Alexander doesn’t know why he’s here.
His hair is rain-wet, his canvas jacket soaked through. It had started pouring on the walk; he hadn’t even considered catching a cab. He hadn’t really thought about ending up here in the first place; his feet carried him and that was that, and now here he is.
The building is tall and modern, all green glass windows. There’s a doorman inside but he doesn’t open the door for him. Probably thinks he’s lost, and Alex does his best to convince himself he’s not. He swings the door open, metal handle cool in his hand, sloshes in in his wet Timberlands. He peers at the directory, searches for the firm that had been mentioned on NYMag’s homepage. Floor 38. Alex stomps into the stairwell. He can feel the doorman staring after him but he doesn’t give a shit.
By the time he gets to the top, he’s breathless, realizing he’s taken the steps two at a time. He braces himself against the wall on the landing. He can’t look like shit for this. He doesn’t know why he cares. But he feels dizzy independent of the haste, and he wants his head clear and his stomach to stop doing whatever it’s trying to do, drop out of him, seize up and turn to stone in his gut. He’s going to be sick, he’s going to collapse, but he doesn’t. There’s no one else in the stairway; it’s quiet besides the distant buzz of a generator a few floors up. He does his breathing exercises. Focuses on tapping each of his fingers in turn against the wall. Calms himself down, as he does.
Outside the stairwell there’s a glass door. He sees him immediately. He stares for a minute, moving out of the way of a lady in a pencil skirt bustling through with an armful of papers. He looks through the windows, the same length as the doors. He’s got his own desk, a big classy thing, he’s clearly in charge of something. Two other employees stand to the side of him in his cubicle; they’re discussing, brandishing folders. He seems to decide they have finished their discussion and he nods, sharply, turns away and sits down in his chair. Taking the hint, they walk off together.
Alexander lets the shiver of disgust run through him; lets it pass. He still wants to hurl but he’s pretty sure it’s his brain and not his stomach now. He should have taken a Xanax before this but now he’s here and he has the absolutely irrational thought that he’ll never get this chance again; it’s here or now, it’s do or die.
He thinks of all the times it almost got there. And he’s mad again, livid, hands shaking as he stalks back to the door to the office and enters. The room is a murmur, business busy; nobody pays attention to the kid in black Levis and a work jacket. They probably think he’s the deliveryman. He very well may have been, at some point. Alex is glad to fly under the radar. He approaches the desk, big glass corner desk. He can sit at it and see the rest of the office. He thinks of his eyes on him, down his body. Alex’s blood runs hot, fast, just beneath his skin.
He doesn’t even notice him approaching, because he’s background noise. He’s light on his feet. All the better. Alex even walks past him a little, steps a little into the space to stand where his colleagues had been a few minutes earlier. He’s behind him; he studies the close crop of his hair, the pinstripes of his suit at the collar. He revels in the power he’s about to have. Clears his throat.
The man spins, and his eyes fix on him, startled. It takes him a minute - he looks at Alex like he’s trying to place him. This infuriates Alex. He doesn’t think he looks that different. It was almost ten years ago but he doesn’t feel like he’s grown at all, most of the time still feels like that powerless little kid with wide eyes. He lets the ire sharpen his focus, and it lets him affect disinterest, slumping his shoulders. His hands he keeps in his pockets - he doesn’t want him to see they’re shaking. “Lookin’ good, old man.”
And that was a stupid fucking thing to say. Washington - well, his name’s not Washington anymore, is it? - he shifts, and his eyes flash with realization. It’s the voice, Alex realizes. If he hadn’t put it together before he’d spoken, it had been his voice, which has deepened a little but not particularly changed. It’s still got the same scratch to it, that he knows distinctly. He wonders if Washington remembers him rasping pleas at him. Alex remembers it pretty vividly.
“What are you doing here?” Washington’s voice is quiet. And then: “How did you find me?”
“Saw your photo, my man. You should be careful what local press takes your picture when ‘local’ is local for the kid you’re supposed to stay away from, too. Cool for your company, though. That’s a big deal, consulting for JPMorgan on such a big case. Can’t wait to see the checks start coming in, I bet.” Alex is flying; this is easy. He forgets what a wordsmith he is. He suddenly wonders why he hadn’t just destroyed the guy online, start sharing the story to everyone he knows with a detailed description of their history until he ran him out of town. He’d been too freaked out to think that organized, he guesses, had wanted to confront the situation directly. But he files the idea away for later.
Washington is rising, trying to be calm. He doesn’t look at Alex as he says, “Follow me,” and quietly starts walking past him down a hallway, away from the crowd of people. Alex follows him into an unoccupied meeting room, coffee maker on the counter and snack machine against the wall. He digs a few quarters of laundry money from his pants pocket, sticks them in the machine to get a pack of Starburst.
He unwraps the first one, pops it in his mouth, and sits heavily in the chair at the head of the long conference table. Washington is standing by the door, silent in his big-boss suit. Makes him look longer, leaner. Alex eyes him indulgently, purses his lips around the sourness of the lemon candy. “So.” He clicks his tongue.
“So,” Washington replies, voice pitched low. He won’t meet Alexander’s gaze. It’s fucking aggravating. Alex wants to look him dead in the eye, search out something he knows is there. Apology, maybe, fuck it, even regret. He wants there to be something.
“I have questions,” Alex starts, ripping the paper off another Starburst with his ragged thumbnail. He leaves the scraps of pink paper on the table as a sign of disrespect. “Starting with: why the fuck are you in town.” He doesn’t really phrase it like a question but he’s not worried about it.
Washington remains very still. “I didn’t know where else to go.”
“I could fucking tell anyone about you being here, man, you’d be ruined. Big risk.” Washington doesn’t respond to that one. Alex moves on. “How long you been here?”
“Two years. Since I got out. Came straight back, pretty much, only a couple of stops on the way. My parents’ graves.” Alex feels no sympathy. Fuck that shit.
“I’ve been walking the same streets as you.” Alex processes this information, rolls it over on his tongue. He decides that it has a really bitter taste. “Takin’ the same trains as you. We might even have mutual friends, you’ve had time to plant some roots.”
“I doubt a twenty-four-year-old and someone my age run in any of the same circles.”
Alexander cants his head toward him. He notes that he doesn’t pinpoint his own age. “So you are aware of exactly how old I was. You remember.”
“It’s all I thought about while I was inside.” Alex bets. He doesn’t say that. He doesn’t want to think about that.
“So about seven years, huh,” he says instead, tearing an already-tiny candy wrapper to smaller shreds. “Seven years was what you ended up serving for what you did.”
Washington smiles, somewhat wistful. It makes Alex wish he’d brought a gun. “Good behavior. We both know it wasn’t exactly your typical situation, Alexander.”
Alex winces. He’s suddenly done with the games. He doesn’t touch the implied I wasn’t one of those, it makes his chest ache too badly. “You don’t get to call me that. You don’t get to call me by my name, not when you got to get rid of yours. Start over.” He gestures to the room. “Look at you, man!” he says sarcastically. “You’re doin’ great!”
Washington looks pained, but there’s pity in his eyes. Alex wants none of it. He deliberately lowers his voice, regulates his breathing to maintain control. Therapy things. He wants to fuck shit up, break things, kick Washington in the fucking teeth. He knows he would. He knows he can’t.
“What were you thinking?” Alex stands, crowds up into Washington’s space. “Answer me. I wanna know why me. I wanna know why the little immigrant kid with no family. I want a reason.”
Washington looks away from him, off to the side and down at the floor. Alex has to resist the urge to grip his jaw and yank him back to stare at his eyes by reminding himself that the touch would probably scald and he’d never get his scent off his skin. He’s already been through that more than once. He never wants it lingering again.
Washington says his piece like it’s rehearsed, and Alex figures it probably is; court-mandated therapy, or something. “Easy prey.” It stings; Alex doesn’t want to be called prey. “You had no resources, not to mention no point of reference for how the system should support you. You didn’t even have friends when I met you.” He licks his dry lips. “And you were beautiful,” he says, turning to Alex, staring down at him. His eyes are wide, empathetic. Fuck a gun; Alex wishes he’d brought a knife, wishes he could hold it up to Washington’s throat and watch him panic.
He steps back and lets the feeling pass. This was a stupid idea. He pulls his hair from its looped ponytail, runs his hands through it. He doesn’t need this. He knows nowadays when someone’s trying to manipulate him. He wants to run, like forever. There’s no fresh air in this office, in this building, in this goddamn city. He wants to run until he falls into a freezing Great Lake and feel the chill of the water sink in and wake up his lungs. He recognizes it as the same impulse he’d had when Washington would hurt him, the fantasy he’d retreat to to distance himself. It feels kind of good to sink into, kind of freeing. He’d always been a good swimmer, even in cold water.
On land, historically, he’s sort of floundered. His footing’s all wrong. These last few years have been rough, the dealing. His friends care about him but they hadn’t always been there. The first year he’d had to go through pretty much on his own, anxiety just below the surface broken up by inpatient stints when it bubbled up and he scared himself too much. Foster care had been hell. The families were nice, well-meaning, but ill-equipped to deal with a kid in his situation. He’d gotten really close to the people who’d had him toward the end of the state’s responsibility to him, though. They’d even let him stay while he figured stuff out after high school. Alex remembers that day, walking next to John at graduation and not going out to party with the group afterward, just coming home and kind of collapsing. His foster parents had been so proud, and he’d even let himself feel proud for a while. He’d sat in one spot and reflected - three years since Washington had gone away, since the hush that descended over New York as another sex scandal came out - Alex wished it had never been labeled a sex scandal. Neither of those words captured what he thought about it.
He’d never been named in the press, but people knew, just the same. They looked at him different. He’d fought to overcome their assumptions, a poor Latino kid, no mom or dad. A victim. Alex hates that word more than prey. He’d fought tooth and nail, gone to college. He doesn’t know what he wants to do with his degree, sure, but he’s proud that he got it. He’s happy, rooming with John, who's finishing up med school, working a delivery route, answering only to himself. By the time he gets home most nights he’s exhausted and he’s grateful to fall asleep and not dream.
Seeing Washington’s face in that photo… that had fucked everything up. He’d been thrown. He’d felt blindsided, betrayed by a system that promised him something in no uncertain terms. You’ll never have to see him again. Well. This is self-designed but it’s happening.
That’s all he’d been given, officially. The only respite. It’s a long time, but it seems so short. All the progress he’d made in that time seems insignificant now. He goes to group every Tuesday and Saturday, with religious dedication - he has friends there, people who know his story and don’t judge him and care about him on a level he’d never thought he’d experience. He’s gone when dreadfully ill, sniffling and nauseous, because it’s the place he feels safest. He knows he’ll go back tonight - it’s Tuesday - and start working through this, but he has to reach a breakthrough here. He’s biting his nails, pacing fast, nervous. He can tell Washington wants to reach out and grab him, push him down and make him sit still. Not this time.
“I wish I could make you understand,” he says, but it’s a lie; he doesn’t really care if he understands, he needs to say it anyway, “you screwed up so much. You ruined prospects for me, and I still fucking made it, but you took advantage of me and my situation and you really had me spiralling.” He doesn’t hold back, now - he’s rehearsed all this, in group, with John, in the mirror, worked through to the grit of it, put it into words. He has the hammer poised and he’s about to hit the nail on the head, drive it into the one person who has to hear it. He turns on his heel to Washington, points at him. “I went through so much. You destroyed my thoughts on myself, my sense of self. My hope for independence. My identity. You made me think I loved you, and you left me scared and lost and I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, you left me in that hotel upstate and I had to find my way home.”
Alex lowers his hand, looks at the floor, suddenly timid. “I was scared and alone already. And you fucking - you left me in that hotel room and I shut down.” It had been the last time he’d seen Washington before the sentencing, which he’d declined to speak at. The cops had enough evidence, they said, they hadn’t needed him for anything. He could relax. Well. “I didn’t know where we were. The only place I knew in this entire country was school and we were so far away from there. I broke down and I just cried until eventually the maid came in and she spoke to me in Spanish and it was so much harder, going back to that. I couldn’t - fuck you. You don’t get any of this, the sob story. You fucked everything up for me and you tried to break me and I just want you to know I’m still me, I beat you, I win, motherfucker, I fucking win.” His head is spinning. Washington’s looking at him, mouth open, unblinking.
Alex grins. He imagines blood dripping from his own maw where he’d previously imagined it on Washington’s teeth.
“Your new name won’t hide you. I see you,” he singsongs, walking past Washington to unlatch the door. “How does it feel to have fucked up so spectacularly that you need a new name? This,” he says, gesturing down the hallway, “none of this would have happened for you if these people knew who you really are. Not were, are.” He strides down the hall on pure adrenaline. He leaves everything else, because that’s the important information, the thing he really wants to impart to Washington - the knowledge that this is all a falsehood. He hopes it makes him uneasy. He hopes it makes him anticipate. He has a lot to do, but he’ll wait. Draw it out. Let Washington ride high on the whole big-deal consultation, cash a few paychecks from JPMorgan.
By the time he thinks about it enough for it to bother him again, he’ll have every community watch group in Manhattan on speed dial, along with the Post. Until then, he leaves it behind, for Washington to deal with, there in the hall. He races down 37 flights of stairs and into the breeze. The rain has stopped. It’s chilly but Alex takes his jacket off, drapes it over his shoulder. He checks his phone. John. taco tuesday.
u’r a white mom, Alexander texts back, and he sits in the park and watches dusk fall and children play tag and ducks flap around in the water until he decides, on his own terms, that it’s time to head home.