By Harry McEwan
I passed you on the street this morning. I was dashing to work, texting my boss, late, as usual. I didn’t recognize you until after I’d passed. When the realization hit me, I stopped dead a half block later and looked back. At first I wasn’t sure. I thought I glimpsed the side of your face, frozen in the anthill frenzy of rush hour, but then your nurse, who I guess had bent to pick up your cane, stood and returned it to you, and you hobbled off on his arm. He looked about twenty. Still the lecherous old queen, you are.
I followed you and your nurse, to be sure. I kept my distance. In that moment, I wouldn’t have known what to say to you after thirty-seven years anyway. Perhaps now I do.
You went into your old building. Yes, that walk-up on Bleecker near the old vinyl shop that always seems to be verging on going bust. I waited on the sidewalk across the street, looking up, trying to calculate the time it might take you to negotiate the stairs now, remembering how we used to race each other up them, falling into each other’s arms, howling drunk.
But no sign of life came from the windows of your old apartment. Then, just as I was about to be convinced I’d been mistaken the whole while, that it couldn’t have been you after all, that it was only a vague wish from a dark corner of my mind, well, sure as sunrise, the light came on in your kitchen window. You looked down. Right at me. You wore an oxygen tube.
I walked away.
You didn’t know it, but I was only sixteen back then. Maybe you did know it. At least I believed that you believed my lie. I could have easily passed for eighteen. I’d inherited not just fine features but swarthiness from my dad’s French-Canadian side, and my five-o’clock-shadow- wreathed smile got me served in the Monster and the Mine Shaft and every other Village bar I stumbled first into then out of. Over-served, usually.
The banner read: Attention, Hookers and Johns: This is a Crime-Watch Neighborhood. You Will Be Arrested.
I used to tell all the guys—mostly closeted Wall Street types who’d lap up happy hour and want to lap me up before heading home to their wives—that I wasn’t really gay. I’d make up stories. I’m an NYU student doing a sociological study on the post-work drinking habits of gay men. I’m just visiting a friend who’d picked someone up and deserted me here, the bastard. This place was recommended to me by some hot chick I met at Macy’s, but I guess it’s that bitch’s idea of a practical joke. And so on and so on and so on. Not that I was the only one lying. Lies spread like vodka-fueled fire in bars, especially gay bars. Life was a glorious maze of falsehoods and subterfuge that made all the clunky sex hotter than it would’ve been otherwise.
You were not among those men I lied to, though. You, with your hippie dreads, your neck strung with amethyst rocks on old leather bootlaces, your bottomless blue wisdom. Other than my telling you I was eighteen, we met under the most honest and straightforward of circumstances. On the street. We probably both thought we had home field advantage.
There used to be a banner strung across Washington Street, just south of what is now known as the Meatpacking District, with its trendy boîtes and overpriced boutiques and stupid landscaped weeds on the elevated tracks that pass for a city park. Back then the slaughterhouses worked around the clock, trailer trucks offloading head after head of cattle, the pavements slick with suet under my Converse high tops.
The banner read: Attention, Hookers and Johns: This is a Crime-Watch Neighborhood. You Will Be Arrested.
I used to hang out under that banner late at night. Early in the morning, really. During what my old man would call the wee hours, which was also the name of a private watersports club I went to once, trashed off my ass at four a.m. The bouncer, who looked like a pre- Scientology John Travolta, stopped me at the door and asked if I was into water sports. I naively lied and told him I’d been a surfer when I lived in Maui. He let me right in.
Anyway, that banner did its job. The streets underneath it were habitually deserted after midnight. I was the only ghost in a ghost town. Until I met you there.
Just before I turned sixteen in ‘78, my mother had shipped me off to live with her great aunt in a tenement in the East 80s. Mom wanted to save me from Dad, who beat the shit out of me each weekend I got benched from my midget league game. So, weekly.
Camden was a tough place then, even tougher than it is now, I think. Everyone used to joke that the Camden police were only glorified crime reporters; that by the time they showed up, you’d already be dead. Lucky for me the police never showed up chez Papa, though I do know Mom telephoned them on two occasions, and our next-door neighbor on at least one.
So I dropped out, got my equivalency diploma and was off to live with Aunt Grace, where I had no curfew and free reign over my comings and goings. Mom and Dad forgot me, except for fifty bucks Mom sent that first Christmas. I got a job working three days a week as a counter boy in a German deli in Yorkville. Those days it was easy to get a job in the city. You basically only had to show up somewhere and ask for one. Each deli shift I worked, I’d steal a ten or a twenty from the register, depending on how extensive my drinking plans were that night. The fat old lady whose husband owned the place was jonesing to sample my sausage, and well I knew it. She’d always take the blame for the missing cash, telling her husband she must’ve rung up a purchase incorrectly, smiling and winking at me behind his hunched back. The day he caught her making a grab for my crotch was my aufwiedersehen.
That night, just before I moved into your place down on Bleecker, I left her a dozen red roses. I don’t remember exactly whose money paid for them. I’d like to believe it was her husband’s because I came all over them first. Spunk from a punk.
Your old German Shepard, Cerberus, never liked me, but his instincts told him that you did, so he’d just growl at me every time I passed him by or, when you weren’t home, he’d follow me from room to room, keeping watch from the doorways. One time I tried to sneak in some trick I met at the Duplex piano bar, but old Cerb chased him screaming all the way down the stairs, then came back up, grinning and slobbering in triumph.
Sometimes I feel like we’re all hanging onto one another not because we love each other, but because there’s nothing else to hang onto.
Occasionally you and I put on drunken window shows for the guys across from us on Bleecker, and they put them on for us sometimes, too. Whenever we’d see them in the street, we’d all exchange smiles. One night, they invited me up for cocktails and we put on a window show for you. When I came home, you smiled and called me a whore, and I switched things up and let you have my cherry ass. Nowhere near the window.
Most nights, though, when we stayed in and wouldn’t drink, you’d play sitar while we’d smoke reefer or hash, if you could score any, or watch operas and documentaries on PBS. Back then, a dime bag would last a month, and you could still get a decent curry for around two bucks, and a week of groceries for around twenty-five. Somehow those prices were outrageous, but we managed. We’d always save a fortune on sugary junk food thanks to your diabetes. In your bed, there was always a big slice of heaven for dessert. For breakfast, we’d drink espresso from a French press and chain smoke Marlboros, sniping over who’d get to read the Arts section first.
I used to watch you gig at the cafes on MacDougal. One morning after, I coaxed you into co-signing the loan that got me into acting classes at H.B.—a loan I’ve yet to pay a dime on, in case you don’t remember. Then I grew some man-sized balls and started going out on auditions. Eventually I was cast in a terrible play so thankfully far off-Broadway it may as well have been staged on a barge in the Hudson. But you sat through every wretched performance, including the last one, when only one other person was in attendance. Oh, how I resented your being my groupie. Your overblown applause at my curtain call. The looks everybody gave us backstage. You even told me that, after opening night, the ticket taker just kept letting you in for free. But years later, I ran into that soggy old leather queen at the Eagle and he told me you’d bought a ticket each night.
Another time, when I lost a front tooth climbing our stairs trashed, you paid for the implant by selling your sitar. You joked then that my smile was my moneymaker and I hated you for that, too.
All in all, we lasted about a year and a half. We both knew it wouldn’t last forever. Tacitly, we understood it was time when you had to put Cerb down. Poor thing. Crippled, humbled by the steadily progressive ravages of canine arthritis. Funny thing was, it was me who sobbed hardest at the vet’s. When I moved out a week later, neither of us shed a tear.
Somehow, that whole time I lived with you, I never asked your age. But you never volunteered it, either. I knew you had far better than a decade on me, though. When I left you, I was newly eighteen. I made no secret of the fact that I felt emancipated.
Now it’s thirty-some years later. We’ve both survived our HIV, though I suspect from having just seen you that it’s caught up with you. I don’t really want to know. I do know I’ll never forget that phone call. Summer of ’85. Rock Hudson dying. Doris Day advocating.
You’d called me from a payphone to let me know, and in the next breath, I’d told you the same thing. Then we cried until we laughed. How far it had seemed we’d come.
I don’t remember if that was the last time we spoke or not. It feels like many lifetimes have washed under the bridge. I’m so pale and gray I just blend in with the steel and concrete around me. No guys snap their heads around to gawk or whistle as I pass them by. Former tomcat, confirmed old bachelor, I feel like more of a ghost than I ever did. Only back then I wanted to feel that way. I was a rebel. My power wasn’t in my looks, it was in my social stealth. I wanted to do as I wished and escape notice. Now I have no choice in the latter.
As for my daily grind, I pound my meds, I do my edibles, I moisturize. No one who works for me at TKTS knows I’m poz. Once a week I go meet some catty old single friends at a piano bar in Hell’s Kitchen, where ABBA is now considered Broadway. Though I’ve known many of these friends almost as long as I’ve known you, doubts about those friendships don’t just linger, they pester. Sometimes I feel like we’re all hanging onto one another not because we love each other, but because there’s nothing else to hang onto.
They have just left me here, in fact, and I’m writing these sentences on a series of Bev Naps. If the bar girl wasn’t so busy soaking in verbal gratuities from a quartet of pissed-drunk British tourists, no doubt she’d think I’d finally lost my shit, sitting here panting and scribbling like a madwoman. Maybe later I’ll have the courage to type this all up and post it online or tape it to your building’s door. Probably not, though. There’s only one sentence in this whole mess that might interest you, and though I really don’t want to put it in writing, I’ll jot it out for you here anyway then see how I feel about it. I’ll probably trash it, but here goes:
No one—before we met or since—has ever been kinder to me than you were, and I can’t fathom why.
Harry McEwan has an MFA in Fiction from LIU Brooklyn, where “Trashed” won a 2015 Esther Hyneman Award. Some of his other short works have appeared in the online journals visceral brooklyn and those that this. His stage play Murder Americana ran at Chicago’s Circle Theater, Northwestern University’s Louis Theatre, and Warner Robbins Little Theatre in Georgia, among others. He has just begun submitting his thesis novel Hidden People. Jessica Hagedorn was his thesis advisor.