Nothing Good Ever Ends Well (aka The Agony Columns: Luke)

Even when I’m not being vagrant, staying home after work and spending time with Ethan, there’s still days I get the taste of gin and ashes on my tongue. Waking up like a skeleton, bare as bone, with nothing but a name. My veins poking from short-sleeves, tints of yellow, white, blue, green- pieces revealing what I’m made of, like wires from TV’s or old headphones you get ashamed to pull out in public. Some days leave me feeling…frigid, grey like the clouds I’m blowing smoke circles at from the balcony. 

Ethan was lying on the sofa, the bedroom door was closed but had no handle because Home Depot didn’t have the parts we needed. There was a drip from the faucet and the microwave kept beeping, but I couldn’t remember what was in it. If I had leftovers, or stuffed in a supermarket frozen dinner because I hate cooking. And while Ethan slept I snuck a cigarette on the balcony before Kay could get home, my mind had this crazy impulse to just go somewhere I hadn’t been in a long time.    

Flashbacks were tumbling against my head, making me dizzy while car tires roared by in a sort of symphony. The highway lines of I-95 stretching north, to Connecticut, Boston, Main, Brunswick. I was feeling nostalgic I guess- remembering and romanticizing the past, the way a particular type of weather reminds you of that time in third grade when it was raining. The day I saw Kay scrape her knee in the playground of PS 153 in The South Bronx; a gash down her leg so long you couldn’t tell where it began or ended, and all I could see between the crowd of kids that gathered around was a skinny, bow-legged girl hiding shame and that sensation of thick, red tar painted on the floor. 

And while some kids ran for the nurse she just sat there, not crying, not shedding a damn tear, just staring into that cut the way adults look at sunsets or somebody they used love. Almost hopeful, like waiting long enough might make something jump out of all that velvet. Make it more than just colors, concrete and blood.

I remember Kay had come back that Summer damn near 5’5, towered above the rest of us with her home-cut bobbed hair and thick black rimmed glasses (way before that stupidfad came in.) The only girl in class who had a binder when all the rest of us were rocking drawstring Nike bags and spiral notebooks. She was always smarter than us, always thinking ahead, played our juvenile games but never cut school or went to parties. 

Then come Junior high her eyes started drifting from us playing spades or casino to the windows, at this expanse of distance I can only understand in retrospect. She was bigger than New York, and she knew it, but she stuck around us anyway. Never talked much about her mean ass mom or all the scholarships she was getting offered. Whenever that urge to look away at what she could become came around, I’d look in that direction too, but all I saw was a bunch of low complex buildings and a highway named after some white guy that cut across our city like a vein. Some trees if it was Spring, or long and dead brown lines coloring all that pavement.

“The fuck are you looking at?” She’d say to me, testy as all hell. And I’d slam a ten of spades on the table, take my cards and say “NOT FUCKIN’ MUCH.”

I took the usual route of juvenile affections, found it easier to make her an enemy than admit her face was something that lingered in my mind every night as I laid awake in bed. Bluffed like I didn’t mind or care through all of her boyfriends for two years like a champ. 

But you can’t imagine what it was like hearing someone you love talk about someone else. It’s like a Hurt you put off going to the doctor for, hoping it’s something that just heals or fades and falls off on its own so you don’t have to worry about it any more. She needed someone to talk to, and I knew her little brother was a waste of space waiting to happen, so I felt like I had to. I let it kill me every day until dying didn’t feel like the worst thing.  When seeing her smile or smack me softly across the face for coming out my mouth made it all worthwhile. 

Fake-It-Til-You-Can’t-Take-It was the name of the game, and I was good. Kept it cool until that one long walk home Junior year, hit a slump I couldn’t manage to flash a smile or joke over. She’d broken up with Matthew come four months, and she was tired of all the guys coming after her for the obvious. Said there was one of them, Anthony, who looked like he was kind of sincere, and he was kind of cute so she might as well give it a try. And I couldn’t hold it back any more, so I told her what I always felt. That my days were good but she made them better, and the only thing I looked forward to when I woke up was our long walks back home. 

I even mentioned that thing about her knee in fifth grade. 

She shrugged it off, saying that she always knew, called me a dummy and kissed me on the corner of Taylor Avenue while the deli lights flashing above our stupid little heads. A world on the verge of conquering us at seventeen, and a universe of sex and intimacy opening the floodgates. A honeymoon phase of going at it like jackrabbits and a lot of arguments over dumbs  things. I didn’t care about grades or jobs and just wanted to make people laugh. And Kay couldn’t stop telling me how stupid I looked in a goatee, that I should take my life more seriously, and that she always hated my middle name.

Her love was comforting, the way a light from another room is when you’re afraid of the dark. Or yourself. When I couldn’t bare to go down an empty street because it just looked so damn lonely, she’d remind me that what I was scared of wasn’t outside. But in. Then Ethan came and we made it work, past the slammed doors and distance. Rebuilt trust from where there was none after jokes I shouldn’t have been making about her mom. Six month breaks that break easy over the holidays, and the slate wiped clean with something as simple as an I-Miss-You text. Enough distance that makes us wonder what we were so angry about in the first place, two weekends into Lets-Just-Be-Friends that ends the moment we notice its 4AM and the bar is closing. Goodbyes and lonely train rides home that turn the world into a stranger, that make us pull the breaks and reverse into each other like bumper cars. 

So now I get to drinking when she gets to somewhere I can’t follow. I come home happy she’s still there and she looks around our apartment like she’s lost her keys. Puts KTU on the radio because we both hate that music, finding voicemails on her phone from women I don’t know asking for Crystal. And we only live on the second floor, but her eyes look out the window like we’re back on the seventeenth in Junior High. I try to look too, but all I see are a bunch of low complex buildings and a highway named after some white guy that cuts across our city like a vein. Some trees if its Spring, or long and dead brown lines coloring all that pavement. And I wonder, is it still falling if it’s the fifth or tenth of April we’ve been in love? Glossing over our past in grey summer weather, sitting out here not shedding a damn tear, staring at the moon rising like somebody I used to love. 

Hopeful, like waiting long enough might make something jump out of all that cloudy velvet. Make it more than just the colors, concrete, and the blood we shed to each other.

Curiosity Killed The Cat, But Satisfaction Brought Him Back (More Jaded)

“Do you know what poisons cows?” He asked.

A plastic bag was rustling between the long limbs of an old, wrinkled tree stump. Two paper coffee cups tumbled down the street, their plastic lids clinking against the worn and grey gravel of a bubble gum strewn sidewalk in New York. Urban tumbleweeds sifting between cars, bodies, half-opened trash bags and brown dry grass never to see Spring again.

“What?” I said, not really listening. I was too focused on the fauna fouling around us.

A valley of ash without the eyes or pity of TJ Eckleburg, the machinations of New York City they never write about in the movies. Grime, industry and man conglomerated into one. The wind had picked up, the bags rustled louder, cups clinked faster, and I thought there was a kind of music to the pollution of a city.

“The cow.” He repeated calmly. “You know what poisons them?”

I shook my head and he nodded wisely to himself,  shifting slightly against his cane which made his thousand year old Puerto-Rican bones groan. A while passed and he said nothing, stood leaning against the earth with the patience of trees.

“What poisons cows,” I asked absently, and his mustache twitched like cat whiskers, as if the question startled him awake. He smacked his lips, a bad habit he’d retained after years of chewing tobacco.

“The cow.” He repeated, again  calmly. “Do you know what poisons them?”

“No, Mingo. What poisons the cows?”

We were leaning on concrete slabs just steep enough to take a seat in, meandering the morning in fifty cent cigarettes and a small bottle of Jameson tucked safely in a brown paper bag. Me, looking too deeply into everyday scenery, and Mingo’s lively little eyes glinting grey, gazing out to Third Avenue the way a farmer does his crop.

He had the patience only age can teach- the still, sturdy, wise air of witnessing and being a part of decay. Wise and old, or old enough to seem wise; I couldn’t tell. An old man can say just about whatever he wants and get an absolute veneration from me. Remnants of my inner Catholic I’ve yet to snuff out: respecting elders and thinking too highly of them, feeling overwhelmed by guilt if I didn’t. Or possibly I trusted experience more than anything, because the hardness of life is also a teacher. And from what I’ve seen, we don’t learn as much from happiness as we do from the scars of healing.

“Esperanza, is a plant. They eat it, and then,” He ran his index finger along his neck, a universal sign, clicking his teeth. The little calf was done.

I felt a stubborn, humid heat smoldering my skin. It was close to 10AM but the day didn’t seem to want to start. Sunlight lingered on the horizon and yawned across the fruit cart vendors temples, slouched between the children across the avenue who’d stopped jumping and found more interest staring at their own feet. Lazy, dingy rays dragged between the plastic lids nestling in the gutter, crawled along the sidewalk and halfway up the 99 Cent and bodega storefronts. Then, just near the top, seemed to wince and suddenly retreat, giving up on ever moving on with the day. The morning was a low, dull Monday: fat, bloated, and sitting on itself, waiting.

But for what?

“Why do they eat it,” I asked. “If it’s poison.” And Mingo shrugged.

Esperanza is a flower, bright and beautiful with yellow petals. And Esperanza is also hope, just as bright and ruinous. I couldn’t decide which he meant, what he was referring to: the toxins or definition. And as I wondered this, Mingo dug his shoes into the sidewalk and began to show his roots.

“I killed somebody once,” He said unexpectedly. “Coz’ of a woman.”

He was calm, not sad or entirely delighted. Not resentful, or proud, but with the air of a man that’s lived, and in living, was reflective of what he had done. I lack the grace to remain kind in cruel situations, but a hot heart for the coldest matters. Mingo had purposefully either confided in me as a friend, or turned the sanctuary of our corner into his personal confession booth. And in either scenario I couldn’t think of what to say, so chose to remain silent and sip the bottle of Jameson as if he’d just commented on the weather. I preferred to come off as indifferent than commit to either condoning or forgiving him, listened as a cars exhaust coughed awkwardly down the road.

“You got a girl?” He asked after a while.

Down the street, a gilded goddesses hips swayed toward us, and she reminded me of a girl I reminded myself to forget. Gray eyes with dark, somber lips; the kind of face easy to compliment and hard to miss-remember. I was staring and I didn’t care, and the longer I dared the sooner I realized that familiar was just wistful thinking. She didn’t look anything like her. Her face, the angles, the sighs were all wrong. She didn’t have the unhappiness riddled along the creases of her cheeks, she didn’t hold me like a gasp for air while crying at the sight of her hand or freckled forearm.

She passed us swiftly, her heels clicking behind her like a round of applause, and swooped around the corner. Mingo slapped his lips again, and the girl I had almost remembered was gone.

“Yeah,” I said to Mingo, and I heard the sound of his neck creaking a nod.

Strange, the debris our hearts seem to build even after years of street cleaning. Odd, how songs still sound the same but lose meaning once outgrown. The plastic bag still rustled between the limbs of an old and wrinkled tree, and a car horn’s scream got louder, but sounded just a little farther off. The wind died down, the cups sat silently in the gutter, and I thought there was a kind of music to the pollution of a human being.

“Never killed anybody for her though,” I added, and Mingo laughed, ominously.

“You might,” He said.

I clipped my cigarette and said goodbye.

Two Is A Crowd, Episode II

No bouncer at the door and a newly drawn sign “Welcoming Lost Souls To Oblivion…and $9 Cocktails. For Madmen Only.” I made my way in.

“I told you we had a true one, Anna,” Said Sam, his gunmetal gray eyes the first I met as I walked in. Like he were waiting for it.

Anna, with her back half turned and a song see-sawing her her waist and shoulders, “He must have a sixth sense for a good time,” Said Anna.

Everything inside could have been crafted by their hands. Dim lights, swirvy armchairs, the smooth smell of leather and wood in the air. Hems of polka dot skirts bobbing along the sparse room singing and laughing with freshly decked men that had their ties loose and top buttons undone. All singing and laughing to the melody of congruence. Even the bartenders chiseled and serious chin lowered and smiled, like he was in on it. Whatever “it” was, or is.

“Lucky guess,” I said, taking my place in the only space between them. “Next time don’t brag, and give me an address I can Google.”

I smiled, or tried to, but Sam looked away. Displeased and annoyed, like he’d been given a poem for a place to meet up but nobody showed, I thought I was being casual, but when I turned to Anna even she had hid her face,

“How did you find us?” Anna asked. Boredly. A question with about as much significance as How-Was-Your-Weekend on Monday morning.

I sat between them and stared at my bubbling pint for the courage and words. They wouldn’t come, but, I wouldn’t drink until I found them either.

“I tried to think like you,” I said. Forcing myself. How difficult it was, knowing honesty was in a glass within my hand I couldn’t take. But there was a thing they wanted and a thing that needed to be said. A confession or rite of passage. A three legged beast and club I was on the verge to become a part of. But if I were drunk, well then, yes we would be friends but not really.

So I did it with the comfort of knowing what I was confessing was something hard to label in the aftermath that doesn’t come off as stupid. “A certain taste in the air, the way people on Bleeker moved when I was smoking. I got a scent, and I followed and…fuck. I don’t know! I tried to…I did, see thing, as you’d see them. Then I got feelings, hunches on which way to go.”

“And?”

“I went. Something told me you were here. Like a fucking voice or something, I don’t know. It wouldn’t tell me where to go but it would tell me where I shouldn’t. So I got here and, I don’t know.

By then I took a drink. “I just got the feeling that you would like this sort of place- out of the way, but still in the thick of it. Dark but light, quiet and loud.” I looked around unsure. “And it is nice, and you. This place is very you. But like I said, I got lucky.”

Sam and Anna laughed, together and alone, separately but cherused. They bought me a drink and kissed me with their smiles, as they had a tendency to.

Jingle Bell Blues (aka All I Want For Christmas Is You…To Shush)

A part of me likes to socialize for the sole purpose of disliking it. A self prophecy or flagellation, depending on the mood I’m in. Instead of rotting at home between four walls and the endless void of myself, I could grab my coat and finally answer someone I only left on read as a power move. Boys are cute and men make for better conversation, but in the end I like to think the games I play are less because I’m a bitch and more because I’m just window shopping.

Most guys still get angry at the fact, but then again I guess most guys never worked in retail.

“Can I buy you a drink?” He says, a little nervous but hiding it well.

“I hope so. This dress doesn’t come with a wallet.” I said, not disclosing the fifty dollars I have stashed in my bra because mama taught me well.

I like my loneliness throughout the year but then November starts turning the bend into Christmas- “cuddle weather” or “cuffing season,” depending on where you stand, culturally. Then all those days I spent alone bird watching in Central Park, or drinking enough wine to want to practice yoga poses at home, they start feeling less and less fulfilling when the holidays rolls around. Those wide, dead eyed Macy’s-Holiday-Sale ads glaring from the side of buses and subway platforms. A generic couple or family staring at you, actors actually, complete strangers that still manage to give you the impression like you’re missing out on something.

“This is nice,” I said. “How many other pretty girls have you brought here?”

It’s all bullshit, and I know I go right back to being bad all by my merry self once January comes around. But who doesn’t like a nice looking stud or vixen to grab you by the waist, pull you close and make you feel wanted once the ball drops on New Years? I sure as hell do.

“Its my first time here,” He said. But the way the bartender doesn’t even glance my way makes me believe otherwise.

“Let’s dance,” I said, fully aware that he doesn’t like to.

“Hell yeah,” He replied, smiling softly. In a way that almost makes me start to like him. “I’ve been practicing.”

So I’ll be gone til’ November and when December comes, I submit to carefully worded invitations laced with subtle flirts and sexually charged emoji’s. A couple drinks in Mulberry’s or High Bridge with another yuppie that thinks he either has me figured it out or has it all together. Throw the dust off my social withdrawal and take my place in a song, dance in the hysteria of a mob bouncing to a base and dissolving into a sea of other people. Move my hips in a rhythm that begins to feel instinctive, almost natural, and that despite myself feels good and on the fringes of having a good time. A place where words or thoughts or how stupid he looks in that ascot are no longer necessary.

“You have gotten better.” And he has. It’s the most honest thing I’d said to him the entire night.

“I was tired of you making me fun of me,” He said, trying to laugh.

Then I could bring him home, sleep sound and full of thoughts, and sentences, and sometimes bodies, other than my own. Happy, or at least, on the verge of some semblance of it. Him hopping through the hoops and traps I lay behind me. My conscience feeling awful for it every time he lands the fall. Then Christmas comes and he gets me something stupid and sweet like a yoga mat or blue rose, and then I wake up to hate myself for being so mean and a hypocrite.

“Then you definitely should not have worn that thing around your neck,” I said.

Or I could sit outside of it all as an observer and reinforce my prejudices, safe behind the looking glass of a bell jar. Convicted of my convictions and incapable of seeing the other side of the coin. Say Fuck-You to Macy’s the next time I see her, grow out my underarm hair and make an Instagram entirely dedicated to The Makings Of A Cat Lady and Drunk Yoga. Isolated and un-reproachable, impossible to hold the mildest of conversations with until he goes to the bathroom and comes back without the ascot because I can be that cruel. And as I’m emotionally ostracized and lie about having to work early because his eyes start looking a little angry, I can wander off home. Alone but a little glad- proud and the champion of my own misery.

“You’re kind of a bitch, you know that?” He said.

But I guess he never worked in retail.

My Baby Takes The Morning Train, When Uber Pool Is Too Expensive (aka I’d Quit Tomorrow If Sheena Asked Me To Stay)

It was early morning, around six thirty AM I think. That un-Godly hour when men in construction work boots march soul-less towards the MTA, and a handful of office workers with long commutes start their day before the sun will. When transit is slow and sluggish, quiet besides the scuffle of winter coats and urban foliage stirring awake. Early birds and no worms.

I slouched off of the 39 Bus hungover as the moon on the horizon, dragging my feet towards Nine To Five with my body in tow. Hungry, because I’d ate too late last night. Angry at another schedule I couldn’t skip, because rent’s a bitch and cheesesteaks don’t grow on trees. Calling out was out of the question, and I didn’t have any sick days left anyway. Between the bus fares, nephews, and bottles of rum lining my recycling bin, I needed the money. But not desperately. Enough to get me out of bed when I’d rather be somewhere else.

Not a unique feeling, I noticed, as I watched a couple stop on the corner. He was about my height, not much more handsome with a handful of grays around his cobble-colored hair. She was all legs, nick-knacks dangling from her wrists, ears, neck, jacket, boots, lips; everywhere. Hands just barely held, calm and comfortable as they lazily rushed towards their obligations as the rest of us. They hit the corner and slowed, spoke some four to five words or syllables I tried my hardest to listen in on (all I could make out was ‘Don’t—this weekend—‘) and kissed each other on the cheek goodbye.

She clicked on toward the subway, he stood and stared at her go for a while. I stood there watching while he was wrestling with something. An idea maybe, words or feelings he should have shown or let shed. Or maybe he was throwing in the towel on the rat race, would have rather run down the block and take her by the hand back down where they came from. Board up the windows and lock the door at home, let the rent and bills pile up, spend all day listening to quiet comfort of her soft breathing on his chest, and the nick-knacks dangling off the dressers and coffee tables.

Then a car honked, he looked at his cell, and marched towards the 9 bus to work instead. He needed the money too, I guess, or couldn’t manage to break the habit. I looked at the 9 bus, marched towards the liquor store I knew would be open in an hour, and called The Boss on my cell.

Because I couldn’t either.