If you had asked him, he wouldn’t have been able to give you a viable reason for why he had to go back–all three thousandish miles back–to collect his things. Things that were rather paltry and pathetic in their sum total. A comb; a toothbrush; a stack of books he would probably still never read even after schlepping them across the country again; clothing (some of it unreturned costume pieces from his various acting stints). None of these items amounting to the cost both literal and figurative of leaving the cocoon of his parents’ Burlingame mansion to return to the ghost town of New York, still a cesspool despite the noticeable decrease in population density. Yet not decreased enough to have driven out any of the people he knew there.
Some of them were friends, he told himself, though that was often too strong a word to describe the type of relationship one could really have with a New York denizen. By and large, the dynamics “cultivated” in this town amounted to acquaintanceships or giving some people a glimpse every now and then into your true essence–letting them scratch the surface–thanks to the vulnerability that came with sharing one too many drinks with them. Even so, Mark seemed to have more connections in New York than in California. Could call upon someone to meet for a powwow without having to scour through his contacts the way he did out west.
He supposed, in the end, that was what cinched the deal on shelling out two hundred dollars for a last minute one-way ticket (he could decide later when, and if, he wanted to return). The need to commune–even if no one, anywhere, was all that down to amid a pandemic. But surely they were more willing to in NYC, where boredom had a greater tendency to galvanize, rather than fortify further languishing. His mother, Arianne, grudgingly dropped him off at the airport at 6:45 a.m., with Mark having only informed her of his plans to depart the night before. Sipping from her martini glass while binge watching another episode of Real Housewives, she scolded, “Mark, honey, you’re lucky I’m a morning person.”
“And that you’ve never had to be anywhere in the day other than this lavish mansion,” he wanted to reply. He bit his tongue, obviously, for it would have been ill-advised to tamper with his ride–his chance for escape from the endless hourglass of monotony that had become his life in California. Existing in some alternate dimension even more surreally banal than the average Californian’s. For, despite the myth to the contrary, there isn’t much glamor to atrophying just because you happen to do it poolside. Mark had learned that fact long ago, as early as seventh grade, deciding that very summer (while mouldering in the water on a float, the only movements to differentiate from him being a corpse being to occasionally sip from some Kool-Aid) he would flee the Golden State in favor of the Empire.
Granted, it took him about five years of living with his parents past the societal expiration date of eighteen to finally take the plunge, but after having exhausted every dick in the Castro, he could no longer put off his original plans. New York here I cum, he thought as he boarded the plane then, and now. The major difference being that, in the present, he was forced to wear a surgical mask. How many more ways must gay men protect themselves? “Let me count the ways,” he heard some pseudo-intellectual (as all East Coasters were) mutter. Clearly impressed with herself for reading from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s collection of poems, though it was likely out of obligation, not pleasure. Presumably to fulfill some educational requirement at [insert douche bag college name here]. She didn’t seem to know she was reading aloud. Or if she did, she couldn’t be bothered to care. Mark prayed she would cease soon, for the “social distance” of an empty middle seat between them was not enough to drown out her self-satisfied quotations.
Two hours later, with Mark having listened to almost every Barrett Browning sonnet in her oeuvre, the plane landed in Minneapolis for its layover. Thank fucking god. A chance to escape from this poseur. Of course, he was a fool to think, even for a split second, that they wouldn’t be on the same flight again. Lest one forget, there were only so many scheduled departures to NY now. Once a “vital” and “vibrant” hub, it was presently a place where only the loonies and the broke asses would dare to tread. In short, Mark had taken leave of his senses in selecting this moment in time to make his “descent,” which was clearly into madness as well as into the city. For he was basically putting his life on the line for the ephemeral joy of an orgasm. One that would leave him feeling, inevitably, more hollow than before.
Alas, like most who left New York for a period of time with extreme feelings of disgust and “over itness,” he seemed to quickly forget all the reasons why the city repulsed him, instead making the all too common mistake of falsely romanticizing it now that he was removed from the festering boil that it was upon the earth. It took all of about three seconds for him to be reminded of why he had disdained it upon a blast of humid, fetid air greeting him as he made his way onto the sidewalk of Terminal 2 at JFK. While he waited for his Uber, the familiar aura of desperation and despair–intermixed with the vexing indoctrination to constantly “hustle” (hence a gypsy cab trying to lure Mark into its clutches)–penetrated him at full force. Probably more powerfully than any penis ever had.
In truth, Mark had to admit that some part of himself got off on being fucked this way. By the giant dick that was the city (with all the phallic buildings to emphasize the metaphor). He ruminated on this as the driver took him uptown to 113th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, where he had continued to pay a 50+ year old roommate named John to keep Mark’s “space” vacant in the months while he was “waiting it out” in California, which itself had vastly surpassed New York in case numbers. In essence, he was paying John more money than he needed to for a glorified storage unit in the name of trying to convince himself that he wasn’t really going to leave. That this was just “temporary,” the whole “born to be a Californian” thing.
John owned the apartment, making his income off renting the second bedroom. Mark wondered if it would be even more of a challenge for him to find a willing lodger now that the cachet of the city had lost its luster, what with colleges going remote, and jobs still staying out of offices. What was the point of being in the city when you could be anywhere? And for less emotional and financial strain. Even if costs eventually lowered, it would be too little, too late. One supposes that, like John, if you stayed in NY long enough, agreed to sell your soul in its entirety, it had to pay off in more “secure” housing eventually. Mark wasn’t willing to stay the decades that it would take for that.
He was, however, willing to go out in the throes of the pandemic–judgment from his friends be damned for not self-quarantining after getting off the plane. God, it was as if “New Yorkers” (a.k.a. people from the Midwest and South) suddenly had new, even more inexhaustible fuel to fan their holier than thou bullshit.
In any case, he couldn’t be concerned with their opinion about his disregard for the health and safety of others. He needed to have a “dalliance,” and soon. He was starting to think maybe he had forgotten how to even interact in such scenarios. Which is why he opted for a group (all male, naturally) “yoga session,” in which nudity was encouraged so long as one wore their mask. Because surely that would stop the spread even when one’s “juices” were emanating from their body, right? While Mark was expecting to bone eventually, he wanted to do it in his own time. Gingerly, and with ease. But when the room started to empty out in a Noah’s Ark fashion, leaving only him and another “student” in the room, he could feel himself being preyed upon. This isn’t what he wanted, not like this.
But when the muscular yogi approached him offering to give a massage, grinning with the confidence that his looks and “charisma” were enough to warrant an unspoken yes, Mark could scarcely find the words before he was getting one. Followed by a “rub” of an altogether different variety as the yogi gyrated his body against Mark’s back, abruptly inserting himself without warning. Mark imagined this was how women experienced it, too. Made to feel so blindsided by the advance that they simply froze up and let the assault run its course, in a state of shock. He also reckoned that women were probably made to feel as though it was their fault for something like this occurring. Don’t put yourself in those situations if you don’t want something like that to happen, he could hear straight men telling them. The way his own friends would probably react if he rehashed this humiliating tale. When it was over, Mark practically ran out of the room, not bothering with a goodbye to his rapist. He sort of wished he hadn’t bothered with a goodbye to his ultimate rapist, New York, either.
Outside, a homeless person begged him for money. He turned away, only to run smack dab into an irate elderly woman in a wheelchair, shouting upbraidingly at him through her mask. His entire body was screaming, Get out, why did you come back here?! You could have had those things mailed. He knew this now. That it was a horrible error, and that he ought to have allowed the city to stay preserved in his memory “as it was.” But no, he couldn’t leave well enough alone, and all he wanted was to get on the next plane back to San Francisco as soon as possible. He could be back in Burlingame by tomorrow. First, he agreed to meet with one friend for a drink. Or five. His friend appeared to be trying to make “the best” of the blatant loss of the city’s so-called sparkle by calling the dining experience “European” now that it had been taken to the streets. Oh Jesus. What a fucking philistine.
Mark drowned out his friend’s conversation, mainly gossip-mongering about mutual acquaintances, with more alcohol. The city had found a way to rape him in the non-symbolic way, and that was all he could think about. He didn’t see fit to remain any longer to find out how else it would try to. What’s more, despite the fact that everyone was doing their best to convince themselves that this would be a grand opportunity for New York to become “like it was in the 70s and 80s,” it was not going to be that. There would be no verve, no exciting creative energy, not even anyone with the balls to incite mass violence or rejuvenate a mafia crime family. Just a nonstop barrage of resigned decay as everyone pretended that their simulation wasn’t crumbling.
That’s why Mark didn’t feel so terribly guilty after learning, a couple weeks later, that he had caused a new outbreak, having been an asymptomatic carrier that infected both John, the guy who raped him and the friend he met to have an outdoor lunch with–in addition to anyone those three came in contact with. New York fucked me, it was only fair that I should fuck it back, he reasoned, atrophying poolside once again in California. It was then, he realized, the short, impromptu trip had been worth it after all.