It was almost the afternoon, and my neighbor and I found ourselves sitting in a café just around the corner from our apartment building. Settling down with our post-coital coffees, I noted that they were both black with one sugar. "How's work?" I asked by way of small talk.
"You know: making copies, distributing copies, filing copies, shredding copies, reprinting copies, and copying them again. Pushing a boulder up a hill."
"Wow," I said, "they make you push boulders up hills?"
She wasn't sure if I was kidding. "How about your work?"
"Boring," I replied. "Endless fluff pieces."
"You got thrown in jail last night for writing a fluff piece?" she asked.
"That was something different," I replied. "We call it 'ninja journalism.'"
"My paper," I said. "Well, my editor and me." I thought about it. "Okay, just me."
She shook her head with a smile.
"It's my job," I explained, "to get to celebrities who are notoriously tight-lipped. To do that, I have to sneak past or talk my way through armies of publicists, bodyguards, and agents. Ever since I was a kid, I've have a long history of breaking and entering and running cons, so that makes me a natural."
"So you're paparazzi."
"Not quite. The targets..."
"You're not really a ninja, you know," she told me.
"They know I'm a journalist. It's just a matter of getting alone with them and making them like me. To do that, you need to be able to profile them on the spot and become exactly the kind of person they feel comfortable opening up to. Also, you have to be prepared to do a lot of drugs and alcohol."
"Sounds lonely," she said.
How did she know that? Most people at this point expressed only envy. "It's--"
My phone went off, changing the subject. I dug it out, looked at the caller ID, and groaned, "I have to take this." Immediately it began berating me.
As it did, Emma squirmed in her chair. The nails on one of her hands traced a pattern on the tabletop in front of her, and the rest of her fingers stroked her coffee cup.
My mouth went dry. I would much rather have been that cup, that tabletop, or that chair right now, instead of listening to my phone rant. "I know," I sighed, letting it continue for another minute.
Emma's fingers drifted over and began stroking mine.
When the phone went silent, I realized I'd better rejoin the conversation. "I know, I've been busy." It asked me a question. "No!" I replied. "Okay, maybe a little bit." I added, "Okay, maybe a lot."
It lectured me some more while Emma quietly lifted my hand to her face and began sucking on my pinkie.
The phone chose at that moment to reveal something that hadn't occurred to me, and I was forced to liberate myself from her grasp. "Seriously?" I buried my face in my now free hand. "Oh my god, I am so sorry." The phone laid on a thick guilt trip.
Emma watched me curiously.
"I know," I sighed, "I should have called." Another, shorter guilt trip followed.
She started to get bored again.
"I said I was sorry." The next guilt trip was more of a guilt sprint, but it still stung.
Emma began to play with her cinnamon-colored hair.
I so wished I could just hang up and help her, but instead, I had to ask my phone, "What are you doing later?" It told me. "Why don't we go have a drink?" It asked me where. "Let's go to Byrne's. They have that classy sparkling water you like, right? See you in an hour?"
Sighing, I hung up and said to Emma, "Sorry. That was my friend, Sean. I haven't talked to him in over a month. I was supposed to go with him to a cocktail party where I could meet Maggie Gross."
"Who the hell is Maggie Gross?" she asked.
"She owns and runs a restaurant that's a hotspot for celebrities."
"Your 'ninja targets,'" she said with air quotes.
"Most of the reason they love the place is because she keeps the press at bay." I added, "Unless she really likes the reporter."
"And what makes you think she'll like you?"
"Come on, Em..."
"My name's not Em."
"Everybody likes me."
"I don't like you."
"That's probably because I keep calling you Em."
"So I'd once mentioned in passing to him that I would give my right arm to meet Maggie Gross, and he got me on an invite list to her latest party."
"And you blew him off."
"My cousin died," I whined. "And I got distracted."
"And you haven't called him."
"Distracted," I reminded her.
"You really are an asshole." She meant it.
"I know, right?" She grinned. "I've got a half-finished comic sitting on my dining room table."
"I know we're pretty voracious," I said, "but you seriously can't come up with ten minutes to read one comic book?"
At first she seemed pissed, but after a moment of thought, she softened a bit. "Not read," she told me; "draw."
"You draw comics?"
"You don't think I moved to New York to be a temp, do you?"
"There's a lot about you I don't know," I admitted, "like your full name."
"You don't know that, do you?"
"Dayton," she told me. "Yours?"
"Maximillian Alejandro Fuentes."
"My middle name is Diane."
"I don't know your age, either," I continued.
"You should know better than to ask that."
"Based on your response," I said, "I'm guessing thirty-eight."
"Twenty-four," I guessed honestly.
"Now you're just trying to fix the damage you just caused."
"No," I said, "there's no way you're older than me."
"You're right, then, because I'm thirty-one."
"How old do you think I am?"
"Thirty-five," she replied.
"That makes me a cradle robber," she giggled. "I am so hot!"
to be continued...
I've been incarcerated a lot over the past thirteen years, so you'd think I'd get more comfortable with the idea of sleeping in jail. I never did, though. And so, this morning, thoughts of my pillow dragged my lifeless body across the length of Manhattan and up the stairs to my apartment.
The instant I shuffled into my room, however, my neighbor's voice appeared from the fire escape. "Where have you been? I've been worried sick!"
I replied, "Have you been sitting outside my window all night?" I then found myself asking a more important question: "You've been worried sick about me?"
"I would have called," she said, "but I don't have your number."
It had been some time since anyone had missed me. The sensation doused me both with confusion and excitement.
"I had another one of those days at work," she continued. "I thought we could discuss it."
I groaned, "I'm too wiped out for that right now."
"How about you just sit back and let me do all the talking?"
I shook my head. "Not today, Em. I just spent a night in a holding cell, and I need sleep."
She bit her lip. "You really got arrested?"
I didn't reply as I pulled off my boots.
She crawled inside, slipped behind me, and began unbuttoning my shirt. "You going to jail is like an aphrodisiac to me."
When her fingers loosened my belt and slipped my pants down my thighs, I said, "You doing that is like an aphrodisiac to me."
"That's something else we have in common," she whispered.
A half-hour later, I stumbled out of my room toward the kitchen for an emergency infusion of protein and simple carbohydrates. I had so little energy that my roommate Cameron's sudden ambush didn't really faze me.
"Do you talk to Emma at all?" he asked.
"Why do you ask?" I replied cautiously.
"She has a new boyfriend, but she won't bring him around."
As far as I knew, nothing in my demeanor betrayed me, but I needed to play it cool. "What makes you think she has a boyfriend?"
"I think you of all people should know the answer to that."
Now I was starting to worry. "Should I?"
"All of that carrying on all the time," he told me, "it keeps Mitchell and I awake all night, and we're on the other side of the apartment. You're, like, right there."
"You mean in the bedroom right next to hers," I clarified, "in this apartment."
He snorted. "It's not like you're in the same room as her when she's making all that noise."
"Because that would be crazy."
"I mean, just now, it sounded like it was coming from your room."
He leaned in close and whispered, "Between you and me, she's never been this... vocal before. Whoever this guy is, he's really pushing her buttons. I have to meet him."
I was simultaneously honored and threatened by this line of questioning. "I'll bet you a dollar," I told him, "that when you finally meet this guy, you will not believe he's the one doing that to her." This is because the only reason I got this apartment is because I improbably convinced Cameron and his boyfriend I was as homosexual as they were--improbable because I have a lot of sex with a lot of women.
"It's always the quiet ones," he replied.
"Headphones," I said.
"Headphones," I repeated. "Noise-canceling headphones." That sounded plausible.
He grinned. "Those must be amazing headphones."
"They're pretty high tech and shit."
"I..." Oh, shit. "I. Don't. Know. Because... they were a gift. And I never looked at the brand. Of the high-tech. Headphones."
"Can I take a look?"
"Sure," I replied. "I'll go get them." Oh, shit. Despite the sleep-deprivation and the numbing afterglow, I had to think fast. "Wait. Is that my phone?"
"I didn't hear anything."
"It's on vibrate." I put my cell to my ear and nodded my head, thinking of an excuse to get out of the apartment to find and purchase a pair of high-tech, noise-cancelling headphones. "Celebrity emergency," I told Cameron before fleeing to my room. "Got to go."
I slipped into my room and shook a very naked Emma awake. "Cameron's coming!"
"What?" she whispered.
"I need to pretend to leave, and you need to go home."
She groaned, "I guess this is why we always use my bed." She threw on her jeans and one of my T-shirts, wadded up the rest of her clothes, and escaped.
I tried to stroll nonchalantly to the door, but I couldn't escape Cameron's voice calling after me, "Max!"
"I just have to tell you," he said, "that you are, by far, the strangest cat I've ever met. And I'm dating Mitchell."
"Thanks," I replied, "I put a lot of work into it."
He laughed, "Go take care of that thing at work."
By the time I'd locked the deadbolt behind me and theatrically stomped down a flight of stairs, Cameron had lost all interest in me. I waited a extra minute until I was extra sure the coast was clear before tiptoeing back to knock gently on Emma's door. Giggling, she beckoned me inside.
"You got to admit, dude," she said, "this is a little fun."
I shrugged and smiled. I had to admit it that it was.
"Wait right here," she told me and disappeared into her room.
Unbuttoning my shirt, I asked, "Shall we go another round?"
"Dude," she shouted, "are you fucking insane?"
I buttoned back up with a sigh.
She emerged wearing clothes that could be seen in public. "Let's get a cup of coffee. I'm buying."
Hours passed while I stood on my fire escape, marinating in guilt. I made a fist and almost rapped on my neighbor's window before stopping myself. What the hell did I think was I doing? I was having a crisis, and this is how I chose to handle it? With mindless sensual gratification? I couldn't even begin to describe how utterly selfish I felt at that moment.
But what was more selfish than sex? The only point of it--if you're doing it right--is to feel physically good. I was the kind of guy who took great pride in the lengths I went to please my partner, but I'd always known that I performed that way because I got off on getting her off.
Emma and I didn't have much of a relationship, but what we did have was raw, carnal honesty.
"Coming!" she yelled. When she opened the window and saw me, her expression shifted from hope to anticipation to hunger and finally to confusion.
"Dude," she said, "you look like someone pissed on your head."
"Not literally." She asked, "What's wrong?"
"I don't feel sad at all and I should and I don't know what to do?"
She sighed, and the look on her face shifted to disappointment. "Why don't you come inside and tell me all about it."
I followed her into her kitchen, which I hadn't really studied before. Last time I was here, I only paid attention to obstacles and solid surfaces I could use for leverage. Now that I wasn't drunk on lust, I was surprised that I hadn't injured myself.
"Need a beer?" she asked.
I shook my head.
"Well, I do. Have a seat."
I turned to the living room, noted a futon, and collapsed onto it.
She entered the room, took a long swig out of the bottle, and curled up on the far end. "So," she said, "what's up, dude."
"Banjo was one of my best buddies but he's gone now and now he's really gone, and I don't miss him. I mean, I did miss him, but not anymore."
"Back up," she demanded. "You were best friends with a banjo?"
I pulled myself to my feet. "This was a mistake," I muttered. "I'm sorry."
With a sigh, she gestured me back to her futon. "You're here, I'm awake, my beer's open, so you might as well explain yourself."
"Just try to keep it simple. It's fucking late."
"Banjo's my cousin."
"You have a cousin named Banjo," she replied. "Really."
"Benjamin," I sighed. "Benjamin Joshua. We called him Banjo because whatever."
"And he's gone." She scrunched up her face, trying to concentrate on my verbal diarrhea from a few minutes ago. "Twice."
"He went to prison," I told her. "And he just died there."
"He went native," I said. "Kicked some asses. Knifed a guy. I didn't recognize him the last time I saw him. Hell, I didn't even like him." I shrugged. "Apparently I wasn't the only one. Somebody stabbed him."
"You think it was because his name was Banjo?"
"What?" I yelped. "Why would you say that?"
"I don't know!" To her credit, she really did look like she regretted saying that.
Still: "You are such an asshole, you know that?"
"Well, I'm sorry," she replied, "but I'm no good at this kind of thing."
"What are you good at?"
"Take off your pants, and I'll show you."
I did, and she did.
Eight days later, I was sitting in bed, contemplating something or other, when a tap came from my window.
"Dude," Emma whispered, "are you there?"
I opened the blinds.
She frowned, apparently in shock. "I think I just lost my job."
I opened my mouth to reply, but had nothing.
"No," she continued, "I don't think I lost my job. I did lose my job. What the fuck?"
"You want to have this conversation on your futon?" I asked her.
In a haze, she led me into her apartment, her words spilling out uneasily. "My current gig was supposed to last until Labor Day, but they just canceled the contract."
I sat her down headed to the kitchen.
"And the temp agency can't promise me anything yet. I don't know what to do," she continued.
"Do you need me to make suggestions," I asked, rooting through her refrigerator for beer and finding only empty cardboard boxes that were supposed to contain beer, "or do you just want me to tell you it's going to be okay?"
"Wait until I'm finished, then tell me it's okay."
I gave up and joined her in the living room. "Go on."
"If I don't find work before July, then I don't know how I'm going to get by. I've been living off of credit cards for so long. I'm so scared." She waited a few moments before adding, "You can tell me it's going to be okay now, dude."
I reached over and massaged the inside of her thigh. "It's going to be okay now, dude."
She moaned, "Thank you."
Five days later, she invited me into her apartment to tell me, "The A train broke down two times last week! Twice! I was late to work! Twice!"
"I thought you were unemployed."
"I got a new one," she replied. "And it's in Battery Park, as far as possible from this apartment."
"At least it's not Ozone park."
"Twice!" she reminded me.
"Bed or futon?"
Three days later, she opened her window.
"I got arrested again," I told her.
"I can never tell when you're kidding," she replied.
"Not kidding." I asked her, "Have you ever been arrested?"
She shook her head.
"Well, if you're going to sympathize," I said, "you should probably experience it for yourself." With that, I produced a pair of recreational handcuffs.
Three days later, she peeked into my bedroom. "All the copiers at work ran out of toner at the same time."
"I'll be right out," I said.
Two days later, I crawled through her window. "I had to interview Martin Hughes."
"The Martin Hughes?"
She shuddered. "Strip," she demanded
Two days later, she told me, "I maxed out one of my cards.
The next day, I told her, "My editor chewed my head off."
The day after that, she told me, "The heel of my favorite boot broke off."
The day after that, I told her, "My photographer won't quit snapping her gum."
The next afternoon, she said, "I got a paper cut."
That evening, I said, "My knuckles hurt from knocking on your window."
After that, we just stopped with the excuses.
"Hi," I said as I slid into the booth next to the bored-looking blonde, "I'm Max."
"Are you the wingman?" she asked.
"Do I look like a fighter pilot?"
She glared at me. "You know what I mean."
With a cartoonishly eager face, I looked at her. "Please tell me."
"You're the one who's supposed to distract the ugly friend while your partner swoops in on the more attractive one."
I frowned and turned to the other side of the nightclub, where Sean was in the process of swooping in on the more attractive one. However, using her as a point of comparison was hardly fair. She was simply the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen; keep in mind that I still carried a massive torch for my gorgeous, elegant ex-girlfriend, so that's saying quite a bit.
The thing was, Sean was terrible at this. And so was she. It was like watching two pre-adolescents learning to waltz while their parents coached them using semaphore.
Ordinarily, I would have left him to it while I found a place to drink in which I didn't have to be audience to this. Ordinarily, I wouldn't tolerate being dispatched to distract the ordinary friend. This, however, was no ordinary friend. Nobody who filled out a camisole the way she did could be described as ordinary. Besides, there was something delightful about her cynicism. This meant that I knew in advance she'd consider the next thing I would say to be utter bullshit. I said it anyway: "She has an ugly friend?"
She growled, "Don't start."
"Let me make this simple," I told her. "If I were only here to distract you, I wouldn't be asking you to leave with me for someplace quieter, and with better lighting."
"Really." She still looked skeptical.
"Okay," I sighed, "let me make this simpler." I reached over and caressed her cheek with my thumb, guiding her closer to me.
And then, just before our lips had a chance to touch, a voice looming over us declared, "Max, I believe it is time for us to converse exclusively with each other."
"What the hell did he just say?" the blonde whispered to me.
"That he's an asshole who has no idea how to interact with human beings," I replied. To Sean, I said, "I believe no such thing."
"Your beliefs are irrelevant."
"I think I should go," she said.
With a flick of my wrist, my business card appeared in front of her face. "I'd like to continue this conversation," I told her.
She plucked it out of my hand as she stood up to collect her attractive friend. "Maybe."
As I followed him to the bar, a petulant silence thickened between us that I was determined not to shatter. Obviously I was perturbed about his shattering of my impending arousal. I didn't give a shit about what was pissing him off.
My stubbornness outlasted his, and he snapped, "Please explain to me the purpose of that exchange."
"I was being your wingman," I reminded him.
"You were far exceeding the duty for which I enlisted you."
"I don't do anything half-assed, Sean."
"Thus I must ask, has it become a necessity to refresh your memory, vis-à-vis our wager?"
"You mean the one where I swore that I wouldn't have sex for a year?"
"Indeed," he replied. "Only ninety-four days have passed since we reached this agreement."
"It's only been three months?"
"And a smattering of days."
"Fuck." I reached for my wallet, took out three dollar bills, and slapped them onto the bar.
"And what, pray tell, is the purpose of that?"
I looked at him and then back to the bar.
He looked at the bar and then back at me. "You've engaged in coitus?"
"I believe there might have been some kind of miscommunication," he told me. "If I recall correctly, the wager had originally been set for one dollar. Two, if the object of said fornication was your neighbor."
"My mistake." I tossed three more dollars onto the bar.
I clarified, "Does the dollar cover the entire period of time our clothes were off, or every instance of actual intercourse?"
"We had not actually negotiated the terms to that degree of specificity."
I took out six more dollars. "It's the spirit of the thing."
"What about heavy petting and groping through clothing?" I asked. "Oh, the hell with it," I muttered and tossed two more dollars onto the pile.
"There are no words in my vocabulary, Max Fuentes, that adequately describe the tenor of the loathing I feel for you right now."
The mornings were always the hardest. Everyday he had to ask himself why he needed to continue living. He was never sure what the correct answer might be, and so he promised himself he'd figure it out later on. But everyday he rolled onto the floor, put on some pants, generated some coffee, ignited a cigarette, consumed the coffee, and determined the class to which he would devote his attention today, and gradually he'd forget the question entirely.
Some days, though, didn't fit into this otherwise ironclad routine. This was one of them. Slowly he drifted to partial consciousness, and as soon as he realized that the pillow pressing against his skull wasn't his own, he woke the rest of the way up.
So instead of clothing, coffee, cigarette, and class, he was reduced to deciding whether he should wake the woman beside him on the full-sized bed.
Lying facedown, her slightly matted, blond--but not naturally so, as he found out recently--hair splashed across her shoulders, a heavy snore rattling out of her nose, she still looked like your typical college sex kitten. Sean smiled.
When they'd arrived at her apartment last night, they skipped the pretense of a cup of coffee or small talk, and instead headed directly for the bedroom. She shrugged off her February coat, tied her scarf on the doorknob to let her boyfriend know she had company, and giggled, "Lose the sweater, or you're sleeping on the couch."
Sean didn't want to sleep on the couch, so he tossed his once-white-but-now-more-of-a-brown, stretched-out cardigan to the floor. It occurred to him that the thorough examination her eyes performed on his body might be due to the fact that she'd never actually seen him without it before. He felt kind of naked now, and he still had a lot of layers to go.
Blushing, she asked, "Is this really crazy, or is it just me?"
It wasn't just her. "Perhaps you'd feel more comfortable if we simply retired to our corners for the night."
Shannon bit her lip in thought before crossing her arms in front of her and whipping her T-shirt over her head. "It's Valentine's Day," she replied, "and if I don't bounce tonight, I will not be happy." She began to pace deliberately, like a cat about to rub up against him. "And you like it when I'm happy, right?"
Most men who were knew her were endlessly fascinated by her cleavage. She accommodated them by making it highly visible, regardless of the weather. A part of Sean wondered how wearing a push-up bra at least three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a year could possibly be comfortable, but the other part was just grateful. Given the snug fit of her blouses, he didn't expect to be surprised by what he'd see when he was finished blinking. His imagination had always been able to speculate how her bare skin might curve and glow and tease, and it turned out that his imagination had done a pretty good job. It even got the goose bumps right. But it hadn't counted on her bra, though, which wasn't lacy, or see-through, or even all that interesting. And because of that, it occurred to him that this was really happening.
"Yes," he replied.
With a grin, she told him, "Okay, now you go."
Fumbling with the baggy T-shirts he always draped himself in, he asked, "I don't get why you don't just fuck Rocky then."
"You are such a weirdo, you know that?" Balancing herself carefully, she kicked off her fashionable boots. "I can think of four hundred and thirteen guys off the top of my head who would trade places with you so fast." She stepped forward, penetrating his comfort zone. "Do you think I'm spooky or something?"
Flailing and backing away, he attempted to reply, "I..." He lost his balance and fell onto the bed. "I don't often find myself in this situation."
"Really?" This revelation seemed to utterly baffle her, and so she put all of her concentration into sorting it out. Unzipping, dropping, and stepping out of her skirt didn't seem to require any thought at all. "Because you're totally fuckable."
"That's something I don't hear a lot," he told her as she crawled onto the mattress next to him.
"Are you sure?"
"I have problems..." His sentence stalled when he realized that she was unbuttoning his pants. He tried again. "I have problems being intimate."
She stopped mid-zip and frowned. "Who said anything about being intimate?" She turned her attention to untying and yanking off his shoes. "You don't need to be intimate to have sex! My boyfriend and I are totally intimate, but he's at the bar tonight, looking for lonely girls to comfort."
After yanking off his socks, she added, "And he's not being intimate with them."
"Your relationship confounds me," he told her.
"Well, I'm not confounded." She freed his pants completely from his legs with a sharp tug, but sacrificed her balance in the process. He leaned over the edge to find her on the floor, laughing uncontrollably. "Never tell anybody about this," she pleaded.
With a smirk, he hauled her back onto the bed and kissed her, hard.
Her back arched, her hips rose, and her throat moaned. As soon as she could speak again, she sighed, "So I have to be a total doofus to make you brave?"
"You just had to remind me why you're one of my favorite people in the world," he replied.
"Because I'm clumsy like a clumsy lizard?"
He shook his head. "That you're not even remotely the person you look like." This close to her face, and with this much light, he could make out crow's feet around her teal eyes, which was odd, considering that she was two years younger than he, and he was only twenty-three. "So who are you?"
"I'm Shannon, weirdo."
"Seriously, who the hell are you?"
"Shannon Veronica Heidebrect?"
"I mean..." he began.
"No," she told him. "I am not going to tell you my whole poopy story so you can fall in love with how deep you think I really am."
"I don't fall in love that easily."
"But you fell in love with her."
He sighed. "That was an accident."
"You want to talk about the scars on your arms?" she asked. "The ones that don't look like an accident?"
"No," he admitted.
"Well, I don't want to talk about my poop." Her fingers crept under the elastic of his boxers. "So how about you take these off, and I'll get a condom, and we can bounce."
He couldn't argue anymore. "Okay."
She crawled delightfully toward him. "A lot."
With a grin, he said, "Don't you have to remove something to make that work?"
She looked back at her own underwear. "Oops!" she giggled before rolling her eyes innocently. "Um, could you do me a favor and take care of that for me?"
This morning, he had no idea what to expect from tomorrow, or the day after, but today, he had an answer to his daily question. His finger tickled the small of her back, and she squirmed.
"Good morning," he whispered.
She replied by reaching for his waist and pulling him closer.
When Jin started seeing the creatures on the other side of the mirror, he was eight--too young to have closed his mind to this kind of thing, but old enough to know better than to talk to grownups about it. Being clever, he also found out that, among his peers, these visions made him unique.
Jin wasn't at all frightened, because the creatures didn't seem to notice him; even if they did, they paid him no mind. And so he spent hours in the bathroom, in front of his mother's vanity, or with the compact he'd stolen from his aunt, studying.
Some of them floated. Some crawled. Some seemed to walk on surfaces a few feet or inches above or below the floor. Some were completely alien in appearance, with bodies that made no sense. Some defied spatial physics. Some were made up of angles that didn't exist. Some were just indistinct. Some were horrifying. Some were even kind of cute. Overall, though, they just were.
As the weeks and months passed on, he began to group and classify them by their general characteristics and demeanor. It became apparent as he did so that many of these families, genii, and species were just as detached from the inscrutable business of other families, genii, and species as he was from theirs. After a great deal of consideration, he concluded that what lay before his eyes were layers upon layers of different planes of existence.
Therefore, at a shockingly early age, Jin understood his insignificance in the larger fabric of the universes. And, for the most part, he was okay with it.
Time and this knowledge swung him back and forth from empty nihilism to boundless compassion; from boldness to ennui. He became, in effect, a teenager. All the while, the beings that walked, crawled, and floated above, below, and through him became a part of his boring routine, in the mornings when he tried on clothes, and at night, when he brushed his teeth. They lived together indifferently, like neighbors in a tenement building.
One evening, all of that changed.
It happened as he was relaxing in his bedroom, dealing with a dull homework assignment. A mirror hung from the door of his bedroom closet, and he faced it, as he always did, finding comfort in the comings and goings of his invisible companions. An aspiring musician, he caught wind of a passing muse and began making up a little tune to hum.
And that's when the beast paused. It was one of the hideous ones--the kind other children imagined living in their closets. This one wouldn't fit, though. It was as tall as a streetlight and as wide as a bear. Jin thought nothing of its actions, until it turned what was probably its head and looked straight at him. He continued to hum--a little bit nervously, though--while trying to put aside any sort of concern. In the past nine years, there was no evidence to suggest that they were aware of him in any way whatsoever. Even when it began to lumber in his direction, he assumed it was only a coincidence. He went quiet, though, just in case.
But when it halted right behind him, he started to get concerned. And when it deliberately ducked down to look through the framed pane of glass on his door, terror set in. The beast groped blindly for him, more out of curiosity than malice; but the effect was the same. Where its paw raked across his skin, a fiery chill tore through and beneath his skin.
The beast recoiled. It glanced this way and that, and it bounded off. All of the other creatures in all of the dimensions all around him scattered like startled fish. For a moment, and for the first time in nearly a decade, Jin was alone. Gradually, they drifted back, and things returned to normal.
Except that things weren't normal anymore.
It took him a few minutes to catch his breath and compose himself. After he did, Jin walked over to the mirror, gazed deep into the reflection of the worlds around him, and hummed.
This is a bit of world-building for a fantasy novel my wife and I are writing.
Ten years ago, when Heather, my first kiss, my first sexual encounter, and my first love, became my first devastating heartbreak, I went on a dating spree, which really hasn't come to an end. With that kind of quantity, it only stands to reason that not all of these dates were successful.
So what happened to that wild animal I'd spent most of last night tasting and feeling? Where were the throaty giggles and that unbelievably focused, blue-eyed stare? Where was that woman?
And then I saw her. She was strutting out of the restroom in that red turtleneck I should have been yanking off of her torso; that miniskirt that needed to be pushed up to her waist; those gray-stocking-covered legs that belonged wrapped around me; and those fingernails running through those cinnamon-colored curls, both of which would be better served tickling my naked chest. There was that crooked smile that melted me, and it was flirting with some bridge-and-tunnel doofus at the bar. It was then, as she left him and headed back toward me, all enthusiasm fleeing her body, that I had my idea.
But first thing's first: "Give it," I demanded.
She handed it over, and I tore it to pieces while she growled.
"Fair's fair,” I said, referring to the way she'd disposed of the phone number the cute waitress had given me earlier. Okay, so I had rescued it, but it was the spirit of the thing, right?
She pouted. "You know, this is such a disaster, anyway. I don't see why you had to go and make it worse."
"Em, I need you to listen to me very carefully."
"Don't call me Em."
"I think it's safe to say that we have no business dating each other."
She folded her arms.
"And I'm betting that you're interested in being with someone you actually like, but dating is not particularly easy, especially in this town; the reason being that you're trying to be sexy when you're not actually sure you are."
"Speak for yourself."
"Don't jerk me around, Em."
"My name's not Em,"she snapped.
"And about the only time you're that positive you're sexy is when you've just had sex."
"Oh, come on!"
"I told you not to jerk me around, Em."
"My name is Emma."
"I was watching you talk to that jackhole over there, and you were hot."
"Too little, too late, dude," she told me.
"Yeah?" I told her right back. "Then how did you get that guy's number after ten seconds? And how did I get cute little Dakota's attention just now without even trying? It's because, at this particular moment in time, we both knew that we drove someone so crazy that, less than eighteen hours ago, they ripped our clothes off."
"Keep talking," she breathed.
"The only thing you and I have in common is that we enjoy fucking each other's brains out."
She smiled a little. "All right, I'll give you that."
"There are just some days when you really need to get laid, and handling it yourself just isn't going to cut it. Now, I'm not saying that we become one another's sex toy..."
"Dude," she told me, "that's exactly what you're saying."
"I guess it is."
She took a long look at the doofus at the bar. "I was hot, wasn't I?"
"We made it this far without talking."
There was that crooked smile again. "For a condescending asshole, you make a lot of sense."
"For a childish, superficial nerd, you have great taste in sex partners," I replied.
Emma threw enough cash to cover a half-bottle of wine onto the coffee table in front of us. "I'm going to talk to the jackhole."
I grabbed her arm, and a current shot through me, telling me I needed to find a nearby solid surface right away and bend her over it.
She gasped, leading me to surmise that she needed to find the same solid surface.
I noticed that I'd been holding my breath for quite a while, and so I let it out.
She yanked her arm away from me and swallowed a lungful of air. "What?"
"Why did you grab my arm?"
"Like this?" I reached out, because, right now, my body craved that current with more urgency than the most powerful of nicotine fits.
She dodged me and whispered, "The deal."
"I'm just grabbing your arm."
I blinked the lust out of my eyes. "Right."
"Later, dude," she said and strolled away toward the bar.
I called after her, "What about the deal?"
"The deal was that you and I don't sleep together tonight," she said. "We said nothing about other people."
"Yeah, we did."
"Our own beds, remember?"
She growled. "Promise me, then, that you're not coming back for that little girl with the corkscrew."
The number I’d planned to call later burned secretly in my pocket. "I promise you that I will not return to this bar to pick up Dakota." I wasn't being totally dishonest.
She eyed me with little to no trust, which was a perfectly legitimate reaction to me. "Let's go, then."
Our cab ride was short and quiet, but excruciating, since we were overly conscious of the space between us. The merest touch would probably lead to the deal being broken, and we couldn't have that--though I wasn't sure why anymore.
When we finished climbing up four stories to our respective doors, she beckoned me with a sexy finger.
I drifted over cautiously. "Yeah?"
She wrapped her arms around me and stared deep into my eyes.
"Hey, now," I said.
"Shush," she replied.
My mouth went dry, and all the warmth in my hands and brain headed straight below my belt. Her hands caressed my back, sliding lower and lower, over my waist, and into my back pockets.
"Oh," I said, resigned to the obvious.
Behind me, I heard her fingers tearing the waitress's number to confetti.
She leaned closer to my ear and whispered, "Fair's fair." Her hair left burning trails across my cheek as she withdrew her head, her arms still around me. When I whimpered, she just gave me that same smug look she'd used last night to seduce me.
Since I was here anyway, I kissed her hard and slammed her against the nearest wall. She moaned, and her fingers stayed in my pockets and dug in. My hands gripped her face, until one crept down her neck, past her collarbone, and found its way to her breast.
That's when we both snapped out of it and pushed each other away.
"Deal," she panted.
I gulped. "Right. Deal."
She struggled to fish her keys out of her purse and dropped them to the floor. The sight of her bending over to pick them up anchored me there. She caught me looking, and she too froze.
"Deal," I said.
"Deal," she agreed.
I unlocked my door and forced myself inside. From there, I charged straight for the mattress on my floor and masturbated furiously.
From what I could hear on the other side of the wall, she was doing the exact same thing.
"I've never actually been to a wine bar before," Emma told me as we sat down on a pair of comfortable easy chairs.
"Neither have I," I admitted. "I thought this would be a nice place where we could relax and not have to be in a bar."
"Oh, no," she insisted, "I didn't think it was a bad idea."
"I didn't think you thought that."
Even though she tried to keep it to herself, I could hear her grunt. This was going to be a long night.
Ever since my last girlfriend dumped me, my neighbor Emma was one of the only two women in my life with whom I've had any sort of relationship. Both simultaneously aroused and frustrated the hell out of me, but I could deal with my coworker, Gretchen, pretty easily; I just tuned out her prattle and fantasized about having conversation-free sex with her while in the privacy of my own home. Emma, on the other hand, was more persistent. For starters, she called me dude, which is not my name. In addition, she seemed to delight in invading the sanctity of my apartment building and fire escape. Also, we can't seem to stop fucking each other.
In retrospect, we should have just left well enough alone.
"So," I said.
"So," she replied.
A minute passed.
A cute waitress showed up at the table with a bright smile and a tray under her arm. "What can I get for you today?"
I smirked at her. "Hi, I'm Max."
Her smile went from being commercial to intrigued, and the pitch of her voice lowered just a little. "Dakota," she replied.
"North or South?"
"Nice." I asked her, "What do you recommend?"
"Red or white?"
I shrugged at Emma.
She replied, "Whatever you want."
"I'll put it to Dakota, then."
"Casual or serious?" she asked.
"Casual or serious what?" I clarified.
Emma and I glanced at each other. She said, "We're not on a date."
After I took a moment to frown, I returned my attention to the lovely Dakota. "Casual acquaintances."
"I'll be back with a shiraz," she replied.
Turning to Emma, I said, "I thought you wanted a date."
"Well," she told me, "I've been thinking about that. If we were serious about getting to know each other, then we absolutely, positively cannot have sex tonight."
"Just with each other, right?"
She glared over at Dakota. "What do you think?"
"Fine," I admitted. "That does make sense."
She leaned forward and extended her hand. "Swear?"
I peered longingly at Dakota before shaking Emma's hand. "I swear that, no matter what happens tonight, that our clothes will stay on, and we will sleep in our own beds."
We both sat back.
"So," she said.
"So," I replied.
A minute passed.
Dakota returned with a bottle of wine, which she corked and poured with professional grace, all the while making eye contact with me. When she finished, she asked, "Can I get you anything else?"
"I'm sure I'll think of something," I replied. "How about I call you?"
She scribbled in her little server's notebook, tore out that page, and handed it to me. I didn't even need to look to know what was on it, so I folded it up and dropped it in my shirt pocket.
She winked at me and sashayed away.
Emma reached into my pocket, removed the paper, wadded it up, and dropped it on the floor. "Just because we're not on a date that doesn't mean you get to pick up girls."
"So," I said.
"So," she replied.
A minute passed.
"I don't know where to start," she told me.
I gulped down some wine, and she played with her fingernails.
"Um," I said, "So what's your favorite movie?" Yes, I was getting desperate.
"Derelict," she replied.
I guffawed. "Really?"
She recoiled. "Yeah," she said. "It's based on one of my favorite comics, and it's got some really thoughtful ideas about patriotism and loyalty, all wrapped up in people getting kicked in the head."
"Oh, my god, you're serious."
"I didn't say it was the best movie." She shrank a little in her seat. "I just said it was my favorite."
"The dialogue," I moaned, "the explosions; I swear that thing was written by a thirteen-year-old boy."
"So you've seen it?"
"Why would you do that then if you hated it so much?"
"I had to watch a screener to prep for an interview with Reese Kensington."
Her eyes widened in admiration. "You've met Reese Kensington?"
With a shrug, I said, "I drank him under the table."
"Why would you do that?"
"I bet him an exclusive that he couldn't keep up with me."
"What could you, of all people, possibly have given him if you lost?"
"I didn't lose."
She rolled her eyes. "So what's your favorite movie, Mr. Critic?"
"Easy," I replied. "Janine."
"Isn't that that British one?"
A little surprised that she was familiar with it, I nodded.
"You are such a girl!" It was clear from her tone that she wasn't kidding."
"So shit didn't blow up in it."
"Nothing," she moaned, "happens."
"It's called subtlety."
"It's called 'the most boring two hours of my life,'" she snorted.
"Clearly you and I won't be watching movies together."
She sighed. "Favorite band?"
"I don't really listen to music."
"How can you not like music?"
"I said I don't listen to music," I explained, "not that I don't like it."
"That doesn't make any sense."
"People are way too possessive about music," I told her. "They get mad when others don't like their favorite songs, and they look down at other people's tastes."
"Kind of like you and movies."
I took a few moments to glare at her, hopefully disguising the fact that she was totally right. "I just don't think it's worth getting that worked up over." I asked, "Who's your favorite?"
She spoke with the confidence of someone who didn't give a fuck about what I thought of her. "Easy: Upward Feedback."
"What's the front-man's name again?"
"Right," I said. "That is a guy is a self-absorbed asshole, but a self-absorbed asshole with really good hashish."
Emma drained her glass and refilled it. "Do you name-drop because you're trying to impress people; or does it make you feel more important?"
"You were right," she told me. "This was a big mistake." She rose and strode past the bar and into the ladies' room."
Massaging my eyes, I waited until she was out of sight before retrieving the wad of paper from the floor, smoothing it out, and stuffing it into my back pocket to keep it safe from the immature, self-righteous monster I'd come here with. There was no point in wasting the entire evening.
I'd solved my first problem earlier today--I was no longer homeless at the start of the month. This, however, only exacerbated my second problem, which was how to transport my belongings from my old apartment in Brooklyn to my new one, which was within shouting distance of the Bronx. While I didn't actually own much, the idea of schlepping it over the entire length of Manhattan was enough to make me want to douse it all in napalm and ignite it. That wouldn't work, though, inasmuch as I couldn't afford to replace any of it.
Solving unsolvable problems, though, was my specialty, and so I set my right brain to the puzzle while my left brain typed up the notes I'd taken from my Jane Plains concert review and feature from last night. Both sides were brought to a halt when the cell phone in my desk went off.
I should probably point out that this phone wasn't mine. Some fuck-nozzle had dropped it onto the East Village after shouting a strange obscenity in my general direction. I'd kept it, because hey why not? I answered it for the same reason.
"The electronic device into which you speak is my property," the phone told me.
"Finders keepers," I replied. I had no intention of keeping the thing, mind you, but the whole experience that put it into my hand was kind of ludicrous, and I wanted answers. In my profession, I'd come to discover that adversity, if massaged properly, tended to produce answers.
"I find your immaturity to be unpleasant."
I opened my mouth to speak, but the directness of the statement was kind of startling, and so I closed it again.
The voice continued, "I am prepared to negotiate for its release."
"Why don't you just buy a new one?"
"I would prefer not to follow that course."
"Are you a robot?" I asked sincerely.
"I fail to see the pertinence of that question."
"So you're not denying it."
He sighed--or simulated a sigh; I had no way of telling. "Decorum dictates that I should utter your name in frustration at this point, but since I have not yet been made aware of it, I would prefer to bypass this and remind you that I am willing to exchange a great deal to repossess that cell phone." He added, "I should probably make it known that I am remarkably wealthy. So what is it you want?"
"Okay," I said. There was a lot I could use right now, I'll admit, but none of that would clarify the situation that put me into this position of strength. You see, the man on the other end of this phone didn't freak out that night when he saw me; he freaked out when he saw my best friend. When I asked her to explain, she absolutely refused. If there was one thing I hated, it was not knowing something. "I want you to tell me how you know Lisa Green and why you reacted that way to her."
"As a businessman," he replied, "the term I would use to describe such an offer is deal-breaker."
"I thought you were going to give me what I want!"
"The word I employed was negotiate," he told me.
"Don't you want your phone back?"
"I am willing to purchase another."
"Because you don't want to talk about some girl?"
"Lisa Green can hardly be described as some girl."
All right, I had to give him that one. But still... "That's crazy!"
I massaged my eyes. "You drive a hard bargain."
"Doing so is my livelihood."
With a sigh, I confessed, "I'm moving from Park Slope to Inwood after work tomorrow, and I don't have a car or any money."
"I require your current address, your new address, and a convenient time of departure."
I grinned. "I bet your cybernetic arms can lift a lot."
"Nonsense," he replied. "I'll be utilizing professionals."
"But your cybernetic arms could lift a lot, though, right?"
"The information I requested, if you please." After I provided it, he told me, "I will be present at your new residence when you arrive so that we may conclude this transaction, and subsequently, our relationship."
"Thanks," I said. "I'm Max, by the way."
"Sean," he replied.
"Let me guess, it stands for 'Synthetic Engineered Android... Ah hell, what does the N stand for?"
He hung up.
I shrugged. "That went well."
A little over an hour ago, Lisa Green did something I'd never seen before--she retreated. It happened in the East Village during our historic, long-overdue bar crawl. She'd briefly glimpsed someone she knew, and the effect it had on her had the same effect on our heartfelt, confusing, energizing, and, at times, shockingly violent reunion. Silently we went on a short walk, a train ride, and another short walk, until returning to my soon-to-be-vacated apartment. The whole time, questions crawled around inside of me, pleading to be unleashed--the biggest and most insistent being, "Who the fuck was that guy?" I kept them sedated, out of respect.
However, after she spent an unknown amount of time on my mattress, staring at the ceiling, I decided to skip past the question in question and dive into our inevitable back-and-forth: "You have to tell someone."
She shrugged weakly. "I'll get around to it eventually."
"No," she replied, "it's not."
"What I mean is, you're positive you're never talking, and then I usually drag it out of you anyway."
"Really?" She gave me a look that made me wonder if I'd just told her that purple rhinos were contemplating with shoes. "Really? Do you think that, after ten years, you know anything about me?"
Clearly this was a rhetorical question, so I didn't answer.
"I actually trust people now," she said. "More than one person who just might not be there tomorrow."
"Now just wait a minute."
"Just shut the fuck up, Max."
"Um." Though we were only seven when we'd met, we'd never used each other's first names. Originally it was because our relationship was strictly business. Later, it became a private joke. The only time I'd ever called her Lisa was during the heated conversation that would separate us for a decade. Even then she didn't call me Max. And now, as the word set fire to my ears, I was reminded of how I felt the moment I gave up my virginity, and how, even though it was only an imaginary construct that meant nothing, I'd lost something I could never own again.
"You don't get to talk anymore."
"Now you're just being dramatic," I told her.
"I said shut up!" she roared. "That's what you always do! You just keep talking and talking, and you never have to fucking deal with anything."
"I always listen to you."
"No, you fucking don't." Her voice was softening, but my heart was terrified. "You just let me give you something you can use to make yourself my hero. Like you were some kind of a fairy princess, and it was your job to turn me into a real boy."
"Your analogy is problematic."
She shook her head with the kind of disappointment that cause me more violence than her fists ever could. "You're just like him."
"That's none of your goddamn business."
"Why the hell not?"
"Because you weren't there." She spat out the words. "Because you told me to go fuck myself, and you left me alone. And I had to fix myself. And I think I did a pretty damned good job of it."
She had, but that's not the part that stuck. "I left you alone because it was impossible to be your friend. You pushed me too far."
"I'm bipolar. I had no control over myself back then."
"So you had no control when you smashed the hell out of my kitchen? When you shoved our friend Angelo into that arroyo because he said something stupid about your breasts? When you ran around and had sex with every teenage boy who would? When you called the cops on my cousin and got him thrown in jail for dealing, where he still is?"
"You are so full of shit."
Her eyes narrowed. "You don't have any idea how mental illness works."
My eyes rolled. "Please. You should know better. When someone gets drunk and beats the shit out of his family, do the cops arrest the six-pack?" That was low of me, I admit, considering her father. But I was mad.
"Drinking's a choice."
"Maybe the first couple."
"Hitting's a choice."
"So were the times you hit me," I told her, "but I forgave you yesterday, because..." Shit. How should I put this? "Because I love you." It was a weird kind of love, and that something we both understood, even to this day. It went deeper than the love I felt for my family, and was sturdier than the love I've felt for anyone I've ever had sex with.
"I know," she sighed. "But I've moved on."
I needed to escape and slump down on a chair, but the closest thing I had to that in my now-empty apartment was a pair of barstools in the kitchen. I shuffled over there, because I couldn't stay here in my bedroom with her forever. I had no idea whether or not I wanted her to follow.
After a while, she did. "Do you ever want to look at me again after this?"
"It depends," I replied. "Do you miss me?"
"Oh, God yes," she sighed. "You have no idea."
"I probably do."
Another long hush smothered us.
I said, "Want another drink?"
"I thought you'd never ask."
Something I'd never really thought about before was whether my sex voice sounded like my not-sex voice. Noise in these apartments bled through the walls like gauze, and if my grunts and moans were at all familiar-sounding, then my roommates might realize that I had spent most of the late evening enthusiastically fucking my neighbor. This was a problem, inasmuch as it was important to my living situation that they believe I was homosexual. It was a thin disguise, to be sure, but it seemed to work.
I could always pretend I'd been engaged in sodomy in my own room, but then they'd want to meet the guy. Besides, Emma was pretty damned vocal herself, and no amount of biting my shoulder could restrain that.
Jesus my shoulder hurt.
I didn't know what time it was; only that I had to leave for work in a few hours--a prospect that seemed so much more daunting now that I was weighed down by marijuana and sheer physical exhaustion. My body and mind agreed that if there ever was a time to doze off, this was it.
I really didn't need to hear that sound right now, and so I willed myself not to be there anymore.
That didn't work. I settled for mumbling, "I don't know anybody by that name."
"Come on," the voice insisted, "wake up!"
"For crying out loud, Em," I moaned, "I'm a man, not a machine."
"My name's not Em."
"My name's not dude."
"Fine," she said, "you call me Em, I'll call you dude."
"Good." I began to drift away again. "I'm glad we had the chance to work this out."
I tried to ignore her.
"I wanted to talk to you about something."
Okay, now I was awake. Nothing good ever starts with a phrase like that. "Is that why you led me here?"
"No," she said condescendingly, "I lured you here because I wanted to fuck your brains out. But now that we're here, maybe we should talk about us?"
"What about us?"
"Exactly! I don't even know anything about you. It's not like we've ever had a real conversation."
"Oh, yeah?" I replied. "Then what did we talk about the night we met?" That wasn't a rhetorical question; I don't remember a thing about that conversation, and not because I was drunk.
"Um," she muttered, "I was only pretending to pay attention to what you had to say."
"Are you telling me you were only interested in my body?"
"Is that a problem?"
Without giving me a chance to respond aloud, she continued, "Most people have sex after the third or fourth date, and here we've had sex four times ..."
"And we haven't even had a real date."
"You want to go on a date?"
I sighed. "You know, there's so many ways this is a bad idea."
"I know, but ..." She breathed.
"I hate this girl shit."
"What are you talking about?"
She brushed one of her cinnamon curls behind her ear and looked at everything in the room that wasn't me. "I've been thinking about you constantly since the last time. You remember, when you propped my up on the dresser and did that thing?"
"I seem to recall being there for that." Mostly because I didn't think I had that in me. Although, to be fair, I was kind of possessed.
"And I'm just thinking about ..." She waved her hand up and down my body, lingering an extra moment just below my waist. "... that. I've been thinking about your cocky smile and your sarcasm and your crooked nose and I just want to know all about you and I'm so sorry I am such an idiot!" She threw herself back onto the mattress and covered her face with a pillow.
I took a few deep breaths. "You're right."
"I know!" her muffled voice groaned. "That is so stupid! I'm sorry!"
I growled. I needed some goddamn sleep.
Suddenly she tore the pillow away and sat straight up. "Really?"
"Really," I replied. "Why not?" Part of my agreement was pure curiosity, but most of it was the desire to bring this conversation to an end.
"It doesn't have to be anything special," she blathered. "We can just have dinner here. I know a great Thai place down the block."
"I don't think we'd actually do a lot of talking if we ate here."
"True," she said.
"Can we iron out the details tomorrow?" I asked.
"Thank you," she sighed happily.
I dozed off, knowing what a disaster this was going to be, but preferring to deal with the fallout later.
However, it took only a minute for her to whisper, "Dude!"
"Dammit! It's..." I squinted at her alarm clock, but it was covered by her sports bra. "... late!"
She didn't seem to care. "Do you think you could do that thing, you know, horizontally?"
"I am so tired, Em."
"Okay then," she giggled, "can I do something to you?"
"For the love of God, no," I groaned.
Her fingernails bit into my inner thigh.
"Mitchell?" I asked my roommate within moments of arriving home.
"Yeah," he replied.
"Why is there an ATM in the living room?"
"I'm holding it for a friend."
"Oh," I said, as if that explained everything. Well, almost everything. "Mitchell?"
"We live on the fourth floor."
"Yes, we do," he confirmed.
"Of a walkup."
"I'm not sure I understand what you're getting at," he said.
"How did this get up here?"
He shrugged. "You know."
Before I could ask what it was that he assumed I knew, he'd wandered away.
"I'm going to bed," I concluded and headed straight to my room. If the world was going to fling crap like that at me like it was some kind of inbred monkey, I was just going to have to put myself in the proper state of mind. With enough marijuana to intoxicate a water buffalo, I crawled out my window.
After the day I'd had, nothing was going to make me happier than this bowl. But just before I touched flame to green, a voice from my neighbor's apartment called out, "Dude, is that you?"
I considered taking a hit before replying, but I wanted to savor every moment with my green, foul-smelling victory. "No."
"Dude," she said, callously disregarding my falsehood, "I've got to show you something."
"I don't got to see it." Unless it was herself clad only in a lacy pushup bra, preferably in cerulean blue, which would brighten up her eyes. That was negotiable.
"Aren't you even curious?"
I took a deep breath, unfortunately, of regular air, uncontaminated by cannabis. What was it going to take to get some goddamned peace in my life. "Will you leave me alone if I do?"
"Only if you want me to."
"Oh, I want you to."
"We'll see about that." She added, "Go on, guess!"
I folded up my pipe. This was going to take a while. Now what the hell could be so exciting that I had to endure this? I took a stab at it: "Is it...?"
"It's apple butter!"
My mind said, "What?" My mouth also said, "What?"
"Come inside and I'll show you."
"Can you show me out here?"
There was a long pause as she considered her answer. "Please!"
"Fine," I growled, prying open her window."
"I'm in the kitchen!"
Stepping out of her bedroom, I found myself completely disoriented. Her apartment was only two-thirds the size of mine, so why couldn't I find the kitchen? "Marco!" I shouted.
"Polo!" she shouted back.
Following the sound of her voice, I muttered, "How does one get the apple milk to make the apple curd you need to churn to... Oh, my."
I had to conclude that the unlabeled jar in her left hand contained apple butter, because she was sucking on the finger of the other one, and she appeared to be enjoying it. When I opened my mouth, I'd planned on asking her about that, but what I actually said indicated what was really on the forefront of my mind: "You're not wearing your shirt."
She didn't say anything; she just grinned an enormous, smug grin. Below her waist were her unremarkable track pants--the ones I had once torn off so eagerly not long ago--but above the waist she wore only a periwinkle, pushup bra.
Periwinkle. Okay, I was willing to compromise.
I needed to say something right now. It needed to be witty, but not so funny that it would kill this hypnotic stare-down we had going on. I said, "Apple butter?"
She took a moment to finish licking her finger clean before she asked, "Want some?"
With the grace of a zombie, I reached for the jar.
She pulled away and scolded me, "Like this!" She dipped her finger into the jar and held it held it in front of my face.
Without breaking eye contact, I steadied her hand with mine and enjoyed my first taste of the touted apple butter.
"Although," she said, "there may be one way to make it even better." With that, she dunked my pinkie in the jar and licked it.
Using my free hand, I braced myself on the nearest door frame, seeing as my legs were now useless to me.
"Not bad," she purred. "So what to you think?"
I grabbed the back of her neck, pulled her closer, and kissed her ravenously. From that point forward, only one thought in my head had any sort of coherency, and it demanded that she leave that sexy-as-hell bra alone as long as possible. The rest of the clothing in the room, however, was fair game. Sure enough, my pant, shirt, and tie joined her track pants in a pile in the corner. Don't ask me how they got there. I don't even remember how my boots and socks got off of my feet, and those were usually the things that crippled momentum.
The rational part of my mind only surfaced for a moment when it heard her gasp, "Wait." She fumbled around the counter until she opened her silverware drawer and retrieved a condom. A few minutes of frenzied grappling, fumbling, and thrusting later, she caught her breath and asked, "Can we lie down on the floor now?"
I nodded and helped her off the counter.
After we rested and enjoyed some air, we both laughed. She helped herself out of that beautiful, beautiful bra. "What did you think of the apple butter?"
"It made me forget all about getting high."
"You've got some weed?"
"Pretty regularly," I replied.
"Can I have some?"
"I thought you didn't like to smoke because," I started to say before good sense caught up to me. "Yes, you can have some."
Tyffanie Grant was only sixteen, but she had spent the past five years selling out pop-music concerts and acting in her all-ages sitcom, Mac and Daddy. She'd always dressed and acted provocatively, yet maintained her virtue. Tonight, she was going to put money on it. Judging by the decorations and the size of this yacht on which I stood, I'd say it was a lot of money.
For a purity ball, I was expecting more white clothing. Even the boys, all athletic and bobbing their heads in unison to the music, wore mostly baby blue shirts tucked into their meticulously pressed khakis--too cool, of course, to dance.
The girls unanimously wore black cocktail dresses with skirts that reached down to their mid-thighs and kept hiking up as they wriggled, writhed, and sweat to the bubblegum blaring out of the unnecessarily large speakers in every corner. To Ms. Grant's credit, none of the tunes were her own.
After hours of this, I barely even noticed my colleague, Gretchen, finishing her photographing orbit of the room and gliding over. "Max, look at this."
"I am looking."
She smacked the back of my head. "Not there."
I turned my attention to the display on her camera. "What am I looking at?"
"Phil Ferris," I replied, "the washed-up comedian who plays the titular father in Mac and Daddy."
She smacked me again. "That's for saying tit in a yacht full of teenagers."
"It means title, you idiot."
She shrugged. "I know, I just like hitting you."
"That's nice," I told her. "Can I go back to being a creepy pedophile now?"
This time, when she swung at me, I caught her wrist.
"Do you think you could tell me what's going on without hitting me again?"
"I'm not talking about Phil Ferris," she said, liberating her arm, "I'm talking about the guy behind him."
I squinted. "Looks like a ferret in a sweater vest."
"Yeah, but who is he?"
I scanned the room and caught sight of him swaggering over in this direction, with his loosely knotted tie, well-worn cargo pants, and scruffy blonde hair. I'd never seen him before, but it was obvious to me exactly who I was dealing with: my newly acquired nemesis, who worked for my rival paper and had been snatching exclusive interviews right out from under me.
I said to him, "Allen Dean, I presume."
"Wayne," said someone nearby.
"Say what?" I turned to the voice to see a towering slab of Nordic beef. His blond hair, like Gretchen's, improbably swept over his head in the most stylish manner imaginable. His lips, like Gretchen's, puffed alluringly. His chest, like Gretchen's, threatened the integrity of his button-up shirt. And he brandished a camera, just like Gretchen.
The Aryan repeated, "I'm Wayne."
"I'm Gretchen," she purred, checking him out.
"Knock that off," I hissed at her.
"You must be the lauded Max Fuentes," the ferret said.
"You must be..."
"Not lauded much longer," he added.
"That's a declaration of war, Dean," I told him.
"A bit of a one-sided war, don't you think?"
"This sexual tension is killing me," I said. "Should we make out now, or should we trade a few more barbs?"
He shook his head. "You're funny. But redundant. I'm about to score an exclusive, and all you'll have left to write are captions."
"You're so cute," I told him before cupping my hands to mouth and turning toward the dance floor. "Tyffanie Grant! Come on over!"
A few moments passed, and she emerged from a cloud of giggling teenage girls without a word, just a curious smile.
"If I promised to dance with you and all your friends, you think I could get an exclusive?"
She looked me up and down, grabbed my hand, and said, "Deal."
As she pulled me away, I made sure to blow Allen Dean a kiss.
A half hour and a full notebook later, I rejoined Gretchen, who was standing alone and fanning her face with the hand not occupied with a camera.
"The hormones in there are suffocating," I told her. "If I don't fuck something tonight, I am going to die."
She let out something between a moan and a sigh. "Oh, yeah. It's a good thing I have a boyfriend to go home to." I couldn't tell if the sigh was one of relief or schadenfreude. It didn't matter, because I spent the rest of the evening inebriated to the point of nausea by youthful lust.
When I got home hours later, I tried a cold shower, but I couldn't wash the hormones off of me. It made it worse, actually, as I became aware of how nude I was, and how badly I wanted to share that nudity with someone who richly deserved it.
I tried masturbating, but I kept remembering how young the objects of my fantasies were. Whenever I tried to change the subject, I found myself recalling the skinny, immature limbs of my high-school sweetheart. Whichever way my mind's eye went, it landed on jailbait.
And so I tried climbing onto my fire escape and getting some fresh air laced with tetrahydrocannabinol, but this was the worst idea of them all, because of my neighbor.
I could have fled at that moment, because, facing away from me with her cell to her ear, she had no idea I was there. Yet I was paralyzed by her neck, exposed by a loose ponytail and glowing with sweat, by the damp polyester clinging to her back, and by her workout pants.
Damn. Athletic women: my only weakness.
My mind, already on fire, ceded control to my body, which maneuvered my feet right up to her. The fingers of my right hand slid over her hip so they could tug loose the knot that held her drawstring together. The rest of them stroked her stomach and crept under the hem of her shirt.
She told her phone, "I'm going to have to call you back, Mom."
Fifteen minutes later, give or take, I rolled onto my back and wheezed, "Sorry."
She also rolled onto her back and attempted, with limited success, to slow down her breathing. "Why?" she panted. "Fair's fair, after all."
The door to the holding cell opened, and the officer on the other side told me, "You're free to go, Max."
With a yawn, I asked him. "Hey, Jason. What's going on?"
"You know, the usual."
"Really? Because the last time I was in, they told me you and the family went to Florida for the week."
Rolling his eyes, he said, "Not much of a vacation when you got to stay with your in-laws, if you know what I mean."
"Not personally, but I've heard things."
"Lucky." He shook his head. "You know the way out. Stay out of trouble."
We smirked at each other.
When I got to the check-out desk, I said to the uniform sitting behind it. "Hey, Roger."
"Hey, Max," he replied. "Says here you were trespassing backstage at the Staplebitch concert."
"My daughter loves that band."
"Your daughter has lousy taste in music."
"That's what I keep telling her," he said, "but you know kids."
"Not personally, but I've heard things."
He handed me my belongings, I signed for them, and he told me, "See you next time, buddy."
Upon exiting the building, I was greeted by my colleague and photographer, Gretchen, leaning on a lamppost, playing with her fingernails. Her voluptuous hair was tied up into a stringy ponytail, her pin-up-girl figure was hidden under too-large jeans and a T-shirt, her bright eyes were bloodshot and framed by the ugliest pair of glasses I'd ever seen, her lips were pale, and her smile was absent. I'd recognized her only by the sound of her gum-chewing.
"Gretchen," I told her, "you look like shit."
"You look like the shit that shit shits," she replied.
I took a moment to comprehend what she had just said. Failing that, I closed my eyes and exhaled.
"We done?" she asked.
She strode off, and I turned on my phone to see what the world had been up to in my absence. "You have one new message," the ethereal voice inside informed me.
"And I bet you a dollar I'm going to hate it," I mumbled in reply.
"Max," the message growled, "this is Myron. You know, your editor? The one who keeps having to bail you out of jail? That Myron? I expect to see you in my office within a half-hour of you getting you out, and I expect you to have an interview for me with the notoriously difficult-to-interview it-band of the moment with the stupid name. If not, I will murder you, chop up your body, and throw it in a compost heap."
Seeing as I'd failed to get said interview, I figured I should try to make a run for it.
"If you failed to get said interview, and you try to make a run for it," the message continued, "I will hunt you down then murder you, chop up your body, and throw it in a compost heap."
My phone went off while I was a dead man walking to the train, and I went ahead and answered it, given that I was too numb to give a fuck anymore.
"Am I talking to Max Fuentes?" it asked.
"Who wants to know?" I replied.
"I need you to confirm or deny the veracity of a recent news-related rumor."
"And what rumor would that be?"
"That an exclusive, all-access, behind-the-scenes story about Staplebitch is not running in your paper this weekend."
I'd never heard the voice before, but the cockiness of my arch-nemesis could not be mistaken. For starters, it rivaled mine. "Allen Dean," I moaned.
"I also need you to confirm that I scooped you. Again."
It didn't even occur to me to ask how he got my number, because I was too busy informing him, "Dean, I am going to fucking kill you."
He laughed and hung up.
I sighed, "Myron is going to fucking kill me."
Forty-five minutes later, however, my editor sentenced me to a fate worse than death. I blinked. "You want me to do what?"
"Not you," said my editor as he pointed a finger at my colleague and photographer, Gretchen, who had somehow gone home, showered, washed and blew out her hair, dressed, and applied most of her makeup, since I last saw her not all that long ago; "both of you."
"I'm clear on who's involved, Chief, but it's what you want us to do that I don't quite understand."
"Go to a purity ball," he repeated. "And you should probably stop calling me Chief. You're already skating on thin shit."
Gretchen snorted. "Max isn't exactly pure, you know."
"Well," Myron continued, "it's not your purity in question, but you're still attending."
"Yeah," I said, "I'm not going to do that."
"Since when did this become a democracy?"
"Since 1788," I replied, "when the Constitution was ratified. Mind you, it excluded blacks, women, and poor people, but we've since made improvements."
During the course of this back and forth, Gretchen produced a vial of mascara from God knows where.
"Max," Myron said as he absently produced a mirror and held it up for her, "if you don't shut up and do as you're told, I'm going to physically kick your ass."
"I'd like to see you try."
"I'd pay money to see that," Gretchen muttered.
"You're young," he told me, "but I could take you."
"You're probably right," I admitted. "So, I totally forgot with all the banter, what was our assignment?"
"Request denied," Sean told me as he slid off the stool at the International Bar.
I appealed his ruling. "Why?"
"Because, as is the case every morning," he explained, "I must report to my place of employment."
"The hour at which I must do this is rapidly approaching."
He sighed. "Excluding you, and perhaps some chemically enhanced rock musicians, the mammalian biology requires a number of hours to rest and reset its physiology. A more economical way of describing this function is..." He pantomimed quotation marks, probably because he knew how much I hated that. "... 'sleep.'"
I wasn't sure how this applied to him. Given the way he interacted with people in general, as well as the fact that his fashion was as robotic as his vocabulary, I'd always suspected he was not a mammal at all, but rather a really badly disguised alien that didn't actually need to sleep. Regardless, I chose to play along with his subterfuge; I was desperate. "Call in sick to work," I said. "Spend a few extra hours in bed."
"The flaw in your logic is that I would find myself wracked with boredom upon awakening."
"Watch some TV."
"I derive the same amount of pleasure from television as you."
I derived the same amount of pleasure from television as someone getting beaten in the face with a sanitation worker's shovel, so that was out. "Don't you have any hobbies you've been meaning to get to?"
"Excelling at my family's business is the closest approximation I have to a hobby," he replied, "inasmuch as it is the only pastime for which I've shown any talent."
"I don't know what to say to that."
"Then say nothing." He gave me a moment before sitting back down and asking, "What is it you seek to avoid at home by further socializing?"
I sighed and signaled Dan the Bartender. "I think I need another beer."
There was one in front of me almost instantly. "You really look like you do," Dan replied.
I poured it down my throat and said, "I think I need another beer."
Dan handed me another bottle.
I turned back to Sean. "Where was I?"
"Right." I sighed, "Every time I go home, I run into my neighbor, and she calls me Dude. And that word cuts into me like a..." Okay, so where the hell did my wit go just now? "Like a sharp thing that hurts a lot."
"What qualifies this as more dire than other verbal indignities you tend to endure on a regular basis?"
"Because," I tried to reply. "Because... To be honest..." I said before turning back to Dan the Bartender. "I think I need another beer." Upon my order being delivered, I spat out, "Because it makes me feel awkward."
"Why, pray tell, would it be awkward?" he asked. "You have, after all, seen her in the nude and have performed unspeakable acts upon her body..."
"Enthusiastically, I'll have you know."
"You have performed unspeakable acts upon her body with great vigor..."
"Vigor's a good word for it," I sighed.
Undeterred, Sean continued, "and you fled from her without so much as a simple telephone call, and now you're hiding in the closet--figuratively, of course--only to discover that your most recent sexual conquest..."
"Not my most recent," I mumbled.
"I'd forgotten you were a slut."
"I'm not sorry."
"Be that as it may," he continued, "one of your more recent sexual conquests sleeps in a bed not more than four feet away from yours, and you have yet to learn her surname."
"When you put it that way," I said, "it sounds kind of filthy."
Sean laughed. "I find it astounding that I'm sitting next to the most preposterous thing ever to grace this bar. And, if you'll recall, it had been recently patronized by a man in a gorilla suit."
Dan the bartender shook his head and chuckled, "Silly gorilla-suit guy."
Inspiration struck me. "This is a message from the heavens!"
"No," I replied, "Sex. I quit having it."
"I doubt your conviction."
"I believe me, and that's all that matters."
"This is the most ill-conceived idea I've been party to in quite some time," he told me.
"It makes perfect sense," I said. "I am tired of being led around by my penis. When I think about it, I've made so many bad decisions in pursuit of sex, and what do I get out of it?"
"Orgasms," he replied.
"Well, it's not worth it," I declared.
"There is little doubt in my mind that you'll find yourself fornicating at some point in the near future. As a matter of fact," he told me, "I'm willing to entertain a wager in regard to your poorly thought-out declaration."
"I'm prepared to stake one dollar on this."
"That's not exactly a fair bet," I said. "You'll only have pay up if I die before you."
He sighed. "Very well. If, by this time next year, you haven't engaged in sexual congress of any sort, I will pay out the dollar you will have earned."
"That's not a lot of money."
"My father would say, 'It's the principle of the thing.'"
I shook his hand. "Better make sure you have enough money in that bank account in a year." I added, "And can we keep congress out of this? They just fuck everything up."
He ignored me. "Double if your partner in said acts is your neighbor."
"Hell, I'll go triple on that."
"Double is sufficient."
"Sucker," I mumbled.
"Sucker," he mumbled.
She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door. She led us down the hall, away from the library's study room, and whispered, "What's up?"
"Where have you been?" I asked. "I've been calling you all week."
I was only eighteen, and my experience with breakups was limited. On one hand, I had my one-and-only personal breakup, which had consisted of me walking in on my girlfriend being groped by my oldest friend. On the other hand, I had movies and TV, in which such breakups were merely the prelude to the actual romance. On a third hand, I had the ongoing histrionics of my high-school friends, all of which were pretty stupid, and none of which plumbed the emotional depths I thought I'd had with the girl I'd once loved. The idea of a couple splitting up with minimal drama was one of those things I knew existed but had never witnessed--like a blue whale or a quark.
And yet I recognized that sigh.
"Oh, Bupkis," she said.
"My name is Max." If I was correct about where this conversation was going, she had given up all rights to affectionate nicknames.
"Don't ruin this."
"Ruin what?" I asked. "You're the one who's dumping me."
She flinched. "Bupkis..."
"I want to remember how much fun we had together," she replied, "not how it ended."
"Why does it have to end?"
"For starters, you're a freshman, and I'm not."
"We have different priorities."
"I don't have any priorities."
"There's that," she said. "And the fact that I'm going to grad school next year."
"We could do long distance."
"Really?" She closed her eyes. "Are you really thinking that far ahead with someone you've only been sleeping with for three weeks."
"But we're so good together!"
"Which is why we need to wrap this up," she told me. "Before it gets complicated."
"But complicated is good, right?"
She averted her eyes. "Not for me it isn't."
"I don't get you," I mumbled.
"There's that too."
Neither of us looked at each other or said anything for a long time, until she concluded, "Look, I have a final tomorrow. Can we talk about this later?"
"Do you really want to talk about this later?"
She shook her head.
I then uttered what was probably the smartest thing I'd said since the moment I'd walked into the building. "Then don't worry about it."
My mind, stalled and adrift, ceded control of my body to my feet, which shuffled me through the exit doors of the library and to a bench just outside. The December chill tried to remind me that I'd forgotten my jacket, but I wasn't paying attention.
If the loss of my high-school sweetheart was the back story to my personal narrative, then what was I to the woman I just walked away from? Just another chapter? Was that what she was to me?
In the midst of this identity crisis, I barely noticed the figure who appeared beside me. "Can I sit here?"
My new neighbor settled down with a peripheral rustle of wool and a whiff of cigarette smoke. "Aren't you cold?"
I shrugged, turned to the owner of the voice, and blinked at a pair of sharp eyes, a set of smiling lips, and a hint of soft curves that squirmed at the touch of the frozen concrete slab we shared.
You know, you can cram a lot of chapters into a novel.
"Hi," I said to her. "I'm Max."
The first thing she remembered about that day was how annoyed she was that she had to come onto campus during the summer. The asshole still lived on campus, even though he was, like her, a senior in a month and a half. Besides, she'd heard he was rich, so if he really felt like isolating himself, he could live anywhere. Whatever. It was one of those stupid fucking things he did to make himself seem cool and unique--kind of like that stupid fucking sweater of his.
Lisa's relationship with the asshole had cooled by that point, so they could actually take a small amount of comfort in each other. Maybe it was because their mutual presence brought to mind her boyfriend--his best friend. Maybe it was because she couldn't trust him to be alone with his own thoughts, and vice versa. What mattered was that it was Fourth of July weekend, her boyfriend was back home in Idaho, she was bored, she was hungry, and she was going to drag his skinny ass over to May's Cafe for a greasy omelet.
When he didn't answer the door, something she couldn't put a finger on thought it was a little weird. He was always home, except when he was at her place. Sure he was entitled to go to the restroom or buy cigarettes or something, but not if it inconvenienced her. She knocked again out of spite, and, for a second there, she thought she'd heard something. She knocked one more time, and there it was--a dull moan. She tried the knob, but it was locked. After a quick glance around to make sure no one was watching, she pulled out her men's wallet and removed a key.
What she was doing with that key was a long story, but the short version was this: before she came to college here, she ran with a pack of hoodlums. The alpha hooligan, a sneaky son of a bitch and aspiring criminal mastermind named Fuentes, taught her dozens of tips and tricks for breaking the law, none of which she'd forgotten. High up on the list was never to let a good skeleton key go to waste. Lucky for her, her boyfriend was an RA, and that meant he had access to every room in this dorm. She made herself a copy, not because she'd been planning on stealing anything, but rather to honor her heritage.
Besides, you never know what that kind of thing might come in handy. And that day, it was really fucking handy.
Inside, the asshole was lying on his back with his eyes half-open and a little stream of drool trickling down his cheek. It didn't even take her a second to figure out what was going on.
"No!" she whispered. "No, no, no!"
Breathing deeply, she tried to figure out what needed to happen next. "Think," she muttered, "what would Fuentes do?" He'd figure out what it was that was killing the person in question. That was easy. The asshole was overdosing on something. The next thing would need to get a little more specific. Something about the drool shouted opium, so she'd go with that. Next up was the delivery. It wasn't a needle, because there wasn't one lying around anywhere, and he wouldn't have had enough time to stash it. She was pretty sure that wasn't possible to smoke that much heroin, and besides, there was no smell. Snorting was out, or there would have been blood coming out of his nose. That left his stomach, and that she could do something about.
She crawled into bed next to him and listened to his chest to make sure he was still breathing. Satisfied, she stuck two fingers in his throat. He gagged, and, just before he threw up, she rolled him over so his head was hanging over the floor. She let him finish, and then repeated the procedure, just in case. When she was sure he was done, she wiped her hand on his stupid sweater and sat him up.
"Hey fuckface!" she yelled.
"Uh?" he mumbled.
Oh, thank God. "Yeah, you, fuckface!"
"You tell me, you rock-stupid motherfucker!"
He shook his head imperceptibly. "No."
"No, you're not going to tell me?"
"Don't," he coughed. "Stop."
"This is getting us nowhere. Phone." Because, honestly, she'd forgotten that hers was in her back pocket.
"Sweat," he sighed, "er."
It was right where he said it'd be. She called 911 and told them, "I have someone here that OD'd on something."
"I need you to calm down, ma'am, and tell me where you are."
"This is my calm voice!"
After a bit of back and forth, she stayed on the line while at the same time trying to stop him from nodding off. Just when she thought she couldn't keep it up anymore, the EMTs showed up and did whatever it was that EMTs do, and in no time, he was gone.
They had a lot of questions too: "Do you know what he took? Does he have a history of mental illness? Is he your boyfriend?" Shit like that. She answered the best she could--"No. I think so. Are you fucking kidding me?"--until they left her alone.
She held it in as long as she could, but really, that wasn't very long at all. She collapsed onto his bed and sobbed like a goddamned baby. Eventually, she pulled her shit together and remembered the phone in her hands. Sniffing, she sat up and scrolled through his contacts. A part of her was disappointed when L went by with no mention of her. That part, as much as she hated it, pushed her back down onto the mattress, where she cried some more.
Finally she returned to the phone and scrolled down to where it said "Mother." She hit send and waited.
On the other side of the phone, an exasperated voice sighed, "What is it this time, Sean?"
"My name's not fucking McCoy."
"What the fuck is it then?" Lisa didn't know why she asked that question.
"That your first or last name?"
"Look," the voice snapped, "stop wasting my fucking time and tell me why you're calling me on my son's fucking phone."
"I think he tried to kill himself."
The other end went silent.
"Goddammit!" the voice bellowed. "What the fuck?"
"I can't keep dropping what I'm doing every time he pulls shit like this?"
"Are you with him right now?"
"No," Lisa replied.
"Well, where the fuck is he?"
"Are you there with him?"
"No," Lisa told her, "I--"
"Well get the fuck over there and keep an eye on my son until I get there!"
The call ended, and she stared at the phone for what was probably five minutes before she finally shook her head and muttered, "Asshole doesn't fall far from the bigger asshole, does it?"
Her broken-in jeans and threadbare shirt, through which he could make out a dark bra, clashed delightfully with his antiseptic decor. "Fancy," she said.
"Yeah," he replied, "fancy."
"Must be nice being rich."
"Indeed it is."
She glanced around the apartment and asked, "Somebody actually lives here?"
He slung his jacket onto his easy chair, threw himself onto its matching slate gray sofa, loosened his tie, and kicked off his wingtips. "I fully intend to ignore your vague insult."
"Nothing vague about it," she told him. "Thanks for letting me stay over."
"Think nothing of it. It's a long cab ride to your place of residence."
"I wish you wouldn't use that kind of language around me."
He pointed to a hallway. "The bedroom is through there. As I am, if anything, a gentleman, I will sleep out here."
"And if I don't want you to sleep out here?"
"Then you are welcome to use the sofa."
"You are such a doofus." She rolled her eyes. "Got anything to drink here?"
"If you'll recall, I've been sober longer than you've known of me."
"People have been known to change," she said. "You did."
"Not as much as you think." He popped out his gold-plated cufflinks, tossed them into an empty ashtray, and rolled up his sleeves. "Besides, alcohol was responsible for these."
It had been years since she'd seen the scars that ran down the underside of his forearms, and their presence almost seemed to comfort her. "You think it was the liquor that did that?"
"I've chosen to believe so."
"Fair enough," she sighed. "Mind if I have one?"
"Perhaps I should have been more clear regarding the absence of potables in this place."
"I brought my own." Sure enough, there was a stainless-steel flask in her purse. "Got any place to put this?"
"There are highball glasses in the cabinet near the refrigerator."
"I thought you told me you still don't drink."
He shrugged. "I pretend."
"You are so weird." After pouring herself a few fingers of whiskey, she leaned on the counter, as casually as if it belonged to her, and took a long swallow, locking stares with him. They said nothing for what could have been hours until she asked, "Miss it?"
"Still? It's been, what, seven years?"
"In my defense, I enjoyed alcohol a great deal."
"Fair enough." She studied him for a moment. "Remember what it tastes like?"
He frowned in concentration. "No," he replied sadly.
She strutted over to him, taking her time doing so. "Want a reminder?"
"Perhaps I should have been more clear regarding my sobriety."
Propping her knee on the sofa next to him and steadying herself with a hand on his shoulder, she took a deep drink of the whiskey. Her lips brushed against his, and instantly he recognized the sour sting of the rye. He leaned hungrily toward her, but she backed away.
Without a word, she dipped a finger in the glass, traced her lip with it, and kissed him again. Eager for the flavor of the drink and of her, he licked and nibbled, causing her to moan.
"More," he whispered when she pulled away again.
But when she raised the glass, he snatched it from her hand and placed it on the end table behind him, not caring that there was no coaster. Her hand, now free, stroked his cheek, drawing him in.
He brushed a lock of hair from her face. "More," he told her again.
The coolest thing about police interrogation rooms anywhere in the country is that they all look exactly like they do in the movies or on TV. There's variety, of course--some have shackles, while others don't, and their sizes differ, but that's really it; they're all decorated with a metal table and plastic aluminum chairs, and they're all lit by unflattering fluorescents. Through the two-way mirror--also a prerequisite--I watched a uniformed policeman enter, legal pad in hand. Tradition dictates that he should have had a file folder as well, but this was the twenty-first century, and paper costs money and trees.
"So your friend in the other room told us the whole story," he said.
"Are we really going to do this?" I asked him.
"Well, there's no Good Cop with you, and you don't strike me as a Bad Cop, so I guess that makes you Mildly Irritated Cop."
"Shouldn't you be taking this a little more seriously?" he asked.
"Look, Officer..." I squinted at his name-tag. "... Reynolds. Do you know how many times I've done this?"
"A hundred and two."
His expression told me nothing.
"That's really cool." I reached into the pocket of my trademark brown leather pea coat and pulled out my notebook and pen, which, for some reason, they hadn't confiscated. "Can I write that down?"
"Be my guest." He clicked his own pen so he could record the upcoming conversation. "Do you know why you're here?"
"Because some guy in a trucker hat got punched in the face."
"And the girl..."
"Don't call her a girl to her face," I interrupted. "She hates that."
"... woman with you, a Lisa Green, states that you were punched in the stomach."
"Did you happen to see who did it?"
"I did not," I replied. "I'm assuming it was the same guy." It wasn't.
"That seems unlikely."
"The bar was kind of crowded, and my attention was already occupied."
I smirked. "By the ladies. The attention-getting ladies, if you catch my drift."
If he had, he didn't let on. Definitely Irritated Cop. "Why did you volunteer to come in to sign an affidavit then?"
"I didn't," I replied. "My friend did."
"She gave us a description of a white male, age eighteen to thirty-five, dressed in blue jeans and a denim jacket."
"That could be anybody."
He rolled his eyes. "The victim said he didn't know who assaulted him either, so he's not pressing charges." That was probably because he didn't want to admit that a diminutive woman knocked him out with one punch. "That said, between you and me, were you the one who did it?"
I snorted. "If I had, my knuckles would be broken, and he wouldn't have suffered a concussion. I'm a wimp, Officer."
"I see." He jotted that down. "So you think it was your companion?"
"She hits like a girl." Well, a cave girl. Especially when somebody knocks the wind out of me.
"I thought you said she didn't like to be called a girl."
"There's no reason that statement has to leave the room, is there?"
He shook his head.
"Then she hits like a girl."
"Is that a no?"
"That is a 'I can't tell you for certain.'"
He stood and said, "Mr. Fuentes, we don't want to take up anymore of your time." What he meant was that he didn't want me to take up anymore of his time, but calling him on that was a good way to get pepper-spray in my face. "You can go ahead and check out and go your own way."
"Do I need to sign anything?"
"Only whatever Roger gives you when you check out."
"Roger?" I both grinned and frowned. "Is he ever not at that desk?"
"Not as far as I know." Heading for the door, he recommended, "Stay out of trouble, Mr. Fuentes."
That wasn't likely. "Have a nice evening, Officer!"
After I'd been processed, I exited the building, only to be greeted by Lisa, who was leaning against a lamppost, lighting a joint.
"You've got balls of solid steel," I told her, "going into a police station with an eighth of weed in your sock."
"Being here with you after all these years," she replied, "inspired me to act out."
I chuckled. "Why don't we head back to the Village and find ourselves bar without fisticuffs on tap."
She held out her arm, and I wrapped mine around it. "Let's."
A quick train ride later, we wandered the narrow, vibrant streets of my favorite neighborhood in which to drink a lot. While contemplating a well-worn pub, a douchebag in a gray, three-piece suit, a black shirt, a white tie, and a camel-hair overcoat rounded the corner, thus lowering the tone. Something about the way he studied us with his expensive, horn-rimmed glasses and looked away as if we weren't there made me want to break my knuckles on his nose. It didn't help that he was informing his cell phone, "Our business partnership goes into full effect at the start of the next quarter. I suggest that, between then and now, you grant Mr. Franklin sole contact with my company, inasmuch as you can't be trusted to ..."
All of the color drained from Lisa's face. "Wait a fucking minute! I know that asshole's voice!" She then squeaked, "Sean?"
The douchebag turned back around, this time with his eyes wider than I'd ever seen anybody's get. "Fuck me in the ear!" he replied before dropping his phone and running like hell.
"What the fuck was that?" I asked, intending the question for anyone who might be listening.
"Take me home," Lisa replied.
"What... ?" I repeated.
"Take me home now."
Since she was my best friend in the history of the entire world, I obeyed, but not before picking up the discarded cell and pocketing it. I loved myself a good mystery.