by Miss Rosen
Whoever can see through all fear
will always be safe.
—Tao Te Ching, Chapter 46
The Doctor awakens with a start. Heart racing, fingertips pulsating, he leaps from the bed where Nino lies awake, twisted in the sheets, staring at the ceiling with blind eyes and cold heart. Sweat pools underneath his back and saliva runs along his cheek. His hair is wet. His skin glistens. He wears nothing but tattoos that testify and imprison.
Weary from yet another scene, the Doctor decides not to ask about the dream that shook them both awake. As he puts a thick robe over his pale, hairy body and slides his shapeless feet into a pair of slippers. He grabs the pack of Newports off the nightstand, lights one casually then sighs in dismay.
“What?” Nino demands without turning his head. His body is rigid. His eyes are sealed in protest.
The Doctor does not say a word as he exits the room.
“Get me some water!” Nino yells at the figure that retreats down the hall. Then he lays his forearm over his eyes, his head throbbing in pain. From deep inside, the echo of laughter rings in his ears. The sound surrounds him, enveloping him in dissonance. His arm moves away from his eyes. His hands cover his ears. His jaw is clenched so hard that soon it aches. As his chest rises and falls under labored breath, the name written in the skin of his left breast comes alive as a shadow glides across the ceiling, a reminder of the two that never met, of hellos unspoken and goodbyes never said.
He shifts violently onto his stomach trying to break away from the pain of this moment. The adrenalin unleashed by the dream circulates through his blood, amping him up. He begins to pound the pillow, softly at first, mumbling under his breath. His throat is dry, his eyes are wet. His legs itch, they twitch, and unconsciously they begin to kick.
It is too much. He gets out of bed yelling, “GET ME SOME WATER!”
Seeing how the Doctor ignores his command, Nino’s pride rises and he wastes no time in deliberating his fate. Fuck this! he says to himself as he grabs his clothes. Fuck this guy! he curses as he pulls on his jeans. Fuck his money! he insists as he grabs his sweatshirt and raises the hood. Then he thinks better of that pledge and snatches a couple of twenties out of the Doctor’s wallet. Fuck this house! he promises as he puts on his boots, crosses the room, and walks out the door.
Summer in New York is a symphony of lilac skies. The universe is blotted out, no longer visible to the naked eye. All that exists is the air, humid and thick with unfulfilled wishes while crushed dreams litter the streets like so much debris. The sour smell of the gutter greets Nino like an old friend. How you doing, man? Ain’t been too long. Thought you might have come up but I guess I was wrong.
Hey, man. What, you ain’t got nothing to say? You too good to talk to a brother like me? Well don’t forget, I know where you started and I know where you’ve been. No one knows you better than me. I been here from the beginning and I ain’t going away. I know all of your secrets. But don’t worry, I ain’t gonna say. Ain’t no one care, anyfuckinway.
Nino’s eyes flash, his hands clamp into fists. As he turns his head in disgust, his eyes alight on a couple walking across the street. The girl is young, maybe twenty-one, and her body is soft and fresh, ripples of sweet, supple, luscious flesh. Long black hair hangs down her back and swings in time with the gentle sway of her hips. He watches her walk, seeing her breasts bounce quietly as she wavers along. He can hear the tinkle of bells in her laugh and (somehow) the sound of her joy softens his anger.
She walks with a guy in his mid-twenties. Skinny with narrow shoulders and a sunken chest, the guy moves with the confidence that sexing a foolish girl brings. He takes a swig out of the bottle that he carries in a brown bag then stops to say something nasty to the girl. Nino watches as her face changes from light to dark and he notices her shoulders tense before she fires something back.
The guy’s confidence falls and in its place comes contempt. Shame and hatred unleash a spite of bad blood, leaving a bitter taste in his mouth. Spit, he must spit and get it all out. “YOU’RE A WHORE!” he yells, resentful and proud.
Nino sees pain etch into the girl’s face as she turns to walk away but the guy grabs her upper arm, pulling the fragile limb towards him with a hard jerk. Her body snaps as she falls back and the guy wears a hostile smile like the crown of victory. He knows women are whores and treats them all the same. He laughs at how they love to be debased not realizing his sadism betrays his deepest vulnerability.
The guy is in her face, rum-soaked breath pouring from his lips. The words he speaks can no longer be heard as he turns his back on Nino, who watches intently as the girl struggles to free herself .
“Let go of me!” she yelps like a half-starved kitten. His hand grips her flesh harder until she squeaks in pain.
“Shut the fuck up!” he demands, raising his other hand and striking her across the face. Her head whips back and she topples over. Down. Down to the ground. She hits the concrete with a dull thud, her knee and hand slam first to block her fall. But all she can feel is the hammering of her heart. She is about to damn this guy to the depths of the earth when she hears a strange voice speaking for her.
“What the fuck it wrong with you?” Nino demands. “How you gonna hit a girl? You weak, faggot, you fucked up right there.”
Fist connects to skull and all that is heard is the sound of the guy falling like a sack of rocks.
Nino laughs happily and looks at the girl. Her face is windswept in disarray as feelings of terror, confusion, and relief course through her veins. He puts his hand out to help her stand; she looks up at him, blue irises obliterated by pupils dilated in fear.
“Sorry about that,” he murmurs when he realizes that she will not take his hand. Then he drops to the ground, pats the guy down, pulls the wallet, and casually thumbs through it. After pocketing the cash, Nino puts the wallet back where he found it and stands up again.
The girl is on her feet, standing but not moving, taking strong sips of air under a veil of radiant black hair. She looks at Nino with wonder. A hero? A criminal? A New Yorker, for sure. “Thank you,” she croaks, surprised by her voice. She tries to speak again but the words are barely more than a soft moan.
She feels dizzy, nervous, nauseous, sick. She takes a few steps away from him and vomits in the street. With the loss of this dead weight, she feels more at ease. She pulls a stick of Big Red out of her purse, unwrapping it slowly with fingers that tremble and shake, then folding it into her mouth where the hot and pungent flavor of cinnamon burns her throat. She spits the gum out of her mouth and on to the street. Water, it is cold clean water that she needs. She looks around for a bodega and notices the stranger remains close.
“Thank you,” she says again, this time in normal voice. “I don’t know what I would have done…” Anxiety darkens her face as she looks at him. She tries to be discreet but he is watching her, carefully, like he is taking notes.
When their eyes connect, her stomach drops and a flurry of butterflies flutter through her belly, carefree. Their wings beat with light, feathery strokes inside her belly, tickling her with the taste of destiny. It feels so good she begins to get lightheaded, woozy, and her balance, what little exists, is threatened by his presence. She is overcome by emotions, mixed, shaken, stirred. Too much is happening and her reaction becomes slurred. She wants to leave but she is unable to walk away. Something magnetic holds her in place.
Drawn into her eyes, Nino feels as though he were falling, the ground beneath his feet giving way. “You are beautiful,” Nino says with a tenderness he did not expect.
She returns his gaze, shyly at first, feeling her heart beating powerfully under her breast.
As the fear fades, it is replaced by something she has never known. Protection? Could it be? Could a man want to shelter her rather than punish her for simply being she? She does not know; she does not trust but she feels safe for all of once. Safe despite (or because) he exudes danger and (it seems) he is on her side. Something pulls her toward him, something that she cannot comprehend, something that tells her to trust this dark knight of noble heart and iron fist.
A demure smile graces her face, her eyes glowing under lashes that flicker and flutter like birds of paradise. She is entranced by his visage, feeling as though she stands before an oasis, a mirage.
“My name is Jade,” she says, opening herself up to something she does not understand.
Jade. Her name echoes in his soul and he gives thanks to God for the goodness that He bestows. Nino introduces himself, extending his hand with his palm out. She places her hand in his, her breath taken away when their fingers touch.
“May I walk you home?” Nino asks.
“Yes, please. I’m on Sixth; it’s not far.”
With her at his side, Nino moves with a pride of purpose that swells his chest. It has been so long since he has been with a woman that Nino nearly forgot what it was to feel like a man. He steps discreetly behind her and crosses over so that he is walking on the outside, affecting the role of protector, while also claiming her as his own to all who know the rules of the street.
As they walk, they say little, quietly sharing each other’s space. They are alone, together, feeling an easy sense of tension, each lost in their own lives. The night is quiet and it is calm. Yellow cabs cruise, homeless men snooze. It is as they say in Grand Hotel: “People come, people go. Nothing ever changes.”
Photograph by Francis Wolff
Billie Holiday Performing in
Esquire Jam Session at Metropolitan House
1944, New York