"Another Romantic Dawn" 3

"If I could be who you wanted
If I could be who you wanted
All the time, all the time"

Now it's three months later and I'm walking up Fifth Ave., heading towards 42nd, dodging tourists and letting the girls know I appreciate their, you know, girlness, without being sleazy about it. I don't want to be one of those guys girls complain to their girlfriends about later on at the bar.

I wish I could say something like "New York's better when the tourists aren't here," but let's face it - the tourists are always here, with their awkward shapeless hair and fannypacks. You'd think in fucking March they'd give it a rest, you know, take a bit of time to get the old farm in order or whatever, but no, they think the Empire State Building's is going to pick itself up and walk away if they're not here to stop it.

I push past a family milling around a corner looking for other members of their family (how many kids does somebody need, anyway?) and ignore the people shoving paper advertisments for clothing warehouse sales, and keep going until I hit 42nd Street and the Public Library. He's here, of course, at the top of the stairs, eating a sandwich and shivering a bit in the March wind.

"Usopp." I nod and squat down next to him. He's done some new paintings since the last time I saw him, so I spend a few minutes looking at those.

"Hey, Sanji." Usopp gives me a nervous grin around his sandwich. When he's not telling one of his lies, the kid's always nervous, like he's afraid you're going to hit him. I don't know why he hawks his stuff at the Library. I keep telling him the Met would make more sense, since it's an art museum and all, but I guess he likes it here.

I pick up a watercolor of a girl diving into a swimming pool. Her blond hair is flying out behind her. "How's Nami? You seen her around?" I ask, trying to sound casual.

Usopp shrugs. He's more interested in the painting in my hands, watching to see if I'll buy it. "Not too good," he says. "Arlong's been giving her more work than usual, to keep her in line. She looks like she hasn't slept in weeks."

"Yeah?" There are lots of things I'd like to do to Arlong, but now is not the time. "She still got that rubber plant? You know that Luffy sold it to her?"

"Yeah, I know." Usopp scratches at his hair. He brightens up. "Speaking of Luffy," he says, "I'm meeting him later today. We're gonna get my ship from the harbor and sail away."

I snort. Boy, this guy thinks I'm an idiot or something. "You know, lying about a boat is one thing," I tell him. "But actually leading a guy on like that...that's going a bit too far, you think?"

"I'm not leading anyone on!" he says. Two spots of red have appeared in his cheeks. "And I'm not lying, either. I really do have a ship! My dad left it to me."

"Uh huh." I put the painting of the girl down and pick up another one with paratrooping pigs in it. "I'm head chef at the Waldorf-Astoria, and the son of a ship-leaving father is scraping a living together helping a con man and selling paintings outside the Public Library because he wants to."

"It's true," Usopp mumbles. He wads up the sandwich wrapper and tosses it into that oversized woman's bag he always carries around. "Look, if you're not gonna buy anything, could you move? You're making me look bad." He nods to the people walking past in front of us. None of them pay much attention to the paintings. Shows what they know. Fucking plebians.

"I'll take the pigs." I dig around in my pocket until I find a $10. It's not nearly as much as the diving girl - that one's going for a sweet $100 - but I kinda get the feeling Usopp wouldn't want me to take that one anyway. It's the same girl, over and over, in all the paintings. He never paints the same ship or field twice, but that blonde girl always stays. She's always busy, too. Riding a horse, or running, or reaching for something. She's never still. I wonder about her a lot, who she is, why Usopp never paints her just sitting down, but I don't, because I can tell she's real. Maybe she's the only real thing he's got. So I never ask.

I take the painting and stand up. I head back towards the Baratie without much of a good-bye. Sailing off in a ship, my ass. I'll see Usopp tomorrow in front of the Library, and the day after that, and the week after that, and so on and so forth until we both die.

People come to New York because they complain that nothing ever changes in their little shit towns. Well, I've got news for them. Nothing ever changes in New York, either. The city's just really good at making you think otherwise. If you keep your eyes open enough, you'll see it's the same bum on the same corner year after year. It's the same yuppie Wall Street hotshot coming out of Starbucks at the same time every day with the same drink. And you're part of the scenery, too. You're the guy who walks to the Public Library every Tuesday afternoon. You're the guy who's always behind the counter at the little French restaurant on 23rd and Lexington. You're the guy who'll stay forever because you're too chickenshit to leave.

It's not even that life is that bad here. The Baratie makes okay money. I don't freeze in the winter. Me and Zeff, we've had some good times. We walk through Central Park in the summer and laugh at all the people pretending it doesn't smell like horse shit. I know when Zeff's teaching me a dish, I'm getting the real deal, not the fake French-Italian-Moroccan-Chinese slop you get at other restaurants. I love the feeling of the kitchen, the organized chaos of it and the process of making a coherent meal. I've had no reason to be unhappy.

It's just that...when I was in fifth grade and we had to write letters to our twelth-grade selves, I wrote "Sanji: I hope you're traveling around the world learning how to cook every kind of food and that you get to see the Tigris and the Euphrates because that's what I want to do and I hope you still want to." And by the time I was sixteen I knew that wasn't ever going to happen. I didn't even open my letter after graduation. I just threw it in the trash on the way out of the auditorium. Maybe it got recycled. Maybe it's part of a million pieces of letter-size copy paper all across the country. A bit of my stupid ten-year old self for everyone to write on.

The clock reads almost four o'clock when Luffy comes strolling into the Baratie. Usopp is following behind him, carrying his bag and his painting kit. I am not really in the mood.

"Oh, I thought you'd be packed by now," Luffy says.


"What?" I say.

Luffy sits down at the counter. "Didn't Usopp tell you?" He spins round and round on the seat. "We're gonna go get his ship at the harbor and sail out of here. We're gonna be pirates!" He grins at me for a second before going round again.

Now I have a headache and I'm not in the mood. "Usopp doesn't have a ship," I tell Luffy, and glare at Usopp, who just shrugs.

"Yes, he does!" Luffy stops spinning to stare at me. "We just put all our stuff on her. She's called the Going Merry. Neat name, huh?"

I'm doing some staring of my own at Usopp. "So you were telling the truth," I say.

"Well, yeah." Usopp plops down ungracefully next to Luffy. He looks offended. "I don't lie about everything."

"Huh." I don't stop polishing wine glasses. "And you're taking him with you? Just 'cause he's got a ship? Come on, look at the kid. His knees start shaking when someone looks at him wrong."

"Yeah," Luffy agrees while Usopp glares. He grabs an apple from the basket on the counter without asking, and eats half of it in one bite. "But he's a good shot with a gun."

Oh, God. I don't even ask how Luffy knows that. I don't want to know. Who cares, anyway? The whole thing is ridiculous, and I tell him so. Pirates, sailing the ocean - that's all dreams. This isn't the fucking sixteenth century anymore.

Luffy looks as thoughtful as someone can with an apple core sticking out of his mouth. "I see your point," he says seriously, "but the way I figure it, is either you stay here forever and never go anywhere that's not on the Metro-North, or we sail to France and you get to cook in France. Besides, Usopp says we need a chef and you're the best one I know. So you gotta come with us, too."

He needs a chef and that's why I should leave my life to be an outlaw. "Uh huh," I say. It's gonna take a lot more than that to convince me. "You do know that 'pirate' means 'international crimminal,' right?"

"Yeah, I know. That's okay, though." It's stupid, but something about his tone, the absolutely matter-of-fact way he says it, makes me see things from their point of view for a minute. What have they got to lose? Luffy can put his feet behind his head anywhere. What's so great about doing it for the viewing pleasure of others? What's so great about Usopp sitting in front of the Library day after day, watching people not buy his paintings? What's so great about me, cooking five-star meals in a restaurant no one knows about and looking at an inaccurate map of Mesopotamia?

Nothing, that's what. But I can't just leave. This life I've got, it's not ideal, but I know what's gonna happen each day.

That's just it, though, right? I know what's gonna happen. The same thing. Over and over. So on and so forth, until I die.

I have to say something. "We might get killed." Jesus, did I just say we?

Luffy spreads his hands out. "So?" he says, and grins. It's amazing. I've never seen this smile before, on anybody. I can't describe it. It's just heart-stoppingly sweet and wild and it makes me feel like I can do anything. So this is what it looks like, I'm thinking, looking at the way Luffy's smile imitates that scar under his eye and which the stitch marks, in turn, imitate the lines of his teeth. All the things that are bigger than life, that are more important than the repitition of our beating hearts, this grin of Luffy's is what they look like. Suddenly, just like that, I'm sold, I'm hooked. I'm ten years old again.

"Hey." The words burst out before I can stop myself. "You guys know anything about Sumer?"

- - - - - -

One hour later we're dashing arm-in-arm down Lexington Ave., me with a couple of bags over my shoulder and Usopp and Luffy telling me about all the fun we'll have at sea. We barely stop as we get to Nami's building. Luffy pounds on the buzzer, and we barge through the doors as soon as she replies. Up the elevator and down the hall to her apartment. We open the door without knocking.

Zoro is sitting at the window. Empty bottles beside him tell us that he's been drinking for most of the afternoon. The blotches on Nami's cheeks means she's been crying.

For the first time, that doesn't matter. I sit back and let Luffy work his earnest, exhilarating magic on them. It's going to be okay, I have to stop myself from shouting, even though just like Usopp I'm grinning from ear to ear like an idiot. Nami's going to be our nagivator and Zoro's going to be the first mate like he used to be. We're gonna get out of this apartment with its fake plastic plants and we're gonna leave this city behind, and we're gonna get in a ship and sail away and be pirates. And when we do, everything's going to be different.

I just know it.

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