Rooftops and Other High Places

Design by Jack Reed

“How did you get into this?” 

“What, rooftops?” he responded, glancing at me out of the corner of his eyes. He was deftly rolling a joint, folding frayed edges of notebook paper with spidery fingers. A drunk moon lurched across the desert sky above us, shards of moonlight illuminating the boy’s pale visage next to me. We had been talking for hours in an altered state of consciousness, sentences winding like tumbleweeds across our decomposing minds, beginnings pouring into endings. To get up here, we had to climb through an unblocked ventilation shaft, past the spinning rotors of the cooling system, and up the rungs of a rusting ladder that beckoned death with every misstep. 

Smoke curls into his hair and his shoulder blades are sharp against his threadbare cotton shirt, jutting out like angel’s wings. He tells me that roofs are his escape from the burden of expectation, from a reality that haunts his waking nightmares. He grew up in a haphazard complex of domino apartment buildings, where the cracked paint perpetually peeled from the walls, aluminum foil stretched over the torn wire screens of postmark-sized windows, and the shattering rumble of passing trains shook the cheap crystal-encrusted chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. It was a slumped, dirty town, an eyesore of crumbling rooftops tangled between glutinous ribbons of interstate and reeking gas stations where men with rough beards and calloused hands wiped the grease of sticky burgers and fries on their sooty overalls. An endless landscape of trailer parks and uneven tar roadways, rusted water and bitter, stinging smog. A place so insignificant that it wasn’t even marked in the maps illustrating this God-forsaken land. A place where nomads would stop, maybe, for a day. But never stay for longer than that. And certainly never live. 

Unless, that is, you were born there, like he was. A hateful father, a sick mother, and a useless drunk of a brother left him the full responsibility of caring for his sister. She was the youngest, her cloudless eyes still untainted by the cynicism of a working-class life. She had sun-stained freckled skin with a spiky bob of strawberry blonde hair she tied back with a velvet ribbon. It would tangle into frizzy curls in the sticky humidity of the summer heat, spreading across her shoulders and falling almost to the hem of her faded blue jeans. When the blushing innocence of youth transitioned into angled lines of maturity on her face, he took her to the top of a nearby water tower, a tall iron chess piece amid a checkerboard of parchment-yellow fields and molding wooden farmhouses. The metal hinges of the trapdoor creaked as their legs dangled above the inky desert below, the last vestiges of light dribbling from the harsh sliver of the horizon. Up here, no one could see them. Up here, no one could follow them. It was the only taste of the so-called American Dream that would ever touch their lips. 

Three years later and 5,956 miles away, above the glittering roofs of the den of vice and iniquity that Vienna has become, tendrils of heat curve from my throat to the rest of my body as I sip from a bottle of spiced cinnamon liquor. As I slide it to the other end of the circle, the glass bottle clinks on the floor amid the lull in conversation. Seven kids sit cross-legged, dispelling the lonely hours in a dreamless, hot summer night. We pass the bottle between lips like a lifeline, romanticizing the end of summer, our minds forming a collective unconscious as I whip spades and hearts and clubs and diamonds through the honeyed air. Far removed from the rotting monotony of the world below us, we watch as the lights of a murderous city swallow mere mortals in the vacuous tedium of routine. Up here, we are gods, hellbent on reaching Eden, arrogant and lonely, deciding we will never die. We are manic, immortal, stupid, and cocky, dancing together on the rooftop of an ivory tower not meant for us. 

In the transitory months—the state of aimless existence, really—between high school and college, I passed  time in a daze of pounding music and basement parties, tear-filled farewells and gentle afternoons reading romance novels as the sweet red juice of strawberries trickled down my chin and sunrays danced through the thick green canopy. Two weeks before I was gone for good and a week before ragged scarlet welts began to stripe her thighs, my best friend and I sat on the edge of the tunnel overpass above Interstate 10, munching on waffles drenched in maple syrup. Lana del Rey’s Ultraviolence played on our shared headphones, crunches mingled with static audio. We were two girls stuck in the molasses of a whitewashed suburb in middle class America—soccer camp and church choir, bowling alleys and stale pizza, apron-clad housewives who cooked meatloaf and mashed potatoes for beer-bellied husbands. Resting my head on her shoulder, my eyes traced the road stretching to the blurry horizon as the cars dragged below us, the midday sun refracting through tarnished windshields. I licked a smudge of whipped cream from her nose, and in that sliver of a moment when our eyes met, it seemed like the endless hazy sky would devour her whole.

 “So… I heard you had your first kiss…” I whispered. She leaned in to make out the sound of my lilting voice amid the droning of the metal cartridges staining the air a rubbery black below us. “What was it like?” She swallowed roughly, and I could feel her pounding heart struggling to escape her chest like a caged bird beating its wings. 

“It wasn’t…real.” She deflated into my chest, wetness beginning to form in the corner of her glassy eyes. 

“What do you mean?” I held her fragile frame as she turned her gaze up toward me. 

“Not like… when I’m with you.” 

In the stunned, fragile silence that followed, I realized that I held her soul on the tip of my bittersweet tongue. But then, for some inexplicable reason, a cruel laugh broke across my metallic lips, and the words practically forced themselves out of me: “What the hell are you talking about?” 

Half a year later, I lie on the sloped ridge of another roof, heart fluttering in my ribcage as an icy wind presses my unclothed body against the grainy concrete. The supposed maturity of college makes me bold. My companion’s hot breath steams above my eyelashes as he gently kisses the hard line of my collarbone, and I trace circles over the arc of his palm’s lifeline, holding him close as the time trickles into morning and streaks of dawn materialize in the washed-out sky. In the slippery paleness of the winter sunrise, we are photographs caught in an endless moment, polaroids crisping black at the edges as the shadowy curtain of darkness folds into day. We are plastic and timeless, moths drawn to the flame of adrenaline, intoxicated by the fire of violent, reckless love that crushes our mouths together and melts our bodies into one. 

“How did you get into this?” he asks, his hand molding into mine as I stare at my breathless reflection mirrored in his eyes. 

“What, rooftops?” I respond, a small smirk tugging at the corners of my mouth.

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