A Conversation on a Rooftop


It must’ve been 4AM when I woke up, though I cannot attest to the truth of this with any certainty. It was still dark out, that much I could see from my window, and I was in a cold sweat – my pillow had been soaked to an uncomfortable degree. I’m not even sure what stirred me from my otherwise sound slumber. I couldn’t recollect any part of whatever dream I had been having, and I may as well have not been dreaming at all. Dreaming – that’s something you do when you’re younger, before the world makes a marionette of you. Yeah, I remember when I dreamt. It wasn’t all that long ago, hell, seven years at most. But time is funny…
                I extended my hand haphazardly in the darkness of my bedroom, searching for the light switch. No sense in going back to sleep. It wasn’t going to happen any time soon. I felt around the wall for a moment or two before the little plastic protrusion was against my index finger, and I flicked the switch. The room was illuminated and the familiar shapes of my furniture began to take shape as my eyes adjusted to these new conditions. From my spot on the bed, I opened the top drawer of my night table and found my little plastic baggy of reefer, which by now was only about half full. When one smokes grass, one is almost always an optimist about one’s stash. Any day where you have any left is a good day after all. I’ve never heard a stoner complain that he only had a quarter of his purchase left.
                Well, anyway, I pulled a nice sized nugget from the bag, broke it apart into smaller pieces and ground them up, rolled myself a nice joint which I tucked behind my ear, found a pack of cigarettes on my dresser (Also half full – when it comes to cigarettes, one is almost always a pessimist) and climbed the fire escape to the roof. My apartment was on the third floor of some rat’s nest downtown, but up on the roof, I had a perfect view of the sky and the neighborhood. It justified the squalor to which I subjected myself on a daily basis. I worked second shift at a warehouse. We packaged books for various mail order services and shipped them out to the places they needed to go. The pay was absolute shit, but there were some perks – namely the employee store where we’d get first dibs on the overstock. You could walk out with 5 or 6 brand new books and it wouldn’t cost you more than $20. All in all, it wasn’t a bad gig. The work required almost no thought, so my mind had 8 hours to focus on other things, and it was a gig that I didn’t have to take home with me. And when overtime was necessary, we got paid for it. I had friends who had actually finished college and went on to work office gigs, but almost all of them complained about having to stay late to finish reports, sometimes working 12 to 14 hours at a time, and constantly having to think about their jobs even after they got home. I don’t envy them.
                I breathed in deep, the smell of humidity and wet and late summer flooding my nostrils and rushing into my lungs, seeping into my blood, and coursing through me. It was a smell that I found comforting. It was the smell of long drives without a destination, bonfires and barbeques, skinny dipping in motel swimming pools after they’ve locked the gates, and lying in the grass and gazing up at the drifting clouds because what else are you going to do? Sweat began to congregate on my forehead. I wiped it away with my forearm.
                Aside from the grumble of an occasional passing car, all was quiet. The town was asleep, a deep sleep, readying itself for the day ahead, for the inevitable onslaught of work and errands looming on the other side of sunrise. I thought about lighting up that joint, but decided against it. I’ll save it for when the sun comes up, I thought. In the meantime, I lit up a cigarette, and stood there like a prince surveying his territory – haughty and contented.
                I’m not sure how much time had passed but it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes because my cigarette was only half finished. I heard someone else coming up the fire escape to the roof. So much for my moment of peaceful alone time. I took a drag of my cigarette. I exhaled softly so the smoke waltzed from between my lips into the night air.
“Do you have a smoke?” I heard a voice from behind me. Female, sounded younger, colored with grogginess. I turned around. Before me was a girl, probably no older than 20. I assumed she was enrolled at the local college. She was pretty enough – strawberry blonde hair that was slightly mussed without appearing completely haggard, heart shaped face, eyes that wanted to give the impression of having everything figured out but betraying the slightest youthful fear that goes along with being in that part of life where you find yourself in a relatively new place and the future is riddled with possibilities. She was wearing an oversized My Bloody Valentine t-shirt that came down to just slightly above her knees, and flip flops.
“Yeah,” I said, handing her a fresh cigarette. I offered her my lighter, which she accepted with a nod of her head. She lit the cigarette and returned my lighter.
“Thank you,” she said as a tiny smile broke her face.
“Don’t mention it,” I said, and returned my gaze to the sky.
“So how long have you lived in the building? I’ve never seen you around before,” she said as she took a drag.
“Me? 5 years, give or take.”
“Wow, that long? Are you from here originally?”
“Nah,” I finished my cigarette and flicked it down onto the street below, “I came here from upstate for college.”
“Really? I came here from North Carolina for that exact same reason. Are you still in school?” She asked and I laughed.
“No way. I’m going to be 28 in a few weeks. Besides, I dropped out anyway.”
“28? Wouldn’t have guessed any more than 22.”
“Well, thank you, that’s quite flattering. Name’s Gregory, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you, Gregory. I’m Tracey.” We were silent for a time, the two of us just looking out over the roof at the sky and the other buildings, each in our own little reverie. She was smoking her cigarette in a hurried fashion, one arm folded across her stomach, glancing in every direction. Clearly this girl was stressing over something or other.
“Tracey, do you smoke grass?”
“Huh?” She looked at me quizzically. I indicated the joint behind my ear.
“Oh! Well, I don’t do it too terribly often, but I don’t see any reason right now why I can’t…” She trailed off. I stuck the joint between my lips, sparked it, and graciously inhaled the vapors.
“You just seemed a bit stressed is all,” I explained as I exhaled. I passed her the joint.
“Yeah, maybe a little bit.” She sighed and turned her gaze toward some imperceptible point in the distance, as if scouring the rooftops and the sky for the answers to whatever questions she was facing.
“So you’re a student here?” I asked, trying to make casual conversation, “What year?”
“This will be my junior year after the break,” she replied, still staring into the distance.
“That’s about when I decided to drop out. What’s your major?”
“Fashion Design,” she replied tersely, but then added “I may change it. I don’t even know yet.”
“Why’s that?” I inquired, starting to wonder whether or not it was acceptable to pry into a person’s affairs in such a manner.
“Well, I mean… When I was a freshman, it seemed like a cool idea, you know?” She paused to take a hit from the joint, then resumed, “It just something that I was into. I had these little fantasies of having my own clothing line, just being a big name in the world of fashion.”
“And you aren’t into it now?”
“In a way, I guess… I feel like I’m starting to move into a different place – mentally, I mean – than when I was 18. Like, I still enjoy it, but I don’t feel like this is something I want to base the rest of my life around. It’s sort of lost that initial allure, that mysticism, with the more I learn. But it’s like… I’ve already put so much time into it, and now it’s my junior year. I’m practically on the home stretch.”
“That’s understandable,” I reasoned, “Tuition certainly isn’t getting any cheaper… Maybe you’re just in a slump. You just need to think about what drew you to this path in the first place.”
“I suppose that’s true. It seemed exciting I guess. Fast-paced. Glamorous. I wanted to leave my mark on the world. And I still do.”
“The very fact that you exist is your mark on the world.”
“I said the very fact that you exist is your mark on the world,” I said again and took another hit of the joint. I was sufficiently high by now, and the sun was just beginning its ascent. The whole sky was flooded pink, like a girl blushing after you tell her she’s beautiful.
“I guess…” Tracey sighed. I offered her the joint, but she declined. I put it out on the edge of the roof and kept the remainder in my pocket. No sense in wasting it.
“What I’m trying to say,” I went on, struggling to organize my thoughts in a way that would have meaning outside of my head, “is that you’re here in the world, and every time you interact with somebody else in the world, you leave your mark on them. You leave an impression. Even when you aren’t interacting with another person, you leave an impression. You step out onto the street and you leave a mark. Nobody can take that from you. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“I do, I do… I just want to leave a slightly more meaningful legacy.”
“Your life is as meaningful as you want it to be.” We both stared out from the rooftop for a while. The townsfolk were slowly beginning their morning routine, beginning with a hum and slowly focusing itself into a symphony. 
“So why did you drop out?” She asked after a while. I lit up another cigarette.
“A lot of reasons really,” I sighed, “I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t all that devoted to my academic pursuits in the first place. I spent more time at parties than I did in the classroom…”
“I hear that!”
“Yeah. And… I dunno… I always felt as if getting a degree and respectable career didn’t factor into my definition of happiness. I mean, I feel like it’s what people expect out of you when you grow up, but I’ve never wanted to buy a house or raise a family or anything like that. These just seem like things that would hold me back from doing the things that I want to do.”
“And what do you want to do?”
“Today I want to go to work, then maybe meet some friends at the bar, have a few drinks to celebrate the beginning of the weekend. Perhaps later we’ll meet up at someone’s house and smoke a little bit, watch a movie or talk. Who knows.”
“I meant in the grand scheme of things,” Tracey laughed, “Say, can I bum another smoke from you?”
“Sure,” I replied, handing her a cigarette and my lighter, “As far as the grand scheme goes… I haven’t figured that part out yet. I’m still young. I’ve got plenty of life left to figure that part out. I like to keep my options open, you know?”
“I see what you’re saying.” She smiled. We finished our cigarettes in silence, casually observing the growing swarm of activity below.
                This is my favorite place of all, the roof of that rundown apartment building. From that vantage point, you feel as if nothing can touch you. You watch everyone else going about their daily business, the business that all of us take so seriously, the business by which we define ourselves, our jobs and our errands, interactions and responsibilities; suddenly it all just seems so silly as you look down from your little perch. You’re above all the mess, removed from all the noise. And it seems in that moment that the whole spectacle is unfolding solely for your amusement. It is amusing after all, almost farcical; that is, until you go back down into the mess, because, invariably, the mess will pull you back in.  Then it becomes life. You go back to fighting and struggling and striving for something. Happiness? That’s a name for it, I guess. We all have our own idea of how to achieve happiness, but can any of us actually give a clear definition of what happiness is? Maybe it’s the fight itself, not the result. I can’t say. What I do know, is that every now and again, it’s good to find a high place to sit, and just observe. 


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