The Weak Force

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

***

previously…

I had been struggling for about an hour to add color to an otherwise monochrome, straightforward profile of Anna Castle, star of the upcoming sequel to the box-office juggernaut, Seventh Chamber, when someone slid into the booth opposite me, chomping on a wad of bubblegum.

“Hey, Gretchen,” I assumed. I didn’t need to raise my head, because I already knew what she looked like–i.e. the body I most wanted to fuck wrapped up in the brain and series of quirks I least wanted to fuck.

“Why are we here?” asked the voice of the photographer I almost always worked with.

“Philosophy,” I replied. “Ask philosophy.”

“Why are we at a May’s Cafe?” she clarified after taking a moment to parse my words.

“Because it’s right down the street from the Beacon Theater,” I told her. “Get a map.”

She cracked her knuckles, which she did when she was tense. She cracked her knuckles a lot around me. “I mean, why aren’t we at the Beacon?”

“Because Paige Cromwell isn’t due onstage for a few hours, and we’re getting paid to sneak an interview with her, not her roadies.”

“You know there’s a bar right across the street from the Beacon?”

“I’ve been there,” I said.

“Then why aren’t we there?”

“It’s too early to be drinking.”

The gum stopped smacking. “But you always told me that it’s never too early to drink after the sun goes down.”

I tossed my disposable pen onto my notebook and snapped, “Dammit, Gretchen!” However, when I finally faced her, I forgot what it was I was going to shout next. “So, um…” I mumbled, referring to the bustier she wore, “… I see you’ve got your breasts out.”

She glanced down. “These?”

“I’m not going to answer that question.”

“It was your idea,” she reminded me.

I didn’t know what she was talking about. “I never said that out loud…”

She moaned, “Why do you have to be such a…”

“Pig?”

“Pervert.”

“I prefer pig,” I said.

That’s because you are one.”

There was no real way to respond to that. “So, now that we’ve established that I am a pervert, why are you dressed like…” The first words that came to mind to describe her wardrobe were nasty. I hated those words, and I hated that I thought of them. “… that?”

“Remember when you got arrested at the Staplebitch concert?” she asked.

I groaned.

She took that as a yes. “And remember how, before you tried to tried to sneak past the barriers and bouncers before you got arrested…”

I groaned again.

“… and you tried to talk your way past the bodyguards? And how that didn’t work? And you got arrested?”

“You just like to remind me of my failures, don’t you?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied, “but that’s not what I’m talking about right now.”

“Carry on, then.”

“Remember that you told me it would go a lot easier if I ‘showed off my girls a little more?'”

“That’s right,” I recalled, “and you didn’t know which girls I was referring to.”

“Nobody’s ever called my boobs girls before,” she told me with a genuine pout. “I think that’s really weird.”

“Yeah,” I said, “Sorry if I made you uncomfortable.”

“What?” She shook the confusion out of her head and continued, “So I thought about it, and since boobs make men stupid, I could use them as weapons.”

“I’m going to be honest, Gretchen,” I told her, “I’m impressed with your forethought.”

She snatched up my pen and began clicking it. “You don’t have to be such a jerk all the time, Max Fuentes.”

“I said I was being honest.”

“I know you,” she said. “You were just being dishonest about being honest.”

“Yeah, I can see how you might come to that conclusion.” I shrugged. “I have a history.”

“Thank you?” Her face scrunched up in adorable confusion, and, as she did so her fingers acted of their own accord and began twirling the writing instrument between them with remarkable dexterity. “Maybe?”

“I like that better than knuckle-cracking,” I said, pointing at her hand.

“What?” And with that, her prop jumped into the air and onto the floor. “Oops!” she squeaked and reached for it, an act that presented me with an even better view of her cleavage than the incredible one I’d already been witness to.

I closed my eyes and breathed. “It’s okay, Gretchen …”

My assurances meant nothing, because she was on her hands and knees, groping around my feet before I could even finish saying her name.

“I’m serious, Gretchen,” I told her, “I have plenty–” A loud thud and a ripple in my coffee announced that she’d hit her head. I glanced innocently around the restaurant. The table shook again.

By this point, we’d attracted the attention of three men in the corner. With their vests, mud-stained jeans, and cowboy hats, they looked like they could have been a sight-gag entitled “Generic Migrant Workers.” That meant they resembled parts of my extended family, making it all the more embarrassing as the table thumped twice more as Gretchen hauled herself back up to her seat.

When she got there, she adjusted her bustier, pulled her hair out of her face, and brandished my pen with a triumphant grin. “All done!”

I stole a glance over at the migrant workers. All three of them gave me a thumbs up. I smiled back, but without much enthusiasm.

Let’s take a detour for now

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…

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…

Visiting Hours

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

***

previously…

It was almost the afternoon, and my neighbor and I found ourselves sitting in a café just around the corner from our apartment building. Settling down with our post-coital coffees, I noted that they were both black with one sugar. “How’s work?” I asked by way of small talk.

“You know: making copies, distributing copies, filing copies, shredding copies, reprinting copies, and copying them again. Pushing a boulder up a hill.”

“Wow,” I said, “they make you push boulders up hills?”

She wasn’t sure if I was kidding. “How about your work?”

“Boring,” I replied. “Endless fluff pieces.”

“You got thrown in jail last night for writing a fluff piece?” she asked.

“That was something different,” I replied. “We call it ‘ninja journalism.'”

We?”

“My paper,” I said. “Well, my editor and me.” I thought about it. “Okay, just me.”

She shook her head with a smile.

It’s my job,” I explained, “to get to celebrities who are notoriously tight-lipped. To do that, I have to sneak past or talk my way through armies of publicists, bodyguards, and agents. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve have a long history of breaking and entering and running cons, so that makes me a natural.”

“So you’re paparazzi.”

“Not quite. The targets…”

“You’re not really a ninja, you know,” she told me.

“They know I’m a journalist. It’s just a matter of getting alone with them and making them like me. To do that, you need to be able to profile them on the spot and become exactly the kind of person they feel comfortable opening up to. Also, you have to be prepared to do a lot of drugs and alcohol.”

“Sounds lonely,” she said.

How did she know that? Most people at this point expressed only envy. “It’s–”

My phone went off, changing the subject. I dug it out, looked at the caller ID, and groaned, “I have to take this.” Immediately it began berating me.

As it did, Emma squirmed in her chair. The nails on one of her hands traced a pattern on the tabletop in front of her, and the rest of her fingers massaged her coffee cup.

My mouth went dry. I would much rather have been that cup, that tabletop, or that chair right now, instead of listening to my phone rant. “I know,” I sighed, letting it continue for another minute.

Emma’s fingers drifted over and began stroking mine.

When the phone went silent, I realized I’d better rejoin the conversation. “I know, I’ve been busy.” It asked me a question. “No!” I replied. “Okay, maybe a little bit.” I added, “Okay, maybe a lot.”

It lectured me some more while Emma quietly lifted my hand to her face and began sucking on my pinkie.

The phone chose at that moment to reveal something that hadn’t occurred to me, and I was forced to liberate myself from her grasp. “Seriously?” I buried my face in my now free hand. “Oh my god, I am so sorry.” The phone laid on a thick guilt trip.

Emma watched me curiously.

“I know,” I sighed, “I should have called.” Another, shorter guilt trip followed.

She started to get bored again.

“I said I was sorry.” The next guilt trip was more of a guilt sprint, but it still stung.

Emma began to play with her cinnamon-colored hair.

I so wished I could just hang up and help her, but instead, I had to ask my phone, “What are you doing later?” It told me. “Why don’t we go have a drink?” It asked me where. “Let’s go to Byrne’s. They have that classy sparkling water you like, right? See you in an hour?”

Sighing, I hung up and said to Emma, “Sorry. That was my friend, Sean. I haven’t talked to him in over a month. I was supposed to go with him to a cocktail party where I could meet Maggie Gross.”

“Who the hell is Maggie Gross?” she asked.

“She owns and runs a restaurant that’s a hotspot for celebrities.”

“Your ‘ninja targets,'” she said with air quotes.

“Most of the reason they love the place is because she keeps the press at bay.” I added, “Unless she really likes the reporter.”

“And what makes you think she’ll like you?”

“Come on, Em…”

“My name’s not Em.”

“Everybody likes me.”

“I don’t like you.”

That’s probably because I keep calling you Em.”

She shrugged.

“So I’d once mentioned in passing to him that I would give my right arm to meet Maggie Gross, and he got me on an invite list to her latest party.”

“And you blew him off.”

“My cousin died,” I whined. “And I got distracted.”

“And you haven’t called him.”

“Distracted,” I reminded her.

“You really are an asshole.” She meant it.

Shtupping you is a full-time job.”

“I know, right?” She grinned. “I’ve got a half-finished comic sitting on my dining room table.”

“I know we’re pretty voracious,” I said, “but you seriously can’t come up with ten minutes to read one comic book?”

At first she seemed pissed, but after a moment of thought, she softened a bit. “Not read,” she told me; “draw.”

“You draw comics?”

“You don’t think I moved to New York to be a temp, do you?”

“There’s a lot about you I don’t know,” I admitted, “like your full name.”

“You don’t know that, do you?”

“Well?”

“Dayton,” she told me. “Yours?”

“Maximillian Alejandro Fuentes.”

“My middle name is Diane.”

“I don’t know your age, either,” I continued.

“You should know better than to ask that.”

“Based on your response,” I said, “I’m guessing thirty-eight.”

“Asshole.”

“Twenty-four,” I guessed honestly.

“Now you’re just trying to fix the damage you just caused.”

“No,” I said, “there’s no way you’re older than me.”

“You’re right, then, because I’m thirty-one.”

“How old do you think I am?”

“Thirty-five,” she replied.

“Twenty-seven.”

“That’s impossible!”

I shrugged.

“That makes me a cradle robber,” she giggled. “I am so hot!”

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…

Just One Look

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

***

previously…

Hours passed while I stood on my fire escape, marinating in guilt. I made a fist and almost rapped on my neighbor’s window before stopping myself. What the hell did I think was I doing? I was having a crisis, and this is how I chose to handle it? With mindless sensual gratification? I couldn’t even begin to describe how utterly selfish I felt at that moment.

But what was more selfish than sex? The only point of it–if you’re doing it right–is to feel physically good. I was the kind of guy who took great pride in the lengths I went to please my partner, but I’d always known that I performed that way because I got off on getting her off.

Did this mean I thought of her as a sex toy? Did she only think of me as a sex toy?

Emma and I didn’t have much of a relationship, but what we did have was raw, carnal honesty.

I knocked.

“Coming!” she yelled. When she opened the window and saw me, her expression shifted from hope to anticipation to hunger and finally to confusion.

Dude,” she said, “you look like someone pissed on your head.”

“Excuse me?”

“Not literally.” She asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t feel sad at all and I should and I don’t know what to do?”

She sighed, and the look on her face shifted to disappointment. “Why don’t you come inside and tell me all about it.”

I followed her into her kitchen, which I hadn’t really studied before. Last time I was here, I only paid attention to obstacles and solid surfaces I could use for leverage. Now that I wasn’t drunk on lust, I was surprised that I hadn’t injured myself.

“Need a beer?” she asked.

I shook my head.

“Well, I do. Have a seat.”

I turned to the living room, noted a futon, and collapsed onto it.

She entered the room, took a long swig out of the bottle, and curled up on the far end. “So,” she said, “what’s up, dude.”

“Banjo was one of my best buddies but he’s gone now and now he’s really gone, and I don’t miss him. I mean, I did miss him, but not anymore.”

“Back up,” she demanded. “You were best friends with a banjo?”

I pulled myself to my feet. “This was a mistake,” I muttered. “I’m sorry.”

With a sigh, she gestured me back to her futon. “You’re here, I’m awake, my beer’s open, so you might as well explain yourself.”

“Seriously?”

“Just try to keep it simple. It’s fucking late.”

“Banjo’s my cousin.”

“You have a cousin named Banjo,” she replied. “Really.”

“Benjamin,” I sighed. “Benjamin Joshua. We called him Banjo because whatever.”

“And he’s gone.” She scrunched up her face, trying to concentrate on my verbal diarrhea from a few minutes ago. “Twice.”

“He went to prison,” I told her. “And he just died there.”

“Oh.”

“He went native,” I said. “Kicked some asses. Knifed a guy. I didn’t recognize him the last time I saw him. Hell, I didn’t even like him.” I shrugged. “Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Somebody stabbed him.”

“You think it was because his name was Banjo?”

“What?” I yelped. “Why would you say that?”

“I don’t know!” To her credit, she really did look like she regretted saying that.

Still: “You are such an asshole, you know that?”

“Well, I’m sorry,” she replied, “but I’m no good at this kind of thing.”

“What are you good at?”

“Take off your pants, and I’ll show you.”

I did, and she did.

Eight days later, I was sitting in bed, contemplating something or other, when a tap came from my window.

“Dude,” Emma whispered, “are you there?”

I opened the blinds.

She frowned, apparently in shock. “I think I just lost my job.”

I opened my mouth to reply, but had nothing.

“No,” she continued, “I don’t think I lost my job. I did lose my job. What the fuck?”

“You want to have this conversation on your futon?” I asked her.

In a haze, she led me into her apartment, her words spilling out uneasily. “My current gig was supposed to last until Labor Day, but they just canceled the contract.”

I sat her down headed to the kitchen.

“And the temp agency can’t promise me anything yet. I don’t know what to do,” she continued.

“Do you need me to make suggestions,” I asked, rooting through her refrigerator for beer and finding only empty cardboard boxes that were supposed to contain beer, “or do you just want me to tell you it’s going to be okay?”

“Wait until I’m finished, then tell me it’s okay.”

I gave up and joined her in the living room. “Go on.”

“If I don’t find work before July, then I don’t know how I’m going to get by. I’ve been living off of credit cards for so long. I’m so scared.” She waited a few moments before adding, “You can tell me it’s going to be okay now, dude.”

I reached over and massaged the inside of her thigh. “It’s going to be okay now, dude.”

She moaned, “Thank you.”

Five days later, she invited me into her apartment to tell me, “The A train broke down two times last week! Twice! I was late to work! Twice!”

“I thought you were unemployed.”

“I got a new one,” she replied. “And it’s in Battery Park, as far as possible from this apartment.”

“At least it’s not Ozone park.”

“Twice!” she reminded me.

“Bed or futon?”

“Either.”

Three days later, she opened her window.

“I got arrested again,” I told her.

“I can never tell when you’re kidding,” she replied.

“Not kidding.” I asked her, “Have you ever been arrested?”

She shook her head.

“Well, if you’re going to sympathize,” I said, “you should probably experience it for yourself.” With that, I produced a pair of recreational handcuffs.

Three days later, she peeked into my bedroom. “All the copiers at work ran out of toner at the same time.”

“I’ll be right out,” I said.

Two days later, I crawled through her window. “I had to interview Martin Hughes.”

The Martin Hughes?”

I nodded.

She shuddered. “Strip,” she demanded

Two days later, she told me, “I maxed out one of my credit cards.”

The next day, I told her, “My editor chewed my head off.”

The day after that, she told me, “The heel of my favorite boot broke off.”

The day after that, I told her, “My photographer won’t quit snapping her gum.”

The next afternoon, she said, “I got a paper cut.”

That evening, I said, “My knuckles hurt from knocking on your window.”

After that, we just stopped with the excuses.

to be continued…

Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight

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

***

previously…

“Hi,” I said as I slid into the booth next to the bored-looking blonde, “I’m Max.”

“Are you the wingman?” she asked.

Do I look like a fighter pilot?”

She glared at me. “You know what I mean.”

With a cartoonishly eager face, I looked at her. “Please tell me.”

“You’re the one who’s supposed to distract the ugly friend while your partner swoops in on the more attractive one.”

I frowned and turned to the other side of the nightclub, where Sean was in the process of swooping in on the more attractive one. However, using her as a point of comparison was hardly fair. She was simply the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen; keep in mind that I still carried a massive torch for my gorgeous, elegant ex-girlfriend, so that’s saying quite a bit.

The thing was, Sean was terrible at this, which was odd, considering how many ex-wives he had collected. She was also not so great at this. It was like watching two pre-adolescents learning to waltz while their parents coached them using semaphore.

Ordinarily, I would have left him to it while I found a place to drink in which I didn’t have to be audience to this. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t tolerate being dispatched to distract the ordinary friend. This, however, was no ordinary friend. Nobody who filled out a camisole the way she did could be described as ordinary. Besides, there was something delightful about her cynicism. This meant that I knew in advance she’d consider the next thing I would say to be utter bullshit. I said it anyway: “She has an ugly friend?”

She growled, “Don’t start.”

“Let me make this simple,” I told her. “If I were only here to distract you, I wouldn’t be asking you to leave with me for someplace quieter, and with better lighting.”

“Really.” She still looked skeptical.

“Okay,” I sighed, “let me make this simpler.” I reached over and caressed her cheek with my thumb, guiding her closer to me.

And then, just before our lips had a chance to touch, a voice looming over us declared, “Max, I believe it is time for us to converse exclusively with each other.”

“What the hell did he just say?” the blonde whispered to me.

That he’s an asshole who has no idea how to interact with human beings,” I replied. To Sean, I said, “I believe no such thing.”

“Your beliefs are irrelevant.”

“I think I should go,” she said.

With a flick of my wrist, my business card appeared in front of her face. “I’d like to continue this conversation,” I told her.

She plucked it out of my hand as she stood up to collect her attractive friend. “Maybe.”

As I followed him to the bar, a petulant silence thickened between us that I was determined not to shatter. Frankly, I didn’t give even the tiniest of shits about what was pissing him off.

My stubbornness outlasted his, and he snapped, “Please explain to me the purpose of that exchange.”

“I was being your wingman,” I reminded him.

“You were far exceeding the duty for which I enlisted you.”

“I don’t do anything half-assed, Sean.”

“Thus I must ask, has it become a necessity to refresh your memory, vis-à-vis our wager?”

You mean the one where I swore that I wouldn’t have sex for a year?”

“Indeed,” he replied. “Only ninety-four days have passed since we reached this agreement.”

“It’s only been three months?”

“And a smattering of days.”

“Fuck.” I reached for my wallet, took out three dollar bills, and slapped them onto the bar.

“And what, pray tell, is the purpose of that?”

I looked at him and then back to the bar.

He looked at the bar and then back at me. “You’ve engaged in coitus?”

I shrugged.

“I believe there might have been some kind of miscommunication,” he told me. “If I recall correctly, the wager had originally been set for one dollar. Two, if the object of said fornication was your neighbor.”

My mistake.” I tossed three more dollars onto the bar.

“Three times?”

I clarified, “Does the dollar cover the entire period of time our clothes were off, or every instance of actual intercourse?”

“We had not actually negotiated the terms to that degree of specificity.”

I took out six more dollars. “It’s the spirit of the thing.”

“Motherfucker!”

What about heavy petting and groping through clothing?” I asked. “Oh, the hell with it,” I muttered and tossed two more dollars onto the pile.

“There are no words in my vocabulary, Max Fuentes, that adequately describe the tenor of the loathing I feel for you right now.”

to be continued…