Romantic love is a mental illness. But it's a pleasurable one. It's a drug. It distorts reality, and that's the point of it. It would be impossible to fall in love with someone that you really saw.
Neil was sprawled out on the couch, asleep, with three burned-out cigarettes jammed in his mouth. There was an empty bottle of whiskey tucked into the crook of his elbow.
"Looks like someone had a fun night," Claire said, pulling the whiskey bottle away and plucking the cigarette filters from his slack lips one by one, dropping them into the empty beer cans littered across the floor. Neil gave no signs of being alive aside from the slightest rising of his chest.
Sandra, who was hanging up her coat, shook her head. "That kid's going to burn out if he keeps going like that."
"Jesus, Sandy, be a little more pessimistic," Claire retorted.
"Don't talk shit you don't know about, hon. Look at the kid. He'll be lucky if he last the week."
Without his eyes open, Neil looked a lot younger, a lot softer and more innocent. There was some bronze shadow on his eyelids. He must've gone to the trannie night at the local bar, which, well, Claire wasn't one to judge, especially not a fucked-up coke addict like Neil. She smoothed his sweat-soaked hair away from his forehead.
"I'm going to bed," Sandy said, looking at them both with inscrutable eyes. "I'll see you in the morning, hey honey?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm not going anywhere. Night."
The door creaked behind Sandra, and Claire returned to studying Neil, the strangely vulnerable lines of his throat. Even his tattoos looked paler than usual, no defence for his neck and arms. There was more ink on him, poking through the holes in his worn-out shirt. He was wearing the stupid pants, the black ones with "kings of the road" scratched into the leather patches sewed to the denim, and the chains looping around his skinny hips.
Claire took his pulse. It was still there, which was a relief.
He stirred, blue eyes unfocused slits. "Where'm I?" he slurred, grabbing her by the wrists and trying to look at her. His pupils were dilated and his eyes were freakishly black.
"You're on the couch, asshole," Claire said, prying away his fingers. HOPE was tattooed across his knuckles, which seemed like wishful thinking to her, but maybe it meant something to him. "What did you take?"
He blinked at her for a few seconds, and she could almost see his sluggish mind, choked with drugs and alcohol, struggling to make the connections. Then he sighed. His breath smelled like cheap whiskey and smoke, strong enough to make Claire wince. "Pills," he said. "Some blow. My dealer hooked me up."
"You got any money left to pay him with, baby?"
Neil blinked at her, then reached up and touched her nose. "I remember Los Angeles," he said. "The strip at night. I had a Firebird. What happened to it, do you know?"
Claire shook her head, and he let his hand fall, splaying it out over his face until she could read every knuckle, the shameful word FEAR.
"That was the best car," he muttered. "How did I end up in this shithole?"
"Don't diss the couch you're sleeping on, jackass, it's all you've got going for you right now," she said, and took his pulse again, frowning at how slow it was. "Do you feel okay?"
"Claire," he said, and hummed something. "Claire de Lune. Debussy. It's a piano piece, I think you'd like it if you listened to it, it's good."
"You've had too much to drink," she retorted. "Should I call the ambulance?"
He shook his head, and a stray lock of hair flopped in front of his eyes. Neil had a beautiful face, and eyes like the summer. He looked too perfect to be a junkie. "Stay with me," he said, and inched up a bit, haggard with the effort. Claire sat beside him. The couch, a faux red velvet number that had seen better days, sagged at the addition of her weight. A beer bottle dug into the small of Claire's back, but she didn't want to disturb Neil by fishing for it, and so left it where it was.
Neil was warm and sweaty, and his head was heavy against her shoulder. "You seem pretty messed up, baby," Claire told him, and stroked his hair again, feeling her stomach flutter at the way he looked; fallen angel seemed cliché, but when he was so beautiful and so sad, Claire didn't know how else to think of him.
"I keep missing it," he said. "The feeling. I remember how it used to be, and sometime it's almost like I'm there for a second, but then it ends and I wake up here again."
Claire's throat tightened. "Neil..."
He shifted to look at her, upside-down and cracked open. "I wish you could see it. Back when it was real. I knew all the people and all the songs and everything. You'd like it, I think."
Claire silently stroked his forehead, listening to the whiskey-soaked cadence of his voice.
"But you can't," he said, and closed his eyes, letting his breath stutter from his raw lips. "It's gone now. And I don't want you doing this shit like I am to find it, it's not good for you, it just burns you into ashes and then takes your dust."
"Aren't you the poetic one," she said, just to see a corner of his mouth flinch up in a smile.
He pressed his open lips against the curve of her arm, wet and hot, and she jumped a little. "Jesus Christ, Neil," she said, and shivered.
"You're the only girl I love," he said, low and rumbling. "You come here and sit with me while I'm tripping and you make me coffee in the mornings, and you go on the trains with me when I just want to stop thinking for a while."
"Man, you are as high as shit," she said, ignoring the burn where his mouth had been, forcing down the rush of blood in her cheeks. "If there's a point where you're ever sober and you tell me you love me, I'll believe it."
With a supreme lack of coordination, Neil hoisted himself up and smacked a kiss against her jaw. "I love you," he said, and then collapsed again, like something had cut his strings, head colliding with her thigh.
His eyes were already closing. Claire rested her hand against the tattoo of the shark on his throat, feeling the slow, thick beat of his pulpy heart beneath her fingers. He was full of dried-out dreams, tattoos pinned like dead butterflies to his skin, and all the time she spent fixing parts of him meant he was just breaking down in other places. She traced the red puncture marks on his forearms.
"I love you, too," she said.
There was no answer but the slow stutter of his exhale. Claire sat, listening to the night traffic outside the window, waiting for him to take his next breath.