That's not right,
you can't complain…
"Everything's gonna be just fine",
said the pen to the dotted line.
If memory serves, then mark my words
this game's called "Catch me if you can…"
-Motion City Soundtrack
Collins caps a steaming jasmine tea and sets it between my hands. I blow into the little slit on the top of the container and take a sip.
"No, thank you."
Collins offered to buy me breakfast and play psychiatrist, and yet he's expressing gratitude. "…Thank you for what?"
He smiles, grabbing my tea and dumping some into his empty coffee cup. "-For the tea..."
I watch him saturate it in Splenda and cringe.
"Boy," he marvels. "This is na-sty if you don't season it properly…"
"Collins. It's herbal tea. You're not supposed to season it."
The small amount of tea that he'd salvaged from my cup is squelched underneath five million packets of artificial sugar, creating a granular slush that's disgusting to watch slide into his mouth. I gag, and he protectively covets his saucer, spinning away from me on the diner stool and stingily shielding a tremendous gulp of the stuff.
"I know you are but what am I?"
I shovel some hash browns off my plate and riposte thoughtfully, dwelling on the psychological matters at hand. Chewing, I assure Collins, "…So anyway…I have seen friendships destroyed over more trivial things than heroin abuse…" I stamp my foot to accompany my complete lack of basis...
"Bull. Shit." Collins clears his throat, heftily patting my shoulder. "Do you know what your problem is Mark? You're a good kid. And pretenses aside, you can hold one hell of a hearty, homegrown grudge. Now start showing that he gets to you! Okay? Punch a few pillows and release your inner prick!"
I double take and respond with a reluctant eye roll. "…Glad someone can see past the docility."
"You wear it well m'boy. But there comes a time in every man's life when he must face his fears…"
"Fears? You've seriously misinterpreted something Coll. Roger's little problem is officially out of my hands- no matter how assertive I may or may not get with him. Who are you to judge anyway, Mister 'I-completely-disappear-whenever-I-smell-trouble'…?"
"When the going gets tough-"
"The tough get going." I snap, before he has the liberty to finish his own sentence. I'm not buying into that. It's an inconvenient cruelty to leave the Junkie In Denial alone with the Walking Guilt Trip. "Where'd you manage to hide the last forty-eight hours?"
"Oh, you know. Around…"
"Yeah. Around. Nothing enjoyable. NYU just felt it was crucial to remind me that I am under their contract via relentless badgering and pouty faces. See, now if they would just take the time to commit to me-"
I unfold my napkin and wave it reprovingly at his face. "What do you expect from them Coll? A trophy? You're a long-term sub. Beggars can't be choosers."
"Hey." Collins warns, cupping a hand to my mouth. "Remember that I am employed, and you are not. And believe it or not, I happen to like my job. It's the people I can't stand. I am not a beggar, and contractually, I do have the power to choose who I have to deal with on a daily basis… unlike you, unfortunately."
"How so?" I am skeptical before the conversation even takes off.
He stirs his remaining tea with the end of his fork and shifts his shoulders. "You are stuck living in a crackhouse..." He sits back and giggles.
I choke on my hash browns. "Um, you live there too!"
"I try not to." He adds harmlessly. "I'd rather just get into scuffles with my employers. You know Mark? We should secede. Benny had the right idea. We could go move in with him." He expels a mound of pocket change into a nearby ashtray and slaps my knee. "Come on, let's go, right now. We can bring him a Danish."
"As alluring as that sounds, no thank you. I've gotta stay home. I have a fugitive I have to catch," I point to the ashtray, "And that doesn't cover breakfast..."
"It's not my fault you eat like a horse. -And not an inch of fat on ya! What's your secret? Lipo? Bulimia? Heroin?" Collins settles into his seat uncomfortably after realizing he's not even close to coaxing a smile. "He just took off, huh?"
"Yeah. He did." I snort. "-Asshole!" I stare into my cloudy tea and glower.
"April was back this morning." Collins remarks, provoking me to bring my nose out of the depths of my cup.
"I noticed." I reply flatly. "I was stupid enough to cross-examine her before you showed up. Though, she didn't have much to contribute… Shocking, right? Actually, she asked me if I knew where Roger might've gone. It's really sweet how they look out for each other…" Grumpily I offer Collins the rest of my tea.
"You're not thirsty anymore?"
"Gee. I wonder why ever not!"
"Damnit! They're out of sugar." He flags the waitress.
"…I'm scared for them." I whisper.
"Me too. I'm gonna raise hell if they don't bring me more sugar for this shit."
A messy snort escapes from behind my scowl and then evaporates as quickly as it struck me. "Collins. If you're not going to take this seriously then I'm not going to come to you anymore-"
He sticks his tongue out and recovers, "You seemed very dedicated to blowing him off the last few years-"
"Collins-I've been in college-"
"-He doesn't try to come to you anymore either! He's given up on guilt. Actually, I think now he's just enjoying himself…-"
I want to smack that self-indulgent pout off Collins' triumphant face. He's right, he knows he's right, and I fucking hate it.
"Fuck you! You weren't there last night. Believe me- he's not 'enjoying himself'…"
I am yelling now. Everyone in the tiny diner tries very hard to pretend like they are not sucked into our argument. But the back of my neck burns red and I scrape my fork along my greasy plate, nibbling off the last particles of salt and pretending to calmly clean the porcelain, unaffected.
Collins smiles queasily at the manager, who has made his presence clear and is staring shrewdly from behind the register. Collins leans close to me, appearing as if he wants to spit in my eye, but instead pulls a ten-dollar bill out of his back pocket and mashes it into his pile of loose change. He stands, wrapping an arm around my shoulders in a brotherly hug- a covert chokehold that, in turn, makes me gnash my teeth into a toady smile. Collins puts two fingers to his forehead and salutes the waitress, signaling our departure. His hug bullies me off of my stool and he shepherds me to the exit, hissing, "Making a spectacle of yourself isn't going to solve anything."
"You started-" I launch, loud enough to turn several more inquisitive heads. The manager and Collins grouse in unison.
"Mark? Stop it. Would you rather we'd discuss this where Roger can overhear?"
I bite my lip and send daggers at the passing tables as Collins shoves me outside. Once the door has jingled closed, I mangle myself from under Collins' arm and turn away from him, arms crossed self-doubtingly over my chest.
"So this is your ploy?" He taunts. "…Brooding?"
"Roger isn't enjoying himself..." I grieve sharply under my breath.
"Let's walk." Collins suggests. I brace myself for his hand on my shoulder again, but unexpectedly he starts off in the opposite direction. He doesn't wait for my approval, leaving me scowling with my back turned. After a beat I wonder if it was a suggestion at all.
"Collins! Wait." I yield, shuffling after his recalcitrant strides, head hung.
"Wow. Someone is five." He scoffs, still ahead of me.
The mixture of my embarrassment and outrage makes me feel out of shape, so I don't even try to catch up to him. Winded, I trudge a few steps behind and jab, for a third try, "He's not enjoying himself…!"
Completely unruffled and relatively self-righteous, Collins doesn't even slow his pace. He squints up into the branches of a passing tree and smirks, "Well, then, I doubt I would be either, if I were trapped in a house with the one person who could make me change my mind…"
"Huh?" I bark, out of breath, jogging a bit closer. Trying to fix- or even meditate on- Roger's problems triggered a tightness in my chest that had nothing to do with exercise. Collins warily glances over his shoulder with a 'don't even try to catch up to me' attitude and walks a bit faster.
"Don't you get it Mark?"
"No…I don't get it Collins…"
"He's having too much fun without you there to yank on his leash..."
"Collins- will you slow down?"
"I will not. Not if you're going to whine."
Collins stops suddenly and I jog right past him. He giggles briefly and once I backtrack he holds my shoulders and asks, "Name something Roger values over anything else in the world."
I frown. "Music."
"Technically yes, but not intrinsically. One more guess."
I squint. "Um…me?"
"Dingdingding! Yes, you Mark. Above anything you. He trusts and admires you most out of anyone-"
"Which is why he's taken up heroin!" I squeal derisively in game-show host pep.
"I'm getting at something, will you give me a second? Which is why he's hidden it from you and which is why he tested you last night. The boy is sharp, I'll give him that. He knew you'd be too afraid to say anything, and now he wanted to see what exactly you'd do if he gave you the chance."
"I think you're confusing psychology with addiction. It definitely didn't happen like that."
"It was a subconscious cry for help if I ever did see one…"
Suddenly I notice that I've stopped brooding. "You didn't see it. You weren't there- remember?"
Collins' eyes gore into my soul.
I drop my shoulders. "I know I'm too afraid to say anything, okay? -Don't dwell on it, please… I do that enough for the both of us…"
"Do you understand what I'm trying to say then?"
I smile impishly. "…Didn't you know Coll? Whining about his behavior is an integral part of the Twelve Steps!" Collins cocks his head down at me. "It's a perfectly rational method taught in rehabilitation centers across the country! You've never seen the posters? Step One: Ignore the problem. Step Two: Ignore the Person. Step Three: Lash Out With Unreasonable Foray. Step Five: Beat The Drug Abuser to a Bloody Pulp With the Sliding Door of Your Apartment."
Collins nods. "Of course."
He leans against the trunk of a tree and sighs.
"Is 'Make a Scene at Your Local Diner' in there too?"
"Duh, number nine, closely followed by 'Have An Epiphany', and 'Apologize'."
"And the Twelfth?"
Happily, I pull Collins upright.
"…I'll…figure that one out..."
"I hope so."
Feeling oddly refreshed but not an ounce bolder, I offer to walk myself home from breakfast while Collins proceeds to carry out more detrimental pursuits.
"Wait- Mark- Why don't you come with me?" Collins asks, eyes flickering.
There's a particularly rousing duel of niceties in my brain before I dwell on the fact that my options for today's activities are either: witness illegal activities via candid anarchism or, witness illegal activities via unabashed substance abuse.
I unpack my camera and follow Collins, easily matching his stride this time.
"Where are we going?"
"Macy's." He replies, matter-of-factly.
I wrinkle my nose and mouth, 'Macy's?' I acknowledge the camera. "May I document-"
"Nope." He snaps.
"I'll need a hand." He grins immaturely. "Both of your hands. Lots of hands."
"Are you staging an orgy?"
"Is there gonna be other people?"
"Do you even need my help?"
"Not really. But I'd much rather have you here with me than home crying over Roger with April."
"That poor little girl gets jipped for most of their smack. He's the breadwinner in the relationship, and so therefore he's entitled to a bigger percentage of the…erm…income… Didn't you know?"
"Well of course not. You've made it your life goal to act oblivious."
I get the mental image of Roger, svelte in a business suit, gliding up the front steps of a quaint little bungalow chirping, "April honey, I'm home!" and presenting his sundress-ed girlfriend with a briefcase full of smack. I inhale. "Even if I did properly communicate with Roger I doubt he'd analyze who's accredited to how much heroin…"
"You'd be surprised what you'd learn by talking to Roger."
"Are you saying he told you this?"
"Under the influence of alcohol, possibly yes."
"That doesn't count."
"Brooding again, are we? You're just pissed that I know something you didn't."
I try to knock him off the sidewalk. "What else do you know?"
"I'm his best friend. I know tons more than you ever will."
"I AM NOT. You said it yourself- he likes me more than anyone."
"I can't believe we're fighting over this! He could be ODing right now and we're laughing about it. That's it- I don't want to come with you anymore. I'm going back-"
"Chicken." Collins hooks onto the back of my collar and gags me back in step. "This will be fun and you have to let him cool off. Besides, we're almost there- look innocent!"
We turn off 33rd Street into the nucleus of commercial New York City. Macy's obnoxious red star-, which, to me, is ironically more symbolic of Communist China than capitalist America- trumps the scattering of retailers in its shadow. If it wasn't for fond memories of bundled up Thanksgiving Day parades in Herald Square I'd really, really hate this place.
Collins shares the feeling- I can see it in the little mini-fireballs smoldering behind his pupils.
"…Are you going to set something on fire?"
"No. But I wish." He says dreamily.
"Maybe later…" He utters distantly, and he sets his jaw and pushes through the doors of Macy's first floor- Cosmetics, Perfumes, Handbags, and other weird shit that a 200+ pound, 6'7" black male in raggedy, baggy street clothing should have no interest in.
"Are we going to rob them?"
"Kinda. Now shut up."
"Is this a pointless misdemeanor or is there substance to this?"
"I have a bone to pick with Miss Macy, and she had it coming. Pick a floor, any floor, between one and five."
"Excellent choice, excellent choice..." We mount the rickety wooden escalator, and before grabbing the handrail Collins snatches an obnoxiously and unnecessarily gigantic woman's beach tote from a display. "Third floor, women's dress clothing, casual attire, men's suits, coats, shoes, and maternity."
I watch our reflections in the passing escalator mirrors and ask his, "…Care to elaborate on the bone you're picking?"
We switch escalators and I scan the sales floor, anxious. Collins elbows me to cut it out.
"They've got me on three separate counts of burglary. Which is a dysphemism for 'shoplifting.' The Rent-A-Cops had me kindly and permanently removed from the premises. If I'm seen I face eight months county and three months parole. How do ya like them apples?"
I wrinkle my nose. "…Uh—I don't like…apples?"
"I said it once and I'll say it again. You're a good kid Mark, a good kid."
"What- did you steal?"
He looks vacant. "Uhh…..the couch."
"The couch!" I yelp.
"You'd be surprised what you'd learn by talking to Roger…"
"You and Roger stole our couch?"
"Well, actually, the guys supervising the receiving door on the 7th Avenue side stole our couch. All Roger did was dig a claim ticket out of a dumpster and whine that his sofa was never delivered. I nodded and looked dissatisfied."
"Why did you never tell me?!"
"Because you were a starry-eyed college student with a stick up your ass. And now we're going to do something cooler and we're not going to tell Roger because he's a heroin addict. Got it? Now then, we are approaching destination- do as I say, not as I do." He hands me the beach tote. " See that pregnant mannequin over yonder?"
"If you would please Mark, dismantle her."
I stare blankly into the beach tote. "Do what to her?"
"Take her apart if you can. But not noticeably. And put her hands in that bag you're holding."
"Put her what where?"
Collins sighs disappointedly and slings the bag over his shoulder, sauntering over to the dummy and turning his back to her. He checks his watch, unscrewing her appendages behind his back. With a 'thump', he drops both of her hands into the beach bag and moves on to a plastic baby in a nearby stroller, leaving it's mother helpless- resting two stumps on her expectant belly, unsightly screws protruding from her synthetic wrists. "I told you I'd need a hand. Lots of hands." He tosses the bag to me. "Take no prisoners."
Halfway through motherhood lingerie Collins disappears, but in his place a stern, gray-suited floor manager paces, suspicious, to and fro through the rows of bras. I shove my 'handful' of a beach bag under a dressing room stall and snatch an enormous pair of frilly red panties off a rack.
Doggedly I bound up to the suspicious manager, signaling him close to my ear and asking, "Uhh…Hey, buddy. You know anything about pregnant chicks?"
He shrugs indiscreetly, running a hand over his thickly-gelled hair. He fingers the walkie-talkie on his hip and steps closer. Now that I have established him as my 'buddy' he is not disinclined to assist. "Not really." He grumbles. "But, what do you need to know man?"
I roll my eyes. "Well…my girlfriend's like…suuuper pregnant- like nine months or something, you know?- and she's still damn sexy. But- she gets this discharge shit all the time and I was wondering if you think these little lacey things will hold up against it-"
He twirls his nametag ditheringly and looks dumbfounded.
I stretch the elastic in his face and pry, "…Or what about… when her water breaks…?"
He opens and closes his mouth several times, wrinkling his eyebrows and shrugging sadly. "I-I, um…" He drops his hopes for a fraternity and waves the panties away from his face. "I honesty don't know, um, sir…"
I lower them, discouraged, and sulk, "Well…then…do you think you could go find someone who would know?" I turn my face away from him and squint one eye at a sign over the changing rooms gleefully blaring, "THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT!"
"I guess so…" He mumbles, thoroughly torn between absolute disgust and his managerial duties. Gullible, fawn-on, twenty-somethings like him make me so glad I bailed Brown when I did…
He scurries off blushing to relay my dilemma to a higher power and I resume unscrewing in fast-forward. When I am quite certain that I have nixed every last hand, a distracted 'Pssst!' from Collins near the escalator grabs my attention.
"Good work. Hand me the bag and go wait on 34th. You can film if you want to now. Thanks Mark. I owe you one."
Feeling extremely paranoid and excited all the same, I pass off the tote to Collins and ride the escalator all the way back to the ground floor, reclining casually against the railing and looking totally naïve, all the way down.
I hold my breath while walking past the two security guards posted at the exit. I must be in a good half-hour of security tape and I'd had a face-to-face chat with a supervisor. Nonetheless, they know and suspect nothing, and sincerely thank me for shopping at Macy's and I assure them I'll be back soon. Then I bite back a little bit of vomit, flip on the camera and sit on the curb by a mailbox.
Nothing happens for a good, long, excruciating while. I don't fear for myself, because no one seems to even notice me crouched on the curb and a few strangers even toss me change. But I am practically pissing my pants over Collins, who could be arrested or worse as far as I know. I stare hard through the tinted entryway but see only fusty old women saturating themselves in Chanel No. 5 and the occasional snobbish princess dragging her frock-coated bank vault of a boyfriend through the sea of perfumes. I am abruptly reminded of Allison and I hope neither Collins nor myself spend the wedding behind bars, no matter how much liquid must Benny buys her. I am preoccupied with gagging at the thought when people begin craning their heads to read the infamous, 'THE WORLD'S LARGEST STORE- MACY'S!' boast that covers the fourth and fifth floors of the department store.
Two windows beneath the sign slide open and a series of duct-taped bedsheets are thrown out the windows and secured. An automatic teller machine and a Sunglass Hut are smothered in the giant billowing sign that, now, blown to it's full potential in the breeze reads, "STOP IN THIS WEEK FOR THE FIVE-FINGERED DISCOUNT!"
Seconds later, a chain of mannequin hands trails its way down to the sidewalk and dangles floppily in all its ironic brilliance.
There's a great pang in the back of my mind, flanked by concern for Collins holding down the fort up there, and Roger…wherever he is right now...
All I know is that I really, really wish he could be here to see this.
Torn and absolutely engulfed, there is nothing left to do but laugh and film it.