Meet me at 9, the note read, across from my building. Friday morning broke hot and sticky, and Stevie Eisen’s stomach started growling so bad he hit the Boardwalk at Bay 2 early, running hard past Poker Roll, the Parachute Jump, Nathan’s, The Cyclone, Astroland, and all the carousels and rides whose names he never knew. He circled around at West 37th, jogged head on into the white bleached sunlight, and closed with a tough dead on sprint, ending up by the entrance to Goldie’s Luncheonette at 8:30, drenched in sweat.
“Keep your distance,” Eden Cole warned him when she came sauntering out, her midriff bare, her broad nose shiny with sunburn. Bad sign, she was chewing gum like a squirrel: chomp-chomp-chomp. “You are a drippy disgusting mess. You have to always overdo everything?”
“I’m working on my times,” Stevie said, hopping side to side, pumping both fists. Even three feet away he caught the musky tobacco scent Eden gave off from the Parliaments she chain smoked.
“Save your energy,” she told him. “You can run, but you can’t hide.”
“So, you’re all upset still? What’s going on?”
“Very simple,” she said. “You’re going bye-bye. Upstate. So, go. I mean, I had this idea in my head about you but, forget it, there’s certain things a person can’t forgive.”
“I never promised you,” he said. “I promised to think about it. There’s a difference. I have to be true to myself, don’t I?”
She smirked. “Save the sweet talk for my big brother Artie, the one stationed over in Germany.”
‘What? What are you talking about?”
“When Pazzo gets home on leave, I guarantee he’ll come looking for you.”
Even she called him that? Years before Stevie and Eden ever got introduced, before her family had Americanized their name, Crazy Arthur Collazzo was famous for beating kids up at what seemed like random in the schoolyard at P.S. 225 or wherever he caught them, marauding through Brighton on his bike. Rumor had it he got expelled in seventh grade and sent to a 600 school, where two hoods jumped him from behind walking to the bus and he wound up doing the Bristol Stomp on one of their heads, putting him in Coney Island Hospital. What amazed Stevie was that the Army got to Pazzo before jail did.
“Let’s go for a walk.”
Eden gave him the freeze, wouldn’t even hold hands, just shaking her head or nodding, whatever Stevie said. The minute they reached the Boardwalk though, she planted a hand on each hip, and went from pouting to breathing fire, her thick rust-colored hair flying in the wind, wailing so loud about what a stinkin’ lousy bum it turned out Stevie was that even the hard of hearing old folks sunning themselves on benches all looked over and stared.
“Schrei nicht!” screeched a leathery faced grandma wearing a kerchief. She clapped her cheeks, then covered both ears.
Eden didn’t appear to notice. “You said I was your everything,” she screamed. “Your perfect angel. Ha! What a line of b.s. that was.”
“What are you boiling for, it’s just till Thanksgiving,” Stevie said. “I told you, I’ll write every day.”
“Thanksgiving!” Eden spit her wad of gum out, like a tough guy. “That’s a good one. For all you care, we could get bombed by the Russians before then.”
“Listen,” he said, grabbing her elbow, “three days we got left. Let’s not have this same egregious argument here, let’s make the most of the situation.”
“Excuse me!” She pushed his chest two-handed, with force enough so he stumbled back a few steps. “You’re the one with three days, Eisen. You make the most of it. Take a run in the ocean, for all’s I care. Go drown yourself. If you’re going though, go. Stop bothering me.”
“Could you modulate your voice a second and cool it, please? What, does the entire neighborhood need to be in on this? Come on, give us a little smile here. Let’s see those dimples.”
“I’ll smile when I want to,” she said, glaring at her chipped pink nail polish. “Timing is everything, buster, and your time is officially up.”
She turned her back and started swinging her hips towards First Street.
“Come on, Edie,” he called out to her. “Are you serious? You forgot all those things we said the last three months?”
“I don’t forget anything.” She lifted one hand and waved ‘bye over her shoulder, not turning around. “Enjoy yourself in the wilderness up there, flat leaver. Have yourself a ball!”
Yeah, right, Stevie thought, you should’ve saw it coming, you’re not the first schnook this spitfire dropped. And, with that temper of hers, you’re better off anyway, so just forget it. But, how could he? She was too adorable.
“You’re going to get it, you,” she’d breathed in his ear just three days before, soon as the door closed on the musty smelling elevator in her building. She’d balled the front of his tee-shirt up in her fist and pulled him in tight as they began to ascend. “Right between the eyes. Ooh, you’re in deep trouble, Mister Cross Country. When I get through with you, watch out.”
Stevie had only ever made out with two girls in his life before, so when Eden started rubbing her nose on his neck, nibbling, it all seemed crazy. Like a dream. She giggled, whispering how her parents were visiting with relatives overnight in Jersey. That whole day Stevie had been in a mood about his bum knee killing him after going all out at the Metropolitan Invitational up at Van Cortlandt Park, wondering if he’d somehow gotten jinxed, and it might jeopardize his scholarship. In fact, him and Eden had had one tiff after another, and she’d been sulking, so there was no real build up. Coming back from a carnival on Emmons Avenue, she’d snapped, All right, follow me, and they’d arrived at her street in icy silence, both on edge, before getting all entangled, French kissing on the creaky ride upstairs.
What are we doing here? Stevie panicked once the elevator door slid open, they broke their clinch and spilled out into the sixth floor hallway. You could never tell which Eden you were going to get, but something wasn’t normal, that much he knew, as she changed from hyper to slow motion again in the blink of an eye. Her oozing, silky tone of voice as she looked over her shoulder and said, “Doin’ okay? Puppy?” froze him with fear. The rising of her smoky breath, the way she purred, “Hmm?”
Gripping Stevie’s hand, Eden led him down a shadowy corridor that reeked of boiled cabbage, potatoes and onions, then made a left to the Cole’s apartment. Once the door flew open, she pulled him through the foyer onto a plastic covered living room couch, his insides going ba-boom! Clothing got tossed all over, off came almost everything, and Stevie stood hunched above her, flat-footed, his hands clawing up. She smeared Noxzema on and looked up at him, her eyes wide, like he had a clue what to do next, after which everything turned blurry except for those broad shoulders of hers, freckled and fleshy, and when he buried his face deep enough in them, she began pulling his hair, shrieking, Stevie! StevIE! STEVIE! Unable to slow himself down, he kept slipping out, and ended up covering Eden’s mouth on account of how scared shit he got that any second Artie the psycho would come busting through the door. A dog started howling in another apartment; Eden bit his hand and almost broke the skin.
“Ow! Are you okay?” he whispered. “Shouldn’t we___” but now she clamped a hand over his mouth, her ring hit his tooth, she gasped Shut up!, broke into hysterical eerie laughter and clutched his back, pressing him deeper into her, bucking like a horse in a Western.
With half his brain picturing the big trouble they might soon be in, and the other half delirious, holding on for dear life, he kicked a standing lamp over, blew his cool completely and then, Oh, my God, he yelled, Holy smokes, right before she quieted down, thrust him off, came to a dead halt, and curled up, facing the back of the couch. Wow, he said. Wowie. A door slammed and the neighbor’s dog threw a shit fit.
“Why didn’t you pull out?” Eden whispered, and he didn’t know what to say. “What is wrong with you?”
Leaning over, Stevie circled his arms around her, inhaled her scent and searched the gathering darkness. Dusk had fallen. She felt rigid and lifeless. Stiff. Holding her breath. He brushed his lips on her back. No reaction. When he picked his pants up they dropped from his fingers. He marveled at how she’d kept her sneakers on. Wow, he repeated, unable to form a logical thought. Both of them were a gooey mess. He tore away, went to soap up and, averting his gaze from the mirror, not wanting to look, he asked himself, Is this how it is? Wiping up the puddles he’d made on the tile floor, he came back and set the lamp upright, handed Eden a fresh towel, and told her he loved her.
“Don’t say that,” she murmured, eyes shut, the back of her hand pressing her forehead. “Cause you obviously don’t.”
Was she crying? She lit another cigarette.
He hovered, watching her chest rise and fall, the smoke billowing, then when she reached for an ashtray he slipped his pants on, leaned over again and swore he did love her, really, disgusted at how whimpery the words sounded, but he had to get rolling.
She clasped a hand around his neck and squeezed. “No,” she insisted, through clenched teeth. “No way.”
When he told her, I have to, she started kicking her feet rapid fire, and no matter how Stevie pleaded, she wouldn’t stop ranting, thrashing her head side to side, so he just waited, sick to his stomach all of a sudden with embarrassment and fright. Drained. Are you okay? he asked. What’s wrong? What is it? All of a sudden she seemed to go limp. When he looked around he could not find a single picture hanging on the walls other than a large gilt-framed sepia wedding photograph, Mr. Cole in an old fashioned double breasted suit sporting a handlebar mustache and, next to it, a smiling JFK from the cover of Life Magazine. No art. Paint was chipping away in spots near the ceiling, he noticed the portable TV had tin foil on its antenna, and there wasn’t a book case in the room. Kneeling, he kissed Eden’s shoulder top and took her glistening wet face in his hands. You’re so beautiful, he whispered, brushing the smoke away.
No, I’m not, she insisted, sniffing, her lips all twisted, her eyes teary and red.
When she rubbed the back of her hand over her nose and took another puff, Stevie sprung to his feet, saying Bye, Eden, bye gorgeous.
You, she said, her voice strangled, could go to hell.
He took the steps down six stories and limped nine blocks home through a fog so ominous that it brought to mind a Hitchcock movie he’d seen on TV, Gaslight. How’d this happen? he asked himself. Did we just do it? There was no turning back now, he knew, the die had been cast. Crossing onto his block in a state of shock, he waved to a neighbor walking his dog, a postal worker who held his gaze a second too long, like he knew something, the guy gave him a thumbs up, and Stevie wondered, Is that much blood normal? What does it mean? Then, he had a pang of cold terror, a premonition that his little angel eyes was going to die.
She was the wrong religion. Or maybe he was. The joke they shared being, neither one of them believed much in God, they believed in each other. At least in theory. She sees things in me, Stevie thought, I never saw in myself, things nobody else does.
Now, though, she refused to see him at all, she wouldn’t answer his questions. What happened happened, she told him the next day, then said it had all been a big fat mistake, that she knew now he’d been leading her on all along. He talked her into meeting in front of Goldie’s, but once he said, Yes, I’m definitely leaving, I have to, that was it, she said, Okay, forget it. They hurried to the Boardwalk, argued and she left him there, in a daze. Three mornings later he got shipped upstate in the rain on a bouncy green and white inter-city bus, with a bunch of other nameless featureless nobodies, his Dad’s army duffel bag and the three twenty dollar bills the old man had stuffed in his pocket, in case of emergency. A couple of loud Joe College type jocks sitting to his right yakked it up for hours, while he kept reliving the proverbial week that was, the week life got complicated.
A terrific wind kept whipping through Eden’s hair on the corner, under the train tracks, he released her hand, turned to check for oncoming traffic and Poof, she vanished. Glancing up, he saw her floating skyward, she trailed a string beneath her just out of Stevie’s reach. He stood there helpless, frozen in place. Although he’d always slept like a horse, now he started waking with the sweats every few hours, clutching the pillow, gulping air and trying to figure out what had hit him. Recurrent dreams within dreams throughout the night, where she kept demanding everything she wanted, he just couldn’t do it. Nightmare City.
So, the bus driver swung around, winked and announced, “If you want the truth, boys, you’re in the wrong place.” He had rotted shiny brown teeth. When he cackled, Stevie opened his eyes. Upstate, lost, staring at cracks in the ceiling.
All the doors remained locked, the boys stood milling around, like they’d been told, hurry up and wait, straggling down hallways in the early morning chill and stamping their feet to keep warm. When Coach Regan finally arrived carrying a clipboard, he called the roll, handed out ski hats, and they took a hard run up some rocky granite hills behind campus, must’ve been about two miles, with Stevie hanging in the middle of the pack, holding his own till the final kick, and then they all lay on the grass sucking oranges, spitting seeds out, the guys he’d be battling for a place on the varsity, singing some ancient team song Regan taught them in this sweet smelling meadow, chanting the same words over and over till the skies changed from a bright violet honeyed color to dark gray and the downpour started.
Two Edens there were, one tame, and one with sharp teeth, the problem being Stevie couldn’t tell them apart. What if, was on his lips, waking up. What if what?
You’ve got a nerve! she told him, the night he finally got through by phone.
Give me a break. You seriously won’t make up? Just cause I left for college, to better myself?
Oh, it’s so totally not cause of that. She laughed. That is so ignorant, it’s funny. If that’s what you think, I feel sorry for you.
But, why then?
I have my own private reasons.
Excuse me, what does private mean?
That’s not fair. Hold on while I put another quarter in the phone.
Fair? Really? She groaned. You know what, you are repulsive. You could’ve gone to Brooklyn. Like you promised.
Thanks. All I promised was I’d think it over.
Oh, you give me a migraine, I swear.
Did I give you one two weeks ago? What do I give you a headache from?
Oh God, it’s everything, okay? That disgusting ratty beret, telling me I have to smile all the time, those fancy words you always try to show off with: egregious, dilettante, eclectic, enigma, erudite! Who talks like this? What normal type individual?
Think it’s a coincidence, he asked, they all start with “e,” or have one or more “e’s” in them? Eden?
Aren’t you smart, she said, Steven. Good luck snowing the hicks there upstate. Save your conceited SAT-word vocabulary for them, because I’m tired of it! And, don’t call me anymore. At least for a while, okay?
He fished in his pocket, but was all out of quarters.
Fine, he said into the phone, after she hung up. See you around, sweetheart.
He re-twisted the knee pushing the pace on a downhill just the fourth time out, after jumping into the lead for half a mile, so the result was that Regan assigned him to cleaning the gym on Sundays until further notice. Between that and not sleeping, he had plenty of time to stew. He thought of Dad’s parting words: Give it everything you got, son. Go get ‘em! Mostly though he thought of the sendoff from Eden, and he prayed incessantly they would get away with what they’d done. Also that she would somehow keep his ID bracelet around her wrist, at least till Thanksgiving.
Stevie and this twitchy kid Pearlman, the one he’d heard some guys on the team calling The Rabbi, kept busy scrubbing the underground exercise rooms in the Athletic Center. Inch by excruciating inch. Their “work study” instructions required filling forms out. They tried to look serious about making the gym sparkle when the team manager checked up on them. Stevie’s eyes burned from the ammonia.
“What’s your problem?” he asked Pearlman.
“Messed up ankle.”
They worked mainly in silence, hunched down or stretching overhead.
A bald, pot-bellied custodian with a jangly key chain, suspenders, and unlit cigar finally came to inspect their work, he chuckled, made some crack Stevie didn’t get about coolie labor, he signed them out, then they stumbled back to the residence hall, and Stevie collapsed into bed, too exhausted to study, too down to ask anyone, How was your Sunday?
Instead, he wrote Eden another letter:
These bozos on my floor crack me up, how they drench themselves in their own self-aggrandizement. Bunch of private school prima donna hotshots growing their sideburns out, like that makes them cool, driving home on the weekend, tooling around the hills with their white bread female counterparts. Then there’s the declared Geology major down the hall who can’t hold his own in a fact-based discussion, who doesn’t know what beats what, a straight or two pair, but does he know how to dunk! This whole atmosphere, it’s some shock to the system. Not one of these kickers in the jock dorm here know what real pizza is, much less a bagel. On top of which this silent treatment from you, it’s been murder. I miss you. Did you get my other letters?
Approaching his mail slot every afternoon his heart leapt, but there was never anything from Eden. And Denise, her girlfriend whose party they got introduced at, the one with the perpetual scowl, she wouldn’t answer the letter he sent her either.
What could he do though, except keep writing and crossing his fingers?
Just so you know, you’re not alone: the JV Coach, Mr. Regan, is way pissed at me, too. One measly race, I come in sixth, now it’s the Achilles, plus my knee’s swollen up still. Trying to rush back too fast, doing 70 miles this week.
“It’s a pain tolerance issue, plain and simple,” Coach Regan had said. “Mind over matter. They warned me you Brooklyn boys were soft, that it’s a scholarship down the drain, but I stood up for you, I said, Look at the kid’s times. Now, you’re making me look bad.”
“Sorry,” Stevie said.
“You’re sorry? Is that right? Let me ask you something, Eisen,” the Coach shouted, “do you have PMA?”
“I don’t know,” Stevie said. He looked at his sneakers. “I don’t think so.”
“You don’t know what?” Regan said.
Steve stared at the vein bulging on the Coach’s neck.
“You don’t know, Coach!” Regan shouted again.
“I don’t know, Coach.”
“You have the slightest idea what I’m talking about?”
“No, sir. I mean, what is it, Coach?”
“What is it? Look it up!” he said, and he stormed off.
Stevie finished Civilization And Its Discontents, but failed to get the intricacies of Freud’s argument, and it just left him even more despondent. His prof, Doc Winslow, decimated each page of the paper he wrote with an abstract pattern of cross outs, arrows, capital letters, and “wrong word” scribbled all over, followed by multiple exclamation points. DID YOU EVEN READ THE BOOK?? he added, in conclusion. Welcome to college. The grade: a straight D.
Towards the end of the next JV team meeting Coach Regan asked Stevie to stand up.
“Did you look up PMA, Eisen? Did you figure out yet if you’ve got it?”
“I think I do, Coach,” Stevie told him.
“You think?” Regan said. “You think you do? That’s not Positive Mental Attitude. Not even close. You want a couple of shining examples, just look on either side of you. Ewalt and Hubbard, these two got it. Now, drop down, Eisen, and give me twenty.”
He vowed to stop writing letters, he smashed the frame and ripped the picture of Eden winking at him outside the gates of Steeplechase Park in her flimsy off-the-shoulder moo-moo to shreds.
Then, weeks later, Stevie’s letters all came back unopened, tied together in twine, with Return To Sender in her curlicue scrawl. They were delivered though, guaranteed, the postmarks gave it away.
Bet she’s back on with that zit-faced lowlife, Jeffrey Kopell, Stevie thought. That punk! I’ll bet anything, him or one of the other Luna Park Boys.
Stevie’s father called one night to ask what if anything he needed, and how he was getting along.
“Okay,” Stevie told him. “But the schoolwork here is no joke compared to Lincoln.”
“Sure, it’s no joke, it’s college,” his father said, laughing. “You have to give it your all, buddy. And how’s your leg?”
“Day to day,” he said. “Trying to keep a positive mental attitude, but it’s kind of disheartening.”
“Atta boy, keep your chin up,” his Dad said, “we’ll see you Thanksgiving.”
“Dad,” Stevie said, “wait. You miss me?”
“Don’t be silly, of course, I do. What do you think?”
He went to the dorm Residential Advisor, Chip Gates, to talk about his problems adjusting.
“Keep rolling with the punches,” The Chipster told him, “lighten up and have a few laughs. Don’t sweat it, Steve-o, try and not worry, every freshman’s homesick. Even I was. Just hang loose, bro.”
He attended a mixer and approached a skinny girl with cute dimples, a pixie haircut and upturned nose who informed him she’d changed her name from Rochelle, which she absolutely hated, to Robin, when she was ten.
“You look kind of familiar,” she told him, “are you by any chance from Great Neck?”
“We’ve never had the pleasure,” Stevie said, “not to my knowledge. I’m from New York City. You look familiar too, though. In a way.”
He told her that Intro to Psych was so superficial, a total waste really, he mentioned something about lab rats.
Gross, she said.
He put up a front about his Track and Cross Country exploits while the band launched into Double Shot of My Baby’s Love.
“I’d ask you to dance, really,” he said, “but I don’t want to step on your penny loafers.”
They took a walk around the quad, she skipped ahead, she wrote down her number, and then heading back to the bus, he threw it away.
“Good-bye,” he said out loud, “forever. Rochelle.”
The power went off about 3 in the morning, alarms started blaring and the one night he was dead to the world they made everyone in Stevie’s dorm file downstairs in the midst of another doozy in which Eden had been laid out on a beach towel, whispering instructions, but they were in like Chinese, and she looked in no mood to explain.
Stevie underwent x-rays, icing, heat treatments, observation, physical therapy, whirlpool baths and still his condition didn’t improve.
He had forebodings of disaster, flunking out, and then every once in a while his spirits rose on a wave of unaccountable hope. Winter was closing in but he couldn’t stop reliving the summer. He dug himself in at the library, mostly to research water on the knee. Also, the odds of Eden being in trouble. He leafed through Napoleon Hill’s Think And Grow Rich, then looked at pictures in Vogue, but none of the models had shoulders near as good as hers. He went to the stacks and stuck a yellow index card in the pages of an old art book, an apologetic confession he wrote titled Leaving Eden Behind, wondering if a bona fide Doctor would ever show up at the infirmary and get him healed, like the student handbook promised, instead of him having to see that fuzzy faced pseudo-therapist hack who seemed unqualified to know what was wrong or how to fix it.
Camped by the frosty rattling third floor window on his 18th birthday, trying to interpret William Butler Yeats, the world below started revolving like a carousel, out of control, picking up speed. Madness, he thought, is watching yourself from a distance riding the carousel, but you’re not sure it’s moving and then, in the blink of an eye, you know you’re alone and you never get dizzy, your vision just blurs.
Mine doesn’t, he thought. Not fully. I inhabit some sleepless border between confusion and clarity. The next door I push open, is it one in a million, or are the odds even worse?
An anonymous Hallmark card came the next day with no message, just a picture of a smiling brown puppy and the words Happy Birthday! Postmarked: Brooklyn, NY.
Stevie went to Hickey’s Tap right from the Athletic Center the next Sunday in the late afternoon, and sat down next to a sophomore from his floor named Chaz.
“You ever get pulled off a stool from behind,” Chaz asked him, sagging forward, counting his change on the bar top, “and your head hits the floor? Just curious.”
“Back home,” Stevie told him. “I believe the floor cracked.” He shot another Jack Daniels, then turned back to cheering the Jets.
“Who’s winning?” Chaz asked the bartender, looking up.
“Oakland,” the bartender said, “but don’t worry, kid, there’s plenty of time.”
Stevie had never mentioned Eden to anyone at college, but he began to tell Chaz about her.
“She called you her puppy?” Chaz asked, pointing his finger. “This chick’s got you on a string. Trying to fake your ass out.”
Stevie gave his shoulder a shove. “You heard only half the story.”
“I know the score,” he said, shoving Stevie back, “I know all about it. Chicks like that bite the bird.”
“Boys,” the bartender said. “Keep it clean.”
“Go ahead, chump, let’s hear the rest of this sob story,” Chaz said. “The one about Steverino and his loose little tramp.”
“I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction,” Stevie said, getting up. “And don’t use that word around me. If you know what’s good for you.”
“Look at this,” Chaz said, pointing to an incomplete pass on the screen. “Bet you anything it’s fixed.”
“You know,” Stevie said, “a mouthy punk like you wouldn’t survive a day in Brooklyn. I’d put myself in your shoes, Charlsie-boy, but your feet are too small.”
His final letter, composed later that night:
Thanks for your birthday wishes.
My chances, I realize, are zero point zero. So, why even bother? I hope you do, with my heart and soul, but you’ll probably never even open this and read it. I’m trying to maintain a Positive Mental Attitude, but for all I know, we might not ever see each other again in life.
Wasn’t it just two months ago you used to curl the hairs on my chest? They say every wound heals, but I wonder.
Meanwhile, all I can do is pretend like I don’t remember.
Pining away over his lost love disgusted Stevie, there was nothing positive about it, zero, but then Thanksgiving break came and word got to him that Eden’s psycho brother Artie had gotten a dishonorable discharge from the service and that he was back prowling around Brighton, on the warpath.