First job. First real job, anyway. Or rather, the first job that meant a damn. I’d been a waiter and it wasn’t so bad. I’d worked at a bookstore and it was quietly painful. I’d worked as a fast food mascot and it was ice picks under each toenail, in slow motion. I’d been an editor for a tailor-specific directory. This new job was a real job. An associate producer job at an actual television network.
I got it almost by accident. A college acquaintance recognized me at a bar, and I didn’t even remember his name until his boss mentioned it in the interview he set up for me. I assumed that I wouldn’t get the gig, so I walked into the interview in a casual, devil-may-care glowy state. I oozed charm and wise innocence. I let my mismatched eyes speak for themselves and I walked out, surprised to be With Job. A real job.
The first couple of weeks were awkward; there were several birthday parties for people that I didn’t know and I had to sing to them with all the other people that I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure exactly what an associate producer did and neither, it seemed, did any of my co-workers. I mostly attended meetings, gave input when I felt the impulse, and sat at my desk, responding to e-mails with non-committal assertions. I slowly came to the realization that real jobs were less real than non-real jobs. I wasn’t working. I was imitating work and being paid more than any of my previous jobs combined.
Which brings us to my first real pay check. It wasn’t made out from anyone at the network for whom I worked. It was from some institution called “Entertainment & Information Solutions, Inc.” They were based in some obscure island nation, that sounded less like a country and more like an Andy Kaufman creation. I didn’t care. It was money. More money than I’d ever seen in front of “and 00/100.”
“This’ll all go straight to the bank,” I thought, “…and then to my landlord.” But I soon thought better of it. I’d gone for years on meager or no pay, and had survived with aplomb. Surely I could go two more weeks in a similar state. This first, real paycheck, I deserved to splurge in the most unnecessary and horrendous way possible. I started with a table-spanning Ethiopian meal at The Queen of Sheba: Zilzil tibs, ybeg alicha wot, asa kitfo, wine-soaked bread and bitter regional beer. It put more than a dent in my appetite, but not much of a dent in my paycheck.
I went downtown, thinking I’d get some new clothes, toys, art, or whatever caught my attention. I didn’t care what it was. In fact, the more ludicrous, the better, I told myself. If I could find a moderately expensive bronze statue of a Catholic saint disco lizard with Hawai’ian accoutrements, that would be perfect.
I wound up at St. Mark’s Place and after buying a Smurf or two and a Masters of the Universe Man-At-Arms collectible drinking glass at Love Saves the Day, I felt entirely unsatisfied. This wasn’t wild, artistic trance first paycheck spending. This was novelty thrift. I don’t remember exactly how or why, but somehow, let’s say because of a poster partially ripped from a brick wall, I got the idea that I should buy me a hustler.
After all, St. Mark’s Place and the surrounding area were filthy with them. And not all of them were filthy.
I walked around the blocks with my bag of collectibles and a belly fulla African nummies. I figured that the guys with the wild clothes and slightly shifty eyes were drug dealers and that the more rattily-dressed guys with the haunting halo eyes, genuinely tattered jeans and resplendently pained expressions, were the male prostitutes. After a few block circles, one of them put two and two together and walked up to me: “Hey man, you lookin’ for somethin’?”
“I might be.”
“I think you’re lookin’ for me.”
“Like I said, I might be.”
The kid looked to be in his early twenties, but his age was a bit blurry. He was wearing a dumpter-fresh Pillsbury Dough Boy T-shirt, shorts concocted from an old pair of denim something, with a “Jesus never fails!” patch sewn on the very spot where one would reach his asshole if they poked him in the seat.
He sported what would be a crew cut, were it not for two bright pink insectoid hair antennae festooned on either side of a buzzed widow’s peak. Through the forest of close-cut hair, one could make out an intricate, Keith Haring-esque labyrinth of black ink covering his skull. It easily complimented his fawnish brown skin and soft, steady olive eyes. He smirked at me. It was a crushing, expert smirk. I didn’t know my heart had all those icebergs until he melted them. He stepped up on his tip-toes with a slight hop and gave me a strategic chess move peck on the cheek.
This was followed by a speech, a speech that he’d evidently given countless times, detailing what he was willing to do, (each act described by a clear, yet playful metaphor) how much each service would cost, and an even more detailed diatribe about what he was not willing to do (an exhaustive archive of some of the most degrading and despicable sex acts I’ve ever encountered. Some of which involved kitchen utensils and/or live quadrupeds). When he was done, and seemingly proud of his memorization skills and forthrightness, I asked his name.
“Hey Jorge,” I said, “What would you do for $600?”
“$600? Just about anything.”
“But you just gave a long list of a bunch of things you don’t do.”
He paused for a few breaths, “I’d maybe do some of those things for that. With you. But not with just anyone.”
“If I paid you $600, how long would I have the pleasure of your company?”
“All night. Yeah, all night.”
“Okay, it’s a deal…but there is one catch.”
“The catch is that I don’t want to have sex with you. Or do anything sexual at all. Just want to talk, hear your life story, philosophy, experiences, that kinda thing. I’m a writer and your perspective is of great interest to me, artistically.”
Jorge frowned. And looked a little frightened. He looked me up and down with zealous suspicion. “I don’t know…”
“What’s the matter?” I wasn’t expecting this. I figured a street boy would be pleased to earn a wad of dough without having to go down on a stranger. It seemed like a mutually beneficial arrangement to me; I got valuable insights into the life and livelihood of someone entirely unlike myself and he got a veritable paid night off. Jorge, however, didn’t see it this way.
“I dunno, man…I just dunno. Something wrong with me? Something wrong with you? What, you don’t like boys?”
“No, it’s not that, it’s just that I got my first paycheck and I want to spend it on something weird and wild. But I don’t want to take advantage of you and I’m not really desperate for sex. I think that money would be better spent learning from you.”
“How about you pay me for learning and I give you a ride for free, then?”
Was he joking? I thought he was probably joking. I laughed and patted him on the shoulder. His shoulder was solid, tight, creamed coffee skin pulled taut over bone and muscle. “What’s it going to be?” I asked, “I’d like to take you home, respectfully, but if you’re not up to it, I guess I’ll have to find someone else…”
“Naw, it’s cool. It’s cool, just…You’re not some weirdo, are you?”
“Wouldn’t a weirdo be asking to do something with egg beaters and not asking to pay you for talking?”
“Well…I mean…fuck! It’s just like nobody asks for this, so it’s weird. I mean, sometimes, johns ask for shit like just cuddling or they wanna cry in my crotch about their wives. Ain’t nobody ever asked to interview me. You a cop?”
“I’m not a cop. I’m an associate producer.”
“Okay…Okay. Am I sleeping at your place?”
“If you want to.”
“Okay. You got an extra pillow?”
“…I don’t think I do.”
“I’m gonna go get my pillow from the shelter and be right back, ‘kay?”
“’kay,” I said. And I waited. Twenty minutes. Jorge came bounding down the shelter steps with a pillow and a Powerpuff Girls tote bag with a broken zipper, repaired with safety pins and shoelaces. He smiled at me with big, white teeth and I felt I could detect a glimmer in his eye that was child-like and gracious. “’Kay, man, let’s do this shit. Got my toothbrush and all!”
The train ride uptown was awkward. Jorge kept his hand on my thigh, massaging it while he nuzzled my shoulder with his chin. The other passengers looked away from us and it dawned on me that my perception of age has always been more than a little askew. Was everyone else clearly able to pin this kid as a kid, indeed, while I thought he was a young adult? Was I getting felt up on public transportation by a barely pubescent slice of something? We got off at the 106th street stop and walked to my apartment. Walking under the MTA bridge, Jorge said, “Damn! Piss-stink! I thought you were rich. Is this your ‘hood?”
“I’m not rich. Not at all. It’s just a first paycheck splurge.”
“Aw, man. Then, seriously, you can totally fuck me if you wanna, or at least get a bj. I don’t mind.”
“That’s okay. I really just want to hang out.” Jorge frowned again and sighed. It was starting to seem as though my reticence to employ his usual services was becoming an increasingly acute blow to his ego. I had to find ways to flatter him and make him feel attractive without actually getting my money’s worth.
At my stoop, Jorge paused to speak Spanish with Maria, who was –as far as I could tell – permanently installed in her green and orange lawn chair to the left of my building’s door. I’d never seen her stand, and I’d never seen the stoop without her. Sometimes, neighborhood kids brought her sodas and fried plantains and she patted them on their heads and rewarded them with a song or a story from her childhood in Puerto Rico.
She and Jorge got into it pretty heavy and cozy; they rattled off a mad succession of words that flew right past me. I picked up smatterings here and there, but my vague understanding of Spanish combined with my better understanding of its cousin, French, didn’t help enough for me to comprehend even the most basic aspect of their dialogue. A few times, Maria shifted her gaze from Jorge to me and winked. What the hell was he telling her? Was he asking her if I was a pervoid sicko who would attack him as soon as we were alone? If so, I hoped that Maria would tell him about the time she saw me set free a mouse that I’d trapped with a glue pad in my kitchen, or how I’d given the block kids ice cream when we had a blackout that one summer.
Moreover, I hoped she wasn’t getting a cascade of dirt on me to feed to everyone on the block; Maria was our neighborhood’s living newspaper and she never missed a scoop.
Upstairs, Jorge threw his bag on my futon couch and made a b-line for my DVD shelf. “Fuck! Fucking-A, man! Maybe you ain’t rich, but you got the shit!” He scanned the titles, then spotted my Nintendo and squealed like a little girl. He flung himself and his arms around me and squeezed tight. This evolved into an ongoing caress, so I had to gently push him away. He frowned again. “Yo, listen, if you can’t get it up, that’s okay. I get lotsa guys, can’t get it up. I can jerk off for ya, whatever.”
I chuckled at him and headed to the kitchen, “You want something to drink?” I was done trying to convince him that I wasn’t out for sex. My protests seemed only to egg him on. “Yeah, what you got? You got gin? Tequila?”
“How old are you? Are you old enough to drink?” I asked, and immediately regretted the question.
“Bitch, I’m old enough to get cornholed by wall street cokeheads.”
“Fair enough. I’ve got vodka and orange juice. That do?”
I poured, “But how old are you, just so I know?”
“Fifteen. Well, maybe.”
That took me by surprise. Two hundred pupa hatched in my gut and out flew two hundred papilionidae shook their swallowtails in my stomach. I’d just brought a severely underage streetwalker into my home. And I’d promised to let him walk out with $600. And oodles of people, including the ever-prolifically verbally journalistic Maria had seen me with him. Just how far does society allow the “I did it for art!” defense to carry a guy?
I found a mostly blank journal on a shelf, uncapped a new extra fine rolling ball pen and wrote “Jorge” in swooshy calligraphy at the top of the first empty page. “So, Jorge, let’s get started, here. What’s your last name?”
“I don’t give that out, man.”
“Fair enough. Just Jorge. Where were you born?”
“Aw, is this the interview?”
“So this is really it? You just want to talk.”
“And to learn, yeah. And we can play video games or whatever later.”
“Sweet!” He sat on the couch next to me and looked over my shoulder at the page. “Yo, you spelled my name right. That’s cool…Yeah, just Jorge. I was born…I was born in Jersey. My dad was a bitch. My mom was his bitch. I got outta there as soon as I could.”
“What was wrong with them?”
Jorge looked at me and his eyes got much bigger than they’d been before. The little Dutch boy that had kept his finger in Jorge’s dam let the waters come out. Jorge let a flood come out and I tried my best to keep up, lamenting my lack of a pocket tape recorder. His was a harrowing account of abuse, neglect, heartache and stopping to smell blood-stained roses. His life had been harsh, brutal and unquestionably beautiful. I won’t share it with you because it’s his and not yours. Now it’s a little bit mine, too, but we all know that he only fed me a tiny sliver of its majesty.
When the moon was out and he was done, he let out a sweet and tart gasp from the wound I’d opened, I cried. I had found a box in a back alley, taken it home, and opened it to find that it was Pandora’s and inside was everything horrific and grand, dirty, disdainful and dread-soaked, all illuminated by the tiniest firefly spark named Hope, whose contrast with the sickening totality of the contents was so intensely radiant as to render the world entire ineffable and perfect in its flaws.
Jorge recognized the state he’d put me in and placed one hand on each of my cheeks. He stared into my weeping eyes and steadied them with his own. Then he stood up and amidst my fumbling protests, removed every stitch of his clothing to reveal his lithe, sculpted body covered in Spanish adjectives and scars. He turned out the lights and he danced on my rug. He used the moonlight streaming in from the alley window as a spotlight, which illuminated and defined his body in a blue glow. There was no music playing; Jorge wanted to be the music.
And he was.
He wrapped his naked body around my clothed one and we breathed in deep, sharp breaths until we were both asleep, wantonly copacetic together and apart, still neither one of us fully contented or satiated, neither one of us wiser or safer, both dreaming specters of ships with silvery, pirate sails, lapping their way over dispassionate waves into a thick, white, intransient fog.