No matter where I live or how far I roam, New York was, is, and probably always will be the center of my universe. Even after moving away close to twenty years ago -- though I’d visit at least once a year -- I considered New York to be my home, despite the gloom and grime, the sticky summer heat, and the overwhelming sensory overload that family can be.
New York is where I get grounded. It’s where I reconnect when I’m feeling lost. Is it any wonder, then, I would come back here once I chose to take control of my life again?
The last time I’d come back was after my partner, Joshua, died. Seven years was a long time to be away, and as much as I loved New York, I admit it felt odd to be back in the city after traipsing through Europe for so long, almost as if I were a stranger in my own land. Much had changed. It had been a while since my parents had passed on, I no longer had friends in the city, and my sister and I hadn’t exactly parted the best of friends after Joshua’s funeral.
But I suppose there comes a time when we all want to go back to recapture something we might have lost along the way.
In Brooklyn I didn’t feel so painfully lost and without direction. I could remember who I used to be and where I came from. It was the one place that could remind me of who I wanted to become and where I wanted to go next. It was also the one place that never failed to remind me of why I chose to leave in the first place.
* * * * *
After the plane landed at JFK, I took the Air Train to Jamaica Station. From there, I hopped on the subway and went into Manhattan, then on into Brooklyn -- to Flatbush and the Borough of Kings.
The closer I got to home, the more nostalgic I became. Armed with my backpack -- which contained my laptop, e-reader, and a couple of days’ worth of clothing -- I allowed myself several hours to retrace some of the steps I’d once taken during my high school years: Prospect Park and Grand Army Plaza, Brighton Beach and Coney Island, my high school which looked so much smaller than I remembered it.
When I got off at the train station near home, I walked down Newkirk Avenue, past my first apartment -- a one-bedroom, on East Eighteenth Street. From there, I walked to the bagel shop at the corner of Foster. The owner was ancient now, his face lined and furrowed, but he was still there. It didn’t surprise me. Some people never
leave Brooklyn. They never dream for more than what they have beyond their four walls. Or maybe they do and think they can’t do anything about it.
Joshua used to think they lacked courage.
I ordered a heavily buttered bialy and a chocolate drink, the way I used to when I was in high school, then sat on the bench across from the store. The melted butter ran down my fingers as I sank my teeth into the bagel. I closed my eyes and savored the taste, being in the moment and breathing in the brisk air.
I opened my eyes and took a swig of the chocolate drink. It didn’t taste anything like I remembered, and I wondered if it was the flavor that had changed or me.
After polishing off the bialy, I took a final swig to wash it all down, then tossed the rest of the drink in the trash. I wiped my fingers with a napkin from inside the now almost see-through bag.
All that butter, I thought. Definitely not good for the heart or the battle of the bulge that had become increasingly more difficult to keep at bay. Once, I could eat anything and not worry about how I looked.
I was still trim and in decent shape. Not many men could say that at my age.
With a sigh, I wondered what had happened. When had my youth slipped away? I’d been so busy planning and doing that I hadn’t noticed I no longer had the spontaneity I once possessed. Or had it possessed me?
Nothing mattered then but my impetuous desires and the passions of life. Now I longed for simpler days when I knew everything and, without thought to consequence, would say, “Fuck it! I’m outta here. You’re all a bunch of douche bags.”
Everything had been sunny then. One continuous spring and summer I took for granted.
I looked up at the sky, and the weak autumn sunshine felt good on my face. It seemed as if it tried to assure me.
Something’s coming. All you have to do is wait.
I took a deep breath, exhaled, and cautiously hoped it was so. The last seven years had been far too painful being alone. Getting older didn’t make it any easier. Especially when all the beautiful young men I admired or who struck a spark in my loins all seemed to consider me ancient.
But there was more to it than that.
I hadn’t written a single word since Joshua died. Each time I faced the blank computer screen, each time I sat down to try, characters, scenarios, and plots escaped me. I’d become unmotivated, uninterested, and lacking in focus.
The worst thing was that I had begun to think I’d dried up. That maybe after a dozen books and a couple of movie options, I had no stories left in me.
And if I couldn’t write anymore, if I couldn’t tell a story and move myself while doing it, then what was the point...of anything?
* * * * *
I turned the corner onto Westminster Road and stopped suddenly. Would my sister, Kay, even be there? I hadn’t called to let her know I was coming, I hadn’t e-mailed, and I hadn’t bothered to send her a note via snail mail. She probably didn’t even know I’d been out of the country.
And what makes you think she wants you in her house after all those hurtful things?
No. Not her house. Our
house. The house we both
grew up in.
I pushed my fears down to where all the others lived and looked at my wristwatch. Three in the afternoon. There was a good chance no one would be there. Then I remembered Kay had chosen to continue a practice begun by our mother. She used to leave a key beneath a flowerpot beside the wicker couch on the porch.
Old, comforting memories. Funny how they always made me feel like a child again.
I shifted my backpack and started walking. Just a few more houses, on the right.
As I slowly made my way, a strange sensation -- something like a band -- wrapped around my chest and back. My lungs felt as if they didn’t want to expand. I forced myself to breathe. To relax. Everything would be fine.
What if I didn’t find what I was looking for? What if the direction I needed, what I had lost, remained in the distance and out of reach? Or worse yet. What if I never found it again? I tried to tell myself it wouldn’t be like that. New York never
failed me. Nor did it cease to amaze me. I might not get exactly what I wanted, but New York always gave me what I needed -- new experiences and a recharge, even if it sometimes came at a cost. There was always a give and take.
The thought made me think of Joshua, as the city always did, and a refrain from his favorite song -- Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” -- popped into mind.
It was so easy living day by day, out of touch with the rhythm and blues...
I started to cry, secretly ashamed that after all this time I wasn’t over Joshua completely. Unable to stop the tears that escaped me, I was at least grateful there were no witnesses.
Damn you, Joshua! Why did you have to leave me alone? Why didn’t you listen? Why didn’t you quit smoking?
But what was the point of asking such questions? He’d died seven years ago now. And no matter how many people said it got easier, that I’d get over him, I never had. You never get over someone being gone. You just get used to it.
I still missed Joshua. Every second of every minute of every hour of every day. On my birthday. On his birthday. On our anniversary. When the day dawned blue with promise and when it was gray and dreary.
Holidays were the worst. Kay would call months in advance, even after the fight we’d had. She always left a message in a tone that sounded almost apologetic. She’d invite me to come and stay with her and the kids, but I never did. Not just because of our fight. I just couldn’t be around people. Loneliness was sharp enough, alone during holidays. While in the company of others, however, it was so sharp it sometimes took my breath away.
Strange how one person can invade every single cell of your body with his essence, his scent, his spirit.
Something fluttered in my heart as I stood at the curb, and I could have sworn Joshua was near. Goose bumps broke out on my flesh, the way they did when Joshua so much as smiled at me. A tender breeze, like a soft kiss, caressed my skin.
Let me go
, the breeze seemed to whisper. I leaned into it with longing, as if it could possibly stroke my cheek the way he once did.
I still felt lost without him, possessed by his memory. I knew it was time to move on, but how do you put behind more than twenty years of knowing and loving someone? Sharing your dreams, thoughts, and ideas. The good times and bad. The waxing and waning cycles of sex -- sometimes even the occasional third partner to help spice things up.
It was time to put myself back out there, but I was frightened and nervous. Except for the sometimes-necessary hookup, I hadn’t dated anyone since Joshua died. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to date again. My single days hadn’t exactly been fun-filled.
But I wanted someone to hold me at night and tell me everything would be all right. Someone who would keep the monsters from crawling out from under the bed. Only I didn’t look forward to sitting in a bar, glancing into my drink or off in the distance with a detached stare, avoiding another’s gaze for fear of seeing my own desperation reflected in his eyes.
There was also the gnawing realization that of the three men I’d met in seven years, none of them had been able to satisfy my sexual cravings.
“Excuse me. Can I help you?” someone called in an accent I couldn’t place. Surprised, I sucked air sharply into my lungs and quickly wiped my tears away.
A young man in his midtwenties stood before me. He was shirtless, his hands on narrow hips, groin thrust toward me. His skin, the color of brown sugar, was naturally smooth. It looked like it would feel soft under my touch. He was toned and defined with round sculpted shoulders, perfectly shaped limbs, and washboard abs. Two veins, one on either side of his belly button, ran down on a slight angle and hid somewhere beneath worn and faded, low-riding jeans that left much to my imagination, several inches below a flat navel.
“Are you...looking for someone?” The young man’s question forced me to glance away from his groin and up into his face. He had full and luscious red lips, slightly parted. They appeared as if he had been sucking on a cherry ice pop.
He had thick, incredibly dark hair, somewhat tousled, and an almost Roman nose.
But it was his eyes that caught my breath and refused to let go. They glittered and sparkled with much life, curiosity, and wonder. Yet something dark and tumultuous, almost broody and intense, lurked near the surface.
I knew on the spot he was trouble, or perhaps just what I needed.
“I...uh,” I started, then cleared my throat, unable to break his gaze. He cocked his head, raised an eyebrow, and recognition flittered in his eyes. He smiled suddenly, and bright white teeth with sharp canines flashed at me. I was reminded of wolves and vampires. I sensed a caged animal, yearning to be free and untethered, somewhere beneath the surface.
“I...know...you.” He spoke slowly, as if searching for a memory or the right words. This new and beautiful face looked like that of a boy. Except he was all man.
“No! Wait. Let me see. I know this.” He scrunched up his face, and I dared a glance away to make sure I hadn’t stumbled onto the wrong lawn. The number over the door was correct. The porch swing was still up, and the rose bushes Dad had planted in front of the porch railing were still there. Even our initials -- Kay’s and mine -- still showed through on the riser of the front step, no matter how much paint had been used to cover them.
I was definitely in the right place, but who was he? And what was he doing here? A lawn mower sat a few feet behind him. Was he the gardener? Perhaps my sister had thrown caution to the wind and started dating a younger man?
Good for you, Kay. I wish I could...
I didn’t have time to reply. The young man was suddenly on me. He held me in his strong arms, squeezing me tight as if we were long-lost friends. He pinned my upper arms to my sides, and all I could do was touch his bare flesh, my hands around his small waist. It was enough to disturb seven years of longing. Seven years of desire welled up deep inside me.
I tried to pull back and get away before he could feel my growing erection against him, but he held me in place. I felt the heat on my face as I blushed, knowing there was no way he could have missed it. But he didn’t say anything.
“You’re Kay’s brother. I’ve heard much about you. I’m Jo?o.” The young man pulled away from me finally. He kissed my left cheek, then my right, and smiled broadly while he held my shoulders with strong, steady hands. I was glad. His grip was probably the only thing keeping me from collapsing, as I was suddenly weak in the knees.
Another breeze blew around us. I noted the goose bumps that broke out on Jo?o’s flesh. His tiny nipples engorged as if they had been tweaked, and I could almost hear Joshua’s surreptitious laugh.
A car door slammed behind me, and a shriek split the air.
Jo?o and I both turned to see Kay emerging from her dusty and dented car. She still wore her hospital scrubs as she raced toward me. A few feet away, she stopped abruptly as if she were uncertain. Then I opened my arms, and she ran into them. We embraced.
I felt good with my big sister again. Especially since it was just the two of us left now; Mom died twelve years prior, and Dad followed six months after. Kay lost Harold when the World Trade Center fell, and I lost Joshua two years later.
But no matter how tightly my sister held me, no matter how much we cried in each other’s arms, no matter how glad we were to see each other, nothing compared to the gratification of feeling a hot man’s arms around me. I’d suspected it, but until Jo?o touched me, I hadn’t realized just how cold I’d been or how desperately I’d wanted a man in my arms once more.
“Oh God! Where are my manners?” Kay exclaimed. “I’m so sorry. Brian, this is Jo?o. Jo?o, this is my baby brother.”
“C’mon, Kay. I’m forty-eight, for crying out loud.”
“So? You’re still my baby brother.”
“I didn’t know him at first,” Jo?o said with a grin. “Then I remembered his wedding picture. To...Josh. Yes?”
“That’s right. Josh. Joshua.” I smiled and nodded, feeling as if someone had just let the air out of my balloon.
“I am sorry for your loss.” Jo?o put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. The heat from his palm made my flesh tingle with excitement, and I nervously remembered that Kay stood beside me.
“Uh...thank you. That was seven years ago now, though.”
“Time doesn’t matter if the dead still live in your heart.” Jo?o placed his hand flat against my chest, his voice soft, deep, and strangely seductive. His gaze held mine, and I felt something spark between us. By the flicker in his eyes, the dilation of his pupils, and the flare of his nostrils, I could see he had felt it too. His lips parted ever so slightly, and one corner of his mouth lifted in what looked like a curious smile.
“Two years after I lost my Harold,” Kay added distantly.
My attention was pulled away from Jo?o, but I avoided Kay’s gaze in case she was looking at me. I was still confused by what I had just felt when the young man placed a hand over my heart, and I didn’t want her to pick up on my thoughts.
There was an awkward silence.
“Enough sadness!” Jo?o exclaimed suddenly. He clapped his hands twice in the air as if to proclaim the past as something that had ended.
“You” -- he pointed at Kay, then prodded me in the chest -- “are both alive. And life...is for the living. Now, go inside and have a drink to celebrate! Catch up and have a good time. I will stay out here and finish the grass.”
“Why don’t we go inside, and I’ll make us a pot of tea,” Kay suggested. She took my hand in hers, and we walked toward the house. I glanced over my shoulder at Jo?o. He stood and watched us with a lopsided smile and an expression on his face I couldn’t read. Then he winked and turned his attention to the lawn mower.