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Chapter 1 – Reunions Part 1:

The silence was a little awkward the first couple of blocks as they walked out into the crisp fall Manhattan evening, out of the warmth and the rich aromas of fresh baked biscotti and espresso, and away from the last real honest-to-goodness family-owned Italian cafe on Bleeker Street.  Frank and Timothy started talking about how sad it was that little coffee shops like that were disappearing from the Village, but the topic of conversation was pretty much irrelevant; they were filling gaps as they walked east toward the Sixth Avenue line.  It hadn’t been long since Frankie was back in the city, and Timothy’s heart was rising up in his throat as they got close to the subway.  He hadn’t told Frankie any of the things he wanted to say – how hard it had been to not give him money when he had so desperately needed it, and how proud he was of him now that he was back from the treatment in Minnesota.  Frankie walked a little different now, a little stiffer and more mechanical, like they’d broken both his legs in rehab or he’d aged some forty years.  His hair was slicked back and he was wearing a flannel shirt, but the hair was slicked back less like a fashion statement and more like an old man,  with the aromatic Three Flowers hair dressing the old Italian men liked,  and the shirt tucked in and buttoned up all the way.  They stopped by the basketball courts and he lit a cigarette.

“What a beautiful day, you know?”

“Yeah, Frankie. It really is,” Timothy said.

Frankie looked past him, like he was really thinking about something else.  “Look at this – my first full day back, and even though it’s cold as balls, the sun is shining and the birds are chirping. Things are good.  What could we possibly have to worry about?”  He offered Timothy a cigarette out of the pack, and Timothy reached for it and hesitated.  He hadn’t smoked in years, and he wasn’t sure that he should be smoking, either, but it was a minor point.  He suddenly became away of how long it was taking him to make a move, and was further paralyzed by his own self-consciousness.

“Take the cigarette,” Frankie said.  “It’s a small thing. That one isn’t gonna kill you.”  Relieved, Timothy took the cigarette and Frankie lit it for him with a stainless steel Zippo with a Narcotics Anonymous logo on the side, the letters “NA” curved to fit inside a circle – the group in Minnesota had bought it for him the first time he made ninety days clean and sober. Timothy hadn’t smoked in a really long time, and the first drag stung a little, but the second felt good.

“I gotta make an amend to you. I owe you an apology,” Frankie said.

“For what?”

“For putting you on the spot all those times asking for money. I know I owe you quite a bit, and I plan to pay you back, you know?”

“Nah,” Timothy said, “don’t sweat it.  You’re my big brother.  We watch out for each other.”

“Yeah, I know, bro. But I never wanted it to be like that.”

“It’s not, Frankie. Really.”  Timothy hugged him hard, and they parted ways.  Frankie went down into the subway to Brooklyn, and Timothy decided to walk uptown a bit.  The night was cold, but walking in it felt good.  He walked, thinking about what he’d said about the money.  The money hadn’t really ever been an issue for him.  Timothy was hardly a big dog, but he was doing more than ok; as a twenty five year old MBA on Wall Street,  he was making more now than his father had made in his prime.  That’s what had bothered him, and what he would never be able to express to Frankie;  there was plenty of money between him and his parents, and Timothy would never forgive himself or his father for starving Frankie after the family decided that he needed to go to rehab.  It was pretty clear that Frankie was literally dying by that point, and had no more self will than a dried leaf blowing down the street.  That’s what made the whole thing felt small and vulgar to Timothy.  More and more it looked like a sucker punch from his father to somehow get back at Frankie, to punish him, to cut him down to size.  It was obscene that his father had savored the day that Frankie had come crawling back;  Timothy had heard a small laugh when he called his dad to tell him that Frankie was on his couch and ready to send to rehab.   Timothy would never forget how small Frankie had looked on the couch;  a weak,  sick,  and beaten man – a sharp contrast to just about every other memory he had of his brother.  Somehow, remembering Frankie that way made him feel a little less sure of himself, a little more vulnerable to the world.  ”Maybe”, he thought to himself,  ”that’s what dad had wanted, the point of the whole exercise”.

He pondered this as he walked up Sixth Avenue,  past the tables of used books,  broken knick-knacks and knit hats and gloves for sale.  The sun had just gone down in an extraordinarily red sky and it was already starting to cool down even more.  A girl walked toward him with her arms crossed tightly, like she was trying to hold herself together.  He smiled at her and she ignored him.  He walked up to Fourteenth Street and into the bank on the corner with the huge marble façade for the ATM.  He already knew where he was going – up Sixth Avenue between 23rd and 24th Street.  There was a friendly neighborhood go-go bar there, a relic from the early 1960’s.  It was essentially a neighborhood bar with a three foot high catwalk and stage backed with mirrors where the girls danced topless. There were chairs lining the stage, but the regulars sat at the bar.  There was no stripper pole or VIP room, but the girls still made more in tips than they would have at a strip club on Queens Boulevard.

Dave the door man greeted him with a “bro” handshake and a shoulder bump.  He was a young guy, tall and lanky with a Marine Corps flat-top and Recon wings tattooed on his forearms, and tough.  Sixth Avenue was quiet, and there wasn’t a soul on the block but them as Dave stepped out for a smoke.  “So how’s things with your brother?” he asked.

“He’s out. Saw him tonight, we had coffee.”

“Dude, that’s awesome.  I’m glad he’s back and I hope it takes this time.  Frank’s a good guy.  The girls really like him.”

“Yeah,” Timothy said, “me too. I was worried about him.”  Dave went back in and brought a couple of bourbons out for them, and they drank them discretely.  Timothy told Dave about how bad he felt about not helping Frank when he was down hardest, and how he could have at least bought him food or taken him out to eat.

“Who knows, man,” David said. “Bottom line is you got him where he needed to be.  I went through something similar when I got back from the first desert war.  People had to cut me off, too.  At first I thought I was just paranoid or going crazy – nobody was answering my phone calls or anything.  Like all my calls were just disappearing into deep space or something.  I couldn’t figure out what I did to piss everybody off, and then I tried to figure out person by person why they wouldn’t answer my calls.”  He took a sip of his drink and lit a cigarette, offering Timothy one.  Timothy took his second one of the night.  “So anyway,” David said, “ I figured that maybe my brother had cut me off because I owed him money.  My wife was pissed off at me, and I figured that she and her sister weren’t going to talk to me until I apologized for whatever it was that I did.  The hardest to figure out was my girlfriend.  She was going through a divorce, but she had never been like that to me – turns out she was in on the whole thing.  My sister-in-law had told her that if I didn’t clean up, I was going to end up dead or in jail.  Turns out that I’d been acting like a world-class asshole, and most of the family was scared of me.”  His face scrunched up for a second as if he’d forgotten something really important.  “It really wasn’t about the war,”  he said deliberately,  “it was more about having a boatload of cash in my pocket and trying to figure out what was next, you know?”

“So what finally happened?” Timothy asked.

“Well, at first I was pissed as hell.  Then I figured, ‘Eff  them’,  I didn’t need them.  In a way, it was a gift, you know?”  He shrugged.  He went on, “I’m Puerto Rican – my family always had my back.  I’d never really been alone before, I mean like just me against the world.  Very few people get to walk down the street knowing that they’re really, truly alone.  I think it made me  stronger,  because I realized that no bullshit,  we really are alone in this world.  In the end,  we’re the only ones that can take care of ourselves and fix ourselves when we need it.  At the end of the day, we really are alone.  The perspective helped.”

“I could see that,”  Timothy said, but he wondered.  Growing up,  Frank had always been the outgoing one,  he was the one that could talk to anybody and kept everybody up-to-date on all the family news.  He wondered how he’d handled the isolation,  whether it made him stronger or helped drive him crazy.  Maybe that’s why he seemed so much older, and quieter than he had ever seen him.  They went back inside.

Tanya’s eyelids were heavy on stage as she sashayed to the familiar steel drums and reggae beat of an alternative rock song about hope, addiction and redemption.  She was his favorite dancer, and he was enough of a regular to know that it was one of her favorite songs.  They’d spent quite a few nights talking at the bar and he thought they had built a pretty good friendship.  At that moment,  as she danced,  she had the bar’s attention.  She wasn’t pretty in a classical sense;  her face was pitted and her almond shaped gray eyes were set too far apart.  Her copper red locks looked like she’d dyed and cut the bangs herself, but the effect was smoldering.  Her breasts were shapely and smaller than what you’d expect from a girl dancing in a topless go-go bar,  and had just the tiniest bit of sag that gave her away as a mother,  but her legs went on forever and gave the illusion that she was much taller than her 4’11” frame.  The way she moved with the music was smoky and pregnant with some pretty heady promise,  but that’s not what was absolutely irresistible;  there was something strong,  sexy and confident about her,  something that was in itself smoky and impossible not to desire.  He caught her eye and she smiled.

He pretended not to notice when she came over to the bar next to him.  “So, Timothy, are you my Sergio?” she asked with a little laugh in her Russian accent.

“I don’t know, Tanya, are you my Jane?”

“No, Timothy, I could quit you at any time,”  she said mischievously.  They talked easily for a while about the cold outside the door,  the upcoming holidays and whatever else they could think of to keep the conversation going while he bought her $15 glasses of house wine.  He didn’t begrudge her the wine,  it was the price of admission and they both understood that although they both ostensibly enjoyed the conversation,  there was a commercial aspect to it as well.  He wasn’t an idiot,  but liked her company enough to cheerfully pay her drinks plus a nice tip.

Tanya was quiet and thoughtful while a girl that looked like Veronica Lake took the stage,  complete with 1940’s haircut and full red lips,  but with a huge rose tattooed across one of her ample breasts.  “Timothy, I need a vacation, ”  Tanya said quietly.

“Me, too,” he said, and he meant it. He was tired.

“I’ve been thinking about taking my son to Disney World in Florida.  He’s six, and I think he’s old enough now.  Plus I heard that winter is the best time to go – cheaper and not as crowded.”

“Sounds like a good plan.  My dad took us to Disneyland before I went to high school.  It was the only family vacation that we ever took, and it was great.  Never been to Disney World.”

“My son doesn’t have a father to take him,  and I can’t really afford it right now,” she said, waiting to judge his reaction.  He smiled and tried to take it all in, wondering if he understood what she was asking.  Again, he realized that he’d been  quiet a beat or two too long.  “Timothy is this something that you would be interested in doing with us?”

Of course – the easy answer was…  who wouldn’t want to vacation in Florida with Tanya?  There was the complication of her son,  but as stupid as it sounded even to him,  he trusted her judgment on that.  It should have been an easy “yes”;  he had the cash and needed some time away,  but he was never good at quick, decisive answers in matters that involved women when they mattered most.  The pause indeed lasted a bit long.

“Timothy,  I know this would cost some money,  and there is nobody else I know right now that I would ask.  My son and I wouldn’t need a separate room – we could sleep on the couch with plenty of room.  During the day,  we would of course give Max the attention,  but once he went to sleep…” she said,  and gave him a tight little smile.

“It sounds like a good idea,”  he said,  not even convincing himself.  “I think it could be fun, and I definitely need a vacation.”

“Good,”  she said,  “you don’t have to give me yes tonight.”  She handed him a card with her name on it.  “I don’t work Wednesday,  and my friend Nastya can watch Max for us if you’ll let me take you to dinner.  We can talk more then.”  They talked for a little while longer about restaurants they could go to and what foods they liked, and settled on a small sushi restaurant in the East Village that was famous for its rolls.  She kissed him full on the lips as she got up when her spot in the rotation came up,  not making a scene,  but making a promise.  He got his jacket on as she mounted the stage, and walked out into a night that had gotten cold enough in four hours to snatch the breath right out of his chest.  He hailed a cab that came around the corner,  perfectly timed.  Part of him wished he’d stayed to see her dance again,  but it was late and oddly enough,  he didn’t feel like it was necessary.

He gave the cab driver his address on the Upper East Side, and sat back,  enjoying the lights as they headed into midtown. He never got tired of the lights and the skyscrapers of the city.  The cab smelled of cigarettes, and the driver had a red and white pack of smokes on the dashboard.

“You can smoke if you want,” Timothy said to the driver,  “as long as you spot me a cigarette.”

“Just be sure you roll down window,” the cabbie said in a heavy Eastern European accent,  and handed him a cigarette and a book of matches.  The driver lit his with a plastic cigarette lighter and they continued on uptown.  Timothy sat back and watched the city go by.  It had been a pretty eventful night;  he saw Frank for the first time in three months,  and had an interesting conversation with Tanya.  Her idea was appealing and certainly had its upside, but there were downsides as well.  To start with, he didn’t know her outside the strip club.

Timothy was quiet the whole ride uptown,  through the canyons of midtown Manhattan and through the wild darkness and winding roads of Central park,  then out through the majestic brownstones of Fifth and Park Avenues and on up the upper East Side to his apartment off Park avenue,  closer to Lexington.  He handed the cab driver roughly twice the fare that showed on the meter,  and the cab driver left him directly in a giant puddle in front of his building.  He bounced through the puddle,  walked up the stoop and opened the giant mahogany doors that opened into the lobby.  There was a built-in desk that came out of the wall next to the mailboxes, the remnants of a time then the building had a doorman and a working elevator.  The management company went bankrupt, and all the amenities went away, but the gently curving wide mahogany staircase was still pretty impressive.  Timothy walked up four flights to his apartment;  one of three on the top floor of the building that had been crafted out of the penthouse.  His apartment kept the staircase up to the rooftop deck, and he was the only tenant that could access it.  He walked in, fell deeply into the futon in the living room and pulled a cigarette out of the pack the pack that the cab driver had let him keep.  He sat there for a while,  losing himself and all track of time as he listened to the girl across the hall practice her scales.  She was an opera singer, and she sang like an angel.  He didn’t know what she looked like, but he was almost in love with her.  She sang exercises odd hours and when she was walking back from her evening jog.  He finally took one last drag off the cigarette and put out the butt on a saucer on the end table.  He forced himself up off the futon, washed his face, brushed his teeth and got ready for bed.  Tomorrow was another work day.

Sleep didn’t come easy, not at all like those nights when he tried to build intricate spreadsheets and ended up drooling on the keyboard.  Moonlight poured through his window, and he could hear the traffic on Lexington Avenue and the hums, rattles and clicks of the night outside his window.  A seed of excitement had already sprouted inside him about the vacation with Tanya – he wasn’t quite sure why;  he really hadn’t really even fully realized that he’d already made up his mind to go.  He wanted to tell somebody about hit, but he wasn’t sure who he should tell;  his life was full of people he thought of as friends,  but he spent an inordinate amount of time alone and so much of it lonely.  He didn’t have anybody that he could think of right away to share how excited he was becoming about taking a single-mother Russian stripper and her son to Disneyland.  He’d of course want to pose it as a question, but even that though seemed ludicrous on the surface, “Hey, there’s this cute little Russian stripper I’d like to take to Disneyland with her six-year old son.  The son?  Nope, never met him. His name?  Well, I can’t quite remember – Ivan? Sergei? Misha?”  He really couldn’t even talk about it to Frankie – he pretty much knew what Frankie’s view would be; for all his troubles, Frankie had his head together and was one of the most intelligent people that Timothy knew.  No question that he’d think that taking a stripper to Disneyland was an incredibly bad idea.  Plus, Frankie knew Tanya;  before he’d gotten really sick, he was a regular at the bar, too.

He thought some more about Frankie and went back out and sat on the futon and watched a little more TV,  still brooding about the fact that there was nobody he could call and talk to about everything that had happened that night.  Tanya was still at work,  and he’d feel weird calling her now;  the biggest part of what he wanted to talk about was her.  Frankie was also heavy on his mind, and there was another reason he didn’t feel like he could talk to her about Frankie – she seemed a little more at ease with Frank,  she laughed easier with him and touched him gently on the face in a way she never touched Timothy.  Just thinking about the way she touched Frankie pissed Timothy off.  He could feel the tension going down his body like a wave,  starting with the clenching of his jaw and crashing like a wave with the tightness all the way down in his toes.  He forced himself to think about something else, and he felt the tightness in his jaw start to dissipate, but the restlessness was still there.  ”Isn’t this something,” he thought to himself, “I’m here in a city of eight million people,  and there’s still nobody to talk to about all this.”  It felt to him like opening presents alone on Christmas day.

He laid in bed making out patterns and shaped in the texture on the ceiling and thought of Frankie.  Frank was nineteen years older than him, but there was more than the years that came between them.  Frank was good to have as a big brother when Timothy was growing up;  Frank was big, not just physically, but he was a big personality.  He had been an All-City linebacker in high school, and everybody was sure he was destined for the pros until he blew out a knee running across rooftops and misjudging the drop from one roof to another.  The cop, a young rookie who had been a promising defensive back, made the jump easily and collared Frankie for the burglary of a neighborhood liquor store.  The whole take had been two fifths of rye whiskey and a bottle of Chianti for the girls.  The neighborhood forgave him, but their parents never did, and Frank wasn’t allowed to return home.  Their parents were intellectual Spaniards that had fled the Franco regime;  she a philosophy professor and psychotherapist, he a pharmacist.  There was no room for burglary in their world,  and they couldn’t understand why he would never crack a book,  how a child of theirs with no obvious mental defect could so eschew reading, writing and arithmetic.  Timothy was their baby, an “accident”, but an accident that put their lives right again;  he was also a biggish personality,  gregarious and well-liked,  but with a love of books and learning and without the “macho” need to prove himself,  and without that self-assured arrogance they found so distasteful in their first born son.

Frankie breezed in and out of their lives;  back for a while to stay with Timothy,  and then gone again without a trace, without a word until the next time he came back,  his ice blue eyes full of laughter and mischief,  but each time a little less. Then it turned into the kind of thing where Timothy would hear from Frankie when he needed a little money to get out of some kind of jam.  Eventually it became hearing about Frankie through some of his broken-down friends.

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