Dion moved back to the neighborhood.
It defied the change characterizing the rest of the city: new developments, young professionals, coffee shops, and bars—an evaporation, like a puddle retreating into itself, then into nothingness, of crime. But the neighborhood was never dangerous or too dangerous and the same dollar stores and Hispanic restaurants flanked the streets. Kids still sold pot outside their buildings and police cars still screamed by, but the neighborhood was not unruly. The neighborhood above it was.
Marcia answered the door in a purple tank top. She was forty, probably. Dion, twenty-five, shook her hand. She turned around, her curves widening, broadening necessarily inside the leggings, flesh stirring and returning to stillness; his breath caught in his upper chest, pressed against his throat: “This is the room,” she said.
Furniture clogged the little space. A twin bed had retreated, with nowhere else to go, in the corner. A random door to the kitchen opened a crack in the middle of the bedroom wall—one of those doors in a bedroom betraying it is not supposed to be a bedroom at all—just enough for the wire strung through it to connect to an outlet by the bed, probably powering the refrigerator in the kitchen. When Dion asked Marcia if it were possible to close the door, she volunteered to drill a hole in it for the wire to feed through, to allow the door to shut, for Dion’s privacy. Beside the door to the kitchen opened the bedroom door in which they stood, him a little ahead of her: “The rent includes utilities?” he said.
Then they sat down at the table beside the front door. Packaged candy covered the table. The wall behind Dion was painted pink. The wall beside him was orange. Another wall was bright green. Little candies filled a bowl on the coffee table opposite the purple couch. Marcia smiled and Dion noticed her green eyes and she asked him to tell her about himself and Dion said:
“I grew up near Philadelphia, I work at a deli downtown, I’m a painter.” Before he could see any concern ripple through her face, he said: “My painting supplies are in a storage unit. I’ll get them when I move out of here.” He couldn’t think of anything else. He wanted to say something else. He felt he should.
“I was born here,” said Dion, the words floating away from his mouth, him observing the words float away from his mouth, “in this neighborhood.”
“Oh, wow,” said Marcia, “and when did you move to Philly? When you were a kid?”
“Yeah,” said Dion, breath emptying the word, shrinking it, because “move to Philly” surrounded what really happened like an earth around a core. Philadelphia was where Dion’s adoptive parents had taken him, after adopting him from a birth mother in the neighborhood and city he’d just returned to.
Her ex-boyfriend came that night while Dion was asleep. Dion’s feet shivered over the edge of the bed. Somewhere, somehow, a draft. The screaming and the thump of boots and then the slam of the door should have woken him but fatigue, insurmountable, from days of sleepless searching for a room as the month ended, of withholding money for a motel to afford a deposit, of internet cafes and 24-hour McDonald’s, heaved onto him, burying him—a very deep sleep.
He joined her in the kitchen the following evening. She made coffee. She smiled, lips tight, and lifted the cup: “I like to drink coffee in the night,” she said, and the words in the night, spoken by her as if by a little girl, he thought, transformed into a little girl in his mind, or an image of a girl, an archetypal imprint of a child jumping rope, and he said: “Me too,” even though it wasn’t true. She offered him coffee and he had a mug. She told him about herself: she’d lived in the neighborhood her whole life. Her father worked for the city. Her mother was dead. She worked for the city, too. At a subway station, at the booth. “Which station?” “210th Street,” she said, “my home station.”
And then he took his coffee and she took her coffee and she went to bed and he stood in his room, holding his mug in both hands, then sat down at the desk beside the door, the little desk, and felt like painting, but because his stuff lay in a storage unit and he could not paint, and knew he could not paint, energy like light from the sun on the beach ran up from his pelvis to his head, bursting upon the ceiling of his skull, spurring him out the door, into the street, swept by wind and pre-storm electricity, enlivening the air. Then he rode the subway for one stop, just to ride. He got off. When the storm broke, he hid under the awning of a deli. The rain lessened. He ran to the subway, through the lighter rain, rode, mistakenly, downtown, in the wrong direction, realized it, and it took him two stops to resolve to get off the train, cross the platform, and ride uptown, in the right direction, home. Outside the door to the apartment, he heard yelling from inside, his hand held onto the doorknob as he listened to the shouting, a man’s, barks of noise, serrated around the edges like someone notched the yells with a box cutter, shouts solidifying into words, half-heard through the door: “FAULT,” and “TAKE,” and “I,” and he turned the handle and walked into the apartment and the man, standing in the living room beyond the hall, turned green eyes on Dion and Dion walked toward them and then Marcia said: “Frank, this is Dion” and Dion’s mind said go to your room but his backside sank into the couch where, crawling with fear, he stared ahead, sitting on the couch he had never sat on before, a pace away from the man and Marcia, facing one another, seconds before entrenched in the screaming. But Dion just sat on the couch, staring straight ahead. Standing where he stood, the man’s fist hung beside Dion’s ear. Marcia looked at Dion and looked at the man. Her eyes, wet before, brightened, hardened. Then Dion stood up and went to his room. A little while later he heard the front door slam.
The following evening, he sat down again on the couch because he figured: Now I’ve done it, better keep doing it, to make it seem like it’s natural, and she came out of her room and sat down. Each asked the other about their day. “I’m gonna’ watch The Twilight Zone,” Marcia said, to relieve the pause. Dion said he’d never seen The Twilight Zone.
It was an episode about a family of aliens who seem like earthlings, terrorized by earthlings who seem like aliens, until the end of the episode, when the twist is revealed. Dion said he liked the black and white, he liked the show, and Marcia nodded, looking at him, eyes wide, excited.
“Do you want to know who your birth parents are?” said Naima, the young woman across the table—his date.
Dion for lack of something to talk about had volunteered that he was adopted.
This was their third date. This was the third date Dion had ever been on. Nervousness traveled up and down his body like an electrical current. Sometimes, an extraordinary calm possessed Dion at an impenetrable—it seemed—center, and reality encircled him like a planet around a sun. Other times, Dion’s head ballooned with red energy, chaos, and he thought he would die or collapse into himself, draining into a hole, some destruction, some misfortune worse than death. This latter state dogged him throughout this date. Dion shook his head, no, he didn’t want to meet his birth parents. “Well,” he said, reconsidering, “yes and no.”
I should kiss her, he thought, facing her outside her door, later that night, but he said goodnight, turned around, and trudged to the train station, shame inflaming him.
He got off at 210th Street. The entire ride home, he wanted to punch the air to death or cry or scream. Passing the booth outside the turnstiles, he heard a knocking—a knocking on the bulletproof glass, from inside the booth, and turned and saw her, knocking on the glass, smiling, in her work clothes. He smiled, too. “I’m just getting off,” she said, clambering out the booth.
They walked home.
She took off her uniform jacket. Shoulders, wide and fleshy, overflowed the sleeveless undershirt, Dion’s eyes weakened, softened, the word “Twilight,” uncurled before “Zone,” curved upward into the air.
“What?” Dion said, drawn to her.
“You’ve never had a girlfriend before?” said Marcia, as they talked, after the episode about the boy who could destroy the world with his mind.
“No,” said Dion, “but I’m signed up for online dating.”
“I’ve tried that, too,” said Marcia. She laughed.
Dion was silent.
“I’m sorry about the last few nights,” Marcia said, looking to the side, as if distracted by a crack in the wall she’d never seen before. “I told him to not come here anymore, and he said he wouldn’t.” She looked back. Their green eyes met.
“Let’s watch another episode of Twilight Zone,” Dion said, and they did.
That night, lying in bed, on his back, he thought again about the way she seemed to sway through the world. How she laughed—a curt, imploding snort from the other room, the living room, when he heard her watching Seinfeld, at six, or Friends, at six-thirty.
At work, the next day, a few minutes after Dion had clocked in, his manager said: “Dion, can I talk to you for a second?” and Dion followed him downstairs.
A few days before, a drunk Wall Street type—the deli was in the Financial District—impressed his friends (also drunk—in different colored polos: pink, blue, and pastel red) by opening a root beer bottle and drinking it before paying, implying, through his swagger, staggering from the cash register to tables and chairs in the deli, that he might not pay at all, that he might not bring it to the register, to Dion, who was tightening, reddening, unsure of himself. Dion’s shoulders rose and knotted and his pulse sped. Out of nowhere: “Are you going to pay for that?” expelled from him, like a sentient thing—loudly. He did not even remember his own curse words which soon followed or how he left the cash register to talk, too closely, to the man drinking the root beer. He did remember being outside a little while after, on the sidewalk in front of the deli, the November air, a nightly breeze, which could have blown the floating, falling leaves together to form the letters and words: “You’ll be fired.”
A half an hour after walking downstairs with his manager, Dion walked upstairs. He shouldn’t have said what he said—to his manager, to anyone. He walked out. The sun was high and the day was cold. Aimlessly, he caught a bus uptown and watched women on the sidewalk through the window. For upwards of forty-minutes, he strained to think of something to say to the girl across the aisle from him. The bus’s seats where Dion sat faced one another. She sat down on 30th Street and stayed on, across from Dion, the entire trip uptown, to 125th, where, his forehead crinkling, Dion said: “Do you know if this bus goes to 130th Street?” It did. He knew it did.
He got off. He walked, bent forward, fists balled. He thought he saw Frank, the man who visited his landlady, her ex-boyfriend, up ahead, bounding out of a corner store, bald head, Dion remembered from the apartment, like a baby, sideburns swooping down, jaw curved and edged, like a machine used in a shop for cutting. But it was not him, he realized. Dion thought: I could kill him. I honestly could. I could kill someone. I could kill him. I could do that and not feel bad about it. Stores passing as he thought: I could make the foot go into his neck over and over enough times to do that I could do that and then without a sliver of consideration he ducked into the subway to find his way uptown, to his stop, to her booth. She was not there. She came home that night and Dion looked over from the couch. He was going to say: “Twilight Zone?” when he saw her face. She went into her room. Dion said nothing. Hushed, frenzied hysteria whirled around in his head.
She did not come out, to his knowledge, the whole night, except at one point to use the bathroom, which he heard her do from his room. He wanted to knock on her door. He stood outside of it for a long time, on several occasions, getting into bed, getting out again, standing outside of her door.
Eventually, unable to sleep, Dion walked out of his room and sat on the couch. He woke, seated upright, in the afternoon. To pretend he went to work, he left in his uniform, a black t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of the deli, and walked to the train. He transferred at the station he always transferred at, to catch the express train downtown, and there, across the tracks, on the other platform, waiting for his own train uptown, stood Frank, unmistakable, short, taut, bald, hooked sideburns sloping down his jaw. “He doesn’t see me,” said Dion aloud, and Dion parted from the line of people waiting beside the edge of the platform, darted upstairs and across the station, to the uptown bound trains, then down the stairs, seeing Frank, again, his head neither close, nor far, but visible, bald. He saw the head enter into the opening doors of the arriving train. Dion went into the train car beside it. Through the window of the doors dividing the train cars, between which you could stand and smoke a cigarette as Dion had once seen a man do, Dion saw Frank, maintained the visual lock on Frank, who stood beside a pack of other people, whose baggy jeans, shortness, baldness, Dion sought every minute or so, where Frank stood behind a homeless man and his shopping cart of enormous trash bags, black and heaping. Then they reached 210th Street. Frank turned, moved, another body eclipsed his: Dion prepared his legs to launch him out of the subway car, one last glance trained on the door between the cars, the window, where he saw Frank sit down, his bald head descend into an empty seat, and Dion rode on.
The train climbed upward, hauling itself out the tunnel, into the light, on an elevated track lifting toward the neighborhood above Marcia’s, storied for crime, infamous as a bastion of the old city, where, sidling along the elevated platform, slowing, grinding, the train opened its doors, and almost before Frank rose, Dion rose, and as Frank departed, disappearing from view, Dion stepped out, standing straight, eyes unblinking, onto the metal grid of the platform. He followed the back of the bald head—like a baby, Dion thought, heart clamoring—down the platform, down the steps. He kept a distance but the distance was not far. He marveled at his heart. Frank led him away from the station, down a street peopled less and less with commuters going home, aside high, wide housing projects and corner-stores, fewer than in Marcia’s neighborhood, as darkness fell, and soon Frank walked alone, a little person in between the enormous buildings, but little buildings beneath the enormous sky, heavying, above them, denser with the dusk, and Frank turned, Dion saw, into what looked like an alley, and Dion hastened, just a little, silent steps, flat and sinking, but quickened toward the point where Frank turned and, turning, Dion saw Frank, a bald head between cement walls, walking down a narrow side-entrance, empty and long, bridging the street and—Dion realized—a housing project. Dion turned into the corridor. His heart was a war drum. Clasping the back of the bald head with his eyes, he leaned forward and started to run.
That night, he came home and walked straight to the door of her bedroom. He walked past, as if he had something to do beyond the door of her bedroom, but there was nothing beyond the door of her bedroom but the end of the hall, and he turned around, hands shaking, passing again the door which he saw, again, was open, and he turned around once more, at the kitchen, beside the couch, hands shaking, his whole body turning as if revolving around his open, shining eyes, and he walked to the door of her bedroom, stood beside the open door, saw, atop the bed, her shadow atop the shadow of the bed, form atop form inside darkness, felt her see him, and choking, trembling, inside of him materialized, like smoke above a stamped out fire, the word Hey, and out of his choked and trembling sternum, evacuating his neck as if by its own will, the word went out into the dark.
Jeffrey Rapaport is a writer currently living in New York City. He can be reached at Jeffrey.Rapaport@gmail.com.
by Jeffrey Rapaport
Runner-Up, Howard Frank Mosher Prize for Short Fiction