I’m not sure what it is about the city at night that is animal but it sure makes me think I’m staring one down. Behind the scratchitti glass was a tiger with eyes so deranged they looked human. Light bulbs turned into fangs and silently attacked the edge of the window pane as the subway barreled down the tunnel. Attack, attack, attack, attack, attack, they went. I scanned the sparse subway car, wondering if anyone else was seeing this. Across from me a couple sat angrily silent with a doggie bag between them, their lips pressed tightly shut like a bee was buzzing around their faces; next to them an orderly in storm blue scrubs held a pizza box, ruminating on a crust with a vacant stare; beyond him a leathered-up drunken man was gripping a subway pole like he was sailing high on a rope, thrown about by every bump and turn in the track.
My attention returned to the bright fangs silently attacking the window pane; attack, attack, attack, attack, attack, they went. Then back to the people. What a crazy town, I thought. Sitting down on a seat, I put my backpack on my lap. The jaguar at my feet stretched and made a big huff in his sleep. See, this is what I’m talking about.
With each passing stop it seemed like I wasn’t going eastward through Brooklyn, but down, like, downward to a deeper city. Hummed falsetto under my breath, “cray-Z-town.”
Got off at Morgan Avenue. Since I was early for the exchange I went around the desolate block. There was a red flood lamp above me and silhouettes of trees like black rivers on the street. An echo of a sandpiper flickered as I saw a pair of the tiny birds scuttle single file across a parking lot. It was curious watching them. The way they moved on pavement like it was sand. Then I read the address—third time—as if it contained a clue to whether I should just say screw this and go home.
I checked down the block to ensure I wasn’t being followed. It was midnight, the street was mostly empty. The doorway rattled and I was buzzed in. A few floors up in the old stairwell my boot clipped a red plastic cup sending it down the long flight of stairs. I stared at the red cup and furrowed my brow: something was familiar here. I felt a presence like a fanning of air, followed by what might have been a noise. Probing the stairwell for someone or something following me up from the landing I felt in my pocket for the box cutter stashed there. But after a dull minute or two I shook my head and felt a little embarrassed about blowing this out of proportion. Ok, I thought, I really gotta relax. Then I did a brief pep talk dance. “You good,” I sang as I danced, “you cool, you’re not a silly fool.” Then I slipped and almost tripped down the stairs, which was unfortunate timing with the song. I stopped dancing and rested an ear against the wall, listened to the din of the building. One thousand wires and pipes purring out of view in every direction. I closed my eyes, the massive building became an old-growth forest humming in the gray music of night. Cicadas clung somewhere above my ears as I lay on the grass and slowly stirred. “Would you move?” came a voice. Startled, I opened my eyes. No one was there. Graffiti crowded on the wall in greens, oranges, purples. Green, orange, and purple graffiti in an old stairwell? The observation stopped my foot midstep. Again a weird familiar feeling. Wait, have I been here before? Then came a sound definitely approaching from below and growing louder. I gripped the boxcutter in my pocket.
A figure appeared: pimply and small, wearing a MEOW DIVISION parody shirt followed by a horn-rimmed companion in a gaucho pullover and paperboy hat, carrying a 30-pack of Genesee. Their intense debate about The Incredible Hulk halted when they noticed me. I pressed back against the wall to make room. They nodded politely, I returned the nod. After disappearing up the stairs laughter broke out, “did you see that dude?” I heard one say. Embarrassed again, I let go of the box cutter.
“I have not been here before,” I declared, “So don’t be nuts, ok?” I gave my cheek a tap and coughed.
“I said, can you move?” I turned to find it was the graffiti talking to itself. The crowded bubble letters moved like little mouths. “No, you move!” “I will not, you move!” “Move, move, move!” the graffiti argued back and forth. I kept walking and as I continued on I thought about how graffiti can be so obnoxious sometimes.
The wide wooden stair planks were scuffed gray like the t-shirt of a drifter. Floor after floor of the stairwell was garbage; brightly colored organic cigarette packs, beer cans, and other assorted party trash littered the steps. Some freshly discarded, others gray like the wood, unrecognizable. Up a final rise to a narrow ship ladder then a platform, the emergency door was unarmed. From the breeze outside it lulled on its hinge. With a thumb and forefinger I rubbed my eyelids toward the bridge of my nose and shook sweat off my fingers. “C’mon man, just be COOL!” my goodness my voice thundered in the metal enclosure, and I froze. Great, just great. Everyone heard you out there and now know you’re nuts. I could picture the deer in headlights eyes as I winced and pushed the door open.
A crowd of violet-black silhouettes were laughing and chatting and drinks were clinking, but no one was paying me any attention. Dufus! What a dufus for thinking people were gonna hear me! I composed myself and walked around the periphery not looking as much as listening. Alongside each person at the party I slowed, casually, to check for a particular woman’s voice.
Shutting my eyes, I stopped.
The socializing turned the roof into a rustled-up crowd of geese who bobbed their necks out and shouted, then pecked at the wet grass in a ritual kind of way.
I arrived at a single voice, opened my eyes. “Hazel?” I asked.
“Oh my god!” she squealed, muting everyone around her, “I must introduce you to—”
“How about we go inside?”
“Did you bring—”
With a hushed voice I interrupted her, “How about we go inside.”
Hazel turned to the silhouettes,“ he’s… a, um, friend.” She chuckled self-pardonably, “excuse us.”
We left the roof and went down the stairs. Inside the loft, Hazel rolled open a giant steel door on wheels. I gasped as I was struck by blindingly bright lights and white doves flapping over our heads (or my head anyway, most other people didn’t see this stuff) but that’s when it hit me—this place was all exactly like the dream.
Lately, at least since what I’ll call “the attention” bedtime was the same: I’d fall asleep only to be chased around by an indefinable presence dedicatedly trying to kill me all night. The stairwell, the talking graffiti, the bright lights, the doves; all parts of the dream. We crossed the poured concrete floors polished white. Walls all white painted bricks. The white room! I glared at Hazel suspiciously as she led me on, “right this way,” she pointed. I mechanically nodded and said, “great,” as I looked up to assure myself that unlike the dream there was no black moon over my head. Don’t be nuts. The ceiling was twenty feet above us and had a wooden joist system like the skeleton of a whale. Two large airplane hangar fans twirled lazily. There was a red rug fading on the floor underneath an old piano. The space was wide and long and otherwise nearly empty. On the other side of the expanse we walked up a wooden catwalk ramp to a room with cedar-shingled exterior walls, shuttered windows, and red plastic roses in the flower boxes hanging from the sill. Hazel opened the door and we entered into this little walled-in cottage. Inside it was a cubicle; no ceiling, everything was white. We sat on her bed and I pulled the bag from over my arm, resting it carefully between us.
“So.” I stopped, eyeing her edge a little closer toward me.
“You,” she whispered throatedly, “do not understand how thankful I am for this.”
I averted my gaze to the green island in the middle of the floor, a fist-high stack of hundred dollar bills.
“Really. Really. Now, how about I get us a drink?”
Scanning the scarce contents of the room until the sound of heels returned back up the catwalk, I looked again at the money, then down at my backpack. I felt a wobbly feeling like slipping over thin watery ice. I drifted for a moment into the part of the dream where I would fall through an icy East River while trying to run across it to Brooklyn, and lose my backpack. Reflexively I curled a forearm under the leather bottom and felt for the package with my palm. Still there. I aspirated a laugh and muttered, “as if it could have disappeared.”
Rita the Owl flew in and landed on my head. Her claws made a gentle roost in my hair.
“This one is up to something,” she whispered. Hazel entered with two beer cans. She was around my age, in her mid- to late-twenties. Her red hair looked like it had been bleached a few months ago and was cropped in a bob. She wore a white dress with black polka dots. Her red heels were the only color in the room, besides her hair and the pile of money. Hazel did a curtsy and mimed a rock ‘n roll scream then handed me the beer. Leaning into my face she got serious, “this is kill-er.” She walked over to a white cabinet and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and then a lighter shaped like a cartoon ghost, “BOO!” she laughed as she lit the cigarette.
Quietly through my teeth to the tune of nanny-nanny-boo-boo I hummed, this-is-su-per-WE-ird.
She tossed the lighter on the bed and flopped down next to me, “CHEERS!” she said.
The beer was cold. It bit refreshingly on the tip of my tongue. I unbuckled the flap of my bag and unzipped the leather pouch, removing an object the size of a large square loaf of bread that was bubble-wrapped and butcher-papered.
“Is that it?” Hazel swooned.
“The painting is placed in a tri-fold between two pieces of acid-free board,” I explained, “then wrapped in bubble—”
“Exquisite!” She got off the bed and walked to the pile of money, picked it up and sat back down.
I gave her the package. As she placed it atop the bills in her lap, Hazel’s mouth opened but she didn’t speak. She went to peel a piece of tape off then reached her hand under the package, revealing the money.
“You can open it,” I insisted.
“No, I’ll do it after you leave,” Hazel said, putting it beside her and turning back to me with a devilish look. “I cannot believe you,” she smacked my shoulder, “are sitting on my bed!” she giggled like this was a joke between us. “THE most sought after artist in the city.”
I laughed, nervously, “maybe to the NYPD, but—”
She smacked me again, rolled her eyes pitilessly and groaned as if I had told her about a fancy vacation I’d taken. I flinched when she touched me and Rita readjusted herself with a flap and scowled at her. Hazel looked me over from behind her glasses. I was in black skinny jeans, boots, and an oversized vintage cowl neck long sleeve blouse I had found at a by-the-pound thrift store in Chelsea. I could feel her paying extra attention to the smokey eyeshadow I had on and a black line from the center of my brow to the tip of my nose that I had worn for a little protection.
“May I ask you something?” she became slipperily diminutive, “do you like women?”
I frowned, my tone implied I wasn’t touching the innuendo, “yes.”
She giggled and scratched her fingers through my stubble. I pulled back and eyed the money in her lap and shrugged, “well!” in a wrapping-up sort of way.
“Oh silly me,” with each hand she picked up half the stack, “wanna,” she fanned the cash around her face, “count it?”
“Um no,” I frowned, “I’ll…it’s okay,” I took the money and was about to drop it in my bag, then stopped. That’s weird not to, I thought. I pulled the money back out, counted it.
We sipped the beer.
In the ensuing silence I glanced at Hazel’s eyes and saw them change, I began pulling back but was too late: Hazel swooped in to kiss me. She planted one on my cheek. Pausing there awkwardly, Hazel straightened up, “well then,” leaning back on her bed, “like I mentioned on the phone before,” she became stiff and commanding, “I want you to come back with the other painting. Next week?” and held her beer can out to me.
“Oh,” I smiled widely, “definitely,” tapping her can with mine, “I promise.”
On the street again I looked down the subway entrance glowing eerily like the mouth of a cave, decided against it.
“Probably a bad idea to have taken it in the first place,” said Rita.
I looked up in her direction atop my head and frowned, she was right. I hailed a cab. The thing about the train was I ran the risk of being spotted or caught. But cabs—automobiles in general—kicked up my claustrophobia.
The black livery was long and anonymous like a cop car. Inside the seats had a gracious, oily give and the air smelled municipal spruce; perfume, sweat, disinfectant and a serrated green tree wobbling below the mirror. The driver was cheerful, his responses to me—“Tribeca? You got it”—were dauntless and loyal, it wasn’t personal but I was already freaking out. I cupped my face in my hands and rested my elbows on my knees. If I started looking around it’d get worse. The radio was chumming away on low volume. Top 40 of 2008. Low; Paper Planes; I Kissed a Girl. The driver tried to stir conversation, “how about this weather, huh? September is New York at its best, know what I’m sayin’? Working late?”
I picked my head up as we ground to a halt—orange blinking lights of pain signaling construction up ahead. We were on the Williamsburg Bridge, two broken red lines of brake lights stretched over the hump of the span, black on either side of us. The bridge started to wobble and I closed my eyes and couldn’t tell if we were moving, or the bridge, which now felt like a brontosaurus, was shuffling along start-stop, and didn’t want to look to find out. I had a vision of the road becoming the cracked skin of the lumbering dinosaur and me and my incessantly cheerful driver in his black car were about to be flicked from its hip like cretaceous fleas. When I finally looked there was no dinosaur, but eyes looking back at me. A boy alone in the backseat with an elephant squeezed next to him. An elephant that reminded me of my old pal Rufus. The orange light warped over the glass between the boy and I.
“Hallelujah, am I right?” My incessantly cheerful driver giggled as we passed the construction and pulled ahead of the boy.
Before Rufus arrived on the scene I remember my Dad driving us around Long Island and whizzing by from the window of our brand new brown Taurus were long tracts of high grasses trailing into wooded areas. Then a shopping center, then more grasses and woods, then a strip mall, then grass again. It would go back and forth like that. I recall being five and seeing yellow machines built like enormous toys churning and flattening a field near our home, deer running away like crazy. I was wondering why in the world they’d do that, but soon enough came some stores where we would go to pick up pizza on Fridays or sit while my mom got her hair done at Make The Cut or wait while the car got fed, and if I put the window down the air smelled sweet but bad for you. When I was seven they rolled over a field that was on our way to the ocean. Put up a hardware store so tall and wide that birds flew inside up by the ceiling. My dad would spend forever walking the hallways and looking for the right parts to fix our sprinkler or hang a ceiling fan. As I would trail behind him and run my hand along the shelves I’d look at the text on the plastics and the packagings and think how cool all the colors were for such boring stuff.
My dad had an ashy, pale Western-German complexion, kind eyes, and light-blonde hair thinning over the crown of his head. He’d jokingly point to his bald spot and say, “see, here is where I was kissed by God.”
Since that was pretty weird I prayed for God to not come near me.
I remember people would look at us differently when we were holding hands compared to when I was just walking by myself. They would look at me with my big mop of curly black hair, and my skin’s rose golds, and orchid purples, and flower pot oranges, and pine needle greens that mixed into a dark goldish brown; and then they’d look at his skin’s margarine whites, and brick reds, and cedar browns, that mixed into a yellow cream; and they would look back and forth the way I would stare at my math homework, like they were trying real hard to figure something out. There was the time I remember a man asking us while we were in line once if my mother was Italian. I remember the long tool box in our shopping cart was jet black and polished so shiny I could almost see my face in it. The memory ends before my dad responded, if he said anything at all.
That final summer before the car accident, days would begin squinting at shapes of my neighborhood, which by the light on them, I’d come to associate with morning. The blue trough below the neighbor’s gutter, large hedges voided out parts of the lawn beneath with a similar blue. Palming my eyes to wake up, I stepped out the backdoor and into ribbons of wet grasses, stretching my arms up toward the sky. Down the meadow to the edge of the woods for my summer morning ritual.
The first raspberry to jewel across the color wheel from green to red arrived on my last morning of fourth grade. It had since become the opening move of endless vacation days to settle amidst the briars and let purple finches land all over me as I pulled the sweet red buckets from their yellow cone navels. With each berry my tongue crushed to the roof of my mouth, I woke again, and again. Eyes unfuzzed, cheeks blood-reddened, I would finally step out from the spiny arms of the bramble and back into the meadow to start my day. But about a month after the first taste of summer, there were few raspberries left. Most were ripening half-bleached and dry. Some leaves had gone from brilliant green, ribbed like the insides of cardboard, to brown and yellow like the sun had burned them bad. I asked my dad if the bush was dying and he replied, “no, this is just what happens. It’s changing form now. The raspberry plant’s generosity is only one part of something greater. It will look dead to you soon, but it’s not.”