Roger Singh thought that driving a taxi in London for a year would have prepared him for the streets of New York City. He was so, so wrong.
Mickey, his roommate, had warned him that driving in the biggest city in North America was unlike anything else he’d ever encountered. Sure, London had its crazy moments and people behind the wheel who had no business being there, but it was mostly misdirection and traffic congestion that caused the problem. Here in New York, as Mickey had told him and Roger was learning for himself, those problems were exacerbated by psychopaths in vehicles and apparently suicidal pedestrians who saw no reason to be governed by things like lights and traffic rules.
He had his cell phone mounted on his dashboard with the GPS app running. Somewhere down here, in an office tower in Manhattan, he was supposed to be going to an audition. The pelting rain was making the trip a special delight, and he had no idea how to find the building and even less of an idea of how and where he was going to park the car. He was taking this excursion one disaster at a time.
He should have listened to Mickey. He vowed that in the future, he would abide by everything his roommate told him.
This audition was the twelfth one that his agent, Dwight, had arranged. He had gone to Queens, Brooklyn, the Village, and the Bronx, and he’d been to Manhattan three times already. It was bizarre to him how the city looked different every time he saw it, as if it was morphing just to confuse him. Even though he’d driven through many of the same areas, he could swear he’d never seen the same street twice.
His sense of direction had never been the greatest. He had spent the better part of his life getting hopelessly lost in one place or another, an example that the progress of his personal and professional lives followed closely. If his past could be drawn out like a map, it would be clear that he had been going around in circles for the last two years, and that now he had no idea where he was going.
He took his eyes off the road to check the GPS once more. He should have been getting close to the right place. He took advantage of a red light to double check the address that he had written down on a scrap of paper, and when the light changed, he didn’t see it switch. The car behind him blared its horn, and he panicked and jammed his foot down on the accelerator.
He should have been looking up.
Directly in front of his car was a tall blond man in a leather jacket, his head down to avoid the rain. When Roger hit his accelerator, he plowed into the man, knocking him down. A sickening thump filled his ears, and he panicked again, throwing the car into reverse when he was trying to park. The thump happened again, and he thought he was going to be sick.
Roger threw himself out of the car and ran around to the front, where a crowd of helpers and gawkers had already begun to assemble. The man was lying on the pavement with a bleeding gash in his head and blood all over his torn blue jeans. It was obvious that his right leg was broken and that he had taken a good rap to the head, because he kept trying to get up even though his body wouldn’t work, his blue eyes glassy and unfocused. There were tire tracks on his broken leg, and Roger wanted to die.
“Someone call an ambulance!” he begged. Some of the people already had their cell phones out, and a few were even dialing the authorities. Some were filming the event, making certain to get good shots of his face and the injuries of his unfortunate victim.
A police car rolled up, and it gave its siren a single bloop before it came to a stop. Two uniformed officers got out, one who looked like a Hollywood stereotype of every donut-loving cop that ever appeared in a comedy, the other looking like some sort of male model in blue. Roger didn’t know what to do, so he put his hands up.
Officer Stereotype walked onto the scene, speaking into the radio attached to his shoulder. His young partner started herding people away from the fallen man, and as he did so, he asked Roger, “You the driver?”
“Yes. Yes, I am. Oh, God, I’m so, so sorry…”
“Where you from?”
“The one in England?”
“Yes, sir. Oh, Jesus, am I going to be deported?”
Officer Stereotype approached. “I’m going to need to see your papers, mister.” He took Roger by the elbow and steered him away while his young partner crouched beside the injured man. The younger officer started talking to Roger’s victim in soothing tones as he took a cell phone out of a pocket in the man’s blood-spattered jacket. The man flailed at the officer ineffectually.
Roger produced his passport, driver’s license and the insurance information for the car, which belonged to Mickey and now had a horrible dent in the front grill and God knew what other damage. Roger buried his hands in his black hair and tried not to hyperventilate.
An ambulance came with remarkable speed, somehow maneuvering through the crowded streets and retrieving the poor injured fellow from the wet pavement. They deposited the man on a stretcher and disappeared with him, leaving Roger to watch as Officer Stereotype went over his documents.
The younger of the two cops turned his attention to Roger. “You want to tell me what happened?”
“I was driving and trying to confirm my directions when the man behind me honked, and I knew I was dawdling, so I tried to speed up, but when I did, I hit the gas without looking and that bloke had walked out in front of me and I hit him and I think I ran him over and oh my God I’m going to be sick...”
True to his word, he inelegantly left his lunch in a waste bin on the curb while the officers watched him noncommittally. When he had finished being ill, the older officer handed him his papers and a ticket.
“You’re in a world of hurt, son,” the man said. “You have to respond to that ticket in person or in the mail, but you better respond. The address is on the back.”
The younger officer’s eyelashes were ridiculously long. Roger was appalled with himself for noticing such a thing at a time like this. “Are you okay?” Male Model Officer asked, his perfect brow furrowed ever so slightly.
“I just… yes, but… that man… I crippled him, and if he dies…”
“If he dies, we’ll be in touch,” Officer Stereotype assured him.
“Oh, God. Oh, God.” He was rapidly heading toward a full-on case of the vapors, and he couldn’t make his hands stop shaking.
Male Model Officer asked, “Is your car drivable?”
“I… Should I?”
He smiled, and it was devastating. “You need to get it out of the road at least.”
Roger nodded. “Right. Of course. I’m sorry.” He stepped toward the car. “May I…?”
“Move it into that parking lot over there,” Officer Stereotype advised. “We’ll meet you.”
He got behind the wheel and drove into the lot they’d indicated. It was lucky placement, because it was literally the only car park on the street. Every space was occupied, but that didn’t seem to trouble the police a bit. They directed him to park in an imaginary space toward the back of the lot, and then they beckoned him back out of the vehicle. They took his statement, photographed the front of the car and administered a field sobriety test, which he passed. He hadn’t been drinking, so at least that much was in his favor.
When they were done, Officer Stereotype went back to their car to handle the radio business and Male Model Officer stayed with Roger. “Here. This is my card. The number of the police report is written on the back. You’ll need that for your insurance claim. Are you hurt at all?”
He accepted the business card and shook his head. “No, no. Just upset. My God, I’ve never… I swear I don’t run people down in my car for the joy of it, officer.”
He smiled again, and Roger wished he’d stop doing that. “I never thought you would. Listen, are you calm enough to drive? Do you need us to call somebody for you?”
Roger heaved a sigh. “I’ve nobody to call right now. I’ll be all right.”
Male Model Officer looked unconvinced, but he said, “Well, okay. Just be safe out there.” He turned to walk away, then stopped. He turned back around. “You might want to call the British consulate and tell them what’s happened. You don’t happen to have any sort of diplomatic immunity, do you? You work for the UN or something?”
“No. I play bass.”
“Guitar or upright?”
The question surprised him. “Both, but mostly guitar.”
“Cool.” He nodded to him. “You’d better get out of the rain, Mr. Singh.”
Roger watched him leave. “Thank you, Officer…” He looked at the card. “Officer Campbell.”
Campbell nodded to him with a sympathetic smile, then joined his partner in their patrol car. With another beep of the siren, they headed back into traffic. Roger went and got behind the wheel again, dreading the call to Mickey to tell him about his car.
The alarm on his cell phone was screeching, telling him he was twenty minutes late for his audition. He turned off the terrible noise and put his head against the steering wheel.
“Welcome to America.”
Surprisingly, Mickey did not murder him when he heard the news, and even when he saw the car, he remained shockingly un-homicidal. Instead, he put his arms around Roger and embraced him.
“Oh, sweetie, it’s just a car. It can be replaced. I’m just glad you’re all right. And the guy you hit – he’s alive, right?”
“As far as I know,” Roger nodded glumly.
“Do you know what hospital they took him to?” Mickey kept his arm around him as they walked up the stairs from the underground parking garage.
“No. They didn’t tell me, and I didn’t think to ask.”
His roommate shepherded him all the way up to their fourth-floor walk-up. “Well, maybe the police could tell you. Or maybe it would be better to leave well enough alone.”
Roger watched Mickey unlock the door. “Yes, I think I should leave him be. I’ve done quite enough damage to him for one lifetime.”
He gave Roger a sympathetic smile and said, “Don’t be too hard on yourself. People play chicken with traffic all the time, and sometimes they get hit. It happens.”
Mickey opened the door and led the way inside, stepping lightly like the dancer he was. Roger galumphed along behind him, dragging his feet, his hands shoved into his pockets. He took off his jacket and hung it up in the coat closet, then took his shoes off and put them side by side next to the door mat. Mickey sat on the couch and picked up a folder of menus that they kept.
“I’m not cooking and you’re not cooking, so let’s order in. Bombay House?”
He groaned. “I don’t want curry right now.”
“It’s Indian food. I thought you’d like some comfort food, something to remind you of home.”
Roger sighed and sat beside Mickey. “I’ve never been to India, and my mum was Irish. Home cooking to me is boxty and colcannon.”
His roommate nodded. “Well, we can order from Riley’s. They deliver.” He bumped their shoulders together and grinned. “Come on. Let me buy you some cabbage so we can fart all night.”
He had to smile in spite of himself. “You have strange pastimes.”
“You don’t even know the half of it.” He checked his watch. “Ooh, not quite dinner time. They might not be open yet.”
“I’m not hungry anyway.”
Mickey stood up and stretched sinuously. “Well, we both have to eat, right? I’ll revisit the whole food subject in an hour or so.”
His roommate started stretching on a portable bar that he had placed in the living room, and Roger went into his bedroom to call Dwight. He found that his agent had already called him. He listened to the message on his voice mail.
Dwight’s recorded voice told him, “Okay, the audition you’re heading to was canceled and is going to be rescheduled for a week from today, same time, same place. In the meantime, I have another band I want you to go see. They’re a hard rock outfit, real up-and-comers, called Thor’s Hammer. They’re playing at the Riviera Club tonight, and rumor has it that they’re looking for a new bass player. Check it out, man. Okay, bye.”
The message ended, and he checked the time stamp. Dwight had been chirping into his voice mail while Roger had been having a near-miss with vehicular homicide. It was lucky that the audition had been rescheduled, and he vowed to himself that he would take a cab everywhere he went from now on.
Against his better judgment, Roger went to the Riviera Club. Mickey came with him, and they took a cab, which Roger thought was quite wise of them. He wasn’t in any condition to drive, and he intended to swallow a wide variety of alcoholic beverages, so he’d be in even worse condition when it was time to leave.
They were admitted to the club after paying a cover charge. The bouncer was an immense bald man who looked like he ate locomotives for breakfast and still had some stuck in his teeth. He snorted at Mickey’s New York Ballet Theater company jacket, but his roommate either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Roger wished he could be as blithe.
The club was a single room with a stage on one end and a bar on the other. There were no seats in between, just a black-painted floor sparkling with glitter that had fallen from some of the patrons. The walls were painted black, as well, but papered with handbills from past rock concerts. Roger didn’t recognize a single name.
They ordered drinks, and after they received their glasses of consolation, they headed toward the middle of the room. “Have you ever heard of these guys?” Roger asked his friend.
Mickey shrugged, “Ah, not really. Nordic death metal isn’t really my thing.”
“Nor mine,” he admitted. “I’m not sure why Dwight thinks I should listen to them. He said that they were looking for a bass player, but I don’t know… I don’t think I’m the right man for the job.”
His roommate sipped his whiskey sour and said, “Well, the price was right. At least we didn’t have to buy a ticket, and the cover charge was pretty reasonable for this part of town.”
Roger commented, “Really? I thought it was ridiculous. Who pays that much to get into a club?”
“It’s NYC, baby. Everything is expensive here.”
The house went dim and a trio of spots hit the stage. A rack of red lights along the front of the stage started to flash, the bulbs lighting in sequences that made Roger’s head hurt. The audience began to scream and shout, calling the band to the stage. Soon enough, a quintet of young men walked into view. The lead singer’s hair was blond and in a mohawk that was braided in tiny plaits hanging down his back, complete with beads, some of which looked like they were made of bone. Roger hoped the bone wasn’t human. The sides of his head were tattooed with Nordic runes and interweave patterns, and he had a long goatee that was also braided and beaded. He looked frightening. The guitarist wasn’t much better, with his long bottle-black hair hanging in his face like a mask. He was clad all in black, with black bracers and a black leather harness over his black T-shirt.
Mickey pointed at him. “Leather daddy,” he shouted over the noise.
The bass guitarist was blond and a fine example of heroin chic, so scrawny that Roger wasn’t certain he’d be able to withstand the weight of his instrument around his shoulder. He stood by himself in a corner of the stage while the singer and the guitarist conferred with another guitarist, a shirtless hunk coated from navel to neck in tattoos. His arms were covered with colorful tattoo sleeves, and Roger wondered how long it had taken to get all of his skin art. When he saw the swastika embedded in the designs, he no longer cared. He was willing to bet that the symbol wasn’t there in honor of the original Sanskrit.
The music, if you could call it that, started with a wail on the guitar and a guttural scream into the microphone from the vocalist. Roger decided that calling him a “singer” was probably too generous a term. The pace was fast, the thrash metal pounding, and he couldn’t tell one song from the other. He wasn’t certain if the lyrics were in English or Swedish or some made-up tongue from a fantasy novel. He looked at Mickey, and Mickey looked at him, and they turned as one to head for the door.
As soon as they were out on the sidewalk, Roger said, “Well, that was…” “Heinous,” his friend finished for him.
He laughed. “Yes, I suppose so.”
Mickey looped his arm through Roger’s. “The night is still young, and you’re still sober, so we can’t possibly go home. Let’s go to Nightingale’s.”
It was his roommate’s favorite gay bar, and it had much to recommend it. The music was great, the dancing was hot, and the clientele usually were young and beautiful. Roger wondered how he was allowed in, but he supposed it was because he came there with Mickey. His roommate was blessed with a lean, muscular body and a cherubic face, which in the hands of a less moral man could have been a dangerous combination. He’d never seen Mickey lead anybody on, and there had been plenty of guys with beautiful bodies making themselves available to him. Since Roger had moved in with him, Mickey had brought home five different men from Nightingale’s, each one of them more handsome than the last. His roommate called it his “catch and release program.”
They went down the street and around the block, then into the welcoming arms of their destination. It was already packed with people, mostly young men grinding away on the dance floor in search of a quick and meaningless hook up, but there were also groups of older people, including some women, who were just there to hang out. The friends’ groups stayed to the outside of the room, sitting in the booths and at the tables, while the younger Casanovas swam with the sharks on the dance floor.
Roger found a booth and claimed it while his roommate collected drinks for them. He watched the dancers and the way their bodies moved. The room was a mass of motion, and if he unfocused his eyes just so, he could just watch the shifting shapes and colors like some sort of animated kaleidoscope. He was busy doing just that when his friend returned.
“Whiskey sour for me, tequila shot for you.” He put the glasses down. “I saw Steve at the bar. He’s here with Terry. Can you believe it? After all the times he said he’d never take him back, there he is.”
“Shocking,” Roger said, trying hard to remember who Steve and Terry were. He couldn’t keep track of the Nightingale dramas the way Mickey did.
His roommate continued. “And Esteban is out on the floor, the hussy, dancing with some twink half his age. I really ought to warn that boy about Esteban’s hygiene problems.”
Roger smiled. That was a story he remembered. “He’ll find out on his own soon enough. It’ll teach him to be wary of whom he picks up in bars.”
“It certainly taught me,” Mickey said, adding a theatrical shudder to punctuate the conversation.
He laughed and swallowed his drink. The taste was horrible, but it was strong, and that was what he wanted tonight. Mickey slid around the circular booth until he was sitting beside Roger and they could look out over the dance floor together.
“See that guy in the red pants?”
He looked and finished his tequila. “What about him?”
“He’s an actor. That’s Michael Willis. He’s on Broadway right now, in that musical Harvard…”
“The one you tried out for?”
“And didn’t get? Yes. He made his name in television… what was the name of that show? Oh, yes. Miami PD. Real man’s man on the show, very much a womanizer. And he’s married in real life to his co-star, Shannon Price. But she’s a raging lesbian and he’s been doing all the chorus boys. They’re each other’s beards by arrangement.”
Roger shook his head. “How do you know all this?”
“I read the rags, and I talk to people behind the scenes. Ronny’s boyfriend used to date the guy who’s now sleeping with the dresser on Harvard, and I called him up the other day and got all the dirt.” He winked at Roger as he picked up his drink. “It’s who you know that leads you to what you know.”
They people-watched and drank for almost an hour, and when his head was swimmy and his eyes were unfocusing without his help, Roger leaned over to Mickey.
“Why don’t you go dance?” he suggested. “You like to dance.”
“I do like to dance, but I also want to make sure you don’t get lost going home.” He put some money on the table for the cocktail host and slid out of the booth. He offered Roger his hand. “Come on. Time to go.”
Roger followed him, but his slide over the pleather upholstery was nothing like Mickey’s graceful exit. His jeans seemed to stick and he got his feet tangled up with the table, and he nearly fell. When he finally was able to stand up, he took his friend’s hand.
“Are you sober?” he accused.
Mickey led him out of the bar and onto the sidewalk. A taxi was already waiting, and they helped themselves. As they sat in the back seat, Roger looked down at their hands, which were still clasped.
“Why don’t you have a boyfriend?” he slurred.
“Can’t find the right one. You?”
He shrugged. “Same.” They were quiet for minute, then he asked, “Do you get horny?”
Mickey laughed, and it was a hearty, snorty laugh that made Roger giggle, too. “Of course I do, silly! That’s why I pick up guys here at the club. You didn’t think I was doing it professionally, did you?”
“I didn’t.” He leaned back and closed his eyes. It had been a very long time since he’d been with anyone, and he was feeling the lack. Perhaps it was the alcohol, or the strain of the day just past, but he would have welcomed the release of sex. He recognized, however, that he was probably just drunk enough to be a bumbling fool if he tried, and he might fall asleep halfway through, anyway.
His roommate put a hand on his knee. “I think maybe we should be friends with benefits. Nothing serious, just a little slap and tickle to get us through until I find mine and you find yours. What do you think?”
He rolled his head on the back of the seat and looked at him. “I think that I’m almost drunk enough to say yes, but that would ruin our friendship.”
“Nah.” Mickey grinned at him. “It would just be scratching an itch, you know? Like, a handshake that’s really a hand job. That sort of thing.”
“You’re mad.” He closed his eyes. “Totally crazy.”
“Suit yourself.” He shrugged. “I just thought it would be a time saver for us both, and we’d feel better, and then we’d both sleep better, and... well, anyway. If you can’t keep it casual, I understand.”
It sounded like a challenge. “I can keep it casual! I can. I just don’t want to.” He took a breath and opened his eyes. “Listen, I can’t sleep with you because what if we both like it too much, and we end up dating, but we break up? Then I’d have nowhere to live and I’d have to go back to Britain, and I don’t want to go back there. And if we end up dating, we won’t be friends anymore, and you’re the only friend I have.”
He got more emotional the longer he talked. He found himself with tears standing in his eyes, and he had no idea why.
Mickey looked at him for a moment. “Okay,” he said. “I get it.”
The cab let them out at their door, and after Mickey settled up the fare, he helped Roger up the stairs. He unlocked the door and the two of them shuffled in.
“I need to piss,” Roger announced.
“Good for you. Do you need help?”
“I’ve been doing this on my own for twenty-four years, thank you very much.” He pulled himself up, for a moment looking very formal. “I shall need no such assistance this night, my good man.”
His roommate giggled at him and let him stagger off into the interior of the apartment. It was an inglorious end to an inglorious day.