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Absolute Amateurs

Nineteen years old.

I move in with a girl I’ve known less than a year. We are students. The girl is tall, blond, and a whole lot smarter than me. We rent the only place we can afford: a dingy gray stucco one-bedroom affair in a low-income-housing building in Edgewater Beach. We live in a pair of dim rooms on the 19th floor and pay 400 bucks to the Serbian landlords every month. One week after we move in, we find a used syringe lying in the hallway. We walk past it quickly. Down the hall, we notice a sign has been taped to our neighbor’s door: “The drug dealers don’t live here anymore.” People still show up at all hours and knock, trying their luck. We just turn our radio up. One night I hear something crying in the stairwell and go out to find three mice, still alive, stuck in a glue trap. The sound they make as they struggle to escape gives voice to the way we imagine everyone feels living in that building.

These young lovers do not fare so well when summer comes. The heat makes the two rooms feel smaller than they are. We argue about where I go alone at night. Our fights get interrupted by the sound of other couples arguing. We can’t compete with the way these people howl, wail, and smash things that have been bought at the lousy dollar stores on our street. We cannot afford an air conditioner, so we sit around in our underwear, listening to the sounds of other lovers breaking up.

Which is when we discover the lake. It has been here all this time, but it has been too cold, and we have been too busy working at bad restaurants and going to school to notice. Each afternoon of the summer, we walk down to the lakefront, hurrying across Sheridan Road. We tread our way along the dark gray rocks, and—in the midst of a number of sad-faced apartment buildings, old high-rises that, like their wrinkled inhabitants, have seen better days—we uncover a secret.

There is a beach here, in the middle of all this distress, in the middle of all this urban gloominess, right off Thorndale Avenue: the great blue and gray and gold lake, a small stretch of white and yellow sand, and a few rocks—perfect for when the water gets too cold and you want to lie down and dry off and maybe try and hold hands. The elderly residents of these old high-rises, in loud cabana shirts and beige shorts, wearing black socks and brown sandals, stroll out from their buildings and sit on the benches, staring off into the enormousness of the lake. Once or twice, we see a couple—a man and his wife, octogenarians for sure—whispering to each other, sharing a sandwich. We stare at them, at the lake, at our awful apartment building in the distance, and then at each other, and realize we are absolute amateurs at almost everything.

 

Joe Meno is the author of Hairstyles of the Damned and three other novels.

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