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Let it Burn: Part Three

Soon the fantasies of my “new life” smacked against reality. “I love books!” I’d told my friend Brian before I left for New York. “I love libraries!” But eleven years had passed since college, and I was out of practice. Two weeks into the semester I sat on the steps of Low Library under a heavy gray sky, re-reading the notes I’d scrawled in the margins of Gogol’s Taras Bulba, glancing up glumly at the hordes of students streaming over the quad just long enough to think, “I hate it here.”

It was a relief to finally admit this to myself, to stop pretending that my “new life” was one exciting thing after another, and instead admit the truth; my new life was an exhausting, overwhelming, homesick-inducing series of days and, for as seldom as I left campus, I might as well be in Houston. It was frightening to wonder if I had made a mistake. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for the life I thought I wanted. Maybe I should have just stayed home and set my sights again on the lower horizon.

Once, the year before in San Francisco, I’d sat with Brian in the back row of an AA meeting, listening to a man ramble his way through a convoluted story. At one point he paused, looking bewildered. “And then I was standing in my kitchen yesterday,” he said, “and I was making myself a ham sandwich and I just thought to myself, you know, what’s it all about, Alfalfa?”

I pondered his question, as if he’d just offered a prose poem for our enlightenment. For weeks afterward, every time Brian and I had dinner together, I’d pause meaningfully and ask the same question. Soon Brian took to calling me Spanky.

That was the early spring of 2004, a few months before I moved to New York. As luck would have it, Brian himself had just been accepted into graduate school in L.A., where he’d pursue his Marriage and Family therapy license. The evening after I’d sat on the steps of Low Library, I was back in my apartment, reading in bed when the phone rang.

“Spanky, I’m calling you from the Starbucks on Sunset Boulevard.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“I am absolutely surrounded by rabid extroverts.”

I could not picture pale, skinny, cerebral Brian, with his funny scalp, in L.A., even after I’d visited him at his West Hollywood apartment complex, where everyone lay around in the afternoon by the courtyard pool, reading scripts. “You’re living in an episode of Melrose Place,” I’d said.

“You’re just jealous.”

I turned onto my side, cupping the phone between my shoulder and ear, and peeked through the curtain. My neighbor was watching a rerun of Friends. “If it makes you feel any better,” I said, “I’m laying in bed in my dark cave, reading Proust.”

“Dear God.”

“I know,” I said. “I read three books a week. I haven’t seen the gym in days, and I’m a horrible example of sobriety.”

“When was your last meeting?”

“I can’t remember.”


“I know, I know, I’m headed for disaster.”

“Well,” he said. “I suppose these are unusual circumstances. You and me, we’re on the Hero’s Journey.”

“Fuck Joseph Campbell!” I yelled. “He never said following your bliss would be such a pain in the ass.”


“School is all I do. The last time my life was this unbalanced was when I was smoking crystal meth.”

“Now you’re just being dramatic.”

“I know,” I said, suddenly on the verge of tears.

“Look, I’m miserable, too. But it’s too late,” he said. “We can’t turn back.”

“I know,” I said quietly. I didn’t want to hang up. I didn’t want to have to face everything on my own.

The next week I had a strange altercation with a young woman in my workshop. That evening, after class ended, someone suggested that we all go out for a drink together, and we wandered down to the Heights, an upstairs bar with windows that opened out over Broadway. It was happy hour, and though a pint of Guinness sounded heavenly, I ordered a pineapple juice instead. The young woman, Maria, joined us late, having stayed behind to talk to the professor. The only open seat at the table was across from me, and as she sat down I sensed that we were both a little disappointed by this twist of fate. I’d noticed over the past couple of weeks that Maria held certain opinions of men. One of her favorite prescriptions for other women in the workshop was to get rid of the boyfriend subplot. Or at least make him less likeable. She spoke this way about all men. All men, that is, except her fiancé, who was a “jazz scholar” and who was frequently quoted in her submissions, speaking in full paragraphs. The professor had mentioned that, by and large, people don’t speak in full paragraphs, and Maria had given her a blank look. Later, in discussing a book she’d once edited, Maria launched into a diatribe against the word “cum,” accusing it, and any author who used it, of reprehensible vulgarity. She informed us that there was a literary “tradition” behind the word “come,” which was spelled properly. As she ranted I’d sunk down in my chair. There, on the table, sitting in a neat pile of ten copies, was my first submission, and in the first sentence was the word, “cum.” She’d taken the manuscript without glancing at it, and it sat now in her bag, which was slung over the back of her chair.

Nevertheless, sitting across from each other at the Heights, we managed to chat at a bit about our lives before grad school, and the fact that she commuted by train from Boston twice a week for classes. Then she revealed to all of us at the table, rather shyly, that she and her fiancé had gotten married just the previous night, as if on a whim. The table toasted her and everyone seemed to be in a pretty good mood, and so I chose that moment to half-jokingly warn her that my piece contained the one word that she…

“Dude!” she exploded. “You cannot spell it that way! It’s wrong! It’s not spelled that way!” She sputtered for a moment. “You…you only think it’s spelled that way because you read too much pornography!”

Someone at the table interrupted her, but she thundered on. “Everyone who spells it that way is ignorant. They’re lazy with the English language and they need a fucking copyeditor.”

She went on and on; I heard the word “ignorant” three or four times, as if from a distance. My face flushed hot, and I fought the urge to leave the table for fresh air. “The bill’s on its way,” I told myself. “Just wait.” I stared bitterly out the window. Everyone at the table was quiet, except for Maria. Eventually she climbed down from her soapbox and said, “You hate me now, don’t you?” Her tone was more triumphant than contrite. I tried to answer, to say something articulate, but I stuttered, and my words came out twisted and without sense.

“I may be many things, but I am neither ignorant, nor lazy with the English language. You do not get into Columbia by being lazy with the English language.” I thought all of this much later, of course, when I was alone in my apartment. I grabbed the check and busied myself with collecting everyone’s money. I had to count the cash five times, until my head was clear enough to add everything together. I left without even looking at her, and walked back to my apartment. I hated that everyone had seen me that way.

She’d cut too close to the bone, down to all of my insecurities about my intelligence, my ignorance of the Western Canon, my “laziness” with the English language. It was true; my grasp of grammar was shaky at best, and it was halfway through the semester before I realized that I’d let Maria, who couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag, become the Gatekeeper of Literary New York, revoking my ticket into the Manhattan intelligentsia.

“Cut. The Bitch. Down,” said the Manly Fireplug when I called.

“I know.”

“Seriously. She sounds like a total pill.”

“I know,” I said. “But I can’t talk when I’m angry.”

“You’re going to have to learn.”

“I know,” I said. “Fuck, Joe.”

“Honey, you’re a New Yorker now. You’ll have to learn.”

“I don’t feel like one.”

“And put ‘cum’ in every single one of your submissions.”

I could hear noises on his end. “Where are you?” I asked.

“Don’t change the subject.”

“Just tell me.”

He sighed. “I’m walking up Castro now.”

Over the phone I heard passing laughter, and the 24 Divisadero pulling away from the curb. I could see each storefront he passed: the Chinese take-out counter, Worn Out West, Tully’s Coffee. I rubbed the back of my head. “I need a haircut,” I said.

I didn’t like who I was becoming in New York. Who was this miserable, whiny creature? I ventured down to Chelsea, to gay AA meetings, to replicate what I was missing. And I quickly fell in with a group of guys who seemed to like me. But after a week or two I noticed a disturbing pattern; whenever one of them left the room, the others would start in on all of his faults, and dish him so thoroughly that I expected him to stagger back into the room with a full set of kitchen knives planted in his back. This happened every time, to everyone who left the room, and I soon grew so paranoid that I’d hold my bladder rather than slip away to the bathroom.

Every night, heading home on the uptown train, I’d resolve to cut my ties with them, and yet each day they would call me, and whine until I agreed to join them. At some point each of them pulled me aside and spoke to me as if I was the only one in the group who truly understood him. But I was doing them a disservice, only pretending to be their friend.

I was in selfish mourning; nobody in New York knew my story; the story I’d slowly carved over time, standing at the front of AA meetings; the story of my heroic, triumphant resurrection. I’d arrived in New York with five years of sobriety under my belt, and these Chelsea boys saw me as fully recovered. In New York I was expected to be the big brother, and the change in roles, I’m not proud to admit, irritated me.

But the central premise of AA, that one alcoholic helps another, had been drummed into my head as the solution to my problems. I’d forget myself by helping someone just as I’d been helped. But the boys seemed perfectly content with their group dynamics, despite my efforts to set a noble example. They stopped gossiping about each other only long enough to discuss their half-shares on Fire Island, or dish various art world celebrities with whom they were tight.

“All the boys here are legends in their own minds,” I told Brian over the phone.

But did it take one to know one? And was I really one to judge? Had I never gossiped myself, were my friendships with Bearbait, and Brian, and the Manly Fireplug really so sacred? I had lost my sense of perspective. Everything in New York seemed about six inches away from my face, and of the millions of words I’d consumed in the past year, my favorite was “retreat.”

That summer I received an invitation to a “gay writers” cocktail party in Chelsea. The words “cocktail” and “party”, when used together, usually made me break out in hives. But it was rumored that some of the big shots might show up: Edmund White, Augusten Burroughs, Felice Picano. “Plus some publishing industry hotshots,” I was promised. So I put on a nice shirt and took the train down to 23rd Street.

As it turned out the only celebrity who showed up was Edmund White’s boyfriend. Still, every guy I talked to spent most of the conversation looking over my shoulder, scanning the crowd no doubt for David Sedaris. I sipped my diet Coke and kept my elbows close to my side, to hide the nervous sweat stains under my arms. One small group in the corner was discussing the book fair they’d been working all day, and the celebrities who’d showed up to promote their various memoirs.

“I saw Matthew Broderick today,” I offered. “On the 1 train.”

An editorial assistant at Viking rolled his eyes. “Oh God, you can’t swing a dead cat in the Village without hitting him or Sarah Jessica.”

I decided not to mention that a retarded man on the train had asked Matthew if he was, in fact, Ferris Bueller. For a moment I perked up when I saw one of my professors walk in with a bottle of wine under his arm. But he gave me an absent smile when I said hello, his eyes roaming the crowd behind me, and then excused himself. Taking everything a little too personally, I slipped out of the party without saying good-bye to anyone, taking the stairs two at a time.

That fall I accepted a couple more invitations, with the same result. One of Edmund White’s one-night stands appeared at the last one. The highlight of my evening was when a short story writer asked me about my thesis, and I gave him a general description of its plot.

“Sounds…ambitious,” he said.

“I hope to do it justice.”

“I find your modesty so charming. Tell me where you’re from, again?”

Last spring I’d attended another cocktail party, hosted by my writing program – a mixer for students and literary agents, another one of those events where six shots of tequila might have greased the wheels a bit. I left all of these parties feeling the same way: like I wanted to go home and take a shower.

There was writing, and then there was all the business around writing, which only made me want to curl around my thesis like a twelve-year old girl with her first diary. But I told myself that the business was a necessary evil, and the sooner I learned its customs, the better I’d do. And the truth was that I was the one most responsible for my discomfort at these parties; I radiated awkwardness, and could not have made for the most charming conversationalist. Why couldn’t I just relax?

Sometime that fall I began thinking about Rick Bass. Many years ago, when I was still living in Minneapolis, I’d taken a weeklong workshop led by Bass, a writer known mostly for short stories that often featured small town characters with vaguely mythological powers, acting in conflict or harmony with nature. He spent most of the year in the remote Yaak Valley of Montana, where he worked vigorously to protect the land from roads and loggers. At the time of the workshop I was more interested in literature about urban angst, so I was surprised at how often he now came swimming up quietly from my subconscious. I wondered if we might have something in common, aside from a fondness for flannel shirts. Soon, to comfort myself, I would imagine Rick Bass at these cocktail parties, hyperventilating in the corner by the wet bar, and it always made me feel better. Even his name – the casual “Rick,” the woodsy “Bass” – conjured the kind of alternate life that I now daydreamed about – the kind of life where Jonathan Safran Foer might succumb to wood ticks and poison ivy within the space of a few hours. Of course, these fantasies of life in the remote wilderness had no more connection to reality than my New York fantasies. I missed the Castro, not Montana. But as I navigated my way through the second year of grad school, I could bring myself peace of mind by asking, What would Rick Bass do?

At the end of the fall semester I was haunted by the ghosts of San Francisco. As I lay in bed reading Sophocles, images flashed through my head, certain views I knew well: the Marin headlands across the Golden Gate Bridge, the houses on the hills from my bedroom window, the Castro Theater marquee from the end of my street. I’d daydream about my old Subaru, my foot on the accelerator, driving somewhere, anywhere on my own volition, somewhere out of the city, where I’d be surrounded by the colors green and blue, mist, air smelling of sea. I dreamed about space, and light, and the sight of things blooming all year. I pulled on my parka and slipped into the crowds on Broadway, and remembered the sound of fog dripping from the eucalyptus trees on my old block. Until this time I had looked on all of my New York challenges as temporary obstacles. Eventually I’d carve out a life for myself, and perhaps even meet a few more New Yorkers that I liked. But for the first time I thought I could move back. And once I’d thought it, it wouldn’t go away…

Let it Burn: Part Two

When the movers arrived from California, I spent the afternoon in my little studio apartment, unpacking boxes. At dusk I lay back on my bed. The scent of my new seagrass rug – which smelled like someone had dumped a ten-pound bag of catnip on the floor – mingled with fresh paint fumes. It was the middle of August, and I listened to the chorus of air conditioners in the windows of the neighboring apartments, and thought about the Manly Fireplug, who’d lived in New York for over a decade. When Columbia University had called and asked me if I might like to join their program, I stopped by his barbershop, where he was closing up for the day, sweeping a dark pile of clipped hair across the room. When I told him the news he dropped the broom and bear-hugged me, and when we pulled away his eyes were damp, for a moment. Then he blew his nose and pushed me into his chair.

“Now,” he said, “you gotta get yourself a Friedrich air conditioner. They last forever.”


“And you gotta walk across the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset. Promise me.”

“I promise.”

“Stay focused,” he said. “You’re in the Ivy League now.”

“I know.”

“Those New York boys spend half their life at the gym, so you stay focused.”

“I know.”

“Don’t let it get to you.”

I sighed. “Yes, Daddy.”

He grunted. “Say that again.”

Our big brother/little brother routine had a slight incestuous edge to it. “Daddy,” I said, teasing. At the end of every haircut, when he’d slap alcohol on my neck, he’d growl in my ear, “I just love the way your skin reddens up so easy.”


“It’s hot.”

“Joe, I’m not going to let you whip me, so don’t even ask.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” he said.

I pushed aside the curtain; my new window looked out onto an airshaft and a tiny sliver of West 112th, where a construction crew was setting up scaffolding on the building next door. It was eight p.m. At eleven p.m. I called Jennie.

“When do they stop?” I asked her.

“They never stop,” she said.

At midnight I bought earplugs from Duane Reade. “You’re in New York now,” I told myself. “Deal with it.”

The Fireplug’s final piece of advice was that I absolutely must go to the top of the Empire State Building and look for my apartment. “First thing you do,” he’d said. At the end of the week I took the subway down and stood in line with the tourists, as salesmen shuffled by and hawked audio tours of the city, which were narrated by Tony, an “Authentic New York City Cab Driver.”

“See more with the audio tour!” one guy said, and I puzzled over that one until I finally reached the ticket counter, ninety minutes later, where I forked over twelve dollars. The girl stamped my ticket and handed it back. As I boarded the elevator I glanced down. I hadn’t planned my trip so well; it was an overcast day, and on my ticket was a little smiley face, except it was frowning, and underneath it were the words, “Zero Visibility.”

* * *

After that first trip to New York, when I’d watched the boy in the bottle, I returned to college in Sarasota. It was 1992, and my heroes were the men and women of Act-UP, who staged kiss-ins and die-ins on the streets of Manhattan and San Francisco, and whose outrageous tactics paid off in advancements in treatments for HIV. I shadowed their movements through magazines and newspapers. My thesis was burdened by the title “The Sociological Effects of AIDS on Gay Men.”
When I made it to San Francisco in 1997, new pharmaceuticals had changed the effects of AIDS among the world’s more privileged populations. By the time I arrived, the community I had written about for my thesis no longer existed. The activist groups had splintered or disbanded entirely. I had missed an era. Within a couple of years crystal meth had become an epidemic among gay men, and we retreated into isolation and paranoia, hiding in our separate rooms.

Now I lived in New York, and I’d take the 1 train downtown, where my heroes once walked. Most of them were dead now. Sometimes, walking around the streets of the East Village with my iPod, I’d play the song Frankie Knuckles had spun the night I’d danced in that dark ballroom, as the boy had rocked on the box in the blue rays of light. I’d listen, trying to conjure that night, and that city. But that New York had disappeared; Second Avenue had lost its edge, I could walk the streets of Alphabet City, and on every corner were stores I’d seen in cities all across the country.

I’d never lived anywhere where it was impossible to be outside, and alone, at the same time. I’d been spoiled over the years. In Minneapolis, when I was still in high school, I’d climb out my window at night, and wander with my headphones down to the rose gardens along Lake Harriet, or duck through the hole in the fence along the dark expanse of Lakewood Cemetery. In Sarasota I’d leave my desk, and my thesis, and walk at midnight through the banyan groves down to the bay, and stir the water with a stick until the phosphorescence spun like a constellation. In San Francisco I’d hike to the top of Buena Vista Park, a few blocks from my apartment, where I’d rest on a scarred wooden bench and gaze down at the hills and the slender piece of the Golden Gate visible through the towering pine trees. At night, far below, the red light at the top of the Transamerica Pyramid would blink slowly, like an underwater beacon. My thoughts had room to breathe. Once I’d read about the ancient practice of bloodletting, which reminded me of my walks; they drained the poisons from my body, and gave me peace.

Of course, what I often thought about during those solitary walks was New York. I thought then that I would gladly give up my walks to pursue this vague dream I’d had for so long: to be a writer in New York City. Not so original. But I was a romantic; easily swayed by images of cantankerous poets gathering over choked ashtrays in Village coffee shops, and by all of the book-lined apartments I’d glimpsed in Woody Allen movies. That nobody really lived in a Woody Allen movie was something I knew, if dimly. Still, I felt that I might prove to be the exception to the rule, and I’d end up with such an apartment, or perhaps marry into one by seducing a rich husband with my talents and charm. I’d visited Manhattan several times, and though the city thrilled and terrified me in equal measure, it seemed a worthy challenge.

But even in New York my dream remained vague; if the city I’d dreamt about in college no longer existed, what did I want now, thirteen years later? To be an artist, I thought. Now my new life would begin…

Let it Burn: Part One

Portions of this essay appeared on this blog, in rougher form. No whiners allowed.

The two men beside me twisted the faucets of the bathroom sinks, held their hands under the water, and then ran their palms through their black hair. Behind us, or was it below us, the bass of house music thumped through the walls, the rhythm muffled until the bathroom door opened and for a second a snatch of song rushed in and echoed off the walls. The men beside me gazed gravely into the mirror. They were humongous, as big as Clydesdales, snorting before their reflections, turning this way and that under the tiny spotlights, flexing biceps the size of cantaloupes. Shadows leapt across their shoulders and darted into the crevices between their enormous muscles. Gold crucifixes glittered in the hollow of their throats. Suddenly one of them whipped off his wifebeater and ran a hand over his flat belly, and I was trapped somewhere between laughter and awe. Without tearing his eyes from his reflection, the other man knocked his fist against his friend’s chest. “Ready?” he said. His friend grunted and tucked his shirt into the back of his waistband. They retreated slowly, taking quick looks back at the mirror, before slipping back into the club.

I tore a couple of paper towels from the dispenser and considered my slender reflection; even in their wake I looked like a goddamned twelve-year old. I dried my hands quickly and hurried from the room, back into the dark hallway. I looked around; stairs led both up and down, and the hallway wandered past various slick, brightly lit bars. I’d managed to lose myself in Webster Hall, the latest in a string of similar clubs I’d haunted all week on my college spring break. I was staying with my stepsister Melanie, who was attending Eugene Lang, in her fifth-floor walk-up on East Sixth Street. In the mornings I sipped coffee in her tiny kitchen, which smelled like the litter box that sat in the corner. During the day, while she worked for a temp agency in the financial district, I roamed the city: Soho, Christopher Street, the Metropolitan, where I sat by the pyramid and scribbled in my journal. In the evening we’d buy falafel wrapped in tin foil from a counter across the street, or we’d eat fried chicken and brown rice at an outside table at Dojo’s, and watch the gutter punks skulk down Saint Mark’s Place. At night I pored over my dog-eared copy of HX, a local gay rag, scanning the nightclub ads, which featured soft-core shots of shirtless men and the dimly-familiar names of DJ’s in bold type: Junior! Frankie! Little Louie Vega! I combed my hair with drugstore gel, laced up my combat boots, and ventured out alone, to the Roxy, to the Sound Factory, to the Boy Bar. I’d just turned 21, and I went out because I was in New York, and because I could. But all week I showed up too early, to find velvet ropes and thick, smirking doormen guarding empty sidewalks. Eventually I wised up, and as the week stretched on I stalled for time, wandering through the streets, through neighborhoods Melanie would later tell me I had no business seeing that late. One night in an ATM vestibule I stepped over seven sleeping men to withdraw forty bucks. Something like innocence guarded me, and I wandered till my feet turned flat and hot.

Webster Hall, a new, or new-again-that-year club, was immense, with a dozen bars on numerous floors. The thundering beats of competing songs spilled out and ran into each other down the dark hallway. I drifted in a daze into the darkest room; a cavernous ballroom lit by watery, roaming lights from above. An enormous crystal chandelier glowed faintly above the dark mass of dancing men. I stood at the edge of the dance floor and watched. A stuttering ray of red heat swept over the ballroom, and a boy my age, art-school lean, slipped out of the crowd. He offered me his hand, which I took, and as he gripped it he leaned over and shouted into my ear, “You’re not from New York, are you?”

I felt sucker-punched. Was it that obvious? I shook my head.

“I thought so,” he said. “There are no attractive men in New York.”

I turned and stared at him. “Are you kidding?”

“None,” he said. “Where you from?”

From Minneapolis, I said, by way of Florida, where I was in school.

“And you want to move here, right?”

I paused a moment before nodding.

“Your first trip?”

I nodded again.

“Thought so. Well, I’m headed home. I’ve got a long train ride uptown.” And a moment later he was gone. I took a few steps back, into the dark recesses along the wall, embarrassed that I had so clearly stood out. And after watching the Italian Stallions preen in the john, I was suffering the 98-pound weakling complex. Two years at my college gym hadn’t changed me so much. I bought a six-dollar bottle of water from the bar, and went back to the edge of the dance floor, where I frowned a little and tried to strip the wide-eyed wonder from my face.

Then a boy climbed onto a box.

He wore white Calvins, combat boots, and nothing else; a genuine go-go boy, nothing like the strippers I’d seen in Minneapolis and Sarasota, who moussed their hair, wore red g-strings and fake tans, and spent weekend nights grinding against the squealing members of drunken bachelorette parties, who’d recently taken to slumming in gay bars. No, this boy was different; his boots, the simple cut of his schoolboy briefs, his thick muscles shifting lazily to the beat. I could look at nothing else. In him was everything I envied about New York, and everything that shamed me about my hometown. He was the essence of studied, urbane cool, wrapped around the figure of sex, in view, out of reach. I watched as a blue-eyed man, gray hair buzzed close to his skull, leaned against the box and stared up at the boy. He held a five-dollar bill in his hand, and the boy slowly lowered himself to his haunches, his knees brushing the man’s shoulders. The man murmured something, and the boy smirked and rubbed the man’s head slowly. The man reached out with the bill crumpled in his fist, extended a finger, and ran it slowly down the boy’s chest and stomach, so slow and deliberate that from ten feet away I felt the boy’s skin on my fingertip. The man pulled at the waistband of the boy’s briefs, and tucked the bill inside. They talked, low and close, until the boy rose back to his feet, where he rocked in the rays of blue light.

I wound my way onto the floor and danced alone, my eyes adjusting to the dim hall and the men who brushed against me and looked past me. The sweat on their backs gleamed and changed color. The bass thumped through the floor and boys with skin the color of café cubano stretched their arms toward the spinning lights, and maybe they were on steroids, but I didn’t really care. Frankie Knuckles spinning bliss on his turntables, high over the crowd; a whistle, lonely, haunted, coming from a great distance. The boy on the box rocked slowly to the beat, and the blue lights circled his body, once, twice, then fixed on him, and caught him in their light as if he were a boy in a bottle. And in that moment I wanted so much; to be that boy, to take his place, to be lit blue and clean, washed in sweat and envy. To stay in that song while the night stretched on and we all forgot about the world outside the dark ballroom. To be someone’s boy, in that city, to walk home in the cool moments before dawn with my pockets full of crumpled bills. The music arched up and up, and the bass thumped through our chests, and my heart grew all tight, from my pitbull desire, from loneliness, from knowing I’d have to leave.

I stepped outside at four in the morning, and the cool air felt good against my damp skin. Light rain bloomed on the sidewalk, and a group of boys pushed past me, fierce and solid, and set off down the street. I followed them for a while, humming the song that Frankie had played and trying to guess which boy had collected the most phone numbers that night. We twisted through the dark streets, and at first they were just a few feet ahead, but then we turned onto Second Avenue, and I bought a soda from a bodega, and when I came out they were already blocks away. I polished off the soda in two gulps. My shirt clung to my skin, and a string of green lights turned red over the empty street…