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Chapter 3 Lex Luthor

“Hey, Luthor, hurry up with the iced latte, would you? It’s not rocket science, it’s a coffee drink.”

 Luthor pushed the glasses back up on his nose, and glared as hard as he could at the kid who’d just snapped at him.  The thickness of the lenses in his glasses were cleverly hidden by the plastic Euro tortoiseshell frames, but there was no disguising the fact that they were heavy enough to keep sliding down his nose. “My name’s not Luthor. It’s Kevin.”

“Dude, nothing wrong with being an evil genius.”

“I don’t know why you all call me that,” he said, but he knew.  It was a cinematic release of the Superman series that had just achieved cult-film status. Kevin was spot-on a version of the film’s version of Lex Luthor, Superman’s nemesis.  That he shared the first name of the actor who played Lex Luthor in the film was of course even more delicious to the confident young turks who frequented the coffee shop. 

 For those that didn’t know him, Kevin wasn’t a bad looking guy, and more than a fair number of young women flirted with him; some brought him small expensive gifts like a nice pen they saw or fancy coffee beans that they found in some pretty out of the way places. Inevitably, their enthusiasm waned as he simply seemed to take their affections for granted and gave them the cold shoulder. Some worked frantically to be obvious that they were making advances, some grew angry at the rejection and vented their anger at him in ways that left him hurt and bewildered. 

 A blonde with a long blond curls walked into the shop and strode up to the counter. Kevin smiled at her and started up to the counter.

 “Did you enjoy the coffee, Luthor?” she asked curtly. 

 “Yes, I’d always wanted to try the civet coffee – the taste was interesting,” he started, “richer than I expected.” He laughed a small laugh, “it was just hard getting past the idea… you know…”

 “Well, Luthor, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I guess calling me to let me know you liked it would have, you know, put you out?”

 “I just figured I’d see you here.  I always look forward to seeing you,” he said nervously, pushing the glasses up his nose. “I really wish you wouldn’t call me Luthor. Especially not you, Cathy.”

 “That’s such bullshit.  You don’t have to humor me.  What did you make of the fact that I put my number in there on a note that said ‘call me’, did you think I pass my number out like you pass out coffee?”

 “I really thought it would be nicer to say ‘thanks’ in person, I guess.”

 “You guess?”  She said, then again, mockingly, “You guess? I don’t need to take this shit from a guy that serves my coffee.”   She turned and walked away, and left Kevin there, watching her leave, frozen in place with his mouth slightly agape.

 Katie showed up a few hours later, before his shift was over, just like she always did, and waited for him in the big old leather easy chair that was always open for her. She didn’t order a coffee– she didn’t feel like she could afford five dollar coffee, but she sat way back in the chair and read a tattered old paperback that she carried around with her everywhere lately.  It was a collection of Langston Hughes poems.  When he was done, Kevin came over and set next to her in the giant leather chair. She was delighted, her face was beaming as she snuggled up next to him.

 “How you doin’, Katie?”

 “How you doin’, Kevin?” She leaned over and impulsively kissed him on the cheek, then smiled at him as she moved her short black hair back over her ear.

 “Oh, not bad,” he said.  “Cathy came by today, and was totally pissed at me.”

 “What did you do?” she asked.

 “Not exactly sure – she was really pissed.” He took a long sip of the coffee in the giant cup he was carrying, then set it on the table in front of them.

 “Something you did, no doubt,” she said, and bumped him with her shoulders.

 “I wish,” he said dejectedly.

 “We’ll,” she said, “let’s figure it out.  Think. If it wasn’t something you did, was it something you said?”

 “No. She came in, asked about the coffee she gave me and then treated me like dirt.”

 “Okay, now we’re getting somewhere.  She gave you some coffee?”

 “Yeah, some Kopi Luwak coffee – really expensive stuff.  It’s the civet cat coffee.”

 “Ok…” Katie said, “Just the thought makes me a little nauseous.”

 “No, it’s really interesting. Kind of a rich plum, dark chocolate taste,” he said, suddenly more animated. “Not at all what you’d expect – no hint of sewer smell or taste, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“So it’s chocolately,” she said giggling. He bumped her with his shoulders. He liked how easy it was to be with Katie.

 “Yeah,” he said, and sat back for a moment, quiet. He couldn’t completely play it off like he didn’t care – he’d noticed Cathy for a while, and although he hadn’t gotten around to asking her out, he’d wanted to and hoped that the conversation about the coffee would have been his opening, but instead it blew up in his face, and he didn’t completely understand why.

 Katie watched him slump back. “So was it something you said to her?”

 “I don’t know,” he said dejectedly. They talked a little about it, and he remembered the line Cathy gave him about her giving her phone number out.  “She asked if I thought that she gave her number out like I hand out coffees.”

 “Ok. She gave you her number. Did you call her?”

 “No, I thought it would be nicer to thank her in person.”

 Katie tried to explain to him that the gift was merely a pretense, that Cathy really wanted a clever way to give him her number, and how she was hurt that he didn’t.  As she explained, Katie saw the agony in his face, and wondered why Cathy and women like her didn’t get him – he was a cute guy, really, and fun to be around. It hurt her to help him with other girls and she had to admit to herself that she often wondered, just as those other girls must have wondered, why he didn’t just lean in and kiss her.

 After they said their goodbyes, Kevin walked alone for a bit headed downtown.  Stopped into an Irish pub and had more than a few pints. After the fourth pint, he realized he hadn’t seen Tanya around the building in a while, and he was starting to wonder if she was avoiding him. They’d been running into each other on a pretty regular basis in the building – they both lived on the fourth floor and saw each other in the mail room, in the laundry room and in the hall. She’d knocked on his door once in the middle of the day when he got home from the early shift – he could tell she was stoned and was wearing an oversized t-shirt, and not much else from the look of it.  They talked a while, then sat on the couch and listened to some of his CDs until she suddenly remembered she had some place else she needed to be.  He hadn’t seen her as often after that.  He remembered that she’s told him she was a dancer at Billy’s, and it suddenly occurred to him that it might not be a bad idea to visit her at work. He chuckled to himself as he considered whether going to Billy’s was just a bad idea, or if it was a good bad idea.

 He made the long walk crosstown over to Eighth Avenue, didn’t find Billy’s and then walked over to Seventh Avenue.  He’d been to Billy’s twice before, before he knew that Tanya danced there, but his memory was a little fuzzy.  He stopped at a pay phone, called information and found out the bar was on Sixth.  As he walked across the long block between Seventh and Sixth, he began to feel a little stupid, but thought to himself, “what the hell, I’m showing up unannounced, I get what I get and I don’t get upset”.  The bar was far more crowded then he’d remembered it ever being.  He ordered a beer and leaned up against the wall to watch a bit of the ball game on the television above the bar.  The beer was good, ice cold, and the bar was warm, it seemed that things were alright except for the nervous anticipation of seeing Tanya.  He tried watching the game but couldn’t really focus on who was playing.  Looked like maybe the Padres, but since the uniforms had changed so much in baseball and pro football and teams kept moving from city to city, it was hard to tell.  He saw Tanya at the bar as he made his way through the crowd toward the bathroom, sitting with her back to the bar and her long legs in front of her.  She looked great, and she was deep in conversation with a guy that looked like he had just stepped off the pages of Retirement Monthly, and she was giving him the same looks that she’d given Kevin when they’d spent time together in the laundry room or on the roof deck smoking a cigarette.  He kept walking toward the bathroom. “Good for you,” he said just loudly enough for her to hear, then toasted her as she looked up and noticed him for the first time.  She squinted hard when she first noticed him, then a look of shock and disgust flashed across her face too quickly for her to try to hide it. Kevin froze, stunned, when she literally leapt off her stool and dashed across the floor toward him, a look of panic on her face.  “You gotta leave, now,” she said sternly and forcefully as she grabbed his arm. “You can’t stay.”  He felt like every eye at the bar was on him.  He could feel a cold slice of anger form in his stomach and flow through his bloodstream like ice water, and he wanted to be gone before the full force of anger and public humiliation set down on him and he did something he’d forever regret.  He eased away without a word, back toward his spot on the wall, but just set the beer down on the bar and walked out.  He walked out into the incandescent night, down the dark stretch of Sixth Avenue between 23rd Street and Fourteenth, then through the spots of light and laughter coming out of each new bar along the avenue as he headed back downtown.

 

 

Fifteen blocks and two avenues away in another pub, Kevin was deeply involved in a mathematical problem.  He’d had four pints at the first pub, three twelve ounces cans at Billy’s and four sixteen ounce pints here at the pub.  How many twelve ounce beers was that? It was exceedingly hard to focus on the numbers.  He’d also just ordered another beer for the rather large blonde at the end of the bar, who introduced herself as Galyn. Galyn and her very cute red headed buxom friend were vying for the attentions of a generic Gen-X tall Irish kid with a regulation short-on-the-sides-with-ponytail haircut, named Tommy. He knew that the kid was named Tommy because of the girls were using the hell out of his name, almost every other sentence.  He wondered if it was something they’d read in a Cosmo article. It wasn’t hard to figure out which one was going home with Tommy, so Kevin was hedging his bets with beers for the heavier girl, but he wasn’t really interested in Galyn beyond the sheer sport involved. 

 

 A thought surfaced quickly and startled him; more than anything he wanted to call Katie, but he felt like there were some unwritten rules between them, and he was simultaneously afraid that calling her right then would ruin and complicate everything.  He sent another beer to the chunky blonde. Galyn squealed “You’re so sweet!” when she got the beer, smiled coyly and went back to her conversation with Tommy mere seconds later.  Kevin chuckled to himself, “she’s hedging her bets, too,” and ordered another stout from the bartender Sean, a tall sympathetic Irishman with short blond hair and wire framed glasses.  Sean looked like he could just as easily be an investment banker or cop as a bartender.

 

 “Are you sure, mate?” Sean asked.  “You’re starting to look a little green around the gills.”

 

“Green is good, Sean,” Kevin retorted, “it’s a lucky color.”

 

“Aye, that it is, mate, that it is,” Sean said as he pulled another stout. “This one’s on me.  Cheers.”

 

“Thanks,” Kevin said, extending his arm for a handshake, “I appreciate it”

 

“You may not be so thankful tomorrow,” the bartender laughed. “I’m Sean.”

 

Kevin laughed. “You’re probably right. Nice to meet you, Sean. I’m Luthor.”       

 

 Kevin was starting to feel a little warm about the ears, and his stomach was a little unsettled from the dirty water dog he’d had from the street vendor around the corner on Second Avenue, but he figured it wasn’t anything major and went back to the stout.  A stout and a snakebite later, the math didn’t come any easier, and he no longer cared much about his blond friend, and it was getting hard to focus.  It was time to leave.  Sean was on the phone – sounded like he was talking to a bookie and trying desperately to explain something, and Kevin could swear Sean’s accent had gone from a lilted Irish brogue to a hard Queens accent. “Hard to tell, bar’s loud and I’m drunk,” he thought, and shrugged to nobody in particular.  He left a ten on the bar for Sean and walked out as elegantly as he could manage and then through Washington Square park, across five long, lonely avenues and up six short streets.  He stopped on the corner of Second Avenue and West 4th, leaned against the light pole on the northeast corner and looked longingly at the red brick building above the East Village Deli across the street. It wasn’t the drunkenness that made him want to walk over and ring Katie’s buzzer and go up and see her; the drunkenness only allowed the impulse to surface. He was tired; tired of being alone, tired of searching for what he felt with her. The empty feeling inside him pulled him toward her apartment,  but stronger still were the years of dashed expectations, and those certain certainties; he knew how things turned out for him, and to some degree, he knew that in the end he lived up to his father’s nickname for him, Useless.  He knew instinctively that it was better left alone.  He staggered one avenue and the three blocks over to his building, worked the front doors open and collapsed in his bed. 

 

 It was about five in the morning when consciousness snuck up on him as he was hugging  the cool white porcelain of the commode and heaving.  Between the violent heaves he sipped from a pitcher of cold water he’d mercifully provided for himself from the fridge.  Sometimes he was thankful for how well he took care of himself. “I love you, man,” he said weakly and smiled as another wave of nausea swept over him.  As he laid back in his bed, the last feeling he felt before he passed out again was gratitude that he hadn’t gone to see Katie.  He was sure that he would have been embarrassed.

 

 The crack of noon came quickly, leaking in weakly under the heavy red velvet curtains of Kevin’s studio apartment. Kevin didn’t have the stomach to lay around any longer.  He rose slowly out of the bed, afraid to rouse any demons, made his way to the bathroom and  splashed water on his face, brushed his teeth and decided to take a walk in Tompkins Square Park.  He walked outside as the sun came busting out from behind a cloud, and his eyes stung with the sudden blast of light.  He stumbled backward into his building, shielding his eyes as two young girls jogged by giggling. “Was that a vampire?” he heard one ask, and they both burst out laughing so hard it hurt his ears.  He staggered back into his apartment and fished a pair of mirrored sunglasses out from the middle of a grocery bag he kept his mail in.  “Okay,” he said as softly as he could manage, “let’s try this again.”

 

 Kevin’s second attempt was easier because he was mentally prepared for the sojourn.  He walked two blocks east to the park, past the workers and messengers doing their thing, and the young artists and hipsters looking for their thing. There were too many skaters and bikers and runners and other healthy glowing people, so he walked a little further down to the other side of the park.  The constant jolt of walking was hurting his head, so immediately upon entering the park he sat at one of the green wrought iron wooden slat benches.  He could feel the heat coming off his head and the beer vapors pouring out from his pores and from behind his eyes.  He was thankful for the sunglasses and the ice cold water he’d bought from the hot dog vendor on the way in. The park didn’t feel right; since the neighborhood changed, it started to feel like Central Park south. He remembered years before spending time with his friend Kathy and her friends, squatters from a building over on Avenue B. The park had been grittier back then, but hadn’t yet become the full on hobo jungle that forced the Guiliani administration to forcefully evict hundreds of really scary people.  He’d loved Kathy, but he now understood that they’d been doomed from the beginning.  He missed her.

 

 “Hey, Mac,” he heard come from slightly behind him and to his right.  He automatically reached into his jeans and fished for a dollar bill.  A dollar was extraordinarily big for a beggar, but he couldn’t be bothered to answer to anybody.

 

 “Put your money away, slick,” the voice said, “I just want to talk a bit.”

 

 Kevin turned around slowly, but saw nobody there except for a gray squirrel. “What?” he asked agitatedly.

 

 “What’s with the attitude, Kevin?” the squirrel asked.  Kevin noticed that the squirrel was wearing a very serious, solemn expression.

 

 Kevin shook his head slowly and deliberately.  “How fucking great is this, I’m talking to a squirrel.”

 

 “Hey, don’t worry about it, Kevin,” the squirrel explained in a thick Bronx accent.  It kind of sounded like, “Hey, don’ worry bouddit, Kevn.” The squirrel continued, “This is a very important moment in your life.  Show a little reverence.”

 

Kevin didn’t exactly feel reverence as he sat there slack-jawed staring at the talking squirrel, but he did feel relief.  It was a load off his shoulders to know, really know beyond a reasonable doubt there was something wrong with him, and there had been all along.  He was insane.  Tears streamed down as his cheeks as he smiled a crooked little smile and tried to pull himself together. “Sorry, squirrel,” he said, “no disrespect intended.”

 

 

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