I had just arrived in Manhattan and was still wary of the subway, especially ones that scurried underground beneath mythic neighborhoods that I didn’t know, couldn’t imagine; I wasn’t only new in town, but had never lived anywhere but rural Massachusetts. The party was in Alphabet City and started after midnight, which in the mid-nineteen eighties was where and when some of the action was if you were looking for trouble. The area was on my carefully researched list of places to stay away from, at least until I found my balance on the spiky island I aimed to survive, if not conquer. Which is what I tried to explain to Rey, one of the few people I knew who lived in New York. We’d been close since college, and I trusted him, but he’d always been light years ahead of me in terms of sophistication and street smarts. At school he used to call me Rapunzel, say I’d been locked away from reality my whole life.
I let myself be persuaded to go with him. He assured me that we’d be fine, and that he’d stay with me, would ride home with me all the way to my illegal sublet on East 45th Street, Midtown, which was an intimidatingly deserted maze of echoing concrete canyons on weekends, especially at night. Or in the wee, cold hours of the morning, when we’d be on the move.
On the way there, Rey told me not to worry, that we were heading to maybe the safest spot in the city because our host, a musician named Crowbar, knew all the neighborhood dealers, and they got along. Rey said those guys were more interested than anybody else in keeping the peace because they wanted to keep the cops as far from there as possible, and anyone who caused problems would interfere with business, and would suffer the consequences. So, we were headed to a protectorate. I nodded and shrugged and played my part, the country bumpkin, too sincere to be cool but too entertainingly conversant not to be considered interesting.
Truth is, I would have followed him anywhere. I had followed him here, to this unforgiving place rather than move to Boston, where I’d been offered an actual job, hadn’t I? All my professional ambitions were secondary to my ridiculous obsession with the perennially unattainable, seriously charismatic Rey.
The subway ride wasn’t bad, its seasonless stink and grime made somehow romantic by Rey’s tales of gallery openings gone wrong and bands he’d been early to discover before they went mainstream. As to his own efforts to jumpstart a writing career, he was charmingly self-deprecating. He couldn’t get out of his own way, he said.
There was a crowd outside the crumbling brick building Rey told me was Crowbar’s. As we got closer, we could hear fragments of phrases: doctor, just saw him, not breathing. A woman was crying. Next to her, a couple clutched each other in the amber light of the open vestibule door. Seconds later, the wail of an ambulance getting louder and louder made my heart race.
I’ll be right back, said Rey, leaving me alone on the sidewalk.
He hopped up the steps, two at a time, and vanished inside.
Rey was gone long enough that the ambulance beat him to the curb, long enough to do what it was he’d come to do. I watched as he moved like water around the medics while they rushed past him with equipment, his right hand fleetingly shielding something in his leather coat pocket. A tell I remembered from school. I had asked him about it then and he’d said try growing up with four older brothers and changed the subject.
Rey’s face was shiny, his eyes, too, as he came toward me, swaying a bit.
Your hair, he said. It’s so pretty. Why didn’t you always wear it long?
I told him I had always worn it long and we headed back to the subway. We were quiet as we boarded; this one was filthy enough that we didn’t need to discuss not sitting down, and we found a spot side by side at the least greasy pole in sight. I held my breath for as much of the ride as I could because the guy right behind me reeked of weed and alcohol and too many nights in unwashed clothing turned rancid.
When it was time to change lines, Rey said he wasn’t coming with me, said he didn’t feel well, said I’d be fine. I watched him walk away.
I flagged down a taxi that overcharged me because it could, and I didn’t say a word. To compensate, I ate nothing but buttered English muffins for two days. I added another lock to the door of my tiny studio and stayed in at night for a while, drinking coffee and wishing I had a television set. Never again in my life would I be that lonely.
Carolyn R. Russell’s fiction, essays, and poetry have been featured in numerous publications. She lives on and writes from Boston’s North Shore.