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Dennis Lives in a New Apartment

Fiction, Billie Chang

Dennis has a tongue piercing and lost the tip of his middle finger two days ago when he’d accidentally stuck half of his digits into the closing door of the train. There was some hot blood and my mouth gaped open in shock for some time after; when the doctor asked what I was to him, my tongue felt like a worm, rumbling from a hole, working to push the word “girlfriend” out. We’d only been on three dates, the last sitting across from one another in a sticky booth, when a fly flew into his drink and he’d stopped speaking to write something down, as though a drowned fly is something of importance. He likes to write in ballpoint. I haven’t read any of his poems. As I wait for him to get stitched, I wonder if this will affect anything; if he will still be able to write with the same pen.

A piece of plastic wrap hangs from the exposed pipe that stretches along the ceiling of Dennis’s apartment. It is so high up that Dennis just leaves it alone, swaying in the AC wind. His place is part of a modern complex, where the walls are made of concrete. Dennis is ten months younger than me, only twenty-five, which means his dad still pays for more than half of his things. In return, Dennis must keep up a large, Andy-Warhol-style canvas painting in the entryway of the apartment; it is a sad-looking picture of his parents and himself, copied and primary-colored four times over. His parents had never divorced, he told me, but they lived in separate cities now, which meant home, for him, was difficult to define. The painting is there, as Mr. Pham puts it so that visitors know that Dennis comes from a loving and together family. 

The first time Dennis invites me over, I’ve just finished shaving my legs. He shows me the painting. I take a short breath and say, “You look ugly in this.” 

Dennis shifts his feet at my bluntness. He has a long torso and so to speak to him, I have to tilt my neck up. When we met at the bar down by my old babysitter’s house, it had been a week since I’d moved back home, into Mom’s. My roommate in the city, Sienna, had given me a chipped bowl when I’d left; she’d found it at the vintage shop and thought the muddy yellow color was something I’d like. I hugged her goodbye and petted her cat once, thinking about how being laid off meant, at least, that I didn’t have to live with a stranger again. Still, re-acclimating into the suburbs was something foreign. I felt like a snake, shedding skin. I approached Dennis first because I liked his shoes and then, his laugh. It was a throaty thing, low but not loud, that made the air feel warm. We had talked about the city, how he knew the names of the streets because he liked geography and had won a map contest, two years in a row when he was in sixth grade and then seventh.

Now, barefoot, he was less bold than he had felt, that night in the bar. He is also at least two inches shorter. 

His hand covers his mouth. “Well. I was 15. Everyone’s ugly at 15.” 

“I don’t like your hair.” I notice that no one is smiling in the picture, either. They are all staring, blank-faced. 

“My mom always cut my hair. Up until I moved out.” 

“When was that?” 

“College. 17. I was young for my grade.” 

“I was old for mine. Had to do kindergarten twice.”

He laughs. It’s a grating sound. “Well, that is a hard grade.” 

I laugh along. Then, quieter, as our breaths trail off, “My dad actually died then.” 

“Oh.” He coughs, then itches his knee, awkwardly, before I can say anything more. 

Dennis’s three-doors-down neighbor, Vicky, has long earrings and works at the roller rink, which is trying something new with live music on Thursdays. The rink sits beside the peeling laser tag place where I had my first kiss, which I remember being hot. I say yes to Dennis when he invites me to the rink. 

Just before the sun sets, my ex-coworker Liliana follows me on Instagram. She was from Boston and would talk often about the smell of wet cobblestone. In the mornings, she’d show me the heel of her boot, complaining about how all the hills in SF were starting to smooth the ridges out. She wasn’t used to walking on an incline. We were not friends, but almost weekly, we’d sit together in silence, side-by-side, eating lunch in the small office break room. She must’ve heard about my move home.

The roller rink is damp and dark, the fold-up stage lit by a disco ball that hangs on a rat-bitten thread. There are maybe ten people and three couples standing around, holding beers and looking down. I wonder, briefly, if this is where the locals come to rot. A band is already playing, but their mic keeps cutting in and out, and they’re determined to keep going, which means the speakers shake every so often with a few seconds of a gruff, off-key voice. The roller rink employees scatter about the wires, trying to fix the sound, their red uniforms bright against the dim light. I can’t tell which one is Vicky. Dennis takes my hand and leads me closer to the stage. 

I see the drummer first. Patrick. His hair is the same as before: sweaty blonde and just past his shoulders. At this sight, I scan my eyes, fast, across the other faces before me. The guitarist is new, but the bassist isn’t. I pull on Dennis’s hand. It feels rough against mine. At the front of the stage is Monty, his lips pressed against the microphone. He looks close to swallowing it. 

“Vicky says they’re better when you’re tipsy,” Dennis yells into my ear. I nod, though it is all coming back to me and I know, from experience, that Vicky is wrong. “He says they play every week. I think they’re local!”

I haven’t told Dennis yet that I grew up here; that technically, I’m local too. “I can get us drinks!” My voice sounds thin.

“Nah. We’re late already. I don’t want to miss their set!” At this, he wraps an arm around my waist, his fingers rubbing against the hem of my shirt. He feels warm.

I glance, quickly, at Monty. His eyes are closed, and his body is pressed against the mic stand. He looks tired and a prickly shadow decorates his jaw. I don’t like seeing him this way.

“We should get drinks if Vicky says to.” I push into Dennis. 

Dennis pecks my forehead, affectionately. “We’ll be fine!” His hands pin me in place; I turn my head into his shoulder. 

The band is bad, if not worse than they were in high school. Before, when they were playing in backyards, Monty would end a set by jumping up and down, as though trying to crush himself into the grass. It is at their last song, then, that I finally let my face turn to the front, and there, under the dusty disco ball, I study Monty. He is sweaty with exhaustion; I can see the beads drip from his hair and down. His face looks older; he’s lost both his dimples. When his voice finally tapers off, his right foot does a weak stomp, and then the lights cut out to black. 

Afterward, I stand in the alleyway and wait for Dennis to drive the car over. My feet are killing me; I’m wearing brown boots that make my legs look long and my feet itch. It is then that I hear them, Monty and Patrick, their voices traveling from the roller rink’s back door. 

“Bren wants to go fishing soon. Monday, I think. So I won’t be at rehearsal,” Patrick says. He sucks in a breath; he’s probably smoking. I remember Bren; the two of them would always make out after school, in the space between the band room and the tetherball court. 

“That’s fine.” A clatter of cymbals sound. They must be taking apart the drum set. “Did you like that new place? The one you saw on Tuesday?”

“Oh, that. No, Bren didn’t like how close it was to the freeway. It was real loud.” 

“You should check out the apartment near Doug’s. He was telling me about it.”


“Bren likes staying here, though. She likes knowing everything about a place. Cause isn’t Doug’s, like, forty minutes away? That’s too far.” 

“Yeah, well.” 

Monty starts to cough, phlegm-like. There are some shuffles, and when the coughs stop, Patrick’s voice cuts through. “I think I saw Tina, back there, in the crowd,” he starts. 

There’s a pause before Monty asks, slowly, “Tina who?” 

“Tina from high school. I don’t remember her last name. The one you were friends with.”


“Oh.” Another sucked-in breath. They could be sharing the cigarette now. “She look good?”

There is some scuffling and then a heavy grunt. “Yeah. She was with someone, though. Had his hand on her waist our whole set. Short guy.” A van door opens. “I didn’t know she was back.” 

Monty lets out a breath of air. It is silent for two minutes. I almost think to start walking towards them, to see if they’ve gone, when Monty says, loudly, “You were dragging on the last song.” 

Patrick scoffs. “Well, the mic was cutting out. Messed me up.” 

“You got to be more professional.” A police siren sounds, from a few streets over. I strain to hear against the noise. “That’s how we’ll get better gigs.” 

“We’re just having fun.” 

“Not really. My cousin, Greta, she’s got a band. And they make $350 for their gigs.”

“Doesn’t she live in, like, Chicago or something? It’s different there.” 

“Yeah, well. You should know anyways, by now. How to, you know. Improvise.” 

Patrick spits on the ground. It sounds like he’s hit a pebble. “Isn’t that, like, just a jazz thing?”

Dennis’s Honda Accord pulls up then; the sound of tires against gravel drowns out Monty’s reply. I jump in quickly. It is hard to hear Monty’s voice, I think, as I put on my seatbelt. It is deeper, raspier than before. I wonder, worriedly, if he is smoking too much, or if his parents have finally been made aware. He used to sport a long flannel whenever he had a cigarette, so he could stash the shirt under a rock before he went home. At school, in algebra, where we sat, me in front of him, he’d say the smokes helped his back pains. He slept on his brother’s old waterbed and complained often. 

Dennis strokes my bare leg as we drive to Mom’s. He parks in the driveway and we make out for a little while, until my mind clouds and I can’t stand the feel of his stubble against my cheek any longer. It takes fifteen seconds for me to walk from his car to my door. He is gone in three. 

A week and two days pass before the earthquake hits. I am visiting Dad’s grave when it happens; the dirt erupts into slight mounds and my bouquet of flowers falls limp to the ground. On the news, during the shocked aftermath, a reporter says that the magnitude was 6.7. The first Tuesday afternoon after, I sit with Mom, cross-legged, on the living room rug. She cries into my shoulder. It is the fifth time we have ever hugged. 

“Mary. From church. Got hit in the head by a piece of the Walmart ceiling.” Mom wipes her damp face with the back of her hand. 

“I didn’t know you were close like that.” Mom’s head is starting to feel heavy.


A sob escapes her. “She owed me money! I beat her in mahjong that Friday. Her husband, he’ll never give me the money now. He doesn’t believe in gambling.” 

“How much was it?”

“$45.” She looks up at me – her face stoic, serious. She feels delicate. Her skin is rough, peeling all around. I start to laugh, softly at first, and then hard and fast. At this, she gets more upset. Her eyebrows cross into one another. “It’s the principle! She’ll get a nice funeral and no one will know! No one will know I beat her in mahjong. I did that. I beat her.”

“I’ll pay you. If it means that much.” 

“It’s not that.” She reaches forward and tries to pull off the cast that wraps around her left calf. The wooden cabinet Dad had bought, years ago, had fallen on Mom, shattering all her good china and a part of her tibia. “My leg is so itchy.” 

“You can’t take that off.” I pry her hands up and away. “It’s not meant to come off yet.” 

“Mary is dead.” 

“Yes.” I let out a quick breath. “I’m sorry about that.” 

Mom stretches her arms over her head. “All anyone will care about is her funeral. The other things, they won’t matter. People will forget. I know. It happened with Dad.” She reaches for my hand and places it in her lap, massaging it. I feel young. 

I find out Monty died. A piece of the road split and he fell right through. His obituary was in the paper. They called him Montgomery, even though that wasn't what he would have wanted. His dad was the Montgomery, a mean one too. I drive by his house, on my way to the grocery, and see a moving van parked outside. A group of men haul out a mattress. The top of it ruffles in the wind. It is fluid, like a waterbed. 

I visit Dennis. His apartment is intact, untouched. “The concrete is structurally sound,” he explains. “I think it’s also not as bad as the news makes it out to be. Like, earthquakes happen all the time now.” 

I sit on his couch, casually, my feet tucked under myself. “Someone I know died.” 

“Oh.” He puts a hand on my head, petting my hair. We don’t look at each other. “I’m sorry. Were you close?”

“We were.” 

“Would I know them?”

“No.” My voice rings out, strong. 

“Well. Are you going to the funeral?”

“I don’t know.” I look down. My fingers are curling into one another. “I don’t know if I can. If I would even be invited.” 

Dennis’s phone rings. It’s an obnoxious sound, a custom one, I think. He already has the phone against his ear when he says, “That’s good then. In a way. You won’t have to deal with all that.” 

A month passes and I start to stay with Dennis, almost three nights a week. He writes me a poem. It rhymes odd and has a clunky beat, but still, I pocket it and tuck it into my desk drawer. I tell him Mom moved here after I went to college, that I grew up somewhere else, somewhere more east. He believes it and with him, it is easy to pretend that I am seeing this place for the first time, just as he is.  

We use an old tennis ball to try and hit the plastic wrap from the pipe. After days of trying, I wake up one morning and find it on the floor. It must’ve fallen on its own, in the night. I call Dennis over and we celebrate, laughing and hysterical. We kiss, he makes me two scrambled eggs, and I answer a job ad I find in the paper.


Billie Chang is a Chinese-American writer from Los Angeles. She currently studies English and Creative Writing at UCLA. You can find her other work in Bright Flash Literary Review, Surely Mag, The Racket Journal, and others.


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