I apologized to my mother the next day and told her I'd caught a bad cold filming out in the snow. It was all I could do to keep her from running straight to my place with a bucket of chicken soup. I used the same excuse on Jane for blowing off her Valentine's dinner on Sunday. Meanwhile, I was in bed with Jack and he was blowing me practically around the clock. I was almost ten years older, but he was the one teaching me everything. And I mean everything.
I was vaguely aware that what I was doing with Jack was probably illegal, but I shoved it out of my mind. He seemed so worldly, so experienced. He seemed older than I was in so many ways that I tried not to think too deeply about what I was doing and why I was doing it. I only know that I couldn't stop myself and that I was really enjoying sex for the first time in my life. And it was all because of Jack.
I stayed away from the editing room on Monday and Tuesday. Instead, I took Jack uptown to get him some new jeans, underwear, shoes, and a good pair of warm gloves. And a new watch to replace the one Stan had taken from him. One just like the one I was wearing, which he had admired because it had three different dials on the face. It felt strange walking through Macy's with Jack, picking out things for him. Strange, but great.
Jane kept leaving messages on my answering machine, but I never returned them. Finally, on Wednesday, she tracked me down.
"You've got that kid staying at your place. That's a big mistake." Jane caught me coming out of the little grocery about a block from my apartment. She'd gone to my door and now knew that Jack was there. They'd had words. She was angry with him, but more so with me. "I just don't trust that kid. He's liable to hit you over the head while you're asleep and steal everything you've got!"
I couldn't look Jane in the eye. "I don't think so. He's not violent and I don't have anything worth stealing." I pictured him sitting at my Macintosh, playing with the McDraw program.
"To you it's not worth stealing, but even your crummy little television set would bring a couple of bucks somewhere. That kid's an addict, Aaron! It's like bringing a wild animal into the house and thinking that you are going to make a pet out of it!"
"Really, Jane, it's all right." I avoided her eyes, thinking that she was right, but not wanting to listen. I knew that he would disappear into the bathroom to snort up some of the stuff from Stan's stolen packets, but I pretended it wasn't happening.
"Aaron, you aren't doing anything with this kid, are you? Because, for heaven's sake, he could be diseased! You could be risking your life, do you know that?"
I felt cold all over. "He's not diseased. And don't say that he is." I turned away from her abruptly. "Don't say things about him again."
"Oh, my God!" Jane gaped at me. "You ARE screwing him! I can't believe it! Aaron, are you totally insane? What next? Are you going to bring him home to meet your mother? I know, bring him to Shabbes dinner next week! He can tell some of those charming stories about his 'job.' That'll be a great way to come out to your parents. Because that's what you'll be doing, as if I haven't known it all along! Oh, and have the ambulance waiting for when your father has his coronary. Please, please, please, Aaron! Listen to some reason!"
But I was adamant. "Jane, he's given me my best footage. I have to give him something in return. Some new clothes, a place to crash, a little money... it isn't that much."
Jane held her breath for a moment, as if trying to process it all. "Do you hear what you're saying? That kid's a hustler! He's playing you! You're giving him money, now? You're no longer a filmmaker, Aaron; now you're a john. That's crossing the line in a way I can't even begin to describe. And you say you're doing it for 'footage'? Who's whoring now, Aaron? You? For good footage?"
She kept tugging at her hair nervously, as if she didn't trust her hands. I felt she really wanted to slap me, like you'd slap sense into a person losing consciousness, but she also didn't want to touch me. Instead, she looked at me like I was something that had been contaminated. By Jack.
"Listen, Aaron, I know you've been -- how should I put this? -- questioning certain things lately." She paused, as if not sure how to continue. "I've known something wasn't right between us for a long time, but I didn't know what it was. I'm just a nice Jewish girl from Long Island, but even I can figure some things out if I have enough time. If you're gay, then I'll have to accept that. It's your life. But this isn't the way to do it! You need to work this out in therapy, Aaron! Not by picking up horrible little boys down on the Bowery!"
"Horrible?" I snapped. "Jack isn't horrible! He's beautiful."
Jane took a deep breath. "You're crazy, Aaron. He IS horrible. And he's dirty and... and wrong! He's just wrong! He's a whore who will fuck any guy who's got a ten dollar bill! He's not beautiful! Only in your stupid, warped imagination!"
I wanted to hit her, but instead I walked away. "I can't talk about this. I'll see you in the editing room."
When I got back to the apartment Jack was looking through my bookshelves. He'd pulled out a paperback copy of 'The Fountainhead.'
"Maybe I have something you'll like better. Some science fiction? Ayn Rand is a little hard going..."
"I've already read it. Twice. I was looking for something I haven't read, but this is always good in a pinch." He opened the paperback. "Can you relate to a guy who would rather destroy something he had rather than let somebody else try to change it? I think I can. Maybe it's an Irish thing. We're too stubborn to let go of an idea once we've got it in our heads."
"Do you read a lot?" I felt abashed for treating him like a idiot, which clearly he was not.
"For school and when I have time. Joyce. Tolkien. Salinger. Fitzgerald. The usual AP English curriculum."
"Don't bullshit me, Aaron. I'm in the Honors Stream! Or, I was before I ended up in this predicament." He smiled. "I like that word. Predicament. I'm a real nerd." He pulled out a copy of a Saul Bellow novel and looked through that.
"You know, it isn't too late to go back home and finish school. What are you, a junior? You could finish up the year and hardly know you'd ever missed anything."
"Go home to my parents? Go back to school? I don't think so." He sighed and flopped down on the sofa. When he was frustrated he pushed out his mouth and made a funny kind of frown.
"Well, how about this?" I sat down next to him and put my arms around him. He leaned his head into mine until our foreheads touched and my heart fluttered in a way I couldn't begin to explain. "I could get a place out on Long Island or in Queens. It would be cheaper than this apartment and I could still take the train in to the university. I'll complete the film and apply for some more grants, which was what I was planning to do all along. You could enroll in school and finish up there."
He swallowed. "Yeah, that sounds great. But how do you explain that you have some kid living with you? That I'm your son? You can't get away with that! You'd end up in jail or something. Be realistic, Aar."
He was right, but it was an idea. It was something. I need to figure out how to make this work. My mind was on Jack and only Jack -- first, last, and always.
"Let's take a walk. Get out of this stuffy apartment."
"Are you sure?" He was still wary, thinking Stan was lurking in the shadows every time we walked out the door.
"Yes, then we can have some Thai food for dinner."
"Thai? What's that like?"
"Sort of like spicy Chinese food. It's good."
Jack cocked his head. "Sounds okay to me."
We took the subway up to Times Square and walked around, looking at the lights and theater marquees. Then we walked over to Fifth Avenue and up towards the Park. It was cold, but the sun was out. We stopped at the ice rink at Rockefeller Center and watched the skaters a while.
"Do you skate?" I asked him. I was trying to get a feel for where he was from, for what his life had been life before he came to New York.
"Me? Nope! No padding." He put his hand on his ass. "Looks like it would be something soothing, though. Just going around and around."
We walked further up, past the Cathedral and the Museum of Modern Art. "That's my favorite museum. I'll have to take you in sometimes."
"Modern art? Like the dribble guy? You know the one -- Jackson?"
"You mean Jackson Pollock? Yeah, he's in there. They also have Van Gogh and a bunch of others you'd like."
"What about Warhol? I really like Andy Warhol. The soup cans and Elvis and shit."
"I don't know if they have any of those, but they have Picasso."
We'd turned down a side street on the way to the Thai restaurant when we passed a punky-looking clothing store. "Hey, can we go in here?"
We went in. The salesgirl had a pierced nose and orange hair. The stock was mostly cheap and flashy shirts and pre-ripped tees. An array of leather belts with studs and silver jewelry were draped on headless mannequins. "Cool! I was thinking of getting my ear pierced -- but I'm kind of a coward."
"I have my tongue pierced." The girl stuck it out for us to see.
"I don't think I could do that." He shook his head. He went around, feeling the material of the shirts and rubbing the leather. He had to touch everything. He kept coming back to a bright red shirt made out of some cheap shiny material.
"That's a blend. Feels like silk. Hand-washable." The girl held it out. "Wanna try it on?"
Jack whipped off his jacket and the good shirt I'd bought for him at Macy's to put on the red shiny thing. "Can I get this? Please, Aar? It feels great on my skin." He rubbed it against my cheek to show me.
I couldn't say no. "How much?" I asked the punky girl.
I took out my AmEx card, knowing that my Mastercard would never go through. I needed the next installment on my grant to come soon. And here I was spending the money for my film on Jack. I could hear Jane whining 'I told you so!' deep in my head."
"Wow! Can I wear it right now?"
The girl wrapped up the other shirt and we went off to the restaurant.
The whole time we were eating I kept glancing around, thinking Jane would suddenly appear and start screaming: 'Now you are taking HIM to OUR place?' But what the hell? She didn't own my life, no matter what she and my mother were planning together. And I knew damned well that there was really no turning back from this moment. This was not temporary insanity or a phase. This was me. If I was already thinking seriously about finding 'us' a place to live, then I was farther gone than I'd ever imagined I could be.
"What's the matter? You have this funny look on your face."
"Nothing. Nothing's the matter."
"Oh, I thought you ate something you didn't like. I'll eat it if you don't want it." I let him finish the rest of the food while I brooded.
That night Jack insisted on keeping the red shirt on while we fucked.
I brought the camera and sound equipment back to the apartment. I wanted to set it up and get some quieter, more thoughtful footage of Jack to intercut with the stuff on the street. And I guess, if the truth be told, I just wanted to take pictures of Jack.
"Oh, boy! Let's make some porn!" He was jumping around in his underwear.
"No! This is for the documentary."
"No more interviews, please! I'm all talked out!" He tried to drag the equipment into the bedroom. "Put it on this thingy and turn it on. Don't forget the mike. You want to get all the sounds."
"No! I'm not making a porno film with you! This is my thesis!"
"Well," he huffed. "I bet more people would enjoy it if you made porn. Who wants to see some boring documentary about a bunch of dirty whores?"
He didn't know how closely his argument against my subject matter paralleled my thesis advisor's reservations.
"If you don't want to be in it I could probably get somebody else. You could just film. I mean, if you're embarrassed and shit..."
"No and no! Now sit down and we'll just talk." I set up the camera sat him down at the kitchen table.
"And then do the other?" He had an evil grin on his face.
I shook my head. "We'll see."
That evening I had to call Jane and arrange to meet with her about continuing the editing. Jack made faces the entire time I was talking to her.
"Why do you need her for?" he asked later.
"She's working on my film, you know that. Besides, she's my girlfriend." Which seemed a silly statement to make, seeing as I was in bed with Jack at that very moment.
"News bulletin, Aaron: fags don't have girlfriends. That's what makes them fags."
Jane and I worked steadily for the next week, piecing the film together. She was barely speaking to me, but even she was impressed by some of images we were picking out. Marc stopped by and we ran a bit for him.
"Looks good, if I do say so myself. I thought that color stock would look washed out in that dim light, but it looks damned nice." He was a great cameraman and pleased to see the results of all those freezing days on the Bowery.
A section of Jack came on. He turned directly to the camera and the green of his eyes went straight through me.
"Good-looking kid," Marc said. "Too bad about him. And all the rest of them."
I could feel Jane's eyes burning into me, but I didn't say a word.
That night I woke up and heard Jack moving around in the bathroom. He was sitting on the floor with his head against the toilet.
"I'm a little sick tonight."
"What's wrong? Eat something that didn't agree with you?" I knew he had a delicate stomach that reacted to every emotional upset.
"No. It's nothing." He was shaking like a dog.
"Well, what is it? Tell me."
He put his head against my chest. "I'm out of stuff. The packets. I snorted the last of it and now I'm really fucked." A little tear ran down his face and I wiped it off with my hand.
My heart began pounding. "Can't you just sleep it off?"
"I don't think so. I'm going to be really sick, I think. I tried to make it last, but if you just snort it, it doesn't last as long and you have to do more. Well, it's out now." He opened the little plastic bag he'd had his clothes in. It was filled with empty packets in all those different colors.
"Try to sleep. If you still feel sick in the morning I'll take you to the emergency room."
"No! They'll arrest me! Or they'll take me away somewhere! Don't let them take me away!" He was crying passionately now.
"But Jack, if you're really sick you should go to the hospital."
"I'm not just sick. I'm a junkie, Aaron. I need more dope. That's the only thing that'll stop it."
This was the thing I'd been avoiding above all else. Ignoring what was obvious from the start. Now I couldn't ignore it anymore.
It was almost dawn. I helped Jack back into bed. He was shivering violently now. I made some strong coffee, but he couldn't keep it down. This was no hangover I could cure with some caffeine and aspirin. If I took Jack to the hospital they would surely call Child Services or Welfare or whoever was in charge of runaway kids. And maybe that was the best thing. He'd get treatment and, eventually, be sent home.
Yes, home. To a father who broke his ribs and a mother who apparently looked the other way. So he could take off again the first chance he got and 'go into business' for himself somewhere else?
Or I could sit this out with him for -- how long? He was scaring me, shaking and heaving. I paced the apartment as I watched it get light out. Jack was dozing fitfully in the bed, but when I came into the room he opened his eyes.
"I think I wanna be dead right now." He closed his eyes again.
I got dressed and headed downtown. I found the gang pretty easily. It was the morning commute and they were right in place.
"What are you doing here? Stan's pissed at you!" One of the bigger boys, Lou, came up to me. "He thinks you've got Jack. Do you? Do you have Jack?"
"Now what would I be doing with Jack?"
The little bastard sneered at me. "Stan will rip him in two when he gets hold of him! Just wait."
I went around the corner, looking for the rest of the boys. I saw little Romeo, leaning up against the wall outside the pizza shop. I motioned for him.
"Jack's your friend, isn't he?" The kid nodded. So, he wasn't completely fried. "Do you know where to get some of this stuff?" I took out one of the empty packets I'd slipped into my coat and showed it to him.
"F... from Stan," the boy slurred.
"And where else? Is there another place? Can you show me?"
Romeo thought for a minute, then nodded. We headed down the other way from the pizza shop, towards Alphabet City. Eventually we came to a small area of snow-covered garbage that might once have been a park. A couple of cars were pulled up to an expanse of railing. The store was apparently open for morning business. One of the dealers looked me up and down, suspiciously. Then he looked at Romeo, who he seemed to recognize.
"This your trick? Pretty pitiful, man."
"Just give me some stuff, if you don't mind."
He conferred with his partner, a Puerto Rican guy in a Ramones sweatshirt. The guy said something to Romeo in Spanish and the boy answered back. Then he turned to me: "I don't think you're a cop and I don't think you're a john, but I don't think you're a junkie, either."
"Maybe I need it for my sick aunt."
He sniffed, but he also gave me three packets in exchange for the money. Then I got my ass out of there as fast as I could.
By the time I walked into the apartment, I was ready to throw up myself from tension and sheer adrenaline rush. Jack was still in bed, shaking. He had piled more blankets on top of himself and was grasping the side of the mattress as if it were a tipsy boat that might throw him into the sea.
"Here. This should help." I propped him up against the pillow and took the packets out of my pocket.
His eyes became as big as saucers. "Fuck NO! Aaron! What the fuck did you do!?" He pulled away from me. "What did you do? Where did you go?"
"Alphabet City. I hope I didn't get ripped off," I said, trying to make it a joke. But Jack just stared at me in horror. Then he buried his face in the pillow and wouldn't look at me at all. I left the packets on the bedside table and walked out of the room, closing the door.
About an hour later he came out of the bedroom, looking red-eyed and with his hair sticking up at a ridiculous angle, but otherwise normal. He went into the bathroom and the shower went on. He was in there a long time, as usual. Then he came and sat at the kitchen table next to me.
"You shouldn't have done that. You should have shot me first."
"I would have, but I don't have a gun permit."
"It isn't funny, Aaron. It isn't."
I took his hand. It felt cold. "Feel better now?"
"Maybe, but what happens next time? Are you going to give me all your film money for dope? Or maybe I can start hustling out of your apartment? Maybe I could give you a cut, like I gave Stan."
I grabbed his arm and shook him. "Stop that! I'll get a private doctor. I'll borrow some money from my parents!"
"I'm sure they will be so understanding when you tell them you need cash for treatment for your 16-year-old junkie boyfriend. That will go over so well, Aar! They'll probably call the cops on both of us!"
I stood up. "I have to go in to work now. I want you to go to bed and try to sleep. We'll try to figure this out later. I have an old friend I can call. He's an intern up at a hospital in the Bronx. He may have some idea what to do next. And he won't turn anyone in to the police." I took his chin in my hand. "Trust me. Please." I kissed him, but he turned his head away, fighting back tears. "I love you."
He looked at me fiercely, like a cornered cat. "Don't ever say that! Ever!"
I left and spent a hell of a day in the editing suite with Jane. I couldn't think about anything else but what I was going to do with Jack. I took a break and called the apartment. The answering machine came on, so I hoped he was sleeping. Then I called my intern friend. He promised to come by that night and have a talk with Jack. I started to feel better.
Of course, I was a fool. I should have known that when I came home, he'd be long gone. He left behind all the clothes I'd bought for him. Except the red shirt.
The police would do nothing. They hardly even listened to me. Runaway boys are a dime a dozen in the City and they really gave me the brush-off when I couldn't give them a full name or clarify my relationship with the so-called missing person. My intern friend promised to send word to the various hospitals, shelters, and drug treatment programs around Manhattan and the Boroughs to be on the look-out for Jack, but he didn't offer me a lot of hope.
"You gotta remember that kids like that, they tend to disappear, Aaron. Maybe they go home, maybe they go into 'The System' -- into juvenile care or detention. Or maybe they just move somewhere else until the heat is off." He looked me straight on. "Or maybe you never know what happens to them. Maybe they die and just get swept away with all the other human garbage. I'm not saying it's right, but it happens. I see patients every day that go out into the world and I never know if they live or die. You can't get emotionally involved. You aren't a doctor. What can you do for this kid, really? Forget him."
Of course, I didn't tell my friend that Jack was more than just a film subject I was concerned about. He wouldn't have understood. He probably would have thought I was as insane as Jane claimed. I was beginning to think I was crazy, too.
I kept going down to the strip, looking for the kids. They ran like hell every time they saw me. Finally, I cornered Lou, the boy I assumed was Jack's replacement in Stan's affections, judging by his swagger and sneer.
"Where's Jack? Tell me or I'll take you straight to the cops."
"Let me go! I'll yell for Stan!"
"Yell your fucking head off! Now tell me!"
The boy swallowed. He was scared shitless. "He... he came down here looking for dope. He said he wasn't with you. He said he was in jail."
"Well, he lied. He was with me. Where is he now?" A couple of the other boys approached, warily. "Which one of you will tell me? I'll give you ten bucks if you tell me!"
"Don't say anything!" Lou ordered. "Stan will gut you like a freakin' fish!" The kid tried to wriggle from my grasp.
"I'll break your fucking arm if you don't stop it!" I slammed Lou against the wall.
"Ow! You're hurting me," he whined.
"Good. Now, tell me the truth."
"He's gone," Lou whispered. "Jack's gone."
"Gone? Where? Home?"
"No. Stan said that he... killed him. That he cut him open like a fish, just like he said he'd do. Then he threw him in the river." The other boys nodded and murmured.
I tightened my grip on the punk. "I don't believe you."
The kid was shaking. "It's true. I saw the knife."
I let Lou go. "You tell Stan that I want to see him tomorrow at this same time," I looked at my watch, the one just like the one I'd given Jack. "2:00 p.m. sharp. And I'm bringing Marcantonio Gerasi and a couple of his friends. And if we don't get the answers we want from Stan in person, you boys are all going to be sorry! Very, very sorry!"
I went straight to Marc after that and told him the whole story. Everything.
"Christ, Aaron. I mean, Christ!" He just kept looking at me in disbelief. "Yeah, I'll bring my brother and my cousins and we'll put the scare into those little creeps. I'd like to film the whole thing, too, okay? Good practice for handling riots and things, you know?" He grinned at me, but then the smile died. "But this isn't going to get your... your boy back. You know that, don't you?"
The next day we trudged down to the strip again. The boys were waiting, but Stan was nowhere to be seen. Against my protestations, Jane was there with her sound equipment, backing up Marc and the camera. His brother, a huge Teamster, and the two cousins, equally big members of the Longshoremen's Union, were mainly there to provide cover for any trouble. But they were also prepared to go into the warehouse and tear the place apart to find Jack. In fact, they seemed to be looking forward to it.
Marc began filming as I confronted the kids. I was angry and getting angrier. "One of you better get Stan or you'll all be in stir tonight!" They jeered and hooted like a troop of monkeys.
But a few minutes later Stan came sidling up, Lou tagging at his feet. Stan looked even grubbier than before, his long filthy top coat trailing in the slush. I wanted to strangle him myself, thinking of him putting his hands on Jack.
"Give it to me straight, Stan. I want the real deal here."
"The real deal? Lou told you. Jack's checked out! You can't prove it, but the boys know, don't you, boys? They know what I do with cheaters and thieves. They know what I do to them that does me dirty!" The boys yelled some more, agreeing with their mentor. "He came back here, looking to hook up again. Said you tossed him out when he ran out of dope. Now that wasn't very nice, was it?"
"That's a goddamn lie!"
"So what?" Stan shrugged. "You don't have to believe me. He came back here looking for some junk and that's when we got him. He wasn't very bright after all, was he, Arie-Boy? I got him back in one of the warehouses and pretty much did what I wanted with him. Maybe I invited a few pals to join in. Why not? Them goods was going out on the trash truck anyway, so what the fuck did I care?"
I hated him. Hated his ugly, evil face. I tried not to picture him with Jack. Abusing Jack's pale, thin body. "I think you're a big talker and an even bigger liar! I don't think you have the guts to do it. And I don't think Jack would be dumb enough to fall in with you again, even by accident."
"Oh, yeah?" Stan puffed. "You want proof? Maybe Jack gave me a little present before he checked out. Maybe I didn't want it to get all messed up when I messed him up." He opened his dirty coat and I saw that he was wearing Jack's shiny red shirt. One of the buttons had been ripped off in the center of his chest and there was a dark stain on the collar, but it was unmistakable. "He said you bought him this little old thing. Pretty, ain't it? Too pretty to throw away, so I thought I'd keep it as a reminder of my poor old friend Jack." He laughed and all the boys laughed along with him.
I felt sick and thought I'd fall over, until I felt the hard grip of Marc's brother, holding me up. "Jack! I want Jack!"
"There's nothing you can do, Aaron! It's over. All over!" Jane was at my ear. "He's gone!"
I shook her off me and ran at Stan, grabbing at him. Trying to drag him away with me.
"Hey, there, Arie-Boy!" Stan sneered as Marc's brother and cousin pulled me back. Stan brushed himself off imperiously. "Don't you be messing up my nice new red shirt."