We were warned the city was dangerous, ghost story cautions of Long Island parents. Don't drive into that neighborhood. I don't care who's playing, yer gonna get mugged. If your car breaks down there in the middle of the night, it's your own fault.
The show was lame, so Ali and I walked over the Williamsburg into the big city. The weather was still warm, and wind made the bridge sway like the drunks making their way across it on unsteady feet. Ali had to pee, so I stood guard, looking both ways while she squatted under the hazy orange safety lamps. On the walk over, we found the skeletal remains of a pigeon, the wings mostly, which had been placed over the railing of the JMZ in a delicate balancing act against the wind.
“If we got killed on this bridge, it would probably be a while before anyone noticed our bodies,” I said.
“I'm trying to pee here. Can we save this discussion for when I'm less vulnerable?”
“I mean, like, it's mostly bikers, and none of them are noticing you pee, so it would probably take someone on foot to notice two disemboweled young women.”
Ali jumped up, zipping her jeans. “First off, that bird isn't disemboweled. It's just been dead for a long time. Second of all, I think that one or both of us have the exceptional fighting skills to fend off an attacker long enough for someone with a cell phone to ride by and alert the proper authorities.”
I thought about it. A guy with a beard whizzed past on a fixie. “I dunno. It could take a while for someone to come. Neither of us are killing machines.”
Ali raised an accusing eyebrow. The week before I had knocked someone's teeth out with a pair of rollerskates outside of a show. So maybe I was only half-right.
“I forgot I had skates in my hand when I hit him.”
Ali kept giving me that look.
“Alright, maybe he deserved it.”
The J-train rocked the bridge under our feet, and the wind felt weird in the spots where I had shaved my head. I was going for a futuristic, one-half shaved, one-half long sorta side-mohawk, but instead the cowlick that nature had already given me just made me look kind of balding and moth-eaten. Ali's hair was chopped into something that looked like a blue and purple Space Mullet or, maybe more appropriately, Weedwack Unicorn. Much of our friendship involved one-upping each other in conceptual haircuts our mothers hated.
We turned onto Essex, passing a hoard of Friday night drunks. “I took this developmental psychology class last semester, and I think we might be experiencing an extended adolescence.”
“Hm. Do explain.”
“Well, the fits of self-expression through haircutting. Laughing at fart jokes like thirteen year-old boys. Wolf shirts. Fist-fighting. I could go on.”
“In my defense, the fist-fighting is only with drunk people, and only when they start it. I just finish it.”
At twenty-two, I had never drank alcohol. At twenty-eight, it's still the number one thing that surprises people about me. I grew up surrounded by alcoholism, learned how to defend myself, and was raring to kick-ass if someone made the mistake of spilling beer on my shoes, threw an open cup into the crowd, or, god-forbid, breathed Jager in my face when I had skates in my hand.
“I mean, that guy last week. That guy really had it coming.”
Ali nodded in agreement. We walked up First Avenue, hungry, with early September sweat spreading like a spirograph on the back of our shirts. The best falafel I'd found was on St. Marks, near the methadone clinic. In spite of the junkies nodding on the steps outside, I felt nothing but a stern disappointment in the danger levels of the city. It felt like I'd missed out on everything cool, the Harvey Keitel New York, porno booths and small time gangsters and people stabbing each other in crimes of passion in plain sight. I was the only person in my family to venture off of Long Island, head swimming with a lifetime of Sunday afternoon movies on Channel 11, gritty and unpredictable, Pushermen and unsanitized needles at every turn. I couldn't even pretend I was around for the good stuff. Guiliani-era New York was a total wash. The streets were clean, and punk-themed gift-shops every five feet were neon fuck-yous to my imagination.
Once inside Tastee Falafel, I tried to place myself in a different New York. The floor was dirty. It looked like someone had crushed a bug on the yellowed wall near the Pepsi fridge. If I thought hard enough and blocked out the tourists walking by in I HEART NY t-shirts, this could be 1977. Ali and I squinted at the letterboard sign over the counter, listening to a moth sizzle in an overhead bulb.
“Two falafels,” I said, sidling up to the register, brave and cool, an extra in a Scorsese movie.
“It is coming right up, miss,” the guy at the counter said, handing back my change and giving me a wink. Ali got napkins, and we sat down near the buzzing soda cooler.
“I feel cheated. Nothing is scary anymore. I'm not afraid of anything.”
“Student loans? Tooth decay? The real world?” Ali suggested.
“Nah, I dunno. I'll never live long enough to get to any of that. I'm talking about real fear.”
The counter guy approached our table. “Ladies, I give you pudding free.” He put down two dishes of milky, gelatinous semi-solid.
“Um, thank you.” I looked at Ali, who was recently vegan. I knew it was up to me to not offend our host. I dove in, and it was disgusting. “Um, I think there has been a mistake. There's potpourri in my pudding.”
“No, is rosewater, for two beautiful roses.” He pulled up a chair and sat down backwards. I looked at Ali, Indian Summer perspiration from the walk over was matting the bangs to her forehead. I caught a glimpse of my own gross reflection in the glass door. We looked more like dandelions that someone had 'he-loves-me-not'-ed into disfigurement. “My name is Ihab.”
“Um, I'm Cassie.”
“I'm Stephanie,” Ali said, leagues ahead of me in social-savvy anonymity.
“Beautiful names. Beautiful roses. You have boyfriend?”
“No,” I said.
“I'm gay,” Ali said at the same time.
“Maybe we hang out sometime?”
“Not a chance,” said Ali.
“Sure!” I said, and blurted out my phone number.
We left the falafel place and walked back over the bridge.
“That was dumb,” Ali said.
“And yet, I find myself doing it every time.”
“What are you gonna do if he actually calls you?”
The train rumbled past. My voice was lost to the sound of metal on metal, and Ali and I stood at the orange railing caging us in from the blackness beneath.
Ali looked at me. “Isn't that a little dangerous?” And I shrugged.
I did not have a cell phone, and rattling off my parents' number was second nature.
“Cassie! Somebody is on the phone for you! I can't understand his name!”
“Just say I'm busy!”
“This is the fourth time he's called and I already told him you're home! Just take the damned phone! I'm trying to watch my show, for God's sake!”
There was nothing risky about going to a state school and living at home. Ali had gotten accepted to college in Massachusetts, so a few days after our encounter with Ihab, I was pretty much left to my own devices. I drank coffee by myself at the diner, rode my bicycle alone, and missed my best friend. There wasn't a whole lot to do, anyway. Might as well try to score us both free halal food for life by going on a weird hang-out with the guy from the falafel place.
“I live in Bronx. You know where that is?”
“Yeah, the toll is like $4.00 to get there.”
“I make it worth your while, okay? I have Thursday off, so you come then. I see you Thursday.”
“Well, I guess I really don't have anything better to do.” I scanned the spines of my records in their psychotic alphabetical order that only happens when you are nervous and bored. I really didn't have anything better to do.
“Good. I see you then.” He hung up the phone. I picked through my records again. The Shemps were playing in Brooklyn that day. That was something to look forward to, if I didn't end up being smoked into street meat before then.
Thursday came, and my enthusiasm for driving from eastern Long Island all the way to the Bronx out of some skewed sense of duty started to wane. I got stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway and tried to pep-talk myself into feeling jazzed to meet up with Ihab. After all, Ali and I hadn't really known each other when we first hung out. We had seen each other at parties for years, nodding in recognition the way people do when you admire someone’s mental patient haircut or Crass button, but feel too lame to say anything. We finally became friends after Ali read a few of my stories and asked me to meet up to drink syrupy three AM diner coffee. Maybe Ihab was secretly into something really cool. Maybe he drummed in a band. Maybe he was into the Sea Monkeys or the Lunachicks. Maybe he wrote poetry or collected comic books.
I got lost in the Bronx and had to get out and ask for directions at the shadiest gas station I had ever seen.
“Whatchu doing in this neighborhood?”
“Um, I'm asking myself that very question right now.”
“You gotta turn left, turn right, go a ways, and it'll be on your left. If you hit Castle Hill Avenue, you gone too far, and you best not hit Castle Hill Avenue cuz they tear someone like you up.”
“Great. Thank you. That's wonderful news.” I walked back to my car and a crackhead was looking into my passenger side window. “Um, excuse me,” I said, making a hands-out-Jesus gesture.
“You gotta dolla?”
“Um, no. Please get out of my way.” I unlocked the door, started the car, and sped off. I got lost again, this time on Castle Hill Avenue. There was a guy walking and swinging what looked like a machete, so I turned around a few times to find someplace friendly enough to direct me where I should be going.
“GIRL, what in the HELL you doing out here?”
“I''m not really sure at this point.”
“This neighborhood is DANGEROUS. You lost your mind?”
I thought about it. “Probably.”
When I went back to my car, four people were looking in the window. “Hey, folks. Nothing to see here.”
“You gotta dolla?”
“Nope, but thanks for asking.” I unlocked my car and jumped in. I started to rethink my opinions on New York. The parts I had been hanging out in had been tamed into what looked like the inside of an Urban Outfitters, but there were other parts that were actually kind of terrifying, like the backdrop for a dramatic re-enactment on America's Most Wanted. This was a New York I hadn't explored, nor was I really in the mood to that night, lost somewhere in the Bronx, in the neighborhoods my parents warned me about, on my way to hang out with the falafel guy.
I rolled up to Ihab's apartment and leaned on the horn.
“You are coming!” he said, slamming the door and putting on his seatbelt. “I am made so glad. Where are you taking me for our date?”
“Hey, nobody said anything about a date.”
“Oh, yes, yes. We are just hanging out like friends. Like on Dawson's Creek, no?” Ihab had really poured the cologne on pretty thick. He was wearing cargo shorts, flip-flops, and the New York City shirt that John Lennon is wearing in that photo. It was like an Abercrombie ad in smellovision.
“Look, I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean. I do know I'm kind of hungry, so we're gonna get food before I freak out.” I drove to the diner on East Tremont Avenue. We got out of the car, and Ihab reached for my hand.
“What are you doing?”
“Oh, I am just stumbling,” he said, and put his hand back in his pocket.
Once in the diner, I looked at the menu for something that would make me feel better about how consistently terrible my decisions were. Cheesecake always does the trick. Coffee usually makes me rethink every moment of my life, so I opted for water instead. The waitress took our menus, and I scratched the zigzags on my mohawk where my hair was starting to grow in.
“So, Ihab, how did you decide to come to America?”
“Oh, American movies.”
“The Waiting to Exhale. The Harry and the Sally.”
“They are very beautiful. They are showing what life is about. Friendships and the beautiful women loving each other.”
The waitress put down our food. Everyone in the diner was eating in perfect silence. Forks did not chink against china. No one slurped coffee. Couples ate in absolute solemnity, somewhere past the point of arguing or loving. There was only the sound of Ihab cutting up a chicken finger and my heart ticking somewhere in my gut. Maybe there were no good decisions, only the decisions that got you where you were going.
“But why New York?” I asked, not hungry, moving my cheesecake from one edge of the plate to the next.
“Well, my father is very wealthy, and I like American movies, so I ask to go to New York. Bright lights. Opportunity. Beautiful, beautiful women. But I come to New York and I cannot find work. Nobody wants to hire. I speak English in perfect, and still nobody cares a fuck. I get job as dishwasher, and I realize, America is suck. America is hard work. America is shitty. Why anyone want to work so hard to live in shoebox is for idiot.”
That made sense. I guess we had a commonality. Neither Ihab nor myself were really into busting ass for no good reason. I would probably never want to work hard enough to live in a city where the train was outside of my window or my mattress could become infested with superpowered bugs that could crawl through walls and floors.
“So then what?” I asked, scraping a fleck of dried food from my waterglass.
“So, I move back to my country. It is nicer there.”
“Yeah, but how did you end up back here?”
“Do you have boyfriend?”
“No,” I said.
“Why you no have boyfriend? Beautiful girl need boyfriend.”
I twirled my rattail around my finger. “Um, thanks but no thanks. I'm militantly single.”
“Yes, but sometimes you need boyfriend to do boyfriend things, no?”
“I can do most boyfriend things myself. Thanks for asking, though.”
“But you cannot do all boyfriend things, no? So sometimes you need boyfriend.” This seemed to conclude Ihab's end of the debate. The diner was quiet except for the sounds of coffee brewing somewhere in the kitchen. I thought about my life, me and Ali's extended adolescence, whether I would ever figure out how to react normally to beer spilled on my shoes or say no to invitations to hang out with strangers.
“Um, have you ever been in a fight?”
“Oh, yes! Yes!” Ihab shook the ketchup, padding the bottom of the bottle with the palm of his hand. “Oh, yes. That's why I am coming back.”
“What do you mean?”
“In my country, there are beautiful parks in every neighborhood. Not like New York, where there are the needles and the broken glass and the trash. In my country, the parks are beautiful and the people care and the people take care of them. My father is wealthy old man. He is very old , and he care about three things: money, his country, and the flowers in park. My father, he go to park every day and water flowers, he pull bad plant, he dig tree. My father love park as much as his country. So, my father go to park and come back one day. He say, 'Ihab, my hose is gone.' And somebody steal hose from park, and my father is very sad, because is nice hose. Is very quality hose. So, I go to park, and I ask the people, and they say they know who took hose. So, I get friend, and I get baseball bat, and I go to house of thief who took hose and I knock, and I say, 'Motherfucker, you give me my hose.' And the thief, he say, 'I fuck you! I don't have hose!' And I say, 'Motherfucker, you get one more chance and you give me my hose!' And the thief, he say, 'I fuck you. No hose here, motherfucker.'”
I looked at Ihab, who was still shaking the ketchup bottle. I thought about telling him to hit the little 57 on the glass but I didn't want interrupt. “And then what happened?”
“So I say, 'Motherfucker, you are dishonoring my family. You get me my hose,' and he say, “I fuck you.'”
The diner was silent. A man read yesterday's copy of the Post in a corner booth. Someone washed dishes in the kitchen. I was terrified. “And then what happened?”
“So, I take bat and I HIT HIM and HIT HIM and HIT HIM and HIT HIM until I hear my friend say, 'Motherfucker, his eye come out!' So I look and I think, 'Oh, shit. His eye come out.' So then we run.”
The ketchup poured out of the bottle. My mouth hung open in horror. “And then what?”
“So, police come, and I start to think America is not so bad. So my father, he buy me plane ticket, and I come back to New York. And, is not so bad. I miss my country, but I have okay job. I meet beautiful women. I eat french fry at diner. America not so bad.”
“But what happened to the guy who stole your dad's garden hose?”
“Oh, motherfucker in wheelchair with glass eye. He learn lesson though.”
We got the check. Ihab and I walked back to the car. I unlocked the passenger door, speechless to the point of mummification. Ihab looked at the sticker on my window. “What is 'Shemps?'”
“Oh, my friends' band.” I walked around to the driver's side and started the car.
“Like, music band?”
“Yeah, um. Like, American rockandroll.”
“Oh. American rockandroll. I listen to house music. Is good for dancing with girlfriend. You like Moby?”
“Um, no. Not really.” We drove back to his apartment in silence.
“You are liking to come upstairs? I have Moby on compact disc...” He tried to hug me. I held out my hand for him to shake.
“Um, no thanks. Thanks for tonight, though. It's given me a lot to think about.”
When Ihab got out of the car, he waved for a long time from the corner of the Bronx where I dropped him off. I drove to the Shemps show, which was in a neighborhood that for once in my life, I was glad was so tame and familiar. Someone threw beer onto the crowd, and I did my best not to freak out, watering a new leaf I could feel growing in the place where all my decisions happen, the good kind and the bad kind, but I guess, in a way, they are both the same.