An excerpt from CONCRETE FEVER
With no cabs around we headed for the subway, a good fifteen minute walk. The heat in the apartment made me sweat through the back of my shirt and the cold air gave me chills. By the time we hit the station I couldn’t stop shaking.
It didn’t prove much better underground. There was something unnerving about seeing an unmanned MTA booth at night that far into the boroughs. It seemed inevitable we were going to get mugged. Felt like entering some low-income graveyard where they can’t get the grass to grow. Where the death’s so real you can feel it. Stepping over the turnstile proved foolish. Felt my vertebrae shift like a California fault line. Gypsy went ahead, oblivious. An ice-cold drop of water smacked me square in the eye. I wiped it with a sleeve. The siren in my head wouldn’t quit. I pulled out the flask and drank. Absently questioned how the hell I was still standing after all the punishment I’d got. The alcohol, the injuries, the mindfucks that just kept coming. I wondered if I’d ever hit a threshold that made me realize I actually wanted to live.
We went to sit but suddenly heard a train approaching. Stunned, we boarded and took it toward Manhattan. Gypsy insisted we walk from car to car. It’s amazing how something like a series of empty train cars seems beautiful in a city like New York. The only people we saw were a handful of drunks, lowlifes, and general undesirables. I liked thinking they were worse off than us. All the same it horrified me when I caught my reflection in the darkened train window. I averted my eyes and kept walking. In the next to last car we caught sight of a drunk college boy, passed out, destined for the end of the line. She wanted to take his wallet, I wouldn’t let her. She drew a lipstick penis on his face instead and continued to the rear of the train.
We rode to the financial district, then got off to transfer. The train pulled out of sight. We walked toward an exit. Eyeing her, I thought she looked like one of those zombie chicks from the horror movies. Shadows falling vicious on her face, scary but sexy all the same. Each step shortened, each movement stunted. I opened my mouth to mention it but stopped. Seemed stupid to ask if she was tired.
We sat on the platform for the next train, legs dangling over the tracks.
You got street salt on your skirt, I managed at last.
She looked. Sure enough the colored patches were covered in a dull vomit gray. She reached in her bag, pulled out a switchblade, and ripped through the fabric from mid-thigh on down. Damn, she said. Looks like it’s ripped now too.
I stared at the blade while she smiled expectantly. I looked away. The parallels to my mother were becoming a little unsettling. From the dark of the tunnel I heard someone call me. I glanced back at Gypsy but realized she didn’t know my real name. I concentrated on the dark. She asked what was up, I told her to be quiet. I listened with the intensity of a schizo. She tried talking and I threw a hand over her mouth.
She laughed, throwing it off. You’re acting tough again.
No I’m not.
Aloof. Loofy. Loofa. I’m going to take a shower when we get back and scrub myself with you. Loofa… It wasn’t that bad, you know. The way she tore into you. I know it probably sucked from your perspective, but honestly, it wasn’t all that harsh.
I’m not looking for sympathy.
You’re killing my buzz.
Dip into your stash.
I left it back at your place. But that’s not what I was saying. I mean everything. Our night together. High in and of itself, don’t you think?
The voice from the tunnel rose up again. Words too faint to make out. I leaned forward, nearly falling into the tracks.
I liked us talking before. In front of the stoop.
Do you hear that?
From the tunnel. That voice.
It’s probably a radio or something.
I slid off the platform and onto the tracks.
She gagged. What are you doing?
I checked. Double-checked. No train in sight. I stepped over the first rail. The world didn’t end so I kept walking toward the mouth of the tunnel. Gypsy screamed somewhere behind me. Terror in her voice. Didn’t know she could get that loud. I paused at the arch. The voice ahead in the darkness. It dropped to a moan, then a whisper. I convinced myself it was my imagination. No way was I going forward. Then a wave of fury hit me. I saw my mother passed out, my father cut short, the footage of the towers on constant repeat. Of all things, I landed on Gypsy’s freight train of an ex-boyfriend, looking at me like I wasn’t worth the time it’d take to beat me with his fists. As I stared into the void, I realized he’d been right. I was ready to off myself hours ago, nothing had changed. I got laid, so what? It seemed different at the time, it wasn’t. It was foolish to hope for anything more with Gypsy. She’d leave. Whatever truths I thought I’d found, they were fantasy. Fleeting. All the same, I was sick of things passing me by. I wanted to disappear down a hole and come out enlightened. I wanted something to justify not jumping.
Gypsy leapt on my shoulders from behind. Made my heart skip. Got you! she cheered. I sounded real right? Like I was actually scared? It’s not that big a deal walking down here. Me and my friends from the orphanage used to do it all the time.
Another drop of water hit, this time finding my neck. It rolled down the back of my coat and I winced, throwing her off.
What is it? she asked.
Cold water hit me, I said disjointedly.
Watch it! She shot her hand forward and brought me against her. With the backlight from the platform I couldn’t read her expression. Third rail, she said from the dark. You nearly touched it.
I looked around, noticing markers glowing, mapping everything out.
Don’t you read the posters? It’s like, instant death. What are we doing down here?
I heard something. A voice.
There’s nobody down here, Jumper.
If you’re afraid of getting caught you can turn back.
She laughed. Is that what you think? I’m just trying to get a read on you is all.
I felt her hand close over mine, then her lips on my cheek. Without a word she guided us forward. It wasn’t long before I lost the impulse to check for trains. There were a number of inverted stoplights braced on the walls above us, all set to red. I figured there’d be some change before we needed to worry. The light was minimal, but with the rail markers it was enough to get by. It was how I’d imagine walking the tarmac at JFK.
We walked in silence. Occasionally we’d hear the scurrying of rats, or distant clanking sounds. Water dripping. Electricity surging on either side of us. Still, it was quiet enough to feel enveloped.
When I was twelve, my father dropped out of sight for a while. My mother signed me up for Boy Scouts to provide a male father figure for me to look up to. Instead I got a bunch of pseudo-outdoorsmen obsessed with their own kids. The only time I got their attention was when I did something wrong. Before long I lost interest and accepted falling through the cracks.
Must have gone on plenty of camping trips but only one sticks out in my mind. Winter trip upstate, snow-covered mountainside. Open-walled lean-tos for the adventurous, soaked bottom tents for the rest. I snuck off during dinner to jerk off in the woods. I’d recently discovered my body but had no one to explain it to me. The realities of cause and effect hadn’t hit home yet, and after I’d pulled long enough it surprised me to explode. I soaked my hands clean in the snow, nearly getting frostbite in the process. An odd clarity took hold as I zipped myself back in. The distant laughter of the camp, the absolute darkness, the crisp air with only the faintest touch of wind. I lost track of where I ended and the world began. A feeling of love welled up in my chest. It seemed any second I’d achieve some epiphany to end the sadness that was already nagging at me.
Walking with Gypsy, swallowed in the tunnel, it seemed the answer might finally come.
Copyright © Nathaniel Kressen.
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