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When You Don't See Me
By TIMOTHY JAMES BECK
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Timothy James Beck
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNew York City Boy
I ducked beneath a diner's awning and decided that the city had finally made me her bitch. The freezing rain on an already-frigid February day made me want to lie down in the middle of Madison Avenue and wait for a bus to finish me off. Worse, I was getting a cold. My sinuses were killing me. My throat was starting to feel scratchy. I spat a glob of phlegm on the slushy sidewalk. A woman next to me cringed and ran to the next awning down, freeing space for a guy with dreadlocks and an Army coat.
The shitty weather forced us to stop pretending we were all invisible. Until the weather cleared, we had to deal with each other's presence. There were about fifteen of us crowded under the awning. When someone new arrived, we'd shiver and nod, but nobody said anything.
I peered through the diner's window. It was packed. If someone left the counter, I'd buy a cup of coffee. If I had money.
While I counted the change in my pocket, a guy ran across the street, shielding his head with a newspaper. He bumped into me, rendering me visible, and I dropped two quarters.
"Sorry," he said, wiping flecks of ice from his glasses.
"Fucker," I grumbled. Igrabbed my quarters from an old man who'd picked them up. "Give me those. They're mine."
"Just trying to help."
"He was just helping," a woman said.
Suddenly everyone began talking about me like I wasn't there. It felt good to bring strangers together. Another man ran across the street to join us and started a heated conversation with Newspaper Head. I pocketed my change and pretended to consult a bus schedule that I already knew by heart. I glanced at the two men as casually as possible. Pointless, considering that everyone around us was blatantly staring at their performance.
Newspaper Head's friend was in that vague age range that could be late twenties or early thirties. He was blond and wore Diesel jeans and a beat-up leather jacket. He reminded me of Rocky in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Especially when he glared and sort of grunted at Newspaper Head, who was a sheepish, older guy, definitely in his forties. Total geek. My curiosity was piqued when Newspaper Head's new friend said, "I didn't sign up for this!"
I didn't know why Blond Diesel said it, but I completely understood how he felt. I'd said the same thing a lot. The first time I boarded the wrong subway and wound up in Flatbush, Queens. When I saw the metal detectors on my first day at P.S. 35. And especially after I was mugged, which I'd never told anyone about.
I definitely didn't sign up to catch a cold just in time for moving day.
"Why would you think I'd want to move to Chicago?" Blond Diesel asked.
"It's a promotion. You know how hard I've been working. You know how difficult it's been for me there," Newspaper Head whined.
"What about me? I can't just pick up everything and move."
There was a lull, a stalemate, during which two Hassidic Jews came out of the rain to consult the menu taped to the diner's window. Water dripped from the curls that framed their faces. I sniffled and was overtaken by the smell of their wet wool, until my sinuses clogged up again seconds later.
"I'm not moving," Blond Diesel said.
"Look, this isn't a choice I expect you to make on the spot. I just wanted to bring it up for consideration. Could you think about it?"
"Why? It's obvious you've made your decision. Now I'll make mine!" Blond Diesel loudly announced. He added, "I'll be at Ed's, if you care," then stormed away into the rain.
"Is this where we applaud?" mumbled a Hassidic Jew, and his friend chuckled. "Is it intermission? I don't know."
"Does anything last?" I asked out loud.
"Death," Hassidic One said, and Hassidic Two nodded sagely.
They went inside the diner. I followed and ordered a cup of coffee. I took a sip, savoring the hot, metallic-tasting liquid, added sugar, and stirred it with a spoon. I tasted it again. Once I was satisfied with the sugar-to-coffee ratio, I nonchalantly dropped the spoon into the pocket of my cargo pants. After I finished, I left two dollars in change on the counter. I discreetly dropped the empty mug into my pocket and tried not to wince when it clinked against the spoon as I walked to the door.
It didn't matter. It was too loud in there for anyone to hear. But as I left, one of the Hassidic Jews caught my eye and shook his head disapprovingly. Then he went back to sipping his matzo ball soup, and I was invisible once again.
Everyone I knew got a family tag as a kid. My fraternal twin, Chuck, who I beat into the world by three minutes, was "the one who breaks things." Toys. China. Vases. Cars. Bones and teeth-his and mine. Anything breakable was at risk around Chuck. It paid off for him, because our parents freaked at what he might do to the vacuum cleaner or the lawn mower.
Our older brother, Tony, was "the one who never shuts up." Also known as "the one who asks dumb questions." Since Chuck and I were a couple years younger than Tony, we missed out on his Why is the sky blue? phase. But even when I was a little kid, I knew why Tony came up with gems like Do dogs have headaches? He didn't want information, just a reason to speculate out loud about the answers. Uncle Wayne used to offer Tony five dollars in exchange for five minutes of silence. Tony's piggy bank went hungry.
If sibling rivalry was a game, those two shouldn't have been much competition for me. But in all other ways, they were the pride of the Dunhills. Good athletes. Good grades. Good looks. They left me no choice except to be "the one who disappears."
It was Dunhill family lore that my mother repeatedly left me in stores as a baby. She always claimed she was overwhelmed by having three kids in diapers. I thought I was just the victim of a shopping snob. I'd never known my mother to look for a bargain or a sale. Having twins was like some kind of two-for-one affront to her. She ditched me to get rid of the evidence.
As I got older, I tended to vanish on my own. Not just when we went places as a family. Even in our house, I could disappear by not fitting in. My parents didn't know how to deal with an inferior Dunhill, so I tried to make myself invisible.
Where's Nicky? someone would ask, even though I was ten feet away, tucked between the back of the sofa and the den window with a comic book or a sketchpad. Who knows? was the standard answer, but it sounded more like Who cares? Then Tony the Talker would recap my misdeeds from the day. Eventually, it would end with my parents tracking me down to ask, Why can't you be more like your brothers?
All that was years ago, but recently, I seemed to be trying to fulfill their fondest desire. Like Chuck, I kept breaking things. My Discman. My umbrella. My promises. And like Tony, I kept asking dumb questions of an indifferent, possibly even a cruel, city.
Maybe the city hadn't made me her bitch. Maybe it was Mother Nature. Rain hit my neck and ran down my back as I hurried to join a herd of people under a bus shelter. I read the Village Voice over a man's shoulder. Then my eyes stopped on an ad that made me turn in disgust. Apparently my favorite Hell's Kitchen restaurant had switched to serving Thai-the third time that had happened to me. I hated Thai food. I again asked aloud, "Does anything last?"
A woman next to me thought I was talking to her. "It wasn't supposed to rain today. Should clear up later, though."
"Great," I muttered, both at her and the bus that stopped to pick us up.
Inside the bus I stared at the floor and felt fried. All I wanted was to go home. I looked up and tried to see out the window, worried that I was on the wrong bus. For a second, I couldn't remember where I was going. Then it came back to me. Home was uptown now. Way uptown.
Some hippie once said freedom was another word for nothing left to lose, a phrase that flashed through my mind when I signed a two-year lease after weeks of searching for an apartment. Of course, my generation torched Woodstock when we learned that corporate America jacked up the price for freedom. My freedom cost two thousand dollars a month, plus utilities. Even though the rent was expensive, there was no way I'd burn the place down. Especially after all I went through to get it.
Finding an apartment in New York City, I learned, was a lot like trying to find a boyfriend. You could search ads in the newspaper, like I did, and realize the descriptions and photos never matched up to the real deal. A studio the size of a closet could look damned near palatial if it was photographed with a good lens. I visited something described as an "EVil, flr thru loft, with fplce and skylight," which turned out to be the moldering attic of a former factory in the East Village with a hole in the roof. The fireplace was a hibachi with a dead rat in it.
Ads on the Internet were pretty much the same, although most of them were faked in an effort to lure homeless saps to a brokerage firm. It seemed ridiculous to pay an agent thousands of dollars for something I could do myself. Kind of like paying an escort to pose as a boyfriend. However, walking all over the city looking at apartments I couldn't afford, and ones that made me want to bathe in peroxide after I was in them, left me appreciating the idea of paying someone else to do the dirty work.
Uncle Blaine always told me fate brought him and Daniel together. Daniel told me in private that fate had nothing to do with it. He saw what he wanted and went for it. Fate led me to a random coffeehouse in SoHo, where I overheard some dude complaining to his friend that he had to move and hated to give up his apartment. From that point on, I went for it and got it.
It was a small, one-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor of an ancient tenement in Spanish Harlem. It was dingy, the four rooms were tiny, and the apartment was in the back, so all the grimy windows faced the brick walls of the neighboring buildings, but I didn't care. In my eyes, it was perfect. At any rate, it was good enough to give up the search. It was my freedom, after all.
I'd moved the day before-as soon as ConEd turned on the electricity-and spent the first night on my own. I barely slept since I spent the majority of the night listening to the noises of a strange apartment. It was the first time in my life that I felt really alone. No brothers, parental figures, or anyone to fill the silence between the bumps in the night. Sometime around two in the morning, I heard a man yell in the apartment above me, a door slam, and heavy footsteps on the stairs.
When I woke up, I discovered a cat who seemed to live on the fire escape. He wasn't conversational after I opened the window and tried to talk to him over my steaming cup of tea. I finally left him so I could do a housecleaning job for I Dream of Cleanie: a Midtown loft, which made my new place look even worse.
Still, it was home, so when I got off the bus at my stop, I was determined to make the best of things. I immediately stepped into a small pond. My feet made sloshing noises with every step I took. I crossed against traffic to a deli on the corner and used my debit card to stock up on orange juice and Ramen.
Finally, I entered the ugly brown behemoth of a tenement building I now called home. Even though I'd lived there less than twentyfour hours, I checked my mailbox. I liked writing people more than talking to them on my cell phone. Now that I no longer had a computer and e-mail, anyone who wanted to keep in touch would have to buy a stamp.
I hadn't unpacked anything but a box of kitchen stuff. The rest of my boxes, bags, and other things were piled just inside the doorway of the apartment. I closed the door and rooted through a Duane Reade bag filled with toiletries until I found a half-full bottle of NyQuil, uncapped it, and chugged. A knock on the door startled me, almost causing me to choke.
The first of my roommates had arrived.
I had only the vaguest acquaintance with Kendra Bowers. We'd sat next to each other in a class during my first semester at college, bitched together about the instructor, and found out that we liked the same music. Then we bumped into each other by chance in a restaurant where Kendra was waiting tables. During our conversation, we discovered that we were both looking for a place to live.
Kendra's sunny disposition made her an appealing roommate prospect. Most of the people I knew were creative and seemed to think that cynicism and angst were mandatory traits of an artist. Kendra was definitely one of those glass-is-half-full people. I figured it wouldn't hurt to have somebody with her attitude in my life.
Kendra's brightness seemed to dim while I showed her around the apartment, a three-minute tour. It was hard for me not to take it personally, and I said, "Maybe you shouldn't have left it up to me to find the place. But since you're working two jobs-"
"It probably looks better when it's not so gloomy outside," Kendra said hopefully. I figured sunlight would only illuminate the apartment's flaws, so I kept quiet. After a minute, she said, "Morgan will be here soon. I guess she and I should take the bedroom. Girls need a closed door."
"Sure, whatever," I said, unable to come up with a decent argument.
Kendra turned down my offer of help. While she rolled her bags into the bedroom, I went to the kitchen and emptied the pockets of my cargo pants, taking inventory of the day's piracy. The spoon and cup from the diner went into the sink. Another pocket held a bungee cord I'd found on the street, and two refrigerator magnets. One for a restaurant, the other for a plumber. Shit in, shit out. I slapped them on the refrigerator and dug in the next pocket. Two pens, a small spiral tablet that I kept to make notes of my boss's instructions about the places I cleaned, and in the bottom, two condoms. With a sigh, I dropped those on the counter and reached inside another pocket, where I found what I was looking for: a bag of green tea that I took from the loft I'd cleaned that morning.
I didn't normally steal from I Dream of Cleanie's clients, but who'd miss a single tea bag? Green tea was supposed to be healthy. I'd done my bit for good karma by wiping down the inside of the client's refrigerator, which wasn't on my list of duties.
I turned on the burner under the kettle and glanced at Kendra as she walked in. She homed right in on the condoms and raised her eyebrows. That distracted me for a second. I'd never noticed that her eyebrows were black, which made me wonder if she was a real blonde. I checked out her roots, thinking about my friend Davii, a genius with hair color who often provided commentary on the hair don'ts of people around us. I figured Kendra's hair color must be real, because even with two jobs, she seemed as broke as I was. She couldn't afford someone like Davii to make her look naturally blond.
"Is there something in my hair?" she asked, nervously running her fingers through it as if she might find a roach.
"No. Sorry I was staring," I said.
"Are you having those with your tea?" she asked, pointing at the condoms.
I slipped them back in my pants pocket and said, "I don't know where they came from. I guess one of my tormentors." She cocked her head. "My uncle and his friends," I explained. "My friend Blythe calls them my gay mentors. I call them my tormentors."
"Like bondage or something?" Kendra asked, her blue eyes huge.
"Ew. No. Uncle Blaine, his boyfriend, their housekeeper, all their friends. They're always giving me advice and warnings about the dangers of living in a big city. How to avoid being bashed, mugged, or otherwise assaulted. How to have safe sex. I'm sure one of them dropped those in my pants when I was at my uncle's."
"It's sweet that they look out for you," Kendra said warmly, as if I'd restored her faith in humanity.
Excerpted from When You Don't See Me by TIMOTHY JAMES BECK Copyright © 2007 by Timothy James Beck. Excerpted by permission.
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