Brian O'Neill Fiction Literature

The Agoraphobe

Brian O’Neill

Jud wasn’t agoraphobic when he moved in with me. We had been friends for years and he was one of the most social people I knew, which was why I was happy to invite him to live with me. (I mean, that and I could’ve used help with the rent.) The circumstances were rough—his ex’s new boyfriend was going to move in as soon as he was gone—but I had no doubt he would find a way to pull through. He was the kind of person who, if I were the one feeling down, would call me up and drag me to the club, where he danced with a stamina I never understood. There were times when his smile seemed forced, plastered on his face, though the same could be said of many.

Later, he would tell me that his collapse was gradual, an accumulation of traumas. To me it was sudden, hearing him turn off his alarm clock with a groan one morning and suspecting when I came back from work that he hadn’t gone out all day. I tried telling myself that I was wrong, he had to have been more active while I was gone. I wanted to believe it. This was six months after he moved in.

First, he told me lies, which I didn’t question. He was working from home. He had a cold from the weather, which admittedly was miserable, cold and rainy; I was fighting a cold myself. This went on for a couple of weeks. He told our friends that he was busy and sick. We thought that it was all understandable, especially given his breakup, and that it was something he would come out of. And then one morning two police officers showed up at the door. I was in my bedroom and could hear their voices: he hadn’t shown up for work or even called, so his coworkers were worried that something had happened to him; such a thing was so out of character.

At this point I walked into the hallway. The two policemen looked very earnest. I don’t remember their names but they looked like the sort of upright young men who were more accustomed to helping old ladies cross the street than fighting gangsters. I found myself standing up straight, putting on my professional teacher smile, proving that I was a good honest citizen myself. For a second I became aware of the pride flag on the wall and saw one of them looking at it, the better-looking one, before looking back at me with practiced neutrality. Jud immediately assured me that there was nothing I should worry about, it was all taken care of, but the officers came up to me, so that Jud was out of earshot, and asked me to keep an eye on him. I said that of course I would, I had known him for years and he was just going through a rough patch. I didn’t mention his breakup. I was relieved when they left, that they wouldn’t search the apartment any further, make any judgments.

It was when they left that I finally confronted Jud and asked him what was going on. Finally he was open and honest. He said: I’ve become agoraphobic. I can’t go outside. But he didn’t want to talk about the reasons why. I insisted that he come outside with me, so I could show him he was safe. He agreed after some convincing, so we went to a café a few blocks away, a trendy place with students and hipsters and ugly abstract art on the walls.

Now, a few years earlier, Jud had had an incident. He had been walking down the street in the evening a couple of nights before Halloween, and a guy just randomly stabbed him. Apparently he had attacked four different guys in a period of twenty minutes. It was never found to be any sort of hate crime, though Jud was wearing a suggestive costume with a sleeveless leather vest, tight pants and a feather boa, and the other victims were visible minorities. But it was concluded that the guy was just off his meds and out of control.

Throughout and after the attack, Jud seemed to be okay. In fact, he live-tweeted it. I remember following frantically as he reported that other people came to help him, then called an ambulance, which took him to the hospital. I went to see him right away and he was in good spirits; he seemed to enjoy all of the attention. While he occasionally updated everyone on social media about his case and pressed charges when the attacker was finally caught, then ended up testifying, and wasn’t satisfied with the sentencing of only a couple of years in jail followed by close supervision, he didn’t bring it up in conversations with friends. Perhaps he wasn’t encouraged; he got the impression that we didn’t want to hear about it, which was probably true. But from all appearances he made a full recovery. His boyfriend Will was very supportive during that time, organizing a welcome-back party when he was discharged, and took on most of the housework for a while afterwards. This made me a little jealous. He seemed like the sort of strong person who could withstand anything.

But in the café he looked paranoid, as if the manbunned latte-drinker reading Roberto Bolaño would suddenly stand up and knife him right then in that cafe. I asked him what he was so afraid of and he responded that he didn’t know. He knew it wasn’t rational but he couldn’t help it. Trying to lighten the mood I asked him if he thought the barista was cute. But this made him clam up entirely. He pulled out his phone and started browsing mindlessly, looking at different pictures people had posted, though I’d noticed that since his breakdown he hadn’t even liked anyone’s posts let alone put up anything of his own. We sat there for a few minutes, nursing our tea and hot chocolate. I could tell he was trying to finish quickly so we could get out of there. As soon as his cup was empty, he stood up and looked at me without saying anything, and we walked back to the apartment.

What had seemed like a temporary lapse devolved into a permanent routine. Boxes of delivery pizza accumulated on the kitchen table. When I was at home, he stayed in his room, which I was a little hurt by. It was like he didn’t want me there. There were upsides, however: he cleaned all the time (though only when I wasn’t at home) and downloaded any movie or TV show I asked for as his hard drive was attached to the TV. I tried to coax him out of his room, to watch something together, but he was never interested. I told him I had no problem if he invited guys over, said that it might be good for him, but he didn’t.

One night, I knocked on his door and walked into his room, insistent on getting him to talk. I told him about something that had happened the week before. It was summer by now. At the beach, a guy had come up to me and we went to the trail and into the bushes, where we started playing around. A younger guy, which was a little unusual for that area. We didn’t go very far off the path, though, so after a few minutes we saw a guy looking at us. He was even younger, with stunning blond hair and a tall, well-built body, though he was still in his trunks. We tried to get him to join right away, but he was tentative. He told us he wasn’t gay, he was a film student on exchange from Sweden and it was his first time at the beach. The other guy was very persuasive, and convinced him to have a threesome with us. The Swede said he was open to trying new things. If only guys from every country were so cool. We sandwiched the Swede with me on the bottom. The only thing was that we ran out of lube, and maybe he wasn’t so comfortable with anal sex, so the condom broke and he came in me, much faster than I expected. Any panic was erased by pure exhilaration. I had never had semen in my bloodstream before and I felt like Uma Thurman getting pumped with adrenaline in Pulp Fiction, a jolt powerful enough to take me from dead to alive, to being a functional human again. I wondered if it was safe, he was young and straight and assured me he was negative. But I went to the clinic the next day and they gave me a gentle lecture and prescribed me PEP, the post-exposure HIV drugs, just in case. For four weeks I had to take these drugs that sapped my energy, made me want to stop eating and moving and leaving the apartment. So part of my reason for telling the story to Jud was to explain that I would be around a little more than usual, it would be great if he would give me some space and maybe leave me alone in the apartment for once. I told him I was conflicted about the experience, between the feelings of exhilaration that still lifted my spirits and the drugs that now kept me from feeling much desire anymore. I had hoped that this would generate some sort of reaction out of him, maybe excitement or sympathy, but he just nodded his head and looked out the window, maybe thinking of when he had the desire and energy to do such things himself. He wasn’t entirely unresponsive—he smiled at the hot parts and looked concerned when I told him about the medication. But he said nothing. I might as well have been telling the story to one of the underwear models I follow on Instagram. I realized that he had stopped speaking.

At this point, as you can maybe imagine, his breakdown really started to affect me. For years I had lived alone, for the most part enjoying my freedom and peace. My home was my escape from the world, the only place I truly felt safe. I found myself spending as little time in the apartment as possible, even when I was lethargic with these drugs; I would walk to the nearby park and collapse under a tree.

However, even this got harder and harder. I started to see the world through Jud’s eyes, as if the outside world was full of threats. When I walked down the street I would wonder if someone would come attack me with a knife, as Jud had been. Even though I was trying to go out more, I became more withdrawn. I started to resent him and the effect he was having on me. I denied it at first, but one morning, when I was in a rush, a glass slipped out of my jerky hands and shattered on the floor. I thought of cleaning it up but decided there wasn’t enough time, might as well let Jud step on it in his bare feet. He always walked barefoot in the apartment, which meant that the floor was never as clean as it should have been. When I came back the glass was cleaned up but he never said anything.

Not long after that, I snapped when he made a rare appearance in the kitchen as I was making tea. You can’t go on like this, I yelled at him, what are you planning to do? He said nothing. My kettle sounded. I filled my cup and felt the urge to douse him with the boiling water. I raised the cup in the air, my message clear. Finally, he relented, shouting, No!

It all came out now. He was out of energy. To simply walk down the street and take the bus without looking at another man the wrong way ate away at him. He had a coworker who avoided him and treated him rudely. They would be in the lunchroom and he would ignore him; one time they shared an elevator and the air was pregnant with stiff silence. Nobody noticed this but him. The other guy’s popularity and influence increased while his waned. He didn’t have a case: this coworker never said anything inappropriate, never interacted with him at all, just looked at him with disgust. Maybe he was overreacting. But he wanted to disappear, to become invisible like this guy wanted. And maybe the others wanted this as well: he felt tolerated, not accepted. They would make jokes about sex and he would be left out, the boring one, because he knew that the only way for him to participate would be to risk offending them. So he stayed silent and avoided everyone, which meant that he would never have any chance at getting promoted. Finally, the guy who hated him got promoted and became his supervisor. He was stuck: either he would have to change jobs and start at the bottom again, or endure this situation.

I told him that he had friends and family. He said that since he had separated from Will, he was an outcast. His family was always asking him when he was going to get married and have children, since it was possible for him to do that. Now they didn’t know what to say. Our friends, he said, didn’t want to hear anything about his post-breakup depression, or his post-traumatic stress, and most of them had been hoping Will would leave him anyway so they could have their own chance with him. Ever since he had had his breakdown, he hadn’t heard from any of them. What had I told them, he asked me?

And then there was Will, who liked to act the hero but was the most selfish person he had ever met. Maybe it was his fault for allowing himself to love someone like that; he always craved Will’s approval and felt that as long as they were together, he was worth something. This wasn’t healthy but it was too late to reverse. He realized that they had never truly loved each other, they were addicted to their power couple image, to the sex, so when Jud was no longer able to offer those things, he’d outlived his usefulness.

This was where things were the hardest. Now that he was single again, abandoned and pathetic, he had never been less attractive. Guys his own age wanted someone younger, and younger guys saw him as a frightening example of a future they wanted to avoid. Even older guys wanted someone younger than him. It didn’t help that he’d put on weight since the attack. Guys who claimed to be progressive and smart—especially those guys, in fact—could be extremely stupid. They were the type that said in online profiles that they were looking for someone “educated, successful, white, cultured, masculine-looking and with a good physique.” He was exhausted.

At this point I didn’t know what to say. None of this surprised me and it wasn’t like I couldn’t relate. Perhaps I wasn’t the best person for him to be around because I had no answers. It was like he had pulled open a trapdoor and I fell with him into the abyss. I wanted to comfort him, tell him he would be okay, because I myself wanted to believe that it was true.

I put my arms around him. All we can do is be there for each other, I said. We lay on the bed holding each other for a long time, just processing the sensation of touch that we had both been deprived of for too long. From there what followed was inevitable, if unplanned. He started to kiss me, which took me by surprise. I wasn’t attracted to him but didn’t feel I could reject him when he was in this state, and it felt good nonetheless. I had been with fewer guys, having become reluctant to invite people over. We shed our clothes, though we avoided looking in each other’s eyes. I wondered if this could be what he needed to bring him back to the world, the way the random sex I’d had at the beach had been for me. With each caress, each kiss, I imagined myself passing healing energy into him, as if the blowjob I gave him was CPR.

Sexually, we had never been the best match. Making love to him was like being with myself. There was no contrast. Where I needed someone strong, he was gentle. I held him when I needed to be held myself. I felt no desire to do that again, and this did nothing to improve the communication between us. One night he came and sat next to me on the couch, asking me how I was feeling and it was all I could do to hide my repulsion. I suggested that we go to a bathhouse and find ourselves some tops.

From that point, things disintegrated. I started to invite hookups over, telling them within earshot of Jud to ignore him, that it was no problem if we kissed in the living room or cried out during sex. A part of me liked the rising tension between us, as if Jud would be driven by anger and spite to move out and get his life together. But nothing changed. He didn’t exhibit any anger or resentment, just ignored me and acted like I wasn’t there, which was even more infuriating.

One day I was talking to one of our friends, someone I always thought I could date, if he ever decided he wanted a relationship or showed interest in me. He said he heard I’d been taking HIV medication; if I was positive, he wanted me to know I could talk to him about it. I was furious. How could Jud tell people this? Not only was he telling people, he was giving them misinformation. I’m not positive, as I’d clearly told Jud several times; either the drugs worked or they weren’t necessary in the first place.

I hit a breaking point. One evening, I asked Jud to come talk to me in the living room. I explained that I was used to living alone, having my own space, using the apartment part-time as a workplace. This was never meant to be a permanent situation and he had been there for almost a year. He had ever fought with me, he had managed to keep paying his rent, but it was time for him to leave. He agreed. He said he understood that it couldn’t be an easy situation for me and that he would find something else. He appreciated all I had done for him. It was a relief that it went so smoothly, that he didn’t try to argue. But he was slow to actually follow through. I don’t think he ever did. Even after a few weeks, there was no indication that he had left the apartment to look for a new one or had even tried to look for anything. I had to ask again, and mention that when I had talked to him I didn’t mean it as hypothetical for some point in the distant future but as something I needed to happen sooner rather than later. He said he would do what he could. When I had guests over, I told them loudly how I planned to redecorate Jud’s bedroom after he moved out.

I needed someone to talk to about this, so I contacted Will, Jud’s ex, who I heard had separated from his new boyfriend. I said I wanted to meet to talk about Jud, intending to go for coffee, but he invited me over for dinner. It didn’t take long for me to start unloading about how Jud had been doing and how difficult it had been for me.

“Prince William,” as we’d nicknamed him, told me that he understood. Jud always saw the negative in everything, he said. After he was stabbed, he didn’t want to have sex anymore, said he needed space. He knew that this wasn’t fair to Will, so he suggested that they have an open relationship; he wanted Will to be happy. Will began seeing this other guy, and even when he and Jud started having sex again they continued to see each other. When Jud found out about that, he got upset and asked Will to break it off, which was completely unfair. So Will broke up with Jud altogether to be with this new guy. But then he realized something. He didn’t want to be in a relationship at all. All he wanted was to have his job, his friends, a regular sex partner with other guys on the side, and his space. He had no need or desire for another relationship.

Will liked to make pasta from scratch, and it was delicious. His mother was Italian, which I never knew before; it’s funny how you can know someone for so long and not know such important things. He had great taste in wine as well, and I had had too much. I told him I loved Italian food, and had always wanted to go to Italy, and he told me about the places he had visited there. We have so much in common, he said to me with a wink, and leaned in and kissed me.

I knew it wasn’t a good idea, and it wasn’t what I was planning to do; I’d intended to convince him to take Jud back, at least talk to him to make him feel better, or advise me on how to handle the situation. But all I could think of was how I could spend the night there, and not my apartment; maybe I could even solve the problem by moving in and letting Jud have the place to himself, which was what he wanted. There was nothing wrong with what we were doing; we were both single and there was no infidelity. Obviously neither of us would tell Jud, and I hadn’t told him I was planning to see Will so he wouldn’t have any idea.

The next morning, I was clearly someone who had worn out their welcome. I thought maybe he would offer me some coffee, but he didn’t. I had to get to work, and when I asked him if I could borrow one of his shirts, he hesitated and said they might not be the right size. He wasn’t friendly until we said goodbye, when he grabbed my ass and told me that my bubble butt reminded him of one of his favourite porn stars and he would have to eat me out another time.

When I got back to the apartment and opened the door, there was water on the floor, tinged with red. My shoes were soaked, including the good dress ones I’d been planning to wear that day. It was surprising that nobody downstairs had noticed, as the water had seeped through the floor completely, causing thousands of dollars of damage. The cream-coloured bathmat my mother had given me was soaked, ruined, and the matching towel was streaked with blood. Jud was facedown in the overflowing bathtub, floating lifelessly. He must have been like that for a couple of hours given the amount of water damage; the faucet wasn’t on full blast but the apartment was flooded. I pulled him out but his body was cold. At that point I entered a state of shock that I think I’m still in. It felt like my blood had turned to ice, and my teeth began to chatter.

Fortunately, I was able to go through the motions, barely aware of what I was doing. I turned off the tap and called 911, stammering that my roommate had committed suicide in our apartment, he was dead in the bathtub. It was only then that it began to feel real. It was almost a relief that the floor urgently needed mopping to avoid a more disastrous flood, so I got out the mop and began to clean, focusing on nothing, just watching the mop absorb the water, squeezing it out into the toilet, again and again. My shoes and socks were drenched, but I barely noticed. The police didn’t take long, so the floor was still wet when they arrived.

They were friendly and acted supportive, or at least tried to seem sympathetic without actually bearing any emotional weight, offering no words of comfort. They just told me to sit down, and it was a relief at least to have someone there. But it looked bad that he had a bruise on his face, and I had no explanation for how it got there. When I told them that I had spent the night at a friend’s, they asked me the name, and what we did together, then whether he was a friend or a boyfriend. I wanted to disappear as I tried to explain that he was just a friend, and did not tell them that he used to be with Jud. But they told me that because of the circumstances they would have to talk to Will to check my alibi, and look at the security footage and time of death. I wasn’t under investigation, they said, this was just the procedure when there were unusual circumstances around a death. They managed to find the report of the previous police visit, which helped. When they finally left, I realized I was shaking with rage, wondering if Jud had done it just to spite me.

Of course, it was up to me to tell everyone—our group of friends, Jud’s family—and it didn’t take long for everyone to piece together where I had been that night. At the memorial service, I felt shame as much as any other emotion. At the memorial service, friends that were closer to Jud didn’t talk to me at all, and most kept their distance. The friends that were close to me told me that it wasn’t my fault, I shouldn’t be upset, and then they didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

When I went out afterward, I started to imagine that all the strangers I saw could see what I had done, what I had caused and been through, as if I now had a dark and rainy cloud that followed me everywhere I went; even if they didn’t know me, they would be able to figure it out from my demeanour, my scowl, my tense shoulders. One night, when I was with friends, we were saying which famous drag queens on TV we would be, and one of my shadier friends compared me to the one who fought with everyone, made bitchy comments, lied and deliberately undermined her fellow contestants, then refused to take responsibility by blaming the edit. Everyone laughed at the comparison, and I didn’t help matters by saying that the queen had had a hard life, that I doubted whether some of the fan favourites were so innocent, that I thought she had some redeeming qualities, and that I was skeptical of reality TV show editing. They began to refer to me by this drag queen’s name, Phi Phi, which is more suited to a dog in my opinion, like a chihuahua with a pretentious owner who drops it off at doggy daycare and gives it an expensive scarf to wear when they walk it around the block. I felt less and less inclined to go out and talk to my friends ever again.

Now I am alone again in the apartment, the floor finally repaired, and the hardwood is smooth and shiny with only my socked feet to glide over it. It is winter, and I have lost most of my energy to go outside, and the world is drained of its colour. Going to work was such a chore, my performance so sorely lacking, that I decided to take a break, but I can’t afford to actually go anywhere. My apartment has become my refuge, though it’s hard to be in it without looking around and imagining Jud in better times: when he came to visit with Will, smiling and drunk on mimosas at brunch, or even when he was living there and talked about how, if he were ever up to it again, he would go back to school and become a psychologist, though the thought of all the necessary years of study was intimidating. Sometimes I hear a noise, a rustling, and I jump, I imagine that it’s him, that he’s still alive, or that he’s haunting me, or keeping me company. But it’s always just footsteps from the upstairs apartment, or the wind.

I feel heavy, and am afraid of the bathroom, of taking baths, of the memory of finding his body. But perhaps paradoxically, this makes me less inclined to go out, because the heaviness clouds my ability to make plans or give me any desire to leave. And when I do leave, as is necessary on occasion, the fear of being too obviously vulnerable, of being stabbed like Jud, or of being called a bad name, or that the police will decide they think I’m guilty after all, means that I can’t wait until the moment that I’m inside the apartment, my front door closed and locked behind me.

Brian O’Neill’s writing has previously appeared in subTerrain and is forthcoming in Event. He currently lives in Montreal.