In the Shadow of the Night
I have this way about me, a way of maintaining a safe distance. It’s not easy. I’m 28. Built. Good looking. Successful. People come to me. They come to me for advice, professional and personal. For sex, or at least a chance at it. And conversation about anything. I can’t explain peoples’ behavior toward me. Perhaps I look like an easy mark. Or desperate. Or just willing to listen.
For whatever reason, I can’t maintain a safe distance with an individual. I feel trapped by a person’s presence, their motivation, and try to escape them as soon as possible. But put me inside a crowded subway car, or a party, and my way is at maximum strength. I stand out in a crowd; yet, almost like a ghost, I’m inside the crowd but not a part of it. People see me and see through me at the same time. It’s as though I can hear them thinking, “Who invited him?” “How’d he get in?” “Is he supposed to be here?”
Tonight at the Hercules Bar is typical of my way at full volume. The bar is packed and I’m in the thick of it but I’m all but completely unnoticed. I’m standing alone holding a finished drink. Melting ice slips and slides in the bottom of my glass. Cliques of friends and coworkers sidestep within invisible boundaries while others flit about striving to connect, or maybe, reconnect. I’ve seen it all a thousand times before but I’m not ready to leave. The pulsating music, videos of naked guys grinding on each other, shirtless bartenders surveying the crowd, and that guy standing near the restroom door who keeps looking at me will keep me in the Hercules Bar. For now.
Tonight, however typical, is not a normal night. It can’t be. Not after last night, the night that will change my life forever. Yet, the pull of this night, a Wednesday night no less, perhaps my last night out ever, is as palpable as a heavy arm around my shoulder guiding me into a party of friends and acquaintances whom I might never see again.
I lock eyes with Stavros, the bartender, lithe and ripped he smiles the smile that splits the crowd between us. The eyes of the dividing crowd take swipes at me and ask, “What’s so special about him?” Before I can nod to Stavros, he’s pouring my drink. Vodka will have to do but tonight I want weed. Molly. Blow. All of it. At once. On my terms. I need to escape before I can go home and confront Eddie right where I left him. On my sofa. Naked. Dead.
Last night had started out much like tonight. I’d left the office and gone right to the gym in my building. Snatching a towel from the rack outside the entrance to the locker room, I went inside and unbuttoned my shirt as I looked for an empty locker. I found one near the steam room and started to strip down, kicking off my shoes and tossing my backpack and clothes into the bottom of the locker as I took them off. I was anxious to work out, and in my haste, I’d elbowed a guy beside me as I wrapped the towel around my waist. He stepped away, cautiously, as though he’d expected me to attack. I was just in a hurry. My boss had moved up a project deadline by two weeks and bitched me out in her office because she felt that our team, my team, wasn’t producing the quality of work she’d come to expect. She kept calling our ideas, clever and trite. She even called one jejune. Who the fuck says jejune? My anger rose with the memory of her disapproving, condescending tone, the fluttering of her fake eyelashes as she glanced at my story boards. My legs and ass flexed as though I was about to pounce, the strength from my biceps moved to my hands aching for something to crush. I get these sudden surges of rage, sometimes I know their cause, jejune, sometimes I feel as though I’m angered by something that happened before I was born, perhaps in a previous life. It’s fucked up. I slammed the locker door. “Are you okay?” asked the guy I’d elbowed.
He was just standing there. Thin. Pigeon chested. Drooping. Small. Waiting for an answer. I looked him in the eyes for a second. Must be some kind of therapist, I thought. His concern seemed genuine but I wasn’t looking for his help or anybody else’s. I activated the electronic lock on the locker by typing my birthday as a four digit code and then went to the sauna. The temperature gauge outside the sauna read 175 degrees, not as hot as I usually liked it. I opened the door and three guys inside the sauna popped to attention. I’d interrupted an impromptu j/o session. They stared innocently ahead or crouched over, concealing their hard-ons with their towels. I dropped to the floor and started doing pushups. The dry air burned my nostrils and upper lungs. Sweat began to seep from my pores. With each of my movements, the slow controlled descent or the sudden pectoral contractions which instantly lifted my torso, my anger subsided. From the corner of my left eye, I could see the feet, then shins, of the three guys. Down then up. Feet then shins. The pushups began to get difficult, my breathing labored. One of the guys stepped over me, opened the sauna door slowly, slipped out and quickly closed the door behind him. The burst of cool, locker room air brought me around for a second. I slowed my pace. My towel fell open, it’s frayed edges brushed the floor but it kept my ass covered. I contracted my pecs and let out a grunt as my body rose. My voice strained against the heat and the growing fatigue of my muscles. Another guy stepped over me and pushed the door wide open as he left the sauna. This time the locker room air flowed over my back like a gust signaling an oncoming storm. The cool, moist air beckoned as it succumbed to the hot dry air inside the sauna. It would have been easy to stop, leave the sauna, feel the sweat evaporate from my skin in the cool air of the locker room. I kept going. Ten more. Just ten more before you stop, I thought. Ten more and you’ll be fine. Able to go on with it all. Your career. Your crazy boss. New York City. Hell’s Kitchen. The gay bullshit. My hands and toes began to slip in the slime of my own sweat. Three more to go, I thought. Then I felt it. At first I thought it was sweat streaming from my lats toward my pecs. I looked to my left, saw one of his feet flat on the floor while the other was caressing my chest. The touch was slight, continuous, intentional. Uninvited. I rose into my last push up, came up into a lunge and grabbed him by the throat, pushing him against the hot, wooden wall. He let out a sound of panic and fear.
I’d seen him around the locker room before, one of the guys who’s workout consists of going from the shower, to the sauna, to the steam room over and over until he finds somebody to suck off. I stood over him. My towel had fallen away. I let go of his throat and held him by the back of his hair. I brought his face close to my cock but held him back so he wouldn’t get what he wanted, what my boss wanted. I don’t go for the locker room bitches but there was something about this one. He rolled his eyes toward the door. I squeezed the handful of his wavy dark hair. He squirmed a bit. I jerked his head. He wasn’t going anywhere.
“I’m sorry,” he pleaded. “I thought you wanted something.” He had an accent. Some kind of Latin. I looked into his eyes, he was afraid but still interested.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
He sounded defeated. I let him go, stepped away, and picked up my towel.
“You leaving?” he asked.
“I’m gonna lift.”
“I see. Maybe we will see each other again,” he said, sizing up my body.
I didn’t get him. I could have bashed his face in, broke him in half, really. His body was the exact opposite of my thick arms and barrel chest. His body was narrow, his biceps straight and without form. His torso reminded me of a clipboard, flat and rectangular, with his chin serving as the clamp.
“I’ll be finished in ninety minutes.”
I left the sauna, put on my workout clothes and went to the weight room. My workout had been intense. The free weights I needed to use were always available and I didn’t have to wait for a bench or machine. My metabolism was racing. All of my muscles were pumped. It was the best workout I’d had in a long time. I was level.
Eddie had waited for me in the locker room until I’d finished lifting. He didn’t say anything as I put my work clothes into my backpack and got ready to leave. I’d thought about going up to my apartment, showering and ordering in but then decided to eat later. I left for the Hercules Bar to get a beer or two in my workout shorts and t-shirt.
Last night, the bar was quieter. Michael was the bartender. It was Tuesday and some of the afterwork crowd were still hanging on, drooling over Michael’s body. He’s built, smooth skinned, very defined and has that V shape. I’m thicker, got a straighter torso and kinda hairy. Michael saw Eddie and gave me a look. I never brought guys to this bar. And I didn’t bring Eddie. This bar is my local, my sanctuary. I come here to think. Create. The music and the people are just background noise. I went to the bar. Michael approached. Eddie hung back.
“A new friend?” asked Michael coyly.
“Fuck if I know. He followed me from the gym.”
“Oh, God. Are you serious?”
“He’s kinda cute. Is he drinking?”
“I’ll make it easy. Give us two drafts.”
I led Eddie to the back of the bar, to a tiny, dimly lit room off to the side with an open entrance. We sat beside each other on a small sofa, put our beers on the coffee table. Eddie looked around the little room. The walls were meticulously papered with pages from old body building and prize fighting magazines. We were surrounded by muscle men in miniature. He was curious yet indifferent to the decades-old photos of body builders and prize fighters. He seemed bored, as though he’d been here before, not to the tiny room or even the bar itself, but to the situation developing between us. I drank some beer. Some guy poked his head in, took a quick look at both of us and then left. I leaned back on the sofa, stretched my legs, sat slouched with my knees apart and my beer on my crotch. His dark hair curled at his traps. I ran my hand over my shaved head, hoping that my patches of stubble drew attention from my bald patches, envious of his hair that seemed to be getting thicker and longer before my eyes.
Eddie looked at me for a second, and turning away, asked, “Why do you come to this bar?”
“I like it.”
“But the music is not good. Why is there no DJ?”
“I dunno. Maybe one will come later.”
“Who is playing this horrible music?”
“Michael. The bartender. From his phone, I guess.”
“Nobody is dancing.”
“It’s not that kind of bar.”
“I like to dance. Do you like to dance?”
“Sometimes, when I’m drunk.”
“I always like to dance.”
He let his body sway a little but his movements were forced, as though he were trying to get his body to like the music.
“What kind of music do you like, when you are drunk and like to dance?” he asked.
“I dunno. I’m usually too drunk to remember,” I laughed. “I guess it all depends on the moment.”
“Will we ever have this kind of moment?”
He turned to face me. I didn’t know what to make of Eddie. Maybe he was some kind of submissive, but if that were the case, he would have made that clear in the sauna. Or maybe he liked the rough treatment I gave him and simply wanted more.
“You’re not drinking your beer,” I said.
“I don’t like beer.”
“Would you like something else?”
“Why are you asking me what I want to drink now?”
I didn’t have an answer. I felt like an ass, like I’d missed something obvious between us. He wouldn’t take his eyes off me, those dark, haunted eyes.
“Just tell me what you want to drink and I’ll get it for you.”
I nervously gulped my beer.
“What I want doesn’t come in a bottle,” he laughed. “It’s okay. I don’t need to drink but it looks like you do.” He flashed his eyes to my empty glass.
“Yeah. I guess. Sorry. Work was tough today.”
“Drink mine,” he said, taking away my empty glass and putting his full glass into my unmoved hand, pushing it deliberately onto my crotch. Some of his beer splashed onto my hand and shorts. I felt it seep through my nylon gym shorts and onto my cock. He put his hand on my leg and said, “Why was work so tough?”
I wiped my hand on my shorts, drank some beer and sat quietly for a moment. I still didn’t get him. The seduction was obvious but his sincerity also came through; I understood the former, but not the latter. He was the first person I’d met since coming to New York over five years ago who seemed to be genuinely concerned about any aspect of my life. Or maybe it was the beer going straight from my empty stomach into a racing, post-workout metabolism. My right quad twitched beneath his hand. Or maybe I was seeing something I’d longed to see. What ever it was, in that tiny room with Eddie, I relaxed for the first time since I’d moved to New York City.
“I’m working on a big project. Important client. A lot of money for the firm is on the line.”
“I see. What is it you do?”
“Branding?” He paused. “Like marking cows?”
He was obviously confused. Everybody in the industry had made the word association but this time I imagined my boss as a cow and me as a ranch hand searing a smoking B on her bare white ass with a red hot branding iron. I relished the thought for a moment and smiled.
“Are you mocking me?” he asked.
“No, not at all. I just had a funny thought…branding is creating a public identity for a company. That’s what I do. I create public identities for companies and organizations. Sometimes individuals.”
His face was expressionless but he seemed to understand. I didn’t care if he did. “Anyway, my boss didn’t like the work my team produced. She bitched me out in her office. She was really loud and my team heard her.”
“That was very unprofessional of her.”
“I was imagining branding her like a cow. That’s why I smiled at what you said.”
“Oh,” he said, realizing the double meaning. “Does she have a big ass like a cow?”
We both laughed.
“You could put a big B on her ass for BITCH!”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking! You can read minds.”
“No. I’m just observant.”
I noticed his accent, deep, precise, halting at the end of each word. He stroked my bicep with the back of his hand.
“You want to be like these men?”
He nodded to a wall. The pictures of the men on the walls were from the forties, fifties and sixties, before steroids and protein shakes. Natural. Some were wrestlers, some prize fighters, some body builders. Some black, some white, some Latin and a few from the other side of the world. THE MONGOLIAN MONSTER with slits for eyes crouched thick and bare chested, ready to leap from the sepia page and tear us apart. And KING FAROUKH, wearing Arab headgear like a sheikh, stared us down with his veiny arms folded across a chest with pecs as big as frying pans.
“I try to be.”
“Why? You are not putting cows on the ground and burning your name on them.”
“They were honest.”
“How do you know?”
“Their bodies were honest. No chemicals. No steroids. No bullshit. Just food, sleep and exercise.”
“I see. I never thought of all this like that. I thought men wanted to look like this to get sex.”
“Sex has nothing to do with it.”
* * *
For a Wednesday night, Stavros attracts a Saturday night crowd. That’s good because I need all the distractions I can get. He’s made my drink stronger than usual. He must sense that something’s off with me. I’m glad the drink is strong because I find my mind flashing back to last night with Eddie. His dark hair hanging over my face, his arched back, the way his body went slack like a rope when I snapped him away from the door as he tried to run away. It all seems so silly now, him trying to run out of my apartment naked, like something we’d both laugh about later. Stavros has six or seven shot glasses lined up and is shaking a mixing tin over his head. I’m already left with a glass of ice. Two tatted Latin guys on the TVs are pleasuring each other every way imaginable. Their tats look like prison tats and their ashy skin is sagging on their thin frames, so unlike Eddie’s unmarked, taute, glowing brown skin. Yet their skin is alive. By now Eddie’s skin looks like wax, like he was carved from a gigantic candle.
I need more booze. I squeeze up to the bar. Stavros is still busy, the barback Fernando sees me waiting and makes my drink. As a barback, he’s not supposed to make drinks, but then, I’m no tourist. I toss him forty dollars and hold up two fingers. He knows it’s for both drinks and the tip. A tall guy, at least 6’4”, waves a credit card to get some attention and glares at me. Fernando nods to me and says thank you. I don’t hear him over the crowd. The DJ is playing a mix I don’t recognize, probably something from Europe. Stavros is pouring another round of shots and Fernando is clearing glasses. The tall guy leans way over the bar and shouts, “This is bullshit.” He’s so tall his head is behind the bar where the Stavros and Fernando work.
The tall guy is a Hell’s Kitchen “perfect boy.” He’s got the haircut with the shaved-in part on along the side, the lean body, tight clothes, just enough scruff. He’s like the new glass apartment buildings popping up all over the neighborhood, tall, shiny, lots to look at but nothing inside.
Fernando carefully sets down the dirty glasses. Stavros gives him a look and Fernando comes from behind the bar and goes outside to get Frank, the bouncer. The “perfect boy” is busy bitching to his friends and trying to convince them to go to another bar. “Let’s just stay here,” one of them implores in a nasally whine, curling into himself like a begging child. I step back a little to take it all in. This bar really isn’t for the “perfect boy” and his friends. They should go to The Warehouse or Insomnia where they’ll be surrounded by people just like themselves. This bar attracts gay guys with the wrong hair cut and clothes that don’t signify membership in a group. Older guys, too. In this bar the guys aren’t the latest gay brand.
Frank enters like he has a destination in mind. He walks up to the “perfect boy,” looks up into his eyes and says, “You gotta go.” Frank doesn’t look like a typical bouncer, it’s obvious that he works out but he could just as easily be an electrician or a plumber. And he’s only 5’6”.
“What? But why?” whines the guy who wants to stay.
Hell, I want to knock that guy out just so I don’t have to hear that voice again.
“I didn’t say you. I said him,” Frank says, then he tells the “perfect boy” again that he has to go.
The “perfect boy” is looking directly down at him but isn’t saying anything.
“I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you gotta go,” Frank says a little louder and I hear a trace of his Puerto Rican accent. The “perfect boy’s” friend takes his arm and says, “Come on, let’s just leave.” He doesn’t move. He just stands there giving Frank a petulant look which clearly says, “Make me.” Fernando is waiting by the door.
Frank doesn’t suffer gay attitude, not because he’s straight, but because he’s been working as a bouncer at gay clubs for over ten years. Frank’s move is quick and resolute, leaving the guy flat on his back. The guy is in a stupor. “Oh, my god!” his friend yells, The voices of the crowd become silent then rise to sporadic muttering as people catch glimpses of the action. Frank grabs the guy with both hands, one around an arm and the other by the guy’s shirt, and drags him toward the door which is being held open by Fernando. Near the door, the guy manages to get to his feet. Franks maneuvers behind him and pushes him out head first. “Don’t come back,” he says.
“I can’t believe this,” says another one of the “perfect boy’s” friends.
“Not you. Him.” Frank clarifies.
The “perfect boy” shouts from the street, “I’ll get you fired. I know the owner.”
“Yeah? Me too,” says Frank.
The neon, halogen and LED lights of the city night surround them. The “perfect boy” and his friends scramble across Ninth Avenue, dodging taxis and delivery trucks. Frank doesn’t turn away until they disappear into the shadows. Fernando shuts the door, sealing the portal to the outside world.
The glass door and the windows are painted black to mimic perpetual night. It is a beautiful, simple trick. Behind the black facade, a mixture of alcohol, drugs, loud music and flashing colored lights create an alternative universe where some speed by like comets while others orbit a beautiful stripper like planets to a burning sun. Some whisper to each other about the guy getting tossed out. “That’ll teach him how to behave in a bar,” one says. “Don’t fuck with Frank,” says another.
One of the drag queens shouts into a microphone, “Okay folks, that show is over but this one is just beginning. Before I introduce my fellow sisters in drag, I’d just like to say that we’re all stars tonight, darling. All of us shine like sequins and sparkle like glitter.” Drunken cheers pop up in the crowd. “Except for that bitch back there who is ignoring everything I say.” The few in the crowd who are paying attention, chuckle, get the inside joke, but the guy standing by the restroom is unmoved. He holds a beer at his side. His H&M polo shirt stretches over a round gut. His Gap jeans can give no more. He’s my age and already has an extra chin that he tries to camouflage with a patchy beard. He is so unremarkable he could just as well be an empty beer bottle left for Fernando to pick up. At least a bottle can be recycled.
He’s no stranger here. He was in the same spot last night when I came in with Eddie. Everybody knows what he’s here for, everybody goes to him when they’re in need. I approach him slowly at first so he can see me moving his way. We make eye contact as I pass him. I duck into the restroom, leave the door unlocked. He follows a second later, locks the door behind him. He waits for me to speak.
“What do you have?” I ask.
“What are you looking for?”
“How about a party bag? It’s got a double dose of molly, coke, two joints, and two blue pills to keep the fun up, if you know what I mean. It’s what all the guys want these days.”
“I’ll take one.”
“All I got is hundred.”
“It’s okay,” he says, handing over the party bag.
I give him the cash and put the bag in my pocket. I feel him squeezing my left bicep.
“Nothing’s free,” he says, as he lowers himself while trying to unzip my fly.
“You gotta be fucking kidding me,” I say to know one. I push his face away from my cock and he falls backward against the wall.
“That’s the last shit I sell to you,” he says, as I leave the bathroom.
One of the drag queens waiting for the bathroom sees him on the floor.
“Hope you had fun,” she says after me.
I don’t know why I bought the drugs. I just want to be ready for anything tonight. The drag show is in full swing and one of the queens is lip syncing to Arianna Grande. Thirty people must have come into the bar while I was in the bathroom. Stavros is buried behind bodies leaning in for booze. I snake my way to the door. Frank is outside checking some guy’s ID. I try to squeeze past them but Frank puts his hand on my shoulder.
“Hold up for second,” he says.
The guy has three friends and they’re all searching for their IDs. It’s still early, just after nine thirty. The air is sticky and heavy with the smell of rotting trash left out on the curb. The air moves a little with each passerby but the smell hangs like cigarette smoke. Frank opens the door. The lip syncing jumps outside for a moment. The guys scramble inside.
“So, Brandon, I watched this movie last night I think you’d really like,” Frank says, putting his hand on my shoulder. “It was an old one, Papillon, about this guy who escapes from a penal island in French Guiana.”
“Yeah? Who’s in it?”
“Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen. But Steve McQueen is the main character.”
“So it’s about a guy who gets put on a prison island and escapes?”
“Basically, but not really, it’s really about never giving up.”
“I don’t want to spoil it for you but basically Steve McQueen represents never giving up and Dustin Hoffman represents what happens to a person who gives up.”
“It’s complicated because you think the movie is about an escape, and it is, but it isn’t at the same time.”
“It’s a metaphor.”
“Sort of. I guess. You like that complicated stuff that’s why I think you’d like it. It had a lot of action, too, that’s what I was into.”
“What’d he do?”
“He killed a guy.”
I’m sweating. The fabric of my shirt and trousers feel like they are getting tighter, closing in on me. Eddie is dead on my sofa. I have to go home. I work in the morning. We have a big meeting with a client. Ideas to pitch. But do I have to go? Now? I’ve got nothing left. Except tonight.
The fog is palpable, a microscopic rain that penetrates the pores. People appear as dark, nameless shapes then disappear back into the fog. Bodies move zombielike. Some sway left, some sway right as they wait in line to enter The Warehouse and Insomnia.
My memory is clear yet it sways like a zombie plodding through the recesses of my mind. I think I see her fading into the fog as I cross Ninth Avenue. She is a silhouette waving away my story boards as though she were swatting at gnats. Her tone, her sigh of disappointment, dismay, echo inside my head, shout down the better memories of a job I never intended to have.
I’d entered her office slowly but assuredly. She was sitting with her back to me, perfectly erect in a transparent plexiglass chair, staring out the window. A glass table resting on the heads of two concrete, seated lions served as her desk. The surface of the table was vacant except for a black wireless keyboard, a black fountain pen, and a pad of unlined white paper. I glanced about the room for a place to sit but there weren’t any chairs. She continued to stare out the window as if in meditation. Twelve stories below, the tree tops in Madison Square Park swayed in a sudden gust. A shadow of a cloud passed over, then covered, the rounded vertex of the Flatiron Building.
She spun the chair around and faced me. Her eyes examined me from head to toe, slowly, then toe to head. She let her black painted nails aimlessly caress the keys of the keyboard.
She looked fifty. A real fifty. Her pale skin hid nothing. Her crows feet were deep. Red lipstick highlighted the vertical wrinkles around her mouth. She stood, came around the desk. Her shoes, John St. Johns, black brogues with four inch penis-shaped heels set the tone for the interview.
I introduced myself, put forward my hand. She remained as motionless as the lions supporting her desk. Until.
“What do you think?” she asked, slowly turning full circle.
I looked around the room, out the window, unsure of what I was supposed to see.
“Mon ensemble,” she said with a Hollywood French accent.
I was afraid to say anything. Thick black tights under a short black skirt covered her legs. Her black leather jacket had a vertical collar that hid her neck. She wore her black hair up. Random silver strands worked their way through the loose arrangement like silver wires supporting the black mass in a natural chaos. I imagined her on a sleek, ebony broom soaring around the Flatiron Building searching for a place to land.
“According to your resumé, you just completed a three month internship at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Didn’t you learn anything there?”
“I focused on branding as it relates to fashion. Target marketing.”
“I see,” she said with a feigned sigh. “You’re of no help then. I have an event to attend right after close of business. I was hoping for an experienced opinion.”
“Your shoes are good.”
“You think so? They’re John…”
“St. Johns,” I interrupted. “I focused on shoes at FIT. His penis-heel line evokes power, classic style, and wit for women in creative positions of authority and responsibility. Women like yourself.”
“Tell me more. About shoes… and people… not just women.”
“With regard to high fashion, I think people who are attracted to shoes don’t like feet. I think they’d rather have hooves. Think about it, shoes that cover the feet are hard and shiny like hooves. Hooves evoke power, they’re a weapon for the animals that have them. Shoes that expose feet, like sandals, are for people who like feet. Feet are soft, vulnerable. Animals with feet use them to climb to safety. To retreat.”
She didn’t respond. I didn’t flinch. I was twenty three years old, cocky with the questions I knew the answers to, confident with my education, secure in my new interview suit, expertly tailored by a twink at FIT for helping him define his personal label. His name was Alyosha. Parents from Russia. He had a tiny, sinewy body. Ours was a fair trade but not the trade he wanted. Looking back, I should have fucked him. Threw him around. Just for kicks. It’s what he wanted. He said so. I could feel myself getting aroused. I remembered Alyosha mentioning at a fitting that he preferred a tighter crotch in men’s trousers. She noticed. I focused on the trees in the park below, their leaves appeared iridescent in the late morning sunlight. She turned abruptly, awkwardly, went back to her desk and tapped a key on the keyboard. A flat panel monitor set into the wall lit up. My resumé filled the screen.
Truman State University
Summa Cum Laude
“So, Brandon,” she said, pronouncing my first name as brand on. “What brings you to Black Star Branding? We’re not a fashion house. Our client base is tech and finance.”
“I know. Last year you booked just over fifty million dollars in business, almost equally divided between the two sectors. Most of your tech is financial based, software companies for the financial sector. Your clients in finance are largely, but not solely, institutional. Nonprofits. Endowments.”
“Which makes your interest in Black Star all the more puzzling.”
She was right. And smart. I had zero interest in Black Star Branding but she hadn’t yet realized I was using her, and it, as a practice interview. Black Star Branding was a medium size firm. I wanted to start at the top of the food chain. I didn’t come to New York City to work at a regional firm in a big city. The City.
“If I may,” I asked, approaching the monitor.
“Please,” she said.
I touched the monitor and a crackle of static electricity startled her.
“Are you all right,” she asked excitedly. “I’ll get maintenance up here right away.”
I scrolled past the internship at FIT to the section of my resumé titled relevant courses.
“I’m okay. Here is a list of my classes relevant to marketing to the consumer financial sector. At Truman State you can create an Individualized Major. I chose these finance and marketing courses specifically along with art and literature. And here is the detail of my independent study with an app developer who is also a professor at Truman State. I realize it’s not exactly Black Star’s area of expertise but it is tech related.”
“It’s fine. But I still don’t get the fashion interest.”
“The Smartwatch,” I said, as though it should’ve been obvious, but I was bullshitting.
The internship at FIT was the only internship I could get in New York City without an Ivy League education. I had zero interest in fashion but it was a start, it got me a place in the city. I’d focused on shoes because they were easier to brand. At least we were talking specifics. I needed to see how far I could get before she saw through my bullshit and politely showed me the door.
“The Smartwatch?” She seemed to be confused and then she raised her left hand. The sleeve of her leather jacket slipped back and revealed a Smart Watch on her wrist. “Oh, I get it now,” she said, examining the watch and the black band. The intersection of tech and fashion. Wearable tech.” She seemed to be proud of making the connection.
“A client gave me this. What do you think?”
Her Smartwatch was a bright polished gold and I could see in her eyes that I was golden.
After twenty more minutes of bullshit; I was signing a contract for a six week unpaid internship which I later turned into a self-created, full-time position with a self-created title. Director of Future Expansion. My mission was to lead Black Star Branding into new markets and into new parts of existing markets. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. The average age at the company was fifty five. Every payday the employees logged on to their IRAs and checked their balances. The company desperately needed new blood. And so did it’s operating owner, Fabiana Delgado, the black-clad spinster who ruled Black Star Branding.
To keep Fabiana interested in me, I’d work up a chubby by imagining Alyosha measuring my inseam. Once, early on as an intern, I let her squeeze my cock; then afterwards, I pretended to be scared, acted like it never happened. It’s New York City, the rules apply everywhere else. These days I maintain a safe distance from her, cover my junk with a folder in private meetings. I could’ve fucked her if I had to. I never had to and I won’t.
A crowd is gathered outside the entrance to The Warehouse. To the right, a group of Middle Eastern guys are smoking cigarettes. They’re well dressed. Their hair is perfect. They observe me with full acknowledgement. Their dark eyes seem to penetrate my psyche. The scent of their cologne mixed with the cigarette smoke makes my stomach churn. One nods slightly, as though we have something in common. I turn away. To my left, the line to get in is at least twenty deep. Nestor examines IDs with a tiny flashlight, let’s people in one at a time. Rafi works the line, tells everybody to have their IDs ready. Rafi sees me, brightens up, gives me a big bro hug.
“Hey, Brandon, good to see you. Out on a school night?”
“Yeah, been a rough day.”
“Maybe you just need to have some fun. Don’t let things get too crazy, though,” he says, playfully waving a finger in my face.
Last month he threw me out for arguing with a fat guy about a diet and exercise routine. I should have just walked away but I kind of respected the guy for trying to talk to me about fitness. Most guys go right for my cock. What pissed me off is that the fat fuck was trying to convince me that my workout and diet were all wrong. I couldn’t let it go. I got loud. The next thing I knew Rafi was pushing me outside.
I make eye contact with Nestor, he smiles, nods toward the door.
“You’re good,” says Rafi.
“What the fuck?” shouts a guy waiting in line.
“You wanna go in? Then shut the fuck up,” shouts Rafi at the guy.
The Middle Eastern guys toss their cigarettes onto the sidewalk.
“In the can,” shouts Rafi, pointing to an old paint can filled with sand.
“Okay, okay,” the Middle Eastern guys mutter. They pick up their cigarettes, drop them into the can, and follow me inside.
The crowd is average. The “perfect boy” sits on a raised bench against a glass partition that divides the bar from the lounge. His friends stand around him and turn toward the door as I enter. The Middle Eastern guys surround me then pass me. One bumps into me as he passes. “Sorry,” he says. It’s the one who nodded at me. He stares into my eyes for a second. I feel as though I should know him but I don’t recognize him. He follows his friends to the bar but turns toward me before letting the crowd absorb him.
I step away from the entrance, hang back as more people enter, and then I go to the ATM to get a couple hundred bucks. Some guys are shooting pool behind me. A drag queen is warming up the crowd, asking people where they’re from, and then making a joke out of it. I go to the bar and get a vodka and tonic. It’s still early, not yet ten. I’ve got plenty of time to find a guy to party with. I move toward the stage. The drag queen is wearing a silver, mylar wig and pink boots. She does a show here every week. The crowd is thick near the stage. Some move to the music as the drag queen sings dirty lyrics to Frozen. I go to the lounge area, find a place on one of the sofas, and sit down.
The voice of the drag queen and the laughter of the crowd seem farther away than the fifty or so feet I’ve travelled. I hear them as a persistent, fading memory, audible but only partially comprehensible. Two guys on the sofa across from me are making out, stroking each other’s faces, kissing. A cocktail waiter clears their empty glasses from the table between us. And then that Middle Eastern guy rushes into the lounge. He snakes his way between the table and the sofa, sidesteps behind the cocktail waiter like a football player running a ball, and brushes up against me as he sits on the sofa beside me.
“Hello,” he says, inching closer to me. “What are you drinking?”
His voice is deep and soft. I try to create some distance between us but I’m up against the arm of the sofa. He closes the few inches between us, extends his right arm behind me along the back of the sofa. I feel small. His leather jacket creaks when he moves. Again he stares into my eyes. His face is close. He holds his drink below his chin. The stinging scent of bourbon fills the air between us. “Waiter,” he shouts.
The cocktail waiter spins around.
“Bring him another drink.”
The cocktail waiter looks to me for an answer. His impatience is obvious.
“Please. I want us to meet better this time,” he says.
“Yes. We meet before. In a way. Please. He is waiting.”
“Well?” says the waiter, rolling his eyes.
“Vodka and tonic.”
The cocktail waiter slips into the crowd.
“I’m Amir. I see you yesterday.”
I lean back as much as I can, study his face and body. His skin is a dark brown, his eyes are black, his features are rough. His nose appears to have been broken once or twice. There is a deep scar on his upper lip, as though his lip had been cut through. His biceps fill the sleeves of his leather jacket, his jeans are tight around his thighs. He smiles. His teeth are slightly crooked, stained from cigarettes and coffee.
“What are you trying to see?” he asks.
“I don’t recognize you. I’m not who you think I am.”
He sits back, rests his drink on his thigh. Underneath his leather jacket he wears an old, white t-shirt with a Dubai football logo in red and black on the front. His pecs are broad, thick. His nipples, visible through the thinning fabric, are small and dark.
“I’m sure that you are him.”
He stands, takes off his jacket, sits, and lays the jacket across his lap like the towel that covered the him in the sauna.
“You were in the sauna yesterday, at the Hudson Health Club.”
He sips his bourbon, smiles coyly with the glass at his lips.
“Were you the first or second guy to leave?”
“Sorry I disturbed your fun.”
“It’s okay. Not fun for me. I play along with the other two. I prefer privacy. No limitations.”
“My workout was good.”
I don’t want to encourage this guy. He’s not what I’m looking for; then again, I don’t know what I’m looking for. This place will fill up by midnight. I want more time. More options. But I don’t want him to leave, either.
The cocktail waiter shows up with my drink, places it on the table. Amir gives him a twenty then shoos him away.
“Thank you for the drink.”
“It’s nothing. I’m on holiday. It’s all fun.”
“What about your friends?”
“Oh, I meet them here, two Saudis and a Kuwaiti, on holiday also.”
“Are you from New York.”
“I live here.”
To me, our small talk is the obligatory first step to his hotel room; but to him, I’m part of the local color. I could just as well be a peasant woman sitting on the ground selling handmade dolls to tourists. I’ve been here before, one degree of separation from France, the UK, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, Ireland, Guatemala, Japan, Israel, The Philippines, Taiwan, Russia, and every state. Sometimes I like to travel, sometimes I like to stay home. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. But I always want to get past the small talk as quickly as possible and onto whatever will happen next.
“How did you find the Hudson Health Club? It’s not near any hotels.”
“I’m staying in the building. The apartment was posted online as a sublet for a week.”
He’s staying in my building. This could be a deal breaker. I sip my drink, pause to think about my next move.
“It is a penthouse with a terrace. A doctor from Qatar rents it to tourists when he’s back home. I’m lucky to find another Khalidi with an apartment for rent,” he continues.
“Ah, sorry. Khalidi. Another Arab from the Middle East. Only one fifty a night, much cheaper than a hotel.”
We sit quietly. It’s not an awkward silence but a necessary moment for both of us to figure out our next steps.
“You have a nice back,” he says. “I watch you doing push ups. You can see your back muscles clearly. Mine are not so easy to see. How do you get your back like that?”
“Throwing bales of hay. Shoveling shit. Digging post holes.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Farm work. My family owns a farm.”
“Ahh…your family doesn’t have people for that work? Machines?”
“We have both.”
He looks confused and surprised. Owning a farm and working a farm obviously doesn’t make sense to him.
Suddenly I hear my father’s voice above the bellowing drag queen and the cackling crowd.
“The only way to learn to work a farm is by working a farm.”
It was the day after the school year ended. I was ten years old. It was three in the morning. Milking started at four. The farm hands were already up prepping the machines, getting all the cows ready except for one, the one set aside for me to learn to milk by hand. My father stood at my bed. My little brother was softly snoring in his bed on the other side of the room. “Get up, Brandon. It’s time you learned how things work around here.” I sat up, looked at my little brother. He rolled over, pulled the covers over his head. “Don’t mind him. His day will come soon enough. Now get out of bed, get yourself ready, and be in the kitchen in ten minutes.”
My father had this way of stating the precise and obvious. “That’s why they call it fishing and not catching,” he’d say after the three of us would come home empty handed from a day of fishing at our lake. Or, “That’s why they call it hunting and not killing,” when we’d come home empty handed from a day of hunting on our land. But the pronouncement he said every time I had to learn a new job on the farm, “The only way to learn to work a farm is by working a farm,” haunts me. And it was real work, too. Digging post holes by hand alongside the hired help who used a gas-powered auger. Shoveling manure alongside the hired hand who operated a small-wheel loader. Lifting and throwing hay bales into a truck bed instead of nudging them onto the conveyer belt. And milking Buffy, a black and white Holstein whom I named after Buffy Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
“You teach your workers how to do this?” Amir asks.
He’s trying to make sense of the things he knows about me, visualizing me doing push ups in the sauna, sipping a cocktail beside him on this sofa, and me as a farm hand.
“No. I just had to.”
The phone in my pocket vibrates. I slip my fingers past the bag of drugs, wrap them around the phone and slide it out of my pocket. I’ve got at least a dozen text messages from my four team members wanting to know our plan. I’d ordered all of them to work late at the office. I left them at seven, got in a quick workout, and then went straight to the bar. I didn’t say where I’d be going or when I’d be back. One message is from a twenty year old intern who has texted me photos of story boards. Another has texted me a voice-over script typed in capital letters. I want to draw my past twenty four hours as a story board, it would be NSFW but it would end with Eddie waking up, his matchstick body roaming naked around my apartment, his uncut cock swaying with each step as he searched for his clothes.
“That’s a lot of messages, you must be very popular,” Amir says.
“Just work bullshit I’ve been ignoring.”
“You have a farm here in New York City? With lots of sexy farm workers like you? ” he asks coyly.
Another message: WHERE R U!!!???
I respond to them in a group message: LOOKING GOOD!!! KEEP WORKING. C U SOON!
I finish my drink. Set the empty glass on the table. Stand. Kiss Amir hard and deep. He tries to pull me into he sofa, onto him. I push him down.
“Don’t leave,” I say.
Outside the entrance to The Warehouse a turbaned Sikh is dozing behind the wheel of his cab. I give Rafi a bro hug, approach the cab, and tap the driver’s side window. The driver rouses, turns his head slowly and slightly towards me. He looks at his watch, seeming to disbelieve the time. Reluctantly, he unlocks the doors.
“Ten Madison Square West,” I say, as I get in.
The driver pulls away from the curb and starts talking on his phone in his native language. I turn off the mini tv in the back of the cab. The soft thuds of tires against the city’s patched and pock-marked streets are a soothing asynchronous music, the incomprehensible language of the driver, an alien, yet clarifying lyric. I slouch into the seat, worn and spent, it provides little comfort. I need peace, not comfort, but peace has fled. Perhaps Eddie has finally found peace since having fled a shoeless childhood and a whorish youth in the arms of foreign, male tourists in Ecuador. I didn’t flinch when he told me he’d prostituted himself before he came to New York City. The city is full of people selling themselves in one way or another, for one thing or another. Heroin. A role in a movie. Ten dollars an hour under the table. A promotion. A chance. A bed. A meal. We’re all stock for trade here, and just like on Wall St., value is relative and changes by the second.
“Now I get to choose my men,” Eddie had said, slouching comfortably on my sofa as I gave him a glass of red wine. We had left the Hercules Club after about twenty minutes. Our conversation had become less obtuse. We’d covered the basics. I’d invited him to my place.
The wine got Eddie talking freely. He wasn’t surprised that I lived above the health club in the Hudson House Apartments. He’d seen me use the tenants’ elevator that opens directly into the weight room. He lived south of my building in a small rented room on 47th St. in a two bedroom apartment of a Hell’s Kitchen lifer, an old Irish guy who told Eddie stories about the crimes he’d witnessed back in the day. Eddie kept talking as I poured myself a glass of wine.
“My room is more than enough space. My roommate says I can use the kitchen if I want but I don’t want,” Eddie said, as he sipped his wine. “He asks me nothing but I feel like he knows everything about me.”
Eddie really was beautiful. Perhaps I finally recognized his beauty because he was in my apartment and not at the gym or in a bar. Or maybe it was because I’d been drinking on an empty stomach; but for the first time I’d noticed him, really noticed him. It wasn’t just his physical beauty, he had a way of being attentive while remaining aloof at the same time. Perhaps, as a prostitute in Ecuador, he’d refined this persona. He sipped his wine. I stroked his face with the back of my hand. He moved to my touch, pressed his face against my hand, yet somehow I sensed that our time together would be fleeting, as though I was touching smoke. I put my glass on the table and sat in the corner of the sofa opposite him. His neck had marks from my grasp in the sauna, not bruises really, just red, finger-shaped marks on one side of his neck and one mark made by my thumb on the other side of his neck.
The taxi driver is slowing to a stop. Madison Square Park is coming into view. The silhouettes of the trees and the cast iron fence are foreboding. The monumental abstract sculptures constructed from knotted ropes twist and float through the park like an invading species.
“Which side?” the driver asks.
“Left. Behind that SUV,” I say, digging into my pocket for some cash but I yank out everything at once. Money, keys, and drugs fly across the seat.
“Shit!” I snap.
“You have money? No money I call the cops,” the driver yells.
“Yeah, yeah. I got money,” I say as I put the drugs in my pocket before he sees them. You never know what will set off some of these drivers. The fare is eleven dollars. I give him a twenty and tell him to keep the change.
It’s windy down here and cooler than Midtown. Some couples are out and about. Holding hands. Walking arm in arm. Probably going home after dinner to their comfortable sofas where they’ll curl into each other. Fall asleep peacefully.
The sculpted stone arch over the entrance to the building is like the mouth of a cave; its criss-crossed carvings, in the hazy glow of street lighting, look like crooked, jagged fangs. The revolving door is locked. I open the door beside it, step into the gilt and marble lobby. The security guard recognizes me, releases the turnstile to the elevator bank. Thanks to my ideas and effort, Black Star Branding now occupies the entire twelfth floor. Two years ago, after realizing a thirty percent increase in business, Fabiana had the elevator buttons for the twelfth floor bejeweled with black onyx stars to cover the numbers.
A glint reflects off the Black Star button. The creaks and wobbles of the elevator mechanics are the muzak playing for my ride. The elevator doors part. The creative spaces, along with Fabiana’s office and my own, are near the elevator. I hear muffled shouts. Arms flail behind the crackled glass doors. I open the doors, step into chaos.
“It’s after ten o’clock, where have you been?” Amanda, the team supervisor is furious with me. Adam, the intern who texted me the story boards, is placing them on an easel. He looks at Amanda and then at me. He steps away from the easel as though he’s waiting for my approval. Charlie and Carl, the copy writer and the strategist push aside their papers and laptops, stop working.
“Well?” Amanda asks indignantly. She usually has her brunette hair pulled back, now it is loose, falling past her shoulders. Dark circles support her bloodshot eyes. Charlie and Carl get up and leave with their coffee cups for the employee lounge. It’s just the three of us. I don’t know why Adam hasn’t run for cover but witnessing our conversation will be good experience for him.
“I thought it was best to give you all some space,” I say, looking into her eyes, my body language gives away nothing.
“Space? We have a presentation at 10:30 in the morning for Fabiana and the client. We needed you here.”
I glance over at the story boards. The idea is clear and to the point. The copy beneath the boards is concise yet knowledgeable. They’ve done very good work. It is not jejune.
“I have a class tomorrow morning at eight but I can stay later if you want,” Adam chimes in. His hair is dyed cotton-candy blue and his fingernails are painted black. He says he’s straight but identifies with gender ambiguity. Whatever, he gets the job done. Actually, he’s a prodigy. Got good energy.
“I have an hour commute. I look and feel like shit.” Amanda snaps.
“Go home. I’ll finish up here. Here, take a cab home. Come in at one.”
I give her forty dollars.
“One? You don’t want me at the meeting?”
“I’ll run the meeting. You’ve worked hard on this. You deserve a break.”
“Positive. I’ll tell Fabiana. Now go.”
Amanda gets her coat and bag and dashes to the elevator. Adam looks like he’s waiting for my permission to leave.
“Everything okay, Adam? The story boards look great. Good job.”
“Thanks. I’m fine. It’s just the atmosphere here. Are all branding firms like this?”
“I dunno. It’s hard to explain. It’s like everybody is on drugs or something.”
I try to suppress a laugh but it still comes out.
“Creative businesses attract eccentric people,” I say smiling.
He’s not moving away from the story boards but his eyes wander.
“Is there something else?”
“I probably shouldn’t say anything. I know I’m just an intern but you did give me an internship when nobody else would.”
“What? Just say it.”
“They want you out. Amanda, Carl, and Charlie. They talk about you all the time when you’re not around. They act as if I’m not even here.”
He looks frightened, as though he just realized his words can’t be unsaid.
“Yeah, I know. It’s been going on for over a year.”
Adam’s eyes get big. He can’t believe I know. Yet he doesn’t look relieved.
“Why don’t you fire them?”
“Well, they work hard and they’re good at what they do but that’s all they’re good at.”
“Amanda says you’re burnt out, that you don’t have anymore juice.”
“Amanda looks and feels like shit.”
Adam laughs out loud. His body relaxes and he moves away from the story boards.
“Let me give you some advice. You’ve got natural talent, but learn to bring money into a company. Amanda, Carl and Charlie don’t know how to do that. I do and Fabiana does. Watch her when you get the chance.”
Carl and Charlie step into the doorway.
“You two can go. Be here at 9:30 to prepare for the meeting.”
They gather their things and leave without saying a word. Adam reaches for his coat, a beat up biker jacket covered with safety pins.
“Can you come to the meeting tomorrow?”
“Yeah. I mean, yes. But why?”
“So you can see how money comes into a company. I’ll tell Fabiana that you’ll be observing.”
“Really? Wow. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“No sweat. Show up at at ten.”
Adam tries to contain his enthusiasm and struts to the elevator. I try to study the story boards but I can’t generate any thoughts about them. I hear the voices of presentations past, ideas put forward and shot down. Laughter and tears. Successes and failures. My time here is over. This will be my last moment at Black Star Branding. I will never see Fabiana again. I step to the doorway, turn off the lights, watch the silhouettes of the furniture form in the expanding darkness. Black Star Branding is a growing memory.
I pass through the turnstile. I wave goodbye to the security guard without turning around. The night air is thick but it cools my sweat soaked shirt. I feel like I just finished a long and difficult set. My muscles are swollen. The dampened fabric pulls against my skin but doesn’t move. I cross the street to the park and pull off my loosened tie and toss it into a trash can. I unbutton my shirt and pull it and my t-shirt from my pants. I make my way to the WWI monument and lie across its granite base. The granite feels colder than the night. I run my hand along the edge of the precisely cut granite, the edge is rough, yet sharp, like the blade of a primitive knife. The night air is rich and strong, breathing it in is like drinking one shot after another. High above my head, the American flag flutters in a sudden gust.
I must get back to Amir. I know he’s still waiting for me. I never misjudge a connection, that part I always get right. My jacket and bag are in a locker at the Hudson Club. The drugs are in my pocket. I pull my arms from their sleeves. The buttons pop off the cuffs. I ball up my shirt and use it as a pillow. My arms are bare, my hands are behind my head, my fingers are laced together. The night air makes its way under my t-shirt, up and around my pecs, into my arm pits. The hair on my chest and stomach lifts itself as it dries. My quads push against my pants, I want to take off my pants but I don’t want to attract too much attention. People are still walking about and a young, white, professional male without his pants would raise eyebrows in this neighborhood. My body is warming the granite. The dead stone is coming to life, taking me into its arms. I could lie here until I become part of this monument, dissolve into its history.
I close my eyes, welcome sleep, anxiously await its comforting disconnect but instead I see Eddie hovering over me as my arms wrap around his narrow torso. He is on top of me, pressing himself against me. His small and fragile body is a presence not a weight, not an effort to work against. The tips of his hair touch my face. He shakes his head, letting his hair brush my mouth, my cheeks, my eyes. I turn away. His hair is touching my neck and ear. His is a feminine touch, light and annoying. I feel a rage building from somewhere deep inside me. The rage increases with each stroke of his hair against my face. I can’t have him on me any longer so I put my hands on his ribs and lift him over me. He is at arm’s length. His hair cannot touch my face. He laughs as though we’re playing some sort of game. The rage continues to swell inside me, filling me with its might, its will. I tighten my grip on him, move his body forward and back, side to side, like my father held me when I was a kid. I don’t know what else to do, I’m trying to play along, trying to diffuse the rage. Eddie squirms to get free and falls between the sofa and the coffee table. His shoulder hits the coffee table. The coffee table is on wheels and rolls across the wooden floor. The wine bottle and glasses wobble then topple over. Nothing breaks but red wine goes everywhere.
I had tried to soften his fall but instead I tumbled off the sofa and landed on top of him. Spilt wine trickled from the coffee table’s edge. Eddie laughed silently. Or perhaps it was a scream silenced by my weight. I covered him completely. He seemed to have disappeared underneath me. I put my hands under his shirt, pushed it over his shoulders and left it covering his face. His jeans popped open with one tug and came off with another. I threw them across the room. I gathered his shirt behind his head and wrapped it around my hand to tighten it over his face. His breathing sounded like deep hissing. He squirmed toward the coffee table, reached for the wine bottle, kicked like a captured animal to fight me off. I tightened the shirt around his face, held him in place. The floor was wet. We both smelled of spilt wine. I lifted his legs, adolescent in form, as far back as they’d go.
A hand pushes against my shoulder. The hand is large. Strong. The hand feels familiar. The hand is not Eddie’s, it is a hand from my past. The hand from my past is in my present but that isn’t possible. It must be part of my semiconsciousness, part of a forming then untangling dream. The hand pushes my shoulder again and then a voice says, “Hey. Get up. You can’t sleep here.” The voice in my present does not go with the hand from my past. Two police officers stand over me. One looks younger than me, the other looks old enough to be my dad. I want to shout my confession at them, tell them about the drugs in my pocket, tell them the story of me and Eddie, take them to Eddie, let them take me to jail. All I can say is, “I wasn’t sleeping.”
“Sir, you were snoring,” says the younger cop.
“Just move along,” says the older one. “Go home and sleep it off.”
If only we all could sleep off the past, start fresh with the waking, find things just the way we’d left them before we’d gone to sleep. It wouldn’t matter, I would have still raped and killed Eddie. I’d still find Eddie dead.
I sit up, start to button my shirt.
“You can do all that on your way home,” the older cop says. “You need to leave the park now.”
The cops watch me from the monument until I get into a cab.
Outside The Warehouse, the crowd has gotten bigger. Rafi sees me fumbling for cash in the back seat of the cab and opens the door. I toss the driver a twenty and get out of the cab. Rafi notices my missing tie and untucked shirt. I stand at the curb and begin to roll up my sleeves.
“What’d you get into?” he asks.
“Just work stuff. I miss anything?”
“What do you think?”
Rafi opens the door. I let the pulsating music wash over me before I go inside, inhale the mixed scent of beer, alcohol and sweat. The place is half full but I see Amir standing behind some guys at the bar. He keeps waving his hand to get the bartenders attention. His thighs and ass are thick. His hamstrings are perfectly bowed. He’s a little taller than me. He keeps waving. The bartender pretends not to notice. For some reason his waving makes me smile. He looks agitated, like he’s used to being in control, used to having his way. He’s out of his element here. I approach him, put my hand on his shoulder.
“Ah, you’re back,” he says. “This bartender ignores me. He is racist. He doesn’t like Arabs.”
“It’s your waving. We don’t do that here.”
Amir looks confused so I wave a little to show him.
“Then how does he know?”
“He keeps track in his head.”
Just then the bartender says, “Vodka and tonic, Brandon?”
“And a bourbon on the rocks for my friend.”
“They know you here.”
“I’m a regular.”
I pay the bartender, give Amir his drink. We step away from the crowd waiting to order their drinks, try to stand away from everybody but it’s not easy in the growing crowd. We move about until we find a spot with a little room. He notices my missing tie and rolled up sleeves.
We stand in silence until I lean toward him to be heard above the music and ask, “Where are you going after this?”
“I don’t know. I don’t make plans. I just come here right away.”
“I see. When did you get to New York?”
“Today. I go to my place. Have some food. Sleep. Come here.”
He slowly looks about the room and then gives me his back.
“Do you want to go to another bar”
“No. I stay here.”
“You sure? I know a bar that’s usually fun.”
“Looks like you have your fun already.”
“Your clothes. Some are gone and the rest are dirty. Meet some guy on your farm?”
“What? No. I went to Madison Square Park after I was at my office. I fell asleep on a monument. I guess the monument was dirty. It’s a long story. I didn’t meet up with anybody. I rushed back to see you.”
“It’s okay,” he says. We just meet. We have no obligations.”
“Amir, I decided to quit my job tonight. I went to the park to clear my head then I fell asleep.”
“Because of me?”
“No. I don’t know why, I just had to. At least I won’t have to get up with the chickens anymore.”
He looks confused so I explain the expression to him. He goes to the bar to get us another round of drinks. He doesn’t wave at the bartender this time and returns slowly, trying to keep two very full glasses from spilling. With his big hands and thick biceps balancing the small, full glasses, he looks like he’s competing in some kind of agility race at a county fair. One false move and the egg falls from the teaspoon and splatters. Or your feet tangle in a burlap sack and you go tumbling to the ground. I go to him and take my drink with both hands, slurp the excess like it’s the cream floating on the top of a glass of fresh, raw milk. We sip our drinks carefully as the growing crowd around us pushes us together. We’re in the middle of the crowd. All I can see around me are shoulders and heads. The music floats over all of us through a cloud of fake fog.
Amir leans toward me and says, “You really did not meet someone when you were gone?”
“No, I didn’t. I just went to my office.”
“What do you want to do now? We can go to my place,” he says.
I’m frozen in place. My place is in the same building as his place. If we go to his place, we’ll be in a penthouse, maybe right above Eddie.
“It’s ok if you don’t want,” he says.
“No. I want to. I’d just like to stay out a little longer, have another drink, maybe go somewhere else.”
“Sure. We can go where ever you like.”
I excuse myself and go to the restroom. A line has formed but it’s moving steadily, one body at a time. I try thinking about tomorrow, waking up in the penthouse with Amir. I have to stay with him but only for the night. But then what? I take out my phone to check my email and messages. A guy comes out of the restroom. Without looking up from my phone, I automatically step ahead.
“Ha! I knew I was right about tightening that crotch.”
I look up from my phone. Alyosha is staring right at me with his ice blue eyes. It’s not the first time I’ve run into him around the city but it never goes past dead end flirtations.
“Here all alone?”
His Russian accent is slight but noticeable.
“I’m with a friend.”
He puts his hand on my shoulder, slides close to me, rubs his knee against my thigh. For the first time I feel his muscles, small and hard, but perfectly formed. I never knew he was so ripped.
“Too bad, I could let out that crotch for you or just take care of what’s inside.”
“I’m sure you could,” I say as I go into the restroom. He disappears into the crowd.
I return to Amir. He is talking to the other Arab guys. He introduces me and gives me my drink. They say their hellos and then politely leave to go smoke.
“What is this other bar like,” he asks?
“It’s just a bar with a small dance floor, been around forever. It’s called Lush. It’s not far from here.”
“Let’s go there. I want to see.”
Lush is almost empty. Three or four people are dancing and there are a couple of people on the bench along the wall beyond the dance floor. The DJ is bobbing his shaved head, looking down at the mixer, adjusting levels. The shirtless bartenders are engrossed in their own conversation and don’t notice us standing in front of them. Amir pulls me back from the bar.
“This place is boring,” he says.
Lush is quiet enough for me to hear the soothing rattle of his Middle Eastern accent.
“It won’t get busy until later, after the other places have closed, maybe a little bit before that.”
“Do you want to stay? We can go back to Warehouse if you want, or someplace else.”
“Let’s have one drink here then go to my place.”
“Okay,” I say, as I try to figure out a way to not go home with him.
“Oh,” he says. “We can’t drink at my place. The doctor is a strict Muslim and doesn’t want any alcohol in his penthouse.”
“Makes sense,” I say, as I touch the drugs in my pocket to make sure they’re still there.
We sit at the bar. Amir orders our drinks and then goes to the restroom.
I look around the room, the blue, green and red lights swipe the walls, floor and people. Neon green laser beams, thin as pencil lead, illuminate an invisible layer of a dissipating cloud of fake fog.
“Is this why you came to New York? The bright lights and the big city?” I ask myself. No, your reasons were more complex. Maybe to prove something. Maybe to show your family that there’s more to life than land and livestock. Maybe because you just wanted to be somewhere where you could be every fucking thing you ever wanted to be. Why is wanting to fulfill your desires so hard for other people to accept?
I asked Buffy the same question one morning after I’d milked her. Not in those exact words but the idea was the there. I liked Buffy. As far as cows go, she was actually engaging, lit up when I approached her. Looking back, she lit up for anybody who came to milk her before the pain of full udders set in. I, of course, thought it was because she liked me better than the hired hands. Buffy listened when everybody else chose not to hear. I was twelve years old. Short for my age. Weak. Especially for farm work. My little brother, Shawn, was just as tall but two years younger and already had defined muscles. I still had baby fat. And I was bookish, nerdy and uninterested in farm labor. Shawn got along with the hired hands, they treated him like one of their own once it was his turn “to learn to work the farm.” The hired hands kept me at a distance even when we worked side by side. Except for Randy. Randy took the time to teach me, even though I didn’t care to learn. My sights were always far away, New York, California, not attentive to the proper way to throw hay bales, so as not to injure your back, or the most efficient way to shovel shit, so it didn’t take all morning. While I labored in a dusty stall reeking of manure and piss, I imagined myself in a clean, neatly appointed office, chatting on the phone with my boyfriend, making arrangements to meet after work for a drink in some swanky new place.
I’d already known I liked guys, just not the guys who skulked around the farm. Sure some of them were decent looking or had muscular bodies but most were slobbish, tobacco chewers who didn’t know much else except farm labor. Randy didn’t chew tobacco or smoke like the others did. His clothes were always clean and he had a body that was the result of real farm labor, not the button pushing of an automated dairy farm. Randy was my dad’s age and had worked his family’s farm until it got foreclosed when he was a teenager and then he worked other people’s farms to help his family. He never finished high school but he had pride in himself and took pride in his work.
One morning Randy came into the barn as I was finishing milking Buffy with a bucket milker. I’d usually milk Buffy outside, away from the cows on the machines, but it had been raining on and off most of the morning so I’d kept her inside the barn. We said “morning” to each other and he went back toward the feeding area as he shook the rain from his jacket. I removed the milking hoses from Buffy but then realized that I’d forgotten to bring disinfectant wipes with bucket milker. I ran past the feeding cows to the supply room where I’d gotten the bucket milker. In my mind I could see the container of disinfectant wipes on the shelf right above the bucket milker. I didn’t know how I’d forgotten them. Usually I couldn’t remember bringing them but I always had them when I needed to clean Buffy’s udders after milking her. I opened the door to the supply room and hit Randy’s foot with the door.
“Holy shit,” he shouted. “Brandon?”
He stood suddenly and the small step ladder he’d been sitting on fell to the floor. He kept his back to me. I stood frozen. I’d never heard him swear or raise his voice. I didn’t know what I’d done. At first I thought he’d been standing on the step ladder and I’d knocked him off it with the door but he was standing and his pants were down.
“Followed me back here to spy on me?” he said turning to face me.
I tried to say, “No,” but I couldn’t speak or move. He’d buttoned his jeans but his fly was open and his hard cock was right there. Then he moved toward me, kicked the door shut and pulled my face to his cock. I tried to turn away but he held my nose closed and shoved his cock into my open mouth. His hand fit around my head like a helmet. Then he spun me around, covered my mouth with one hand, pulled my pants down with the other and fucked me against the door.
Afterward, while he cleaned himself with the disinfectant wipes, he asked, “Why’d you come in here in the first place?” I couldn’t speak. Couldn’t move. “I asked you a question,” he said, as he tucked his shirt into his pants.
I pointed to the wipes. My hand was shaking. He gave me the container.
“Here. Go finish your job. And you better not say anything about this. Everybody thinks you’re a faggot, anyway. You got that?”
I ran back to Buffy. Joe, the milking supervisor, came into the barn just as I was kneeling beside Buffy to clean her udders. “Still milking?” he asked.
“Just finished,” I stammered as I started to clean Buffy.
“Anybody else here yet?”
“Just Randy,” I said flatly, looking away from Joe so he wouldn’t see my face, my tears.
Joe went to the office to start the daily operations. Buffy remained patient as I cleaned her. I put her milk away and then led her to her stall. I never saw Randy again. My dad said he’d gotten called to work at a cousin’s farm in Kansas and had to leave right away.
Amir comes back from the bathroom, sits beside me, sips his drink. “So, before we go to my place, I have to ask,” he says. “Are you a top or a bottom?”
The doctor’s penthouse has a terrace with a view of the Hudson River. Across the river in Union City, New Jersey, the street lights along the road parallel to the riverbank twinkle like a string of fallen stars at the base of the darkened Palisades. Amir is outside on the terrace smoking a cigarette. He exhales by letting the smoke drift from his open mouth. The smoke snakes away from him then disappears up and into the night. Eddie lies ten floors below. Alone.
As in my one-bedroom apartment, a granite countertop connects the open kitchen to the living room. I go to the counter, empty the party bag onto the polished granite and separate the drugs so we each have a joint, a blue pill, some blow and molly. I begin to cut the coke with one of my credit cards as Amir comes in from the terrace. At Lush we agreed that we could do the drugs in the doctor’s penthouse because they weren’t alcohol.
“Would you like some water,” Amir asks, opening the refrigerator.
“Sure. What do you want to do first?”
He peers around the refrigerator door, studies the drugs on the counter for a moment. In the bright white light of the refrigerator, I notice a jagged scar above his left eye half hidden by his hairline and a wrinkle in his right ear where it had been cut through but had unevenly healed.
“Let’s smoke some first,” he says, taking two bottles of water from the refrigerator and then putting one near me. He opens the door to the terrace and slides the screen in place.
“We can smoke inside but I want smoke to go outside. We sit here,” he says, gesturing to a small table and chairs and then he goes outside and gets an ashtray.
I bring both joints to the table with my water and sit down. He sits across from me.
“Let’s smoke one and see how we feel,” he says.
I light the joint with his lighter. Holding his lighter somehow makes me feel closer to him, like we’ve been dating for a while and we’re hanging at his place. I let the smoke fill my lungs, hold it inside for a few seconds. Amir takes the joint from me and takes two quick hits.
“Marijuana is strong for me but I want to have fun,” he says.
The joint is rolled very tightly and burns slowly. He takes another hit and then passes it to me. I hit it again, knock the ash off into the ashtray. I offer him the joint but he waves it away so I put it in the ashtray and watch its orange glow fade to black.
“I must wait,” he says.
I study the scar that disappears into his hairline and the wrinkle in his ear. I wonder if both happened at the same time or were they completely different random events that left everlasting marks. My eyelids are beginning to feel heavy. Amir shifts in his chair, the movement seems to be slower than it should. The weed is taking hold. I feel myself detaching from the penthouse and Amir while staying seated in the chair. I need to detach further. I light the joint, hit it until the orange glow burns my fingers and then I drop it quickly into the ashtray.
“Are you okay?” Amir asks.
I don’t know how to answer his question. As more of the weed takes hold, I drift further and further into my detachment, an abyss I never want to leave, an abyss without a tomorrow, without Eddie’s body, without culpability or responsibility.
“Drink some water,” he says opening my bottle. “Don’t get too fucked up, I want us to have fun.”
“Me too,” I say, knowing that I’ve only just begun to detach from him and this night.
He pushes his chair back, stands and peels off his t-shirt. His dark skin is a mottle of slightly lighter patches that look like water marks. His muscles are not defined but are visible beneath a thin layer of fat. His torso is broad, his biceps thick. He is smooth except for the black hair under his arms. He folds the t-shirt and drapes it over the back of his chair. I watch him breath, his small nipples rise and fall with each breath.
“Drink some more water,” he says.
I put the bottle to my lips, chug the water until the bottle is half empty. I didn’t realize how warm I was until I drank the water. I feel myself sweating.
“Take off your shirt,” he says.
I stand and do as he says. The night air coming in from the terrace dries the hair on my chest and belly. I drink the rest of my water. The plastic bottle topples over when I try to set it down and it rolls off the table. We look at each other, each others’ bodies, each others’ arousal obvious to the other.
“Let’s take the molly,” he says.
“Now? You don’t want to do the coke first?” I ask.
“Molly first. I want to feel you.”
He gets one of the capsules of molly and holds it out to me between his thumb and forefinger. “This is what you want?” he asks. “This kind of night?”
I take the molly from him and swallow it. He takes the other one. “Now we wait,” he says. “No reason to rush.”
I look into his eyes, they are dark and unrevealing.
“I will go smoke,” he says, picking up the ashtray. “You may join me if you like.”
I stay at the table, watch him through the screen. He inhales the cigarette smoke deeply, savors its effects, exhales. I check the time on my phone, it is 12:32, still early. The screen of my phone has somehow gotten cracked. I trace the cracks with my finger, one from corner to corner, the other shooting off to the side. The phone has been in my back pocket and must have cracked when I sat on the monument. I go to him as he’s putting out his cigarette. The night air activates my skin. Waves of goosebumps form across my torso. I shiver for a second, unsure if the reaction is from the cool air, the weed, or the molly. The ambient light from the apartment barely illuminates the terrace. Amir, standing at the terrace’s edge, appears as a silhouette readying to step out and disappear into the night. I put my hands on his shoulders, guide him toward me, hold him close with my arm around his waist. He does not turn around but lets his body press against mine. His skin is hot and smooth. We say nothing as we watch the river, let our bodies react to each other. A small boat plies the Hudson, other boats remain anchored. Perhaps those on the boats are on their decks admiring this glistening city like we’re admiring the smooth and shining river. Amir turns to me, kisses me. He puts his hands on my waist and pulls me into him. We are cock to cock. His arms are not touching me yet I can feel the contraction of his biceps and forearm muscles as he moves my cock against his.
“Do you feel the molly yet?” he asks.
A breeze crosses the terrace and I feel as though it has enveloped me. I kiss him, just a normal kiss, but it’s as if we are fused together. I break away from him, run my fingers through his hair, a black down so soft yet I feel every strand separately.
“Yes,” I say.
He takes my hand, guides me to the door, leads me into the living room. The room is bare except for a large blue and white oriental rug, a black vinyl sofa and a black vinyl ottoman. An enormous flat screen tv is attached to the wall opposite the sofa. I let my body fall onto the sofa. The vinyl is cold and smooth and makes me shiver. I crawl to an arm and rest my head on a white feathery cushion. The molly has me feeling as though my head is on a cloud. A sudden crescendo of voices fill the room but then it fades to a low rumble. Amir is fumbling with the remote, flipping through channels and functions. Suddenly a naked male torso, moving slowly up and down fills the screen. The face of the man who’s cock is being ridden appears next. Darkened by scruff and contorted in ecstasy, the guy’s face looks like an angry muppet. I’ve never liked porn, but watching this on weed and molly is making it appear cartoonish and even less arousing. Amir is transfixed, standing motionless, holding the remote at his side.
“Do you need porn?” I ask.
“No, but I like it. You do not like it?”
“It’s okay. Pretty common here.”
“We have it but it’s illegal.”
“That’s why the doctor has it?”
“I’m sure. Qatar is worse than the UAE.”
Amir tosses the remote onto the ottoman, kicks off his shoes and then carefully removes mine. He lies beside me. Our bodies are not touching. I push back his hair, touch the scar with my thumb. I’m barely touching the scar but I can feel something beneath the scalp, perhaps a small stone or a piece of broken glass.
“What happened here?” I ask.
“A bad memory. Let’s get started before the molly is gone,” he says, unbuckling my belt. He unfastens my trousers, stands and pulls off my pants.
“You don’t wear underwear?”
“I do but I didn’t put them back on after my workout. They were all sweaty.”
“HIV? You are negative?” he asks.
He unbuttons his jeans, peels them down and steps out of them. He’s wearing black boxer briefs; but before I can get a sense of the size and shape of his cock, he thumbs off his underwear, kneels beside the sofa and starts blowing me. I look at the porn but I turn away every time the muppet face shows up. I touch his shoulders and biceps, his muscles are smooth and hard, not like flexed muscles, but hard like a carved marble statue. His saliva runs toward my balls but he gathers it with his fingers and puts it on his asshole. In less than a second, he’s riding my cock like the guy in the porn. I sit up and hold him just below his lats. The molly has fully kicked in. I push him back until he keeps himself propped up with one arm while holding onto my shoulder with his free hand. Our thrusts are out of sync. I’m fucking him hard and fast but it feels like everything is in slow motion. His movements are precise and spaced evenly apart, like reps in an exercise set.
“Wait, wait,” he says, lifting himself off me.
“I don’t want to…ah, fuck,” he shouts, cupping his cock as he shoots in his hand.
Amir runs to the bathroom. I hear the click of a light switch, the spray of the shower. I hurriedly dress, gather up the drugs and leave.
The swirling red pattern of the grey hallway carpeting, the line of yellow sconces lighting my way to the elevator, the identical doors, the red exit signs, the molly, the weed, the booze are all fucking with my head. I bounce off the walls and doors, my knees buckle. I should go home. I need to go home. Shower. Sober up. Deal. Outside the elevator, I sit on the floor.
The elevator doors open.
“Brandon?” says Alyosha.
“You know him?” says a voice I don’t recognize.
I look up. Alyosha is with a much older, fat Brazilian I’ve seen parading naked around the locker room. The guy has a stretched and fading tattoo of the Brazilian flag on his belly.
“Too much fun tonight?” asks Alyosha as he helps me into the elevator. His touch is gentle and caring, his touch transcends the molly.
“I’ll be okay.”
“Are you sure? You don’t look okay.”
“Let’s go,” says the Brazilian, taking Alyosha by the hand. “That gringo is a mess.”
“I’ll be fine,” I say, looking right into the Brazilian’s eyes and then I push the button for the lobby and pull Alyosha into the elevator. The Brazilian comes at me but I push him back. He loses his balance and falls. The elevator doors close.
“Brandon! What the fuck?”
“Yeah, I want to fuck, like we should have years ago.”
I pull him toward me, squeeze him close with one arm. He tries to squirm away but I hold him tight.
“No, really, Brandon, what the fuck? That was my boyfriend.”
“I got coke. You wanna do some blow? I live here. We can go to my place, do some blow.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“I got a joint, too.”
“What kind of shit are you on? Let me go!”
I try to slide my hand inside the back of his jeans, try to get my fingers inside him but his jeans are too tight. I can’t get my hand into his jeans past the knuckles. The elevator stops. The doors open. The security guard from the front desk and the Brazilian are waiting for us.
“Alyosha, are you all right?” the Brazilian screams.
Alyosha runs into his arms. I fall to my knees.
“Sir, are you okay?” asks the security guard.
“No,” I say, pushing the button to close the door. I vomit in the space between the elevator and the floor. The elevator doors close.
I sit at my kitchen counter. The sun has broken the horizon, begins illuminating Hell’s Kitchen. My phone is at my fingertips. I’ve traced the cracks of the glass in the screen until my fingers have bled. My blood has dried and fused the broken glass. I dial nine, then one, then one.
“911 Dispatcher, what is your emergency?”
“I killed Eddie.”
“Someone is dead?”
“Yes. I killed Eddie.”
“Are you sure he’s dead, sir?”
“Was a gun involved?”
“When did this occur?”
“Thirty six hours ago.”
“Where did this occur?”
“Where are you now?”
“With the deceased?”
“Was this a domestic dispute?”
“It happened at my place.”
“Was he your lover?”
“Yes. For a night.”
I answered all of the dispatcher’s questions. She kept me on the phone until the police arrived. They are knocking on my door. Softly.
I put a pillow under Eddie’s head and cover him with a blanket before I go to the door. I know I shouldn’t tamper with the body but there are some things I can do that are right. And it is right to properly place and cover Eddie. Nobody should see his face of death, the terror frozen forever from our last seconds together.
He had slipped free from me and ran naked to the door. His glowing skin, stained purple with bruises and red wine, shimmered with the sweat of fear. A moment of rage had overtaken me. I didn’t see Eddie, I saw Randy, except this time I was the bigger and stronger one. I reacted. I grabbed Eddie by the hair with both hands and threw him back into my apartment. The side of his head hit the granite counter and he dropped to the floor instantly. Blood ran from his left ear and left eye. He wasn’t breathing. I didn’t believe he was dead. It looked too easy, like something I’d seen on a tv show, but that’s how it happened. I carried him to my sofa and tried to revive him. He was dead, and because he wouldn’t get any less dead, I decided to give myself one final night of freedom. I stayed up with him, went into work as though nothing had happened, got in a good workout afterwards, made my rounds at the bars, hooked up, and got too high.
I needed the distance of last night, needed its warmth and safety, its familiarity. I needed last night before the dark days that lie ahead.
After two weeks in the hospital for a subdural hematoma, Eddie made a complete recovery. He’d gone comatose immediately, probably before he’d hit the floor, the doctor said. His breathing had become so shallow I’d never noticed it. In spite of his weak frame he turned out to be a fighter, after all.
Fabiana and Vanessa, the head of our legal department, got me great lawyers but I didn’t get to walk free. I’m on my last day of probation. For the past six months I’ve been shoveling shit, mowing, planting and maintaining Hudson River Park as my community service. From where I stand, I can see the terrace where I held Amir in my arms. When I haven’t been home or doing my community service, or attending court-mandated drug and alcohol counseling, I’ve been working at Black Star, in office only, invisibly corralled by an electronic ankle bracelet.
The irony of my punishment is not lost on me, the judge gave me community service in Hudson River Park because of my upbringing on a farm. In her way, the judge sent me home; but more importantly, she kept me out of the night.