Disclaimer: RENT and its characters are property of Jonathan Larson. I'm just playin' with them.
Roger closed his eyes and leaned his head against the brick wall. He took a long drag off his cigarette. The cold air brought every bead of sweat into harsh contrast, reminding him of the bright colored lights as he stood at the front of the stage and felt the essence of himself grow and pulse over the crowd. His heartbeat filled his ears with music more beautiful than he could create of himself, and with every twitch of that muscle Roger's awareness grew. It was an expansion of the deep, good feeling he had when he tuned the A, playing E and A to resonate together for a hollow, haunting echo.
Now Roger was not on stage. He was not the center of attention. He was a lonely boy sitting on an old crate in a snowy back alley, thinking about his guitar but not daring to play with a cig hanging off his lip.
The 'Hungarians had not exactly received the best response that night, and why not when Aaron was the worst bassist/lyricist in the world and Jezie was not only constantly off-beat but also, rather noticeably, a girl? Jason was all right, the man kept a steady rhythm, but at times Roger felt that he was the only truly talented Well Hungarian.
Roger sighed. And was he talented at all?
Hinges squeaked, a door slammed shut, and Roger did not bother opening his eyes. It was probably some drunk needing to puke or something. Brilliant. Now he got to wait in a stinking alley, not just a grungy alley, or an alley with a couple losing their virginity/screwing/necking. Roger pointedly kept his eyes closed as he took another drag, then lifted the cigarette from his mouth to exhale.
"Hey. Could I…?"
Roger opened his eyes and rolled them to the left. It was not a couple, nor a drunk, who had joined him in the alley, but a young man, average height-- maybe a little smaller than Roger-- with blond hair and plastic-frame glasses. It was me. "Could you…?" Roger mock-echoed.
"Bum one," I added.
Roger dug into the pocket of his faded, torn 501s, the loved pajama-by-night, trouser-by-day pants, and brought out a crumpled pack of Lucky Strikes. He tossed the pack to me.
I clapped my hands together, fumbled, and bent to retrieve the cigarette pack from the snow. Smooth. I then took one and tossed the pack back to Roger. "Thanks."
Roger caught it one-handed, not bothering to turn his head. He wasn't sure if he was showing off or simply too lazy to be bothered. He had just returned to his reverie when I said, "Uh, I'm sorry to bother you again but do you have a light?" In truth, I had no matches on me. I was not merely using that as an excuse-- well, I was. But I also had no light.
"Here." Roger reached into his pocket, then paused.
Roger stood and walked over to me, flicking on his Bic as he went. My heart stammered. The fluttering light sent shadows dancing in his eyes, across his hollow cheeks. He lit the cigarette, then extinguished the lighter and dropped it in his back pocket. "I'm Roger," he said.
I offered my hand. It was a formality, but more importantly-- I liked Roger. I liked when he was up under those bright lights. He made me sweat. And finding him out in that alley, I barely believed my luck. So I extended my hand, saying, Touch me. "Mark. Mark Cohen."
Roger shook my hand. "Hey, Mark Cohen." His fingers were long and thin, callused and warm.
"I really liked your set," I blurted. "You guys were… well… you have a nice voice. You play your own guitar?"
Roger laughed. I blushed, and Roger found himself smiling, warmed slightly by that blush. Kinda cute… "Yeah." He slid the fingers of his right hand along the back of my hand and brought it out, then rested the stony fingers of his left hand against my palm. These were the calluses of musicians and day laborers; this was the touch of an artist, dedication… did I dare hope for passion?
"Well, you play well. I--"
Before I could finish, the door opened. It was Collins, searching for me since I had disappeared from the club. "Hey! So, not having the best time in there, huh, Mark?" he asked/
I shook my head. "It was fine," I told my friend, momentarily turning my back on Roger. I had not been crazy about the bad music and stale air, but the atmosphere had a certain spark to it. Too bad I was wet wood.
Collins frowned. "I thought you gave those up," he said. The man smoked like a chimney: who was he to lecture me? Before I could say as much, he continued, "So you want to just head back to the Life?"
My muscles relaxed. Trust Collins to know just what to do, how to salvage an evening! "Yeah, you mind?" He shook his head. "Thanks. Hey… let's invite him."
I turned to indicate Roger and realized he had retreated back into the alley. "Well, he's cool. We'll meet you out front, okay?"
Roger turned. "Yeah?" he asked.
I walked down to him. "Are you busy?" I asked. "Are you playing again?" Roger shook his head. He couldn't remember the last time the Well Hungarians had an encore. Had he ever had an encore? He doubted that. "Well, we were just going to grab something to eat. You're welcome to join us, if…"
"I'd love to." Roger grinned.
"Great. So, hey, come on-- that's all your stuff?" Roger nodded. "Great." Roger grabbed his jacket and guitar and followed me out of the alley. "This is Roger," I told Collins. "He's the front man for the Well Hungarians." The first time I heard that name I snickered, but the novelty had worn off.
"Hey, Roger. I'm Collins-- Tom Collins, but everyone calls me Collins."
Roger said, "Hey," and shook his hand. We headed for the nearest subway. "So how long have you two been together?"
Oh, G-d. I blushed and watched my feet. Collins laughed, and Roger knew at once that he liked this man. Even too-proud, too-sensitive Roger was not offended by the laugh, though he had unintentionally inspired it. "No, no, no," Collins said. "We're friends."
The subway was all but empty. I took a seat at the end of the row and Roger wasted no time in thumping down beside me. It was there that I got my first good look at him-- not him under bright lights, not the shadows dancing on his face, cast by a lighter in a dim alley, but Roger, just Roger. He was tall, I knew as much already, with carelessly tossed hair-- dark blond, darker than mine-- and, ooh, bright eyes. He had just these incredible bright green eyes, big, like a baby's eyes, eyes that smiled more than his cupid's-bow lips ever could.
I was thrown against the partition as the train jolted out of the station. Collins grabbed my shoulder. "You okay, Mark?" he asked. After a moment, I realized that he was squinting at me, seeking signs of drunkenness.
"Yeah, I'm fine," I said, giving a little smile. Roger was watching me, concerned. And he's sweet… I wasn't sweet. My heart never bled. My college roommate, Benny, once commented that I aligned with the democrats 'entirely for Judaism--and only because the party's gone right.' Roger, however, was already frowning gently, showing concern for me, an acquaintance of some fifteen minutes. "Daydreaming, y'know," I added.
Collins nodded, obviously not convinced. "Daydreaming about how you'll end your films?" he asked, smirking.
"Yes," I lied.
"You make movies?" Roger asked. I nodded. "Like, movies or talkies?" he wanted to know.
My heart jolted, and I swear the muscles in my face slackened. "Movies," I told him. He knew the difference! "Maybe talkies one day… um, they're mostly documentaries about… the city, and… well, I guess I'm trying to show other people what I see." And narrate them with my poetry, at least in my mind. These are my scripts, my scrawled and loopy-cursive poetry. No one has ever seen a complete Mark Cohen film.
I sounded like a moron, but Roger was nodding like he understood. He fingered his guitar case. "Can I see them sometime?" he asked. "Your movies."
And I found myself nodding. Before I could blather on, I added, "And Collins is a philosopher. I mean, he's… he's… you should talk to him, if you're smart enough. I don't think I am. This guy just…"
Collins laughed. "I'm greater than words," he said, grinning at both of us.
"A true tabula rasa," Roger remarked, grinning right back at him. To be honest, I had no idea what a tabula rasa was. I never took Latin-- no, Herbew was my dead language, and the philosophy unit mandatory in my high school history class never grabbed me.
What Roger said must have carried meaning, because Collins' grin was deeper. "A boy who knows his Constitution," he said. "At least, one hopes…"
Roger nodded. "'Life, liberty and the pursuit of property,'" he recited. "John Locke, natural rights of man." There was a strange look on his face, a mild challenge, awareness of his own cleverness. He straightened slightly. "I'll take Wollstonecraft any day," he added.
"The mother or the daughter?" Collins asked.
"Either. Both. Love the girl, respect the woman."
"Not to me."
Collins laughed. He told me, "We better keep this boy around a while. Hey, Roger, Mark tell you what we're doing out?"
The train pulled into our stop. As we collected ourselves and disembarked, Roger admitted, "No." He took a quick step to bring himself to my side. "What are you doing out, Mark?" he asked. "It's a special occasion or something?"
I nodded. "It's my birthday."
Roger froze. "Hey," he said. "I'm sorry, man, if I'd known… I don't want to stomp on your party."
He looked ready to bolt. Before I could think, I reached out and grabbed his wrist. "No," I said. "I invited you for a reason."
A look crossed Roger's face, a mix of anger and sorrow I think, then he nodded. "Okay," he said. Throughout the rest of our walk, I caught Collins watching Roger, studying him. "So how old are you?" Roger asked. "Old enough yet that it's rude to ask?"
I laughed. "Hardly. I'm twenty-one."
"How old are you?" Collins asked.
Roger smirked. "I'm twenty, how old are you?" he returned, brassy and rude in a way that should have upset me, but instead set my heart pumping a little faster. A shot of Roger flashed through my mind, breaking his knees to--
A loud laugh interrupted my dirty daydream. "Boy," Collins said, "you are not twenty. You're…" he paused, apparently calculating, then said, "You are seventeen if you're a day."
Roger returned Collins' laugh with his own, and a toss of his head that highlighted the eyeliner rimming his eyes. No wonder they stood out. No wonder the green, a green which alone could have caused my glance to linger, made my knees weak. Normally the thought of a man in eyeliner brought to mind the image of a clumsy, teenage drag-queen, but Roger made it work. "Aw, leave him alone," I said. "You'll scare him off-- oh. We're here."
"'Life Café', huh?" Roger asked. "It's good?"
We sat and Roger glanced at a menu. "It's vegetarian." I couldn't tell if he was asking or observing or complaining.
I nodded. "Yup. At least, I've never seen anything with meat here."
Collins looked at me and began to laugh. Tears welled up in his eyes. "Oh, Mark," he said. "I love you, man." Roger, too, was snickering, and as I realized why I found myself smiling and blushing. "Uh… yeah," I mumbled. "It's not a problem for you, is it?" I asked Roger.
He shook his head. "No, no, not at all."
We ordered. Despite this being my twenty-first birthday, I did not order alcohol. "So, are you working?" I asked Roger. "Or, um, in college…?"
He flinched. "College was never for me," he muttered quickly. "Mostly I just work with the Well Hungarians… I play all the time but, you know, I'm thinking staying with them maybe isn't the best."
"They just need practice," I said. The Well Hungarians had sounded awful. If not for Roger, I probably would have forgotten them already, certain that years from now I would not hear the name though I might try to dig it from the recesses of my memory to remark on the crude cleverness of the wordplay.
Roger scoffed. "Yeah, and a lyricist," he said. "We play Aaron's songs, they're… well, you heard them."
"Do you write songs?" I asked, hoping he did. I wrote poems, but Roger, this boy who sang so beautifully, could surely in the blink of an eye outshine my faded words.
He nodded. "They're no good though. Um, so tell me about your documentaries. Do you just go out and film?"
I nodded. "Pretty much. I look for specific shots. If you want to, you could…"
"I'd love to!"
"Great! Just be prepared to get a tan, you'll be in the sun all day."
Roger looked at his arms, twisting them from the faded buttery hue of the backs of his forearms to the undersides of his arms, pale as a fish's belly. "I have a tan," he said.
This was possibly the funniest thing Collins had heard all evening. "You must be the whitest white boy in history," he said. "You've got a tan and you're still snow-pale."
"Yellow snow," Roger retorted, giggling.
"Yeah, whatever, Snowflake," Collins said.
It is not only ridiculous but slightly humiliating, how I felt when Collins used that pet name for Roger. I was jealous. My social skills were never exceptional; I was often lonely, as a child, and shy to make friends. I wanted Roger, as a friend if not more, yet already he and Collins spoke their own language, locking me out, laughing at their own jokes. Already Collins had a pet name for him, was laughing at something and reaching over and give Roger a playful shove. I was beyond envy. I was furious.
The cold air shivered through us as we stepped out of the Life Café, laughing and grinning at our general high spirits. Roger checked his watch. "Oh, shit. It's… I gotta get going--"
"Well, hey, what's the rush?" I asked. I didn't want him to leave yet.
Roger shook his head. "I need to get home. Shit. I'm still scared of this place at night…"
"Come stay with us," I blurted. "I mean, we have a spare room, it's not far, and you'll be safe-- right, Collins? He can spend the night."
Collins nodded. "Someone waiting for you at home?" he asked. Roger shook his head once more. "Then, yeah. You can crash with us."
"Great. Thanks. Thank you."
When we reached the loft, I pointed out the spare room to Roger. "You can just, uh… here, you can borrow one of my blankets."
"I couldn't," Roger protested, but I headed into my room, leading him by the wrist. When I dropped his wrist he stood, shaking his head. "You've already done enough," he said, "more than enough." I did not go to my bed. As Roger was protesting, as his mouth was open, I scraped together all of my courage, bounced twice on my heels as though about to begin a race, then pressed my mouth hard against his. My tongue explored the depths of his mouth.
Roger froze. He batted his eyelids in shock, then said, "Mm." Then, surprised, "Mm!" He kissed me back. His hands caressed my arms and back; my fingers found his hair.
It was Roger who broke the kiss, but when I offered him a place in my bed that night, he did not refuse.
TO BE CONTINUED!
This story may eventually include Benny and Maureen; yes, they have been taken into consideration.
Reviews would be awesome... please?