Authors: Beth Nugent
The long car pulls up to the sidewalk and I bend to see if it has boys in it. It is full of them, so I say: —Hey, can I have a ride?
—Hey, they say. —Hey, the lady wants a ride. Where to? they ask.
—Oh, I say, —wherever. I look to see where they are heading. —Uptown, I say, and the door swings open, so I slide in. The oldest boy is probably sixteen and just got his driver’s license, and he is driving his mother’s car, a big Buick or Chevrolet or Monte Carlo—a mother’s car. Each of the boys is different, but they are all exactly alike in the way that boys are, and right away I pick the one I want. He’s the one who does not look at me, and he’s the oldest, only a couple of years younger than I, and it is his mother’s car we are in.
—How about a party? the boys say. —We know a good party uptown.
—Let’s just see, I say. —Let’s just ride uptown and see.
Sometimes I wake up to see her leaning on her thin knees against the wall that is stripped down to expose the rough
brick beneath the plaster. I dream that she prays to keep me, but I am afraid that it is something else she prays for, a beginning, or an end, or something I don’t know about. She came to bed once and laid her face against my breast, and I felt the imprint of the brick in the tender skin of her forehead.
She herself is not particularly religious, although the apartment is littered with the scraps of saints–holy relics of one sort or another: a strand of hair from the Christ child, a bit of fingernail from Saint Paul, a shred of the Virgin’s robe. They are left over from Tito, who collected holy relics the way some people collect lucky pennies or matchbooks, as a kind of hedge against some inarticulated sense of disaster. They are just clutter here, though, in this small apartment where we live, and I suggested to her once that we throw them out. She picked up a piece of dried weed from Gethsemane and said, —I don’t think they’re ours to throw out. Tito found them and if we got rid of them, who knows what might happen to Tito? Maybe they work is what I mean. And besides, she went on, —I don’t think it’s spiritually economical to be a skeptic about absolutely everything.
When Tito left, his relics abandoned for some new hope, she was depressed for a day or two, but said finally that it really was the best for everybody, especially for the two of us, the single reality to which our lives have been refined. Tito said he was getting sick of watching two dykes moon over each other all the time, though I think he was just angry because she wouldn’t let him touch me. I was all for it, I wanted him to touch me. That’s what I came to this city for: to have someone like Tito touch me, someone to whom touching is all the reality of being, someone who doesn’t do it in basements and think he has to marry you, someone who does it and doesn’t think about the glory of love. But she wouldn’t have it; she said if he ever touched me, she would
send me back to the Ninety-eighth Street porn theater and let the Puerto Ricans make refried beans out of me, and as for Tito, he could go back to Rosa, his wife in Queens, and go back to work lugging papers for the
and ride the subway every day and go home and listen to Rosa talk on the phone all night, instead of hanging out on street corners and playing cards with the men outside the schoolyard, like he did now. Because, she said, because she was paying the rent, and as long as rent control lasted in New York, she would continue to pay the rent, and she could live quite happily and satisfactorily by herself until she found the right sort of roommate; one, she said, fingering the shiny satin of Tito’s shirt, who paid the rent.
So Tito kept his distance and kept us both sick with his desire, and when she finally stopped sleeping with him and joined me on the mattress on the floor, even Tito could see that it wasn’t going to be long before we’d be taking the bed and he would have to move to the floor. To save himself from that, he said one day that he guessed he was something of a fifth wheel around the joint, huh? and he’d found a nice Puerto Rican family that needed a man around the house and he supposed he’d just move in with them. I think he was only trying to save face, though, because one day when she was out buying cigarettes, he roused himself from the couch and away from the television, to say to me, —You know, she was married before, you know.
—I know that, I said. —I know all about that.
How she pays the rent is with alimony that still comes in from her marriage and I know all about that and Tito wasn’t telling me anything that I didn’t know, so I looked back at the magazine I was reading and waited for him to go back to the television. He kept looking at me, so I got up to look out the window to see if I could see her coming back and if she had anything for me.
—What I’m trying to say, he said, —what I’m trying to tell you is that you’re not the only one. You’re not. I was the only one, too, the one she was always looking for. I was the one before you, and you’re just the one before someone else. I could see her rounding the corner from Ninety-sixth and Broadway, and could see that she had something in a bag for me, doughnuts or cookies. I said nothing, only looked out the window and counted the steps she took toward our building. She was leaning forward and listing slightly toward the wall, so I guessed that she must have had a few drinks in the bar where she always buys her cigarettes. When I could hear her key turning in the lock to the street door, I went to open our door for her and Tito reached out and grabbed me by the arm.
—Listen, he said. —You just listen. Nobody is ever the only one for nobody. Don’t kid yourself.
I pulled away and opened the door for her. When she came in, cold skin and wet, I put my face in her hair and breathed in the smell of gin and cigarettes, and all the meaning of my life.
The next day Tito left, but he didn’t go far, because I still see him hanging out on street corners. Now all the women he has known are in his eyes, but mostly there is her, and when he looks at me, I cannot bear to see her lost in the dark there. Whenever I pass him, I always smile.
—Hey, Tiiiiiiito, I say. —
, huh? And all his friends laugh, while Tito tries to look as though this is something he’s planned himself, as though he has somehow elicited this remark from me.
I suppose one day Tito will use the key he forgot to leave behind to sneak in and cover me with his flagging desire, his fading regrets, and his disappointments, and she will move
on then, away from me; but rent control will not last forever in New York, and I cannot think ahead to the beginnings and the ends for which she prays.
The boys in the car lean against one another and leer and twitch like tormented insects, exchanging glances that they think are far too subtle for me to understand, but I have come too far looking for too much to miss any of it. We drive too fast up Riverside, so that it’s no time at all before the nice neighborhoods become slums full of women in windows, with colorful clothing slung over fire escapes, and, like a thick haze hanging over the city, the bright noise of salsa music. Like the sound of crickets threading through the Ohio summer nights, it sets the terms for everything.
—So, one of them says, —so where are you going, anyways? —Well, I say. —Well. I was thinking about going to the Bronx Botanical Gardens.
The Bronx Botanical Gardens is no place I’d ever really want to go, but I feel it’s important to maintain, at least in their eyes, some illusion of destination. If I was a bit more sure of myself, I’d suggest that we take the ferry over to Staten Island and do it in the park there. Then I could think of her.
When we went to Staten Island, it was cold and gray and windy; we got there and realized that there was nothing really that we wanted to see, that being in Staten Island was really not all that different from being in Manhattan.
—Or anywhere, she said, looking down a street into a corridor of run-down clothing stores and insurance offices. It was Sunday, so everything was closed up tight and no one was on the street. Finally we found a coffee shop near the ferry station, where we drank Cokes and coffee, and she smoked cigarettes, while we waited for the boat to leave.
—Lezzes, the counterman said to another man sitting at the counter eating a doughnut. —What do you want to bet they’re lezzes?
The man eating the doughnut turned and looked us over. —They’re not so hot anyways, he said. —No big waste. She smiled and held her hand to my face for a second; the smoke from her cigarette drifted past my eyes into my hair. —What a moment, she said, —to remember.
On the way back, I watched the wind whip her face all out of any shape I knew, and when I caught the eyes of some boys on the ferry, she said, not looking at me, not taking her eyes from the concrete ripples of the robe at the feet of the Statue of Liberty just on our left, —What you do is your own business, but don’t expect me to love you forever if you do things like this. I’m not, she said, turning to look me full in the face, —your mother, you know. All I am is your lover, and nothing lasts forever.
When we got off the ferry, I said: —I don’t expect you to love me forever, and she said I was being promiscuous and quarrelsome, and she lit a cigarette as she walked down into the subway station. I watched her as she walked, and it seemed to me to be the first time I had ever seen her back, walking away from me, trailing a long blue string of smoke.
Something is going on with the boys, something has changed in the set of their faces, the way they hold their cigarettes, the way they nudge each other. Something changes when the light begins to fade, and one of them says to me: —We have a clubhouse uptown, want to come there with us?
—What kind of club, I ask, —what do you do there?
—We drink whisky, they say, —and take drugs and watch television.
My boy, the one I have picked out of this whole city of boys,
stares out the window, chewing at a toothpick he’s got wedged somewhere in the depths of his jaw, and runs his finger over the slick plastic of the steering wheel. I can tell by his refusal to ask that he wants me to come. This, I suppose, is how to get to the center of boys, to go to their club. Boys are like pack creatures, and they always form clubs; it’s as though they cannot help themselves. It’s the single law of human nature that I have observed in my limited exposure to the world, that plays and plays and replays itself out with simple mindless consistency: where there are boys, there are clubs, and anywhere there is a club, it is bound to be full of boys, looking for the good times to be had just by being boys.
—Can I join? I ask. This is what I will take back to her, cigarettes and a boy’s club. This will keep her for me forever: that I have gone to the center of boys and have come back to her.
—Well, they say, and smirk and grin and scratch at themselves. —Well, there’s an initiation.
The oldest of the boys is younger than I, and yet, like boys everywhere, they all think that I don’t know nearly so much as they do, as if being a woman somehow short-circuits my capacity for input. They have a language that they think only boys can understand, but understanding their language is the key to my success, so I smile and say: —I will not fuck you all, separately or together.
My boy looks over at me and permits himself a cool half-smile, and I am irritated that he now holds me in higher regard because I can speak a language that any idiot could learn.
Between us there are no small moments; we do not speak at all or we speak everything. Heat bills and toothpaste and
dinner and all the dailiness of living are given no language in our time together. I realize that this kind of intensity cannot be sustained over a long period of time and that every small absence in our days signals an end between us. She tells me that I must never leave her, but what I know is that someday she will leave me with a fistful of marriage money to pay the rent as long as rent control lasts in New York, and I will see her wandering down the streets, see her in the arms of another, and I say to her sometimes late at night when she blows smoke rings at my breasts: Don’t leave me. Don’t ever ever leave me.
—Life, she always says to me, —is one long leave-taking. Don’t kid yourself, she says. —Kid, and laughs. —Anyways, you are my little sweetheart, and how could I ever leave you, and how could I leave this–soft touch on my skin–and this, and this.
She knows this kills me every time.
Their clubhouse is dirty and disorganized and everywhere there are mattresses and empty beer bottles and bags from McDonald’s, and skittering through all of this mess are more roaches than I thought could exist in a single place, more roaches than there are boys in this city, more roaches than there are moments of love in this world.
The boys walk importantly in. This is their club; they are New York City boys and they take drugs and they have a club, and I watch as they scatter around and sit on mattresses and flip on the television. I hang back in the doorway and reach out to snag the corner of the jacket my boy is wearing. He turns to me without interest.
—How about some air? I say.
—Let me just get high first, he says, and he walks over to a chair and sits down and pulls out his works and cooks up his dope and ties up his arm and spends a good two minutes
searching out a vein to pop. All over his hands and arms and probably his legs and feet and stomach are signs of collapse and ruin, as if his body has been created for a single purpose, and he has spent a busy and productive life systematically mining it for good places to fix.
I watch him do this while the other boys do their dope or roll their joints or pop their pills, and he offers me some. I say no, I’d rather keep a clear head, and how about some air? I don’t want him to hit a nod before any of it’s even happened, but this is my experience with junkies, that they exit right out of every situation before it’s even become a situation.
—Let’s take the car, he says.
You are my sweetheart, she says, and if you leave me, you will spend all your life coming back to me. With her tongue and her words and the quiet movement of her hand over my skin, she has drawn for me all the limits of my life, and of my love. It is the one love that has created me and will contain me, and if she left me I’d be lonely, and I’d rather sleep in the streets with her hand between my legs forever than be lonely.