The day after we saw The Book of Mormon, Emily and I packed a bunch of beach stuff and headed to Central Station. My insides were jittery and fragile, bouncing around, wondering what had happened to the prednisone they’d come to know and love. I headed to the bathroom for a preemptive shit, hoping to avoid an embarrassing situation on the train, but the restroom reeked like raw sewage. Flies buzzed everywhere. My stomach twisted into half a knot. I tried breathing through my mouth, but the air was thick with shit fog. You could almost taste it. I headed back outside, trying not to vomit, my bowels unemptied. My stomach rumbled, angry and unsettled. Something inside had worn off. I decided to take 5MG of prednisone, just enough to avoid an incident on the beach. It would be OK. Tomorrow, I’d go back to the steroid-free life. I felt the pill move icy through my veins. The junkie had found his fix.
The train ride to Montauk was peaceful and scenic. Emily read a comic book and I wrote part of a chapter on my Kindle. It was a dreamy, quiet affair, golden light streaming in through sleepy windows. Then we hit Jersey. I heard them before I saw them, a crowd of people, their voices raised to a dull roar.
“Shit,” I heard someone behind me say, “here they come.”
The train pulled to a stop. I looked out the window. Outside stood hundreds of tan, boisterous 20-somethings in neon beach attire, waiting to get on the train. The women all had fake breasts and the men were covered in muscles. Everyone had golden cans of beer in their hands.
The heaving throng pressed onto the train, filling every seat, then spilling into the aisles. There was nowhere left to sit. There was nowhere left to stand, human sardines packed ass-to-crotch. I was glad I’d taken prednisone, happy I wouldn’t have to push my way through the crowd in search of a bathroom.
We pulled away from the station, the romantic solitude of a train ride through the country shattered by drunken slobs, their voices as loud as their clothing. In the cars in front and behind us, fights broke out between groups of cackling girls. You could hear the screech of their battle cries as they clawed one another with acrylic nails.
“This is unbelievable,” I whispered to Emily.
“Right? Who are they?”
“I don’t know,” I looked around. “I knew people like this existed, but I never thought there were so many. Are they going to Montauk?”
“I hope not.”
After almost an hour, the train pulled into another stop and the guidos with their cackling girlfriends exited the train. It wasn’t Montauk. They had come to destroy a different beach. The world returned to its quiet, sleepy pace, the train trundled slowly on.
• • •
The infinite tangle of spaghetti that is New York’s rail system ends abruptly in Montauk, the tracks snipped clean as if by a surgeon’s hand. I stared at the rubber bumpers and overgrown grass, wondering what strange circumstance had extended the circulatory system of New York to this small community. Beauty, no doubt, was the culprit, a desperate desire to own that greatest of truths, to share tranquility with a town unmarred by skyscrapers and sweat-soaked concrete.
Emily and I exited the train and wrangled a cab. The driver was a skinny, middle aged woman with a wiry frame and large sunglasses. Her vehicle was a van with a vinyl sticker on one side. On the way to the beach, a proper yellow cab with checkered stripes and digital meters cut her off. “Stupid moonlighters,” she said, slamming on her brakes. “They drive in from New York and steal our fares. It’s illegal, but they do it any way.” The same tributaries that brought tourists to feed her town with economic meat, also transmitted parasites. New York was a rough place and only the strong survived. Everyone scrambled for an angle, no one was safe. Even sleepy areas like Montauk had been cannibalized.
The driver pulled up near the beach and handed Emily a business card, “Call this number when you’re ready to head back and someone will pick you up.”
“Thanks,” we paid her and climbed out of the cab. The sun was bright and the air was fresh. Happy families wandered too and fro, carrying brightly colored towels and umbrellas.
“I’m hungry,” I said. The prednisone had calmed my shaky guts. We headed to a sandwich shop that doubled as the world’s smallest grocery store. Inside was a counter. In front of the counter, a mass of tourists milled about. Behind the counter stood a young girl with an angry face. I waited around, trying to figure out where the line started. “Is this the line?” I turned to a patron. The lady didn’t hear me, so I asked again. She didn’t respond. I realized she was ignoring me. “Seriously?” I asked. “You’re ignoring me?” She wouldn’t even look in my direction. I stood there awkwardly, wondering if she was foreign, wondering what I had done to offend.
People ordered sandwiches, soups and smoothies from the girl behind the counter. The procedure seemed random. Slowly, I got the sense that there was no line. You waited for an opening and shoved your way through. I gathered my courage and approached the cashier, “Is this,” I pointed at the ground in front of my feet, “Is there a line?”
Her face was both angry and bored, “You need something?”
“Um, soup. I’d like some soup. And a berry smoothie.”
We stood there, staring at each other, the silence growing more uncomfortable with each passing second. Her eyebrows raised, “Anything else?”
“No,” I said, hiding my confusion behind a grinning mask, “just the soup.”
It was an outrageous price, but I didn’t want to show weakness. I wanted her to think I was wealthy. I paid and wandered back through the unorganized rabble, wondering why everyone seemed so angry. The cashier continued taking orders. She wasn’t horrible to everyone, just the tourists. Locals got a pass.
“Squash soup and a berry smoothie!” she barked when my order was ready.
Once again I pushed my way through the crowd, “Do you have any Tabasco?” I asked as I took the bag of food.
She made another unpleasant face,”What?”
“Tabasco,” I held my hands in a vague bottle shape, as if this might clear things up, “or Cholula. Cholula is fine.”
The girl yelled into the kitchen, “Tammy!”
“What?” barked an angry voice from behind a wall.
“Get out here!”
A skinny woman with frizzy hair emerged from a doorway, “Yeah?”
The surly cashier pointed at me. Everyone in the crowd stared at me, “Tabasco,” I repeated sheepishly, again holding an invisible bottle in my hands, “or Cholula.”
“Cho-what-what?” the older woman with frizzy hair looked at me as if I were an imbecile.
“Hot sauce,” I invoked the generic name. “Do you have any hot sauce?” In Colorado, people put hot sauce on everything. Bottles of the spicy condiment were as ubiquitous as salt and pepper. Apparently, this was not the case in Montauk.
“Hot sauce?” the lady repeated, “yeah, we got some of that.” She disappeared into the kitchen. The cashier continued to harass customers. Eventually, the frizzy-haired cook returned with a tiny, lidded plastic cup. Inside was something red.
I took the cup and exited the store. Emily was sitting outside, finishing the sandwich she’d purchased from the shop next door, “What took so long?” she asked.
“These people don’t know what hot sauce is,” I sat down at her table, “and they haven’t invented lines yet. Plus, they’re assholes.”
“Jersey,” Emily shrugged, as if that were explanation enough.
I cracked the lid on the container of hot sauce. Inside was a thick, viscous substance. I tasted it with one finger, “Ketchup,” I said, a little confused. “She gave me spicy ketchup.”
Montauk was a beautiful place filled with uncomfortable people. They weren’t rude so much as unpolite. They didn’t pretend to care that you were from out of town and could give a shit about your dog or family. The attitude was off-putting, but also genuine. I admired the authenticity. It made my own pandering feel false and uncomfortable.
When we were done eating, Emily and I hit the beach. White sand stretched as far as the eye could see and the water was warm and blue. Thousands of people frolicked along the shore line. Screeching kids ran too and fro. Sunburnt parents sat beneath umbrellas, sipping cocktails.
“This is nothing like the movie,” I said. “In the movie the place is deserted.”
“In the movie, it’s the middle of February,” laughed Emily.
“I don’t know why Kyra told me to come out here. Maybe she’s remembering it wrong, like when you watch your favorite childhood movie as an adult and realize it actually sucks.”
I met Kyra on the stoop of my apartment a few days before my flight to New York. She was this punk chick with perfect breasts and a well-trained dog. Robbie and I pulled up to my apartment on our bikes with backpacks full of groceries. Kyra was sitting there, talking to Ed the bum. She had a dog on a leash, the three were enjoying twilight’s happy fall. Ed was notorious for cornering strangers and talking their ears off. I decided to save her.
“Hi!” I said, prednisone crackling through my brain. “Did you just move in?” Robbie stood back, aware that his German propriety was about to be violated.
“Nah,” said Kyra, “just passing through,” she petted the head of her dog reflexively.
“What’s that accent?” I asked.
“Cool,” I sat down on the steps next to her, “I’m heading to New York in a few days.”
“Wicked,” she nodded, “what’re you doing out there?”
“I’m going to see The Book of Mormon.”
“No. It’s a musical by the South Park guys. When do you go back to Jersey?”
“Never. I’m moving to Austin. Me and my friend are on a road trip. We checked out the West Coast and now we’re heading to Austin.” In those days, all the cool kids were moving to Austin. It was a hotspot for music and art. “How long will you be in New York?”
“Five days,” I petted the head of her dog. He seemed unimpressed, but allowed me to scratch his ears anyway. “What should I check out while I’m there?”
“City or country?”
“Montauk,” she said without missing a beat. “You gotta check out Montauk.”
“Montauk,” I had heard the word before. In one of my favorite movies, the main character visited Montauk. It was this desolate beach where the train tracks ended. It seemed like a magical place, “It’s worth the trip, eh?”
“For sure,” Kyra nodded her head. “I used to go there all the time as a kid. It’s one of the best places ever.”
We spent the next few days hanging out, touring Denver and talking. Now I was in Montauk, but it was nothing like I’d imagined.
“I like it here,” Emily rolled over onto one side.
“I’m not saying it’s terrible, but I’m pretty sure I’d be just as happy laying on any other beach.”
I texted Kyra to let her know how amazing I thought Montauk was and that it was definitely the right choice to visit. I wondered what the rude cashier would have done in a similar circumstance. Would she have lied, like I did, or told the truth? I liked to think that she would have told the truth. In my fantasy her honesty was beyond reproach, she said what she felt and let the chips fall where they may. The vision made me feel like a liar, like I needed to be more truthful in order to live up to the bar set by a cashier whose name I didn’t know.
Beneath a nearby umbrella, a group of thirteen-somethings had set up camp. I watched the mixed group of girls and boys, remembering my own awakening to the world of sex. The boys were loud and playful, splashing around in the surf, yelling at the top of their lungs. The girls were reserved and giggly, sticking close to one another and flirting with the boys as best they could. It was strange to watch the ritual play out, to see the beginning of a dance that would last the rest of their lives. Everything was new and beautiful, every gesture laden with uncertainty. It seemed so exciting.
I headed out into the water, letting the gentle swells lift me up and down, feeling the ancient mother’s cool embrace. Billions of organisms surrounded me, inhabiting every inch of every wave. Each microbe fought, hoped, loved and fucked in the manner of its own, alien kind— living and dying without so much as a tombstone to mark their passage. I was grateful for their struggle, aware that their life made my life possible. Was my existence similarly meaningful? Was the universe in which I drifted a drop in some unimaginable ocean? Did I play an infinitesimal part in the vacation of a greater being?
The love-sick teenagers leapt into the water, splashing and cheering, disrupting microscopic ecosystems with each gesture. I floated beside them, asking questions without answers.
Eventually, it was time to return to New York. We called the cab driver and climbed back into her van. She took us to the station where we boarded the near-empty train car, “That was fun,” said Emily.
“Yeah,” I nodded, “I just wish everyone wasn’t so rude.”
“At least we can say we did it,” laughed Emily.
“There’s always that.”
The train wound its way back towards the city. The seats in front of us were occupied by a fascinating group of attractive people. They were middle aged, well-dressed and refined in a way that was hard to place. The women poured champagne into delicate glassware. The men produced delectable chocolates, fruits and cheeses from ergonomic Tupperware containers. They all came equipped with a full array of high-end electronics, tapping and typing important messages while snacking on the finer things. Time passed. I watched them, slowly gathering details of their lives. The two men were news anchors for CNN. They were famous and accomplished. The women were also media moguls, but worked from behind the scenes. I wanted to touch their world, to trade places with the creatures behind their eyes.
The train slowed as we clacked into another station. In the distance I heard a familiar murmmer. The murmmer grew into a roar— Jersey kids, sunburnt, drunk and ready to go home.
The train stopped. The doors opened. The roar exploded into cacophony. I looked out the window at a menagerie of fake tits and golden tans. Everyone was sloppy drunk and, stranger still, covered in yellow, smiley face stickers. As the herd stampeded onto the train, the stickers fell off and peeled off, dotting the landscape with vibrant, vacant smiles. Where had the stickers come from? What did they mean? The seats filled, the aisle filled, the temperature rose. Everyone was yelling. Everyone was joyous. I leaned back in my chair, amazed that such a civilization could exist, that it had not already been consumed by holy fire.
The train pulled away from the station, its denizens lurching, maintaining tenuous balance under the effects of acceleration. In the car in front of us, I heard the retching sounds of a stomach emptying on the floor. In the aisle next to Emily and I, two impressive guidos had taken up residence. One was short, blond and had somehow managed to squeeze his rippling neck through the collar of a U.S. Marines t-shirt. His girlfriend was rail thin with bleached hair, a pug nose and collagen lips. The blond gorilla kept sticking his tongue down her throat, groping mounds of tan flesh with sticker-covered hands. Behind the hulk stood his bigger, impossibly handsome friend. The man’s hair was liquid black and spiked at rigid angles. His girlfriend was beautiful, with undulating curves stuffed into all the right places. He kept grabbing her tits and pushing his crotch against her butt. The two couples stood in the aisle, brushing against Emily, kissing and belching, laughing at their own jokes.
After a few minutes, the drunken hulk in the Marines t-shirt noticed the fancy CNN couples sitting in seats on either side of the aisle. His mighty brain surveyed the scene, processing the champagne, fancy cheeses, and high end electronics. “Fucking yuppies,” he muttered to himself. Their wealth threatened him, he was small because they were great. “Watch this,” he slurred into the hair of his girlfriend, switching places with her so that he could stand next to his victims. With his ass at face level, he unleashed a series of mighty farts. It took a few seconds, but the surrounding area filled with swampy musk. The CNN anchors took the brunt of his fecal attack, but even Emily and I had to breathe through our mouths.
“Gross,” exclaimed his pug-nosed girlfriend, slapping him in the back with an anorexic hand.
He turned and wrapped her up in thick arms, planting sloppy kisses on her swollen mouth. His gigantic buddy laughed drunkenly.
I turned away from the scene, my face stoic, my arms trembling.
“Are you OK?” Emily put her hand on my frail, limbs. I was 35 lbs under weight, shivering with rage. I didn’t stand a chance.
“I’m fine,” adrenaline pulsed. “It’s the prednisone. I took some back at Central Station. It makes me pretty emotional.”
“I thought you were done with that stuff.”
“I didn’t want to shit myself on the train. Good thing, too, can you imagine pushing your way through all of this just to use the bathroom?” I gestured at the rest of the train. Everywhere madness laughed, a writhing sea of testosterone and booze tessellating out in both directions.
After 20 minutes, the novelty of standing on a train began to fade. The blond hulk decided to up the ante. He bent his girlfriend over, grabbed her wrists and began bouncing her ass off his crotch with rhythmic thrusts. The girlfriend, with her bloated lips and bleached hair, thought this was hilarious. She began laughing, but the laughter caught in her upturned nose, distorting her giggles with intermittent snorts. Rage flared in my eyes, Emily put her hand on my shoulder, moving her body between me and the outrageous scene. I turned away, staring out the window, trying to remain calm, but my arms wouldn’t stop shaking. My tiny fists clenched. I tried to focus on the scenic country side, bathed in deepening twilight, but in the reflection of the window I could see the reversed image of the Marine and his friend going to town on their respective women. The piggish snort-laughter, the sticker-covered bodies, I tried to ignore them, but they were right there, reflected in the window like a mirror. I began to formulate a plan. It wasn’t a good plan. I would confront the guidos. After their fists opened up my face, I would lunge at them, wrapping my arms around whoever was closest. I would bleed Chron’s blood all over their well-manicured bodies and scream, “You don’t know where I’ve been!” Until they pummelled me into unconsciousness. It was a stupid idea. I’d seen it in a movie.
In my mind, my brilliant plan looked something like this.
The simulated orgy continued. My blood began to boil. It reached fevered pitch. I snapped. “What the fuck?” I yelled a little too loudly. The pretend sodomy stopped, its instigator turned to face me. “I didn’t pay $28 for a train ticket so I could watch you fake fuck your slut-pig girlfriend in the ass for an hour.”
The blond hulk’s face grew dark. He moved towards me. His girlfriend jumped in front of him, Emily spread her body across mine. If he wanted to hit me, he would have to punch his way through two women, “You got a problem?” he asked.
His massive friend grabbed the luggage rack above me, leaning in, blocking the light with his gigantic shadow. I had the distinct impression that I was riding a narrow boat in Hokusai’s Kanagawa painting. I stared up into that magnificent, brutal wave, my death as imminent as it was sublime. “Yeah, I’ve got a problem, you’re my problem and I’m tired of pretending you’re not here.”
The blond hulk moved towards me, but his gorilla friend held him back with an impossible arm. He shoved him towards the back of the train, then turned to face me, his dark eyes twinkling with reasoned rage. “If you want to talk about this,” he said quietly, “we can get off at the next stop and have ourselves a little chat.”
I laughed at the absurdity of his request, “How about you come with me to New York,” I said proudly, “and you can kick my ass in Central Station.”
“New York?” scoffed the blond hulk, “I’m from Jersey, born and raised. Been here my whole life.”
“That’s a weird thing to be proud of,” I countered, “there’s a big world out there. You should go see it. I know it’s scary, but you’ll be OK,” I put my hand on my chest in a sympathetic manner, “I promise.”
The blond hulk came at me again, his big friend held him back again, “Fuck you, I’m a United States Marine. I’ve been all over the world, killing bad guys so punks like you can live free and happy.”
I’d found a sore spot. He’d revealed his hand. “So after your mom stopped wiping your ass, you joined the Marines and let Uncle Sam coddle you around the globe? Now you’re back, sucking your mother’s teat, all proud of yourself for seeing the world? You’re a coward, afraid to leave your home town, afraid to stand on your own. I’m from Colorado. You should come out some time. I’ll show you what real men look like.”
“You got a lot of words, smart guy,” the hulk was enraged. “A lot of words.” He tried to push through his friend.
“Words?,” a fire lit in my eyes, the pain of an endless summer, a demonic energy possessed of madness and rage, “I’ve got volumes, countless pages spilling out like rivers in the spring. While you were in the tanning booth, moisturizing your ass with Lubriderm, I was in the library, drinking deep from poets’ waters. Their blood is my blood. You can break me with your stupid hands,” in the midst of my rant, I quoted this part from a movie where Chaucer had fallen under similar circumstances, naked and bleeding, his life in the balance, “but I will immortalize you in words.”
The car went silent. No one moved. No one spoke. I glared at the blond hulk until he looked away, then I stared at his ape friend until he laughed uncomfortably. Once I was satisfied that they had been cowed, I turned my back and leaned my head against the seat. Emily gripped my hand in hers. It had been a stupid tirade. She smiled just the same.
In the train car ahead and the one behind, the bacchanalian revelry continued. Our car remained silent, everyone staring out the windows, scared of the violence which could still erupt. Finally, impossibly, we reached the revellers’ stop. As the crowd began to exit, the blond hulk’s collagen girlfriend leaned into my seat, “It really hurt my feelings when you called me a slut pig,” she said, “because I have a breathing disorder? And I can’t help snorting when I laugh. And my boyfriend?” she pointed at the big lummox, “is a Marine and you should respect him because he sacrificed his life for this country.” She was on the verge of tears. It was strange, I had never been in this position before. I was an art nerd. From my place at the bottom, beautiful people had always seemed unassailable, like nothing could hurt them.
“I respect your boyfriend,” I looked into her eyes with prednisonal fervor, “what he did for this country was honorable and brave, but what he did today, to you, on this train, was a disgrace. You both should be ashamed.”
The crowd began to clap and cheer, a smattering of applause to usher them off. It was a Hollywood moment, cinematic in its perfection. She stood up, tears in her beautiful eyes, the crowd’s laughter adding insult to my injury. The Jersey kids left the train, swept away in a river of drunken oafs.
“Good job,” the CNN anchor turned to congratulate me.
“That was amazing,” confirmed his attractive companion.
I sat there trembling, adrenaline and prednisone draining from my blood.
to be continued