The Elephant in the Room

Another Exciting Adventure in … THE GRIND
(Act I: All Wounds)
(Act II: The Status Quo)
(Act III: Covet thy Neighbor)

***

previously…

The best part of my schedule is that its irregularity allows for naps during the business week in an apartment free of roommates. Were it not for these naps, it’s likely that I would die from cumulative sleep deprivation. October was particularly hard on me, because there weren’t enough hours in the day for all the drinks that needed drinking, marijuana that needed smoking, and, alas, all the paychecks that needed earning.

And there weren’t enough hours in the day for all the sex that needed to be had with as many different women as possible. Don’t get me wrong–I didn’t accomplish these goals every single one of the past twenty-five days. That would be absurd, not to mention unhygienic. As far as I knew, no one in real life who wasn’t a celebrity could pull that off, especially without cheating. By cheating, I am referring to intoxication or deception, both of which are beyond unsavory. The challenge and satisfaction of my first three weeks as a twenty-eight-year-old came with meeting and seducing mostly sober women who didn’t mind a lack of follow-up.

This one-and-done streak ended officially last night. My fingers still ached from overuse, my scalp still throbbed from all of the yanking, the scratches on my back still burned, and my ribs chafed just a little from being rubbed so enthusiastically by the garters and fishnets of her French-maid Halloween costume. Best of all, the reason my quivering legs could barely make it home was that I’d decided that her being naked and sweaty was more important than her arriving on time to work, and she’d agreed.

Her name was Darla, and I was definitely calling her again–just as soon as I had a chance to sleep her off.

I’d almost drifted off into pleasant afterglow when my bedroom door thumped. “Are you there, chico?” asked my roommate Mitchell.

I smothered myself with a pillow, hoping that my lack of sound would answer his question.

The door creaked open, casting his shadow over me. “Are you sleeping?”

I held my breath.

He shook me anyway.

What!” I shrieked.

He lost his balance and fell to the floor. After he recovered, he told me, “So Cameron and I were hoping we could have a conversation.”

“I hate to disappoint you,” I replied.

“It’s really important,” Cameron said from outside.

Sitting up, I grunted, “Fine. Lead on.”

“Aren’t you going to put on pants?” Mitchell asked.

“No,” I said as I followed him.

“You should probably sit down,” advised Cameron from the loveseat, where Mitchell joined him.

I moaned. This was not going to go well. Still, there was no point in standing while having this kind of conversation. Besides, my knees had yet to stop shaking, so I sank into the easy chair. “Let’s get this over with.”

“What makes you think this is going to be bad?” asked Mitchell with forced, but sincere optimism.

“Please,” I said. “I’ve had a long night. And morning. Your tone is not promising.”

Cameron got to his feet and began to pace. “Look, Max, we’ve been… Mitchell and I have been… I mean. And you’re a great roommate…”

Oh, fuck. I knew where this was going. Darla faded from my heart as I wondered what the hell I was supposed to do without a home. I just moved in! Okay, so it was eight months ago, but it only felt like last week.

“I mean… you pay the bills and the rent on time…”

I wasn’t even on the lease, so they could throw me out today if they wanted.

“… and you don’t make a mess and you always buy the toilet paper and you cook for us sometimes…”

Then why the hell were they evicting me?

“But… there’s this thing that… um…”

Just tell me what this thing is!

“You’re straight!” Mitchell exploded.

Well, this was inevitable. “No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you are,” agreed Cameron.

“It’s ludicrous how gay I am,” I told them.

“Chico,” Mitchell said, “you’re not even a little bit into men.”

“I fuck men all the time!”

“No you don’t,” he insisted.

“Just now I was resting up so I could go out and fuck some more men. Like I do. All the time.”

“Max,” Cameron sighed.

“I could fuck you right now, you know.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” he said.

“Not with your boyfriend here,” I clarified. “That would be rude.”

“Actually…” Mitchell stared off into space. “I’d kind of like to see that.” He cleared his throat. “But I won’t, because you don’t want to have sex with Cameron–“

“Says you,” I mumbled.

“–because you’re not gay.”

“Why would you even think this?” I begged.

“Max,” Cameron explained patiently. “We’ve known for a while. I mean, you spent most of the summer sleeping next door.”

“How would you know that?”

“Because we’re not stupid,” Mitchell replied.

“We had our suspicions,” Cameron agreed, “pretty much since you moved in, but we let it slide because we liked you.”

“Then why didn’t you say anything sooner?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Cameron said.

“Well,” admitted Mitchell, “it was kind of funny.”

Cameron snorted. “Remember when you tried to convince me you didn’t hear Emma getting it on because of noise-cancelling headphones?”

“Oh my God, I, like, peed my pants when he told me that one!” Mitchell giggled.

I frowned. “It gave you a bladder infection?”

“Laughing!” Mitchell said.

“Ah.” I considered this entire exchange for a long moment. “So… you’re not kicking me out then?”

“Why would you think that?” asked Cameron.

Mitchell shrugged sheepishly. “Yeah, I could see why you’d think that.”

Cautiously I clarified, “So… we’re okay then.”

“No,” Cameron replied, “we’re not. I think you owe us an apology for lying to us for months.”

“Yes, I do,” I agreed, “and I am genuinely sorry. I was desperate, and I don’t have a lot of morals.”

“You should cook more,” Mitchell told me. “Then we’re okay.”

Well, shit, that went better than I expected. Relief deflated the tension from my shoulders, and I said, “Deal.”

to be continued…

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Hold Your Tongue

Another Exciting Adventure in … THE GRIND
(Act I: All Wounds)
(Act II: The Status Quo)
(Act III: Covet thy Neighbor)

***

previously…

Due to the increasingly electronic–as well as the decreasingly profitable–nature of journalism these days, the actual physical presence of my newspaper’s entertainment division consisted of an editor’s office and a lonely copyeditor’s cubicle. On the rare occasion that a reporter such as myself spent any significant amount of time in the building, he or she simply found one of the empty desks and computer terminals scattered throughout the news floor.

Based on the randomness of such a selection, I never suspected that my editor Myron would know where to find me, much less appear suddenly over my shoulder and shout, “Max! What the fuck is going on?”

I jumped a little bit, the momentum of my landing twirling me around to face him. With a calm that surprised me more than his sudden appearance, I replied, “You’re going to have to be more specific, Chief,” I replied.

Stop calling me Chief!”

I sighed, “Sorry.”

Myron reeled back to strike me down for my insolence, but lost his verbal balance instead. “What did you just say?”

With a glance at my cheap-looking watch, I asked, “What is it that’s confusing you, Myron?”

“Did you just call me Myron?”

“You know,” I told him, I was hoping to cut back on our usual banter. Evidently I failed.”

He breathed.

“Do you want to come back and try again?” I offered.

Max,” he grunted, “you mind filling me in on this fucked-up e-mail you sent me five minutes ago?”

“What’s so fucked up about it?”

“It’s got your latest fluff piece attached to it!”

“Did I do it wrong?”

His eyes bulged in frustration. “Deadline’s not for another four hours!”

“So?”

“You turned it in four-and-a-half hours early!” He clarified, “For you anyway.”

“I didn’t feel like staying late.”

“Since when?”

“Since today,” I replied.

Finally–something that made sense to him. “Big plans?”

“Not really,” I said. “Just felt like getting home at a reasonable hour.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but closed it. “Okay, then.” He added, “You have an appointment tomorrow with Annie Castle about her latest expensive bullshit extravaganza. You can pick up a screener from me on the way out.”

A couple of hours later, I headed straight home, stopping only at Myron’s office and a Chinese food place on the way.

My roommates, sitting on opposite ends of a loveseat, were exploring separate corners of the Internet when I opened our front door. In the creepiest unison, they sat up straight and swiveled their heads toward me. Cameron said. “You’re early.”

“I’m not that early,” I replied.

“The sun’s still out,” he told me.

“It does that,” I agreed.

Mitchell pointed to the bags in my hand. “Is that for us?”

“Mitchell,” hissed Cameron.

“I’m just saying it’s a lot of food!” he said.

“It’s not that much food,” I replied.

“It really is a lot of food,” said Cameron.

“I couldn’t make up my mind,” I conceded convincingly.

“General Tso’s chicken?” asked Mitchell.

“Chicken with broccoli,” I said. “Close enough.”

“Can I have some?” he asked.

“Mitchell!” hissed Cameron.

“I’m…” I said. “I’m hungry.”

“That’s really hungry,” Mitchell mumbled.

Cameron kicked him.

“Anyway,” I told them, “I have homework, and I want to get it over with.”

“Big plans later?” Cameron asked.

“Not really.” I shrugged. “Just felt like hiding in my room for the night.”

“Huh,” he replied.

I waved, locked myself away, and immediately exited through my window onto my fire escape. As I crawled inside my neighbor’s apartment, I announced, “Stop what you’re doing! I’ve got chicken with broccoli, lo mein, four condoms, and a screener of Seventh Chamber: Part 2.”

Dude!” She looked up from the comic book page she was inking. “You’re early.”

In one swift move, I dropped the bags onto the floor, plucked the pen from her hand, grabbed her wrist, and yanked her to her feet. “I needed time to warm up before the turd we’re about to watch.”

“Ah,” she moaned as I nibbled on her neck. My fingers assertively massaged her torso, and her hips responded by grinding into mine. “Wait,” she gasped, pushing me away.

I fanned my face with my hand and panted. “For what?”

“I have a date tonight.”

“Oh.” A grin exploded across my face after about a second. “That’s fantastic! Is he cute?”

She grinned and nodded.

“Who is he?”

“Some dude who works in the same building as me. Tyler. I see him in the elevator every day, and we went out to lunch a few times, and now we’re going on a date-date.”

I bit the inside of my cheek before asking, “Want to warm up for Tyler?”

She shook her head. “I think I want to be exclusive until I figure out what’s going on.”

“Got it.”

I know not everybody does it that way…”

“You mean me,” I clarified.

“Well…”

I think it’s obvious that you and I are different people.”

“True,” she said.

“Then you need to wrap up that art thing and get ready for that date-date,” I told her, “and I need to get back to my room and do something about this uncomfortable hard-on.”

“Sorry.”

“For what?” I asked. “The whole point of our arrangement was to keep you relaxed enough to find someone to sleep with you actually liked.”

“I meant about the hard-on.”

“That?” I said. “I have those all the time. I got it covered.”

She grinned her crooked grin. “See you around, dude?”

Jabbing a thumb in the direction of my apartment, I reminded her, “I live right there, Em.”

“My name’s not Em.”

“My name’s not Dude.”

I crossed her windowsill to the fire escape, crossed the fire escape to my room, and crossed my room to the rest of my apartment, where my roommates remained frozen to the Internet. “I’m going out,” I told them as I then crossed the rest of the apartment to the front door.

to be continued…

Sins of Omission

Another Exciting Adventure in … THE GRIND
(Act I: All Wounds)
(Act II: The Status Quo)
(Act III: Covet thy Neighbor)

***

previously…

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.”

“Crazy.”

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 wereimprobable because I have a lot of sex with a lot of women.

“It’s always the quiet ones,” he replied.

“Headphones,” I said.

“Excuse me?”

“Headphones,” I repeated. “Noise-canceling headphones.” That sounded plausible.

He grinned. “Those must be amazing headphones.”

“They’re pretty high tech and shit.”

“What brand?”

“Of headphones?”

He nodded.

“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 inside 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 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 froze.

“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 an 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 did have 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.”

to be continued…

Get over Yourself

Another Exciting Adventure in … THE GRIND
(Act I: All Wounds)
(Act II: The Status Quo)
(Act III: Covet thy Neighbor)

***

previously…

A lot of people blow off work-related steam by getting drunk or high. My job is getting drunk or high, so I always had to look other places. I didn’t really like movies because I had met too many people involved in making those movies. I didn’t really like retail therapy because I didn’t have any money. I couldn’t go dancing because it’s too social an activity. Same goes for sex.

If there was one thing that always wound me down, it was the uniquely freeform structure of cooking. Not only did the sizzles, aromas, and flavors put me into a meditative trance, but I had something to eat when I was done.

If there was a downside, though, it was that I ended up with a lot of food I didn’t know what to do with. Luckily, I had roommates, and one drifted in, buoyed by the scent of my hobby.

“Hey, roomie,” Cameron said.

“Hey, roomie,” I replied.

“Hangin’ out in the kitchen?”

Since I was indeed hanging out in the kitchen, I could safely say, “Yes.”

“You cooking?”

“Yes.”

“Cool.” He bobbed his head and studied every detail of the cramped space except for the large percentage of it occupied by me.

I waited a long time for him to say something, but nothing happened. It was pretty obvious what he wanted, though, so I decided to go ahead and skip the small-talk. “Want some?”

“I couldn’t.”

“I insist.”

Mitchell and I just ate,” he replied. “Not really hungry.”

Maybe it wasn’t that obvious what he wanted. “Oh.”

“Roomie, I think we need to talk.”

“Nothing good ever begins with that phrase, Cameron.”

He took a breath and stared into space, looking for the words he’d need to continue. “You know that Mitchell and I have no problem with you smoking pot on the fire escape, right? We even join you sometimes.”

“But…?” I asked, because the situation demanded a but.

“But you need to be cool about it,” he continued. “Somebody’s been complaining to the super.”

“Who?”

“The super?” he replied. “That’s the guy that–“

“Who’s complaining?”

“We don’t know.”

“I know who it is,” I concluded. “It’s our neighbor.”

“No,” he said slowly, “Emma and I talked a long time ago about it, and she’s totally okay with us smoking weed.”

“She’s okay with you smoking weed,” I clarified.

“So you’re telling me that she dislikes you so much that she’d make all of our lives miserable just to mess with you?”

“Yes.”

“That’s crazy!”

“No,” I told him, “she’s crazy.”

“You barely even know each other!”

Well, that wasn’t entirely true. “Leaving aside the identity of the snitch,” I said, eager to change the subject, “does the super know who’s doing the smoking?”

“No, but he’s getting pretty pissed.”

“Well if he doesn’t know…”

“Come on, roomie,” he whined, “you know he’s going to figure it out.”

“He never struck me as a perceptive man.”

“You’ve never met the guy.”

“In that case,” I said, “he’ll never suspect it’s me.”

“I don’t want to get evicted.”

“What should I do, then?”

“Be,” he replied, “cool.”

He left me in the kitchen, considerably less cool I was when he’d entered. With a grunt, I spooned some of my lamb rogan josh into a plastic takeout container I’d held onto because I was my father’s son, and he was apparently raised in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. And then, after thinking long and hard about the implications of the conversation I just had with Cameron, I decided to smoke some pot on the fire escape.

I crawled outside, balanced the container on the railing, and spent the next hour watching the buildings of the city fade from the cool blues and grays of daytime to the reds and ambers of night. The sound and fury of my life dissolved away and blew away in a gentle summer breeze, and I hadn’t even had to eat or spark up yet.

Wait. In other words, after all this time out here, the food was getting cold and my pipe was still in my pants. Fantastic. Now the memory loss was becoming a permanent fixture.

I shrugged and reached into my pocket, an action that knocked the container from its perch. In a move that would have impressed even the swiftest of hummingbirds, I lashed out my hand and caught it.

I placed it back on the railing, waited a moment for my heart rate to settle down, and put pipe carefully to my lips. No sooner did I light the match than I heard a voice behind me say, “Hey, dude.”

I yelped, spun around, knocked the container over again, caught it, returned it, and hid the pipe behind me.

Emma shook her head and grinned that sexy, crooked grin I still remember from when I first met her. “You know, dude,” she told me, “I’m not going to turn you in.”

“Why would you think I was thinking that?”

“Because the walls are thin, and you were shouting.”

I should have been mortified, but I really wasn’t. “I was shouting?”

She shook her head and laughed. “Nice move there, by the way, Johnny Ringo.”

“It’s the boots,” I informed her. “They’re what give me…” Once again, I knocked over the container, and once again, I caught it.

“There’s got to be a better place for that.”

I put it back and rolled my eyes. “Nonsense. This is the perfect… ah, fuck.” Apparently I’d not braced it properly this time, because it tumbled off the edge, and I couldn’t to anything to stop it this time.

It ricocheted off the railing below us, and, defying all laws of physics, bounced off the one below that before rebounding off the shoulder of a pedestrian, splattering lamb and yogurt and onions and ginger and cinnamon and lots of other colorful spices all over the sidewalk and said pedestrian.

Hypnotized by shame, I stared at the carnage until that he craned his neck to glare in my direction.

“Um,” I said to him. “Sorry?”

He continued to stare, his rage simmering to a boil.

“Do you think maybe you can toss that back–urk!”

The urk happened because Emma had grabbed my collar and yanked me from the edge. Eyes wide and teeth gritted, she hissed, “Do you have any idea who that was?”

“An innocent bystander?”

“The super.”

“Oh,” I moaned, “fuck.”

“You are such an idiot.”

I switched to disaster mode. “Here’s what we’re going to do,” I said. “We’re going to split up. That way, he can’t get both of us.”

“Good night, dude.”

to be continued…

Sobriquet

Another Exciting Adventure in … THE GRIND
(Act I: All Wounds)
(Act II: The Status Quo)
(Act III: Covet thy Neighbor)

***

previously…

“Maxwell?”

“No.”

“Maximus?”

“Do I look like a gladiator?”

“I’ve never seen you in a toga.”

I liked her. “Keep playing your cards right.”

“I give up,” she said with a coy smile.

Maximiliano.”

“Really?”

I nodded.

“Why would you ever want to shorten a name like that?”

“Because it’s impossible to say in the middle of an orgasm.”

After she blinked them, her eyes went wide.

“Have you ever tried?” I asked.

“Max Fuentes!” shouted someone else entirely from outside the dressing room we occupied.

“What is it, Fraulein Kommandant?”

When Gretchen entered, her angel’s face was scrunched up in confusion; but she let that pass before replying, “You’re supposed to be interviewing the star, not the makeup girl.”

“Makeup woman,” I told her.

“Well?” Gretchen tapped her feet to further illustrate her point.

As I stood, the makeup woman said to me, “When you’re done in there, let’s get back to talking about your name.”

“Looking forward to it, Jen.”

“Lynn,” she replied coldly.

I winced. Gretchen snorted.

I let Gretchen go ahead of me, because my dislike of her did not extend to the way her ass swayed when she walked. “I don’t see why I have to be here for this,” I muttered.

“Because you’re the reporter.” She didn’t end the sentence with the word idiot, but it was implied.

Sarcasm was a concept that didn’t exist in her world, so I skipped ahead in the conversation. “I’m a goddamned stenographer. Let me save everyone the time: ‘I’m Curtis McKean, and I’m really excited to be working with Stanley Marshall again. He’s an actor’s director, and he has this vision I believe in that really connects with the audience. Know what I’m sayin’? It’s a dream come true to be working on a movie about the character of Mastermind, because I’ve been a fan of the comics since I was a little kid…'”

She tossed her perfect waves of blond hair and growled, “What the hell is your problem?”

“My problem is that I have to walk through that door and say the words, ‘Rumor has it that you and costar Alysin Perez sizzled off-screen as much as you sizzled on-screen. Any truth to that?'” I held my thumb and forefinger millimeters apart. “I am this close to clawing out my own goddamned tongue.” I muttered, “Not like I’m going to get to use it on Gwen anyway.”

Gretchen looked over her shoulder to the dressing room with a frown. “I thought her name was Lynn.”

“Fuck this,” I told her as I burst into the green room. “Time to be a quote-unquote journalist.”

“Pull yourself together, Max Fuentes!” she scolded.

And the worst part? She was absolutely right. I loved my job. When was the last time I let it get to me like this? When was the last time I forgot a woman’s name like this–especially one I was wooing so successfully? And so, as much as I didn’t want to admit that she was right, I had to. “Okay,” I sighed. “Why don’t you give me a second while you go take some pictures or whatever it is you do.”

“Because I took them already.”

“Even the one where he gazes soulfully out a window?”

“Yes.”

“How about the faux-candid shot where he lets down his guard and laughs shyly into his hand?”

“I forgot that one.”

“Well get to it, then!” I demanded.

“You don’t get to tell me how to do my job!”

From the overstuffed couch nearby, Curtis McKean chuckled, “You two need to get a room.”

I was aghast because, while my body would gladly explore a weekend’s worth of sins with her body, my personality found hers intolerably irritating. She was aghast because she’d found out by accident exactly what my personality thought of hers.

“Curtis,” I said. “Can I call you Curtis?”

“Sure!” he replied.

I took a careful, cleansing breath before I said something I might regret. See, I know that I can be a cranky person. Some of this could be attributed to the fact that my job consisted of enabling overpaid narcissism, often on an irregular schedule, and usually at the cost of my sleep and health. Some of this could be attributed to my biggest hobbies, which consisted of sex, drugs, and the acquisition of such. Some–if not most–of this, could be attributed to the fact that I was a New Yorker. Hell, I’m sure that a lot of the blame could go to growing up in a trailer park with a bipolar tomboy as my closest friend.

But today was special. Today marked the eighth time in the two weeks since I met my new neighbor that she called me dude. That’s not what was breaking me. No, what really pissed me off was how much that was getting under my skin.

Curtis McKean didn’t deserve me taking this out on him, but that wasn’t going to stop me from doing so.

“Curtis,” I told him, “if you ever insinuate any kind of romantic chemistry between me and my photographer again…”

“The newspaper’s photographer,” she clarified.

“… this photographer again, I will drop-kick your skull across the Triboro Bridge.”

“What he said,” Gretchen agreed.

Curtis McKean’s perfectly sculpted nostrils flared with a furious veracity that he could never quite bring with him to the big screen. “You can’t talk to me like that!”

The fact that I did was all I needed for me to return to character. I laughed, “Just kidding, Curtis! Can I call you Curtis?”

Curtis McKean’s membership in Mensa was one of those little publicity factoids bandied about as a means of distinguishing him from the rest of the stars dotting screens big and small, but even all that intelligence couldn’t help him comprehend what had just happened. He turned to Gretchen for slack-jawed clarification, but she just giggled, rolled her eyes, and shrugged.

“Before I ask you what it’s like to work with director Stanley Marshall,” I began, “how about letting me in on some of that behind-the-scenes chemistry between you and costar Alyson Perez?”

Hours later, I shuffled up the stairs to my apartment, dreading the inevitable run-in with my neighbor, who always seemed to be waiting to ambush me with that most cruel of cudgels: the word dude. Yet somehow–and I don’t know how–I made it home unscathed.

As I deadbolted and chained the door, my fellow apartment-dwellers waved from the loveseat in front of the television.

Fellow dweller number one, Cameron, said, “Roomie.”

“Roomie,” I said back.

“Just getting in?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Cool.”

“Yes, it is.”

Fellow dweller number two, Mitchell, chimed in, “Shorty.”

“Chico,” I chimed back.

“How was work?”

“Crap,” I replied. “Yours?”

“Crap.”

“Glad we had this talk,” I told them.

“Same again tomorrow?”

“Probably,” I muttered before stumbling into my bedroom, kicking off my boots, and tossing myself onto my mattress just in time for my cell phone to buzz. I didn’t have to look to know that it was my editor, Myron, who was the only person who ever called me.

“Chief,” I said.

I hate it when you call me that,” he replied.

“Probably as much as I hate it when you call me on my phone.”

“I don’t really care what you hate,” he said. “Reese Kensington just got arrested again for drunken disorderly.”

“I’m not surprised,” I replied. “Guy can’t hold his liquor.”

“I need you to meet Gretchen downtown and get a statement as soon as he makes bail.”

I whined, “I just got home!”

“Well,” he said, “since you live all the way up in Inwood, it’s going to take you forever to get there, so I suggest you leave now.”

I cried out, “Fuck!” so that the fu part lasted all the way through my ending the call, getting to my feet, slipping on my boots, splashing my face with cold water, and storming through the living room. The ck only occurred when I stepped out of the door, only to see my neighbor in the process of stepping into hers.

“Dude,” she said before disappearing into her apartment.

Great. Now I was going to have to lash out at Reese Kensington, which sucked because I actually liked him…

to be continued…

Straight & Narrow

Another Exciting Adventure in … THE GRIND
(Act I: All Wounds)
(Act II: The Status Quo)

***

previously…

“One plastic cigarette lighter; one three-by-five-inch spiral-bound notebook, blue cover; one leather wallet, no cash …”

“Hey!” I snapped. “There was cash when I got here!”

“That’s not what the logbook says.”

“Son of a bitch!”

“Continuing on:” said the police officer as he tallied the items piled on the desk in front of him; “one cell phone, turned on; one breath-mint tin full of business cards; one watch, cheap-looking …”

“No editorializing, please.”

” … one eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch flyer, folded; three condom wrappers, empty–want me to throw those away?”

“I think I’ll hold onto those for now,” I replied with a grin. “Mementos.”

You are a smug bastard, Fuentes.”

“It’s true.”

“And finally: two disposable pens.”

“Thanks, Roger,” I said as I swept the items into my pockets.

While I signed the necessary forms, Roger read from his clipboard. “Says here you were brought in for possession.”

“Accessory,” I said. “Came in with the band.” My definition of accessory was scoring some mescaline in exchange for an interview, but that was between me and my work-appointed attorney.

“Anybody I ever heard of?”

“Doubt it,” I replied.

“Try me.”

“The Jane Plains.”

“Never heard of them,” he admitted. “What’s their genre?”

“Hip-hop-slash-tribal-Native-American fusion.”

Roger winced. “That doesn’t even make sense.”

“I know,” I told him, “but they actually sounded pretty good.”

“Wonders never cease.”

I shrugged and headed for the door. “Until next time, Roger.”

“See you later, Max.”

In the men’s room of a nearby coffee bar, I checked the date on my phone while brushing my teeth. It was the twenty-fifth, so I still had about a week to find a new apartment That comforted me just a little, until I remembered it was February.

I rinsed, spit, and muttered, “I should probably do something about that.”

Even though the night before had come and gone without any real substance abuse on my part, it still took a few minutes for my brain to rev up properly and remind me of the flyer in my pocket. I held my breath and called the number.

“Hello?” muttered the man’s voice on the other side of the phone.

“Is this Cameron?” I asked.

“Cammy!” the voice yelled. “Phone!”

From somewhere in the distance, Cameron yelled back, “Jesus! Stop shouting so loud!”

“Can I ask what this is about?” whispered the first voice.

“I met Cameron at the Jane Plains show last night, and he said he was looking for someone to help out with the rent.”

“We are!” the voice said. “Do you want to schedule an appointment to swing by and take a look at the place?”

Cameron yelled, “Jesus! Stop talking so loud!”

I read the flyer. “Your address in Inwood, which is a little over two hundred blocks from here.” I read my cheap-looking watch. “Also, it’s eight thirty, and I’m expected to be in the office by nine. I can come over right now if you like.”

“I don’t know. Cammy drank a little too much at the concert. It might not be the right time.”

“On the contrary,” I told him, “it’s the perfect time. Hell, I just spent the night in a holding cell …” Shit. I probably should have kept that to myself. I pushed on, though, just in case. “If we can get along in this condition, then maybe we’re made for each other.”

After a long pause, he said, “I like the way you think.”

“Doesn’t everybody?”

A little over two hundred blocks later, I knocked on a door on the fourth floor of a five-story walkup in the northernmost neighborhood in Manhattan. It was not Cameron who answered. Where Cameron’s shape was tall and slightly rounded, this guy’s was short and sharp. Where Cameron’s skin was the shade of cappuccino, this guy’s was more like hot cocoa. Where Cameron’s forehead was expansive and crowned by a tight, salt-and-pepper fade, this guy’s was hidden by a threadbare golf cap. And where Cameron wore cargo pants, this guy opted for snug cotton briefs.

I could have stood there in silence, averting my eyes for all eternity, but Cameron rescued me by yelling from somewhere within, “Jesus! Stop opening the door so loud!”

I’m Mitchell,” said the guy. “Come on in. I’ll get some pants.”

“Thank you for that.”

I froze immediately upon entering. When Mitchell returned, I asked with great awe, “What is this, nine hundred square feet?” After consulting the flyer, I asked with even more awe, “Two bedrooms? In Manhattan? At this price? Is this for real?”

“I know, right?”

In shock, I sank into a nearby easy chair, impossible flyer in hand.

Cameron yelled from the kitchen, “Jesus! Stop sitting so loud!”

“Long story short,” Mitchell said, “Cammy got laid off in December, and there’s not a lot of prospects out there.”

I shrugged with genuine sympathy.

“It’s a big place, and the other bedroom is empty anyway, so we figured could really use the help.”

“What a coincidence,” I replied. “I could really use the bedroom.”

After we traded names and occupations, the important questions began. “What do you think about living with a couple?”

“I think domesticity is comforting.” Truth be told, I was worried about relationship drama.

“Most people are worried about relationship drama.” Imagine that. “You’re not a party animal, are you?”

“Not at all.” Not at home, anyway.

“Do you smoke?”

“Not for months.” I was referring, of course, to cigarettes.

“Do you cook?”

Finally, something I could be completely honest about. “I love to, actually.”

“I bet you make a mean enchilada.”

“Excuse me?” I couldn’t remember the last time someone had drawn attention to my ethnicity with that kind of recklessness, and I had no idea how I was supposed to react.

From the kitchen, Cameron yelled, “Jesus! Stop being tactless so loud!”

“What?” Mitchell was confused for second, and then he caught on. “Oh.”

Had there been even the slightest bit of malice in his words, I would have walked away right then and there. We chose instead to ignore it.

He moved onto the next topic. “Have you ever seen a UFO?”

I laughed.

A wide-eyed Cameron appeared suddenly behind Mitchell, making quiet slashing motions across his throat–which is the universally recognized signal for “Stop what you’re doing! Oh, for the love of God, stop!”

I recovered in the time it took me to blink. “I laugh because I was born and raised in New Mexico, and the UFOs practically live there.”

“Wow,” sighed Mitchell.

Cameron flashed me a grin and a thumbs-up before retreating back into the kitchen.

Mitchell cleared his throat. “And last, but not least, do you have a boyfriend?”

“I’m between relationships right now,” my mouth said before the rest of me had a chance to comprehend what my ears had just heard. And it was a good thing too, because my eyes now discovered a detail on the flyer I’d missed before: “F or GM only.”

And so the question before me wasn’t whether or not I was willing to lie about my sexuality in order to win their approval; I had no problem with that. The question was, how long did I really think I could get away with it?

Oh, what the hell. Nothing ventured, et cetera et cetera. “I just haven’t met the right guy yet.”

to be continued…