I was invited to a party in New Jersey. After a train ride from the city, I arrived at a house where several graduate students lived. I met the host, then went into the kitchen. As I stood there, I saw a young man crawling on his hands and knees. When I asked what he was doing, he said he was counting the linoleum tiles. He was going from one wall to the other, keeping track in his mind.
Presently, I met a student who seemed interested in speaking to me. When I told him where I lived, he said, “I’m moving to New York soon.”
He told me he’d busted out of school. “I was majoring in history,” he said, “but I was interested in only one thing: Druids. I used my fellowship for Druid research, and I failed my comprehensive exam.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“I’m going to use my computer skills to make lots of money.”
In the city, my new friend asked me to meet him for lunch at a university club. The place had a dress code, so I put on a necktie. My friend was wearing a suit.
“I see we both have our monkey costumes on,” he said. “I’m a systems architect now; I dress this way every day.”
During lunch, he said he’d been seeing a therapist. “I’ve discovered something,” he said. “I’m bisexual.
“I’ve had girlfriends,” he went on, “but I’ve always noticed that when I’m in a men’s room, I get embarrassed. It’s all the penises, you know.”
After the meal, I thought about what he’d said. I knew that no one was one hundred percent, but he wasn’t even fifty percent.
My off-and-on girlfriend took me to a gathering of science-fiction fans. She was a fan herself. She’d read many books in the genre and knew many authors.
At the conference, I met a writer who was famous for his space-age jungle series. He noticed a woman with large breasts and pointed her (and them) out to me. “Those could choke a horse,” he said.
Later, he invited my girlfriend and me to his home in Queens. He lived on a hill, in an old two-story. Inside, the house looked like a museum. Shelves were filled with hardcover books by authors like H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth.
My girlfriend took me upstairs and showed me a room called “the dungeon.” I looked at torture instruments hanging on the walls, but I didn’t believe the home owner actually used them. “These are decorations, right?” I said.
“No,” my girlfriend said. “He once put thumb cuffs on a girlfriend of mine. Then he hit her with a flail.”
“What did she do?” I asked.
“She couldn’t do much. Her thumbs were cuffed.”
Before I left, the author said to me, “I like boys, too. I often have sessions with young ones. A session lasts about an hour.
“Take this,” he added, and gave me his business card.
My systems-architect friend invited me to his house in New England. “I built this when I was an undergraduate,” he said. “Now, I rent it to a couple of professors here.”
The professors, who were married, were leaving when we arrived. The two of them looked alike, with wire-framed glasses and bushy hair.
“They were friends of mine before they were tenants,” my friend said. “I got them naked once.”
When I went upstairs, I noticed that the platform bed had eyebolts screwed into its corners. The metal loops obviously were anchors for ropes. I wondered which member of the couple did the staking out, and which one got staked, or whether they took turns.
When I pointed out the eyebolts to my friend, he said, “So that’s what they’re into.”
During the day, my friend brought me to a clear, cold stream. The two of us took off our clothes and waded in. As I stood with water rushing past my waist, my friend snapped pictures of me.
The next time I visited him, he projected the photos onto his white wall. I’d forgotten he’d taken them. There I was, standing in a stream, looking like a nudist.
“I often lie in bed and click through these pictures,” he said.
“I want you to move in with me,” he continued. “I’ll build a room for you. Your rent would be very low. This is a great neighborhood.”
Through his windows, we could clearly see the World Trade Center. The towers were almost in our faces.
Shortly afterward, my roommate told me he was moving to the West Coast. “I’ve met someone,” he said, “and he wants to move there.”
“Who is he?” I asked.
“He’s a dental student.”
I remembered a young man who’d brought a plant as a gift. The plant was some kind of tree, maybe a fig tree; it was as tall as he was.
“When I leave, you’ll have to move out,” my roommate said. “But I want you to do me a favor.”
“I want you to take my fig tree and care for it.”
I moved to an apartment in a different borough. It was a dark basement flat, but there was a garden in the back. My landlords were a Chinese couple with children who lived down the street.
I set up the fig tree in the one spot of indoor sunlight and planted a few marijuana seeds in the garden. In a couple of weeks, the seeds grew into six-inch plants.
At one point, one of my landlords—the Chinese wife—came over. She looked into the garden and asked me, “Are those marijuana plants?”
“Someone upstairs must have thrown seeds out their window,” I said. “They must have sprouted when I wasn’t looking.”
After she left, I pulled up the plants.
One night, as I was walking home through the nearby park, I noticed a man with a dog walking behind me. Another man was coming toward me. No one else was in sight.
As I reached the man walking toward me, he stood in my path, blocking my way. He opened his jacket and showed me a small, nickel-plated revolver. The man with the dog was now behind me, blocking my escape.
“We’re taking your money,” the man with the gun announced.
I gave him nine dollars.
He tore off my glasses and stepped on them. “Now,” he said, “run.”
I started walking away.
“Run, or I’ll shoot!”
When I got back to my apartment I decided to report the incident. I would call the local precinct. After the cops made their visit, I would move to a different apartment.
Thad Rutkowski is the author of the novels Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. He teaches at the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in Manhattan. His writing has appeared in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, Fiction and Fiction International. He was awarded a 2012 fellowship in fiction writing from the New York Foundation for the Arts.