PART II – The Return
CHAPTER TEN: Tommy’s Apartment – Morningside Heights
ONE WEEK LATER.
Tommy awoke to the sound of rain. With his palms, he rubbed his eyes then took a minute to piece together his surroundings as the white blotches slowly dissipated from sight. His room was empty. Emptier than it usually was. Empty except for a bed, a dresser of drawers, a bookshelf and a few lingering memories. The first three books on his shelf were Bukowski in the Bathtub, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, and a cultural anthropology encyclopedia that Rachel had left behind. The books were all so incredibly varied, while the memories were all painfully alike. The muffled pounding of the rain against his window seemed to be much farther away, far more distant than it should have been. Tommy stepped out of bed to investigate.
Moving to the window, he was not surprised at all to find the glass now set behind iron bars. His long fingers trickled through them to touch the windowpane. It seemed thicker than it should have been, perhaps the reason behind the deadened sound of the rainstorm. But Tommy was still not convinced that anything around him was amiss. His sixth-floor view of the brick wall across the courtyard had now been replaced by a vast expanse of water; the building next to his was gone but he did not consider the implausibility of it all for even a second. Outside, the city was soaking. The streets were drowning under two stories of murky water. Tommy could see the shadowy outlines of rusted cars, mailboxes and long-abandoned storefronts on the ocean’s adopted floor. He watched the water’s surface creep another notch up a dead streetlight. Gripping the bars now, he peered out across the makeshift river between skyscraper banks. The horizon was nothing but gray, sky and water melting indiscernibly into one another.
Tommy wondered when it must have started raining, but then remembered that it really didn’t make any difference, realizing finally that it was nothing but a dream. And who in a dream would ever care about such a matter?
And then he woke up with a startle.
Tommy had had a different dream for seven nights in a row, each of them worse than the one before it. He dreamed that the city and everything around him was shrinking but he remained the same size; his hands becoming so big that it was getting harder and harder to touch or hold onto anything he loved without breaking them. He dreamed that Central Park was gone, replaced by Hoboken, New Jersey. He dreamed that the New York Islanders won the Stanley Cup and the victory parade went by outside his building, along 113th Street from Broadway to Amsterdam and back again. And again. And again. He dreamed he and Kate and Jesse had entered the Coney Island hot dog eating contest; he watched as his two best friends’ stomachs burst open, spilling out into Lower Bay. He dreamed Rachel returned, but only because she had forgotten a six-pack of vanilla cream soda in his refrigerator. He dreamed of razorblades under his fingernails and toenails. And he dreamed of his twin brother Leyland, drowning in the Pacific Ocean and calling out to him relentlessly.
Tommy loved his brother for many reasons, but at the top of that list was the fact that Leyland was born first. Before they were married, the Muellers had agreed to name their first son after the baby’s great-grandfather Leyland Mueller, who had come to America from Austria just before the Great Depression. As Tommy’s luck would have it, he was the second born by only seventy-two seconds and as such did not have to grow up with the name he knew his twin brother had always detested so much.
Growing up, the Mueller boys were constantly confused by relatives. This seemed incredibly strange to Tommy, since it was actually quite easy to tell them apart: Leyland was the one who received all of the attention. They were both tall for their age, both had dark skin, blonde hair and hazel eyes, but Leyland was the boy who strangers would smile at first. Tommy made note of every time Leyland’s hair was playfully ruffled by the girls at school (it was a lot), he counted the number of candies tossed into their sacks at Halloween (Leyland always ended up with more, though he would share with his brother anyway), and he kept track of the number of instances where Leyland was picked before him in gym class or for games of road hockey (it was every time). It didn’t really bother Tommy, but he did find it peculiar. Maybe, he thought, it was simply a by-product of his brother’s unfortunate name, possibly an unconscious act by others to help the boy find forgiveness for his parents’ ignorance about any of the 101 Most Popular Baby Names.
Still, the boys were inseparable. Their mother enjoyed telling them stories from when they were babies. She told Leyland that his first word was Tommy, and she told Tommy his first word was Leyland. She often indulged them with accounts of their bath times together, which naturally neither of the boys found any pleasure in listening to. When they were older, Leyland enjoyed playing mix-up, pretending each of them was the other; sitting in on each other’s classes; kissing one another’s girlfriends. These games had never seemed like fun to Tommy. Tommy was happy just being himself, and he was happy to have Leyland for a brother. It seemed silly to want to pretend it was the other way around. He only ever agreed for the sole purpose of wishing for the extra attention from others, but somehow things still continued to work in Leyland’s favor.
The boys were in the ninth grade when they were finally separated. It was a school trip to Japan. Tommy didn’t want to go because it wasn’t a trip to New York. Seattle was already far enough away from where his heart truly wanted to be; he didn’t want to be any further. As his mother and father kissed Leyland goodbye at the airport, Tommy stood back and watched the arrivals and departures board. There was one plane leaving for New York at that moment, and another was just arriving from JFK. He wanted to see what the passengers looked like; he wanted to know if he would be able to tell which ones were the real New Yorkers and which were the tourists. He was too distracted to even say goodbye to his brother one last time. Leyland called out to him, but Tommy didn’t hear.
The following spring, when Tommy had no one else, he met Patrick Kohn.
It was the sound of the door buzzer that woke Tommy from his nightmare, and he knew instantly that Rachel had returned. Rachel had an ever-evolving buzzing style and she would change it up constantly with no warning whatsoever. Tommy hated that. He liked to know that when Jesse came by it was always going to be a buzz-buz-buz-buzz-buzz, buzz-buuuuu-zzzzzzz and when Kate showed up it would be one long buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuzzzzzz-zzzzzzzzzzzzz (most likely with the full force of her fist, or perhaps an elbow or a knee if her hands were full). But when Rachel dropped by, who knew? It could be anything. Maybe one short buzz, maybe two, or any possible combination of every sound capable of being produced through that sixty-year-old speaker.
The sound of the buzzer that morning was something akin to a dying puppy. Rachel must have forgotten her keys. Or maybe she’d thrown them onto the tracks; it certainly wouldn’t have been the first time she’d flown from Tommy’s apartment in a fit of frustration and tossed her keys somewhere. And yet, Tommy took an outlandish sort of pleasure in the idea that keys to his apartment were scattered around areas of Manhattan. Tommy pulled his ass out of bed to hit the intercom, but of course it was on the fritz. All he heard was an alien static. Throwing on his ANGER sweater, Tommy marched down the five flights of stairs to let her inside.
Expecting to see the familiar slim shape of Rachel Ponzini through the murky translucency of the door’s glass, Tommy stopped when he noticed the form of a man instead. Tommy didn’t say a word. He carefully inched closer towards the blurry figure behind the glass. “Tom?” it said to him. “Is that you there?”
It was him. Tommy just knew it. Patrick Kohn was alive and standing on the other side of the door.
Tommy remained silent, as though he could will himself invisible behind the glass, as if he had the power to take on a ghost-like form rather than his own. As though it was all still a horrible dream.
“Hello?” the dark shape pressed. But wasn’t it Patrick who was playing the part of ghost at that moment? Was it not just one week before that Tommy had proclaimed his former friend dead? Had the plane crash on the evening news not already wiped Patrick Kohn from existence? Had it not swallowed the man deep down into a place where Tommy could at last be done with him? The two of them were both at eye level now; the mottled glass was all that separated the fuzzy gray blobs of their heads.
“Come on Tom,” he said. “Don’t do this.”
Tommy wondered if that glass was not between them, how he might react to his uninvited guest. The fire inside him wanted to bang the window, to send Patrick away. Could he hit the door with enough force to send him all the way back to Seattle? Or better yet, to put him in the fiery grave in which he belonged? Fuck, he thought, giving his head a shake. Both Kate and Jesse were right when they would tell him how preposterously dramatic he could be at times.
The blurry head outside the door pressed on. “Don’t do this Tom,” it repeated.
“Tom, it’s me.”
Just steps to the east, the giant red door of the Engine Company 47 firehouse suddenly rolled open. Patrick had to raise his voice over the scrambled commotion of fire fighters and the growling of the truck’s engine as it awoke.
“TOM, COME ON!”
The fire truck blasted out of the hall, heading west up the one-way street, its siren blaring past the two men. And yet, Patrick’s faltering desperation could still be heard.
If Tommy had felt the deafening racket could hide him from reality, he was suddenly aware of its blatant inefficiency. He no longer had the willpower to remain in the one-sided standoff. “What are you doing here?” he finally asked, hating himself a just little bit for opening his mouth. He would have hated himself even more had he known that Patrick Kohn was just about ready to give up and turn away.
“What are you doing here Patrick?”
“Didn’t you get my letter?”
“I read the letter. But I’m not asking a letter, I’m asking you. What the hell are you doing here?”
There was only silence outside now. There were no fire trucks or car horns. The shape of the man behind the glass did not move. Patrick was frozen. Was he regretting his decision to come back?
Inside, Mrs. Horowitz from 406 was shuffling her way into the lobby. The crinkling of her giant ball of plastic bags never failed to give her presence away, nor did the squeaky wheels of her walker. Tommy knew she was on her way to Mintz’s Meats because she went there every Tuesday morning. She’d been on the same schedule since Tommy moved in eleven years ago, and it was just as she’d been doing eleven years before Tommy moved in. Tommy threw up his arms, blocking the door to let Mrs. Horowitz know that she would not be leaving out the front this morning. She gave Tommy a perplexed look, but knew well enough about younger people to not ask them questions.
“Tom, come on. I was only in Seattle. I wasn’t dead. Don’t treat me like I’m dead!”
Tommy pointed towards the glass with his thumb, and mouthed the word “Terrorist” to Mrs. Horowitz. He covered his mouth with one hand and held the other out like a gun, looking more like a Wild West train robber than a terrorist, but she got the idea. The old woman had an absolute fear of terrorism, so much so that she went out of her way to avoid Apartment 104’s wooden-legged Middle Eastern man, just in case. Of course, she was never a big fan of Tommy either, and with a dismissive wave, some under-her-breath muttering and an uninterested glare she wheeled her cart around and headed for the back exit.
“Maybe you’re not dead,” Tommy finally replied. “But you are to me.”
“What do you want me to say here, Tom? What can I possibly say that would make you open that door?”
Tommy thought it over for a moment. If it had been a girlfriend of his outside there was no doubt that he would have the skill to say something to drive her away again. So why couldn’t he find the words to make Patrick do the same?
The door between them was the very same door they stood at eleven years ago when Tommy and Patrick first came to look at the apartment. Tommy didn’t want to tell Patrick at the time, but when he had pushed the buzzer he was more nervous than he’d ever been in his life. Tommy recognized how big a change they were about to make, committing themselves to a brand new life in the great big city.
“Is this how it’s going to be then?”
Eleven years ago, Tommy knew he couldn’t have made the choices he’d made without the backing from his friends. In Kate and Jesse and Patrick he found the strength to make any decision.
But Tommy had cut that cord between himself and Patrick, and he sometimes wondered if that severing had strengthened him or if he had been running at three-quarters speed ever since.
Tommy placed a palm to the glass and said, “Go away Patrick.” Turning, he removed his hand and walked away from the door. “Just go away.”
Patrick remained on the stoop long enough to see the sweaty hand print dissolve from behind the glass.
The dreams that Tommy dreamed became worse and worse every night. But he would have wished any of them more real than the reality of Patrick Kohn returning to Manhattan and destroying absolutely everything.