from which I’m trying to pick out my boxers, now writhes.

Out of nowhere, Joe says, ‘Stay.’

‘Sorry,’ I say, ‘not going to happen. I’m off home.’

‘No.’

‘Yes.’

‘Wait.’

He rises to his knees: naked, his eyes cold. I keep searching for my clothes among his, but I meet his eye; and as the walls draw in, he passes something to me along the line of his gaze, something that is like a plea. Then he leans, turns, falls to all fours. His pale buttocks face me, his head is by the rebuilt glass. His balls, his dick, hang between his legs, like a dog’s.

‘What’re you doing?’

He doesn’t answer, just takes the bag of sugar in his hand. He creases the corner then – delicately, cautiously – shakes out a line where the lines of coke were. He doesn’t grind it.

I think, at first, that it is a joke. But then I understand that it isn’t.

‘Come on, Joe,’ I say. ‘What’s this about?’

‘It’s an apology, idiot. Isn’t that what you want?’

I don’t say a word.

He declines his head. A slow drop, inch by inch. He rolls tight the paper we’ve been using in place of a rolled note. The rustle of it, the screech. The walls rush in: they obliterate his room. Now, I can’t see the room, I can’t see myself. I can barely see Joe. What I can see is the string of unground sugar crystals. Their coarseness, their striations. Their tiny saw-tooth serrations, like streets of powdered glass, of which I’m sure he was so scared. He places a finger over one nostril, settles the paper inside the other. Then he puts the paper at the start of the sugar line. I watch, do nothing. A pause, as elongated as that street of glass, and then he inhales it all in a single sharp sniff. He throws the paper to the floor, leans back. His body trembles, shudders. The things we will endure, to feel the touch of another.

He turns to me. His eyes are fattened by tears and one nostril is a fierce crimson, vein-cracked and livid, lacerated by sweetness. All colour has fled from his body to reside solely in that nostril: it sheds a drop of blood, while the rest of him is as pale as a ghost. He wipes at his nose and leaves the residue smeared between the clenched knuckles of a fist. Then he reclines on his bed, head against the pillow, legs wide. The walls wash in and wash out. When one touches the side of his bed, it snatches at his shadow, unfastens it from him; the shadow slips away, to nestle on the sheet with those other stains, those other shadows. He smiles. In his head, he knows he has done enough.

‘Joe,’ I say, ‘what was that?’

‘An apology.’

Shaking my head, I say, ‘I mean, like … Look, I’m sorry, it was just too weird. I’m still gong home.’

‘What?’

‘Seriously,’ I say. ‘What do you expect me to do?’

‘To stay.’

‘I’m not going to.’

‘Alright,’ he says, ‘that’s fine.’ He is still, but then his hand darts out. He grasps the rebuilt glass. He picks it up. Then with a sleek liquidity of motion, he hurls it toward me. I duck, but there is no need: the glass dismantles itself in mid-air. Like a scattering of sugar crystals caught in the breeze, the four pieces and the shard cut separate paths across the room. I turn to watch them. The four pieces clatter against the walls, the shard does not even make it that far. But under my tired and watchful eyes, all of them sink harmlessly down, to the soft expectant carpet. I do not turn back to him.

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