It Can’t Be Helped

The Exciting Conclusion of …THE GRIND
(Act I: All Wounds)
(Act II: The Status Quo)
(Act III: Covet thy Neighbor)

***

previously…

The good news was, I got finally the interview with Jack Lagattuta. The bad news was, I was in the hotel room when his bassist tried to throw the nightstand out the window. Since we were on the thirty-first floor, the glass was pretty much shatterproof, and the resulting carnage broke the piece of furniture, her nose, and two ribs. Jack Lagattuta and his rhythm guitarist had heard the commotion and fled, leaving behind several rails of cocaine. The lead guitarist had long ago left the building to find more tequila, but not before vomiting inside every drawer in the room.

That left me, the injured bassist, the illegal drugs, the newspaper-wrapped red snapper I’d purchased on Canal Street in exchange for said interview, and the drummer, who was standing on the bed, trying to work the TV remote.

I was actually relieved to see the police. They took the bassist to the hospital, the cocaine and the fish to an evidence locker, and the drummer and me to a holding cell.

My photographer, Gretchen, showed up to bail me out the next morning at eleven thirty, because it was Sunday, and she didn’t feel like getting out of bed. I didn’t even bother to put on my belt and tie as I checked out, nor did I even bother to acknowledge her. All the energy I could muster up went into riding the subway home and walking up the seemingly infinite number of steps to my fourth-floor apartment.

The keys fell out of my hand as I tried to unlock the door, and my clumsy attempt to retrieve them masked the sound of someone coming up the stairs behind me.

Dude,” my neighbor’s voice said.

My name’s not Dude,” I replied, forcing myself back to my feet. As the key slid over the tumblers in the deadbolt, I glanced at her and wished I hadn’t.

It started with her hair, which ordinarily bounced in cinnamon curls about her face and neck, but was now restrained with minimal success by a ponytail. This exposed her collarbone, which was glazed with sweat. The sweat made her T-shirt, already formfitting, cling even more to her glorious torso. The curve of her back dipped into the waistband of her track pants, which is where I forced my eyes to stop what they were doing.

Oh,” I muttered, “no.”

“What’s up, d…” she started to ask until she caught sight of my tie and belt, still slung over my shoulder. “You went to jail,” she breathed. “This is very not good.”

I pointed to my door. “I’m going to…”

“Right,” she replied, “because…”

And…”

“Right…”

“Going,” I announced, thrusting myself into my apartment, wherein I braced myself against the closest wall. I inhaled and exhaled carefully in an attempt to bring my heart rate down.

When my id noticed that the rest of me was occupied, though, it steered my body out my door and right up to hers. I didn’t even have to knock before she yanked it open and dragged me inside.

Historically, Emma and I have had a lot of sex with each other, and we were pretty good at it. This was different. Before, there was a playfulness that permeated even the most eager of our encounters, complete with dexterous, appetizing foreplay.

None of this was there today. This time, we didn’t speak at all; we kissed hard and stripped ourselves desperately and efficiently, until we wore absolutely nothing–not even jewelry or hair ties. The only exception to this was a condom, but at this point in our histories, neither Emma nor I knew how to function without one.

I watched her stare at me, and she watched me stare at her, forever, until it was over.

Her head thudded on my chest, and she moaned, “Oh, my God.”

Oh, my God was right. What just happened? How did it happen? How did I let it happen?

“Dude,” she panted. When I didn’t answer, she prompted me, “Your name’s not Dude, remember?”

I let the silence stand.

“Max!”

I whispered, “You and me… this is a terrible idea.”

She giggled, “You and me, dude, is the best idea.”

I stared at the pattern on the ceiling I’d long ago memorized.

“Max?” She shifted herself so her ear rested on my heart. “Max, where did you go?”

“For the first time since February,” I answered, despite myself, “I’m thinking about what it would be like to be with someone exclusively.”

“Are you really thinking that?”

“Yes.”

She rolled off of me and onto her back. “About me?”

I didn’t have to respond.

“Holy shit,” she said. “Holy fucking shit.”

“Should I have kept that to myself?”

This time she was quiet.

“Em…” I licked my lips. “I just said some stuff I can’t take back.” This wasn’t the first time I had taken something this fun too seriously. But back then I was just a dumb-as-shit-teenager. I should have learned by now. “And now that I did, I’m terrified.”

“I’m terrified too, dude.”

“Should I go?”

“Please don’t go.”

“I…” My tongue pressed against the roof of my mouth, ready to spit out a word that began with L, but nobody in the room was ready for it. “I want us to be boyfriend and girlfriend. Like actual boyfriend and girlfriend.”

“When you say that out loud…”

“If not, then this is the last time. For real. No matter how much I want to.” And God I wanted to.

She breathed for what could have been days. “You’re not worried about being my rebound?”

Yes. “Are you?”

“A little.” She swallowed. “This won’t be easy.”

“No kidding.”

“If we go through with this, things are going to change, whether we like it or not,” she said. “Like, you’re probably going to tone your lifestyle down a bit.”

“Honestly,” I told her, “I won’t miss it that much.”

“And you can’t just keep disappearing like you do.”

“What if I get arrested?”

“Then your one phone call will have to be to me.” She propped herself up onto her elbow and looked at me with an earnestness I’d never seen before. “Because I worry, dude. I worry so much, even when I was with Tyler.” After letting that sink in, she concluded, “And you have to sit through the movies I like without complaining.”

I groaned. “Fine. But if I agree to your terms, I have a few of my own.”

“Keep talking.”

“You’re going to have to get a real job at some point,” I said. “It doesn’t have to be a permanent career–just something with a little security and some benefits.”

“That’s a pretty big demand.”

“Not this instant,” I clarified. “But if this somehow lasts, it’s something we should talk about.”

“That’s fair.”

“And you should probably tidy up in here a little,” I added. “I’m tired of tripping over your shit all the time. And finally, I want to read one of those comics you’re always working on.”

“Not a chance,” she replied.

“Oh, come on!”

“You’ll hate it!”

“Even if I do,” I told her, “I’ll lie about it, because I…” Again, I caught myself just in time before I said that word. “I’m intrigued by you.”

“Maybe we should wait until after we get married,” she said. “And have kids. And retire. And one of us dies.”

“No deal.”

“Okay, dude,” she conceded, “you win.”

The End


… But first, an epilogue …

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

***

previously…

The cell phone going off in my pocket couldn’t have possibly timed it any better. I’d realized a while ago that Ursula, the gorgeous Eastern European I’d been hitting on, was more interested in my friend, suspected artificial life form, Sean McCoy, but I’d still been forced to uphold the conversation for all three of us, given their shyness and their tenuous grasp of English. How this man had been married was beyond me. The fact that he’d been married at least twice defied all reason.

The vibration in my pants presented me with my means of escape. As soon as I made it to freedom, I said to the caller, “Thank you, thank you!”

“Dude?” asked the caller, whose use of the word dude told me it was my neighbor, Emma. “Can we talk?”

“Of course! We have lungs and larynxes and mouths and lips and tongues and…” Thinking of Emma’s lips and tongue, as I often did, I had to take a deep breath and fan myself with my hand. “Sorry about that. I’m baked clean through, and I have a beer somewhere I haven’t touched in at least fifteen minutes because I’ve forgotten about it.”

“You know what,” she told me, “don’t worry about it.”

“Wait,” I said. “What if I want to worry about it? You sound pretty serious.”

“I am serious.”

“Let’s do this in person,” I suggested. “Where are you?”

“Sixth Street, between Second and Third.”

“I’m on First Avenue, at the International Bar. Want me to come to you?”

“No,” she said. “I’ll be right over. I need the air.”

“Do you even know where–?” I started to ask, but she disconnected before I could finish, leaving me a little baffled.

For starters, I have no idea why she’d get in touch with me. We’d fallen out of each other’s lives over the past month or so, which was understandable, given her preoccupation with her boyfriend and my preoccupation with staying the fuck away from her. Also, where the hell did she get my number? Did I give it to her? Did she give me hers? I checked my contacts, and there was indeed an entry for Em. Who else’s number did I have that I didn’t know about? I scrolled the list and found Gretchen, whom I never wanted to call, because she annoyed the hell out of me. That made sense, though, given our professional relationship. Further investigation revealed Amber, which was even weirder. I didn’t know any Amber–okay, I didn’t know any Amber well enough to keep in touch. I called her and announced to the woman who answered, “Hi, I’m Max.

“Of course you’re fucking Max,” growled the person I assumed was Amber. “That’s what it says on my phone: ‘Fucking Max.'”

“I’m listed as ‘Fucking Max’?”

“You have ten words to tell me what the fuck you want, Max,” she demanded, “aren’t something to the effect of ‘Your son is in the hospital; prognosis is not good,’ I am changing my number.”

“Right!” I smacked my head. “Amber McCoy.”

My name,” she exploded, “is not fucking McCoy! Do I have to put it on a fucking billboard? Yoshida! Not McCoy! McCoy is an asshole’s name!”

“Your son is named McCoy.”

“I never said he was perfect.”

“Touché.

“Listen,” she explained, “I’m in a room with a bunch of assholes in the middle of a deposition.”

“I don’t like your tone!” said one of the assholes in the room.

“You have the tone of an Australopithecus,” she told him, “which I don’t particularly like either!”

The asshole tried to ask, “What is an–?”

“Shut the fuck up!” she snapped, before returning her attention to me. “Could you tell me what this is about?”

“I didn’t know who this Amber in my contacts was.”

“See?” she said. “Ten words. Was that that hard?”

“Surprisingly, no,” I replied.

“Amend your address book to include my proper surname, add a note that I am Sean’s mother, and stop smoking so much goddamn marijuana,” she suggested. “And while you’re at it, stop getting my son so high all the fucking time. A little here and there is fine, but Jesus, you guys.”

“Could we just get on with this?” asked one of the assholes from earlier. “It’s after eleven and I just want to go home.”

“You’ll go home when I think you’re ready to go home, you pussy!” she yelled. To Max, she said, “He’s right, I do need to get this shit over. Are you joining us for Thanksgiving?”

“With bells on.”

“Don’t wear goddamn bells.” She hung up, and I edited my contacts as she’d advised.

I then scanned the avenue for cinnamon hair, until Sean emerged from the bar. “Your mom says hi,” I told him.

“I find that improbable.”

“She didn’t really say hi,” I admitted.

He grunted. “I’m curious as to the reason she might have phoned you so late in the evening.”

“She didn’t call me,” I replied. “I called her.”

“Suddenly my curiosity has increased immeasurably.”

“Long story,” I said. “I thought you were talking to Ursula in there.”

“I found that conversation to be barren.”

Of course you did.”

Emma chose that moment to arrive, which was just fine with me. “Hey, dude.”

Her flushed cheeks and blank stare prompted me to ask, “Are you okay?”

She shook her head, and a slow epiphany widened her eyes. “No, I’m really not, am I?”

“You’ll have to pardon my intrusion,” Sean said, “but I’m not familiar with your identity.”

Whatever had overcome her fled immediately. “You must be Sean.”

“This is Emma,” I told him. “Everybody calls her Em.”

Nobody calls me Em,” she replied.

“Ah.” Sean smiled. “I have been awaiting this introduction–“

“Dude,” she asked, “can we talk alone?”

“Perhaps,” he advised, “given Max’s level of intoxication–“

“Get the fuck out of here!” she shouted.

“Sean,” I sighed.

Without another word, he shuffled off to the bar.

“Emma,” I said, “what’s going on?”

“Don’t call me Emma,” she replied. “It freaks me out.”

“Fine.”

“Tyler and I just broke up,” she told me.

I gasped without meaning to. “When?”

“We. Just. Broke. Up.”

“Why?”

“Commitment shit,” she said. “Somebody said the L-word prematurely.”

“Yikes,” I commiserated. “Who?”

“Does it matter?”

“It does not,” I replied. “Want to talk about it?”

“Not really.”

“Want to sit down and just be quiet?”

“No.”

“Do you want me to escort you home?”

“No way.”

Clutching at straws, I asked, “Should I come over and check on you tomorrow, then?”

“Definitely not.”

“Then what do you want?”

“I just…” she whispered. “I want to be alone for a while.”

Even though the following question was inappropriate, it happened anyway, because I was getting kind of frustrated. “So why did you even call me?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I felt like I had to.” In conclusion, she told me, “Anyway, I should go.”

“Right,” I agreed. “See you around?”

“Not for a while, dude,” she replied. “Please.”

I watched her go, and finally exhaled. And then, with a frown, I remembered the beer I’d been neglecting, and resolved to drinking it, along with as many of its friends I could get my hands around.

to be concluded…

The Winner Takes It All

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

***

previously…

The light-emitting diodes filling my living room dried out my eyes. Well, to be fair, the marijuana wasn’t doing a very good job of lubricating them either, but I preferred to blame the television, which drained my soul and showed me nothing useful. I probably would have died there had it not been for my neighbor emerging from my bedroom, announcing, “Your window’s open.”

Blinking in gratitude, I mumbled, “It’s a beautiful night.”

“Anybody could come crawling inside,” she told me.

“Anybody’s welcome.”

Emma squinted at the screen. “Is that the Oscars? I thought those were, like, six months ago.”

I looked at my watch. “Three years ago, actually.”

“You know they have those every year.”

“I have to review those too.”

“Why?” she asked.

Hours ago, my editor, Myron, had the answer: “Jack Lagattuta.”

“Nobody talks to Jack Lagattuta,” I’d reminded him. “Last time I tried, I ended up smeared all over a movie set.”

“You’re going to have to try harder.”

“There are more humane ways to murder me,” I told him.

“Max,” he said earnestly, “we need to do something about your friend, Allen Dean.”

Allen Dean is no friend of mine,” I replied.

“Regardless,” Myron said, “he’s eating our lunch.”

“Well, I hope he doesn’t a peanut allergy, because I ordered Thai.”

He glared.

“Actually,” I added, “maybe it would benefit us if he did have a peanut allergy.”

He ignored me and paced behind his desk. “Up until this little twerp came out of nowhere, we had the best entertainment coverage in town. It’s up to you to turn this around.” With a whole lot of gravitas, he stopped moving and turned to me. “We need to scoop him on a grand scale.”

“Did you say scoop?” I laughed. “Does this mean I get to wear a fedora with my press badge sticking out of it?”

“No, you do not.”

“You never let me have any fun.”

“Nobody’s having any fun until we fix this!” he barked.

“Your plan is flawed,” I said after giving him a second to cool off. “He lives in Bel-Air, and he won’t take my calls.”

“You’re in luck,” he told me. “He’s going on tour soon, and he’ll be hitting New York around Thanksgiving.”

“A press tour?”

Myron shook his head.

“Then what kind of…?” It hit me. “Oh, shit. He’s one of those middle-aged white actors.”

“He’s one of those very wealthy middle-aged white actors, so he can front a blues band if he wants.”

“A blues band?” I moaned. “Oh, fuck.”

“While he’s here,” he continued, “I want an unscheduled one-on-one.”

“How?” I begged. “He’s locked up tighter than the president. Last time, his people actually pressed charges. Nobody presses charges, Myron. I was in jail for a week.”

“That’s why I’m giving you a month and a half to come up with a plan,” he concluded.

This is how I found myself immersed in talk shows and award shows, probing for the slightest weakness in the armor of Hollywood royalty. “Homework,” I told her. “Boring, pointless homework.”

She settled into the love seat beside me. “Last time I watched the Oscars, I got so bored I ended up seducing the guy I was hanging with.”

I picked myself up and moved to nearby the easy chair and attempted to fill the air with small talk. “Your boyfriend?”

“Not up to that point,” she replied.

My imagination started acting up. “You should probably go home.”

“Relax,” she assured me. “I was twenty-four. It was a different time.”

Ancient history or not, the subject needed to change. “And what brings you here this evening?”

“I had a really bad day, and when that happens, only two things make me feel better.”

“And?”

“I think you know what the first thing is.”

I froze.

“And Tyler’s working late.”

I bit the inside of my cheek. “What exactly are you trying to tell me?”

She exploded with laughter and covered her mouth to hold back what was left. “No, no, no, dude! My TV’s broken.”

“Since when?”

“Remember when we knocked it over?”

It came back to me. “After Gretchen and I had that blowout…”

“When you assaulted me with that amazing…”

I bit the inside of my cheek again, this time drawing blood. “But I thought you said it was okay. The TV, I mean.”

“It was only mostly okay,” she told me. “And it just now quit for good.”

“Crap,” I said. “Sorry.”

“It was totally worth it,” she replied. “But when I don’t have sex to turn to, I watch movies to unwind, so you owe me.”

“You know what?” I shrugged. “I could use the break anyway. What’s the name of the turd in question?”

On & On.”

“What’s it about?”

“It’s a period piece set in the eighties–a sort-of satire about the Cold War,” she told me.

“And?”

“Lots of running,” she admitted.

“Car chases?”

“Just one,” she replied. “At the end of the first act.”

“Explosions?”

“Not as many as you’d think.”

“Punching?”

Her eyes rolled before they closed, and a grin spread across her face until she interrupted it by biting her lip and sucking in a lungful of air with a helpless squeak. “Oh, God,” she moaned. “So… much… punching.”

I shook my head to dislodge the thoughts forming there. “You are a sick person.”

I can’t help what turns me on.”

We coughed and averted our eyes from each other.

“Look,” I told her after taking a deep breath, “I can’t talk to you about fucking anymore.”

She sat up. “Sorry?”

“You heard me.”

But that’s all we have in common,” she replied defensively.

“Em,” I told her, “I am as surprised as anyone by what I’m about to tell you, but I honestly think you’re one of the coolest people I’ve ever met, and I actually enjoy being around you with all your clothes on. Plus, you bailed me out of my little birthday breakdown last week. I mean, you listened to me. No one else really does.”

“You’re not making any sense.”

I cleared my throat and said slowly, “I’m okay being friends, but please no more talk about fucking.”

She frowned. “Why not? I thought you said we were friends.”

I grunted. “Because I miss it, Em.”

“You miss fucking?” she asked breathlessly. “You, of all people, haven’t been fucking?”

“Are you kidding?” I snorted. “I’m on a roll!” This much was true. Ever since she gave me the pep talk that night, I seemed to have developed some kind of homing system for women looking for one-night stands. “I miss fucking you.”

“This is awkward now.” She stood and sighed. “I think I should go home and watch this on my laptop.”

As she left, I whispered, “Yeah.” I rubbed my eyes and resumed my research with renewed vigor. I was going to find a goddamned victory somewhere.

to be continued…

Glory Days

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

***

previously…

From my fire escape, I stared off into Manhattan with eyes that didn’t want to stay dry. This took a lot of concentration, which popped when my neighbor burst outside.

“Happy Birthday, dude!” she shouted.

“Thanks, Emma,” I replied.

My name’s not…” she started to recite, until she noticed that I had gone off-script. Before she could react, I slipped back inside.

Emma called after me, “Where are you…?”

She couldn’t finish her thought because I slammed the window shut and drew the blinds.

About three minutes later, somebody knocked on the front door. Against my better judgment, I answered.

“What the hell, dude?” Emma asked.

“I’m going to close this door in your face now.”

“Really,” she dared me.

“Fine,” I grunted.

She slipped past me and headed straight for my bedroom.

“I’m surprised you can find it from this angle.”

She brushed an unruly, cinnamon curl behind her ear, smiled her crooked smile, and, for just a moment, I almost forgot why I was so glum.

“Why did you call me Emma?” she asked after I closed the door behind me.

“That’s your name.”

Dude,” she insisted. When I didn’t react, she folded her arms. “Dude.”

I groaned in defeat. “Do you remember when you and I first met?” I asked.

At that horrible party.”

“After that.”

When I threw up?”

“After that.”

“Screwing on the couch?”

“Right before that.”

“I’m lost,” she told me.

“You said that I was treating you like a rebound, whatever that meant, and I said you were crazy, and that’s when I threw you on the couch, and the conversation kind of stopped.”

She sighed. “When you’ve been with enough guys, there’s this… way they get the first time after a long relationship. Like they forgot how. For a second there–“

You were right.”

Her eyes went wide. “Seriously?”

I shrugged.

“So what does this have to do with…?” She started to ask until understanding took hold.

I shrugged again.

Dude, what happened?”

I gave her another shrug.

She reached a comforting hand toward me, but froze. “Is it okay to touch you right now?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is there anything I can do?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Anything I can say?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well,” she asked, “what do you know?”

“I know that I’m stupid.”

“Stupid I can work with.” Dramatically, she cracked her knuckles. “So what makes you stupid?”

“Everything.”

“I’m gonna need you to narrow that down, dude. Can you do that for me?”

I shook my head. “If I get anymore specific, I’m going to fall apart and lose it and cry… and there I go… anyway…” I couldn’t continue because attempting to talk would only result in spastic sobs. These tears were a lot further along than I’d intended to get in the first place.

Emma put her arm around my shoulder, but I pushed her away.

“Not… help…” and here came the sobbing. It took a while to die down, and the whole time she sat in the corner and didn’t make a sound. When my body was too tired to cry anymore, I finally got a word in. “You should probably go.”

“Do you want me to go?”

“I don’t know what I want.”

She took a deep breath, drawing as much patience as she could from the air around her. “I’ll tell you what I want,” she said. “I want to stay in this room until I’m sure you’re okay. Is that all right?”

“I’m probably never going to be okay again.”

“Then I’m never leaving this room.” There was that crooked smile again. “If that’s okay with you.”

“What if you have to go to the bathroom?”

“There’s a window.”

“Then you can stay,” I told her.

A few minutes of comfortable silence passed. When she felt that enough of it had gone by, she asked, “can you tell me her name?”

Cariño,” I replied. “She used to be cariño.”

She frowned. “Why ‘used to’?”

Cariño is a Spanish affectation,” I explained, “like honey or darling or dear; and now…” Shit. Here’s those tears again. “Now she’s just Carissa,” I managed to get out before the sobs took over.

She reached for me again, and this time I didn’t push her away.

“Three months,” I said when I’d calmed down. “That’s all we had. That’s all it took. It’s a barrier now. I can’t turn around and look back at my life without her getting in the way. I can’t look forward, because then I have to look at the past.”

“Dude,” she told me gently, “you have to start making some sense.”

“I just ignored her so I could stay in the here and now,” I tried to explain. “That’s the only way I can keep going: one step at a time. And she snuck up on me on my fucking birthday–that day when everybody thinks about their past, present, and future. And now that’s all I can think about–that I don’t have her anymore. I haven’t had her since February. And it’s fucking October, and I’m just now remembering that.”

“Back up, dude,” she said flatly. “What do you mean by have?”

I blinked in surprise. “What?”

“Because if you have some kind of possession thing,” she clarified, “then I’m not going to feel a whole lot of sympathy here.”

A little insulted by the implication, I tried to explain, “I mean have as in having a friend or a partner or someone who cares if I make it home safe. She was the first person I would have called when I got this apartment, or when I got mugged, or when my oldest friend came into my life again.”

She didn’t say anything while I marinated in my own words for a while.

Eventually I added, “I go out every other night and make friends with everyone. Do you have any idea how lonely I am? What have I got to show for any of this?”

You got me,” she replied.

Do I?”

She leaned forward and kissed me tenderly on the lips. Pulling away, she told me, “That’s all I can spare, dude.”

“I know,” I said. “Boyfriend and all.”

She checked the display on her phone. “Speaking of whom, I’m late to dinner.” She opened the window to exit, saying, “Look, dude, you’re not even thirty yet. Birthdays before that are supposed to be fun. Go out and make friends with everyone. Get wasted and get laid. You can worry about all this other shit some other day.”

“Promise?”

She shrugged.

As she left and blew me a kiss, I called after her, “Thank you.” Thank wasn’t the first word that came to mind, but it would have to do for now.

to be continued…

But first…

Mental Health Day

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

***

previously…

When I locked the deadbolt on my way out the door, my neighbor sprang out of her apartment like a cat hearing a can opener.

Em,” I said.

“Where have you been?”

“Around,” I replied.

“Where are you headed?”

“Out.”

“I mean where specifically,” she badgered.

“Houston Street,” I sighed.

“Why?”

“The Angelika’s running a film I’ve been dying to see.”

“I’ll get my purse,” she said.

When she emerged and bounded down the stairs, I followed and told her, “You know, nothing blows up in this movie.”

“I figured as much. You don’t have the stomach for that. With you, it’s probably one of those gay, French films.”

She made it out the door, leaving me wondering how I’d lost control of the situation.

“Just because there’s no kung fu doesn’t necessarily mean this a gay, French film.”

“Fine,” she conceded. “What’s it called then?”

Discotheque.”

She laughed in my face and charged toward the train station. I took a moment to compose myself.

“Hurry it up, dude,” she called after me, “foreign, homosexual cinema awaits!”

During the trip downtown, I reminded her, “You hate movies like this.”

“True.”

“And you’re going to be miserable the whole time.”

“Probably.”

“Then why the hell are you forcing yourself on me like this?”

She whispered in my ear, “You used to like it when I forced myself on you.”

Feeling my pants constricting, I growled, “Don’t.”

“I’m sorry,” she replied sincerely. With a look, we agreed to change the subject, so she answered my original question: “I get a kick out of making fun of you because you’re a girl.”

“Okay, then.”

“And Tyler is out of town this weekend.”

I was worried you were starting to like me.”

An hour later, we sat ourselves comfortably in the movie theater with popcorn and beverages, and she asked, “What’s this called again?”

I handed her my beer, and she took a swig while I told her, “Discotheque.”

“Is it a gay discotheque?”

I grabbed a fistful of popcorn. “Is there another kind?”

She laughed.

“Excuse me,” someone said as she pushed past Emma and me.

A quick glimpse revealed that she was a delightfully plump academic with frumpy glasses and a brainy scarf. She smiled shyly at me, and I smiled right back. Just as the lights started to dim, I snapped my wrist and produced a business card. “Hi, I’m Max.”

She blushed and took it. “Hi,” she told me, “I’m Kara.”

“I’m with the movie-theater inspection agency, and I wanted to ask you a few questions.”

She read my card. “It says here you’re a reporter at a trashy paper.”

“Okay,” I conceded, “I’m a journalist, and I wanted to ask you a few questions.”

“Like what?”

I pulled out a pen and my reporter’s notebook. “What is your phone number?”

“Why would a reporter want my phone number?”

“So he can ask you out.”

“What would your girlfriend think of that?”

“Her? She’s my sister.”

She studied Emma carefully. “You guys don’t look related.”

“Half-sister.”

Kara grinned, and then she answered my question. When I returned my attention to Emma, she was staring at me, slack-jawed.

“What?” I asked.

Do you ever turn that off?”

“Nope,” I replied.

“How do you do that?”

“You just saw me.”

“You just told her what your name is,” she said.

“And don’t forget the card. Chicks dig the card.”

“What if you run out of cards?”

“Then I just tell her what my name is,” I said. “You’d be amazed at how far that goes.”

“Is that right?” She turned to the skinny hipster next to her and said, “Hi, I’m Emma.”

He snorted.

I’ll be honest: the movie wasn’t very good. I wouldn’t admit to Emma, though. Agreeing with her was something I tried to avoid. But thanks to the whispering and snickering between us, hours passed easily enough.

After the movie finished dragging, and after the subway finished dragging just as badly, we made it to our building and dug the keys out of our respective pockets. I grinned and said, “Thanks for putting up with that.”

“It was a gay old time,” she replied and gave me a friendly kiss on the cheek.

The casualness of the gesture shocked the both of us, so we started into each other’s eyes for a long, startled second.

“So,” I said.

“So,” she replied.

“See you around?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Around.”

We both snapped out of the trance and unlocked our doors. Before we stepped into our apartments, we both turned back to look, surprising each other by doing so.

She blushed. “Bye.”

A hoarse whisper was all I could muster. “Around.”

I closed the door and leaned on it to keep from collapsing. “What the fuck was that?”

“What the fuck was what, roomie?” my flatmate Cameron yelled from the kitchen.

His boyfriend Mitchell, sitting cross-legged on the couch and devouring a pint of ice cream, asked, “Was it a mysterious chill? Because that’s the first sign of a haunting, and this building is old enough to pack a few a few ghosts.”

“That’s what it was,” I said. “Ghosts. Cold ghosts. Goose bumps. I’m going to go get baked.”

I climbed onto the fire escape, only to find myself a few feet from Emma again.

“Hi?” she squeaked.

“Hi,” I squeaked back.

“Getting some fresh air.”

“Marijuana,” I told her. You can’t have any.”

“Okay, bye,” she said and went back inside.

My hand shook too hard to light up.

to be continued…

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…

Patchwork

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

***

previously…

I dreamt about her again… scratch that. It was the first time I’d dreamt about–or had even seen her–since she’d sent me the letter telling me that we shouldn’t be together anymore.

While it was the most linear, literal dream I remember having, it still had enough of Morpheus’s logic that things didn’t 100 percent track upon waking. For example, I’d never before met the couple I was joining for dinner or brunch, and so I didn’t know where I allegedly knew them from. They were a casual group, but a bit more formal than those with whom I would ordinarily associate. We were all quite fond of each other, and these dinners or brunches were a regular occurrence.

And so it came as a surprise to see her there in our booth, nodding along to the meaningless and unmemorable conversation. It came as even more of a surprise that she didn’t bother to introduce herself, nor did my friends do the same. In fact, they didn’t acknowledge her at all. She just sat there across the table from me, attentive but quiet, like a ghost. Typically, a ghost is accompanied by a sense of dread, and this was no different. In this case, there was an added sense of guilt, as if I had brutally broken her heart.

In the waking world, this was not true at all. Quite the reverse in fact. Her age of nineteen made our relationship legal, both legally and morally, but she was still just graduating from high school. She had a future, and I lived entirely in the moment. She understood that. I didn’t. I hadn’t abandoned or cheated on her; I could have handled the consequences of that. What I had done was disappoint her. In a way, I guess it was my fault.

My not-really friends weren’t there with us anymore. This was the thing I feared more than anything: being alone with her. I could no longer pretend not to recognize her.

“Hi,” she said. What she hadn’t said was, “Hi, Max,” or, “Hi, asshole,” or ” You have a lot of nerve showing your face around here, you miserable bastard.” Maybe she’d forgotten who I was.

That gave me hope.

“I haven’t seen you in a long time,” she said.

Oh, crap.

Just then, I realized that we were sitting together on the same side of the table, with just a couple of feet of space between us. Neither of us had actually moved; the dream did it for us, in such a subtle way that I hadn’t even noticed.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

I don’t know how long our hips had been within a whisper of each other.

“Don’t,” she replied.

I couldn’t think of something to say, which probably had something to do with the way the two of us had been lying on our backs on the empty table. When I rolled over and propped my head on my elbow, I remembered that, the last time I’d been this close to her, we were in Albuquerque, promising each other a future together.

She must have seen my thoughts on my face. “We can’t kiss,” she told me.

I’ve made out with many women over the years, but Carissa’s kisses belonged to her alone. Whenever she pulled away, she bit my lower lip gently–not enough to hurt, but just enough to remind me she’d been there. My mouth dried in anticipation of the nibble that would never come again.

I needed to touch her. I told her so.

“Please,” she whispered.

I’m not a humble man. I possess many extraordinary talents, and I refuse to hide them. Among these is my skill at lock-picking. I’m not referring to the deadbolt variety. What I mean to say is that, when I have permission, there is not a button, buckle, zipper, clasp, strap, or lace that can stand between me and nudity.

Almost instantly, the bottom four buttons on her shirt were unfastened. My fingers drifted underneath the fabric to massage her gymnast’s stomach, a sign of her physical strength, and trace the line of the scar that ran along her right hip, a reminder of her physical vulnerability.

She sighed and squirmed in such a way that there was a gap between her jeans and her bare skin that my hand could slip comfortably inside. It moved to do just that.

I don’t know how much further this would have gone if my neighbor’s alarm clock hadn’t gone off right beside my head.

More often than not these days, Emma and I vented out our frustrations with our workdays or social lives by exchanging sweat and orgasms. Since this was so exhausting, it was rare that I ever bothered climbing over the fire escape and back into my own bed.

As I retrieved and put on my clothes for my short journey home, Emma muttered, “You could save us both a lot of money and hassle if you just packed up and moved in.”

If you’ve ever seen a long corridor equipped with fluorescent bulbs light up incrementally and randomly after the switch is flipped, you can visualize how my brain activated during the ensuing conversation. “What,” I asked, “did you just say?”

It’s not like you can just knock on my front door,” she continued.

“No,” I agreed, still not at full illumination, “because my roommates might suspect I’m straight.”

And you can’t keep using the fire escape.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s going to be cold in a few months, and I’m planning on keeping my window closed,” she replied.

“I was kind of hoping you’d have a real boyfriend by then.”

So you don’t have to deal with me anymore?”

“So you could be happy.”

She froze. “So I need a man in my life to be happy?”

“I didn’t mean it that way!” Well, I did actually kind of mean it that way, but to be fair, I wasn’t entirely awake.

Does fucking all the women make you happy?”

“A little bit, yeah.”

“Bullshit.”

“How would you know?” I asked.

She took a breath and concentrated as if this were a pop quiz. “Because they’re only booty-calls.”

“I prefer to think of them as ‘liaisons.'”

“They’re booty calls,” she said.

“What do you call this then?” I don’t know why I had to ask this question. It was one part genuine curiosity and one part slap in her face.

Convenient.”

Touché. “Can’t argue with that.” I didn’t say anything when I crawled out her window, and she didn’t say anything back. There were all sorts of things I wanted to say, but they crashed and collided throughout my head, becoming shards of battered half-thoughts.

I stood in my room feeling like a computer with no operating system–i.e. a paperweight–when my body decided to do what the rest of me couldn’t figure out how to. I stormed all the way out of my apartment and pounded on Emma’s front door.

She tore it open and growled, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

“Knocking,” I replied.

Upon hearing this, she didn’t change her expression. But something in her posture did shift, just a little. She reached over and wrapped her hand around the back of my neck and said, “You better get inside, dude, before you get yourself evicted.”

to be continued…