In graduate school, I dated a skinny fiction writer named Dan. It was a good relationship at the time, always having someone willing to read your draft of this or that, but when the time came to move from the Upper West Side to Brooklyn, I needed less brains, more brawn, and that’s exactly what the moving company sent.
At 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning in May, a blank white truck pulled up curbside and the most beautiful man I’d ever seen in New York opened the door and stepped out onto the sidewalk. He was dressed in black jeans and a spotless white t-shirt. His hair was military short. His eyes were the color of wet peat moss and dark tattoos ran down the sides of his neck and snuck up his sleeves. He extended his hand and introduced himself.
“I’m Jason,” he said, smiling a set of flawless teeth, straight and white, framed by lush lips. I’m such a sucker for polite, and for a good, strong handshake. I was immediately, completely undone.
My gaze traveled from our locked hands up his arms and across his chest—large but perfectly proportioned muscles, olive skin, a hint of Latino maybe. He smelled like fresh laundry.
“So?” Jason said.
“I’ll take you upstairs,” I said, snapping back to reality and turning toward the elevators.
In my tiny apartment, I showed Jason what had to go. I had separated the heavy things and the boxes full of books, along one wall, and I pointed these out, warning him about the weight.
“You like to read?” he said.
“Yeah. I’m a writer, or…trying to be.”
“That’s cool,” he said. “I like to read, too.” He asked me what I wrote and I told him I was working on a book about a cowboy.
“How can I get a copy?” he asked. I told him I’d have to finish it first. He said he’d watch for me. I decided not to tell him all about how I’d been working on the book for five years and was hoping to sell it soon, but how I was also too scared to put all my eggs in the precarious basket of being a writer and so would be starting a full-time, soul-sucking job the very next week for which I’d already bought a pair of black Kenneth Cole slingbacks, several conservative black suits and a professional handbag (black) to carry my office-issue Blackberry. He picked up a few of the book boxes and curled his arm around them, pausing in the doorway. I wanted to ask him what he liked to read, but I didn’t want him to have to answer my question while holding the boxes. Then again, I wanted him to stand there and hold the boxes for awhile, maybe all day. I was suddenly sorry the bed sheets were already packed. I desperately wished Dan would evaporate. The look on my face must have been confused.
“I know I look intimidating,” he said, unprompted. “But my friends say I’m a big pussy cat.”
All I could think to say was, “Okay.”
A half hour later, everything was loaded into the truck and the apartment was as empty as the day I’d moved in. Jason looked around, the way my mother does when she leaves a hotel room, making sure none of her things have blended inadvertently into the landscape of the space that is not hers.
“What’s this?” he said, picking up a stretched canvas propped against the corridor wall. It was a painting of two cowboys riding the range in black and white and shades of gray.
“Oh, that stays,” I said. “I’m throwing it away.”
“I never really finished it.”
“You painted this?” he said, his beautiful eyes wide. “You can’t throw this away. This is really good.” He held the painting at arm’s length and studied it the way people study paintings in museums. “Can I have it?” he asked.
“You want my painting?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t think you realize how good it is.”
I think I smiled. I think I raised my eyebrows and smirked a little. It might have looked like a come-on. It might have looked like I wanted to puke.
“Sure,” I said. “You can have it.” And with that I closed the door to the apartment and we turned into the stairwell, Jason carrying the painting carefully by the frame.
Downstairs, Dan was pacing up and down the sidewalk next to the truck. It was drizzling and the door to the truck was open. Jason asked us if we wanted a ride to Brooklyn with him and I said sure. The subway would take us an hour, and it was such a dreary day. I climbed into the cab and took the middle seat and Dan got in beside me, his knees pressing against the glove compartment that was held shut with a piece of duct tape.
I wasn’t really sure, but I suggested we cut across to the FDR and drop down and cross the Brooklyn Bridge. Dan concurred. We wound up taking a wrong turn, and then somewhere along MLK everyone was honking. Jason looked in the side mirror and said, “Oh,” jerking the truck to the curb and jumping out. I looked back through the open window. Boxes were scattered down the street. “I’ll be right back,” Jason said. So Dan and I sat in the truck and waited. When Jason jumped back in the cab he said, “I got it all! Don’t worry!” And I trusted him completely.
A few minutes later, we were negotiating a series of one-way streets through Harlem when he spun around again, hit the brakes and wheeled the van around across traffic.
“Hang on a minute!” he said, leaving us idling on a sidewalk while he trotted into the open door of a junk store.
Dan looked at me, incredulous. “What the hell?” he said.
Jason came back a few minutes later, got in the van and put the truck in gear.
“I just had to see about that juke box,” he explained without apology. “I collect ‘em. But the guy wanted eighty bucks, and that’s steep.” He pulled back into traffic, heading east, and I took the opportunity to look at his profile, his neck and hairline. “I watch Antiques Road Show,” he went on. “Do you know that show?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Well I watch it a lot,” he said, “so I know what’s worth collecting. I really like slot machines and skulls and inkwells. You know what an inkwell is?”
“Uh huh,” I said. I didn’t look at Dan, but I was sure his eyes were rolling.
“I got this skull inkwell on lay away,” Jason went on. “Nine-hundred-dollar skull inkwell. You put the ink in the top of the skull. It’s crazy. I love it.”
By this time, I was sure we were heading in the wrong direction. In a moment, we hit Broadway.
“I think you can just turn left here,” I said.
“Okay, no problem,” Jason said. And for the first forty blocks or so the traffic moved at a decent clip. Just above Houston Street things got hung up and we sat for a long time watching the lights turn green, yellow, red. The rain was streaming down the windshield and Jason flicked the AC on.
“What’s your neck say?” I asked.
He reached a hand up and rubbed the ink embedded just above his collar.
“F.T.W.? It stands for Fuck The World,” he said. “I hate everyone, so this is my message.” He reached around the back of his neck, slipping his fingers beneath the collar, suggesting ink beyond the visible. His arm was as thick as my thigh. “I got a lot of these in jail,” he said.
I could feel Dan’s leg against mine, and it wanted to twitch.
“How long were you in jail?” I asked.
“Two years. On and off,” he said, and of course I was dying to know what for but was too afraid to ask. Luckily, he offered. “This last time,” he said, “I was in there for selling two hundred hits of X to an undercover cop. You know, Ecstasy. But the Tombs, that’s not an easy place to be. I recommend you don’t go there. It ain’t too cute.” Okay, good, I thought—drug-dealing. That’s safe. We’re safe. We’re not going to die between here and Brooklyn. We moved forward a block and a half.
“I just hang around with idiots,” he went on. “Like my friends, Mario and Carmine, they’re retarded. Mario comes up limping the other day, says Carmine stabbed him in the leg. But the next day they’re walking down the street holding hands like they’re boyfriend and girlfriend. And mostly I date strippers. I know I should date nicer girls, but that’s just the people I hang around with. I just broke up with this girl. It started off good, and then she got crazy. We used to go dancing at Copacabana. You been there? You like to dance?”
“Yeah, I love to dance,” I said. I hadn’t been in years.
“You guys should come,” he said. “Just don’t go on a Tuesday. Tuesdays is hoodie night. It ain’t too cute.”
I considered his offer. What would I wear? Could my tits compete with the stripper ex-girlfriend’s? Dan didn’t say a word, south along Broadway through Manhattan, over the bridge, through Brooklyn Heights, past Atlantic Street Center, up 4th Avenue to 3rd Street where we pulled up in front of my new place. It was still raining, but not as hard. We all grabbed something and went up to the second floor, a spacious one-bedroom, freshly painted.
“This is nice,” Jason said. “Really nice.” He looked up at the pressed tin ceilings, peered in at the newly-tiled kitchen, and I wondered where he lived, what it looked like there. He unloaded the truck in no time. And then we stood on the sidewalk, me with a wad of cash and him with an empty truck and my painting. Dan was upstairs and I could feel his eyes on us from the window.
I wondered if he was watching to protect me, or to see what I would do.
Jason held the painting out to me. “You should finish this,” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just don’t think painting is my thing.”
“But if you get famous, this is gonna be worth something,” he said. “I’m no dummy. I seen it all the time on Antiques Roadshow. Somebody gets famous for one thing, like they write a book or something, and then everything they’ve ever done or owned is worth a ton of money. So you’re going to write a book and then this painting is gonna be worth some money. You gotta finish it. Will you finish it and send it to me? I’ll give you my address. You gotta pen?”
I looked him all over, searching for something I still can’t name. I couldn’t imagine how a boy this pretty had survived in the slammer for even a day. He was a mama’s boy, a curious boy. He did his research. He liked collecting things. His eyes were open for opportunity. His eyes were open.
I pulled a yellow legal pad from my bag and gave it to him. I knew I wouldn’t finish the painting, but I thought maybe I could write to him instead. Maybe we could go dancing. He handed the paper back to me with his name and address written in a neat, blue hand.
“You know,” I said, looking at the painting, “I want you to have this one. I really do. If you like it the way it is.”
“Okay,” he said. “But if you paint another one, in blue, you can send it to me. I think it would look good in blue.”
“Alright,” I said. “We’ll see.” We shook hands. And then he got in the truck and drove away.
Upstairs, Dan said, “What the hell was that?”
“He wanted me to finish that painting.”
“Of the cowboys.”
“Are you kidding?”
“He liked it. He thought it was beautiful. And he thinks it’s going to be worth a million bucks on eBay if I become a famous writer.”
“Oh my god.”
“Yeah. Well,” I said. I ran my key along a seam of tape, opened a box and took some things out. There was no furniture in the place, nothing to sit on, so Dan sat cross-legged on the floor, asked if I wanted help unpacking and, when I declined, stood up and said he was going to go home.
I settled into my new place nicely, commuting every day to my job in Lower Manhattan and returning home to cook dinner for friends who would sit on the couch and balance plates on their laps, drink bottles and bottles of wine and make fun of my Barry-White-inspired bathroom, all black tile and gold fixtures. I worked 12 hours a day in my office with no windows and I got really good at running from one meeting to another in high heels. I had cocktails with the mayor at Gracie Mansion and rode around town in government-issued vehicles, with a driver who wore one of those curlicue wire devices behind his ear. I didn’t touch the draft of my book that sat on my desk for almost two years.
It would be a few months before Dan and I would break up, and years before I realized that at least one box of books and my favorite mug, stolen from the university student center in Reykjavik, were lost along that stretch of MLK in Harlem. Eventually I lost Jason’s address, too. For awhile I’d kept it, thinking I’d show up at Copacabana and try to find him, but of course I never did. I’m no dummy. Where Jason saw potential in my half-finished painting, in my half-formed self, I feared I would be disappointed in him. But who was I, in my suit and my slingbacks with my Blackberry, a nameless engine behind the powers that made the city go, go, go?
Much as I loved my new apartment, it was not who I wanted to be. I decided that after a year, I would move again. If I finished my book and became a famous writer, Jason could sell my painting on eBay and buy himself a cool new skull inkwell. I wondered if he would find the painting beautiful enough to hold onto until then.
Margot Kahn left New York City for Seattle where she hikes, bakes cakes and reads with her husband and son. Her book Horses That Buck, the biography of a Wyoming cowboy, was published in 2008. www.margotkahn.com