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Chinatown

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It’s fucking freezing.

Neil dug his hands deeper into his pockets and rolled his shoulders back to stop from shivering. His cigarette smoke wafted up thinner than the plumes of steamy breath. The older black woman standing next to him glanced at him sidelong, her eyes button-bright under a floppy knit hat. She had a thick scarf that he momentarily envied.

“My son’s coming all the way from Chicago to see me.”

Neil blinked and realized she was talking to him. She wanted to brag a little. He nodded at her. “That’s nice.”

“You waiting on family?” She didn’t quite smile. “Girlfriend?”

“Boyfriend.” He drawled lazily just to shock her.

She didn’t take the bait though; she gave a low cackle, sounding delighted. “That’s all right then. It’s no good to be alone at Christmas. Gotta have someone to keep you warm.”

He grinned at her, feeling the cold breeze across his teeth. A distant screech came from the train station; the bus from Pittsburgh parked itself with a wheeze of brakes.

He was lighting another cigarette for Janice (who was originally from Jackson, Mississippi, but had lived in New York City for far longer than Neil had been alive) when he realized that the bus from Wichita had arrived and already disgorged most of its human cargo.

He scanned the crowd for Brian and Eric, expecting the two of them to have clumped up looking for him. After a moment, he caught a flash of what had to be the back of Brian’s head and puffy jacket. Blond, smooth and shiny, headed in the completely wrong direction. Some tall, pale guy with bad acne was crowding Brian, almost herding him down toward 41st Street. Neil’s hackles rose.

Dude looked like he’d been subsisting on a steady diet of cigarettes, potato chips and come. And of course, Brian wouldn’t know a hustler if one dropped out of the sky right onto his head.  

“Hey, Brian!” Brian had the good sense to stop in his tracks and look around. The hustler got an eyeful of Neil bearing down on them and shifted his weight back.

“Get lost, fucktard.” Neil stepped up, verbal guns blazing. Brian cast him a single wide-eyed look before breaking out into the goofiest grin ever seen at the Port Authority.

When the chain-wearing hustler looked like he wanted to argue, Neil put a little I-might-be-a-serial-killer into his eyes and repeated. “Seriously, bud. Start walking. Ain’t nobody buying what you’re selling today.”

The guy took a longer look, and then bailed with a muffled whatever. Neil took a quick glance around at the crowd and then almost collapsed under the weight of Brian and his puffy jacket looped around Neil’s neck.

“Where’s Eric?” Neil said without thinking. He gave Brian a quick, manly squeeze. Even after a day and a half on the bus, Brian still smelled slightly of baby powder.  

Brian tucked his lip under his teeth and said out of the side of his mouth. “I…he couldn’t…I think it was a…”

Neil turned and started to walk. He could see where this was going, but it would probably be easier for Brian to tell him when they were side by side. But Brian had trailed off and was now just staring up at the canyon of 8th Avenue with an awed expression. His glasses reflected a shaft of wintry sun like flashing white discs.

“Money?” Neil dug his hands into his pockets again. He felt tired all of a sudden.

“Yeah,” Brian exhaled. “He had to…something with his car and you know that’s…”

“Yeah, I get it.” Neil grimaced and flicked his butt to the curb. “Man, that sucks.”

“Yeah.” But Brian was looking at him kind of sidelong and Neil bumped shoulders with him in lieu of saying I’m glad you’re here.

Some small part of him was kind of amazed that Brian had the balls to ride the dog all the way out to Manhattan solo. Brian even seemed taller than the last time Neil had seen him, as if he’d grown in the intervening year.

“Do you wanna go and crash?” Neil wondered if he should volunteer to carry Brian’s bag or if it would be weird. Brian only had the one and it didn’t look very heavy.  

Brian slung it over his shoulder and replied softly. “I slept on the bus a little. But there’s no way I could sleep now.”

“Let’s go drop your bag off, anyway.”  Neil considered having another cigarette briefly. Brian’s cheeks were turning pink in the nippy air.

Watching Brian smile brilliantly at this…really kind of shitty corner of downtown Manhattan made Neil not feel the cold so much.  They turned onto Times Square and Brian’s jaw went slack. Neil stuck his hands in his pockets and just let Brian gawk. When he finally lowered his eyes to beam at Neil, Neil smirked back at him and passed over a subway token.

Neil had been preparing a few choice comebacks for whatever smartass remarks that Eric would have had about the apartment he shared with Wendy.  Yeah, so they didn’t have an actual kitchen or even a window that faced anything other than an airshaft, but he’d seen smaller places at least a dozen streets uptown.  This wasn’t fucking Kansas. People actually wanted to live in New York City, they practically lined up for the privilege even on the Lower East Side.

But Brian was all oohs and ahhs as he took the few steps of the tour. He exclaimed at the cleverness of the loft beds; he looked delighted when he learned that the top one was to be his.

“So where is Wendy?” It finally seemed to occur to Brian that the bed had a regular occupant.   

“Boyfriend.” Neil said, rummaging around in the fridge. “His family’s got a place out in Montauk. They do a whole Christmas thing.”

“That’s nice.” Brian said and Neil kept himself from snorting.  

“Hope you’re not expecting me to chef up some big turkey dinner.” Neil said. At the thought, his stomach rumbled.

Brian pulled a fresh pair of socks from his bag and said shyly. “Well, I…I could get that at home.”

Neil almost laughed out loud. The city mouse and the country mouse. “Pretty sure we can find something you can’t get at home. Let’s go.”

Neil hadn’t really planned anything; he had figured that Eric would have a list of shit he’d been wanting to see forever. With Brian, he figured they could just hang out. Maybe check out that museum up by the park that Wendy was always going on about.

Brian made it easy. Almost too easy. Brian spent a good forty-five seconds admiring the Deco architecture of the building on the corner and as far as Neil knew that was just a dry cleaner. Neil rolled his eyes and sighed dramatically and dragged Brian uptown.

Brian kept chirping on like whoa! and look at that! Neil wanted to be embarrassed, but the crowds were dotted with loads of tourists doing the same. The shop windows dressed up for Christmas were a thing apparently. He vaguely remembered Wendy saying something about it.

Brian was delighted with the egg cream that Neil bought him in some deli off Broadway while they scarfed down an enormous pile of onion rings. It was surprisingly fun just walking around. Brian’s wide-eyed wonder made Neil feel sophisticated. Powerful. He hadn’t realized how tired and bored he’d been feeling, like he’d been growing old along with the year.

When his feet were both numb and achy, Neil helped Brian shove his way onto a downtown bus. The winter sun was completely gone now and the neon painted flashy streaks on Brian’s glasses. Brian was looking out the window, his expression weirdly far away, his mouth tight.

Neil took half a breath and suddenly realized just how tightly they were packed in here. The crush of bodies of a normal rush hour was almost suffocating, the crowd pressing denser and denser. And Neil knew the stance, the way to turn his elbows out to carve the bare minimum of space, but Brian was probably too polite or clueless to do that.

“Hey.” He grabbed Brian’s elbow. Brian didn’t even flinch and Neil cursed under his breath. “This is our stop.”

Neil tussled them both out on the street again and spent a few moments on the curb just watching Brian wake up again.

“Oh…” Brian turned in a circle. “Where are we?”

Neil glanced around for the first time. Red dragons goggled at him from a nearby shop front. Wreaths of steam floated up from bowls that a tiny woman in a purple silk jacket was ladling out for a crowd of black-haired girls in front of a restaurant. The whole street smelled faintly of plum sauce.

“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” Neil quoted absently. His stomach rumbled again; he was starving. They’d walked about a million miles today and Brian looked as hungry as Neil felt.

“This is so wicked.” Brian had already slid into a tiny store crowded with mysterious-looking toys. The young man behind the counter stayed absorbed in his phone while Brian poked at the little figurines and puzzles which even Neil had to admit were pretty cool.

“What is this?” Brian picked up a stick wrapped in a long curl of brightly patterned paper.

“Chinese yo-yo.” Neil took it from him and flicked his wrist. Brian chortled when the paper spiraled out in a flash of green and yellow. Neil didn’t protest when Brian insisted on buying two. They were only $1.50.

For some reason, Neil could help feeling a little embarrassed back out on the street. There weren’t so many tourists down here and now Brian’s relentless amazement made him feel a little self-conscious. But nobody seemed to notice, or if they did they weren’t offended.

“You hungry?” A wizened little woman waved Brian into her restaurant, firm and motherly. He grinned down at the top of her head while Neil surreptitiously checked the prices on the board outside. They were quickly ushered to a narrow table next to the wall. The scents made Neil salivate and it was nice and warm.

“This is so wild. It’s like a foreign country right here in America.” Brian whispered across the table.  Neil was pretty certain that very little in Shanghai or Beijing closely resembled Mott Street, but it was making Brian happy, so whatever.

“Yeah, well…it’s all normal to them.” Neil fingered the smooth edge of the ruby-red tapestry hanging above their table. “They think we’re the weirdoes.”

“I wish I could speak Chinese.” Brian traced a finger over the delicate spiders of characters on the menu.

Neil snorted.

“What?” Brian might have been trying to sound tough, but it just came out kind of sulky. “You don’t think I could?”

“I’m sure you could.” Neil cocked his head at the other diners.  “It’s just kind of pointless.”

“What do you mean?” It was addictive, really. The way Brian just hung on every word he said.

“You could speak Chinese like you were Chairman Mao, you’d still never be Chinese. You’d still be on the outside. There’d still be loads of shit you’d never understand.”

Brian looked chagrined and Neil sighed. “You can’t learn everything. Some things you just have to…”

He trailed off. It wasn’t the easiest thing to explain.

The waiter brought a plate of dumplings and Neil snapped his chopsticks apart. Brian watched him avidly.

“Hold it like a pencil.” Neil reached over and gently repositioned Brian’s fingers. It only took Brian a minute to get the trick.

“This definitely isn’t a turkey dinner.” Brian chewed appreciatively and Neil grunted in acknowledgement. The food kept coming.

“Eric would love this.” Brian said wistfully. “Such a bummer that he couldn’t…”

“Hey, it’s not like it’s going away.” Neil said around a dumpling. “New York will still be here whenever he gets his shit together.”

Brian ducked his head to laugh and Neil felt like the coolest guy ever. When Brian shifted in his chair his knee brushed against Neil’s and for a second, it almost felt like a date.

By the time they rolled out of the restaurant, Neil felt like he was the turkey being stuffed. It felt colder now and Brian trying hard to hide his yawns. He didn’t protest when Neil suggested that they should go home and crash.

Walking across town deflated their swollen bellies just a bit. After trudging up two flights, Neil gawked at the clock on the stove. It was ridiculously early still even though the day already felt complete.  Neil flipped on the TV and Brian crowed aloud to watch the last few minutes of ‘Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.’ Neil shoved a packet of popcorn into the microwave and dumped it in a bowl. Brian watched the show while Neil found himself watching Brian. Neil had always been kind of freaked out by the island of misfit toys and the abominable snowman.

It had been a while since he’d gone gallivanting around in the cold for so long. After he sat down, Neil was suddenly fighting to keep his eyes open. He fell asleep curled between the cheap, tweedy cushion and Brian’s shoulder.

Neil blinked awake when Brian started stroking his hair. Neil couldn’t shake off enough lassitude to do much more than tilt his head and look up. Brian was still engrossed in whatever was on TV; he was just petting Neil like you’d pet a cat.

“This place is so amazing.” Brian said and Neil thought, give it a week or two.

“I’m not sure I could live here.” Brian was speaking so softly, Neil wondered if he even knew Neil was awake. Brian didn’t seem to need an answer. “I’d be nervous all the time.”

Neil stiffened involuntarily, tense with a sudden, wordless anger. He was caught off guard by the searing conviction that he’d kill anyone who hurt Brian.

Brian kept talking, stroking a thumb behind Neil’s ear. “I never understood it before.”  

Brian continued. “Until you said that…about always being on the outside, no matter what you did.”

But it’s okay, Neil thought and started when Brian said, “But it’s okay.”

“I can see why people like it here…it’s almost easier, walking around because everyone’s so…different.”

All freaks together, Neil thought.

“Nobody cares if you’re not…Chinese.” Brian tapered off nonsensically. He was still combing his fingers through Neil’s hair.

It was so strange how it never felt strange. They’d known each other for a year, barely spent a week of days in each other’s company. Yet they could lapse into silence together; they could touch without thought or explanation.

 “You’re so brave.” Brian said softly. “I wish I were as brave as you.”

Tenderness welled up in Neil, as silent and suffocating as water. He almost couldn’t breathe for the raw longing clutching his throat. Brian was so warm, vulnerable and alive under his chin; Brian with his wide eyes, shiny hair, smelling of baby powder.

He spread his hand over Brian’s thigh, digging his thumb into the inseam of Brian’s corduroys.  He glanced up at Brian’s face which was so lovely, so smooth and untouched. Anyone else would know just what Neil wanted to do.

But Brian’s eyes were blank and Neil abruptly felt awful, felt slick and wretched and unclean. Why did he always do this, why did he have to…

Then Brian smiled at him.

Brian tilted his chin into his own shoulder and regarded Neil’s hand for a moment. He spread his own pale, sturdy fingers with their boyish, slightly grubby fingernails over Neil’s. His palm was smooth and dry and he just gave Neil a squeeze, not too hard or too tentative.

Brian drew his hand up quickly and brushed his lips over Neil’s chapped knuckles. Neil’s chest loosened enough that he could take a deep breath. Brian pulled him a little deeper into a sprawl on the tiny couch and they watched the rest of the movie, warm and silent.

Neil wanted to say something cool and clever but his mouth felt locked shut.

“Forget it, Jake.” Brian’s voice was quiet and sure. “It’s Chinatown.”