Although I moved to New York in 1994 with Manhattan in mind, I quickly became fascinated with the city’s boroughs. On weekends I’d take the subway to Coney Island, Brooklyn, Astoria, Queens, or the Bronx Zoo to see the other parts of my new home. Staten Island, however, remained elusive.
In my early days, I often took the Staten Island Ferry – which cost .25 cents then and is now free – to spend a peaceful hour on the New York Harbor. I would stand on the bow of the boat letting the wind whip my face and stare at the packed whirl of Manhattan, then amble to the other side and take a deep, relaxed breath while into the hilly greenery of Staten Island. It seemed so peaceful, a lush oasis in the middle of the harbor.
During the summer of 1996, I finally got an opportunity to take a foray onto “The Island.” One of my coworkers was playing Puck in a Staten Island community theater production of “The Tempest.” I wouldn’t normally feel drawn to amateur Shakespeare, but when my friend Lois, the 42-year-old receptionist at my office, invited me to go with her, I jumped at the chance.
Lois said,”It’ll be fun. We’ll make a night of it, You can see a little of Staten Island.”
The idea that Johnny would be there almost stopped me cold. “Johnny will come too,” Lois said. “We’ll pick you up at the ferry.” He was Lois’s husband, who always hugged me a little too hard and stared a little too long. But I wouldn’t let his leers keep me from the final borough.
Lois and I were a strange pairing. While I was 24 and single and well-traveled, she had three teenage kids, was afraid to fly or ride an escalator and had never left New York – but she adored me and vice versa. Once a month, we’d get drunk after work and laugh as she unleashed unfathomable family stories. Her parents lived in a house on Long Island where everything, down to the toilet seats and light bulbs, was pink. Her sister, a former beauty queen, had married an ex-con who burned their house to the ground after they split up – but they were still friends. Lois’s brother was a 35-year-old virgin who looked like Charles Manson, lived with his parents and held casting-calls for homemade porn movies in their living room.
Lois and I talked about everything – except Johnny. Even in our drunkest hours, I couldn’t bring myself to mention that she was married to the most unsettling person I’d ever met. Johnny was as close to being an albino as any non-albino could be. His skin was nearly transparent and revealed a maze of veins pulsing under the surface of his face. But more disturbing was his devilish laugh and piercing pinkish eyes that stared at me unblinking and said: “I see your soul and I’m going to eat it.” I truly suspected Johnny was the Grim Reaper. If he was indeed Death, Johnny’s cover was to be a worker in the Lincoln Tunnel, a job I never fully comprehended, but understood that he had access to the lights, fans and other operational facilities involved with the tunnel. Whether Johnny took a job where he never saw sunlight because of his paleness, or if he got that complexion from working in the tunnel, I wasn’t sure – but he looked like a man who spent all day underground. In addition to his paper-thin skin, he had fine silvery-white hair, which he brushed forward and cut straight several inches above his translucent eyebrows Julius Caesar style. His teeth were sharp stubs browned around the edges, and his body was skeletal and malnourished, exactly the opposite of his wife’s comforting round edges.
The night of the play, I rode the Staten Island Ferry excited to get further than just the terminal. The enormous boat made loud screeching noises as it clumsily slammed into the wooden buffers. Then the walkways were lowered, the chain barrier was lifted and a mass of bodies swelled down the hallway leading out like salmon swimming upstream. I followed the flow until I got outside and saw Lois waving madly and yelling: “Over here!”
In the car, Johnny turned around and locked me in a dead stare. “You look good,” he said. His thin lisps secreted copious saliva.
Staten Island, it turns out, looks like a suburb. There are sidewalks and free-standing houses, trees and yards with garden gnomes. Some of the homes looked like they were made out of tin – and every backyard had an above-ground pool. Manhattan felt eons away, and not in a good way. I was disappointed in the drab homes and rundown waterfront, and felt isolated on The Island.
Lois, Johnny and I had planned to buy tickets to the play then grab a bite before the show started. When we arrived at the playhouse, however, the box office window was shut tight with a sign saying it would open in half an hour.
“This is what we’ll do,” said Lois. “You and Johnny go pick up some sandwiches. I’ll stay behind to get tickets when they come on sale.”
“Oh. Well, but, but…I’m sure it won’t sell out. We should all get food together,” I stumbled.
“Nah. We gotta cover both bases,” she insisted.
“Then I’ll buy our tickets,” I said desperately.
“Don’t be silly. It’s our treat,” said Lois. “Right, Johnny?”
“Sure,” he answered. “Come on, keep me company.”
I had been alone with Johnny once before when he joined Lois and I for drinks. While his wife was in the restroom, he confessed: “I still do stuff even though Lois don’t like it. I just don’t tell her,” and looked at me like we were in on a mutual joke. I wracked my brain while he grinned and I wondered, “Does he have affairs, sleep with hookers, shoot heroin, kill small children?” When I failed to respond, finally he said, “I smoke out sometimes.”
“Ohhh, Pot!” I shouted and laughed so hard I almost cried. “Cool.”
By the night of the play, I’d encountered Johnny half a dozen other times, but was no more comfortable with him than during our first meeting. Yet there I was on the foreign soil of Staten Island, a boat ride from Manhattan (i.e. civilization), about to be trapped in a car with him. I cursed my own curiosity. Why was I obsessed with seeing new places? Staten Island, now that I saw it, wasn’t Oz. It was instead a borough from an alternate universe where I could very well perish.
“I’ll have tuna or turkey, depending on what looks fresh,” said Lois, snapping me back to the moment. She opened the car door and I slid into their old boat of a vehicle, the front seat just one long expanse shared by the driver and passenger. Two feet of slippery vinyl was all that stood between Johnny and me.
As we pulled out, I lobbed a benign question hoping to keep control of our conversation. “So, Lois mentioned you two are thinking about moving from Brooklyn to Staten Island,” I said. “Seems like you’d be at home here.”
Johnny, however, was not a man influenced by social norms. There was a great pause before he responded with a throaty Vincent Price, horror movie laugh.
“What?” I asked shocked.
“It’s just that I always wanted to be alone with you, ” he said slowly. “But now that I am, I don’t know how to tell you all the things I want to tell you.”
Oh my god! What could be so intimate that Johnny wouldn’t discuss it in front of his wife? Earlier that very evening he told both Lois and I how he and his coworkers at the tunnel regularly drank whiskey and invited the receptionist to the control booth because she “likes it when a few different guys are doing stuff to her.” Johnny told the story as if he wasn’t part of “the action” but I had my doubts. Even if he’d kept his distance from the underground orgy, just being party to it seemed like a scenario he would want to keep from his spouse. What could he have to tell me in private?
“Lois and I were talking the other day about what would happen if we ever split up, and I told her the first thing I’d do is ask for your phone number.”
Though my heart was ready to leap out of my body, I decided the only way to deal with Johnny was to put on a ‘been there, done that’ persona. “You two are a great couple. You’ll never split up.” for Lois and Johnny’s enduring happiness, I prayed for the first time in a long time.
After a moment, Johnny looked at me deflated. “Nah, nothin’ ever happens. Life is filled with nothin’ happening,” he said.
I felt sort of sorry for him, for that middle-aged malaise that comes over many people after years in the same house with the same job and the same spouse. But I wasn’t about to pull him out of his rut.
“It might not work out anyway between you and me,” he finally said as if he’d been really thinking over the logistics of our potential pairing for the first time. “I might be too old for you.”
I wanted to tell him that our twenty-five year age difference was at least reason number 740 it wouldn’t work out, but instead said: “Yeah, that might be tough. I once dated a 39-year-old and even that was too much.”
Though I found him nerve-wracking, I didn’t want to alienate Johnny. I’d come to New York to experience a life and set of circumstances different from my own. Growing up in California I’d never encountered anyone like him, and I cherished the window into his world. I just preferred to observe Johnny from a reasonable distance — and with a chaperone.
We sat for a while in uncomfortable silence and I began to I process our conversation. I’m sure Johnny had hoped for a definitive reaction to the phone number comment: Either I was to fork it over or tell him to stay the hell away from me. I’d decided though to take his confession as a harmless crush, and gently brush him off. As I looked out the window with streets of Staten Island zooming by, it did cross my mind, however, that in 20 minutes Johnny could be tossing my lifeless body into Staten Island’s horrifyingly named Fresh Kills Dump. Suddenly the trees and parks and wide swaths of undeveloped spaces seemed daunting. Never had I felt a stronger desire for the cramped Avenues of Manhattan where the crowds surrounded me like a security blanket.
“You know for me, sex is sex is sex,” said Johnny jarringly. “I don’t care if sex is with two guys, or a guy and a girl, or a dog or whatever. You know, sex is just what it is,” he continued.
I remained still for a moment, weighing how to respond, then saw my answer just up the road. “There’s a deli!” I shouted, and moments later was bounding out of the car before Johnny brought it to a full stop. I waited outside while he got the snacks, and shook off his comments. He was lonely. It was no big deal, I told myself.
Indeed, on the way back Johnny seemed to backtrack from his come-on: “I hope I’m not scaring you or nothing,” he said.
“Of course not,” I lied. “It’s really hard to shock me.”
“You won’t say nothin’ to Lois will you?” Johnny asked.
“No, don’t worry about it.” I smiled, and decided never to tell Lois. It was partly a righteous vow to spare my friend pain – but mostly it came from a selfish desire to help Lois and Johnny avoid any marital strife that could eventually lead to him calling me.
“It’s just that it gets more difficult as a man gets older, being with the same woman,” Johnny continued, and I nodded.
“You think about a lot of stuff. But you know I’d never do anything,” he said then took a breath. “I mean, you could do something to me and I would take it, but I wouldn’t be able to do anything back.”
Johnny winked at me. Was he suggesting something obscene? No, he couldn’t be. Or was he? It took a moment, but then I understood Johnny wanted me to give him a blow-job right there in the car. He was hoping I’d lean over, unzip his jeans and pleasure him as we drove back to meet his wife who was waiting with tickets to see a community theater production about fairies. I turned to look at him. He gave me his Grim Reaper stare, a look like was reading my mind. For once, those chilling eyes didn’t faze me. It was just Johnny’s shtick, I realized. He had no idea what I was thinking. He was so off-base it was ridiculous. I was, in fact, checking to see if the car door was unlocked and weighing whether it was safer to jump out of a moving vehicle or stay in the car with him.
Just then, Johnny began to cackle a higher pitched version of his horror movie laugh, and said, “See, nothin’ happens.”
“That’s right,” I said.
When we swung into the parking lot, Lois was sitting demurely on the bench in front of the playhouse holding three tickets. I yelped for joy and rushed out of the car like a child long separated from her mother.
“Hi. So you got to see some of the Island,” she said. “What’d ya think?”
“I’ll take Manhattan,” I said.
“So anything exciting happen on the ride?” she asked.
I panicked for a moment. “Ummm…” I stumbled holding up the bag of sandwiches dumbly. But Johnny wasn’t bothered. He laughed a little too hard.
“Nothing,” he said. “Nothin’ ever happens.”