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I’m sure it started when I met Andrew Friday night downtown, on the way to a place I discovered following some older men. They paraded to the Eagle’s Nest bar like Toms of Finland in black leather, five or so of them. Curls of body hair poked from around the edges of their vests and suggested a general unruliness. That’s not right, forgive me. It was more like they exuded a kind of assurance and, for cowardly young men like me, a little of their bravery was infectious.
I followed in their smoke trails, along the waves of their laughter, their bickering and chatting. One of them turned over his shoulder to look me up and down. I glanced at the sharp angle of his jaw.
“You okay?” Andrew affected a Texan twang. “It’s dangerous in these parts, so you follow us.”
I looked down.
“That there’s a million-watt smile, son!” he said, and when he caught my eyes he was triumphant. “Almost there.”
“I’m Mahan,” I said, but I got no answers back and felt stupid, and dug my fingernails into my palms for feeling this way.
Andrew said he would buy me a drink.
There was an old woman at the entrance in sweats, collecting two-dollar covers. She didn’t even look at me with them. She was unconcerned. She became a part of this living fantasy of true liberty, calling us things like sweetie and honey. Andrew and I eased into corner seats at the black bar, which matched the black walls. His friends disappeared into a metal hole downstairs, but he stayed. He allowed me to request a whiskey sour. He asked, what’s a young man like me doing walking around alone. “Place like this. Night like this,” he said.
My answers were typical things. I had just gotten my degree in architecture at the University of Kansas. My parents knew only of my grades and were shocked when I told them, rather than asked, about moving to the city. What will you do there, how will you live, my mother pleaded. I need you here with me because I worry, she’d cried. I told her I had been directionless. I whimpered to her that this direction was the first one I cared for. She waved me goodbye on the driveway as I backed out. I made the 40-hour trip to New York City from Kansas City in my car, an old green Dodge—in which I was currently staying. I never came out to my mom.
I reported all of this to Andrew in rambling words and cut-up phrases because he didn’t stop me. Attentively, he watched me drink from the straw. Wrinkles around his eyes and on his forehead convinced me he knew everything there was for me to know—not such a farfetched fantasy to buy into. The men he came in with, nowhere to be seen, were all the same. They’d all looked to be in their 40s.
“You’re not out to your family? Is it your culture?” he asked. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
A muscular man behind the bar slid me a second drink, and because I looked him in the eyes, he murmured the word “sugar” at me.
“I don’t have a boyfriend, I never have,” I said, avoiding the topic of my ethnic identity. “And my mom is a Christian. Once, she told me, ‘Gay people go to hell.’ I never got to tell her about me, but I wanted to.”
“Wow. I’m sorry.” He tapped his glass with two fingers. His eyes fixated on the bar’s black surface, directly in front of my body, and he settled into a momentary daze. I ventured to ask what he did for a living. He said he was a fashion designer. But he lived off his investments.
“I have an art collection.” He leant towards me and said confidentially, “An art collection is the best investment you can have. No depreciation. Astronomical increase in value.” His hand was hot over mine. “I’d like to show it to you, if you want to see it.”
“I want to see it.”
Andrew led me deep into The Eagle’s Nest, through roiling clusters of men seemingly stuck together in black corners. He grabbed one of his friends by the elbow, and that Blondie song, “Call Me,” drowned out their shouts. I followed him back to the entrance, where the same song blasted from a Firebird cruising past us down the street. He got us a taxi, and we sang it all the way to Central Park South, “Cover me with kisses, cover me with love, roll me in designer sheets, I’ll never get enough…”
I never thought I was attractive, but Andrew said I was beautiful. Over and over he said this to me, and his flattery worked on me. In my experience, older men were infinitely better in bed than any of the men I’d seen my own age. They knew my body in ways even I didn’t, and they knew their own bodies and their own limitations in ways I found humbling for them. He breathed me in and closed his eyes, and he had a faint musk that brought to mind the way my father smelled when I buried my face into him as a child. Aftershave, alcohol, smoke. His mouth seemed to take the slightest direction from mine. His chest and stomach hair grazed against my face as I went down. He held my head. He threw me on the bed.
The door creaked open. I glanced behind me at two of Andrew’s friends stripping away their leather, which fell to the floor with soft flops. I felt chest hair on my back and lips on my shoulders. I felt the waves of drunkenness slide along my ears, the lapping of hot tongues, and I lost myself in pleasure. Over the course of the night, the action and the rest, all three of the strange men, shot up something up into their arms in the spare rooms, and I only glanced at the needles before Andrew steered me away. Farther down the hallway back to his room he said, “You don’t need to see any of that.” Unquestioningly filled the role of protector, of daddy.
In fact, I realize now that I was wrong about him and his friends before. What I meant was—if they were in this room with us, moving with us—if I moved from one to the other of them and took them all in, then there was no limit to what I could accomplish with other people in this moment here and now. Right now we were harmonious; we were drugged by the inherent power imbalance of our dynamic, by expertise as leverage.
Outside of that moment, though, I was glad to never see these men again because I know they must return to their lives. I know that, for them, I was reduced to my figure, to what I was: a slim boy of brown skin; soft South Asian hips and skinny calves; a suppleness; a passing flavor generally irrelevant when they have only the limbs of a toy doll in their bored and lonely hands.
Bravely, I never left the next morning. And, still naked together after his friends had gone, the fault was solely mine. We hadn’t used condoms; none of them could get it up while wearing one. I couldn’t do anything about it now, it was done. A potentially dire mistake; but at least there wasn’t anything that wasn’t treatable. Andrew asked me if I’d like to come back. He said we could all have fun again. He said I’d have a friend in him, even if I wasn’t willing.
“You want to be my friend?” I asked him.
“Yes. You are that good.”
He said I had potential and would do great things, but I rolled my eyes.
Andrew didn’t tell me to go. He let me use his bathroom. He let me see that everything in his kitchen was copper: the faucets and fastenings, the fridge, and about a hundred hanging pots and pans over an island with a built-in wine cooler. He was frying me eggs in a lush, blue-velvet robe, passing me a tray with lines of white dust. I refused both but took a fat blunt from the rim of an ashtray and lit it.
One of his gallery walls boasted unabashed value; his acquisitions were jaw-dropping. Not on this wall, but on others, there was a literally curvy lady in a 1926 Picasso, and the very striking blocks and lines and color in a work by Dubuffet. And then there were a few works by Monet. I walked among them and Andrew talked to me about the World Wars and the decadence following each one. How some of these artists worked and thrived during times of excess, how they worked harder and faster in the economic decay of depression, the ‘30s and ‘70s. He said it was like time repeated itself on a loop.
I said it was more like a spiral, since people just seem to get more and more fucked up.
We stopped near a self portrait of Basquiat, who Andrew called a modern genius, “Someone who expressed an “acute collective trauma, or an ingrained trauma that keeps us suffering.” He said the man in the artist’s self portrait assumed a “caveman warrior stance,” holding an arrow among the skyscrapers of a city. The man seemed to extend his fury beyond the border of the frame where, on the ceiling, spots of water damage bloomed like shadows, death for this art collection. Left untended, the damage would spread and then rot. Some was already creeping onto the wall. I heard a drop of water in a bucket.
I mentioned the water damage, and he moaned he didn’t know what the world was coming to. “I’m going to have to store all of this. Soon,” he said, eyes blazing. He waved a hand at the man with an arrow. “You know, there are some really dirty men who want to just piss all over everything? Those maintenance people keep putting me off, and you know why? There’s homeless people in the apartments above me, know why? New management. New property owners. They want us out, and they want to demolish. Well, I already talked to the neighbors about the best real estate lawyers in the area, and we’re dealing with this.” He breathed deeply as if to calm himself.
“Why don’t you just move?”
“Move?” he said. “No one’s moving, I know all their lawyers are already involved, and mine too. It’s the principle, the principle.”
Andrew had a view of the foliage that had me transfixed in the corner, at the French window, staring out at the design of Central Park. I admired the deliberate placement of everything, the demand that nature adapt around the paths, its graffitied fountains, its castle. I traced the swift progress of runners in ear-warming bandannas. I watched dogs fixate on one out of millions of scents, stopping their owners for important messages. The park was radiant from greens to reds now that the weather had taken a turn. Everyone was out in New York City at its best.
“Who am I kidding? They’re gonna tear it all down. Demolish it, and then up will go the luxury condos.” He opened a drawer underneath the record player and pulled out a gold-and-silver watch, a Rolex. He turned to me with an affectionate smile, as, deep down, the coke inspired an idea brilliant and pure. “You could stay here. I know you’re looking for a place. You could live here with me in your room. I’m only here for a short while. Obviously.”
“I don’t know, Andrew. You’re so fabulous.” Life would be too fabulous, I told him.
“But I find you to be a peaceful presence,” he said. He passed me the Rolex. It shone a soft, silken gold. “Take it. Sell it. It’ll be your deposit.”
I was dumbfounded. “Please. I don’t know what you mean by this. It’s too generous.”
“Nothing. I don’t care about it. What I do care about, is you.”
I laughed in his fervent face. “What the fuck?”
He sighed. “You have enormous potential. You can do anything you want as a young, educated, and cultivated person. I see someone I could love one day.” He moved his hand from my ass to my shoulder and locked eyes with me. “Someone I could trust. It’s true.”
I sprawled myself on the lush throw pillows of his purple-velvet fainting couch. His watch dangled from my finger.
“You love this,” said Andrew, smiling and looking back at me. “Don’t lie.”
“Oh yeah. It’s been a lot of fun. You didn’t say anything at all about your friends joining us after The Eagle’s Nest. I thought, oh. This is how it must be in New York.”
“I’m so sorry. I should have.”
“Yeah. You should have.”
“Sorry. Really. I thought we could all have fun.”
“It’s only my self-esteem.”
He walked over and closed my hand around the watch. “Take it.” He watched me looking at it.
I said I’d seen an ad for a new job at the Central Park Conservancy. Landscaping, renovation, some volunteering. They’d been working on Belvedere Castle. I could do that, I wanted to do that. If I could manage to get something like that, it wouldn’t pay much, but it would be what I studied. Right now, I only had my dwindling savings: almost $2,000 in the bank, near $300 stashed in the cushion of my car’s passenger seat, and $35.50 in my pockets, on his floor. It was everything I had to show from being a produce boy at the JL’s in Lawrence through college, and a cashier before that. And I had this watch. My mom would have hated someone so wasteful, so out of touch.
I thanked him for being willing to help so generously. I thought that, maybe, experiencing someone else’s generosity could be the greatest pleasure there was—for both of us.
“So you want to make a mark on this city,” he mused, standing over me. His eyes focused on mine as if he could infuse me with the importance of such a thing. “Manhattan is changing, you know. They are cleaning it up. It’ll be beautiful. Safer. And you’ll be a part of that.”
It sounded like as good a direction as any for me to take. Something to be ambitious about. As long as there was a direction, and a place I could call my own, I thought I would be happy. I felt like I never used to know where I was going, unless it was to school.
Andrew was exceedingly kind to me, and he was over generous. He let me stay in one of the spare rooms, which are all empty except for beds. He liked that I could converse with him freely and deeply, and he talked to me about topics in art and culture, treating me as a mentor would, his protégé in all things including sex. He had me under his constant supervision, so he didn’t really have to trust me. But this freedom still felt unadulterated, somehow pristine and effortless. It was more prideful and lustful than I’d ever let myself feel before arriving in the city. We went back to the Eagle’s Nest a few times. I read his fashion books aimlessly and looked at his art collection until he ordered it all to be stored away. Eventually, the place was completely empty, except for my bed, and I’d been high on his weed for a while now.
But now it must have been the third week, and I was in my bed. I was conscious only of my movements and my sounds, which slipped out from me in low moans across the room. The moans couldn’t be seen, bouncing off the wall, but they turned the room into an eternal block of space. In dreams my body writhed with men, shifting floppily onto each sweaty mount and, all at once, I gasped for air as Andrew’s face smashed into mine. It grazed into my skin, pushing in my eyes and contorting my nose, suffocating me with a tongue too thick, with rough buds like fine gravel combing throughout my mouth. Deeper and too deep and too big. Andrew demolished my body with an avid strangeness shocking and mechanical in its rhythm.
I flinched away from the corner wall after making skin-to-skin contact with it. The daylight burned my eyes but illuminated some dead tulips on the windowsill. It cast a shadow on the water-damaged wall, creating a patch of deep darkness where I dreamed the room would begin a slow, moldy implosion of priceless art and the whole building finally came down. I realized my body was run down. I was horribly sick. Dreams came and went like the rotation of a carousel.
In moments when my body was defenseless, that was when I got taken advantage of. I sat in bed alone, remembering when I was nine, and in the pediatrician’s office I saw an x-ray of my lungs. Three-quarters of my lungs are contaminated by pneumonia. I heard the words “this can kill,” and I dreamt those words. My frame was slight, like the stem of a dandelion. I walked hand-in-hand with my mother and she shot me murderous glances even though I hadn’t done anything wrong. This time it was her fault, and I knew so the minute she looked away from my eyes. Had she been judging herself? Blaming herself for letting my health get away from her?
She was attentive before and after this, always an aggressive caregiver. When she looked at me in the parking lot I imagined she saw her own failing. My body was beholden to her. My frailty, then, was both our fault.
Images came ghostly and grotesque, images of men who’d entered into my life only to disappear from it—and when I died, there would be nothing, no more memory for me. Sometimes I was like that: I had nothing but feelings left in Andrew’s room. I felt the helplessness of standing by, of lying down, looking at the water damage infecting a building set for total destruction. I felt sickness picking me off.
I felt the cold in my bones. Tonight, the heat was out. I dreamt I was at a party gone terribly wrong. First the little things went bad. The party had run out of ice. And yet Andrew and the tenants of the building and their lawyers got along drunkenly-joyously, as if they were joking in court over grievances and emotional distress. And the owners of the new luxury condos, those old white goons in orange toupées, they spread gasoline in long, piss-yellow arcs. The pockmarked ringleader dropped a very expensive lighter, and flames engulfed 100 Central Park South. Flames propelled out the windows. Bodies flared up and burned away into the city’s atmosphere. I felt the fire slicking along the sinews of my muscles.
I was six and still sleeping with my parents. The ceiling fan twirled high from steepled beams, and I watched the spinning blades from a state of paralysis. I heard my mother’s giggles fluttering over the large body of my father, and together they hid their secrets under the sheets. They hid everything until randomly there was a rapid stomping around the bed. In the middle of the night my father was drunk and dazed, half-asleep, and, with a sharp punch and a pop to the face, he released her from a fitful sleep. She sobbed. I was powerless to move for a decent breath. I felt suffocation, and I burned with the agony inflaming my muscle tissue.
I dreamt I was in Central Park with Andrew and it looked as though a dust bowl had settled over the Great Lawn. Only small patches of green could be seen across the expanse. Nearby, there was a group of boys, probably done with school for the day, massed and cheering around something going on—I couldn’t see past them until one boy shifted to reveal a couple of humping dogs.
A din of low chirping came from the bush by the phone booth. The glass door opened.
“Excuse you,” said a woman with an Afro and hoop earrings. I stepped out of her way and then entered. My coins clattered in the machine, and I dialed, and when the line stopped ringing I gasped a little too involuntarily.
“Hi mom. I miss you.”
“You need to call more. Gone for all this time, and I know nothing. What have you been doing? Are you eating enough?”
“I’ve been eating fine. Everything is fine.”
“Do you know how much I worry?”
I recoiled from the accusation in her voice. “I’m sorry. I’ll call more often.”
“Don’t just call when you have something to tell me. I need you to call even when you don’t have nothing to say.”
“Do you know that I don’t sleep at night? Thinking of you in that city. Why do you want to be by yourself? I don’t know why you want to pay rent.”
“But how are you doing?” I ask her. “Are you ok there?”
“Same old thing. Your father is a drunk.”
She needed me. “Do you want me to come home?” My nails dug into the grooves of the receiver’s metal cord.
She doesn’t respond for a few seconds, but only breathes. “You would really come home?” she said.
Again, she doesn’t respond for a bit. “No. You live your life, son. I’ll be fine here.”
“I won’t allow it.”
I want to reach through the phone and wrap my arms around her shrinking frame. I take a breath and feel a thrill.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time with a new friend,” I said, wiping my nose with my sleeve. “A best friend. He helped me move in. His name is Andrew…he and I… He’s more than my friend.”
I heard more of her breathing, and a slight crackle on the line.
“I think I could love him,” I said. “That’s all.”
“Does he treat you well?”
“He treats me very well. We take care of each other. He’s good. Are you, I mean, are you okay? Do you have any questions?”
“Are you taking care of yourself?”
“Does he have a job?”
“That’s the only thing that matters. That’s all I ever cared about.” She paused on the phone. Now she was the one crying, a quiet and distant shudder. “You always did what I told you. You’re a good boy. Do you need anything from me?” She wanted off the line.
“Well, alright, mom. I better get going.” I told her I loved her, and replaced the receiver.
Stepping out of the booth I tripped on my own foot and fell into the chirping bush. Its sparrows clamored around me and flew away into the sky. Andrew lifted me, cradling my upper back with his hand.
We started walking deeper into the Park. The cherry trees were in blossom, shedding petals on the path.
“I just told my mom.”
“I thought it was going to go all wrong…but it didn’t.”
He said it was good for me. My chest still seemed warm from the whole interaction, but I didn’t know what to say to him. He seemed content, happy in the silence with me. He took in the beautiful day. We walked past the weeping willows of Turtle Pond and its gliding swans.
“How is your mom? How did she react when you told her…?” he said. We walked up to the turrets of an improved, graffiti-free Belvedere Castle, my very own mark on the city. It was a project I had overseen to completion, a new crown jewel. I broke a sweat climbing its winding steps to the top, and we looked down at half the rectangle of Central Park: Shakespeare’s Garden; the theatre; and the woods of the Ramble.
Andrew looked so openly at me. “When I came out, my mom screamed, ‘But you’re my son!’ We never talk about it.”
I was effusive. “My mom cried. She said she wanted me to be happy. It’s been such a fantasy.”
“Like a dream.”
“Am I going to wake up?”
Ron-Tyler is a Guyanese-American writer living in New York City with his husband and dog. Currently, he is an MFA candidate in fiction at Columbia University, where he was also chosen as a creative-writing teaching fellow for the 2020-2021 school year. His work has appeared in No Contact Magazine, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, and COLLIDER Stream Collection 2016, a speculative fiction anthology. He writes between Manhattan, Kansas City, and Santo Domingo. He is working on his debut novel.