by Chris Rael
Robin woke with the alarm, stupefied from sleep but not remotely rested. Glancing furtively at the slumbering mounds to his right, he lunged to stifle the cooing cell phone before it stirred them. These pre-dawn moments were lifelines, to be jealously protected for the fleeting reflections they might yield before vaporizing into the white noise of the day.
His son, an alabaster cherub nestled against mother’s handsome bosom, breathed shallowly. The sight, familiar yet still astonishing, filled his heart with a primordial warmth struggling to coexist with his claustrophobia. Dreaming Madonna and 3-year-old appeared to him like a Renaissance painting, and he needed them to stay that way until he could slip out the door to work.
Burglar-like, he extricated himself from the bed and crept to the bathroom without incident. Shutting the door gingerly behind him to mask the noise, he clattered toward his toothbrush as waves of anxiety began pulsing against his rib cage. Glassy pupils dilated in the mirror, seeming to shrink and expand in rhythm with the pulsations.
Ingrate! God showers gifts on you like a Black Friday sale, and you want to toss them back in his face. Whatcha gonna do, ditch ’em?
Robin squeezed paste onto the splayed bristles of the yellow brush.
Escape is all you know. But escape to what, the next prison? Fucking hermit crab; the prison is on your back wherever you go.
This long-unsolved puzzler had worn him down. The barking in his head had lost some bite over the years, but the refrain was stuck in autoplay. Establishing a tempo with his gum stroke, he began composing lyrics in his head:
The guiltiest man alive… Devil in disguise… All my good deeds are lies, driven by my own cat-o-nines…
Not bad, he thought, spearing an eternally damp blue rag from the towel rack. His eyes bore back into the mirror as he dabbed at his mouth.
Everyone thinks you’re so sweet. They know you’ll take a bullet. But wounds fester, rot from the inside.
He lathered his face and began the ritual morning scrape, drawing lurid droplets of blood from random crags in the jowl. Hard not to cut yourself, he thought, pushing a scrap of toilet paper onto the wound. No one hid cuts and bruises better than Robin.
Master illusionist. Seppuku fetishist. I’ll fillet myself in front of everyone and they’ll never see the blood…
Suddenly the bathroom door burst open. “Daddy!” cried a gleeful, piercing voice. Pivoting, he greeted the impish hooligan who had hijacked his heart and revoked his narcissism.
“Good morning, Buddy,” he responded brightly. “Did you have a good sleep?”
“Yes, daddy. I have to poop and pee.”
“Well ok then,” he replied, hoisting the toddler onto the toilet. “Let’s get to it.”
Sitting on the edge of the tub, he marveled at his desensitization to his son’s bodily functions. Might as well be my own.
The boy—so pristine, sharp, trusting—deserved every sacrifice he could muster. Unlike the assorted undeserving recipients he’d given himself away to in the past…
Oh, the legions he’d helped, even those who hadn’t asked. The sympathy he’d bestowed upon the selfish, the usurious, the ungrateful.
Sleight of hand! Channel your heart into the void. Waste yourself and feel noble about it. How perverse.
“Daddy, will you play buildings with me?”
“Just for a minute, Buddy. Daddy has to go to work.”
“I don’t want you to go. Your bosses are mean.”
“Well, sometimes,” he smirked.
After wiping up in the bathroom, the pair adjourned to the den, together carefully dumping out a plastic bag of brightly colored Lego building blocks. “Don’t wake up Mommy,” Robin whispered conspiratorially, making a game of the mandatory silence.
He keyed in as well as he could while Buddy stacked the blocks in daring and imaginative patterns. Be present, he chided himself.
This curious character, this gnome, had opened lanes of selflessness in Robin he hadn’t known existed. All of his inappropriate generosity now had a worthy target.
Why is it so hard to hang with this? What am I resisting?
Brightly colored plastic buildings sprouted on the carpet to a soundtrack of rapturous squeals. “Shh!” he warned, more sharply this time. “Your mother’s sleeping.”
“I want to play the boom boom.”
“It’s too early Buddy. We can’t wake everybody up.”
Maddy was a late riser. This left Robin with double duty for the early shift: engage the child while preparing to scramble out the door.
It seemed unfair, but he was a people-pleaser. Besides, if she were up, she’d slow him down. Once awake, she would devote herself to Buddy. Together, they were somehow doing something right. Their son was blossoming like a flower.
After laying out cereal and juice, Robin assembled his shoulder bag, trying to remember where he’d parked. “Okay Buddy, I’ll get home soon as I can and we’ll play some more. I love you.” He kissed the boy warmly on the head and slipped out.
Robin limped down the stoop into the Brooklyn street like a ruined athlete. He still sensed the underlying suppleness of his youth, a lithe core enwrapped in a band of sausage-like, cortisol-induced belly fat. He still believed he could shed it, if only he could center himself.
How do you center in a typhoon? Some guys would bail and head for calmer waters, but not me. Am I a saint or a sucker?
He scoured a two-block perimeter in search of his car. The growing frequency of these car searches disturbed him, as if sections of memory tape were being erased from his cranium. He waved the key over his head, pressing the lock button repeatedly until a clipped staccato horn sounded from around the corner. Spurred by lateness, he began to trot.
Move it, sonuvabitch. There’ll be hell to pay.
How had this routine come to pass? He’d once been the center of a vibrant community of his own creation, the hub of a wheel of art. He had lived off the grid in the heart of New York, the biggest, baddest city of all. Eking by financially, he had felt richer than Croesus.
It wasn’t enough. I walked away. Asshole.
Reaching the VW Jetta he fumbled with his keys, tossing the bag into the passenger seat while simultaneously groping for the ignition.
I proved myself. I brought my dream to life but didn’t make it stick. Couldn’t accept yes for an answer. Never quite believed I deserved it.
Instead he was on his way to New Jersey with no one to blame but himself. It wasn’t Maddy’s fault. It wasn’t his ex’s fault either. And it certainly wasn’t Buddy’s. Daggers of retribution jabbed at his heart, quick little stabs to the chest cavity as he settled into the driver’s seat.
A big man takes responsibility. A small man beats himself up. Which one am I?
Robin twisted the key, gunned the engine, and whipped into the deserted street. It was all about leaving early, before the world woke up and made him dance through it. Hands taut on the wheel, he knew the pressure of his grip would intensify with the traffic.
All that love coming at me. I couldn’t take it in.
He accelerated over the bridge into the city, feeling the vehicular choreography tightening around him. Tension ratcheted through his arms, fueled by impatience with faceless fellow commuters, none of whom paid him notice.
Cool, cool, cool. No stupid driving today.
The scramble of the bridge gave way to extended paralysis in the city. Staring at the same traffic light for five minutes, he began to smolder. “Easy,” he intoned, mantra-like. “Ommmmm… This sucks.”
A tango he’d written long ago began jangling on his mobile. A custom ringtone indicated Maddy was up and calling. Scanning the street for cops, he pressed the phone awkwardly to his ear in a gesture imparting guilt more than discretion. “Honey I’m driving, what is it?”
“Someone has a question for you,” she announced. Following a protracted pause, Buddy was on the line.
“Daddy I want to play trucks with you. When will you come back?”
“I have to work today Buddy. When I’m done, I’ll come home soon as I can.”
“Will you bring me a bagel with cream cheese?”
“Not today, Buddy. I won’t be home until tonight.”
“Okay, I love you daddy. You’re my best guy,” the boy proclaimed, parroting his dad’s usual line for him. More fumbling around on the line.
“He’s not letting me sleep,” she reported tersely.
“Baby, we’re one under-quota cop away from this being a hundred-dollar phone call.”
“Okay talk later, bye-bye.” He tossed the phone to the passenger seat.
The scrum began to disperse and he dared to anticipate momentum with each increasing mile-per-hour. Traffic got up to about 15 before the avenue slammed back into stasis. Seeking a plain of mental peace, he tried to float above it all.
“OmmmmmmMMM fuck me!” he bellowed to an audience of none. Aware of the ridiculousness of the outburst, he was grateful for the privacy of his vehicle.
They’ll keep me there ’til night. I’ll get home when Buddy’s asleep. Stressed out, wiped out, too tired to play, too tired to fuck. No room for me in my own life.
In years past, his life had had room for little other than him. Robin had always given freely, but even that was about him. He was generous, but strategic. Every choice fed into the tapestry of his creative self-portrait, a seemingly never-ending work-in-progress.
He’d never imagined himself frozen into the glacial rush-hour death crawl across Houston Street. He used to skip on foot between these cars on his way to the Greek coffee shop every morning. Now he had been sucked into the legion conducting the business of the damned.
Following another crush through the Holland Tunnel, Robin dodged and weaved across the highways of central Jersey trying to make up time. His thoughts, however, remained in the downtown streets he’d just traversed. Now a Brooklynite, he felt like a visitor passing through Manhattan every morning. Yet those streets were as familiar to him as those where he’d grown up 250 miles away.
He had arrived in New York in the mid-eighties after a bout of depression. His youth in suburban Virginia had been tedious, a tug of war between egotism and self-loathing. At 25, he already felt spent.
Bullied as a child, he had sustained a chronic, draining self-doubt. His rich palette of traits—wit, talent, compassion, intelligence, pettiness, cruelty, arrogance, hypocrisy—had earned both friends and enemies. Failings aside, he radiated a warmth that frequently drew new people into his life.
He was driven by a mindless, perpetual movement. Looming silently at the center was an empty chasm, a place he avoided at all costs. Motion provided evidence that something—anything—was happening. When nothing was happening, he felt worthless.
As a child, even his triumphs were questioned.
“Look Dad, I got straight A’s!”
“So what do you want, a medal? You must have been a good little boy in class,” his father would mock. “I see how you suck up, always looking for a pat on the head.”
Concealing this shameful hunger for approval, Robin had grown up feeling disingenuous and alone, even in the company of friends. No one could see any of this clearly, except his sister Jill. She understood everything.
In his adolescent suburban wasteland, he had pined for New York—the trope setting of Paul Simon’s Only Living Boy in New York. It seemed a refuge for the lonely, a destination where people could go to be their lonely selves. It was where impassioned souls transformed disaffection into art, where brutality germinated beauty.
He was also drawn to New York’s anonymity—the very quality he hated about it now. The notion of gliding unnoticed through the teeming metropolis had appealed to his shyness. In later years, he had developed a public life in the city and thrived on it. Now fate had made him invisible again.
He never unraveled the depression that had driven him north. He had crashed into a wall, cornered himself. He remembered feeling numb, lifeless. Tears randomly leaked from his eyes, but he couldn’t define the pinch that was squeezing them out.
Having left for the city without solving any of it, he brought his abstract quandary along like another piece of bulky luggage. He was like a foraging forest animal, proceeding on instinct without plan or analysis. Like so many others, he’d arrived broken in the land of the broken. New York didn’t make him much happier, but he’d never felt more at home.
His first place was in the barrio of Alphabet City at a time when it looked like Dresden after the Second World War. Gaping lots of rubble speckled the landscape in every direction. He shared the streets with rats, hustlers, shit-gray pigeons, nodding junkies, and cops.
After navigating the neighborhood for several months without getting mugged, he fancied himself streetwise. He was establishing a rhythm, but remained awkwardly out-of-sync with his surroundings. Music was happening all around him, much of it howling, maniacal, and prurient. He longed to partake of the misfits’ paradise but felt like an imposter, a hack.
In those days he lived with Janie, a college girlfriend he’d met in Virginia. Having grown up on the Jersey shore, Janie knew the city. She had found the fourth-floor walk-up sublet they shared. All Robin had to do was drive up and lug his guitars up the stairs.
Earthy and warm, Janie laughed easily but kept a corner of herself hidden, even from those closest to her. This gave Robin permission to do the same. Sharing a youthful ambivalence for commitment, they benignly tended to each other between occasional liaisons with other free spirits around town.
Meanwhile, he was timidly probing the music scene he’d been following from a distance since his teens. The romanticized alienation of his youth took formidable form in the East Village. Virginia could be mean, ruthless and intolerant, but East Villagers were flat-out dangerous, like when Jim Bob Earth stabbed Robin in the leg with a pen knife hurled from the stage after the chaotic front man had used it to draw blood from his own cheek.
He would hang around after shows hoping to meet his heroes, maybe start getting his name around. But more often than not he lurked in the back, hands thrust in pockets, invisible. Most of the performers weren’t very friendly, but he nonetheless craved their approval. Like him, they were misanthropes seeking attention. It didn’t make sense for them to be nice.
Robin thickened his skin and kept exploring. He took in industrial noise bands, drag discos, angry performance artists crafting musical cadences to their diatribes while slathering their bodies with blood, candied yams, deviled ham, you name it.
Performers wore their bruises like Purple Hearts. Any type of damage affirmed credibility here. Robin saw little of interest in his own suffering, but started performing anyway. His music was unlike anything going on around him. Was that good or bad?
His guitar-based songs were unconventional and cleverly designed; bandmates loved playing the tricky patterns. But the product could come off as smug, uninviting, obtuse. Robin hid in plain sight, hoping someone might care enough to come find him.
He remembered feeling crushed after a Pyramid gig that drew six people, none of whom embraced his nasal whine and eye contact with the floor as his band generated polymathic noise behind him. Like Robin the boyfriend, Robin the artist was still an unopened bud back then.
His mind snapped back into the present as the Jetta wound across an overpass into a sprawling parking lot adjacent to the artless, Soviet bloc-like building in which Robin made his banal contributions to the telecom industry. Late as hell, he snatched one of the half-dozen remaining spots in the back row. It was a hike to the door. He would need to jog while balancing a tepid black coffee he’d picked up at the gas station with his cumbersome shoulder bag.
The office was in one of seven virtually identical structures comprising what the entrance sign identified as a “corporate park.” The juxtaposition of words always provoked his disdain while driving past, but a case could be made for the term’s descriptive accuracy.
About 90 minutes west of the city, the park consisted of gray, featureless six-story edifices, seemingly dropped without thought on the landscape like bulky bags of garbage. Each was cordoned off by yawning vistas of parking lots, as if one day the site might host the second coming of Christ or perhaps a Jay-Z concert. The bleak compound was ensconced in pristine oak and maple trees, punctuated with hilly, rolling lawns, and a crisp expanse of sky. The air smelled clean and green, an endless novelty for any New Yorker.
Despite the lot’s fullness, the place felt empty, silent like a crypt. Exiting the car required several moves as he placed each item—coffee cup, cell phone, satchel—on the roof of the Jetta. The sun was bright now, penetrating the chilly air to warm his face.
He squinted into a breeze and took in for a moment the jumble of buildings, looming in front of him like some dystopian Emerald City. An impulse almost yanked him back into the driver’s seat, to turn the key and hightail it further west toward Pennsylvania. Instead he exhaled, locked the door, and began gathering his things from the roof.
I do it for you, Buddy. It’s not about me anymore.
CHRIS RAEL (www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLXrP35r_kzgHYPYVJz-fsyY6cHgdKHWrq) is an eclectic American composer, singer, instrumentalist, and writer. Founder and leader of Indo-pop band Church of Betty, based in New York City, he has released 25 CDs, collaborating with artists from around the world. Rael was a pioneer in the progressive music movement at the original Knitting Factory in New York in the 1980s. Throughout the ’90s, he studied Hindustani classical singing and sitar in Varanasi, India, forging a world-orchestral-pop style. Always an avid lyricist, he has taken to the written word in recent years and is thrilled to participate in the Welcome to Boog City 15 Arts Festival. Gil Ronen photo.