This was the seventh time in nine days.
Fritz sat on the edge of the rooftop of his dorm building, hiccups impeding his breathing. He was drunk and dehydrated. He tried to spit, but the dryness of his mouth caused the spit to dribble down his chin instead. Fritz was more successful in his second attempt, as he watched the spit travel six stories down to the sidewalk and splatter on the concrete. Chestnut, the street in front of him, was empty; no one saw Fritz sitting on top of the building, a bottle of Yeungling in his right hand, his black cell phone in his left. Among the people who didn’t know he was sitting out there were the workers of the dorm café, who had shut the café down for the evening but forgot to clear out the rooftop patio, where Fritz had sat alone in the dark to wait for them to leave. After he had seen the lights go off and heard the door close behind the last worker, Fritz climbed over the fence separating the patio from the edge of the roof and sat down on the side facing north.
It was February, and the Philadelphia wind blowing on his back was freezing. Goosebumps appeared on the parts of Fritz’s neck that his blue, light jacket didn’t cover, and he sneezed once; twice; three times. The tears from the sneezing blurred his vision, but he could make out in his periphery the outline of a broken traffic signal on the street that flashed fuzzy, red light. Fritz rubbed his eyes and wondered how long it took for the repairmen to notice the broken signal emitting red flashes. Fritz shrugged and downed another cold sip from his bottle.
It wasn’t the schoolwork that had gotten to him, and it wasn’t his grades, either. He wasn’t troubled by being turned down by the last four girls he had asked out, and he was okay with taking out a loan this semester to pay for his textbooks. All those things would work out in the end, Fritz told himself; the key was to stay strong, to not show any signs of weakness.
Fritz dangled his feet in the air, very much aware what would happen were he to push himself off the building with his hands. Or was he? He thought about what it would feel like to race through the air, free falling at nine-point-eight meters per second, and to end up in a heap of meat and fading consciousness. What would it feel like, Fritz wondered, and what would happen afterwards? Would people notice his body right away, or would it take an hour, two hours, perhaps until next morning, for someone to come across his pale, broken body? Fritz shivered, and took another sip of beer.
The last time Fritz heard from his best friend was three weeks ago. Jacob, who attended college on the other side of the country in Oregon, mentioned to Fritz how busy he had been with his courses, applying for internships, and dealing with his on-again, off-again relationship with his girlfriend. She had cheated on Jacob, and Jacob had cheated on her, and Fritz had advised Jacob to take the drama out of his life and leave her for good.
“Look, Fritz, I know, man,” Jacob had said, “but pussy is power.” They both laughed at that.
They had known each other since freshman year in high school, ever since they played against each other on the first day of chess club. Fritz recalled how he had used the Sicilian Dragon as black, and how Jacob looked up at him and called him an ass. They played during recess and after class every day for four years after that. Though Fritz was happy for Jacob to attend a school like Reed College, he missed the days of sitting across from each other in the stuffy, temporary classroom, Room 341, as the game clock ticked towards zero. Fritz had called him four, five times since the last time they spoke, but the calls either went straight to Jacob’s voicemail, or Jacob would pick up, only to tell Fritz that he couldn’t talk right now and that he would call Fritz back later. Jacob never did call back, but Fritz was happy just to hear his voice for a couple of seconds.
Fritz took off one of his gloves and dialed Jacob’s number. It went to voicemail, as expected. Tonight was a Saturday, anyway. He texted Jacob asking if he had a minute, even though he knew that Jacob wouldn’t respond anytime soon. So it goes, mumbled Fritz, and put his glove back on. As he did so, he noticed a cockroach, poking its head from the side of the generator three feet away. Fritz smiled and waved. The cockroach remained still except to wiggle its antennas in a figure eight.
If someone were to see me right now, Fritz thought, I would look pretty stupid; here I am, getting drunk alone and interacting with a cockroach on a Saturday evening. But then again, he argued, the cockroach acknowledged him. It knew Fritz was there, and it responded to him to let Fritz know his presence meant something to the cockroach, even if it saw him as a threat.
“They can call me a dumbass, but we’re buds, right, cockroach? We’re not so different, you and I.” The cockroach scuttled away.
“No, we’re not so different, you and I,” said Fritz in the direction of where the cockroach disappeared. “What did Nietzsche say about clever beasts? – ‘Clever beasts had to die.’ We’re a tiny speck of dirt on a single grain of sand in a boundless desert, and both you and I, cockroach and human, are going down after nature takes a few breaths, whether we like it or not.” The cockroach said nothing. Fritz continued.
“I have a question for you, cockroach: are we insignificant because of how little we are in this vast, ever-expanding universe, or are we significant because we recognize the sheer vastness of the things out there and our relative insignificance in the big picture? Are you, cockroach, and me as worthless as each other, or am I at least a shade better than you, because at least I know”—Fritz flung his empty bottle at the generator—“I know what a worthless, insignificant piece of shit I am?” The cockroach politely declined to comment.
Fritz knew what had gotten to him during his time in college. It was spending nights alone, lying in bed wide-awake because he couldn’t find people with whom he clicked. He didn’t know what he wanted out of college while everyone else knew exactly what they were doing, or pretended they did, and he was tired of feeling lost. He would listen to others, even if he didn’t know them very well, but never got around to letting his guard down. That would be showing vulnerability, and, – Fritz chuckled – he knew he couldn’t do that. Fritz lowered his gaze, away from the northern city lights in distance, towards the street below his feet.
Fritz clenched the edge of the building and pushed off ever so slightly so that his butt left the concrete of the rooftop for half a second and came back down. The temperature was colder than it was twenty minutes ago, but dark patches appeared under his armpits and beads of sweat formed on the crease of his forehead. The red light from the traffic signal continued to blink and an ambulance wailed in the distance.
Fritz’s phone began to vibrate in his hand; his dad was calling him. Fritz stared at the phone for a couple of seconds before picking it up.
“Hey, Dad. Yeah. I’m doing well. Yeah. Yeah. No, I’m taking it easy tonight to work on some stuff. Just a paper I’ve got coming up in a couple of weeks, shouldn’t be bad. How’s mom doing? Oh, she’s there? Hey, Mom. Yeah. Yeah. No, it’s not too cold. Well, maybe compared to there it’s cold. Yeah, I’ll tell her I said that. No, everything’s fine. I’m doing well. How’re you doing? Yeah? That sounds fun, we should go there when I come back for the summer. Mhm. He wants the phone back? Okay, love you, Mom. Hey Dad. Yeah. Mhm. Yeah, I’m looking forward to this semester. I think I’ll be fine. How’re things with you? Right. Well, that’s good. Can’t complain, huh? Yeah. Yeah. Sure, just call me back when you’re done. Sounds good. Love you, Dad. What? Yeah, of course I’ll let you know if anything’s wrong. I love you, too. Thinking about you guys.”
Fritz stood up after hanging up the phone, and peered over the edge of the building. He looked around the rooftop, spying the shattered beer bottle, and took a deep breath. He felt intoxicated, he felt loose, he closed his eyes. Fritz thought about the conversation he just had and began to hum “Midnight Special.”
The traffic signal was fixed the next day. The shards of the Yeungling bottle next to the generator remained untouched.