Like a Friend

The phone rang. It was Jenny. She was telling me something in a rushed, excited voice. At first I couldn’t understand. Her words were uneven, jagged, knocking into one another.

“What time is it?” I asked bewilderedly.

The streetlights and sounds of New York’s nighttime world invaded the stillness of my darkened apartment, pried open my eyelids, and erased the sleep from my mind.

I felt Erica roll over, taking a good chunk of the blankets with her. Suddenly everything became clear.

“Who are you talking to?” Erica whispered.

“Okay, okay. Yeah. All right. Don’t worry. Yes, I’ll be there. What? Soon. Yes, I promise.”

I hung up the phone and went into the bathroom and flipped on the light. It was too bright, blinding. I shut it again, groped my way to the sink, splashed cold water on my face and quickly rinsed with mouthwash. It was cold and metallic in my mouth. A pigeon cooed softly on the other side of the windowpane.

Erica had propped herself up on her elbows. She scanned the room, unsure of where she was, and reached for the clock. The red digital numerals announced it was 2:37 a.m.

“What’s happening?” she asked, pulling the dangling switch from the night lamp. The bedroom was flooded with bright, garish light.

“Listen,” I said. “I just gotta run over to Jenny’s place for a minute.”

“You’re what?” She slowly shook her head in disbelief, her black curls gently swayed around her like a halo, those slate-colored eyes flared in the dark with sparkling rage. “Now?”

I shut the light again and put the clock back in its place without thinking and searched the floor for my socks as my eyes slowly readjusted to the dark.

“She has a mouse,” I said.

Erica tilted her head and pursed her full lips as if tasting something bitter.

“Let me get this straight,” she said, flicking the light back on. “You have to go all the way over to the East Village because she”—she put special emphasis on the pronoun to avoid saying the word JENNY—“has a mouse?”

I found a sock under the bed—not the one I was looking for but it would do. I swiped some clothes off the chair and sat facing her, while I pulled it on and tried desperately to act normal.

“I know but she doesn’t have anyone else to call.”

“What about that guy she was dating?” she asked, her arms were folded. This was her fighting stance. “What happened to him?”

I knelt on the floor scouring around for the other sock. “For Christ’s sake where in the world do all the left socks in the universe go? The Negative Zone? Albuquerque?”

“Dante I’m talking to you…”

“What? Who are you talking about? That bartender guy? They went on a few dates, and that was that.” I imagined Jenny standing on her couch screaming. I selected a fresh sock from my nightstand drawer and pulled it on. “Besides she’s gonna call him to come over at this time? He’s probably working.”

She flipped the light back on. “She doesn’t have a boyfriend, so she calls you at this time of night?”

“Can you shut that off?” I walked around the bed and yanked the short chain again. My eyes readjusted to the dark and I found my shirt and sweater from yesterday and put them on.

“You’re not answering me…”

“What am I gonna do? She’s scared shitless. That’s why she called,” I said. My voice rose in volume and my hands were firmly pressed together as if in prayer. It was unfamiliar sign language to Erica.

“You’re being hostile.”

“I’m what?”

“Your hands Dante,” she said, pointing to them. “You’re acting aggressive.”

“You think this”—I shook my hands again—“is aggressive? Seriously?

“Yes.”

“Jesus H. Christ. You’d never survive a Sunday dinner at my mother’s house.”

“Well, I’ve never been invited, have I?”

Erica was on a roll and she knew it. She was a lawyer and if a jury was listening, they would no doubt be swayed by the superiority of her arguments. She continued without delay: “She calls here at this time, wakes you up, and asks you go over and kill a mouse for her. Wow, that is something.”

I pulled my jacket and scarf from the closet and put them on as she sat up in the bed I was in, sleeping like a stone just ten minutes ago, staring at me in utter disbelief. I stared back. Erica was a study in achromatic hues: black hair, sea salt skin, and thundercloud eyes. The sharp lines of her face cut through the pre-morning darkness, the outline of her breasts were visible through my thinning gray t-shirt. Her hair, newly cropped short, floated above base of her neck. I wanted to get back in bed with her and nozzle under the warmth of the quilts and feel her body heat, but then I thought of Jenny and the way she looked when she smiled and the sparkle of her big hazel eyes.

“Listen,” I said kneeling on the side of the bed closest to her. “I understand what you’re saying. And you’re right. I understand that this is…weird. But she doesn’t have someone to call, and she’s my friend. Maybe my best friend.” The words just slipped out. This might have been the first time I’ve actually said them aloud in the three months that Erica and I have dated. “Listen, I’m sorry. Just go back to bed. I promise I won’t be long.” I leaned in to kiss her but she turned away from me and snuggled into the pillows. My lips bumped awkwardly into the back of her head.

“I may not be here when you get back,” she said.

I moved to leave but stopped. I suddenly felt defiant, annoyed, angry.

“Well, be sure to lock up when you leave,” I said. “This is still New York and there’s crazy people everywhere. I don’t care what Giuliani and the papers say.”

The words just slipped out again. I was in the back of a cab and already on Third Avenue by the time I regretted saying them.

§

Jenny answered the door to her fourth floor walk-up.

“Thank God you’re here,” she said her eyes glowing with thanks. “I’m so sorry.”

I took my jacket off and put it on the hook in the foyer next to the framed photo of her at various celebrity-filled events. It took me an hour to hang that rack properly last summer. I also managed to fix the sliding door one rainy Sunday last month. As we walked inside, I spied the various framed photos on the wall: There was a picture of her with this British rock star and that young female movie star, the kind that would be on the cover of fashion magazine; there were a number of picture of her with friends, all publishing people, all made up in the smartest looks of the season.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “It’s what I get paid to do.”

“Oh God I’m so sorry Donny,” she said burying her face in her hands. “But I’m scared. I didn’t know who to call…” By the time Jenny and I met in our late 20s everyone called me by my given name—Dante. No one on the island of Manhattan called me Donny except for Jenny. Somehow it felt appropriate.

She must have just gotten home just before she called me. She was still in one of her outfits she referred to as her party dresses—a low-cut wrap print that traced the exaggerated curves of her chests and hips—and brown leather boots just a few inches below her knees. Her dirty blonde hair was curled into rolling waves.

“Don’t worry,” I said with a smirk. “It’s not like I was sleeping or anything. Now where is the little bastard?”

“Ohmigod, you’re the best Donny,” she said. Then suddenly, she freezes with fear. “Was Erica there? She must think I’m a freak.”

“No,” I said. “She’s at her place, fast sleep.

White Lie No. 1: At the very least, she had, I was certain, reached her apartment by now. 

“Thank God. I don’t want to cause any problems.” She paused for an awkward moment and straighten the crooked lines of her mouth into a smile of sorts. “I like her.”

We walked into the kitchen and pointed to the cabinet below the sink. I flipped on the overhead light. The doors were open. Just inside, in between a large bottle of white wine vinegar and the garbage bin, was a small gray mouse, tiny pinhead red eyes against large whitish ears and a little curled tail and tiny teeth stuck to a glue trap; it squealed for its life. The other two feet desperately clawed around, trying to find an escape route.

“Ohmigod, it’s in there,” she said. She hid behind me, pressing her head against my back.

I stared at the pathetic little creature and thought about all the times I told Jenny specifically not to use a glue trap: it doesn’t kill them; it just tortures them to death. And all the while they screech like the little wild animals they are, unsure of what happened and how they got there. I didn’t want to do what came next.

I asked Jenny to get me another glue trap and a garbage bag, the largest one she had. Then I told her to go inside and sit down. Put on some music.

She looked up at me in horror but when the mouse squealed she pulled me close and hid herself in my arms.

“What are you going to do?” she asked, staring at the mouse, fearing what happens next.

Her wavy dirty blonde hair was in her face, a few strands stuck to what was left of her lipstick. I brushed it away with my fingers and folded it behind her ear. “Listen,” I said looking her in the eyes. “You don’t really want to know, trust me okay. Just get me what I need and go inside.”

“Are you going to kill it?”

“No, I’m gonna find a way to set it free.”

“Really?” She sounded almost hopeful.”

“No, whaddaya kidding me? Of course, I’m gonna kill it. But you don’t need to watch. Now, please. Go inside."

She left and got the things I asked for and then lingered in the doorway while I kneeled down on the kitchen floor and tried to figure out the most painless way of doing this.

“Don’t hurt it.”

“Will you just go…”

“Fine,” she said, cutting me off and disappeared into the living room and put on a Verve CD. She was always trying to get me to listen to the Verve.

In a matter of minutes it was over. I went down the four flights of stairs of Jenny’s building and threw the garbage bag with the mouse sandwiched between two glue traps inside and tossed it in a can and cover it with the rusty metal lid. It was chilly outside and the sky was now deep indigo, almost black. The few stars I could see looked remote and cold. I rang Jenny’s buzzer and she let me back in. I found her sitting on the couch. She looked like she had been crying. I went into her kitchen and closed the doors under the sink and put the electric kettle on and prepared two cups of mint tea.

“I didn’t know who to call,” she said, her tears black with mascara. “I just panicked and called you right away. God, I’m sorry to drag you out of bed for this.” She wiped her eyes with both hands and looked around for a box of tissues.

“C’mon, you’re making a big deal out of nothing.” I put a hand on her shoulder to calm her down. “Relax, I don’t mind you called me.”

“I’ve gotta find someone Donny,” she blurted out, dabbing her eyes. “But there’s no one I really like. What am I supposed to do? I can’t make myself fall in love.”

I’ve heard this all before but I try to say something hopeful.

“What about that Brazilian guy? You liked him.”

“Oh, please,” she said, looking for a dry part of the tissue. “He’s such a player. I mean, he’s fun and everything but he’s not boyfriend material.”

“You mean he’s not coming over at three in the morning to kill your mice?”

She blurted out a little chuckle and wiped her nose.

“Stop it,” she said. “Don’t make me laugh.”

Jenny looked at me intently with those moist hazel eyes that seem like a different color every time I looked at them.

“You’re sure you were alone?” she asked.

“I’d think I’d know if I wasn’t.”

White Lie No. 2: I was sure from Erica’s reaction that I would be alone very soon.

“You’re the best,” she said. “Honestly, what would I do without you?” She leaned toward me and covered me in a big hug. We sat there on her couch wrapped in each other’s arms. For a brief moment I thought about Erica sitting in my apartment, wearing just my gray t-shirt but then I felt Jenny pressing against me, her forearm touching my neck, head on my shoulders, her tears staining my shirt.

“I dunno,” I said breaking the silence. “What would you do?” The question hung in the air and we both sit smiling at each other. “Tea’s ready. I’ll be right back.”

We drank slowly and shared a few more familiar stories. The tears were gone and suddenly it felt like it was evening rather than nearly dawn. I looked out her window and saw the sky brightening. There was an ash-brown mourning dove singing on the fire escape as I got up to leave.

“You can sleep on the couch if you don’t feel like getting a cab,” she offered.

I think about it but decline. I leaned in and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

“I’ll call you later,” I said.

“I owe you,” Jenny said as she gave me a warm embrace that lasts just a little bit longer than usual. She kissed me just outside my lips as she handed me my coat and scarf, straightened the knot for me. She held the brown and white plaid scarf in her hand for a moment.

“Isn’t that the scarf I bought you in Paris?”

“Matter of fact it is.”

“It looks really good on you.”

When I get back to my apartment Erica is gone. She locked up and slipped her spare key under the door. She even took her a toothbrush with her. I climbed into bed and closed my eyes. I could still smell her on the pillows.

§

I called Erica later that day at her office. Our conversation was brief: she didn’t like Jenny; more specifically she didn’t trust her. She was suspicious of our friendship and wondered why we’ve never dated if we’re so close. She said Jenny had more than just have a mouse problem.

“She’s beautiful,” she said as if offering evidence before a court. “So why doesn’t she have a boyfriend?”

“I don’t know. Why are you asking me?”

“There are plenty of men in this city who would love to date her.”

“Great. Why don’t you introduce her to some."

“What about Ray?”

“The investment banker with the toupee? You’re not serious.”

“He’s a good guy and has a great job.”

“So what? He could bore a roomful of deaf people.”

“Ray is not the point.”

“So what is?”

“You’re relationship with Jenny.”

“We’re friends. That’s it.”

“There’s more to it than that. And you know it.”

“You’re delusional.”

“No, Dante, you are.”

Our conversation ended there. Our relationship didn’t last much longer.

§

I saw Jenny a few days later on a Saturday afternoon. The air was crisp and cool, one of those autumn days when you could look up and the sky was so perfectly blue and massive that it made the skyscrapers look like Tinker Toys. There were no clouds to be seen, just the Twin Towers reigning over us, visible from our perch at our usual place, a little café in the West Village. We sat outside on the bench in the sweet autumn air and ate gelato and watched the people go by.

“Have you heard from Erica?”

“No," I said. I think that relationship has run its course.”

“She was nice,” she said, which is all she ever said about Erica. Or any girl I’ve dated long enough for her to meet.

“She was. And even better: She was great in bed.”

Jenny frowned and slapped my knee.

“Just saying.”

She shook her head and changed the topic.

“I love this stuff,” she said staring at the gelato in her hands. “I don’t care if it’s already October.”

“Gelato tastes better in the fall,” I said.

“Let me try yours.”

“You don’t like hazelnut.”

“I might like it this time.” She dipped her plastic spoon into my cup, and swallowed the frosty mound of gelato before licking the spoon with delight.

“Mmmm, that’s good,” she said sounding surprised. “How do you say hazelnut in Italian again?”

“Nocciola,” I said slowly, exaggerating the syllables between bites.

“Noch-cho-la,” she said laughing. “Noch-cho-la.”

“Close enough. Let me try some of your banana.” I spooned some out of her cup.

“Mmm, that’s good. But mine’s better.”

She smiled and gave me another playful tap with the back of her hand.

And we sat there for a long time, staring at the cloudless blue sky high above, peering into what seemed like eternity, and all the buildings around us lined up like dominoes. It all felt like it could go on forever; that we—Jenny and me—would go on just like we were at that moment: sitting on a bench, eating gelato under a flawless sky. We would always be here in New York: free and untouched by the world and whatever was ailing it; never worrying or caring about what came next.

 

 

Joseph Tirella the author of The New York Times Best Seller, Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World's Fair and the Transformation of America (Lyon's Press; 2014). A graduate of The City College of New York's MFA program, his nonfiction has been published in The New York Times, Slate, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Vibe, among other places. His poetry and fiction been published in Newtown Literary, Promethean, and YesPoetry.

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