I fumbled as I put the token in the turnstile. The meeting had shaken me, not just because of what Artie had said, but because I realized I’d had some illusions about how much power Artie himself had, illusions that were shattered now. I remembered Artie from a few years ago as a kind of hero, who rode in one a white horse and rescued Nomad from a lifetime of obscurity. Now that I thought about it, I knew my memories were simplified. The night he’d met Remo and me and the band, he’d had to make a tape of us to bring back to the city with him, for approval. I’d always thought that some kind of formality, but I guess not. Success seemed suddenly more remote and unattainable than before.
Some things Artie had said kept echoing in my head like some horror movie soundtrack. Two problems. Originality, ambition. I liked what I saw. Two problems. Time to grow. I felt like it hadn’t even been me sitting in that chair, it was some phantom in my shape. I sat in a far corner of the train car, letting the roar obliterate the sound of my shaky breathing. Is this who I am? Pathetic, scared and lonely? The only time that had seemed real in the past few days had been those moments on the stage when I had forgotten all the reasons and business and worry. I wondered if that was what it was like for Remo, or if he enjoyed the worrying a little more. My fingers clawed at my jeans. I felt hollow. I wanted to play, to bask on the stage, to make eye contact with someone, to lose myself in playing, to fill up on it. To live.
I got out of the train a block west of the Village. There were only two things that came close to the need I had, and one of them was expensive and difficult to find for someone who didn’t know the turf, besides, I’d already had my fill of drugs with Jeremy and I needed my cash for getting home. The other thing, I thought, I’m not supposed to have because I’ve sworn off it. But I was thinking about that dance club where I’d gone the night I ditched Carynne; it had to be near here somewhere. But it would be closed in the middle of the day.
I reasoned with myself. No one knew me here, I might meet someone that I’d really never see again. In Boston, everyone knew everyone, it was just too small, but here… I felt that tightness in my gut, tugging at me. It had been three months. I knew I was justifying wildly, but by then I thought I’d do anything to shake the feelings of guilt and emptiness, even for just a little while. Once every three months, I thought. That’s only four times a year. Surely you can’t blame yourself for this once. The rationales began to play over again like a brainwashing tape. No one knows you here… and it’ll cost you nothing more than forgetting for a while…
Alright. I combed out my hair with my fingers, swept it to one side, turned up the collar of my denim jacket, and struck a pose in a store window. Not enough. I really needed to attract someone’s attention. I took off the jacket, and then my t-shirt, and put the jacket back on. I stuffed the shirt into my backpack and slung that over my shoulder and checked my reflection again. It would have to do. I wanted to fish out my sunglasses, but I needed to make eye contact for this to work. This wasn’t the time to hide. The afternoon was just beginning.
I sailed through the streets working my way east, hoping to stumble on a bar where making a connection would be easy, expected. I followed my dick like a divining rod, until I realized I was right behind a brawny crew-cut type. He went into a bookstore on St. Marks and I went after him.
Mr. Crew Cut went toward the back of the store. I pretended to browse along the way, feeling too much like a lost puppy for my own taste. Another thing Digger used to say: when you’re hungry the first thing you swallow is pride. I stood next to him as he picked a book from the shelf and opened it. We were standing in the mystery section and I thought of Matthew.
I looked over the titles, absorbed none of them. He stood there, close enough that I imagined I could feel the warmth from his bare forearms. I waved my hand at the books and he looked up. “What do you recommend?”
“Hm?” He looked half at me, half at the shelf.
I let my hair fall back, and threw out my real opening line. “I’m stuck in town until this evening with nothing to do.” I raised an eyebrow at the books. “What would you recommend?” A woman brushed past us in the aisle and was gone.
A half-smile spread across his face as he began to comprehend my meaning. At least, I think he did, as his eyes also traveled the length of my chest where it showed between the open slit of the jacket. My heart was pounding hard, as if he had touched me along that strip of exposed skin. I hoped my nervousness didn’t show, or if it did, that he found it sexy. I kept my eyes on the books now, but I could see the tapered outline of his forearm as he put the book in his hand back on the shelf. His hands were large and there was golden hair on the back of them.
“Mysteries are okay,” he said. He took a step back. “But I tend to stick with the ones I know, you know, I’m leery of trying something new.”
Such as me. “Well, you never know what you might find.” I wracked my brains for something to say, something that would make it irrefutable that this was a come on, something that if he shrugged off I would be sure it was out of lack of interest, not misunderstanding. But I couldn’t say something like “I want to fuck your brains out.” I looked him in the eye now, hoping it was the right thing to do.
This time the half-smile came with a little setting of the jaw and he shook his head in a quick no. “I usually find I’m disappointed. So I stick with the old-standbys.” He gave a little shrug as if to say ‘no offense.’ “Good luck finding what you want, though.” He waved as he walked away from me.
I stood there staring at the books until my heart had slowed to normal. Then I went and loitered outside the bookstore for a while, the midday sun heating me up until I took off the jacket. I slung it over my shoulder with the knapsack and tried to think of what to do next. Maybe I should give up and get back on the wagon.
I looked up and Mr. Crew Cut was standing there. He took a half step toward me. “You might try Number One-eleven.”
I cocked my head and narrowed my eyes–where?
He jerked his head east. “About two blocks that way.”
“Thanks.” I shoved one hand into the pocket of my jeans. I stood there, giving him one last chance to change his mind. He repeated the little wave and walked on.
I went past the Italian restaurant where Carynne and I had eaten dinner a million years before. And came upon a wooden door in a white storefront, no windows, no sign, just white raised numbers that read “111.” A speakeasy couldn’t have been more subtle.
Inside I was contrast-blind as I stood blinking and waiting for my eyes to adjust. I hoped I looked like a desirable piece of fresh meat, not some slumming tourist or hustler. I could see bar stools, the old soda-fountain kind anchored into the floor, the kind that spun around. I took the one nearest the door. Some kind of techno-disco music throbbed quietly in the background.
The bartender came down to me. He had a trim build and a mustache, the kind of impeccable neat that I was coming to associate with older gay men.
“Give me a club soda.” I set the bag down at my feet, left my jacket across my legs.
“Drinkin’ heavy today, eh?” he joked, filling a glass from a gun-dispenser.
“It’s too early for me,” I said, and added a little too loudly, “I’m just trying to kill an afternoon.”
Now I could see the other patrons a little better. The man several stools down, the closest to me, wore a white undershirt with a leather vest. Nearer the back, two men were playing pool without speaking. Two or three others drifted. Mr. Crew Cut had definitely understood what I was looking for.