Authors: Chris Ethan
One Year Later
About the Author
Copyright © 2015 by Rhys Christopher Ethan
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All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
All characters and events in this book are a work of fiction.
Pierce is homeless.
Young and strong-willed Pierce has been living in the streets of New York City for six months, since his parents kicked him out of their perfect, Christian, suburban house. Pierce is gay. And he is suffering the consequences for being true to himself.
Rafe is homeless.
He is also sick. Impressionable, but far from innocent, Rafe ran away from home almost a year ago. His sickness is slowly killing him. But Rafe is not a hopeless case. He has learned to get by. Nights of paid passion turn to sheltering warmth from the imminent New York winter.
And then there's a suitcase. Pierce's suitcase, which holds secrets from everyone including its owner.
When their worlds collide, their lives intertwine and when the world seems bent on bringing the two souls to their knees, fate has other plans for them.
Caution: Contains adult language, New York City streets, tough life choices, sexual tension, stubborn brutes and swoon-worthy romance.
“What do you mean yes, if I suck your dick?”
“What ya heard, kiddo. Yes, I might have a bed for ya, if ya suck my dick,” the guy seated on a cluttered desk in front of a disheveled Pierce said to him.
“How—?” Pierce was struggling to find the right words and express his emotions rather than punch his way to a bed and a shelter for the night. He sucked in a deep breath and tried again. “I need a bed, dude. I’m homeless, you’re a homeless shelter, help a dude out,” he said in his best behavior. He hadn’t been in that in a while. That was one of the benefits of living on the streets. No one gave a shit about you, and unless you were harassing someone, no one gave a shit if you had a fit.
Waiting for the charity worker’s reply across him was as nerve-wracking as waiting for a reply from one of his college applications, just two years before. The man glanced both ways as he’d done before, giving a quick check around him, even though they were both situated in a small room, no bigger than two-by-two and with no chance of anyone overhearing him.
“I know, dimwit, I heard ya the first time. And what I said is help a brother out, and he’ll help ya back,” he said in a sly, infuriating tone as if his whole life depended on that blowjob.
Pierce winced. “You are a charity worker, right? You’re supposed to help me no matter what. Not asking for oral, which between the two of us is really unethical,” he admonished, standing from one leg to the other, making a real effort to not lose it and fuck up his chances of getting a corner in this crowded and smelly New York shelter. The silence in between their conversation was dressed with snores and some manic wails in the far distance.
The guy shrugged. “A guy’s got needs. Ya know what I’m talking about. Was talking to this guy on Grindr and suddenly my power died, leaving me all horny,” he explained with a nonchalance that was not befitting to the place.
“You know what?” Pierce had heard enough. That was the last straw. “Go and fuck yourself, you asshat. I’d rather sleep another night on the streets than suck your toothpick,” he spat. He picked up his old, leather suitcase that was waiting for him on the floor beside him.
“Fuck you, bastard. I’ll be damned if ya ever get a bed in here,” the guy shouted at him as Pierce ducked outside, ready for some silence after such an infuriating encounter.
That was the problem with people. They could be real assholes when they started talking, so he preferred it when they didn’t. Best example? His own parents. Had they not spoken, had he not told them he was gay, they wouldn’t have kicked him out. He would still have a family. But people had to talk and ruin everything. Even himself. So he rather preferred to stay silent; when the monster inside of him wasn’t scratching to be released and wreak havoc at idiots like that pervert.
He tightened his fist around his suitcase handle and forced one foot in front of the other, pushing through the exhaustion and the numbness in his toes, a side effect of the eminent winter in New York City. He’d need a coat to survive it. A coat and a sleeping bag, among other warm things. He needed to find some, but wasn’t sure were to look. If he had to, he was could steal them. Anything to survive that fucking winter.
His feet somehow led him to Central Park, perhaps habit, perhaps it was really just around the corner. He didn’t know, and he no longer cared. He just wanted to find a safe spot and close his eyes for as long as possible. He needed to rest. He hadn’t slept in four days.
The leafy breeze of the trees gave him a cool welcome back to old haunts and he quickly found a bench, solitary in its existence, perfectly matching its new owner, and he took possession of it by lying flat on it and trying to think warm thoughts. He put the suitcase under his head to keep it safe and shut his eyes for the first time in forever.
His face felt steaming hot, and liquid run down his nose and wetted his eyebrows. Was it raining? He was sure it wasn’t. He would have felt his whole body drenched in rain water. No. This was something else. He opened his eyes to find them stung by the toxicity of piss. A group of guys, three all in all, wearing hoodies and a smug expression on their face, all had their dicks out, pointed at Pierce, and relieving themselves on his sleepy face.
He sprang up and pushed one of them back. “What the fuck, man?”
The thugs laughed. “Look, the junkie is alive. Bro, we were worried you had flatlined,” the guy he had pushed said.
“Are you serious? What the actual fuck? What is wrong with you?” he shouted as he wiped the piss off his face with the sleeve of his pullover.
“Look, man, we thought you overdose or something. We was trynna wake yo’ ass,” another guy said and giggled like the sorry little girl he was soon going to be.
Pierce glared at him. “Overdose? Me? That looks more like your territory, fuckwit,” he replied.
“’Ey, ‘ey, chill, man. Why you usin’ dat language? We didn’t offend you,” said the third guy, playing it cool.
“You fucking pissed on me. That, I take as a fucking offense, you asshole,” Pierce shrieked.
The laughter was cut off the guy’s face and he assumed, what looked like an offensive stance. He pushed Pierce back and he fell back on the bench. His palm came to contact with the same mix of urine that was drenching his face. Big fucking mistake.
Pierce growled from between his teeth. “You’re going to regret that, dick”. His leg came up and collided with the guy’s groin, making him shudder and drop his upper body forward. Pierce kicked his foot on the guy’s face and he guy flew back on the ground. Pierce stood up again and raised his fists at the other two guys, ready to defend himself.
“Have I made myself clear, yet?” he huffed, the anger in him still burning for some action.
He was disappointed as the perpetrators all ran off into the darkness, without another word. Pierce grabbed his suitcase. It was drenched like him and he cursed the skies for his shitty luck tonight. What more could possibly go wrong? So many months on the streets and he had hardly experienced as bad a night as tonight’s.
He found the closest spigot, took his sweater off and put it to the side, his nipples hardening at the biting cold and the hairs on his arms raising to ward it off. He washed his face and hair, the ice cold water making him breathless and numb. That was it. He was going to die of frostbite because a bunch of idiots decided his face looked like a toilet.
He growled. He hated this. He hated not having a house anymore. Not having his own space. He didn’t appreciate how important home was when he had it. Now all he could do was hope he didn’t die overnight, sleeping on benches, subways and on tarmac grounds.
When he felt adequately clean, he grabbed his sweater and gave it a good soak. He was going to have to wait for it to dry, a hopeless pursuit already. He opened his small suitcase and pulled a t-shirt out. A jet-black t-shirt he was wearing back in the summer when his parents kicked him out. He pulled it on. This was going to be a stupid night.
Rafe walked past the busy streets of Times Square feeling breathless and unhinged. He hated begging at the horrible place, but every dime counted in his situation. It wasn’t enough, however. A count of the change in his hand told him so. It was never enough. It was only a supplement to make up for the hot cocoas he bought during the day. He always had to go north at the end of each day and make more.
Not everyone who occupied the streets of this crowded town chose to make money that way, but then again not every one of them had the appeal a skinny latino boy had on older men. Some were ugly, old fucks, reeking of alcohol, too lost in their addiction to do anything about it, only beg for more booze. Some were too proud to sleep with people for shelter and cash. Some were just hypocrites, begging in rags during the day and being driven around town in limos in the evening.
Rafe had seen them all, met them all. Besides the fake ones, there were three kinds of homeless people in New York City; the old junkies, the new junkies and the faggots. Rafe was lucky to only belong in the one category. He wasn’t going to put anything in his body to make him a dead man walking, he was hopeless enough as it was. Hismadreneeded him and he wasn’t going to let her down by dying aged twenty. Not if he could help it.
Oh, how he missed her. He hadn’t seen her in months, but he had heard her voice almost daily. He would call her every day at 4 p.m.. When he knew she would be at home and hispadrestill at work. He never spoke to her, just listened to her voice answering the phone.
Thinking of hismadreand trying to escape the hectic streets, if only for a while, had brought him to a side of Central Park where a young man was washing a piece of clothing. He looked annoyed, straining his sweater over a spigot of running water and mumbling something between his teeth. His torso was exposed to the cool night. He was fit. Muscles were as thick as both Rafe’s arms together and his chest pumped full with nerves. His ribs, a swoon-worthy sight. His hair was dark, but wherever the light touched them appeared ginger.
He noticed a small, rectangle leather suitcase. Brown in color and full of stickers faded from wear. What was a homeless man doing with a vintage suitcase like that in the middle of Central Park? Had he stolen the bag? And if he had, what did the bag hold that was so important? Perhaps it contained money, the money he needed to survive. The money Rafe needed to survive. If it was stolen already, then stealing it himself wouldn’t hurt anyone. He watched the man as he opened the suitcase and pulled a black t-shirt out of it, closing it up again. While he was putting it on, he found his opportunity. His feet initiated the run before he could stop himself and think twice. In all the months that he had been homeless, he had never stolen something of value. Never until now.
While the man was still busy putting on the tee, Rafe grabbed the suitcase handle, squeeze his hand around it, and sped away from the spigot. The darkness of the park gave him cover, but he continued to run through pathways and past trees until he felt safe enough to stop. He put the suitcase down and flipped the clasps open. Before he had a chance to lift the flap and sneak a peek at what was inside, though, he felt the sting of pain in between his shoulder blades and collapsed on the ground next to the bag, gasping for breath.
The young guy and owner of the suitcase appeared in front of him with a swift kick in the stomach. “You, stupid motherfucker. I’ve had enough for one night. You got me? Take your disgusting hands away from my stuff,” he said and lifted his foot, preparing a second attack at the perpetrator. Rafe turned to face him and put his hands in between himself and the man.
“Sorry, dude. I really need the money,” he said with a single breath.
The man picked his suitcase and kicked Rafe’s knees lightly. “And I don’t? Do I look like I’m the fucking Queen of England?” he growled, swearing incoherently.
“I’m sorry, okay? I don’t know what else to say. Just...” Rafe took a deep breath, swallowing the pain in before he continued, “just stop beating me, okay?”
The man looked down at him, inspected his face and then spat on the ground next to him. “Fuck you,” he cursed and walked away, leaving Rafe utterly humiliated, lying on the ground, assessing his sores and his would-be bruises. The sounds of the city drowned as he came to the realization of what he’d just done. “Éstupido,” he said to himself slapping the tarmac under him. He wasn’t so much upset that he’d attempted to steal a suitcase, but that he’d got caught, and beaten for it.
He decided to stop feeling sorry for himself and continue his journey. He got up, dusted the pride off him, and marched out of the park and up to Harlem, following Manhattan Avenue up to Morningside Park. A little over 110th was his usual spot.
He reached the under-lit street where a couple of black boys were bending their miniature bodies to accentuate their best features and get one of the good businessmen to spend their Hamiltons and Jacksons on their asses. Rafe never had to do anything of the sorts. He just had to lean back on one of the cars and talk to the drivers. What most of them rentboys didn’t understand yet, was that these guys were everyday people, perhaps lonely, perhaps shy, or not confident enough in their skin who still wanted to feel the carnal pleasures of sex. They weren’t billionaires who wanted a boy-toy. Rafe had quickly picked that up. He was a smart guy, perhaps not science-worthy or an excellent mathematician, but he had street smarts, a much-needed skill if you were homeless.
In addition to his smarts, Rafe was a naturally charming kid. He was skinny, yes, but also relatively short, so his lack of weight didn’t look unnatural. He had a good round butt that was visible through any clothing he wore, and he tried to change outfits at least once a week, buying from thrift stores and discarding his old clothes. He didn’t have any body muscle anywhere else but his butt, but his skin was smooth like milk chocolate and his hair trimmed military short. His eyebrows were black and thick and he loved that feature on his face. It added a touch of masculinity to his rather effeminate appearance.
But his hands? His hands did all the work whenever a guy was considering picking him up. They had never failed him. He had never been ditched for someone else. His hands were all over the guy before he had even decided. He would rub the driver’s window until the guy put his elbow out at which point he would drive his hand up and down their shoulder, gently, softly, fingers dancing ethereally and no matter if they wore a t-shirt or a suit, none could resist the feelings the delicate action awoke in them.
Rafe left his “competition” to their business and he relaxed against a van parked at the street. He rubbed his scalp and taking a deep breath felt the soreness on his back from where the guy had hit him. He hoped it wouldn’t get in the way of his job. He was about to find out, as a car stopped in front of him. Rafe had deducted that as soon as he relaxed work would find him. He had also decided to add a tiny bit of sensuality to his movements and bam! He was in business. It worked every time.
When the car window rolled down, Rafe got to work. It was getting too cold to be sleeping in Central Park and getting beaten by handsome homeless guys.
The chill of early morning tugged Pierce’s limp body, waking him up before the sun’s rays did. He rubbed his eyes with dead cold fingers. It felt invigorating on his sleepy face. Much preferable to washing it with ice water. He rested his palm on his eyes and let it refresh them in what little way it could. It almost felt welcoming.
Cold was stupid like that. It could send you to shivers, making you think you were gonna die of it, but once you got used to it, it was almost comfortable. Almost being the keyword.
His body was stiff. He decided to stretch his muscles and revitalize his bones by doing a little jog around the park before commute started in the busy streets of New York. He walked down 7thand squatted down at Times Square subway station. He took a small cardboard out of his suitcase and held it next to him as he waited for people’s generosity to strike.
Sure enough, in a matter of few minutes, suits and arrogance hit the streets as everyone had to be somewhere, anywhere but the streets, which, however, never seemed to empty, not even after dark. But of course, that was something to be expected in the city that never sleeps. He earned nothing from the office people who didn’t have enough time to waste on a lower being like Pierce.
But soon, the tourists ascended, filling the square with all the cultural clichés that one could possibly find in one place. And naturally, the mascots that everyone loved to hate sure appeared, looking to cash in on another day’s work.
Pierce was jealous. He was jealous of everyone that had a job, a place to be. An occupation that gave you a purpose, or a sense of it, anyway. Sure, being a waiter for all his life wasn’t his idea of a good life, he had worked on campus, when he was still in college, and had grown accustomed to the hopelessness that ensued a job of that calibre, but he would exchange that hopelessness for the one lingering inside of him every day he spent waking up without purpose.
Reminiscing a life once comfortable was such a pastime sitting there on the pavement, waiting for people’s charity, that he didn’t notice when a kid started staring at him, tugging his mom’s hand to draw their attention to him.
“Mommy, can we help this boy? He’s got no home,” he said.
The mother turned, and in her city daze was at first dumbfounded as to why her son found Pierce so interesting, but then her eyes trailed to the sign next to him. “My family kicked me out for being gay. Now I have no home. Please help me get back on my feet.” Her eyes hardened as she reached the end of the last sentence and then looked at her son, a boy probably of eleven years, dressed in pink converse and large clothes on his petite frame.
“Sure we can, sweetie.” She reached for her bag just as the apparent father caught up with his family. He asked them what they were doing.
There it was. Pierce was certain, now the father was there, they would all walk away, intimidated by the patriarch’s refusal to help a homeless fag. He’d seen that look a few times. A macho, big guy, with dark features and even grimmer expression shooing people away from the sinner. This dad fitted the profile.
Having all that in his mind, Pierce didn’t say anything to them, waiting for the outcome, which was why he was shocked when the father leaned in and said in the kindest voice he had ever heard come out of a man his size. “You okay, fella? Can I get you something to eat?”
Pierce couldn’t believe he was awake. He had nothing to say. All words had abandoned his brain. He only managed to nod and watch as the guy walked to the nearest food stand. He came back and handed him a couple of paper boats full of food. Pierce took them in his hands, replying with a quiet thanks. And just as he thought they were done with him, the woman knelt down and passed him a few bills, squeezing his hand tight.
“Here. Get yourself a hostel for the night. I wish I could do more,” she whispered to him, eyes trailing towards where her son stood behind her.
“You can,” he told her and her eyes widened at his response. “You love your son?” She nodded. “Make sure he knows it,” he complete, throwing a glance at the boy.
The mother’s eyes reddened before she gave his hand another gentle squeeze and got up resuming their journey.
He stayed in Times Square for a few more hours, saving the second boat of food for when his hunger hit him again. He loathed the taste of meat on his palate, but being homeless, he couldn’t accommodate his veganism when he didn’t know when his next meal would be, or whom it would come from. He would do that the first few days of being homeless when people offered to buy him some food and they would eye him wearily when he appeared picky or resistant to accepting a burger.
Another thing about living on the streets was that hunger was a constant enemy he had to battle. Surely, the first few weeks were hard to get used to, when his body was constantly complaining about not being fed every three hours like he used to do when he was in college. Slowly, his stomach got accustomed to a meal a day and learned to appreciate it for what it was. That didn’t, however, mean that the brain ever stopped craving and reminding him what he was missing out on. As if it wasn’t enough that the food odors coming from all sorts of restaurants could make his mouth salivate, his mind would make him lose awareness of his surroundings in order to introduce another imaginary dish into his fantasy.
Some more people stopped to give him some change. He had found out that if people saw him with food while he was begging, they were more likely to stop and give him their quarters. Not if he was eating, though. That seemed to have a worse result than if he was shooting heroin up his arm. He guessed people liked to see a beggar buy food with his money, but seeing one eat, they thought he didn’t need any more and might spend whatever they spared on drugs.
That was another yet thing about being homeless. People constantly assumed he did drugs. It didn’t matter if his eyes were white and clear, or if he wore t-shirts with unpunctured skin, the homeless-drug-use correlation affected everyone. Which was why he would curse every time he saw one of his “homies” do illegal substances in front of the public. They were ruining everyone’s chances of getting some money. Sure, the majority did drugs, or ended up doing them to survive the mental demons that crept up in them when living on the streets, but there were some, like Pierce, who didn’t have any affiliation to any drug of any form. Before he’d been left to die on the streets, he’d been studying nutrition and fitness. He’d actually kill himself before he touched those horrible, mind-numbing things.
When the sun began to set behind the city skyscrapers, Pierce decided to call it quits for the day and make his way to a hostel. He was thankful that he’d be avoiding enraging homeless shelters, pissing thugs, suitcase thieves, and the motherfucking cold for one night. Hopefully, the money could buy him two nights. He hadn’t even counted the notes the mother had given him. He’d stuffed it in his pants. He didn’t want to be seen counting notes while begging. No one would give him a buck.
He was glad to find out he had made twenty bucks from all the change and bills he’d been tossed. And even more excited to find he had fifty from the mother. Seventy dollars surely could buy him a couple of nights at the hostel. He was over the moon.
He made his way up to 116th where a few two-star hostels were situated around the block. He’d tried a couple whenever he’d made enough, but they were all very wary about hosting a homeless man, even though Pierce didn’t look it.
He had gone into a lot of effort of not appearing homeless. He did want people’s gratitude and their change when he was begging, which is why he would find a cardboard to lay on when he did, but he would discard it as soon as he’d finished for the day and go on a quest to find a roof for the night. He wasn’t a hoarder. He’d seen those people countless times, carrying all the crap they could find and the way passersby would eye them. He didn’t want that. He wanted to be treated like any other person. How else would he fight the situation he was in? No, for him, his suitcase was enough. Maybe he smelled a little, especially on days when he hadn’t found a shelter for a few nights, but he always recuperated once he had. Tonight was gonna be such a night.
He decided not to visit one of those hostels he had used before. He took a turn around a few blocks and came to one place he had seen before and passed by, but had never actually stayed in. It was very close to a donut and a clothing store, both of which could turn out useful the next morning, depending on how much the hostel was charging. Honestly, he wouldn’t mind sleeping there only a night if it meant he could buy a coat for the winter and have a good shower. Or a bath even, if they had one. And of course some laundry couldn’t hurt.
He lingered outside for a while, not sure about going in. It always happened to him. Whenever he made enough for a hostel he always contemplated saving the money for something else. Like the coat he so desperately needed, or heavier clothes, or boots. Or simply putting it inside his suitcase and saving it for food or saving it to rent a proper room in a proper apartment. But the former would only make him greedier with his daily meals, and the latter would only happen in a year or so. As hopeless as these choices sounded, he always considered them before spending his money.
A drop fell on his nose sending shivers down his spine. It was going to rain. He couldn’t sleep outside, and the subway would be full of his people on a rainy night. No. He shook his head and let himself in. It turned out the hostel was only charging $25 a night, including the tax, and had a bed in a two-bedroom dorm.
That had never happened to him before. He usually had to sleep in a room with 8, 12, 16 people, often clutching his suitcase so tight during the night that he’d wake up with a numb arm.
He booked the two nights and decided to keep the rest for sustenance. The girl behind the reception passed him the key to the dorm and he took the elevator to the second floor where it was situated.
As soon as he walked out into the corridor, he knew why it had been so cheap. The hostel was part of a block of flats, the hostel itself owning a few rooms of the entire floor. All the dorms doors were colored light blue, like the company’s logo. There were a few doors marked as either “restroom” or “shower”, which after a quick investigation Pierce came to the conclusion that they were used by tenants and lodgers alike. Not a very welcoming fact, but it was better than nothing.
He found his room number and unlocked the room. There was no one inside. The lights were out, both beds plainly, if not terribly, dressed. Pierce flipped the switch and hid his suitcase under the bunk bed, placing his t-shirt on the bottom mattress to mark its occupancy. He held the keys in his hands and left the room to find a shower. When he found one, he locked the door and took off his shoes. His once white socks now screamed with dirt. He motioned to take them off, simultaneously looking at the shower. The head was a single pipe protruding from the wall, covered in moss and the floor was not in any better of a condition. A couple of bottles of shower gels were thrown on the ground. Having sufficiently undressed he inspected them on their contents. They were almost empty, but both had enough dosage for one shower.
Both were shower gels, but he used one, the better smelling one —eucalyptus and lemon — to wash his hair with. The other one — a lavender and honey — to lather up his body without the aid of a loofa.
Once he felt decently washed and finally rid of the stench of piss that’d been following him around since the previous day’s incident, he wiped his body with his trousers, the cleanest of his clothes and let his hair dry up naturally. He then returned to his room, piled up all his clothes, and walked around the corridors in his underwear, looking for the laundry room. Of course there were none on this floor, so he called the elevator and rode it down to the basement.
He needed only a few quarters and to let his clothes run the cycle. He returned to his room; he was finally able to relax. Until he had to go back down to take his clothes back, but that wouldn’t be for another couple hours. He spread out naked on the mattress and pulled his suitcase from under his bed. He placed it on his lap and flapped it open.
Everything he owned was in that bag. The money he had made today was there. A couple packets of chips that he’d bought while contemplating the hostel. Another pair of underwear that he was saving for a rainy, or more like, a shitty day. And the photographs.
He took the pile in his hands and browsed through them for the gazillionth time. Photographs from all over the world. Paris, London, Berlin, Mexico, Peru, Toronto, Melbourne, Sydney, Cape Town, Beijing, Tokyo. Pictures he wished he could live in rather than in this horrible reality that he had to tolerate. The photographs, faded as they were, brought a smile on his face, a flutter in his heart, and a burden in his stomach. They always made him feel so bittersweet.
Rafe left his latest patron’s apartment complex and wrapped his jacket tightly around himself. He browsed around him, trying to locate a phone booth, but none were around. It was too early, anyway.
He really needed to hear hismamá’svoice that instant, but she was still at work. He tried to shut his brain off and go about his usual business, trying to put the demons in their place. He always felt so confident being picked up, driven around to be fucked senseless wherever the customer found desirable. Until of course he actually let the men put their hands on him and use him as they wanted, as they found pleasurable, as they found payable.
The money he received at the end of each transaction only gave him half his dignity back. He left the other half behind him as he left the customers. Little by little, one would think, he’d have no dignity left, but it always managed to surprise him in its absence.
But that was his only way of making any sort of income. If he was gonna save money to buy his meds and get off the streets, it took a sacrifice. So what if he sacrificed his soul and all he was in the process. He was a good rentboy, but it didn’t mean he enjoyed it one bit. He knew how to lure and seduce, how to please and satisfy, but it didn’t mean he enjoyed sharing sweat and fluids with strangers. It was his life now, however. He wasn’t proud of it, but then again what homeless guy was?
He walked around the streets and found a cafeteria to sit down and gulp some coffee. There was another challenge for him being a street man. What did he do between the last night and the next, after he’d fucked or been fucked and slept the night in a wet and warm bed? He always got coffee, but the after was always an unknown factor. A factor that changed. All he had to look forward to was the phone call tomadre.
Sipping on a filtered coffee with a few caramel drops, he made up his mind. He grabbed his rucksack and set off down for Queens. Caught the bus and got off as soon as he’d reached his destination. He’d been meaning to visit, but always cowered. Today he had the balls to find the social services center and walk into it.
“Hello, how can I help you?” a cheery woman asked him at the reception.
“Hi…uhm, I’d like to…uh…sign up for Medicaid?” he said, raising his voice, uncertainty in the end.
“You need to go on the second floor and ask the reception for registration forms,” she replied to him without missing a beat and pointed to the elevator.
He nodded a thanks and followed her directions, finding himself on the second floor. He saw a desk marked as ‘Administration’ and engaged the woman behind it, a much older lady with thick glasses, loose hair and terrible skin. She wore a fuchsia turtleneck and a beaded cross necklace around it.
“Hi, can I have the registration form for Medicaid?” he inquired.
The woman lifted her eyes and inspected him as if she was trying to put a name to the face. Rafe could have sworn he had never seen her before. After a few, uncomfortable seconds, she spoke, her eyes still small slits staring him up and down.
“Ahem,” she nodded. With some difficulty, she took her eyes off him and opened a drawer under her desk to pull a pile of sheets from inside it. “Here you go. You need to fill that in. There’s a lot that you need to include on that registration. Once you’re done bring it back to me with a birth certificate, social security number, proof of address, and the last four weeks of pay stubs,” she told him in a screechy voice that could make Rafe slap her senseless. It was that annoying. As was what she was telling him.
Pay stubs? Proof of address? He didn’t have a second pair of socks, let alone a proof of address. It seemed as if his reluctance to visit the center wasn’t so stupid after all. He’d just have to sleep with a few more clients, maybe raise his fee a little bit and buy his own medication and make it last for as long as possible. How are you supposed to make one-a-day pills last six months on a one month prescription without killing himself?
The woman coughed and shook her hand that held the papers. Rafe took them off her and dropped them in his rucksack, making his way out, back into the streets. What now? Where was he supposed to go? He looked at the time. It was 3 p.m. and he was only a few blocks from his house. It’d been a while since he’d done that, but decided to take a walk by his old neighborhood. Catching a glimpse of hismadrewould probably suffice instead of calling her. She was going to get back from work any moment now.
He crossed the street and went into the next right. He saw her getting off a bus, not too far from their address at 46. She walked down the road with her bag in hand and her skirt flowing as she took the steps.
He hadn’t seen her in so long that she looked older, stranger. As if shewasa stranger. But he’d missed her arms and her soothing voice. He’d missed her food and her singing. He wanted to catch up with her, talk to her, but he couldn’t. So instead he imagined what he’d say to her if he could.
She unlocked the front door and before disappearing behind it, she turned. She looked around, inspecting the street. Her eyes trailed on Rafe, staring from afar, and he ducked behind a wall so that she wouldn’t see him, his heart racing. He waited a minute, then retrieved his head from the wall.Madrewas still there, looking at where he was. She waved at him and his heart plummeted. She knew it was him. She was looking for him. She missed him. But going to her would be risky. Fighting down the tears that were pushing through his eyes, he turned his back to her, still staring from afar, and walked away hastily, unwilling to acknowledge her. He just hoped she knew he did it for her. She was a smart woman. He hoped she knew. He crossed himself, praying toMaria Guadalupeto keep her safe.
He decided to take the subway and ride back to Manhattan. He had to make it out for her. He just didn’t know how.
He found his way back in Times Square and headed south. Mario’s Pizza was only a couple of blocks around the corner. It wasn’t particularly busy, but it had been open for over forty years so Rafe’s guess was they made enough to keep open, and despite their lack of a constant stream of business, especially for one situated in the middle of metropolitan Manhattan, they offered Rafe and a few other homeless kids, food for free. Especially Latinos. They had a pay-it-forward jar for customers, and instead of taking tips patrons would leave a couple dollars for those who came in and were short of change, or simply had none at all. The majority of the pay-it-forward service was used by the homeless of the area. Rafe was one of them. Marissa was another, a friend of his. They always met at four for linner at Mario’s, before Rafe would go out to callmadre. Today that would not be necessary. He had seen her and she had seen him. It was more than he could ask for at the moment.
The good thing with Mario’s, besides being able to eat free without begging to make enough for a slice, was that they could actually sit inside, get warm, enjoy a slice or two, and have some coffee to warm them up before venturing back into the wilderness of NYC.
Marissa was there when he entered the place. She was hard to miss. A naturally big girl, with straight jet-black hair caught back in a ponytail, and black clothes —as per usual, a goth at the best of times. Her eyes always smudged with some eyeliner she had managed to pocket from a beauty store or something. Her skin, much darker than Rafe’s, and her face spotty, as with most teenagers.
She was a lesbian and her parents had abused her since she’d come out to them at age 16. She ran away a year later after they’d beaten her senseless, calling her all sorts of names. She still had a scar under the left eye that was staying there for good. Rafe couldn’t help but feel affection for the young girl and see her as his little sister, albeit being bigger than him, so he saw their daily meets as a ritual. As a family gathering.
“Hey,chica, wha’s up?” he took a seat across her. She was holding a cup of tea in between her hands, the steam rising up well above both of them.
“Hey,” she said in an unusually miserable tone. That worried Rafe. She was always vocal and sassy, just like he liked her. She would always greet him with “Hey, guuurl!” and then hi-five him. That didn’t happen either.
“What’s wrong,chica?” he asked her.
She breathed in and exhaled, changing the steam direction with her breath. “I bumped into my mother today,” she huffed.
“What? How? Where?” he jumped in surprise, just as Mario’s wife placed his hot cocoa on his side of the table.
“Union Square. She was out shopping with her girlfriends,” she replied.
He cursed. It was one thing bumping across your god-forsaken relatives in your neighborhood, but stumbling upon them in Manhattan was like finding the needle in the haystack. “What happened?”
“She took a good look at me, called me a slut, and cold-shouldered me. Even her girlfriends, the women I grew up around, wouldn’t acknowledge me. God, I hate her so much, Rafe,” she said and punched the top of the table, spilling a little of her tea and Rafe’s cocoa.
He reached across the table and gave her his hand. “Fuck her,chica, she’s no mother. Just fuck her and the lame excuse of a dad you have,” he offered her. She took it with appreciation, bringing a slight smile on her face.
“So...what are we having today?” he continued, leaving the miseries of reality to the back of their minds and enjoying a good meal before returning to it.
“I’m having a Hawaiian,” Marissa said. Rafe angled his head in surprise.
“Excellent choice,señorita. A Hawaiian for mychicaand a pepperoni for me, please, Sonia,” he called to Mario’s wife, who was counting money at the register.
“One or two?” she asked without raising her eyes from the bills.
Rafe looked to Marissa who showed him two fingers, as usual. “Two,porfavor,” he told Sonia.
“Right away,chico,” Sonia responded, closing the register and getting to work.
Marissa sipped her tea and sett it back down, changing the subject. “What did you do today?”
“Joder! I went to get the Medicaid form. If I had all the things they ask for,” he gritted his teeth, “I wouldn’t be applying for it, that’s all I’m going to say,chica.”
Marissa grimaced. “It’s going to be okay, Rafe. We’ll find a way.”
He shook his head. “How,chica? I make, what? Fifty dollars a night, maybe? I’ve been saving for two months and I still can’t afford the damn medicine. I’m getting worse, you know. I don’t feel the energy I used to have. Even some of my clients have noticed. You know, the couple regulars that I fuck every week,” he said.
“Well...how much have you got so far?” she asked. Sonia placed two slices in front of each of them.
“Fifteen hundred. I’m nearly there, but I keep thinking I’m gonna die before I get to the nineteen hundred that I need,” he replied and dove in for his linner.
“That’s eight more fucks or something, right? Can’t you pick up anyone during the day?”
The stare that Rafe gave answered her question.
“I’m just asking. How the hell am I supposed to know how it works?”
“Trust me,chica, sometimes evenIdon’t know how it works,” he said, then resumed his eating.
When they both finished and enjoyed a second cup of hot drinks, they parted their ways and Marissa went to the shelter she had been accepted in for the week.
Rafe had tried them all, was sick of them. They’d kick him out on the third night without notice, or ask him to pay for a shower or a clean towel, or simply claim they were full and send him off.
Rafe decided to test Marissa’s suggestion and made his way to his pickup spot early, on the off chance that guys did drive by trying to pick someone up. As he suspected, as long as the sun was out, no traffic of his sort was available. And even deeper into the evening nothing was moving. Around eight, other boys began to assemble. There was about nine or ten spread across the street in groups of two or three, all chatting, waiting for business to pick up.
Rafe was not friendly with any of them. He found other rentboys and their stories boring as fuck, and he’d be damned before he let himself be subjected to another stupid confession of what brought them to the specific profession. And even if their stories weren’t all bullshit, he just couldn’t stand them. All he wanted was to be picked up and make money and that’s what he’d do tonight again.
By nine, a couple were picked up by some early birds, but there was a stillness again until 10, when more cars started driving by. There were a few sixty-year-olds, one younger guy, and one car with two young guys, who looked like college students looking to have some fun if the guys they picked were any indication.
One by one or in that instance, two-by-two, the street started to clear out, leaving Rafe dry. None of his regulars were here tonight. He would usually stay until 2 a.m., not something he didvery often. Almost always he was one of the first to be picked, but he’d been there since six and was starting to feel cold, albeit the relatively friendly temperature that evening.
“Fuck it,” he spat, resolving to spend his money on a hostel. He simply wouldn’t have it today. He was very tight with his money, but today had been particularly disappointing. He’d been afraid to visit the council for weeks to pick up a Medicaid form, but when he was on his way there, he dreamed it would be easy.
Well, that dream was crushed, and he was gonna treat himself to a bed without male companion beside him.
He walked uptown where he knew a cheap hostel, one that almost always had spare beds available last minute. He got himself the key in no time after he paid for the night and got the elevator to the second floor. He found the number easily.
When he entered the room, he jumped; a man was lying on the lower bunk, wearing only a pair of faded blue boxers, otherwise uncovered.
He was a steaming sight, specifically his crotch, bulky and surrounded by smooth white skin. The v-shape that led to the guy’s dick was so lickable, he momentarily fantasized doing just that.
“Oh, fuck you,” the guy exclaimed, waking Rafe from his daze.
The guy came into view from under the bed as he stood up and put something in a brown leather suitcase. That suitcase was familiar.
It wasit. It washim. The guy from yesterday. Thegilipollasthat had beaten him up.
“What are you doing here? Having an encore of last night’s stupidity?” the guy said, holding the suitcase.
“No. Do you always hold the suitcase like it’s an extension of your arm?” Rafe replied with a tiny bit of bile.
The guy gave him the finger and tucked his suitcase under the bed. “Don’t even get into any ideas tonight,” he told Rafe.
Rafe grimaced. He was right. He had tried to steal his suitcase, he was justified for acting the way he had last night and the way he was talking to him now. “I won’t. Uhm…” he wanted to apologize but couldn’t find the guts to. He paused. He swallowed his pride, like hismamáhad taught him. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what got over me,” he said dropping his head to his chest.
“Greed?” the guy suggested.
Rafe eyed him and shrugged. “I guess,” he said.
The guy rolled back onto the bottom bunk and stretched out his body. The sight was once again irresistible to Rafe, but he restrained himself as he made his way to the bed and threw his rucksack on the top bunk.
“Do you always lay around in hostels in your underwear?” he asked him, unable to hold himself any longer.
“My clothes are in the washing machine. I’m waiting for the cycle to finish,” he said less aggressively now.
Rafe backed up to look at the guy clearer. “Wait! You went around the corridors like that? You must be very confident in your skin”. Not that he had any reason not to be.
“I must be very homeless,” he grunted.
Rafe laughed. He nodded his head in retreat. “How did it happen for you?”
The guy picked up a book from beside him and turned his back to Rafe, murmuring, “It’s none of your business”.
“Fair, enough,” he replied. This guy was a fucking rock. No emotions, no feelings, just pure aggression. “I’m Rafe, by the way,” he offered him, hoping to break the ice that was covering the naked man in front of him.
The guy glowered at Rafe and put the book in front of him. “Pierce,” he growled behind it.
Finally, Rafe was able to put a name on that chunk of man-candy that had given him a good beating. Pierce. Perhaps it was a characteristic of his piercing blue eyes that his parents found he had to be named Pierce.
“Well, nice to meet you, Pierce. Nice to put a name on my bruises,” he said.
Pierce arched his head to glare at Rafe and, without missing a beat, said, “You went asking for it, dude. You were the asshole that stole my suitcase, Or tried to, anyway”.
Rafe held his hands up accepting defeat at Pierce’s words. “You could, however, have just given me a light push and taken your bag. You didn’t have to punch, kick,andspit on me”.
“Hey,” he turned again, “I did not spit on you. I spat next to you. It didn’t even get you,” he raised his voice.
“It could have, though,” Rafe responded.
“I’m pretty good with my aim,” he attempted to go back to his book, but Rafe wasn’t gonna let him. He was enjoying their conversation. He enjoyed seeing Pierce’s temper swelling up with his chest, trying to defend himself.
“What happened to you, anyway? Why were you naked in the middle of Central Park, washing a pullover?”
Pierce told him, once more, that it was none of his business.
“Okay, so I’ll just assume you’re a nudist,” Rafe said, climbing up to his bed.
“Am not,” he heard him reply with a muffled sound, a mattress separating them now.
Rafe laughed at the reply. “Your current…” he let the pause stir up the air before continuing, “attire is not helping your case. So allow me to assume you’re a nudist. Or an exhibitionist. Or a nude exhibitionist”.
He smirked when he heard Pierce take a deep breath and reply very quietly and dryly. “Fuck you”.
“I would, but you’re not my type,” Rafe replied. Pierce exhaled.
“Don’t flatter yourself. You’re not my type either,” Pierce commented.
Rafe wished that reply gave a clear clue as to whether Pierce was gay or not, but he would have to drown in the mystery for now, he guessed.
Rafe opened his mouth to retort about being Pierce’s type, but he interrupted him before any vowels left his mouth.
“I wanna sleep, dude. Shut up!” he felt the bed moving and heard the book slammed shut.
“I thought you were waiting for your clothes to dry, nudist,” Rafe said, doing the same.
Pierce cursed, got up, put his shoes on, and headed for the door. He stopped before exiting, turned back and pulled his suitcase from under the bed, leaving the room with it and with a bang.
“Qué bruto!” Rafe whispered and closed his eyes, his tiredness giving in on the soft cushion and taking him to dreamworld.
When Pierce woke up, Rafe was still fast asleep. He hadn’t talked to him since last night, when he’d reminded him to go take his clothes, banging the door accidentally in the process. He was a funny guy, albeit being a thief, but he was in no mood of having a repeat of the conversation they’d had the previous night.
He collected all his items, as few as they were, and tiptoed out of the room. He visited the kitchen to help himself to some breakfast, not that much was provided. Just the bare essentials. Cereals and milk, pancake mix, coffee and tea, bread. He had a heap of cereal to start with while enjoying an instant coffee, then chucked a couple slices of bread into his suitcase before venturing into the city.
Coming out of the hostel, he headed towards the clothing store that he’d seen the night before. They had a few racks of coats on display outside. But Pierce was determined not to steal. He had the money.
He entered the store and a young salesman approached him, inquiring about his needs. Pierce asked to be shown winter coats and their prices. The guy led him to the back of the facility where a wide selection of coats were laid out. He started pointing at each of them, quoting their best features and their price.
“This one has a fur lining so it’s really warm...” he said, showing him the brown inside of a black parka.
“Do you have anything not made by dead animals?” Pierce asked, disgusted at the idea of putting a carcass on his body, for the sake of getting warm, when he had other options. The only animal skin he allowed anywhere near him was his grandad’s suitcase, and only because it was the only thing of his he owned.
The guy nodded and moved him a few feet to the left to show him more jackets. “This one has detachable sleeves, so it can be turned into a spring vest later on. Very functional. It’s $75,” he said holding up a black parka and then pointed at another, “this one is a bit lighter, but warm nonetheless and it’s $60,” the guy said.
Pierce was looking at his options and was starting to doubt his decision to enter the store. “Do you have anything on the cheaper side?”
“What’s your budget?” the man asked, putting his hands together in front of his chest.
Pierce winced, calculating. “About twenty bucks,” he said
The salesman grimaced. “I’m sorry, for that price I only have scarves and pashminas,” he told him putting his arms to his sides, meaning he was done doing business with Pierce. Pierce got the message.
“Thanks,” he said exiting the store.
He walked to the other corner of the block and entered the donut store. A couple of Indian women with a bindi painted between their brows greeted him. He approached the counter, refraining from looking at the goods they were selling. If he did, he’d buy a few, unable to resist his already growling stomach.
“Hi, I was wondering if you had any jobs,” he asked.
One of the women, probably the manager, left the counter and came to his side, eyeing him up and down. Her eyes settled on his worn sneakers and the faded jeans. She squinted. “You have a resumé?” Pierce shook his head. “Yeah, thought so. Well, print one out and bring it to me and if we have any openings I’ll give you a call,” she replied.
A call! A call! How was he supposed to receive phone calls when he didn’t have a cellphone? What number would he put in his resumé, and how would he be contacted? He needed a phone. And a number. Fuck his life. He had already spent all his money on that hostel. He now wished he hadn’t after all.
He thanked the lady opposite him and left the donut place, finding himself back on the streets. He began thinking of his options while trying to locate an internet café to write his resumé. How could he make himself reachable to employers?
He found a place nearby and sat down to use a computer for an hour. He’d never created a resumé before, so that was his first action. He Googled it and followed the instructions step by step.
Name: Pierce Callahan.
That was it. He had, completely by chance, found the way. He’d just give his email. He hadn’t used it in a while, so it would need a good clean-up to leave space for new and important emails, but he had one and it was free and accessing it was only a buck away.
[email protected], he wrote.
He filled out the rest of the document with his details, education, and experience, which had been minimal. But every little bit was important. When he was done, he gave it a once over and printed a few copies. Then, he accessed his email.
2,405 unread emails. Mostly junk. He deleted every single message, including the ones from the past, before he’d been kicked out to the curb. Clean slate. That was what he needed.
He paid for his services and exited the café reinvigorated with excitement, waving his resumés in his hand as he walked down the street. He would head downtown. It was where it was busiest in Manhattan and where there were surely more vacancies.
He saw a job ad taped on the pane of a bar and he decided to pay it a visit. Only when he’d stepped inside had he realized he had never done this before and had no clue what to say or handle the situation. He decided to turn around and leave when someone from behind the bar greeted him.
“Hi,” he answered reluctantly to the barmaid.
“How can I help?” she asked with a wide smile.
He paused a second before replying. “I was just wondering if you have any jobs,” he told her.
She nodded her head and went to get her manager to talk to him. Could it be that easy? Really? On his second try? He was trying not to overthink things before they actually took place; he didn’t like getting disappointed. But sometimes, the mind does what it needs to do. A woman, older than the barmaid who had answered his question, came out of a door behind the bar and approached Pierce with vigor. The closer she came, though, the more her face changed, until eventually she stopped, the girl behind her bumping onto her. She looked at Pierce up and down and without missing a beat she turned her head to the right, talking to her employee.
“Carol, why would you bring me to the front to interview a hobo? Seriously, I got more important things to do in the office,” she said.
Pierce was as taken as Carol. He’d washed his jumper, his trousers, had an extensive shower, cleaned up his hair, scrubbed his face a new one, and given his grandpa’s suitcase a once over. How was it even possible he still looked what he was? Was it that obvious? Had he missed a spot that no one else did? What was it that screamed ‘homeless’ whenever a potential employer looked at him? He really wanted to know, if he was gonna change his living situation.
The manager turned to Pierce next and shouted from where she was standing with bitterness spilling out of her every pore.
“Go sort your life out before you come asking me for a job.” That was all she said and withdrew back to her office.
That’s what he was trying to do for fuck’s sake. Frustrated, he walked out of the bar. He kept south, heading towards the busier areas, although he already felt it was a lost battle. Two people had already given him the boot before they could even talk to him, he was doubting his chances looked any brighter in the Village.
So Pierce ventured into bars, clothing stores, restaurants, and everything else that looked remotely opportune, but no opportunity came his way. While most personnel he talked to were genuinely nice, their bosses didn’t have the same stance. They were all weary of the ‘hobo’ the minute they set their eyes on him. Some looked at him with pity. Some with mere disgust. Most of them felt that it was their duty to advise him to fix his life. As if they had any clue what that entailed.
The more rejections he got, however, the more determined he was. And hopeful. Hopeful that the next place he got in would at least interview him before giving him a pass. At the start of the day, he had printed 15 copies of his resume. 30 places later, he still had 15 copies. It had been too long since he started and he had missed lunch in favor of trying harder.
When he looked at a store’s clock next, it was 6 p.m. He had spent an entire day being rejected. He was surprised he didn’t wanna kill himself. He wasn’t going to quit just yet, however. Surely, he couldn’t go on all day, but until the sun completely set, he would keep on trying.
His search had brought him all the way to TriBeCa, and he decided to head back Uptown and try his luck in all the places he’d missed. There were, what? A million stores in Manhattan? One must take him. If not in Manhattan, then Brooklyn, or Queens, or somewhere. He couldn’t rot away before he had the chance to flourish. They couldn’t do that to him. The world owed him that, at least, for having cursed him with societal hate and intolerance. It owed him a minuscule sliver of empathy. And he was determined to find that sliver.
In almost no time he was back in the northern part of the Village and walking around blocks he was certain he hadn’t passed before. He noticed a bistro with a long, black, tall tables and white stools outside, mason jars filled with rose pedals placed in equal lengths across its surface. On closer inspection, he noticed that the rose petals were glued on the glass surface and tealight candles lit up inside the jar. An oval-shaped sign on the wall right next to the glass entrance told him he was about to enter the establishment called Les Fourches.
The entire place was decorated in a similar minimalistic manner to the outside. Black and white furniture with mason jars candle holders and salt and pepper shakers placed next to each other made the whole place look cold and distant; if it weren’t for the candlelight mixed with the yellow hue of the hanging light bulbs and the paintings lining every wall, which made him feel welcome.
It was a small place. He counted approximately fifteen tables. The bar on the left side was a dazzling view. Black and white granite assembled the actual bar surface. The shelves on the wall housed all sorts of liquor in massive mason jars with a little tap to pour the drink. The beer taps were barely visible behind the bar. The whole area was wired with fairy lights, making it look like a place that had sprung out of a drunk man’s day dream. It was mere perfection. He hardly stood a chance.
Three waiters were maneuvering around the tall tables, providing the patrons anything they required. A man, a decade or two older than Pierce, stood by the side of the door behind the host stand, talking on the phone while scribbling something on a paper in front of him. He glanced at Pierce and signaled a moment with his finger while he finished up the call. Pierce took the opportunity to make more observations about the facility.
The waiters, all males, were tall and muscular, handsome and lean, but also quick on their feet and intelligent-looking. The bartender was a bit on the shorter side but buffer than anyone else, his muscles flexing as he shook the cocktail shaker. Everyone was clean-shaven and trimmed. Their clothes ironed and tight around their body. They all wore gray, knee-length aprons and carried a smartphone in their hands when they weren’t dealing with trays or food plates.
Everyone was smiley and gentle with their motions. The patrons, a majority of men and a few families, were all thin, white, as polished, or perhaps even more if that was even possible, than the personnel. They all were busy talking to each other or gawking at their expensive gadgets while sipping or nibbling on something. He had walked into a lot of places, but Pierce felt this might be the one that made him feel the most awkward. The most out of place. Sure he had the muscles to match the waiters’, even if they were starting to lose their taut nature as was natural after months on the streets, but other than that he had nothing in common with these people. Not anymore, anyway. Coming from a deeply religious family he probably was never exactly like them, anyway. But close enough.
He turned around to leave.
“Hi, table for one?” the host asked him before he could escape.
Pierce turned to the host with reluctance. He grimaced and paused. Only for a moment, however, before he placed his smile on his face and approached the stand.
“No, actually, I was looking for a job,” he said and his sweaty palm tightened around the handle of his suitcase.
“Okay. I might have an opening for a person. Do you have any experience?” he asked.
Pierce was dumbfounded. The guy hadn’t given him a once over like all the others had. He was actually asking him a genuine question.
“Just a little. Bits and pieces over summer vacation and during college,” he replied.
The guy nodded. “Okay. Okay. How old are you, kid?”
Pierce hesitated. He wasn’t even sure if he could work in an alcohol-serving bar before he turned twenty-one. If he couldn’t, he was doomed already. “Twenty,” he said.
“All right. Do you have a resumé?” he asked.
Pierce almost overcame with tears. He wanted a resume. Was this place that had made him feel so out of place a few moments ago gonna be his lucky charm? Pierce nodded and knelt down to retrieve on one from inside his suitcase. He felt the eyes of the guy heating the back of his head. He got one out, closed his suitcase back down, and stood up.
The guy’s eyes were slit now. He was calculating something. He didn’t take Pierce’s resume when he waved it in front of him. Just stared at Pierce.
“Are you homeless, kid?” he asked him.
There it was. The question that he dreaded being asked despite not having been asked it before. Everyone either assumed it or deducted he was one. No one had asked him yet. It was his time to lie. But when he opened his mouth he found he couldn’t do it.
“Yes,” he said and lowered his head.
The guy shook his head and grimaced. “I’m sorry, kid. I can’t hire someone like you, in your state. Come back when you’ve sorted yourself out,” he said in a very fatherly tone that brought memories to Pierce. Memories he wasn’t very pleased with. Memories of his own father telling him what an abomination he was. Memories of his father pushing him out of the door, while he struggled to grab everything and anything that he could.
The anger blinded him that instant and he didn’t hold back. “Come back when I’ve sorted myself out?” he scoffed. “You know how many times I’ve heard this today? Do you? Of course you don’t. You all think you’re so much better than me. You all think you know everything about me. You take one look and you see the hobo you don’t trust. You see a junkie. A pathetic crazy person. You see a beggar. A criminal. A delinquent. Right? Am I right?”
The guy barely nodded, still in shock of being confronted by the homeless kid he had rejected.
“But you see looks deceive, don’t they. You were going to give me a chance before you saw the suitcase, my shoes, my clothes, whatever the fuck it is that gives me away, even though I’ve made myself presentable.” He noticed a few of the patrons had turned to look at the two men’s encounter in the front of the bar. “But no. You have to tell me to go and sort myself out. Like I don’t know that. Like that is not what I’m trying to do. Like that isn’t the reason I’m out, spending whatever money I’ve managed to make to print me resumés so I can go and ask for a fucking job. I could have bought a coat, a blanket, something valuable so I don’t die out in the coldfuckingwinter that is coming. But no. I chose to do this. And you have the nerve to tell me to go and sort myself out. Tell me, how is a homeless kid, rejected by his family because of his sexuality, with no security, no one to take care of him, supposed to sort himself out, if no one will fucking hire him?”
His anger had dissipated as he vented. When he finished he felt breathless and cold. His stomach pulsed and his head felt light as he came to the realization that everyone was now staring at him and he had embarrassed himself. Tears started shaping in his eyeballs. Before he made an even bigger fool of himself, he decided to leave.
He heard the guy say as he opened the door, “If you can come to work washed, clean-shaven, and with ironed clothes, you can start next Friday.”
Pierce froze in his position, the tears finally releasing onto his cheeks. He wiped them before he turned to look at the bar manager. “You…you mean that?”
“I only have a need for a weekender, so I can only give you two, maybe three shifts a week, but only if you can come to work like I said,” the guy told him. “And I’m not being an asshole, but I really can’t…”
“Thank you,” Pierce cut him. “That’s enough for me. Thank you,” he repeated and his eyes stung as they were threatened by the invasion of more tears.
“What’s your name, kid?” he asked.
“Pierce. Callahan,” he said, thrusting the guy his resumé, so that he could confirm it on the paper. He took it.
“Well, Pierce, I’m Vance,” he said and reached into his pocket. He took something out and passed it to Pierce. “Here. Go buy yourself some clothes from somewhere. I’m sorry for being such a dick before,” he said.
Pierce felt the bills in his hand, but couldn’t believe how good the man he’d just screamed at turned out to be. “You made up for it by being such an angel. Thank you. I’ll see you next Friday,” he said and opened the door to leave for the third time.
“Oh, what time do you want me here?” he asked.
“I know it’s a lot to ask, but can you please do that for me? It will be the first and last time,” Pierce was sitting at the reception desk opposite the hostel staff member.
He had come with a plan on his way back and now was trying to implement it. Someone had given him a chance and he didn’t want to let him down. Someone had believed in him when his own blood couldn’t.
“I’m sorry. It’s our policy. We don’t accept last minute cancelations,” the guy said. He was Asian. Chinese from what Pierce could tell, with near-perfect English. He was rather chubby in the face, but quite adorable nonetheless. He’d be a stud if he let him have his way, though.
“Come on, man. Level with me. I’ve been out all day looking for a job. No one even gave me a second look, and then finally, this guy — thisangel— gave me an opportunity. All I ask is that I transfer the second night I paid for to next Thursday so I can come here to clean up and turn up for my first job with the same respect he’s given me,” he told him.
The receptionist grimaced, twitched his mouth, then rolled his eyes. “Okay. But don’t tell anyone I did that. It could costmemy own job.”
Pierce smiled broadly. It seemed Vance had the magic touch. He felt like he could accomplish anything at that moment. He sprang up, planted a kiss in the guy’s cheek, and strolled out of the hostel with his suitcase and his dignity intact. Life was good!
Of course, it had to be that moment he came to the realization that the temperature outside had dropped considerably. Describing it as lightly chilly would be the understatement of the year. It was motherfucking cold. It was the clear return to reality, his reality. He might have found a job, but it would be more than a couple of months before he could rent a room. He didn’t even know what he would be paid, if the place had good tips. It looked like it should. It was a classy bistro in the Village. It’d be crazy if it didn’t. But he would still have to live on the streets most nights to save money for an actual room.
He felt like punching himself. What the fuck was wrong with him? Why was he focusing on all the cons? What had happened to him? He used to be such a positive person. A healthy man with a passion for his body and an empathy for the planet he lived on. He was a recycler, an energy and water saver, and a vegan bodybuilder in the making. To an outsider’s eye, he would be the epitome of a hipster, coming from a middle-class Christian family from Upstate New York. But he was nothing like his parents. They were the reason he’d become so pessimistic. Before they kicked him out, he was his own man. Now, he was a nobody at the mercy of the kindness of strangers.
No. Pierce dismissed the negativity for now. He was going look at everything good about his life at that particular moment. He had a job. In a few months, he’d have a room, hopefully sooner if it paid well. Hisownroom. Maybe next year he could resume college too. If to have all that he had to sleep wherever he could for another month or so, he would brave the winter. He would sleep in the subway. He would sleep at Central Park. He wouldn’t even care if he’d get pissed on or mugged again. If that’s what it took to kick start his life, he would do it.
A shout permeated his ears and he turned to find the source. He couldn’t see anything, but a second scream guided him down the road he was walking and in to an alley between two apartment buildings. Two men were knelt on the ground pinning someone from the hands and legs while a third guy was unbuttoning the victim’s trousers, shutting his mouth with his hand.
The victim was also a guy. Pierce knew because he tried to ungag his mouth and grunted.
“Shut the fuck up, boy. When you give up your ass, you ain’t screaming.”
“Hey!” Pierce shouted at the guys before he could control himself.
The guy who was doing the unbuttoning turned and, seeing Pierce, stood up. Pierce etched closer. The only streetlight in the alley hit the victim’s face and Pierce recognized it. It was Rafe.
“What do you want?” thecabrónasked. The one who had started all this.
“I think it’s pretty clear the guy doesn’t want your dick in his mouth,” his potential savior said, “Frankly, I understand his sentiment. So, why don’t you let him go?” Rafe couldn’t see his face. The streetlight behind him was only gave him a silhouette but no features.
“Run along, boy. Youdon’twanna get involved in this,” thecabrónsaid. He was a 5-foot-something man with a cap on and a young face. He had big muscles and a generally big physique. The guy across him didn’t stand a chance. He was tall and much thinner.
“Oh, something tells me Ireallywanna get involved in this. I also have the feeling this gonna end badly for some of you,” the guy paused, then continued with a chuckle. “Don’t—don’t you get the same feeling? Is it just me?”
Rafe’s brusque attacker wasn’t having any of the attitude. “Papi,” he said, “you better run away now or you’ll regret this,” hitting his fist on his palm.
“Ooh, I’m scared,” the guy derided. “But, honestly, that feeling is telling me thatyouwill be the one to regret this. Isn’t that weird? I don’t know about you, but I want to put the feeling to the test,” he said and let down his briefcase.
Rafe looked closer. As the guy bent down, the light touched briefly on the side of his head and he saw blue piercing eyes. And then the light hit the briefcase, which turned out to be a small suitcase. Could it—could it really be Pierce? Was he so fortunate? When theburrostarted running towards him, though, Rafe wished it wasn’t Pierce. He didn’t want him involved in his life. He didn’t want him hurt in his expense. He didn’t want that beautiful face ruined by the stitches he’d have to get after that asshole was done with him.
Thecholocharged at Pierce with a fist raised in the air. Pierce took a few steps forward, hunched, and forced his arm in the guy’s stomach, avoiding his punch in the process. He put his leg behind his feet and brought the guy on the ground with a thud. Thechologroaned. Pierce punched him in the face several times until he lost the strength to fight back.
“Hijo de puta,” said the guy pinning Rafe’s legs and he felt the release of the pressure in his ankles as he stood to confront Pierce.
He raised his palms in front of him, protecting his face and called to Pierce, provoking him. He didn’t take long to catch the bait. He left the short guy to lick his wounds and walked towards the other attacker, who stood almost as tall as Pierce himself. But he didn’t attack him. He waited, jumping left and right, waiting.
Not too many seconds later, Rafe heard the second guy roar as he aimed a punch towards Pierce. Pierce ducked and pushed the arm away from him. Then kicked the guy’s groins, which had been left wide open and unprotected.
Rafe decided to help the situation. He was sure once Pierce knocked the second guy down, the third one would go looking for the same kind of fate his friends were suffering. But not if he could help himself. Since his legs were free now and the third guy was holding his hands above him with such strength, it only took a clumsy somersault for Rafe to place his foot straight into the guy’s face and land on his feet like a feline male version of Catwoman. He pushed his knee up the guy’s stomach to knock him senseless, and when that didn’t do much, he imitated his savior and melted the man’s balls with his foot.
“I told ya I had a feeling, guys,” Pierce commented as he dusted his hands.
Rafe looked on the floor where the second man was lying, lamenting his new-found impotence. Chuckling loud, Pierce approached Rafe. He was suddenly overwhelmed with the cold and his knees trembled. His legs gave up on him when Pierce took him in his arms.
“Are you okay, Rafe?” he asked him. Rafe nodded. “Can you walk?” Rafe nodded again. “Okay, let’s go, buddy. Before they try anything foolish again”.
Pierce put Rafe’s arm around his neck and his own arm around Rafe’s back and grabbed his suitcase with his free hand.
He carried Rafe back to the main street and then led him to the closest avenue. Rafe felt Pierce’s fingertips massaging the back of his palm of the arm that was around his neck. He didn’t say anything, however. He kept quiet and kept looking back to make sure the assholes weren’t following.
They were on Frederick Douglass Avenue in no time. When they were hit by the bright city lights he asked Rafe if he was okay to walk on his own. Rafe replied positively and lifted whatever wait he had leaned on Pierce to support himself. They headed south, walking at a slow pace, passing by closing stores and underlit side streets.
“How are you feeling? Did those bastards manage to hurt you before I got there?” Pierce whispered next to him.
“No,” Rafe shook his head. “Not really. You were there just in time. My savior,” Rafe smiled at Pierce. Pierce avoided his gaze.
“What happened back there?” he said instead.
Rafe calculated his words before he spoke them. He was too embarrassed to admit to Pierce that he was a rentboy, a prostitute. He already thought low of him. He didn’t want to sink the bar even lower.
“Nothing. They saw me walking down the street and started catcalling me and following me. Then they pushed me into the alley. The rest, you know,” he said.
“I hate people. On most days,” Pierce commented and he halted his pacing in front of a 24/7 cafe just a block away from Central Park. “Come,” he said, “I’ll buy you coffee”.
Rafe didn’t hesitate to follow him inside the orange tinted place and take a seat by the window display. Not only had he saved him from rape, he was buying him coffee too. The more times he encountered Pierce, the more gentlemanly he seemed to be.
“So...how are things?” Rafe asked putting an end to the uncomfortable silence that had been lingering between them since they’d taken a seat.
Pierce nodded. “Things are great. I just managed to get a part-time job,” he said.
Rafe smiled. “That’s incredible. How did that happen? Where?” he asked, as the waitress stopped in front of them, leaving two glasses of water on their table and taking their order. Rafe ordered his hot cocoa and Pierce a filtered coffee.
As soon as the waitress left to prepare their drinks, he replied, “I went around town asking for a job and this amazing guy gave me one after like, a ton of rejections. It’s in a bistro bar down at the Village.”
“That’s cool. Lucky you,” Rafe answered.
Pierce thanked him and his cheeks flushed as he smiled. His eyes avoided Rafe’s gaze, looking instead at the still water in front of him. How cute. Rafe was convinced that Pierce was once as sweet as he appeared now, and that the situations that brought him to the streets had made him the guy he’d seen the first time he met him. Stealing aside.
“So you’re gonna be leaving the streets now, right?” Rafe asked.
Pierce sipped his water and finally turned his eyes to the man across him. “I hope so. As soon as I get enough money to rent a room,” he replied.
“That’s incredible, Pierce. When you do, don’t forget us lost souls,” he told him.
Pierce shook his head. “I would never. I’ve spent enough time on the streets to carry the experience for life,” he replied with a depth to his voice. A depth that radiated with Rafe. He knew what he was talking about. It was a weight they would both carry for life, even if Rafe managed to get off the streets at any time in his life, which he deemed unlikely. He would probably die before he could have a family, a life again. The thought brought hismadreto his mind and how heartbreaking it’d be for her if she never saw her son again. He had a job as well. He just needed to get better at it, if he was to leave the streets and reunite with his mother in the future.
He realized he hadn’t spoken for a while and tried to refocus to the man in front of him. Pierce was gazing at the road outside, seemingly undisturbed by the quiet between them. He appeared relaxed, calm even, considering he had just handed a group of thugs their asses. He was charming. A man’s man. To Rafe, Pierce didn’t look particularly macho with his sunken cheeks and his immature stubble, however, he caused an air of security. It was probably that fact that he had just saved him, but if he had a say in it, he wouldn’t leave this guy’s side for the world.
Their drinks arrived and the smell of cocoa hit Rafe’s nostrils, bringing his sense of safety into a full circle. He felt at home. All that was missing was Marissa and hismadreand he would be the happiest man in the world.
Pierce concentrated on his coffee and the traffic outside more than he did with Rafe. Not that he was ignoring him. He acknowledged his presence, but Rafe assumed he wasn’t a man of a lot of words. He was and he would be damned if he didn’t find out more about this guy now that he had the chance.
“What’s in the suitcase? You carry it everywhere you go. Isn’t it uncomfortable to take it around town? Why don’t you get a rucksack, that way you can at least put it around your back?”
Rafe realized a little too late that maybe he had overdone it with the questions. Pierce didn’t seem bothered by it, though. He turned his attention to Rafe and answered. “It’s a family heirloom. It belonged to my grandad. He passed it to me when he died, so it’s got sentimental value,” he answered.
“I see…I think,” Rafe answered, trying to sound more sure of himself, but he still couldn’t see the point. He had nothing, he was carrying around that damned suitcase even though it was impractical.
Pierce breathed out as if contemplating whether to continue, took a sip of his coffee and explained. “My gramps was gay too. But he was late to reveal the truth to his family. It took him sixty-five years. And when he did, my family wrote him off. He was a castaway, no longer welcome in his house. He went on to travel, away from his wife, his kids. He lived a good life as a gay man. He traveled every inch of this world and back. I only saw him once after his coming out and that was on his funeral. Later on, his attorney read his will to us all. He’d left nothing to anyone, but me. And all he had to give me was his suitcase.
“My parents told me I couldn’t have it and kept it locked away for years. But when I turned eighteen I turned the whole house upside down and found it. There was a lock on it, and his attorney had given the key only to me on his funeral. So thankfully my parents hadn’t been able to throw away anything sinful in the suitcase and ruin my grandad’s memories. But that was all I had left of him and it was enough because whatever was inside made me feel normal, like I wasn’t a freak. Like I could be loved if I was truthful to myself. It’s what eventually drove me to come out to my parents. I thought they would have learned from their past mistakes, but they hadn’t. And here I am,” he said.
Rafe smiled. Now he got it. That suitcase was a reminder of all he was and all he could be, just like hismadrewas for him. Sure, one was an actual person, but they both had the same effect on them. Made them feel like they weren’t all that alone, or all that fucked up.
Pierce called the waitress with a wave of his hand, pushing his chair back. “Wanna go?”
“Sure,” Rafe answered reluctantly. Where would he go now? It was already very late and there was probably no traffic on his street. He’d have to spend yet more money from his fund to stay at a hostel. He didn’t see another option.
“Got anywhere to stay tonight?” Pierce asked stepping out of the cafeteria.
Rafe pointed at nowhere in particular. “I was gonna go stay at a hostel,” he said.
“I’ll walk you,” Pierce said casually heading down the road. Rafe caught up with his quick pace.
“You really don’t have to,” he told him.
Pierce shook his head. “It’s not a problem. So where to? Got anywhere in particular? I know a cheap place around the corner,” Pierce said, again avoiding Rafe’s eyes.
“Lead the way,” Rafe laughed, leaving them in quiet.
Rafe found it hilarious, how Pierce could go so long without talking. “Do you always talk this much, Pierce, or are you just shy around me?” he laughed.
Pierce stole some glances towards Rafe. He smiled. “Sorry. Bad habit. I’m not used to talking to anyone”.
Rafe winced, “you don’t have any friends on the streets?” Could he really be all that alone out in NYC?
Pierce shook his head. “Nah, can’t trust anyone”.
“Ouch!” Rafe commented and Pierce turned at him to apologize.
“I mean, it’s hard trusting someone when everyone’s looking out for themselves,” Pierce tried to justify himself.
Rafe stopped him in his tracks and looked in his eyes. “That’s a lonely way of thinking.”
Pierce looked to the pavement and didn’t say a thing.
“Sorry,” Rafe said. “I just feel bad that you don’t have anyone to talk to about your worries and dreams,” he told Pierce and continued their walk.
“What’s the point? Worries: where will I sleep? What will I eat? Dreams: When will I win the lottery and get the hell outta here?”
“There’s much more to friends than that, Pierce,” Rafe said.
They stopped in front of the hostel that Pierce had stayed the previous night. Pierce opened the door for Rafe and they both walked to the reception. Rafe asked for a bed and the receptionist told him they had one available for thirty-five bucks. Rafe bit his lip. That was half what he made a night. It was too much, but he couldn’t just walk out. Not when Pierce had insisted on walking him and making sure he was safe.
“Sure,” Rafe said and unhooked his rucksack from his back and loosened the string. Before he had any time to pull out his stash, Pierce pulled some bills out of his pocket and gave them to the receptionist. He paused before letting them go. “No, Pierce. You don’t have to do that. Really,” Rafe begged him, stopping the receptionist from putting the money away.
“It’s okay, Rafe,” Pierce said and walked out of the hostel. Rafe took the money off the receptionist’s hand and followed Pierce, excusing himself.
“Wait, up. Pierce!” he was standing outside when Rafe came out the door waiting for Rafe. “You don’t have to give your money to me. I can…” he started to say pressing the bills, and his hand, on Pierce’s chest, but Piece cut him off.
“Rafe, stop. I want to do this. I…I want you to be safe. Especially after such a stupid night,” Pierce said, staring at the traffic and pushing Rafe’s hand off his chest. The man was playing so tough — and he was, kicking everyone’s butt to prove as much — but ask him to talk about his feelings and he blushes like a little girl.
“Well,” Rafe said stepping in front of Pierce and his point of focus to force him once again to look him in the eyes and finish what he wanted to say. “Thank you. You…there’s a sweetheart under that brute after all,” he told him and placed a kiss on his cheek. “Don’t be a stranger, stranger”.
Rafe disappeared back inside the hostel and got his keys from the receptionist.
“He your boyfriend?” he asked, giving him a purple keyring with a number written on it.
Rafe smiled. “I wish.” He grabbed the keys and went to bed.
Sleep had been impossible that night, although the warmth had been welcome. It wasn’t often that a hostel was heated. But that did nothing for Rafe’s busy mind while attempting to rest. Every time he closed his eyes he would see thecholosthat had attacked him in the alley. And he would see Pierce coming to his rescue and kicking ass, and whenever he thought peacefulness would be next, there would be the face of his abusers. Again. And again. Until the sun came up and he had to check out. Not before exploiting the breakfast provided with a stay, however.
He walked aimlessly with nothing planned for the day. He had nothing planned for most days. Only on evenings and at nights. He wished he had his canvases and his oils. Hell, even a sketchbook would be nice right now, instead of going nowhere.
The more he craved for a pencil and a piece of paper, the more it brought adolescent memories in his head. It didn’t seem to want to stop. Everything hurtful he had ever experienced, no matter how small, was coming to the forefront now.
He remembered when he came home with homework for art class from school, and he got to painting all day. It had been the first time he had devoted his time in creating something from scratch, and he found it so calm, so soothing, it had been midnight before he even realized it. He was fourteen at the time. He never had a curfew or anything, but his parents would always nag when he was still out of bed at a late time. That day his dad came in his bedroom and started shouting about him wasting his time all day instead of doing his homework. When he defended himself, his dad gave him a good whooping, told him to straighten up and go to bed.
It was that time he realized he might like drawing more than he initially thought. He started drawing everywhere he went, everywhere he sat. He bought sketchbooks with his pocket money. In a matter of a month it was full. His dad always complained when he saw him drawing. But he enjoyed it, both drawing and being nagged at. His dad despising his hobby meant his dad spent less time complaining about the other quirks of his son. Like that he was skinny and not playing any sports at school. Like the fact that he loved pink, or that he’d put up posters of his favorite divas on his walls. Everything was obscured by all the sissy drawing. It was comforting, no matter how weird it might sound.
When he looked up from his thoughts, he found he was halfway across Manhattan, at a place he had never been before, from what he remembered, and with an arts store calling him from across the street. He laughed. Life was such a weirdo sometimes. The way it worked you up. The way it mocked you.
He crossed the street and went inside. He bought a small sketchbook and a couple pens and pencils. To heck with his savings. He’d missed drawing. Having nothing to do for the rest of the day, he found his way to Mario’s and sat inside filling in the pages of his new possession. He was so indulged in his activity that he let his hot cocoa run cold, a sin of biblical proportions in his book.
He felt a cold hand on his shoulder and he jumped. It was Sonia.
“Sorry, sweetie, didn’t mean to scare you. Are you okay? You haven’t said a word in the…” she looked at the clock on the wall and calculated, “three hours you’ve been here. You haven’t even touched your cocoa. Is it not good? Do you want another one?” Her eyes were wide with concern and her lips sucked in forming a thin pale line.
He nodded. “I’m good, Sonia. Thanks. I’m just…I don’t know…I guess it has been so long since I’ve had a pen and paper that I got carried away,” he replied and she formed an indistinguishable smile. Rafe could tell just by the change in her eyes’ size. “I’ll take your offer on the cocoa, though,” he said.
“Ok, but you better drink this one, or I’ll call the meds to get you tested,” she chortled as she walked back to the counter.
“Gotcha,” Rafe replied and resumed his drawing. It had been three hours, yet it felt like only minutes since he’d sat down. He looked at what he’d been drawing. He hadn’t decided on anything before he started, but his hands had shaped a human body and then added the details, and looking at it now, the almost finished piece looked so much like Pierce he was astounded by both his lingering talent and his photographic memory concerning the man.
What had Pierce done to him? He seemed to be the one anchor that his mind went back to every time it remembered a traumatic experience. This kick-ass, macho, shy man who didn’t speak much but blushed a lot, was making his stomach ache, but in a good way. As if it would hold his breath captive until they saw each other again.
“Oh, who’s that? Your boyfriend?” Sonia sang as she put another cup next to Rafe. Rafe saw her looking at his pad.
“No. I wish,” he answered. What was wrong with him? Why did he keep saying that about Pierce every time someone asked him? He knew he wouldn’t stand a chance with Pierce. They were both homeless and hopeless. Even if they did manage to get something going, how long would it last before Rafe beat it? He was sick, and without money he would eventually die.
He downed his cocoa and decided to color Pierce in.
A hand pulled his notebook down, making him jump again. This time, it was Marissa.
“Hey, guuurl!” she said, taking a seat across him. “Whatcha doing?” She peeked at Rafe’s half-colored Pierce and hummed. “Mmm, who is this hottie?”
“No one,” Rafe said before he could express it as a wish like he’d done twice before.
“What’s up with you?” Marissa asked.
Sonia approached the table again and put down a cup of tea in front of her. “Oh, he’s been like that all day. I think someone is in love,” she said, prancing back to her counter.
Marissa laughed. “Is that true?”
He shook his head. Just because he’d drawn a guy he’d met and really liked didn’t mean he was in love. Just because he was sitting in silence not touching his hot drink didn’t mean he was infatuated.
“Com’on. You can tell me if you are. Who is it?” Marissa insisted, asking what he looked like and where he met him. Rafe was getting sick of the interrogation fast. He felt his blood rising inside of him and his skin getting hot.
“I’m not in love, Marissa. I was nearly raped, for fuck’s sake,” he scoffed at her, making sure to not shout loud enough to be heard all across the store.
Marissa pushed herself back in her chair. “What? How? What happened?”
“Some assholes saw me trying to pick up customers and started following me. They pushed me in an alley and pinned me to the ground,” Rafe murmured.
“Did they...?” Marissa couldn’t and wouldn’t finish her sentence, but Rafe was okay with that. Even he didn’t like the sound of it spoken out loud, no matter if the word circled round and round his mind.
“No, they didn’t. I said nearly. This guy came in the alley and stopped them,” he told her and sipped his chocolate.
Marissa reached for his hand across the table. “How do you feel? Can I...?” she started, but Rafe had enough talking about last night’s incident.
He withdrew his hand from under hers. “I’m...okay, I guess. I will be okay. There’s nothing you can do for me anyway,” he said. Only when he said it did he realize it might have come across in a different way.
If Marissa was hurt, she didn’t let it show because her hand stayed where it was on the table and her voice was as sympathetic as it had been before.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do, no matter how small,” she told him.
Why wouldn’t she drop the subject already? Rafe set his drink down, spilling some on his hand as he retaliated on Marissa. “Can you find me a home? No. How about a job that doesn’t include me selling my body to creepy old dudes? No. Can you give me my medication or a medical insurance? No. So how the fuck do you think you can help me, Marissa?”
Was Pierce rubbing off on him or what? Where had that come from? He loved Marissa like a sister and didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but there he was, throwing insults at her face, totally unprovoked. “I’m sorry,” he managed to say before he dashed out of Mario’s with his head hanging low in shame.
He wandered the streets thinking of how terrible he’d been to his best friend. Thinking of last night’s events and how they brought out the need for safety back into his life. He couldn’t keep doing what he did because it was risky, but if he didn’t, he’d die. How had his life got so fucked up?
The more he walked, the more upset he got with himself. His stomach tied up in knots as he kept telling himself what an idiot he’d been and how stupidly he had acted. He didn’t know what had got into him. He wasn’t like that. He was always nice to people. He was always nice to his parents even though they were far less than that to him. He’d just take the hit. Literally.
His stomach bloated and his mouth felt dry and his knees wavered. He kept walking, but he felt weaker. His throat became hoarse and tingly. He coughed. He coughed again. Once he started, he was unable to stop. He tried to stop, but to no avail.
He sat on a ledge, steadying himself, trying to soothe whatever had awakened inside. He took a deep breath, then another one. Sweat trickled down from his hairline to his forehead and down his eyebrow. His cheeks felt flushed. His body had calmed down, though, despite feeling warmer and warmer.
He took another breath and the city pollution traveled up his nose and down his lungs causing him to cough again. He covered his mouth and eyed the passersby hoping he hadn’t alarmed anyone. Rafe looked at his hand and found it was covered in sprinkles of blood. He put his finger in his mouth and took it out to inspect it. There was no blood. Where the hell had it come from?
His breathing became harder and he felt more sweat encompassing him. A feeling of sickness found its way to his mouth and he spewed vomit beside him. He coughed a little more, then wiped his mouth. The oxygen his nostrils inhaled seemed fresher now and a coolness reached out to his limbs. He found his footing again, slowly, but steadily.
Pierce opened his eyes, craning his neck to both sides, trying to ease the pain in his neck. Sleeping with a pillow under his neck was no longer a habit, so whenever it happened it hurt his whole back. Not that he wasn’t welcoming the soft feeling under him and the warmth surrounding him.
He had a quick shower in the same dingy bathroom he had used before and went down to the common room for breakfast. He took his time this morning, not being in any particular rush. His plans were all set and he knew exactly what was going to happen, so his nerves were at ease and his brain fully concentrated on the one difficult thing he had to do today. Work.
He waved at the receptionist, a hipster with dreads who was too far into reading a book to acknowledge with more than a nod. He was okay with it. They had spent all last night talking about the possibility of him coming back later tonight and grabbing a last minute bed, whether it’d be possible to hold the same dorm for him. He thought since it was a different guy, he could try his luck at pushing things again. The guy had told him he’d do his best and promised to try his hardest to keep the two-bed dorm empty for the night. That was good enough for Pierce.
He went out into the street. Although it was a late October day, he was greeted by warmth and a sunny blinding light. He smiled as he headed up the street. He walked for almost thirty minutes before reaching his destination. A clothing store called Market Deals spread out across the block in red and typical New York foot traffic rushed in and out of the store.
He might have spent all his boss’s money on Rafe’s hostel last week, but he didn’t regret it one bit, and he had even managed to make an honorable twenty-nine bucks in begging, trying to compensate for the money he’d lost and not willing to turn up at work in the same clothes and prove to his boss that he was a hopeless junkie, after all. He now had a bit over $40 to spend on clothes and the first thing he’d grab was a coat. It might be a sunny day today, but that wouldn’t last for long.
He walked in and grabbed a cart, placing his suitcase inside it. He rolled around following the signs to the men’s section.
He needed a thick enough jacket to ward off the cold on the nights he’d be sleeping outside or in the subway, but one that could easily be tucked away into his suitcase and still leave enough space to put some extra tees in.
He was struck by how many options he had and how cheap everything was. He tried more than a dozen coats, assessing them for all their flaws and pros and narrowed it down to two. One was stylish, had a flannel coating inside that made it extra warm, and had enough pockets in and out to fit in a small armada of knick-knacks. It was navy blue in color with brown buttons and cords and reached his thighs when worn. The other one was a black parka with cotton stuffing and a few pockets, but otherwise less practical for anything other than sleep outside. It was easily washable, however, made from polyester. He eyed the clock on the wall and decided not to waste any more time on making a decision his brain had already made ages ago. He picked up the navy blue coat and marched to the t-shirt section. Yes, it was more difficult to wash, but it made him look less homeless and more hipster, which in his situation was a good thing.
The t-shirts he found were on a bargain. 3 for $20, plus $15 for the coat gave him some extra change to spare. He picked up a red comic-book themed tee and two artsy ones, black with white creative strokes and floral lettering which he deemed perhaps more appropriate for a workplace environment.
Making his way to the registers, he noticed the shoe section and a big flashing card that read ‘$5 only’, which, of course, attracted his attention. He looked down to his shoes. While the wear and tear in his jeans made them look trendy, the same didn’t apply for his all-stars. The soles had long separated from the rest of the shoe, only hanging onto a bit of glue, his laces were all muddied up and the fabric was full of holes where his socks were visible. He needed new ones, but he always put them last on his list, always deeming the coat more important and, considering he was only just buying one after a month of planning to do so, it left his feet to their fate. Thankfully it hadn’t rained much in the last few weeks and Pierce was grateful to whatever being or planetary movements determined that.
He browsed the shoes selves and found a pair of red and white sneakers. He found his number, the last in that design, and carried everything to the register. The woman rang everything up for him and once he’d paid he went to the corner of the street, took off his old shoes, threw them in the garbage can, and put on the new ones. The change in the arch of his feet felt strange. The balls and toes of his feet had grown so used to the discomfort of holes and bumps that being massaged while in motion seemed out of the ordinary, inhumane, even. Shoes surely didn’t feel so comfortable.
He started his journey down Malcolm X Avenue. He checked the clock inside a convenience store and realized it was still early. He was supposed to start in three hours, so he slowed his pace, enjoying a good stroll after a long time, feeling refreshed. He didn’t want to admit it, but shopping made him feel good about himself. Elevated. Shopping therapy was a thing of the past. He was happy he had indulged in it after almost half a year. It had been that long. He had changed a lot since. But he’d be lying to himself if he didn’t admit that he hadn’t thoroughly enjoyed the excursion for necessities. Matched with the elation of starting a job, this was being the best day he had ever had out on the streets.
“Hey,bruto,” he heard someone say very close to him and an eye lift revealed none other than Rafe.
“Hey,” he said, feeling his lips part as they formed a smile out of their own volition. “How are you? How has it been since...?” He left the last bit of his question to hang in the air, not particularly keen to remind Rafe of that night.
“Good, good. Much...quieter, let’s say. How about you? Been shopping, I see,” he said looking at the plastic bags and the new flashing shoes.
“I was just heading to work. I had to buy a few things so I don’t turn up like a hobo on my first day,” Pierce explained.
Rafe nodded. “That’s cool. I like the shoes. It was good seeing you. Enjoy work,” he added, backtracking, moving away from Pierce hesitantly.
Pierce grimaced for a second, his mind processing the prospect of spending more time with Rafe. Before he got too far he called out to him. “Wanna walk with me? Get something to eat? I’ll buy. I think,” he said, remembering he’d spent the spare money he was supposed to have for food on the shoes.
“Uhm, are you sure? I don’t wanna keep you from work or anything,” Rafe replied. His face brightened up in an instant at Pierce’s suggestion.
Pierce nodded, noticing the change in Rafe. His stomach curled. He could see the street rub off Rafe’s face and being replaced with the cuteness of looking forward to something. “Sure. I’ve still got time. I’m not sure if I have money, but time, I’ve got plenty,” he chuckled and Rafe approached him, walking down together.
Pierce counted his change. “I’ve got enough for ice cream,” he admitted noticing an ice cream van parked in the street in front of the north side of Central.
“Ice cream sounds fun,” Rafe’s lips arched, exposing his white teeth. A beautiful smile that gave Pierce goosebumps.
He’d buy him all the ice cream if it’d make him smile like that all the time.
“So, what’s your flavor?” he asked with a smirk.
Rafe was taken aback by the question, for a moment contemplating replying to the double entendre in a publicly unacceptable way. Then decided against it, as they approached the ice cream truck, which housed an older, Indian man with gray hair waiting to get paid by a mom.
“I like vanilla and Oreo. Just pure perfection,” he answered and hummed with pleasure at the image in his head.
Pierce laughed. “I love oreo too. But my favorite hands down is chocolate. I love milk chocolate. It was so hard giving it up,” he commented as they stood in the small line to be served.
“Why did you have to give it up?” Rafe asked, his brain already at work, trying to figure out why someone would give up something they love.
“I became vegan,” came his reply in a casual manner.
“Oh. Okay. I guess,” Rafe commented.
Pierce squinted at Rafe’s attempt of sounding approving.
“I just don’t get why you would cut something out of your life if you loved it so much,” Rafe explained, trying to sound as nonjudgmental as possible.
Pierce looked him in the eyes with a semi-serious face and eyes full of surprise. “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask my parents?”
Rafe cursed as he realized what he’d just said and apologized.
“Relax,” Pierce laughed, “I was joking, dude. Well, sorta”.
They finally reached the ice cream man and Pierce ordered for the two of them. He ordered two of Rafe’s favorites and gave the man all his bills, leaving without his change. Was he trying to impress Rafe? Or was he, a homeless guy, hopeless with money in his hands? Rafe didn’t care. He enjoyed thisbruto’s company and he would savor it and whatever benefits it came with for as long as he could.
He licked the cold dessert and his taste buds were permeated by a blast of sweet wetness. He’d missed the taste of ice cream. He tried to avoid cold stuff to build up his immune system, not that it did anything. His immune system was fucked up. Completely. But if he could avoid catching pneumonia, he would. He didn’t have a death sentence wish.
“But seriously, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it’d be. It was easy at first, then as the diet kicks in you start craving for some of the crap you used to eat, but you fight through the cravings, or supplement them with the closest equivalent, and then you’re set. Honestly, this doesn’t taste as good as it does in my memory,” Pierce went on.
“So, you’re still vegan? Or…” Rafe asked looking poignantly at the ice cream in Pierce’s hands.
Pierce coughed. “God, no. I tried the first couple of weeks after I was kicked out and I almost starved myself to death. That was before I came down to NYC. I’d get a couple of good souls willing to buy me food, but whenever I asked for something non-meaty, non-cheesy, they’d think I was being an ungrateful bastard. When you got no money and you are hungry, not knowing when your next meal is going to be, you get what you can to get by. Plus, most things I want to eat are more expensive. Salads aside. So when it’s going to be famine or a dollar hot dog, I chose the dog.
“But I’ve met some vegetarians who are homeless and will not eat anything else. It doesn’t work for me. If it does for them, I have no clue. Although, to be honest, now that I’m used to the city and how it works, whenever I have the option and money I do eat at least vegetarian…”
Rafe could hear him talking for hours, for whatever topic it was he wanted to go on about. He seemed to be passionate about his dietary needs.
If he was being honest to himself, he wasn’t paying as much attention to the content of Pierce’s words, but to his tone and his emotions, that were so generously pouring out as he explained his experience. Pierce seemed to be the guy with the constant resting bitch face which only came off whenever he got carried away and delved into his deepest desires.
His lips, full and moist from the never-ending salivation by his moist tongue. His eyes flickering more frequently than normal, as he put his thoughts into order. His nose taking deep breaths at irregular times, as his passion made him forget to breathe properly.
“…I don’t know. Every time I think about it, I can’t wrap my head around how a parent can disown their child like they’re nothing,” Pierce said and stopped talking, the silence making Rafe’s attention drift back to his ears.
He seemed to have done a one-eighty and brought the conversation to the reason for his homelessness. Rafe nodded in agreement to his last statement but tried to find the words to follow up on that.
“How did you end up out here?” Pierce asked him and Rafe mentally slapped himself for not coming up with a different subject to lighten their little rendezvous again.
He scratched his head, singing lazily trying to come up with his response. “I…I ran,” he found himself mumbling before he controlled his mouth.
“Huh?” Pierce grimaced, his face changing from a tender smile to a deep frown.
“I—I ran. I couldn’t take it any longer. I…I felt lonely in there. Felt like I was doing something wrong, twenty-four seven. I mean, sure, there was mymamá, who loves me, but…” he babbled before being abruptly interrupted by Pierce’s groan.
“Wait a sec. You left your house because you felt lonely? You chose to be homeless because they were just…being parents?” he growled, heat visible in his face.
“I didn’t—,” Rafe tried to defend himself, but wasn’t allowed. Pierce quickened his step, clearly frustrated, and trying to bring an end to their little walk. “Pierce, wait!”
He chased after him, navigating through people, all giving him dirty looks at his attempt. The streets were now excruciatingly busy. Lunch break was on and everyone was marching to their hotspot with clear determination.
Rafe’s vision blurred. His head was moving too fast and his breath was shortening. His agitation was growing, as were its effects on him. Why was Pierce being so hard on him? He hadn’t even let him explain.
He lost his footing and came crashing down on the sidewalk. He called Pierce’s name one more time and people circled around him, untouched by the human disturbance. He steadied himself with two hands, focusing his eyes on the sidewalk cracks instead of the dizzying hectic amount of people surrounding him.
“Are you okay?” he saw a pair of jeans kneeling down to reveal Pierce, with a concerned look on his face. That dude needed to sort out his emotional caliber.
Rafe whispered a no and rubbed his eyes, trying to clear his vision. “I have some water in my bag,” he said, meaning to take it out of his rucksack, but Pierce was already pulling the strings of it and digging his hand inside to scavenge for the water bottle.
He passed the bottle to Rafe, and he took regenerating sips, closing his eyes as he did. When he opened them again, he felt a push on his back and turned his head to see Pierce sitting next to him, holding bills in his hands and waving them at Rafe.
“I thought you were fucking homeless,” he growled.
“I am,” Rafe murmured.
“I thought you had no fucking money. What the fuck is wrong with you, man? You leave home to live on the streets with money in your bag? Are you a psycho or something?” Pierce’s voice was becoming louder, attracting some disapproving looks from passersby.
“It…it’s not like that,” Rafe tried to find the energy to explain, to say more, but he couldn’t.
Not that he was given a chance. Pierce pushed himself up and stood tall above the still-floored Rafe.
“I’m taking these for the fucking ice cream I just bought you. Man, I can’t believe I spent my money to put you in a fucking room,” he huffed and walked away.
Rafe panted and looked around him trying to regain his strength and take in what had happened. Thatbrutodidn’t even give him a chance to explain. He just left Rafe at the mercy of himself.
Pierce pushed the door of Les Fourches open, storing away his frustration with it. He had done his best to let Rafe and his sickening existence out of his mind, but the more he thought about it, the angrier he got.
He let it all slide away, however, as he was greeted by Vance, who was hosting on the door again. He looked up and down at him, noticing his cleanliness, and it put a smile on his face. Then took him across the bar and to a door that read ‘Personnel Only’.
He found himself being led down a long corridor with several doors. A staircase to the left led to the basement, but they, instead, used the door on the right. He found himself in a room with an array of lockers, a couple of couches, a coffee table, and hangers on every possible surface.
There were paper coffee cups and napkins on the table, t-shirts and trousers crumbled on the couches, and a bunch of shoes lying all across the floor. Vance explained that the space was the staff room where he could put away his stuff until the end of his shift. He also assigned him a locker that had a label stuck on it with the name “Imogen” on it.
“That was a hostess who used to work here, but now she’s off traveling the world. I’ll print a label with your name on it later, but even without it, know that it’s your locker and you’re the only one with the combination, so anything you put in there should be more than safe,” Vance explained.
Pierce nodded and unlocked the door. The contraption was too narrow to fit his suitcase, but it could easily fit a small wardrobe of clothes in it. One problem sorted at least. He didn’t have to carry his clothes with him. He could just leave them in his locker and wash them when they got dirty or smelly.
Vance let him put away his things, meaning Pierce had to part not only with his new coat but his suitcase too, which he placed behind one of the couches, hiding it from immediate view. He had not let it out of his sight in months, so he was reluctant to do so now, but Vance was waiting at the door to give him a tour of the facilities and Pierce was forced to let go.
Vance showed him to the cellar, where all the pump beer was and to the stock room where all the liquors were stored. He was taken through the kitchen where he was briefly introduced to the chefs at work — their names going in from one ear and out the other — and to the patio on the back, decorated by green and colorful blossomed flowers. Finally the tour ended behind the bar where Vance went through the job with Pierce. The time was 3 p.m. so the place was relatively empty before the after-work rush at 5, as Vance explained, so that gave them plenty of time to go through the basics.
“So the register is pretty straight forward. Everything is listed in their section. So you have beer in one button, wine in another, food is separated in appetizers, mains, desserts, and sides and cocktails have their own separate section,” Vance explained, navigating through the touch screen register.
Pierce squinted. “I don’t know how to make cocktails,” he said with a low voice that sounded almost like a whisper.
Vance laughed and turned to meet Pierce’s eyes. “Of course you don’t. But you’ll learn, with time. For now, if any cocktails come through, I’ll make them with you. Which brings me to my next point. This little machine here,” he said tapping a small black printer, “it is your best friend from now on. It will print all tickets from the floor saying what the patrons want to drink and what table they’re meant for. You put each table’s drinks on one tray, if not more, even if it is just one drink. Let the waiters deal with them, but if you put them in one tray you might confuse them. No, scrap the might. Youwillconfuse them.
“Moving on, everything behind the bar needs to remain clean at all times. And that’s not just because the health inspector can bust my ass if it’s not, but also because I’m O.C.D. and I cannot stand sticky surfaces.Capice?”
Vance stared at Pierce with an intense face that cracked a smile when Pierce nodded humbly. “I promise, I’m not a horrible person. Just—,” he took a moment, thinking. Then turned to the barman at the other end. “Hey, Hollister, how would you describe me?”
Hollister folded a cloth four times and set it down under the bar, turning his head and attention to his boss. “A cranky ol’ faggot,” he said with a lot of aspiration to his voice.
“Hey,” Vance exclaimed. “I’m not fucking old,” he said and laughed it off, turning back to Pierce. “So yeah, cranky ol’ faggot will do, I guess. The point is I like things a certain away. If you do those things, we’ll get along just fine. If not—.”
“I get the boot,” Pierce interrupted.
Vance shook his head, laughing. “No, you will be a subject to my verbal harassment, which goes a bit like this,” he said and turned back to Hollister. “Yo’ mother-f-acker, are you gonna wipe that melted ice, or are we gonna turn this place into a water bar?”
Hollister stopped his conversation with a patron sitting on the other side and gave Vance the finger. He used the other hand to wipe the area that his boss was talking about, and looking at the patron, replied to Vance. “I can finally wear my wetsuit, then, dick.”
He resumed conversation with the patron, an older, grayer guy in a suit, who chuckled at Hollister’s comment.
Pierce laughed. This place was more alien than it had initially looked. It felt like this expensive, uptight restaurant one would expect to be inhabited by snobs, yet they’d given Pierce a job and the staff harassed each other for fun. An alien world, indeed.
“So, yeah, that’s my kind of harassment,” Vance explained and went through a few more things with him. Finally, they ended up reading the food menu together before the clock struck 4 p.m.
“There’s no meat anywhere on this list,” Pierce commented, curious as to why.
Vance slapped his hand on the bar and put his other on his waist. “Pierce Callahan, I’ve been going through the entire job for an hour now and I haven’t yet mentioned once that we’re a vegetarian-slash-vegan restaurant? Fuck me, Iamgetting old,” he rolled his eyes at himself and Pierce laughed.
“That’s so cool, man. I’m vegan. Or was. Before. You know,” Pierce told him, thinking back to the same noon, and him talking to Rafe about it. Funny thing, coincidences.
“Awesome. Then you’ll definitely enjoy the food here. Almost everything on the list is available as a vegan option,” Vance raised his chest a bit.
Pierce shook his head. “I don’t think I can afford these prices”.
Vance chortled. “Staff eats free, you idiot. Boy, you really are inexperienced,” Vance exclaimed.
You don’t even know half of it, Pierce thought. “That’s amazing”.
“God! Get away from me, you sicko,” the driver said, putting his car in slow motion and stopping at the next rentboy.
Rafe couldn’t blame him. Ever since yesterday, when he fell on the ground, he had got so sick it was killing him. He imagined he caught something off the dirty sidewalk that made him ill because he was feverish, his back constantly running cold sweat. His face, having checked at a rearview mirror of a parked car, was pale, and black circles had formed under his eyes.
He needed a place to stay. He couldn’t stay out on the streets. He would surely die and he didn’t know if anyone would care enough to remove his body from wherever it was found. The subway would probably make him worse, infested with more bacteria than a quarantined ICU. His only option was sleeping with a guy, but who would pick a sickly boy to sleep with without thinking he was going to pass on whatever he had? He couldn’t spend any more money on a hostel. If he did, the meds he so desperately needed, and the lack of which had brought him to his current state, would be even further away from his grasp than they were originally. He needed to make money quick. He needed to get better even quicker. And it was such crap that one relied upon the other to happen.
That guy had been the fourth person to reject him, and with every no, his knees gave way a bit more to the gravity pulling them down. He decided to reach out to some of the other boys on the street. He walked car by car, supporting himself on their surface and reached the nearest boy. He was not much older than Rafe, but he was wearing a cap, a black chiffon top, and ripped jeans. He was also chewing gum.
“Excuse me, dude,” Rafe called out to him, and seeing him, the guy stepped backward, putting his arms in between them.
“Hey, dude, don’t come any closer. I don’t want whatever it is you’ve got,” he screeched, his face a disgusted mask of porcelain. The guy was wearing foundation.
Rafe nodded. “Okay, sorry. Just wanted to ask you if you know any hospitals that help homeless people,” he said, his voice wavering to obscurity at points.
“Nah, I’m not homeless. I wouldn’t know,” he replied, chewing his gum with much more confidence now that he felt unthreatened by Rafe.
Rafe walked away, back into the main street, trying to desperately come up with a solution to his problem. He sat down on a step of a building landing and looked around, forcing his brain to work to his advantage and not against him. He’d been around, talked to people about shelters and all the crap, why couldn’t he remember any of it? The only place that was coming to his mind was the bed he had left behind in Queens. The sweet comfort of his bedroom, surrounded by all his things. And the warmth of hismadre’s hands rubbing the Vaporub on his chest and making hercaldo de pollo, both to get him better in no time. And it always worked. Because the amount of love she’d put into it would be enough to replace all the drugs in the world. But that haven was no longer accessible. Not to him. Even though the room stayed vacant and his mom’s heart full of affection for her only child.
He opened his eyes only to be hit by blurs. The sky was darker and the streets less busy. He’d passed out, not sure for how long, but he was certain he had. He felt disoriented. For a second, he’d even forgotten where he was.
Harlem. A little over a half hour from his house in Queens, if he took a cab. He didn’t want to. He didn’t want to face hispadreor the consequences hismadrewould suffer for wanting to take him in, but he also needed her. He needed her desperately. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to break his mother’s heart by leaving her alone in this world.
The need to see his mother, to survive, to get better, won over stubborness and fear. He hailed a cab and gave the driver his destination, before passing out on the backseat again.
A blinding light woke him and an angry voice penetrated his ears. “Hey, wake up. We’re here.” Rafe rubbed his eyes and inspected his surroundings. Only two doors down was the blue door with number 46. The door to his house. Only two doors down was the sanctity of motherhood and the safety of his bedroom.
He looked at the driver who was checking him out with an aggressive frown. He certainly thought Rafe was a druggie having overdosed. He was sure of it. He tried to compose himself as much as his illness and the ache in his bones allowed him and went through the notes in his rucksack. Hopefully, he’d make the money back in no time. As soon as hismamá’scaldo de polloand love healed him.
He threw the notes at the driver and exited the vehicle.
He stumbled to the door of his house and buzzed the communicator that read ‘Arena-Santos’. He waited, leaning his whole body on the wooden frame of the door and dumbing down all his other senses to focus on his hearing. He was trying to predict the chances they would answer, the chances they were both off at work, or the chances that both were inside, and how they would react to being visited by their sick son.
“Hello,” came a cracked voice from the communicator and he recognized hismamá, his protectress, and it gave him chills. It felt like he had called her on the phone like he did every day of the week, only this time she was finally going to get a reply.
And Rafe was prepared to give it, but he paused. He chickened out. He opened his mouth, but no words were forming. His head pulsed and his temples pushed inwards reminding him that he didn’t have much choice in the matter. If he wanted to live, he had to talk.
“Mamá,” he croaked, “it’s me.”
She didn’t reply. A click was heard and then the communicator’s white noise deafened his ear, giving him no other sounds to divulge, until the entrance door opened and hismadre, in a dressing gown, a mix of panic and fear in her face, appeared. She moaned when she took him in her arms and put his head on her chest.
“Que pasó, Rafael? What’s wrong?” she asked him with her distinct, flavored accent.
Rafe struggled to make his words audible when he said: “I’m sick,mamá. I’m--,” he coughed and continued, “help me. Please.”
“Dios mio, mi chulo, come inside,” she wailed and helped him up a flight of stairs to the second floor.
She pushed number 4 open and Rafe was attacked by a multitude of emotions and memories residing his humble house.
She immediately put him on the couch and rushed in the kitchen, where Rafe could hear cupboards banging open and shut already. His mother was at work. A healer prepared to save a life. Abrujaconcocting potions to cure her precious son. Rafe couldn’t stand the warmth that encompassed him. It made him feel as much alive as at peace, that his eyes felt heavy until it was a struggle to even try and keep them open.
Cayenne and cumin mixed with the smell of cooked chicken invaded his nostrils, waking him from his deep slumber. When he opened his eyes he felt his throat coarse and his brain fuzzy. He felt as if he’d been sleeping by a fireplace for hours, but there was no heat anywhere close to him, and the hours turned out to be minutes. His mother was sat where his legs were laid, holding a red bowl, the steam of which was giving ambiance to the room as it waved in front of her.
“Mamacita,” he pronounced with difficulty, a scratch in his throat preventing a clearer diction.
She shushed him, massaging his feet with the gentle fingers of one hand. “Here, drink this, baby,” she passed him the red bowl and he sat up on the couch and sipped the hot soup.
He felt its therapeutic elements going to work at once. His fever didn’t bother him as much after a gulp, and his throat cleared after a few more. He could feel the color returning to his face as the fever backtracked, giving him some rest, finally.
“Just like I remember it,mamacita,” he commented with a satisfactory smile on his face.
“What’s going on, Rafael? Why are you so sick?” she asked him, her voice wavering off-key.
“I think I caught something yesterday when I fell on the street. And since I’m not on my meds, it is much worse than for a normal, healthy person,” he told her, stressing everything that wasn’t right with him. Her eyes looked away and on the floor at his explanation.
When he realized she wasn’t going to give him anything, he asked. “Where ispapá?”
“Work. He’s doing night shifts this week,” she replied.
Rafe murmured to himself. “So we got another five to six hours to stay.”
His mother snapped her eyes back to her son, looking annoyed. “You will stay for as long as you want. I’m not going to let him kick his sick son out on the streets,” she said.
Rafe’s face was covered in a deep smile. His gaze, however, was not set on hismamáanymore, but the blanket she had covered him with. He was going to make it after all. He was a lucky, — and poor, surely — bastard. While he was getting in a daze between sleep and consciousness again, she put a thermometer in his mouth and he held it there with his teeth. Then seconds later, she was rubbing Vaporub on his chest. Just before he passed out he saw his mother take the thermometer and checking it with a satisfying smile on her face.
Yep, he was going to be just fine.
He awoke to the abrupt, heaving voice of hispadreshouting in his ear and before he could react, in any sort of way, his forearm was crushed by hispadre’sfist as he pulled him from under the blanket and forced him on his feet, bringing a definite end to his rest.
In an instant, he was washed with the clear image of hispadre.Past memories washed his brain anew. His salt-and-pepper facial hair as aggressive as the wrinkles at the end of his eyes. His mustache, a heavy coat on his top lip. And of course, nothing beat the memory of hispapá’sassaulting voice that echoed through walls, stone or paper-thin.
“But Andreas, he’s sick,” hismamacitabegged hispadre, pulling at his sleeve.
He jerked his head towards her and his eyes did the talking before any of the words. “Cállate, Eva. I will not haveun anómaloin my house, infesting it with his disease. Especially one who is unappreciative of all I’ve offered him, changing his crapped-up pants, paying to put a roof over his head and some clothes on his back and bread on the table, and who’s wasted all my money on beingun artista.Un homosexual. Una basura.Let him get what’s coming to him,” he said, spitting out the words as he uttered them.
“Basura, padre? Basura?So all this time you’ve been paying for my crap, have I meant nothing to you? Am I just trash now? Is your dying sonuna basura?”
Hispadredidn’t reply. Instead, he hurled forward, his arm raising up above him and bringing it down with force on the side of Rafe’s head. Rafe’s knees wavered, but he stood his ground as the person who had given life to him assaulted him with words as much as actions. Rafe’s eyes instinctively turned to hismadre. She was standing still, a few feet behind hispadre, looking passively at the scene, hand covering her mouth as if she couldn’t take in the view.
“You—you said you wouldn’t let him do this to me again. Not this time,” Rafe stuttered, the force of hispadre’s strikes making his voice falter and his hands attempting to create a shield between the two.
Hismadrelooked him straight in the eye when she gave her reply. “Maybe if you listened to yourpapá,Rafael, things would get better for you.”
Rafe wailed when his dad slapped him in the ear so hard, all he could hear was a whistling noise.
“Andreas!” hismamásnapped at her husband.
He exhaled and planted a slap in her left cheek, then turned back to Rafe and grabbed him from his shirt, lifting it up and pushing him towards the door.
“Come back here when you’ve becomeunhombreagain. I won’t have your sickness in this house,maricón.” He opened the door and continued forcing him out of the way, down the stairs, hismamáfollowing close behind.
“Tu no eres mi padre, pendejo,” Rafe cursed when they finally reached the main door and the young man was reunited with the winter weather.
“And you are not my son,” he replied.
Rafe’s eyes reddened. He hadn’t meant what he said when he did — he had only been trying to pull some humanity out of him, some of the paternity that he was hiding deep, deep down inside. He didn’t anticipate hispadredisowning him, but it made sense when it happened. Everything fell into place.
The years of hismadre’s abuse. The years of his bullying, home-edition. The years of constant judgment, criticism, inadequacy. The everlasting feelings of uncertainty. The never-ending sense of danger. The indeterminate threat. The strikes. The punches. The kicks. The broken walls. The broken furniture. The broken dreams. The loneliness. The depression. The need.
And it all made sense. Now, it did. Andreas Arena Soto was not hispadre. He was a stranger. A murderer. A murderer of innocence.
Hismadregave him his rucksack.
“You promised,” he told her.
She didn’t dare look him in the eyes. She looked away, drawn back inside by Andreas. And that’s how Rafe came into another realization that night;
For all the years of his bullying, she was there, but not really there. All the judgment, the criticism, the inadequacy, she reinforced. The everlasting feelings of uncertainty? They were there because of her. The never-ending sense of danger? Was due to her inaction. Andreas Arena Soto wasn’t his father; he was a stranger. But Eva Santos Juarez was also not hismadre. She was a perpetrator. And that realization hurt more than anything else.
He took a good last look at the blue door and waved goodbye to his old family. Now he was on his own and, despite his hurt, now it didn’t look like such a bad option. He climbed down the steps and walked. He felt so much better now. Thankfully. So he walked. He walked all night.
Pierce settled the pint glass on the beer mat and looked the patron in the eyes, his icy, blue eyes, and told him: “That’s five bucks, buddy.”
The guy, a man in his late twenties, in a navy blue suit, with blonde combed hair and a million dollar smile, put another note on the pile next to his beer. For all Pierce knew, hewasworth a million dollars. That was the kind of clientele his bar attracted. Perhaps not millionaires per se, but people with dough, for sure.
It was a Thursday night. It was quiet, which worried Pierce, as he relied so much on making good tips on his work days, if he was to ever get off the streets. Not that he was unappreciative. He was grateful and thankful to finally have something to hold on to. It’d only been two weeks since he started working in Les Fourches and he’d already managed to put $300 on the side, in a small pocket in his suitcase, for his future home. Or room, more likely. There were times that he got carried away and thought he could actually make more than enough to rent an apartment to himself, but whenever he’d look at the prices around town, he’d be stomped back to reality.
He only worked weekends. Fridays and Saturdays and sometimes, like today, Thursdays. He’d done six shifts so far, excluding his training day, and Vance was very pleased with him. He’d helped him set up a bank account so that he could get some of his wages paid in there, to build his credit and help in his search for a room, which would start, from the looks of it, in a few weeks’ time. He had also worked a shift with him the past week, which Pierce took worryingly at first, but then realized how much fun Vance actually was to work with, and enjoyed a good and bountiful workday.
He’d also dragged Pierce along with him one afternoon, for shopping. They went to several clothing stores and shopped clothes for work. Pierce didn’t want to spend any money, especially on such expensive places, but seeing the radiant smile on his boss’s face and the pile of money in his pocket, he succumbed to the temptation and decide to try a few shirts. In the end Vance paid for half his things anyway, which made Pierce’s heart warm up.
He still didn’t know how he’d got so lucky to have found not only a job but one working for a great guy who treated his staff with so much respect. Every single one of his colleagues had nothing bad or mean to say about Vance, unless it was to his face, in which case they went all wild with punchlines.
He had found out that there weren’t as many people working at the bar as he initially thought. There were three weekday waitresses and a waiter, three extra guys for the busy weekend, two full-time bartenders, Pierce and Vance. He didn’t include the kitchen because he hardly ever interacted with them. It was nothing personal, they just always seemed to leave straight after their shifts. The majority of the staff was indeed men — and handsome ones at that, it being a primarily gay area, frequented by the likes of homos, queens, fag hags, lesbos, and businessmen and women.
Pierce had grown a new habit of having a sneaky beer or two after work. He’d only made the mistake of devouring once, then had to deal with the consequences of a hangover the day after. It had reminded him, however, how much he loved being healthy, which didn’t include the consumption of alcohol, and which was technically illegal for him, but everyone turned a blind eye, as it happens.
With the ability to finally have enough money to afford his daily meals, he had returned to a vegan diet, helped by the fact that his workplace, among all the other awesome things it did for him, had some fantastic food. Even being back on his beloved diet for little under a week, he found his energy levels returning to superb and his consciousness clearing up, making up for the time he’d spend not being a strict vegetarian. He also wished he could go back in the gym, but that would remain an unfulfilled one for a lot longer. He did some crunches at work, but other than that he wasn’t really able to do much.
For all the good things in his life, he still didn’t have a warm bed to sleep in every night. He hadn’t told anyone he worked with his status and he had asked Vance to not spill any beans either, even though he thought that someone might have a spare bed or couch to help him out. He liked his colleagues, but he didn’t want to wear his relationship with them before it had even started. So he’d resolved to sleeping in the subway since the streets were getting too cold for roaming in the middle of the night, let alone sleep.
“Can I get the lentil quinoa burger with a portion of fries?” the handsome guy asked Pierce, looking up from the menu and setting it down as Pierce put the order through to the kitchen.
“Done. Can I get ya anything else?” Pierce asked.
The guy shook his head. Pierce started to move to the other side of the bar, but the guy interrupted.
“Take a break, man. There’s nothing to do,” he told him.
Pierce looked at him and smiled with a chuckle. He still hadn’t grown used to talking to people at the bar, like a good barman was meant for. He decided to give it a shot. He went back to the guy and his fingers grabbed his end of the bar.
“So, you come here often?” he asked, and he already gritted his teeth as a good equivalent to rolling his eyes, which he didn’t want to do in front of the patron and embarrass himself more.
To his surprise, the guy answered in a genuine and friendly tone.
“Cool,” was all Pierce managed to comment to the guy’s reply. Now what did he say? “You like it here?”
The guy nodded. “It’s got the best food in town. And good eye candy too.” The guy didn’t even blush for saying that. Pierce on the other hand did. “I’m just messing with you. I’m Damian.” He stretched his hand out over the bar and Pierce had no other choice but to shake it. He let the shake linger for a lot longer than usual before he let go.
The food was ready and Pierce checked the lift on the back bar where the man’s food was waiting. Pierce served it to Damian and let him eat in quiet, reaching the other end of the bar as another patron graced him with his presence. He was thankful for that. He didn’t know how to respond to advances. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the guy, but it just felt wrong, being touched by Damian. He had no clue why, however.
“A Coors Light, please,” said the new customer, a much older guy, and straight from the looks of it. They didn’t have those very often in here.
Pierce popped a bottle open for him and took the guy’s money as he noticed a kid walking down the street outside. His hair was shaved short and raven black, he was short and skinny, with a tank top on that fell well over his knees. He froze for a moment. He looked so much like Rafe he felt the need to run outside and catch up with him. But it wasn’t him. A simple turn of the head had proved as much.
Rafe. Pierce still couldn’t shake the guilt off him for how he’d treated Rafe. He hadn’t even let him explain himself. Not that he needed to explain anything to anyone. Pierce had acted like a dick. Like a judge, jury, and executioner of all things that didn’t agree with his morals or beliefs. He was constantly slapping himself for how out of line he had gone. Even going as far as to take Rafe’s money from his bag and leaving him there, on the ground, helpless.
“Argh!” he growled as he opened the register to get change and his two bar friends jerked their attention on him. “Sorry, guys. Just—not enough change in the register.” He excused himself and gave the older guy his money back.
For the rest of the evening, Pierce’s eye would train outside, looking for the boy he had wronged. But he wasn’t anywhere around. He knew that. He knew Rafe didn’t venture as far down as The Village, although he had no idea why. If there was anywhere for a gay boy like him to be, that was The Village. He might even be able to find a job just like Pierce had.
The clock struck eight and the bar filled with patrons ready to grab their dinner or evening drink with friends. Another guy was supposed to be working with him tonight, but had called in sick, so Piece was willing to see how he would handle a busy night on his own. What drove him were the amount of tips at the end of the night, which he wouldn’t have to share with anyone else, but the waiters.
So he worked. And the more he worked the more Rafe traveled out of his mind and to the back of it. Every once in between orders, his eyes would look at the door, as if he was waiting for Rafe, but they hadn’t arranged to meet. They probably wouldn’t see each other again.
At the end of the night, there were only four people in Les Fourches; Pierce, Vance, Katie — a waitress — and Damian, the white collar gay that hadn’t stopped ordering and flirting with Pierce. The guy had probably consumed more than 10 glasses of beer in between his snacks and food orders. He was still fine. Pierce had never seen anyone handle his drink so masterfully.
“Hey, Damian, I’m afraid we’ll have to close your tab now,” Pierce told him, distracting him from browsing his smartphone.
He looked up at Pierce and smiled. “Of course. Yes. How much do I owe ya?”
Pierce set down a check, quoting it. “It’s eighty-seven ninenty nine,” he said. He couldn’t understand how people spent so much on drinks when he barely had a dime in his pocket on most days. He couldn’t understand how much they had to make to be able to spend almost a hundred bucks every day.
Damian counted the bills next to his beer mat and although it was the right amount, he sent his hand digging on the inside pocket of his suit and pulled out another $30, then gave everything to Pierce. Adding his tip to the pile he had made a little over $200 on one night.
In the end, on nights like these, he didn’t care how people made money and how they spent it, if they were being generous enough to share some of that in gratitude of his service.
He folded it and put it in his front pocket, reminding himself to add it to his savings in his suitcase.
“So, Pierce, what are you doing later?” Damian asked from his position, and Vance and Katie, who were both counting money at the other end, looked up with a naughty smile on their face.
What was he doing later? He was going back to his hostel and crashing hard on his mattress before tomorrow’s long shift, trying not to think how much he’d wronged Rafe. But he couldn’t say that, could he?
“I don’t know. Not much,” he replied, leaving it ambiguous. He wasn’t stupid. He had been flirted with before and he had flirted before. He wasn’t as cruelly clueless as his colleagues thought he was. He just didn’t feel like doing these things at work.
“Did you wanna watch a movie on Netflix at my place?” Pierce gave the finger to the sniggers that arrived almost on cue from the other side of the bar and smiled at Damian. A night in a proper house with a beautiful man like him didn’t sound so bad. And they all knew what “Netflix at my place” meant, which again didn’t sound as terrible to Pierce as another night in the hostel.
“Sure,” he said, and Damian got up and exited the building, telling him he’d wait outside.
Pierce looked over to his boss. “Can I go now?”
Vance chuckled, but struggled to contain himself. So what came out of his mouth was a fine marriage between cackle and shriek. “Yes. Go. Watch ‘Netflix’ with your ‘friend’. Keep it family-friendly.” Pierce shot a menacing glance at him. “The list, I mean. Don’t go for anything too saucy,” he finished with a far more composed voice, which broke into loud laughter in the end.
Pierce shrugged him off and went to the staff room, put his money in the suitcase, and carried it outside to meet Damian.
They took a cab to Brooklyn, and as they crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, Pierce left his stress and worries in Manhattan, until he returned later tonight. He’d never ventured out of the island since he got to the City and he wasn’t familiar with the transportation system. But he brushed everything off. If it came to it, he’d take another cab. He’d find a solution. At the moment, he needed Damian’s company and he would take all he could from it.
Damian, as it turned out, lived in an apartment complex not more than ten floors in height. He lived on the ninth, in a studio flat, unlike his image. His clothes screamed “I’ve got money and I ain’t afraid to use it”, but his house screamed — no, more like whispered, “welcome to my humble abode”. It was a simple place with pastel yellow walls, a couple of sofas, a small TV, books, magazines and everything in between thrown everywhere and a kitchen that seemed eager to be more uptight, but whose anime inhabitants begged to differ. There was everything from Pokemon mugs to Attack on Titans cutting boards and Minecraft fridge magnets. Damian was a super geek and he hid it very well.
Damian rushed to tidy the living room up while Pierce took a tour of the house and used the bathroom. When he returned to the main room, Damian was sat down on the sofa in his pajamas, holding a remote and the TV tuned in on Netflix.
“I thought you were joking about watching Netflix,” Pierce joked.
Damian laughed. “Well, the night is still young, and I needs to catch up on Once Upon A Time,” he responded and put his show on as Pierce took seat next to him. “You can take your shoes off if you want. Feel at home”.
Pierce did take his shoes off and thank the divinities that he had bought new socks and actuallywornthem today before work, or Damian would have been introduced to skanky, rugged Mr. Sock and its holes.
For the next forty minutes, Damian’s only words were a commentary accompaniment with the new episode, a show Pierce had never watched and which he’d have missed even if he did. Hedidtry to share Damian’s excitement, but half the time he didn’t know what was happening and the other half what the characters were talking about. So he kept his own quiet and waited for the episode to finish.
Damian poured them some wine. He didn’t know how that man could still drink after so many beers and how he could still be awake. Pierce’s own eyes were feeling heavier by the minute. But that was when things got interesting, and all his senses — and some parts — fully awoke.
Damian had put a slow song on and took a seat next to Pierce, grabbing his cock fervently, surprising Pierce. Next, he dug his face into his and kissed him with passion, his tongue fighting with Pierce’s. Pierce let Damian use him as he pleased, stretching his hands to his side and relaxing his body in its position. But Damian seemed eager to juice Pierce out before doing anything else.
And just when Pierce got comfortable in Damian’s arms and everything seemed as many miles away as they actually were when he closed his eyes, Rafe’s affectionate smile attacked him, standing still in front of him, laughing, or simply staring.
Pierce flicked his eyes wide open and looked at Damian’s rich eyelids, envisioning something completely different in the darkness they let in his eyes. Pierce focused his gaze on him.
Damian was starting to move on to the neck and pulled Pierce’s shirt off before he moved to his nipples. Pierce followed his every step, bringing his mind’s attention to the handsome man adoring his body. But every step that brought Damian closer to Pierce’s crotch, his face was replaced with Rafe’s dark features, his full lips kissing his abs, his eyes looking back at Pierce, ensuring he was doing everything right.
Damian/Rafe unzipped Pierce’s jeans and Pierce felt the pang of guilt down on his chest. He pushed Damian up and told him he couldn’t. Damian didn’t look offended, only curious.
“I…I just don’t want my first time to be like this,” he said to him. He got up, zipped his pants, and started looking for his jacket when Damian reached for his hand.
“You’re a virgin?” he asked him. Again, his face seemed to apologize more than looking for an apology.
Damian rubbed Pierce’s hand. “Aw, I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have been so forward if I’d known. You’re such a good kisser,” he pulled Pierce back down to the sofa and put a little distance between them without letting go of his hand.
Pierce blushed. “Thanks. But it’s not that. I’ve done things with boys before. Just never anything below the waist. And it’s not that. I’m not holier-than-thou, only willing to give it to the only one. It’s just, I’m…there’s…I…” he begun, but didn’t know how to describe Rafe’s intrusion in their little session.
“There’s another guy, and, let me guess, he’s haunting your thoughts?” Damian concluded with more resolution than someone clueless. Pierce nodded. “I know. I’ve been through that crap. I understand. I just hope he’s worth it. You’re a fine man,” he said.
Pierce shook his head. “He’s better than I’ll ever be,” he said even though he didn’t know where it’d come from and how he’d come to that conclusion. He barely even knew Rafe. How was it possible he was saying things like that?
“That’s adorable. You’re in love,” Damian replied as if reading his mind. Pierce didn’t respond. “Good luck with him. I hope he doesn’t torture you,” Damian let go of Pierce’s hand and got up. “Well, I’m beat. You can crash here if you want to”.
“Really? But we didn’t even—,” Pierce started to say, but Damian interrupted him.
“Who do you think I am, mister? A slut? Just because we didn’t do anything I’ll throw you out so late in the night? Puh-lease,” he said and giggled, heading off into his bedroom.
He brought a pillow and a blanket to Pierce, who embraced them both and as soon as the lights went out, his eyes closed.
Pierce might not have managed to get Rafe out of his mind over the next few days, but had managed to make a new friend in Damian, who had dropped by Les Fourches on both Friday and Saturday to chat with Pierce and grab some food, before heading off to dates.
“I want to find a guy to torture my own thoughts and dreams,” Damian told him before heading out, leaving behind a $10 tip.
Despite Pierce’s repeated insistence that nothing had happened between the two, almost the entire staff were in on the joke that Vance himself had started about Pierce having found a ‘boyfriend’.
“He’s a really good guy, Vance. But I’m not interested. Maybeyouare. Word of caution, though. He’s a real geek,” Pierce told Vance for the millionth time.
“I love me a good geek,” was his reply as he set off to show a new arrival to their table.
“I’ll set it up,” Pierce shouted his way, turning a few heads his way. “What?” he told the people looking at him.
The next day, Sunday, he was off work until the next weekend, so after waking up and checking out of the hostel later than usual, he decided to take a walk to one of the restaurants around the accommodation. He had changed hostels since he’d got a job and had found something even cheaper now that he had access to the internet and set dates. He had kept true to his word and only stayed in one the day before his shift until the day after. Usually a three-night stay that cost him $100. He was okay with the arrangement since he was slowly building up his funds to find his own place. The next hostel was only a street away from where he’d saved Rafe.
Not that he had seen Rafe. He assumed he was staying away from a place he considered dangerous. Not only had he been attacked by a gang, but by a homeless dude who had played nice, but treated him like a dickhead in the end.
He found his new, favorite local restaurant and took a seat inside, ordering a soda and some bread for starters. He kept looking out the window, unwilling to lose hope at the chance to meet Rafe. He ended up ordering a mushroom and lentil soup and french fries. A cringe-worthy combo, perhaps, but one he’d been craving for since the night before.
When he was all paid up, he went out and the sky was dark. It was already 7 p.m. and with clocks going backward a week ago it looked much later than it felt. He didn’t know where he was going tonight. The weather was not as chilly as the other nights, but why would he ever sleep outside when he had the moderate warmth of the subway? He knew where the closest station was and made his way towards it, cutting through a street he hadn’t before.
It was dark and quiet, a lot of cars driving by in slow motion. The further down he walked, he saw there were a lot of people standing on both sides of the street. They were all young men. He had, accidentally, found a cruising place. He tried not to stare, but the more gazes he felt on him, the more he felt inclined to look back. Some even howled at him, trying to get picked up. Even if he did want one, what would he possibly say? “I have this cozy train on the 3-Line we can use”?
A car slowed down and he heard a familiar voice. His eyes traced it, and his legs took him closer.
“I’mverygood with whips,” Rafe said to the driver of a crimson Volkswagen. “If that’s what you’re into,” he added.
He didn’t sound normal. Not like the sweet Rafe he’d talked to. He sounded passionate and sexy. He sounded dirty.
“Rafe?” he called to him.
Rafe turned his head and saw Pierce. His eyes grew wide. “What are you doing here?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing. Are you actually selling yourself to a stranger?” Pierce said before he could stop himself, realizing how accusatory he had sounded.
“What it’s got to do with you if I do?” Rafe asked.
Pierce got closer. He was only a few feet from Rafe, now. “Nothing, I know. But how can you trust that all these people don’t have AIDS or something? How can you trust they’re not ax murderers?” Pierce pleaded with Rafe.
“Hey! I’m just a teacher, dude,” the guy from inside the car said.
“Yeah, have you heard of Grindr,dude?” Pierce replied, turning his attention back to Rafe.
Rafe had already opened the door to the car. “Let me get this straight, Pierce. You have no right to judge me. You have no right to control me. I don’t know you andyoudon’t knowme. So do us both a favor and get the fuck out of here. You’re polluting everyone with your crappy energy,” he said and got in the car. “Drive,” he told the ‘teacher’ and the red Volkswagen veered off, leaving Pierce alone with a bunch of rentboys staring at him.
He shook the tears he wasn’t aware were threatening his eyes and resumed his journey to the subway station.
Had he hurt Rafe so bad he found the need to sell his body to survive, or had that been something he was already doing when he met him? He couldn’t imagine the sweet boy sexing it up for money. Hell, he couldn’t imagine him finding pleasure in any sexual endeavor. And not because he wasn’t attractive, but because he seemed so innocent, too innocent, to be doing anything as dirty as sex with strangers.
He really wanted to talk to Rafe and explain himself, but he didn’t seem as eager to do the same. Had he been such a complete tool that it had cost himself a good friend? What could he possibly do to make it up to him?
What was he supposed to do until next Friday, when his next shift was? Thinking of the week ahead, he already felt lonely. Sure, he could swing by his work and have a drink, but why spend money and delay his apartment hunt? And then, he thought, what was the point of saving to find a room to rent, if he had no one to invite, no one to share its warmth with?
How he missed home. He might not have been accepted for who he was there, but he had friends that visited him and did things together, or he always had his mother to cook with, which was a fun activity, even though she thought being vegan was Satan clawing his way to Pierce’s soul.
He saw a phone booth and the longing to call home clawed in his heart just like his veganism had supposedly and he found himself dialing home in no time.
“Hello!” came the answer from who other than his mom.
“Hi, mom,” he told her.
There was a deafening pause for a few seconds.
“Why are you calling, Pierce? Did you decide to atone for your sins and claim the Heavenly Father as your Lord and Savior again?”
Pierce rolled his eyes. “No,” he told her, “I called to tell you that I found a job last month and soon I’ll be able to afford a room to live in”.
Another long pause. He was trying to determine whether the pause was a delay in the line, or his mother thinking what insult to throw next. “Pierce, you know you always have a home here, with your father and I. All you have to do is ask for forgiveness and stop…sinning,” she said with her shrill voice. A voice that actually had the ability to turn Pierce into the devil his mother was so afraid of.
“I can’t believe yourhomelessson is calling you after six months and that’s all you have to tell him,” he asked maintaining his calm. For now.
She exhaled with attitude. The attitude that said, “Oh, Pierce, you’re so young and, you know nothing”.
“I cannot give up my place in Heaven because my son has decided to,” she said in a calm manner, “I don’t know what kind of people you’ve met to have made you this way, but I can’t have you sinning under my roof.”
He could picture her in his head. The way she would smile gently. The way her eyes would squint and her cheeks would ball up, forming a fake tenderness that could send Pierce ballistic.
“Go fuck yourself,” he said, and slammed the phone back on the receiver. There were a million things he wanted to tell her. But that seemed to sum everything up. She was not a mother. She was a puppet. And he didn’t know if puppets had the ability to acquire knowledge or even listen.
He paid the fare for the subway and sat down in an almost empty train. He took his book out of his suitcase and started reading, trying not to think of innocence lost and of devilish mothers finding salvation. It was going to be a long night. Thank goodness it was a long book.
The next day, Rafe couldn’t get Pierce out of his mind. Not that he had been able to while whipping and tying up the naughty teacher that had picked him up. He didn’t do kink, but for the extra cash he had charged him, he wouldn’t mind adding it to his services. $120 for a night was more than he’d made since he started indulging in this dangerous profession.
He subconsciously went through all the places he’d met Pierce. He walked through Central Park and then the cafe he’d taken him after the attack. When he realized he was standing at the very alley thecholoshad pulled him down, he accepted the fact that he wasn’t ready to let Pierce go so easily. He went to the hostel he knew Pierce preferred to stay and asked if he had been around, but they told him he hadn’t turned up in weeks. Rafe was worried. He wished he had asked where Pierce’s job was so that he could check there as well, if he still worked there.
He met Marissa for their customary hot drink and pizza slice at four. He had only found the guts to go back to Mario’s and apologize to his friend a week after he had been kicked out of his family house. Marissa had taken him back in. He didn’t even need to explain. She did want to go and kick his father’s ass, however, when he told her what happened. They were back to besties in a matter of seconds.
When it got to 5, he headed off, wanting to get an early start. The last couple of weeks he’d managed to do two clients in a few nights. With the light going out so early in the day, men got horny much earlier and he managed to fit in an evening client before a midnighter. There had been nights when he had had no one, but he was doing good all in all.
He got there a little before 6 and waited for the guys to start driving by. At half past six, an old man in a Porsche stopped in front of Rafe and he was already calculating how much to raise his price for such a…prestigious man.
“Hello, sexy. What’s your name?” Rafe smiled as soon as the window had rolled down.
“Rafe, can we talk?” someone said behind him and Rafe recognized the raspy voice. Pierce appeared from the shadows, his face pinker than he remembered it and his eyes looking at Rafe’s chest rather than his eyes.
“I have nothing to say to you,” Rafe snapped, biting his lips. He’d missed Pierce and his company. But he’d be damned if he let such a venomous man back in his life.
“Why are you doing this?” Pierce asked. He was now standing at the end of the sidewalk, a car away from Rafe.
Rafe shrugged. “Got to make a living somehow, don’t I? Not everyone can walk into a bar and get a job”. He turned to the old man again.
“Have you even tried it?” Pierce insisted. “I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant.”
Rafe took some steps closer to Pierce, forgetting the senior in the car. This man had the ability to infuriate him and weaken his knees at the same time. Right now, the former was winning. “Whatdoyou mean, Pierce?”
He took a moment before he answered. “I—I care about you,” he mumbled.
Knees were about to give up on him, but he let the infuriating part take over before he showed how easy he was. “A man who cares about someone else lets them explain why they thought leaving home was the best option for them. Not judge them before they can explain why they felt that way,” he hissed, not wanting to turn heads in the darkness.
“Tell me,” Pierce begged. It was a little louder than a whisper. It was a plea. It was desperate.
“It’s too late now,” Rafe pushed the warmth in his heart deeper inside and stood strong. That man was poison for him. He couldn’t let himself be sucked back in.
He turned and opened the door to the old man’s car. They could discuss details on the ride back to his place. Before he managed to take the seat, a hand pulled him back gently and Pierce closed the door.
“I’m sorry, old man, he’s taken for the night,” he told the driver.
“Whatever,” he said and drove to the next rentboy.
Rafe protested. He was losing money. He was losing his reputation. He wanted to punch Pierce. He told him all these things.
“Rafe, I’m sorry I was such a dick. It’s what happens when I open my mouth. So I’m gonna shut it and let you tell me about you, hoping you can forgive me, because frankly? I can’t imagine not talking to you ever again,” Pierce said and waited for Rafe’s response.
Rafe couldn’t believe that a guy like him wanted Rafe’s friendship. Pierce was poison, but if poison tasted so sweet, to hell with antidotes.
They walked down the road, taking a left and finding a Chinese restaurant to sit in. Rafe only ordered a side of spring rolls and a glass of water. Pierce ordered juice for both of them and a main of rice noodles to share.
And finally Rafe let go of all the resentment about Pierce that had crept up in him and let the charming, toxic guy win him over with a nice dinner night. Which he’d be damned if he paid for.
Pierce told him about his job and his colleagues and how excited he was, but how empty his routine was without a Rafe to save from gangs. Rafe chuckled even though it was hardly a joke and hardly funny. When he finished his brief update he gave the mic over to Rafe.
“So can you tell this idiot why you left home?”
The noodles came that very moment, giving Rafe time to think how and where to start the story from. When the waitress left, he was ready. He just didn’t know how ready Pierce was for it.
“My dad was always abusive. He always bullied me. Called me names. Nothing I ever did ever pleased him. I was always bullied at school, too. I only had a couple of friends, but mainly I kept to myself, which only gave fuel to the fire. I was the school faggot, the sissy, the cocksucker. That’s what they called me,” he said. Pierce’s eyes were glued on Rafe’s, his hands crossed in front of his mouth.
“The only nice person in my life was mymamacita. But my dad beat her and she couldn’t do a lot for me. She tried, though. God, she tried. And then, I found someone else who liked me. Some boy in my neighborhood, who at first I thought was another, more dangerous, bully. But he turned out to be hopelessly in love with me and you know…what else does a gay teenager with no friends and no support want? So I let him love me. He was only a year older than me and he seemed experienced, but I didn’t care about these things. I cared for his kisses and his hugs. And then I let him in. I lost my virginity to him and didn’t even bat an eye about it. I wanted to do it and I did it.
“But after the night we spent together at his place when his parents were out, he disappeared. I started worrying. I thought that’s all he ever wanted from me. I even thought he slept with me to win a bet. Then, two weeks later, he turned up, texted me, and asked to meet up. I wasn’t sure about meeting him. I thought he’d betrayed me. But I did want to find out why he’d disappeared. So I met him at his house. And he told me why. He found he was HIV positive. And he was afraid he had passed it on to me.”
Rafe paused to take a bite and inspect Pierce. He was waiting for the story to go on. He hadn’t taken a single bite of the noodles or a sip of his juice.
“I went through all the exams and the crap and waited for the results. I was certain I didn’t have anything. I didn’t feel different. I didn’t think my first time would actually screw me up so badly. But I had the fear. What if? And two weeks later the results were in, and I was positive.”
Rafe, again, examined Pierce’s face, who tried to show his compassion by pursing his lips and wrinkling his forehead.
“I told my parents. I didn’t know how else I could afford the medication. So I had to tell them two things. That I was gay, and that I had HIV. How cliché was I?
“Turns out, a lot. My dad started beating me up. When my mom tried to stop him, he beat her up. He didn’t want anything to do with my sicknesses. Both of them. He blanked me out. Didn’t talk to me anymore. Just beat me up if I tried to go out. Until I got a very bad cough and I was homebound. My mother stayed home to look after me. When my dad came back she asked him for money for a cough syrup. My dad went ballistic, beating my mom, me, throwing stuff across the room. He said he’d go to hell before paying for my fix. He was crazy. He didn’t know what he was talking about. And the more we tried to reason with him, the more violent he became. He broke my mom’s nose. He punched me in the eye. I just knew I couldn’t be in there with him anymore. I was only making things worse for my mom. So I ran. To keep my mom and myself safe,” Rafe finished and took a gulp of his juice.
Pierce was silent. He didn’t know what to say.
“That’s my story,” Rafe said.
Pierce shook his head and blinked several times. He rubbed his eyes. “Wow! So what are you doing now? Are you taking your meds?”
Rafe laughed. When other patrons turned staring at him he tried to stop but snorted like a pig.
“I’m homeless, Pierce. I’m lucky if I make fifty bucks from a fuck. And my meds cost almost two thousand. How on earth do you think I could be on my meds? I’ve managed to buy them a couple times, but they only last a month. I made them last two. But they don’t work that way. You need them every day. Every month.”
Pierce nodded. “There must be some charity or someone that helps people with HIV,” he said, and Rafe snorted again.
“Yeah, and we both know what kind of charities and places New York City has. If I wait for them to help me, I’ll die first,” he said.
“We’ll find a way. I’ll help you.I’llfind a way,” Pierce said and reached for Rafe’s hand across the table.
Little spiders crawled up his arm and his heart pumped louder. This man, this guy! Perhaps he wasn’t as poisonous as he thought. Now if he could convince his body the same before he collapsed from all the reactions Pierce’s touch caused to his skin, the night would be a dream.
From that day on, Pierce and Rafe didn’t lose sight of each other again. Wherever they went, they went together. Sleeping in subway cars, next to each other, using Pierce’s jacket as a made-up blanket for them both. Using their spare change to browse the internet and to find a solution to Rafe’s problem, or simply walking without purpose and talking endlessly about themselves.
Of course, Pierce wouldn’t let Rafe rent his body again, something which stressed Rafe, he’d said, as he had grown so used to earning money for his meds that way. Between the two of them, they had a little over two thousand dollars, and could afford one month of Rafe’s medication, but they needed to find a more permanent fix to the problem.
On their second day living as conjoined twins, Rafe took him downtown to a place called Mario’s Pizza where they were greeted by the smell of dough and herbs and a warm hug by the owner’s wife, Sonia, who not only gave them both a wide smile but a free drink too.
“She’s a really nice lady. She gives us a free slice and a drink every day,” Rafe told Pierce once they were both sat down on one of the tables.
Rafe pulled a third chair to their table and kept looking at the door, waiting for his friend to arrive. Pierce couldn’t believe this place even existed. He wished he’d known about it sooner, when he was starving and went days without proper food. It didn’t look particularly busy either, so he was astounded to find out they were so generous with the services they provided. He wanted to do something good for Sonia and her big heart.
Five minutes later, the doorbell chimed and in walked a girl. She was short and a bit on the plus-sized side, wearing black clothes and dark make-up, she took a seat between Rafe and Pierce and his friend introduced her as Marissa.
She was a shy girl, for all her intimidating appearance, but Rafe felt at home around her, and Pierce was beginning to realize there was nothing sweeter than seeing Rafe happy. Even if it was feeble and temporary.
Soon after Marissa sat down, Sonia approached them to take their order and Pierce had already made up his mind. Tonight’s dinner was on him. Not so much for Rafe and Marissa, as for Sonia and what she did for people like them.