Penny loafers aren't the best shoes to wear when trying to get lost in the woods. Lost under a thick surface of leaves, I stumble over hidden roots and stones, splashing through the warm end of the color spectrum. Heading towards the north end, the traffic noise becomes wind-rustled branches, and treetops outstretch the tallest Upper Westside apartments. It's here I find the local's Central Park. A used condom and squeezed-dry lube lay at the base of a tree. The tip of my shoe gets less than an inch from the discarded latex before I snap my foot back.
"Gross," I say, wiping my hands on my jeans.
It's just after sunrise. The city is waking, vibrating with a low hum. Even this far into the park it's hard to escape the city. The noise, the people, the traffic, and the hard, gritty cement. I love it here, but I miss the barefoot simplicity of home. It was easier to be hypothetically gay. Keeping everything private. Never journeying into things like sex in public places. Somehow the city forces that on you. Everything up here is different. Even leaves experience a life of variation. Changing their colors from green to red to orange to yellow, they never know the boring existence of brown until they crumble and disappear.
In Louisiana, brown polka dots appear in the leaves just before they litter the ground, curled-up like poisoned cockroaches. Green to brown, life to death, nothing in-between. Toeing the dirt around the used condom, I thought of Amaury.
I met him through Melina, and Melina through Craigslist.
She had a listing for a room in her Harlem apartment. I sent my information: Male, 26, Gay, Photographer, from Louisiana. Out of dozens of ads I responded to, Melina was the only one to call. When I answered the phone with clear, clipped articulation, she said, "Aw, I thought you'd sound like a cowboy."
I laughed, sure she was joking, but there was silence from the other end.
"Why would I sound like a cowboy?" I asked. "I'm from Louisiana."
"Southern gentlemen are hot."
"Can't I be a southern gentleman without the drawl?"
"I guess," she said, "but it's not as fun."
Melina was a lounge singer who paid her bills working in the office for maid services at The Carlyle on East 76th. If I didn't give her my full attention when she tried to regale me with gossip about Liza Minnelli, a permanent resident of the hotel, she called me a "boring homo."
She had also suggested I work on building a new wardrobe. "Whatever you wore back home has been out for three years," she had said the day I unpacked. "Accents can be attractive, but these Old Navy jeans…"
The row of shirts that had seemed so colorful in the spacious closet at my old place looked dull in my new foot-and-half wide closet.
"You don't quite fit the part. You're cute, but we've got to change your look."
Back home I was just gay, to her I wasn't gay enough.
I became addicted to taking solitary walks exploring the city, my iPod pumping music into my ears. I would pass more people in an hour than I would have walking all day in my hometown. But you never have to speak to a single person in the city. When you know just about everyone from your town, it's hard to escape recognition and at least some small amount of polite conversation. In New York it almost seems like eye contact on the street or in the subway is a form of attack. I like to pretend I'm walking through a deserted New York. I come up from the subway onto vacant sidewalks with indie-pop blue grass rhythms as my only company.
Midway through my first month with her, Melina met me so we could ride the subway together. I had my earphones in, but I could see her waving from the end of the block. Her hair pulled into a bun meant she didn't have a lounge performance that night, which meant she needed an audience. Me.
"Take those pacifiers out of your ears," Melina said, grabbing me by the arm.
On the platform, she told me about her day and the latest news about an ongoing drama between two tenants at the hotel, something she called "The Stolen Dog Saga." I let her words wash over me like the stagnant air pushed by the approaching subway train. We scrunched into the rush hour traffic of bodies; everyone's eyes downcast, pushing their way through for a crevice in which to stand. Melina and I were pressed against one of the middle poles, each of our butts in the faces of the people lucky enough to get a seat. Halfway down the train there was a sharp chinned guy wearing a pinstripe suit and a red tie. White cords snaked out of his ears, and he was nodding his head to a rhythm only he could hear. We made eye contact. Before glancing away I registered a smile.
Melina nudged me. "I think he likes you."
"Who?" Our eyes met again and he smiled. "So, what does it matter?" I said.
"You need a man," Melina said. "You're in New York, not Podunk, Louisiana."
"And you can have sex," she said.
"With a stranger from the subway?" I said.
"He won't be a stranger for long," she said and laughed.
As the train bobbed the pole rubbed against my hip. I thought about grabbing the guy's red tie and leading him above ground. The train was slowing. I looked again but he was turned towards the door.
"You should get off the train with him," Melina said.
"He'd probably run away," I said, holding the pole as the train lunged to a stop.
"Yes, with that attitude he would," she said, and poked my chest.
The guy exited. As the train jerked forward, the lights flickered and it seemed for just a second that I was alone in the car.
The following Thursday moved with the crawling pace of a three-toed sloth. By two o'clock I had explored as much of the city as my feet could take. I sank onto my mattress on the hardwood floor, and used my laptop to watch sitcoms. By four the sun had set behind the building across the street and my cozy bedroom was cast in the gloaming light of a Harlem afternoon. There was a knock at my door. I tensed as though waiting for someone to stick me in the arm with a needle. I thought about pretending to be asleep. Melina didn't wait for an answer.
"What are you doing?" she asked, oblivious to the obvious.
"I thought I locked that," I said.
Her dark hair loose, big and falling in waves down her shoulders. Her dark eyebrows were in contrast to her ruby red lips, the same color as the stilettos she was wearing. She gave me a stage smile. I thought maybe she wanted me to go to her show, again. "Get dressed, you." She threw her hands into the air. "We're going out with Amaury tonight."
I forced the image out of my head of her singing and dancing with a feather boa.
Hands on hips, she said, "You're twenty-six, and you've been living here for almost a month. You need to have some fun. Besides, Amaury's leaving tomorrow."
I tried to constrict the sheets tighter around my body. "So?"
"So?" she repeated, as her heels clacked across the short distance from the door to my bed. She plopped down next to me. "So he wants to have a good time his last night in New York."
"And you think he'll want to spend his last night with me?"
"May-be," she said, pinching my nose.
Riding the subway, Melina and I leaning against the sliding doors, the car was full with an energetic crowd. Even though the air above ground was in the low thirties, I was the only one wearing a coat. I felt as though my southern-boy fashion sense was on display. On the L train to the East Village there was a group, I figured Columbia students, comparing The Odyssey to the new Radiohead album. The guy leading the conversation had dark blue eyes fringed with black eyelashes. He looked towards me, and I jerked my head to Melina at my right. She smiled and raised her eyebrows. I began to regret folding to her pleas to be her escort.
"Do you really want me to ride the subway home and walk five blocks to the apartment by myself?" She set the hook by saying, "At three in the morning?"
When I conceded, she said, "Chivalry isn't dead, they just call it being gay, now."
From our apartment it took three transfers and eight blocks of walking to make it to Beauty Bar on 14th. Dome-shaped hairdryers lined the wall opposite the bar and posters of beauties donning different 50s style hair-dos were scattered throughout the long, narrow space. Somewhere near the back a hand raised and waved. Melina grabbed my arm and dragged me through the crowd. We dodged girls taller than me wearing smocks and holding martini glasses, the liquid inside close to spilling over. Conversation was subdued, the calm before the storm of vodka-loosed tongues.
"Hey," Melina said in a sing-song way and hugged the owner of the hand. As he reached to return the hug his arm swooped down and brushed the side of my cheek.
"Oops," he said with a smile over Melina's shoulder. A spotlight caught his green eyes and I felt a fizzle pass under my belt.
Melina turned and introduced me with an outstretched jazz hand. "This is Zach, an amazing photographer." Pulling the red scarf around Amaury's neck, she said, "And this is…"
"Amaury," he said, extending his right hand.
Our palms met and I felt a reluctant energy pass between us. I registered an appraising sweep of his eyes, and realized mine had done the same.
He was shorter than me, in better shape, cute, and French.
"Hey man," I said and smiled.
"Pleasure," he said, a sly grin revealing perfect teeth.
I like to believe we both knew in that moment we would hook-up. Maybe we did.
Most of what happened after that comes to me in vague shapes, shadows. Between the haze of drinks and shots we all danced and talked.
Conversation between Amaury and me came in the form of body language and lingered glances. He and Melina would be dancing, gyrating in gratuitous motions, and Amaury's lips would purse to the corner of his mouth as though he were trying to sneak a kiss from someone. All the while his eyes seeking me in the darkness.
Melina, Amuary and I had merged with another group, migrating to other drinking holes. The full moon pulled us around Tompkins Square. Our pack moved from bar to bar finding different settings to repeat the same behaviors. Talking, drinking, dancing, flirting.
At two, bartenders began barking about closing time. Continuing to drink, we ignored the last calls and other retreating patrons. As we were ushered out into the cold, I was still the only one wearing a coat. Amaury threw his scarf over my head and pulled me close to him.
"It's cold," he said, tilting his chin. "You should keep me warm."
I felt my cheeks color with confidence. "I agree," I said, wrapping my coat around him.
As we began to leave I spotted Melina. Despite my libido and the libations, reason found its way through. "What about her?" I asked, more to myself than to Amaury.
She noticed me looking and smiled. "What?"
"I can't let her go home by herself."
"Get a cab," Amaury said to Melina.
"I don't have any money," she said, her hands raised in a questioning gesture.
I reached into my pocket and gave her a twenty. "Here," I said, and hailed a taxi.
We all three cinched into the backseat. At 45th Amaury got out. I made sure Melina had enough money for the rest of the trip and the driver knew where he was going. I, on the other hand, had no idea where we were going.
The moon was low in the west. We walked to the promenade overlooking the UN building. Behind the illuminated white wall, the East River moved with Queens' lights zig-zagging on the surface. My arm around Amaury, we leaned against the railing. His smile churned my insides with a need that chased away all other thought.
We kissed, the cold intruding between our warm lips. He pulled away and led me by the hand. At the next block we turned. The street ended in a dark park overlooking the river. I realized then we weren't just on some romantic late night stroll.
"We can't," I said, as he pulled me towards a park bench.
"Come on," he said, tugging on my coat.
"It's freezing. Plus, there's a cop car right there. What's wrong with your place?"
"My family is staying with me."
We continued to walk north. Either the drinks had begun to metabolize or reality was setting in, but the burn that had appeared when we first met began to extinguish. He turned in front of me and stopped. Rising on his toes, we kissed. My color returned.
"I know where we can go," he said.
His fingers intertwined mine as we climbed the stairs of his building. After eight flights we came to a landing with a rusted door. Amaury touched the door and pushed. The squeal from the hinges echoed down the stairwell and he turned to me, teeth gritted.
He crossed the raised jamb and made soft steps onto the metal roof. Reaching out he beckoned me to follow. It was like crossing onto a movie set. The night was lit by the Queensboro bridge. Its lights were speckled against the cloudless sky, replacing the stars erased by the city's light pollution. I felt the wind shuffle my hair and catch the tails of my coat, and noticed Amaury was shivering. We sat near the ledge and I wrapped my coat around him. I attacked, my kiss a predatory bite. He attacked back.
Our faces were like two soft stones rubbing together. I feared our lips would freeze. Sinking our teeth into each other's necks left ice cubes resting on our skin. I clawed at his stomach and chest, but winter had robbed the sensation from my fingers. He pushed me back and unzipped my jeans. The cold rushed and further tamed my enthusiasm. With Amaury's head in my lap I watched the bridge. Headlights and taillights crisscrossed in tidal rhythms. It was like the UN building; beautiful, stationary, the whole world moving around it. Amaury's wet kiss broke the scene. I pushed him back and moved on top of him. Unbuckling his belt, I slid my hand into his briefs.
He flinched. "That's cold."
Our friction did nothing for the chill. The wind whipped over my back and the tin roof could have been a patch of permafrost in a field.
I tried to unzip his pants, my stiff-knuckled fingers fumbling. Gripping my hand, he said, "I don't think this is going to work."
I looked into his eyes. His red lips had gone grey. My head slumped onto his shoulder. Without arguing I sat up. For the first time I felt exposed on the roof. I wondered if people on the bridge could see us. Did they pass by, warm in their cars, envious of the two lovers sharing a rooftop rendezvous? Or were they aware of the folly of our actions in the frigid night? I looked at Amaury, his lips blue and quivering. His stare, the way his eyelids slanted, said what I was feeling. Disappointment.
I wrapped my arm around him and ushered him into the building. Head on my shoulder, his feet hesitated on each step down. At his apartment door I wanted to push him against the wall, take the chance of being caught. But I just stood there. He kissed me one last time, his hand resting on my chest, and nudged me out of his life.
On the street I realized his apartment was on the other side of the island from any subway I could take home, and I was out of money for a cab. I walked west on 55th. The sky was deep blue as the sun began to rise. Unaware of the world around me, images and sensations from the night circled my mind. The collective memory was floating like a lost red balloon, pretty but empty and out of reach. Every step I took was the passage of a day, and, by the time I walked a block, my time with Amaury seemed like something that had happened a week before.
I rounded the corner onto Fifth Avenue and the city was deserted in every direction. The streets were clean, almost sterile. Windows on the west side reflected the sun with the glamour of a Tiffany lamp. At the end of the block the buildings framed the edge of Central Park, the trees tinged with the final stages of fall. Those phases of auburn, pumpkin, and squash all blended together. The headless mannequins of Hugo Boss stood still, watching. Their invisible eyes scrutinizing.
My loafers padded soft on the pavement. Everything was quiet except a hum looming in the distance. Hands in my pockets, I held my coat open wide, walked down the centerline, and spun in a slow circle.
Story Copyright of Dusty Cooper