I left the café an hour and a half later than planned. Now I was weaving through lunch-hour traffic, making my way to the park. There really isn't a lot defining randoms on the streets of large cities. Everyone is wearing formal clothing, no more than a season old, and at this time of day all have a brand-named disposable cup in one hand and matching bag of lunch in the other. I assumed I came off the same too all the other passers by.
To my pleasant surprise, the man from the train was sitting with his bike next to him in the park. It was what I had hoped for. He looked as happy to see me as he was to see the sun which now beamed through the clouds.
“Hey there, stranger!” I called.
“Not a stranger for much longer. My name is Kim.” I took his extended hand a shook it.
“I'm Ben. It feels like I hit the jackpot, meeting two interesting people the same morning.”
“Oh? Who's the other?” Kim asked, genuinely interested.
“A girl named Anna. She's a cashier at the coffee shop where I bought us there.” I held up twp salads and coffees. “I hope you don't mind salad.”
“Not at all! This is a welcome treat. But how the hell did you know I'd be here?”
“I didn't. But I thought, if you were, you'd like some company,” I said bearing one of the day's many smiles.
We conversed for a long time over our lunches. I told him about Anna and the missing memories from the previous night, and about what I liked about the city. He told me that he had once been married, but his wife had died thirty-some years ago. Though Kim was fatherly, meeting him had felt more like meeting an old favorite teacher from high school – which he indeed had retired from.
Seeing now that it was almost 3 o'clock, I decided we ought to part ways – again. He let me know the he'd really enjoyed my company and hospitality, and that I should call him the next time I wanted someone to buy me lunch. I was about to enter his number into my cellphone, but discovered that was impossible. My phone wasn't in any of my pockets. I quickly wrote his number down on one of the receipts in my wallet before hurrying back to work.
Shit, shit, shit. How the fuck could I not notice my cellphone being gone?! I continued to mentally chew myself out while doing my best to run back to my office.
I tried politely to excuse and pardon myself as I pushed past my co-workers, spewing “hello's” and “good afternoon's” in every direction while trying to get back to my desk. As soon as I was seated again I picked up the office phone ad called my own. A man picked up.
“Hi, Ben. I've got your phone,” he said teasingly.
“Hey...” I tried in vein to recognize his voice. “Who is this?”
“I'm just an entrepreneur with a proposition I think you'd like to hear. Are you interested?”
I figured this was just a prank being played by someone from work, but I wasn't sure.
“Sorry, but do I know you?” I tried to ask without sounding hostile.
“No. Not at all. Now, are you interested? Yes or no?”
“Sure. Fine. Yes.” This was making me madder by the second. “Just give me back my phone.”
“Yeah. Whatever. Meet me tonight at Club Crossings,” he said. He knew he had me on a short leash and had no problem yanking it.
“Where did you find it, anyway? Or did you steal it?” The latter seemed less probably, being that this conversation was even taking place.
“Fuck you. You're gonna get your phone back. It won't cost you anything either, so don't worry.” I could hear him smiling.
The nerve to stay that casual.
“Whatever,” I finally said. “What time should I meet you there?”
“Free admission is until eleven, but it's up to you. Thanks for meething me, Ben”. He hung up.
Strangest conversation ever, I thought, silently, still seething a little. What made it even stranger was that I wasn't actually that mad. Maybe it was the feeling that something was finally happening in my otherwise uniform life. Like an adventure or a quest, kind of.
“Why are you so smiley?” A different Kim than the one from the train – and later, park – asked. She had apparently been staring over my cubicle divider for a minute or so.
“S t r a n g e s t c o n v e r s a t i o n e v e r ,” I laughed. “Some guy from last night has my phone. I don't know him, but he said he has a proposition for me and wants to give my phone back tonight at Club Crossings.” It was as weird for to her as it was to me.
“Shit. Are you gonna kick his ass?”
I laughed again, “Actually, I don't think I will.”
* * *
There was too much on my mind for me to do anything other than stare, brain-dead, at the CAD-window in front of me. The sceptic in me consistently warned me not to go to the club. I should just report the theft of my phone to the police. But I really wanted an adventure.
What if the guy kidnaps me or robs me again? I could probably defend myself sufficiently. But what if there is more than one of them? Maybe I should as Thom to come along with me? That's what I'll do. He loves clubs, drinking, music and the lingering possibility of a fist-fight.
I punched the programmed speed-dial button and held the reciever to my ear.
“Hey, kid. What's up?” Thom picked up after a ring and a half.
“Hi. Some guy got a hold of my phone last night and wants to return it tonight at Club Crossings. I think he stole it. Do you want to tag along? I'll pay.”
“Sure.” He was silent for about ten seconds before continuing. “What time?”
“The guy didn't say. Sorry, but are you busy? I feel like I'm interrupting something.” I've accidentally caught him in meetings before.
“No, no, nah. Don't worry. I'm having sex.” Wow. He's awfully casual about it.
“But I called your office phone.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“I don't know how you do it.” Thom is one of the nicest people one could ever hope to meet, yet he gets in fights and, apparently, has sex in inappropriate places.
“Right. I'll be by Genesis later to talk about tonight,” he said in a calm, professional manner, and hung up.
I went back to to the CAD program and studied the skeleton of a baby carriage I was piecing together. It took no more than 3 or 4 minutes before Thom was at my office. He works two floors below me at ground level for an investment banking firm. I still don't know what investment banking is, but Thom is good enough at it to have kept his job for these 5 years.
“It didn't take long for you to get here. I didn't mean to rush you,” I said slowly while saving and shutting down what I was working on.
“It was probably just as well. Carla had to get back to the daycare center up here. And you know I'd drop anything to come hang out with you.” Thom looked just as neat and proper as he had this morning in his 3-piece suit and brown hair parted to the right. He showed no signs of recently having fornicated; no sweat, no crooked clothing, no cheeky grin.
“Anyway. Before we start in on tonight's plans you have to tell me what happened to me last night. I'm worried I might have pissed the wrong person off, but can't remember.” Finally, I'll get some clarity.
“Oh. No problem. You got really drunk so we called it an early night and took you home.” He saw on my face that I wasn't content with his answer. “What? That's what really happened!”
“But what about the gashes on my face and stuff?” I was really getting myself worked up. “You're telling me that's from an early night?”
“You had too much to drink and decided it would be a good Idea to short-cut over a few tables and patrons on your dash to the to the bathroom. I compensated the owner for the mess. It's a good thing he likes you. I mean, he's really gay for you. Carla and I took you home in a cab.”
“So we didn't fight anyone?” I was embarrassed now, and could see why Thom wanted to spare me the details. I still prefer the products of my imagination, though.
“Nope. Everyone was cool about it. But you did tear your jacket. Don't worry about it, though. I had a new one delivered to your place. Now, about tonight.” Thom played the big-brother role better than the best of actual big brothers.
“Oh yeah. I mostly wanted you along so the guy doesn't try any shit on me. Thanks for the jacket, by the way. Once I get my phone back I'll probably just want to head back home. I have no idea when he'll get there or even how I'll recognize him.”
“Do you want to just sit and take it easy? We could go for a late dinner before hand and have a few light drinks until your thief arrives.” Surprisingly, it seemed my best friend was not at all interested in getting wasted.
We agreed to meet up at a restaurant later for dinner. Thom and Carla would treat and then he and I would walk her home before going on to our rendezvous with the mysterious man.
Having something to look forward to made the rest of the day pass quickly. I figured it was possible we might even enjoy ourselves, though just retrieving my phone would make the evening a success. I vowed I'd stay sober (barring wine with the meal) just in case “shit went down”.
* * *
I caught the early train back home and picked up another pack of cigarettes when I walked by the corner store. The sun had long since disappeared behind more rainy clouds, but it wasn't raining yet. The neighborhood was not at all as pretty as it had been that morning and, being nearly 6 pm, the streetlamps were flickering on, one by one.
A storm-like thunder echoed right as I locked the gate behind me, followed by a dense storm or raindrops hitting the pavement, leaving nothing dry. It sounded like the sudden applause after one masterpiece of an opus.
Posted against my door leaned a garment-sized box. Thom often takes it upon himself to do favors for people, and buying me clothes is just one of many. My apartment, for example, used to be his. When he found out I was spending most of my savings and college money on a hotel suite he offered to hook me up. I slept on his sofa for just one night. By the next morning he had already moved to a nicer, more expensive place, leaving his furnishings, and handed me the keys. Today, my laundry and dry cleaning are picked up and delivered one a week – all charged to his account. Generosity could have been his middle name. It's not, however. Thomas William Burgen is my best friend.
I grabbed and Exacto knife off my drafting table and cut the tape around the box. Inside lay a gray sport coat sealed in clear plastic, as well as a pair of light gray jeans. The set would be worn later to dinner, mostly to show my appreciation. I flopped them on my bed.
What better way to wind down than to draw a hot bath? I couldn't think of one, so I filled the tub and brought my cigarettes and an astry to the bed-stand-turned-bath-stand. The steam from the water gave the illusion of fog on and just below the surface, and my feet broke the rainbow-colored film of soap, forcing it to the edges of the white porcelain in just under one second. I lowered myself in an inch at a time, letting my unaccustomed flesh get used to the heat with each advance. It hit my butt cheeks and balls the worst, but eventually every part of me – except my face and knees – was enjoying the new, hot tingle.
I lay there with my eyes closed and let the back of my eyelids lose color. The small adjustments of my body made squeaks and thuds that reverberated off the bathroom tiles. The bathroom remains otherwise silent. Not even my breathing was audible, nor the waves my chest created as it heaved up and down.
When I finally opened my eyes again it almost didn't register that they were open. The small, square window no longer shown light gray. Everything but the corner where the night light was plugged had become pitch black while I had rested. Without my phone it was difficult to tell and keep time, but my guess was that I had enough time for a cigarette – and I had become sufficiently raisiny.
With the skill and thoughtlessness of a routined soldier – because that's exactly what it was: my routine of smoking in the tub – I lit up and exhaled through my mouth and nose the “toasted” flavor of the tobacco “inspired by the original recipe”. It was the first time in all the years since I'd smoked my first Lucky Strike that the taste was actually enjoyable. I could hear the paper burn and crackle as the red-hot tip creeped closer to my fingers. Since the purpose of my bath was more than just leisure, I made an effort to stay clean and was careful not to let any ash fall into the water, and instead used the designated tray.
After stepping out of my bath I leaned against the wall and let the the blood seep from my head to the rest of my extremities while dripping dry. Dizziness makes it tough to towel of one's body, and it took a while, but I was eventually satisfied. I checked myself in the mirror and deemed my appearance pretty enough to go out.
When I opened my closet to pick out undies, socks and a dress shirt I comment my discovery of a completely emptied closet with a loud “God-fucking-dammit, Thom”. Whatever the opposite of “overhauled” is, that's exactly what Thom had done to my closet. There was one pair of new, bagged underwear, black socks still stapled together, and a t-shirt hanging on the rod. I pulled the shirt over my head and stood in front of the mirror naked from the waist down with a pink tee with white screened text reading: “Give me back my fucking phone, please”. I was seething, but couldn't help smiling.
The whole ensemble looked casual and handsome. Thom does know fashion. That might be the only thing he's an expert on, since I honestly don't know what he does for a living.
Carla buzzed up to let me know they were downstairs waiting with a cab, and I bounded down the stairs to meet them.
“Nice choice of outfit!” Them quipped with a cocky grin.
“You're an asshole. I just thought Carla should know that”, I joked back. “Carla, Thom is a terrible person and I don't know what you could have done to deserve a punishment as severe as this.”
“I actually had a friend print that shirt for you. You owe me 15 dollars”, Carla countered.
“You two deserve each other.” With that, we all bunched into the backseat of the taxi. “By the way. You were joking about me paying you, right?”
“Of course I was. Thom is the asshole, not me. Remember?” And we all laughed.
When Thom instructed the driver to go to Club Crossings I was confused and asked why we weren't going for dinner. He explained that if we weren't planning on staying long then having dinner reservations might serve as an incentive to leave. That made sense.
* * *
Once at the club, I checked my jacket without thinking. There I stood with my conspicuous pink shirt and nothing to cover it. Granted, the message was clear and clever, but I hadn't planned attracting that much attention. Thom and Carla were at the bar and waved me over for a drink.
“We should go dance!” Carla screamed in my ear. “This song is good!”
“I'd love to, but I should keep my eye out for the guy with my phone.”
“Come on. He told you to come here, so he won't leave until he gives you his phone. Go dance and enjoy yourself and I'll keep an eye out for him.” He paused while Carla paced down to the end of the bar to get our three beers. “Plus, I might see somebody worth punching.”
“Why don't we switch and you dance with your girlfriend?” I knew his reply before I got the entire question out.
“First off, I stopped dancing when the girls stopped trying to look nice,” which is what he has claimed for as long as I've known him. What came next, however, shocked me. “And second, Carla won't be my girlfriend much longer.”
“What the fuck?! But you two are perfect for each other! Did you recently smack a mule on the ass and get kicked in the head?!”
“Settle the fuck down, Ben. Don't make a scene.” He switched to a whisper. “She's on her way back. The reason I made reservations after the club was to propose to her. That way she and I can go straight home and screw till kingdom come.”
“Oh, shit! Congratulations, Thom.” Seldom had I been this happy for somebody other than myself.
“Now shut the fuck up and stop grinning like a fool. Carla's on her way back.”
“What are you guys talking about? If it's hot girls or dick jokes, I want in!” She handed us our beers and we continued to discus girls and dicks.
Eventually she managed to drag Thom out on the dance floor. Club Crossings bought an old train station and changed very little. The dance floors are few feet lower than the rest of the club down on what used to be tracks between the platforms. As I followed them across the floor I caught a glimpse of what I swore was a child. Who would bring their kid to a club? I wondered. Maybe it's a bartender. It's not like an establishment like this would have a daycare center and ball pit.
I shook off the notion and ordered another drink. An hour had passed and I was getting very antsy. Every now and then a friend of some shy girl would come up to the bar to hype up said friend or get me out dancing. I would kindly decline, and they would move on to the next single at the bar. The girls weren't bad looking at all, but I couldn't take the risk of not getting my phone back. And, of course, there was Anna. I let my mind wander to her when I wasn't looking for some stranger with my phone possibly waving for me.
Then I felt a tug at my pants and heard, “Excuse me.” The first thing that came to mind was that the child I saw before wanted me to help them find their parents. But then it registered that it wasn't a child's voice at all. I turned around to see a midget (or dwarf, little person, whatever).
“Nice shirt, Ben. Do you want your phone?” Holy shit. I could not believe it. He told me to follow him to one of the corners where it was quieter.
He walked me over to a booth far from both the bar and dance floor. At least now I didn't fear being jumped as much, but all the while I was thinking that this is – by far – the strangest thing the ever happen to me.
I sat there silent for nearly a minute just trying to figure out what to say. There was never really a plan, so I sat there stupidly. Finally the guy spoke.
“First off, I'm Casey. I also want to apologize for taking your phone. I will explain why later on.”
“Why don't you explain now? I like that idea more.” Once again, this man was wearing my patience thin. Casey, dwarf or midget or little person, had the audacity to roll his eyes and said, “I'm actually not the bad guy here. Not to say that you are. I'm just saying there was method to my madness.”
The fact that he was so calm and rational about the fact he stole my phone and thought there was something else more important that returning only added to my initial impression that he was, in fact – and true to his words – mad.
“I just came here to retrieve my cell phone. I have dinner plans for later with my friends. This is not supposed to take this long.” Something felt wrong about this situation. I was becoming increasingly suspicious of Casey and wanted more and more to leave; The option of just leaving and buying a new phone. It seemed like less hassle.
“Here it is.” He slid it towards me on a Brooklyn Brown Ale coaster. “I made only one call, and that was to you. It was a dick move to take it, and I apologize.”
“I really don't like you,” I felt a little bad saying it, since I'm sure Casey already knew it. “But I'll buy you a beer.”
I waved the waitress over and ordered whatever local brew they had. It was taking long enough for her to return and I grew tired of trying to look as if I had seen something on the dance floor that caught my attention, caught it enough that I was too busy to talk. Please say something, I thought. He sat there putting on the same act. In a club as loud as this it's hard to imagine any kind of silence, but there it was, as awkward as ever.
Shamelessly, and for lack of a better place to rest my eyes, I peered under the table to see whether or not the dwarf's feet dangled off the edge of the the seat like a child's. They would have but he, like me, sat against the backrest. The bottoms of his shoes were perpendicular to his legs and he resembled a child more than I had assumed. Then the shame finally filled me and I felt as though Casey knew what I was looking at and thinking. My eyes darted to another spot under the table where two feet lined up. It was Thom with our beers.
“I picked up your beers for you. Just thought I'd let you know Carla and I are moving on to dinner.”
“This is Casey,” I introduced. They coldly shook hands.
“Casey. That's a nice name. Maybe you're a nice guy.” Thom was never an expert on character. At least I have never heard him make presumptions about people, especially not based on their name. That's not to say that he was wrong.
“Thanks, Thom,” Casey said appreciatively. How did he know Thom's name?
“Now that's just wrong, you little fucker! What else do you know about me?” My usually calm brother in arms lost his temper in a flash. “I take back any notions of you being a good guy. You're a dick.”
It was strange for the stranger to have that much information, I agreed, but Thom was becoming to enraged and I feared that much more of this could ruin the rest of his evening. I stood up and walked him to the coat-check and told him I could handle myself for the rest of the evening. We hugged and wished each other good luck. Carla may have gotten a slightly longer and harder than Thom, but I tried to hide my happiness best I could. The next time I'd see her she would be Thom Burgen's fiancee.
Now I could get on with my night. Casey remained in our booth even though I had never excused myself of told him where I was going.
“Sorry about what happened earlier. I don't think he meant it,” I apologized.
“What do you mean? I thought it was pleasant.” He was clearly being sarcastic, but since he was smiling so did I. “By the way, you can tell your friend that I only knew his name because he sent you a text the morning you discovered your phone's disappearance. His picture popped up. It wasn't important, though. Just something about dry cleaning.”
“Oh. He's gonna feel like such an ass in the morning.” That started us laughing and kicked off the beginning of even more joking and good stories.
We shared more stories of misunderstandings and awkward events starting with the most recent (mine being as recent as yesterday when I tried to explain in french how to buy a ticket to a couple who were not; they were German) all the way back to when we each were kids and repeatedly embarrassed ourselves then. Casey confessed an event when he was 11 and flew across the country. He had gone to the bathroom and washed he hands, but did not see any paper towels. Instead he saw packets of what were labeled “sanitary napkins” and grabbed a handful. The flight attendant rolled by later offering warm wash clothes for hands and face and offered one to him pinched with tongs.
“I told her, 'No thanks. I already have some,' and flashed the little packet. When she saw the stash of maxi pads in my lap she collapsed in the aisle laughing.” He was fighting his own laughter throughout the entire story in order to even tell it, but now that he had finished he let it all out. We both lost our shit and I admitted that this was easily the weirdest night I'd had since... And then I paused, recalling the most recent experience this out of the ordinary.
“The last night I had that was this strange I actually don't remember too much of,” I began. “It was last night when you stole my phone. You still haven't explained why. What I want to know most is why you actually bothered giving it back.”
“As promised, I'll tell you. But this place is closing soon, and I am too sober to really call it a night.” It was hard to believe that it was only 2 o'clock and I, too, was in need of another drink. “I suggest we go to some friends of mine. They have good beer.”
Why am I following a guy I don't trust to a place I don't know?
...is what I should have asked.
But I didn't. I went with him out the door and we walked and walked a few blocks in silence until I let out, “Maybe we should do this another night. I have work tomorrow and I should probably give Carla and Thom a call to congratulate them.”
I clicked the Thom's avatar in my phone's address book to dial his name. The call was forwarded directly to his voice mail. I promptly hung up and re-pocketed my phone.
“I guess he's busy,” Casey offered. “But I still insist you tag along. I think you'll like it.”
So we walked another 6½ to 7 minutes – it's a very exact estimation because I kept peeking at my watch worrying at how late it was – and arrived at a stand-alone house, 1 story high, crammed between two tall apartment buildings.
Docile enough, I observed.
Casey approached the door and entered without knocking, and I followed nervously. There was no loud hip hop or house music blaring. There was nothing at all hinting at a party atmosphere. The hallway we walked down resembled that of a respectable residence and was nearly the length of a train car with now doors. We passed a few benches and tables, and even a tree, before the hall took a sharp right to a pile of shoes. Through the doorway and down four steps was a huge high-ceilinged living room with 14 adults sitting in armchairs, sofas and beanbag chars. The house that had appered so narrow from the outside was in reality deeper than passers-by could have imagined.
One head slowly turned to out direction and announced with a enthusiastic tone, “Casey's here”. As she spoke she exhaled a small waterfall of smoke. This is when I noticed the smell of weed. “Come grab a seat!”
And thus began the passing of various smoking paraphernalia. I received each pipe in bung with a “Fuck it”, some voiced, some merely between my brain and myself.
These people were all visibly interesting and smart, though no one said or did anything especially of interest of intellegence. But I was OK with this. My contentedness wasn't because of the marijuana, I decided. It was simply due to good company. Not once did anyone ask – or care – who I was, what I did for a living, how I knew Casey, etc. I got the impression that this was everyone here had some similar level of familiarity with each other.
It was approaching 3 AM Tuesday, I had work in the morning, and was very much under the influence. Influences. This is how I assumed the previous night had played out, sans narcotics: a series of ill-advised decisions that just wouldn't be heard over the feeling of “good”. It was also one of the last feelings I remembered before, apparently, passing out.