Menu Switch


By Mary Lynn Reed From Issue No. 8

The boys are stoned again and that means pizza. We go to the tiny place on 68th. An Armenian soap opera is playing on the TV suspended above the counter. The sound is full of static and the acting is bad. Pepperoni for Kenny. Cheese, cheese, extra, extra, says Peter. I sliver myself around the front table. Thin, light, barely there, I tuck myself into the windowsill, sit with knees pretzeled. I lay my head against the cool concrete wall, feel its depressions against my brow as I watch the stream of taxis pour down Columbus Avenue. It’s dusk and headlights flip on, two by two, cabs trolling for fares heading downtown. After dark, the city is a river of lights, constantly flowing.

A homeless guy sits on the street corner across from the pizza place, next to the ATMs. He holds a cardboard sign that says, “Need money for beer.” A woman pushes a double-wide stroller past him, shakes her head. Twins. A boy and a girl, side-by-side, tiny hands reaching for the other’s. I want to press my forehead against each of the babies’; I want to hear their secret language. They would never let me in; Tag and I never let anyone in. A man in a pink tie tosses the homeless guy a dollar.

When my brother Tag and I moved to Manhattan three years ago, he took the lower quadrant, East Village, and I claimed the Upper West Side, spreading our inheritance across the island, a desperate salve that healed nothing. He lived in a loft on St. Mark’s with great morning sun, where he painted and drank. He didn’t need a job but he took one at a gallery, installing other people’s art. I went to auditions; I never ate; I started screwing Kenny, and I stood up my therapist every other week.

Tag used to call me from his loft in the middle of the night. “Tell me what you hear out your window,” he’d say.

And I’d tell him about the birds. So many birds, singing—loud—at all hours of the day. Songbirds, chirping birds, squawking birds, illogically drowning out all the other city sounds. Then Tag would hold the phone up to his window, letting me hear the East Village.

Music, the clinking of glasses, laughter, street noise.

“It’s relentless,” he said. “I never sleep.”

Pizza slices on paper plates slide across the table and the boys flop in plastic chairs. I pull my legs together. I’m still wearing my black nylons even though Kenny scraped the hell out of them that morning in the alley off 79th. “Can’t wait,” he said. “Can’t.”

Kenny is beautiful in the way only boys can be beautiful. Deep dark eyes and thick lashes. He was my brother Tag’s best friend. He says being with me is almost consolation.

Kenny and Peter and I have lived this way for nine months now. We do the same things; we make each other crazy; and we never go lower than 59th. We got into a cab once, about two months ago, and I said, “St. Mark’s” before I realized. Peter and I were paralyzed, but Kenny corrected our course, telling the driver, “Columbus Circle. Stop there.”

Now Kenny eats his pizza backwards, crust first. He rolls the rest into a ball and nibbles it like a rabbit. Peter fills the air with that high, raucous laugh that means nothing.

In junior high, Peter was a track star, a middle-distance runner with a smooth, agile stride. He was in our class but younger by two years. Tag, the magnetic field of misfits, brought him into our orbit.

“He’s a genius,” Tag said. “Geniuses are fragile because they know too much. That makes them beautiful, too.”

In high school, Peter carried a small notebook, scribbling ideas and stolen bits of dialogue. He could recite Shakespeare, the ancient Greeks, Tennessee Williams. His own plays were philosophical rants with wild emotional swings, perfect for highlighting an actor’s sensitivity and depth. He produced Kenny’s first showcase in the city. Mine, too.

Tag was in love with Peter from the start but he waited until Peter was seventeen to seduce him. I always thought of them as casual lovers. Not permanent or serious. But loss can magnify devotion and I respect that. Grieving Tag is not a contest. The three of us are not competitors. We exist in antagonistic symbiosis. We don’t talk about it. We’ve never been able to form the words.

In the pizza place, I look through the boys the way they look through me. They never ask if I want to eat because I always say no. My stomach is a clenched fist, unyielding. There are two women sitting at the far back table. One is round-faced and wears a man’s long-sleeve shirt, Oxford, button-down. Her hair is cut short, clean, part on the side, the way Tag used to wear his. The other woman is tall and slim. She wraps a black shawl around her shoulders. She moves like the famous. I don’t recognize her but I think I should; I want to know what roles she’s played, what stage she commands. She leans forward and says something I can’t hear; the other tucks her head into her shoulder, and blushes. The tall one takes the other’s fingers into her hands, kisses them slowly. I imagine them in a sun-filled apartment, making love all morning and into the afternoon. They both wear a glassy-eyed daze, as if that’s exactly where they’d been. I imagine them under a pile of soft blankets, taking solace in the brush of smooth skin.

They are not young women. They have wrinkles and laugh lines and they are feeding each other pizza. The tall woman places her hand against her lover’s face. They stare into each others’ eyes. The shawl falls off the woman’s shoulder. She turns her body slightly away, then reaches into her bag, pulls out a cell phone. Her expression clouds.

The sky is dark now, and the city lights flicker white, red, alive.

We missed the Improvisation Workshop again. None of us have had an audition in months. In the afternoon, we fell asleep on the rocks in the park until the ballfields crawled with kids after school, their shrill voices echoing off the jagged, cold stone. Peter woke up swearing: at the kids, the sun, at the dogs barking, at Kenny.

“Where’s the shit? Give me the shit!”

Kenny’s chin dug into my side and I felt a little sick, while Peter kept yelling. “Gimme the shit. Where’s the shit?” Until Kenny pulled out the bag, handed it to him.

“Not here,” Kenny said.

We stopped near the wall by the playground where the foliage is thick. I strained to hear a chorus of invisible birds while the two of them finished off our weed. My eyes closed, I tried to conjure Tag’s voice, his smile. The memories are jagged and rough. I would force them if I could, rip them through muscle and bone.

Now Peter is shoving an entire slice of pizza into his mouth, folded over. Grease drips down his chin. His blond hair is clumped and dirty, his shirt is buttoned askew. I wonder how long it’s been since he went home to his mother and three little sisters in Brooklyn who adore him. His family is alive and they love him and yet here he is, with us. I want to push him out the door, tell him to grow up. To move on. Before I can, Peter jumps out of his chair, yelling, “I’m wet. Wet. Everywhere wet!”

He pushes Kenny, sends him rocking against the table. “Did you spill something on me? Where did it come from?”

Kenny’s in a daze. He’s farther away than I am.

When we were kids, Kenny had a red bicycle with white rim tires. He rode it up and down the block, as slow as he could without stopping, steering with one finger. Tag and I watched from our front stoop as he rode back and forth. Entire lifetimes pass on front stoops in Brooklyn.

Tag leaned into me once, whispered, “James Dean’s Schwinn.”

Remembering this, I laugh out loud. Peter spins around. “Why do you always take his goddamned side?”

Peter hates me for reasons he doesn’t understand. The instinct is buried deep in his animal brain. Yet there are times when he can’t take his eyes off me. He searches for Tag in my face, without apology. I don’t blame him. I do it sometimes, too. In the mirror.

On the TV above our heads, a woman with enormous breasts is weeping. Her chest heaves, and Kenny smirks.

Peter pulls a quarter out of his pocket, rubs it down his pant leg. “It’s wet. Feel—”

He presses the coin against Kenny’s arm. “Feel!” he says, grabbing Kenny’s hand.

Kenny brushes him off. “Don’t touch me, Fruit Loop. You’re wasted. Eat more pizza.”

The two women in the back are looking at us. The round-faced one catches my eye. She’s boyish and plain, and I’m filled with a strange urgency to know her name. She’s not intriguing in the way of her elegant lover. But I want to name them both.

Tag and Katrina. He called me Kat. No one else but Tag called me Kat.

“I’m leaking,” Peter says. “I’m leaking out of my pores.”

I press my forehead against the window. Its panes are double thick. I can see the women in my peripheral vision. The tall one stares at Kenny. Her brow is furrowed, as if she’s puzzling out an equation. Kenny gets out of his chair, grips Peter’s shoulders.

“You’re dry as a bone,” he says. “I wouldn’t lie to you. O.K.?”

“You can’t feel it? You really can’t?” Peter says. I’m afraid he’s going to cry. It happens sometimes.

The guys behind the pizza counter nudge each other. The Armenian soap opera goes to commercial. They mute the TV.

Kenny puts his arm around Peter. “Another slice?”

A cell phone rings, loud enough to turn everyone’s head. One of those ear-piercing classic-phone ring tones, as if we’re sitting in a 1970s trailer park in Arizona or Texas. That sound doesn’t belong here. It’s an aberration.

The tall woman clutches the ringing beast to her chest. Briskly, she heads toward our table, the door, the street, her face sliced with harsh angles. Her voice is deep and frazzled as she answers, “Meeting went long. Leaving work right now. Yes. Yes. I’m on my way.”

She barely makes it out the door and then she’s back, tucking the phone deep in the pocket of her snug jeans. She tilts her head up. Her lips are moving but she’s not speaking. She’s calculating something, counting—1, 2, 3—as she returns to the table where the lover is waiting.

Peter is still mumbling, “Wet, wet,” as if he were the only unstable boy in the world.

Between a paper plate and a Coke can, four hands entwine on the women’s table. No words. No more smiles. The tall one stands up again, wraps her shawl across her body, loops her bag over her shoulder. She walks their trash to the dispenser. The other slips in beside her, compliant. Her shape isn’t as boyish as her haircut and face. Her shirt is tucked neatly into black trousers. Her curves are not hidden, hips not shy. The two women melt into one another, navigating the small space without letting go. Their movements are fluid and unrehearsed.

The pizza counter guys watch them. Kenny watches, too.

I want to stand but I stop halfway, sitting on the table like a centerpiece at Thanksgiving. I reach for Kenny, and Kenny holds onto Peter, and as the women brush past, holding hands, for a fraction of a second, we’re a human chain, connected. Me, Kenny, Peter, the tall woman, and her lover. As they leave, the two women grapple to be closer. They would occupy the same skin if they could; I can feel it.

When they’re gone, the fist in my stomach tightens. I watch them out the window as they walk to Columbus Avenue. They kiss, then the tall woman hails a cab, gets in alone. The other buries her hands in her pockets, and after the taxi pulls away, she doesn’t move for a long time.

Taillights, people, billboards on buses. The woman left behind stands on the curb.

No one knows what my brother Tag meant to me. No one knows who we were to each other. Fraternal means less, they say. Two eggs and two sperm. Just siblings born on the same day. Biology tells us nothing about the soul. There is no explanation for desire.

Kenny was Tag’s best friend. Peter was his lover for years. And neither of them had any idea. They still don’t.

Peter sits down, takes a sip of his soda, and tells Kenny: “I want something. Call Javier.”

The sound returns on the TV; the channel is switched to soccer.

Kenny pulls out his cell, begins thumbing out a text.

I look back out the window but the woman is no longer there.

Does she live in the city? Does she go back to an apartment, or a hotel. When will the lovers meet again? How deep do their secrets go? Does anyone know who they are to each other. I wonder how it will end.

Kenny smells of sweat and pepperoni. Into his ear, I whisper, “Downtown.”

He stops typing, studies Peter’s face for a long beat, then says, “He’s not ready.”

Peter finishes his soda, and chants: “Javier. Javier.”

I wrap my arms around Kenny’s neck, and he lifts me off the table. I am a feather. A fleck of dust. Confetti.

“Tonight,” I whisper.

He pretends not to hear.

Outside, the air is stale with exhaust and garbage. An oily green residue lines the sidewalk. Kenny and I step around it; Peter walks right through.

Kenny’s cell phone vibrates. His voice notches up an octave. “Javier’s holding, up on 93rd.”

“Yes,” says Peter, “All right,” and he’s already walking.

“I’m going,” I say. “Right now.”

I stop where the two women parted. The traffic light changes and I raise my hand toward the taxis.

Kenny looks up the street toward Peter. “I can’t leave him like this,” he says. “He’s wasted. And you’re not.”

“I never am.” I try to meet his eyes but he won’t let me. I wonder if he’s ever seen me at all.

A taxi pulls up and I get in. “3rd Avenue and St. Mark’s,” I tell the driver, and don’t look back.

The quick thrust of speed jostles me left and right. I press against the slick leather seat, trying to hold myself in place. I feel Tag there, in that moment. I look over, squinting to see his preppy boy haircut and wire-rimmed glasses, but it’s the blur of buildings, the fleeting familiarities sweeping past the window. The cab slows as Times Square fills. Tourists spinning round and round. I search the crevices between the marquees, spotting an Irish pub Tag loved. The corner where we saw Mikhail Baryshnikov buy a newspaper in the rain. The tiny window above the bodega where a seamstress performs miracles for actresses who are melting away.

The last time I heard Tag’s voice was nine months ago. I was alone in my apartment and he was alone in his loft. It was three o’clock in the morning when he called, asking about my neighborhood sounds. His voice soothed me and I was drifting in and out. We fell asleep that way sometimes, two voices on two phones propped up on pillows, ninety blocks between us.

That night, we were quiet for a long time. I was on the edge of a dream. Then Tag’s voice, soft as breath, whispered, “I can’t bear it anymore.”

Something in the edge of his voice startled me wide awake and the phone slipped off my ear. I grabbed for it and it slipped again. When I got it back, I held on as tightly as I could and spoke his name into the receiver but he was gone. I called back. He didn’t pick up. I threw on my clothes, ran for the door, and as my cab sliced through the length of Manhattan, I must have known, the same way I do now. The finality hanging in the air, thick as fog.

So many walls I’ve erected in my mind, so many spaces I’ve worked hard to wash clean.

I will not remember our parents’ death.

I will not remember Tag’s lifeless body.

But I cannot forget the down of fine hair on his chest and legs, the way it tickled my skin as we moved together in the dark. I cannot forget the smell of him, the taste of him, so strange and so familiar. That, I cannot forget.

I’ve carried the key to Tag’s loft in my pocket every day for nine months. When I step inside, there is the lingering scent of a sandalwood candle; the white walls, pristinely clean; the real estate cards stacked on the kitchen counter; the overhead lights sparkling against polished concrete floors.

I bristle thinking of the estate lawyers’ thrill when the reluctant twin no longer stands in their way to such a profitable sale.

When I get to the bathroom, I’m not afraid the way I thought I might be. I crack open the small, high window above the toilet, run my hands over the porcelain tub. It is white. So very white.

Where Tag last stood, last breathed.

I take off my shoes, my scuffed nylons, skirt, sweater, panties, bra.

I draw the bath scalding hot but slide in without flinching. As I sink down, I think of the woman standing on the curb, her lover in some brownstone or penthouse uptown. Untouchable.

My skin pinkens as I look up toward the window and listen.

Music. The clinking of glasses. Laughter.

The city is alive. It flows like a river.

About Mary Lynn Reed More From Issue No. 8