THE WAY THINGS ARE SUPPOSED TO BE

His palms resting against the brick wall inside his basement apartment, Xavier let himself fall forward until his forehead struck sharply, jarring his troubled brain. The pain only halfway satisfied Xavier, so he nodded sharply, ramming the wall again.

Above his head, a notation was marked within only that day’s square of the calendar. Red-penned tightly inside the box for October 30 was the scrawled, jagged reminder: NINA’S B-DAY! BUY PRESENT!

He dragged his fingertips across the brick, rending the middle of the calendar from the wall. The four corners of the calendar remained attached, but Xavier crumpled what he had torn off, his restless, frustrated hand mutilating it into an airtight snowball. The clock glowed 11:11 at him. He muttered a tight fuck, bent for his Prussian blue hat, then reached for his brown suede coat. The coat was for warmth from the autumn Manhattan night; the hat was for completion.

He jogged up the steel stairs, reached the buzzing midnight sidewalk and wheeled west. The hours had escaped under his scatterbrained watch, and he had less than an hour to buy and deliver the history of the world’s greatest ever birthday present. He had given himself just the one task for the special day — one for the entire month — but had completely blanked it.

"Where you go this late, Xavier?" Zico — the landlord — cut through the dark, Xavier’s workboots skidding in front of the stairs. Zico sat on the top step artlessly devouring a yellow apple. "Americans go tonight to do mischief, no?"

"Some do. But not me." Xavier adjusted his hat and drew his coat tighter. The wind snapped like a lariat.

"Don’t worry. Nothing happens to this apartment." With his thumb and index finger pressed against his left eye, Zico spread his eyelids wide to form a gross spotlight eyeball. "I watch."

On Third Avenue, an endless tide of couples flowed upstream, laughter and hugs. A girl on the corner rested her head against her mate’s shoulder. It made Xavier think of when you used to do that to him, in the much better days. It was some random corner, your head on his shoulder; he always hoped the Don’t Walk sign would never change.

"You left that long box. I put that where it’s supposed to go. I mean, Xavier, please. Everything has a place where it belongs." To illustrate his point, Zico stood and walked down the stairs. With exaggerated motions, he opened the lid of the gray wastebasket and dropped the apple core inside. Now they stood next to each other, the landlord six inches taller.

"I did what I thought…" His voice trailing off onto the sidewalk, Xavier glanced at the back of his watchless wrist. He removed his hat and brusquely mowed a fist through his swirls of black knots.

The week before, Zico had been almost friendly. Xavier had complained about the bug population in his kitchenette, and had encountered a sympathetic, avuncular landlord. "The secret is," Zico had counseled, "don’t just kill everything you see. Don’t kill the good bugs, because you need those bugs to kill the bad ones." Xavier had always known you had to pick your fights, and now he knew you had to win the ones you picked.

The misdiscarded box incident refroze the thaw. Zico always seemed to compare Xavier to a mythical tenant with whom he could never compete. Those few days that Zico stopped nagging didn’t redeem anything. You can’t be thrilled when an antagonist treats you better than normal; it only hurts worse when he starts in on you again. Perhaps it was intended for Zico and Xavier to be enemies. Things always settle into their most efficient position.

Xavier toggled his stance between tiptoes and heels, up and down.

"Imagine if everybody left boxes around?" Zico laughed, defeated shoulders shaking sadly. His hands rested on the thighs of his tan workpants. Under the lamp, stains were visible, clusters of ancient splotches that looked like Earth’s continents. "It would make my job four, three times harder."

Zico flashed his three middle fingers in a midnight reprimand; they might as well have pierced the bloodshot jelly of Xavier’s see-all-evil eyes. Those dark eyes, unrelenting as a tattoo, froze the image of the landlord’s three joined fingers and gruesomely imagined them as belonging to your paramour and deliciously submerged within you, alive with exploration. He let one singular blink last several meditative seconds, carefully deciding if your paramour had already learned how much you loved when those middle three wiggled slowly then progressively more aggressively. He opened his eyes with the sadness of a calm ocean. Sure, Xavier figured, your paramour was savvy enough to have incorporated that stunt into his dazzling repertoire.

"… tomorrow is rent, Xavier. I want that money. Why you always wait to last minute? Only you."

Xavier spun toward Third and waved the landlord away.

"October has thirty-one days. I still got two left." As Zico laughed with his mouth of vacancies agape and moonward, Xavier wagged two fingers — symbolizing Mischief Night and Halloween — back and forth, remembering the motion of those fingers and how you savored the sensations with a tight, elongated neck. Had he known the last time was going to be the last time, he’d have never rinsed. "And you know it, Zico!"

Xavier accelerated, moving toward the couple on 3rd and 27th who were now lost in a kiss, each face buried in a face and a tight embrace, four arms forming a thick insulating circle.

"OK, OK. You got me, Xavier," Zico called out, his accent fading into the night. "But no mischief tonight!"

When a girl with a paramour has a birthday, the goal is to one-up him with the better gift. Like anything else, birthdays are a competition in a cloak. With stores closed and forty minutes left in the birthday, shopping was going to pose a challenge. Xavier knew that your paramour, on the other hand, had been preparing for weeks, choreographing details of surprises and unending generosities. Xavier knew it was his own damn fault. How can the only thing you think about slip your mind? Xavier drifted toward Union Square and the mobs of hand-holders with their shiny amorous eyes.

Mid-stride toward destiny, Xavier stopped and spun toward a new, glorious distraction. He gazed at the delicatessen across the street where a proprietor’s daughter was waving at him through the window. She sensually, languidly arced her hand back and forth to get his attention, and Xavier was transfixed at her waterfall of dark hair over immaculate ghost skin.

He stepped off the sidewalk, waited for a sedan to blur by, then walked into the middle of the street. Jaywalking comes easy when everywhere you stand feels something like an intersection. He peered into the window at the beckoning girl who had been attracted to his specialness, even from a distance, even in the dark, even while he was on the run and scowling.

There in the street, Xavier forgot all about you. He forgot the last twenty minutes of your birthday, the voyage for your present. The woman in glass even erased the ominous image of your paramour. Who knew at the beginning of the night that he was supposed to meet the woman of his dreams through a delicatessen window?

In the middle of Third Avenue, Xavier got a closer look and stared down the truth. The girl was holding a washcloth and running it side-to-side over the surface of the spotless storefront window. She wasn’t waving, she was wiping. Xavier had nothing to do with it. Two onrushing cabs split — the mitosis of machinery — as they approached Xavier, each missing him by an inch to either side. He cursed his bad luck.

A victory over your paramour would provide sweetness Xavier hadn’t felt in the previous barren-hearted months. Trying in vain to sleep, he’d spent nights gobbling over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, noshing on those pastel tablets like they were popcorn. He’d overdosed on valerian and passionflower, a witchdoctor’s gaffe. Frankie V had noticed Xavier was not the way he should be, so he slipped him Splinter’s card. Xavier went and was fixed, and that was the one night he remembered how to sleep. After he visited the Splinter, Xavier made it home and slipped into the velvet coffin of sleepfulness. Darling angels passed him cloud to cloud. He dreamt of jokes, puns, funny things. Big smiles. He dreamt of all good things. He woke with a new perspective. From fresh angles, your dragon essence didn’t splash and blind him with its nuclear glares.

On the south side of Union Square, Xavier brightened. A thought! Wouldn’t that be the best present, to make you — on your birthday — feel as good as he had felt that magical night? It would be generosity you had alternately accused Xavier of not possessing and not displaying. He’d do it; could your paramour on his best night possibly match that kind of colossal heavenliness?

The morning rain soaked through the scaffolding as Xavier rambled toward Splinter’s, stale drops pelting his hat like Chinese water torture. Xavier didn’t have a mind for remembering addresses, but he knew he was in the vicinity. Was this even the right block? Xavier stopped and ran the knuckle of his index finger under his leaky nose. He inhaled tightly, noisily. The top window of a corner building had purple neon and plants on the sill. Xavier turned away and saw the clouds pause in front of the moon to conceal it.

His middle finger pressed the black intercom button. Static exploded onto the microphone.

"Is Splinter around?"

"Who you?"

"Xavier."

"We don’t know no Xavier."

The intercom clicked into silence, locking the doors between Xavier and that golden present, the packet that would explain his emotions the way words never could. Xavier fixed his hat, thinking of you tucked under the covers with your paramour. Xavier figured you didn’t bother to throw a party, no, it would be just you two. You probably rented a movie then fucked. That was the vision he had carried from block to block; it had weighed him down. Did you start up when the end credits spun, or did the vino rosso kick in mid-film and couldn’t you wait, with your paramour’s breath crashing against you?

Xavier’s middle finger held down the button hard. He looked back to the shielding clouds, still gyrating in slow motion over the conniving moon.

More static.

"It’s Xavier — is Splinter around? — I’m Frankie V’s friend."

The intercom growled and the buzzer droned; Xavier bulldozed through the heavy doors and scaled the spiral staircase. He took the steps slow, making sure he stepped too light to trigger vile echoes through the building. Every few steps, he stood in the same place he started, only a little bit higher, a little closer to the packet that would soon be yours. He thought about the only other time he walked these steps, and how twenty minutes later, he had descended them much slower.

Down the hallway from Splinter’s, Xavier stopped over a man asleep or dead on the checkered floor. The man’s desiccated lips kissed the cool dirty tile, his eyes a flickering squint. Xavier knelt. That guy might also have come to Splinter’s to escape you or find you or celebrate you. Xavier placed a palm on the victim’s shoulder and rambled a spontaneous loose-lipped prayer that somehow that man was once your paramour.

Waves of impossible heat tickled the back of his neck and Xavier pivoted on his knees and squinted to the source, a bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling like a pendulum. He rose, licked a thick coat of sour saliva onto his right hand, and pulled the loose sleeve from his olive button-down over his hand. On tiptoes, he squeezed the light bulb and unscrewed it, wincing at the heat that blazed through the cloth. It was one thing to do too much of Splinter’s stuff, that didn’t mean a fellow was supposed to bake. One final twist and the light bulb sagged then dropped into Xavier’s hands as the hallway flashed to true black.

Cradling the blazing light bulb in the loose fold of his shirt, Xavier walked toward the purple light glowing under the crack of Splinter’s door and gave four quick raps. Splinter immediately opened it with a grin.

"Hey, I remember you from the last time. You’re Frankie V’s boy."

"Yeah.

"Why didn’t you say so the first time? We’d have let you right in. You and Frankie V were tight."

He motioned Xavier into the purple room. Nine people lounged on four decrepit couches. Xavier watched their communal activity, gobbling up oxygen and spewing out stale carbon dioxide. The whole room felt like a strange party where no one was there to have fun.

"Yeah," Xavier said. He scanned the dead room, comfortable that none of the people knew that you vanished and then he cried. "Yes." Xavier spoke in the same voice he used when he talked to his landlord. It was the same one he used the last time he spoke to you, that last phone conversation of potholes and landmines.

"I heard what happened, that shit about Frankie V." An awkward, loaded pause. Xavier held up his palm, a traffic cop’s plea. "Damn, X. It’s just, I heard what happened. That’s some wrong, fucked-up shit."

Xavier nodded and lowered his hand. He didn’t want to hear anyone’s epitaph.

"What’s with that?" Splinter asked, pointing to the light bulb. "What, do you have an idea or something?" Splinter laughed gently, thin elegant shoulders bobbing. "That why the hallway is dark?"

"Yeah, ‘cause I got an idea." Xavier approximated a smile of his own. He showed teeth.

Splinter reached to cradle Xavier’s leathery face in his palms and kicked the door shut with a heel. It slammed, and Xavier winced, wondering if the noise disturbed the dark, cool corpse on the checkers of the hallway floor. "You— you’re all scrambled up. You look off." Splinter reached swiftly around to Xavier’s ass and slipped something in the pocket. Off. Xavier thought he was about to say awful. "For you," Splinter whispered. "Don’t tell nobody." Xavier’s back pocket felt slightly heavier, not enough to collapse him in the hallway, and not near enough to make him feel luckier than your paramour.

Lyricless Afro-Cuban music did grind a devilish pulse in the background, percussion-heavy and libidinous.

"What do you want to see," asked Splinter. His beard was carved elaborately onto his dark face; it looked like the fossil of an ancient spider web. "Same as last time?"

"Whatever, man," Xavier said. "I’m not out to be a bore." Xavier wanted enough to wallow at that fragile physiological crossroads where he remembered you — every cell, every smell, the untraceable shape of your silhouette — but forgot your paramour.

"I’ll get you same as last time."

Xavier nodded, thinking of the last time at Splinter’s, that last comfortable night in bed, feet dangling merrily off the golden bridge where sleep and life converge. Soon, you would know that kind of majesty. Sometimes, the joy of living needs to be re-explained, and Xavier was negotiating a timely reminder. Not to say your paramour wasn’t making you feel good, but honey, nothing like this. No chance, it didn’t matter who he was or what he knew. You were going to be grateful. And how would you express it?

"Yeah, yeah. Same as last time’s good."

"That did you proper, didn’t it, X?"

Sometimes when someone says something, it’s clear he’s said it a million times before. It’s like a waterfall, or the onslaught of a brook where the action is not specific to your senses. It may belong to someone else, it may not belong to anybody. To how many other people has Zico explained the rules of refuse? How many other naïve pedestrians did that exquisite creature unintentionally woo by wiping down the storefront? How many hearts have you meticulously ravaged by simply moving on to The Next Big Thing? Xavier’s eyes hurt from lack of blinking. Exactly how many times had he felt that way before? Where was the chart? Someone, somewhere must be keeping track of all these things. Someone, sure, but all Xavier knew was that it wasn’t him.

Xavier pulled out a tight roll of bills and handed it over. Splinter smiled like a soap commercial. Frankie used to call him Lo Splendido. "Whatever’ll fit in my sock," Xavier said.

The exchange was made, the sock was stuffed.

"If you want to do the first little bit here, you’re welcome to hang." A slow open hand waved over the grim interior of the room.

Xavier surveyed the scenery; he couldn’t find space to sit. Couches were crammed with the living lifeless. He shuffled to the right and propped his ass on the wobbly arm of a green tweed couch.

"Yeah, hang," Splinter urged. Everything dissolved into mannequins and ornaments, the contents of the room faded into only Splinter and Xavier and packets. Xavier fondled the light bulb. It wasn’t nearly as hot as it used to be. "Stay, X. You bought a hell of a lot. You gonna do same as last time?"

Xavier shrugged. He didn’t even come to Splinter’s aware he himself would indulge — he had come for you — but why not? That lonely walk to your place would be so nice if he were not obliterated, but properly altered. He examined the light bulb in his lap, how his vague silhouette was warped in the glass, the mound of his hair, the unhealthy hunch of his shoulders. He touched his neck. Were there parts of your body left for your paramour to explore? Did he bother to ask about your preferences, or was he going strictly by sound, by the vibrations of your body? Was he trying to learn, or did he want to be taught? Remember: you were the one who told Xavier that it wasn’t too clinical for boy to ask girl. So Xavier did, and you claimed you appreciated it. But what is appreciation, anyway? Being able to appreciate someone is certainly important, but there are other things which young ladies do crave. Xavier fondled the light bulb, wondering where specifically he came up short on your paramour.

"Uh… I don’t know, I might just take off, Splinter." Xavier shivered, daggers of frost swiftly diseasing him. He was flattered that Splinter enjoyed his presence invisibly, with no obvious outward signs. Just as invisible were the people in the room slithering along to the Afro-Cuban beat, dancing without physically moving at all. "I might just move on."

"No, man, no. You gotta do the first bit here. C’mon, I want to watch. Do the first bit for me, man, do it for Frankie V." Splinter put his dark arm around Xavier’s shoulder. Xavier searched but found no clock. "My landlord doesn’t let shit into the hallway. Bastard always sayin’ one more time!" That fellow in the hallway had his mouth open wide enough for anything to crawl into, and Xavier wasn’t sure if he should dwell on that or other things circulating around the worried ledger of his brain. He shrugged all kinds of images away and squirmed next to some slime on the couch. In his day, Frankie V used to tell him about how legendary the couches were, once you got used to the company. "Please, God," Xavier prayed silently. "Don’t let me get used to the company."

Gongs of midnight exploded from the Methodist Church across the street. Happy Halloween. Each drone emphasized the irrelevance of the obsolete delivery. Your birthday was now three hundred sixty-four days away. Did you harmonize a sigh of relief to the tolling of those bells, knowing you had escaped contact from Xavier; or worse, did you not even think of it? Was midnight the same as any other instant of your life? Were you asleep at midnight, glazed by post-coital warmth, or were you looking at the reflection of twin candles dancing in the blue pupils of your paramour’s eyes? Xavier had your present and was readying the delivery, but as of now it was someone else’s birthday.

Xavier gobbled a half-packet, the one Splinter slipped by his ass. It tasted of sulfur, old dirty dimes. That familiar taste had appeared in his every burp and yawn since the last time. His body refused to let it go one-hundred percent.

It came on slow until the room was darkened and encoded. That packet put the world into gentle italics. Breezes washed his skin and Xavier slept deeply for five seconds. That happens when the brain shuts down to protect itself, to insure survival. His default dream kicked in, a vivid replay of that covert roadtrip you and he took to Maryland in Frankie V’s convertible. Remember? You sang shrilly and unembarrassed; your voice rang out and Xavier joined on the choruses. As Xavier drove, his eager right middle finger swiped your thigh, rubbing goose pimples, counting each pore. It pushed up your black skirt with frills and you did not object when that single finger went inside rigid while the convertible slalomed through oblivious slowpoke cars. Xavier awoke on the couch, not merely thinking of those Maryland highways, but actually within them, among the grain of the asphalt, smoldering along with the tar. He closed his eyes, trying to revisit the dream, but that’s a loser. Forced dreams die hard. Eyes closed and entranced by memory and narcotics and the splendid palm on his shoulder, he either thought or whispered: How fun was that roadtrip for you? Seriously, bambina, tell me, on a scale of one to a hundred. I won’t be offended. Rate it. One to a hundred. Right now, I absolutely need to know mathematically the exact measurement of your fun. How much? Come on, now, don’t flash your choreographed smile, stop it! Stop it dammit! Just come up with a number for me, okay? One… to… a … hundred. He knew he said the word ‘hundred’ out loud. The syllables rattled through the umpteen undulations of the inside of Xavier’s mouth. Maryland, though: Xavier could no longer remember a single song you sang. He could hear your voice (thrilled and vivacious) but no lyrics came to mind. Fuck you, Nina. You’ll say a hundred. You’ll look into the beginningless caverns of my meaningless eyes and say a hundred and you won’t mean it. "A hundred, Xavier," you’ll say, "A hundred! I swear to God, cutie! Maryland was the best time ever!" That kind of shit means nothing to me. Fuck you. You might as well say zero.

"Splinter," Xavier moaned to the thin laughter of others, "Get someone to close the window." Dry lips and shivering jaws and awful wonderful memories gave his voice an ugly desperation. Splinter flowed to the window in time to the unsolvable Afro-Cuban music.

"Window ain’t open, boss." More laughter. Laughter of cruelty, of betrayal. Demon laughter.

Xavier felt frozen solid: glaciers in his bloodstream, igloos in his mind, meteorites in his skull, stalagmites in his mouth, hula dancers in his ankles, a stampede of bulls plundering the china shop of his soul, and it was much too cold. He’d never felt this way before. No, no, never mind. Scratch that sentiment. He had. Once. First time you brought up your paramour. God, was it cold.

After a minute or so, Xavier figured out how to keep his feet. He got his balance, learning these stunts under Splinter’s unobtrusive supervision. Splinter, still across the room, called out, "You don’t want to go now, X; you better stay ‘til you’re all right. It’ll be better. You’ll warm up."

Xavier laughed like those sudden church bells. "Stay ‘til I’m all right?" He was sneering at Splinter worse than anyone should. "Stay ‘til I’m all right, ‘til I’m all right." He repeated it like the devil’s mantra as he felt his way to the door. He couldn’t figure out the quickest path, but he followed the scent of the hallway’s warmth, away from the purple and away from the window that Xavier was sure was secretly open and spewing out icicles to pierce his pores. The laughter of a diagonal man on the burgundy couch rang through the air like a harpsichord accompaniment to the memories of the bells atop the Methodist Church.

Xavier barged through the door and left it open, a slice of light cutting into the hall. He stumbled a wide berth around his fallen hallway comrade. That guy must not have been in the right frame of mind for that packet to do him any good. That can happen. Xavier started down the spiral staircase, and it might have been a hassle to climb, but it was pure acrobatics to descend. Each step was a solemn contemplation, each muscle movement was mulled. Vestiges of Afro-Cuban rhythms vibrated, but Xavier wasn’t sure if those echoes came down the corridors of the building from the stereo, or if they were fictitious maracas rattling mischief through the hollows of his skull.

East calling, Xavier walked in slanted streaks on the sidewalk, heading into a tunnel of scaffolding. He fixed onto a spot five strides in front of him, then attempted to reach it. Immediate goals were the only way to make progress. Find a spot you want to go and make sure you get there. West Broadway was vast, a vacuum prairie. A noise clicked out and something small scampered. Xavier whirled and lost balance. He swayed a wild pirouette, his hat launched away, and Xavier collapsed in a coil-shaped heap, his forehead breaking the fall onto the sidewalk. The light bulb in his waistband crunched, a violent and final shattering. Xavier leaned back, open-mouthed, his head resting on the sidewalk and throbbing like a black hole. The roof of the scaffold occasionally dripped thick poison onto his scalp. The anticipation of being struck was infinitely worse than each droplet’s clash.

On his back, Xavier could intellectually intuit that buses were skidding and crashing and gasping, but could not hear them. He was certain of the chaos in the street, but it was an inapplicable chaos, meant for people beside himself. He did not have access to that galaxy. Instead, he was tuned into a mob of digital angels whispering to him, and their dissonant voices sounded like the roar of bloodthirsty devils, wounded lions, maddened oceans. Angry! Frantic! They were privy to his plight and warned him to get up, get away before dawn’s carefree onslaught flattened him into irrelevance. Those beastly angels spoke to Xavier in the voice of Frankie V, but appeared in the guise of your paramour.

Xavier pictured you when your hair was short, then longer, and then all the way long, like it was when he saw you last. He pictured you in just a black shiny bra, then with the maroon leather jacket, and then in a rust-colored suit like mornings before work. He imagined you were dying, choking, in need of an organ, comatose, smothered by some disease, weakened so you needed him. Xavier had the impulse to be heroic. Maybe he’d be walking down the boulevard not even thinking about you when he’d spy your paramour clubbing you over the head with a black aluminum baseball bat. He’d wait until you were just about dead and then he’d intervene and stomp every last scintilla of shit out of that dude’s ass for you. Flipping to his knees, Xavier hoped you and your paramour might lapse into a violent cycle, where you treated each other mean, but he knew it wouldn’t happen like that. Your paramour would never, ever be cruel, and you would never break his heart. Where was the fairness there?

"Serves you right for stealing light bulbs, honey."

The stranger appeared from the shambles of the night. She oozed from behind the dark of a door. She was pretty, but Xavier wasn’t attracted to her like with you. With you, he wanted to take your hair in his teeth, rip it out at the roots, chew for hours, swallow the clumps, cough up the hairball, and keep it on his desk as a souvenir. He wanted to make love to you on every bed in the world, on every living room floor in every house. You’d call his name so loud it would echo off every wall ever built by man or beast.

Face down, Xavier’s stomach felt cold, wet, and salty. Whatever part of his body entered Xavier’s mind felt about to freeze. Scaffold droplets stung the back of his neck and the feeling might have been nauseating, but the sound was gradually driving him insane. He had to get up and get away; he had to get to you.

"You look like a Jerry," the girl said. She pointed; her finger looked like a syringe.

"Yeah, but I act like a Xavier."

"Holy fucking shit. You’ve got blood all over the place, Jerry, you’re going to need a hell of a lot of fucking stitches. They might have to give you transfusions." She put her hand on her left breast, and stared at the side of Xavier’s head. Xavier hoisted himself to his knees and looked at his stomach. He saw a sloppy cummerbund of blood, pink shards of jutting glass glowing like gaudy rhinestones. That part of him felt so cold. He reached up to feel his temple, and it was like putting a hand in a pot of ice water. He removed his trembling hand and used it to blindly pluck pieces of glass out of his torso.

"I won’t need stitches. Don’t worry about it. I get these all the time." Xavier found his hat and laid it on lightly, the blood on his temple blackened by the shadow of the brim. The hat was damp from the cannonball teardrops of the scaffolding.

"You’re cute, Jerry. It won’t ruin your face, I bet. It’ll probably even make you look… rugged." Her hand was resting on her breast like she was about to pledge something, or masturbate elaborately. "Does it hurt?" She took a quarter-step toward Xavier. New York City was smelling fine before she showed up. Now everything was overdone and cheap. The divine flavors of Manhattan all turned obscene.

"Not at all. It looks worse than it really is." Xavier flicked away a sliver of glass that had gotten stuck in his fingertip. Xavier clutched the base of a payphone and hauled himself onto his Timberlands. "Listen, you got to help me out. Do you know a girl named Nina? You ever see her around with her paramour?"

"What are you, a fucking comedian? New York has got probably two hundred thousand Ninas. And I don’t know any of the bitches. The only Nina I know is the one that went with the Pinta and the Santa fuckin’ Maria with Christopher Columbus."

"You sure? Come on, baby, think! She’s about this tall." Xavier’s hands formed the shape of your head, right around his shoulder. He kept his hands there in an incomplete oval, and your actual face momentarily appeared within, lips cinnabar and moist and puckered, eyes expectant and closed. Then you were gone, replaced by the invisible truth.

"Jerry, listen to me. You’ve had too much of whatever you’ve had a little of."

"Have you ever met her paramour? What’s he all about?"

"Shhh. I’m going to put your little ass in a taxi."

"Don’t bother. None of them can take me where I want to go."

Her hand moved from chest to thrust-out hip. She shifted the weight of her stance, exasperated. A familiar posture, another girl losing patience with Xavier the Savior. It would be fascinating to see if this one would express it differently than you, meaning would she express herself, tell the truth, stay to work things out; or, would she deceive, and with a coward’s spell disappear — poof! — leaving Xavier surrounded by concentric smoke rings of regret.

"Why? How far you going, Geneva?"

"Sure, sounds good. I’d go, if they’d take me slow."

"Forget you. I don’t need this. It’s not particularly like I give two shits. Whatever you get is whatever you deserve." She was gone, and Xavier made his unsteady way up the block, emerging from beneath the dungeon of the scaffold. He left the smell of her rotten perfume and rancid bubble gum aura and sought you out, even if that meant sniffing the ambrosia of your paramour’s cologne. Xavier was anxious to see what was supposed to happen, stretching the elastic of the universe as far as it would go. He was giddy to see the shake-up when everything snapped back into place.

On his crooked way to see you, slowly closing in, Xavier pieced together inevitable, hypothetical events of your birthday. Like when your paramour fucked you tonight, did you start it, or did you just go along? Xavier spat pink. You fucking started it, didn’t you? You moved over to his side of the bed, he met you in the middle, while Xavier was heading the wrong direction. Oh, you instigated tonight, but when you and Xavier were together, it was always him. First you agreed to it two out of three times, then half, then a quarter, then strictly charity, and then to never, not in a million years, not as long as that silly little penis is attached to that silly little boy. Xavier spat thickness, wet salt. Did you find those rejections funny? I remember every single one, bambina.

He did remember each one, and he replayed them with cruelly perfect focus. He replayed the angry defeated flop back to his side of the bed, the frustrated weakened contender he became the next morning. You should know this: every time you stymied him, it was a short expert stroke with a chisel, chipping away the flesh of his heart. There must have been a way to do it right. Another way to let him know. Every human being — even the ones on Splinter’s couches, even landlords, even vulgar midnight girls that reek of bubble gum and expletives — needs to be able to clamp their teeth down on their own dignity. Learn that quick.

Xavier’s post-packet sidewalk epiphany was that it didn’t hurt that you weren’t with him on your birthday. However it was killing him that you were with your paramour.

The last time Xavier called, you didn’t say much. He defined the conversation not by what you said, but by what you left out. It wasn’t difficult to detect the hitch in your voice when you wanted to talk about your paramour. You’d patch the hole in the speech with something unobjectionable. Xavier was sensitive, not clueless. When men are in love, they are stupid and will believe anything, but when they’ve been scorned, when they lack what they love, they know all, even the secrets. When you two were in love, your stone walls and riddles hid your essence from Xavier, but after things happened, you became transparent like a delicatessen window. Once you’re hip to someone’s falsity, everything settles into place like champagne poured into an endless pyramid of Waterford glasses.

Xavier walked slowly, like he was sinking in the quicksand of your purgatory. His Timberlands were blurred, feet in slow motion, eyes tense with anticipation. Would he find you squirreled away in bed, maybe even alone? Nah, you didn’t send that wonderboy home; you were with your paramour and he was with you and you were together. In the darkness, you probably couldn’t tell your skin from his, or whose limbs were whose. Xavier paused at your street corner and wondered: does he take his fingertip and run it from the back of your ear slowly slowly tenderly slowly scraping it softly slowly sweetly along your skin over your shoulder up and around and rest it on your miracle shoulder blade? Has your paramour realized how that’s what’s supposed to be done, how your body screams for it?

The room was dark, the shades down. From the sidewalk, no motion could be detected, but when Xavier held the glare, distinct stains of previous movement were unmistakable, indications of what already had been. Something had happened in that apartment. Even without him, something had occurred. Oh, no.

He whirled to see if there was a payphone. No. He scoped the ground for a rock to hurl. None. Xavier fingered the lint in his pocket and wished it were the trigger of a shotgun. If only: there’d have been no survivors found. "Fuck," Xavier snarled to the blood crust on the back of his hand. "I’ll take on her paramour right now, no problem." Xavier was also ready to have a Halloween confrontation with the paramour’s girl.

There was a picture of you on his desk back in the shithole of his subterranean apartment. You looked very very pretty. Xavier often stared at it until you sprouted a pulse, and you started to blink and breathe. Van Gogh’s sunflowers were beside you, and they were also alive, so vibrant. He wanted to spend the rest of his life watching the gems in those two pictures age, watch their allotted lives elapse. You would die first, and then he’d put the sunflowers by your tombstone, then blinklessly monitor them as they wilted and decayed, as the electricity of their color disappeared. It would be devastating to behold.

Xavier wondered if he should buzz you up. He knew you wouldn’t let him in, not in a million years. How else was he going to hand-deliver the packet? Everyone else’s spontaneity thrilled you, except Xavier’s. Same old song: you loved everyone else’s everything else. Xavier stooped down to his sock to retrieve a tight packet, and he chowed. The taste was familiar, bringing back flashbacks of five seconds ago, then a million years ago, and the both moments dueled, collided, then blended. He ate another packet and another. One left. Yours.

He wandered the outside stairs. Up-two-three, down-two-three. His every blink made a special sound. "This shit makes you dizzy," Xavier said, purposely louder than he needed to. He looked to your window to see if you heard his voice and turned on the light. Nah. A taxi with its off duty sign illuminated flowed by so beautifully, silent as a midnight snowfall, smooth as a birthday dream. The cabby didn’t honk or crash or curse; he just let the momentum of the morning carry him where he was supposed to go. Everything in the New York late-night happened the way Xavier knew it was supposed to; everything, except you and your paramour. Xavier remained unconvinced you guys were supposed to fall asleep together. That still wasn’t feeling right.

He swooned on the stoop, looking up to see if your beautiful face was pressed against the window, but before he could check, the world blasted into fast forward. Xavier crumpled, his open mouth striking the concrete tip of the middle step. The crunching sound was awful, but it didn’t hurt too much. It just made him feel cold again, freezing cold, colder than he’d ever been before. He felt absolute zero, whatever that was. It’s easier to be sad when you’re so very cold, it’s easier to miss gorgeous women. Loneliness goes along with winter, with wind and low temperatures. Now his smile would look like Zico’s. Zico. He had to survive this to pay the rent and apologize about that damn box.

Xavier twitched to make sure he wasn’t paralyzed. He struggled to get to his feet, but couldn’t remember the sequence of muscle movements that would prop himself up. It was frustrating, but not terribly so. It was cold, but other than that, it wasn’t any worse than anything else. It was probably what was supposed to happen. Xavier realized that when you came out for work a few hours later, he’d be the first thing you saw. You’d probably be wearing something spectacular for your colleagues and cohorts and co-conspirators in that catacomb of cubicles. Xavier was dreaming: I need to see you in a skirt one last time; you always knew how to wear those. And you knew you knew how to wear them, that was central to the allure. Xavier’s dream spiraled into heaven. He hoped the next day you wouldn’t break sweet stride when you saw him. Maybe your landlord would yell at you, say that this man shouldn’t be here on a Friday morning. What day are forgotten superfluous ex-boyfriends supposed to be disposed of? Recycled! So bambina, veer around me gracefully. Toss your hair, roll your eyes, let me listen as your heels grow softer but still defiant in the distance. That’s it, that’s the way things are supposed to be. That’s the design of the universe. Roughly, that’s the shape of our world right now. That you will step over me and I’ll get trampled by your paramour.

The blood swelled in his exhausted veins, and Xavier lavished in the brutal electricity of the morning, feeling exhilarated to withstand any pure sensation, however unhappy it might have been. He reached for that last packet, screaming weakly to you. He barked, "What have you ever done to deserve this gift?" He listened. The question wasn’t the least bit rhetorical; he needed an honest response more desperately than he needed the next dose of oxygen. "Tell me! I’m waiting, Nina. You’ve done nothing! Name me one thing, and this’ll be yours. I promise." Xavier contorted himself to reach for it, but could not get a grasp of it. All he got was a handful of cold red blood. Xavier was done.

Xavier contemplated vomiting up everything, but even the notion caused his stomach and heart to throb in revolt. He made a sacred silent compromise to himself: he wouldn’t throw up the ones he had already eaten, but he certainly wasn’t going to eat that last one. He didn’t need that last one. And you weren’t getting it, either. As far as Xavier was concerned, that last packet could be taken from his pocket, put on a dolly, and rolled off to hell.

 

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