The week of Thanksgiving AJ’s mother took his little brother to Illinois for a visit with their grandmother for the weekend. AJ didn’t like his grandmother, and talked his mom into letting him stay home. She agreed with the stipulation that he had to call her morning and night.
His mother knew very little about us, only that AJ had a friend named Yari. For all she knew, I could’ve been a boy. He told me that our dating was none of her business.
He and his mother had an odd mother/son relationship. AJ was more like the parent. He helped her balance the checkbook; put the grocery-list together, clean-up around the house, and take care of his eight-year-old brother. Taking on the man-of-the-house role without little complaint I assumed was the basis for his maturity.
Because he couldn’t handle all the responsibilities at sixteen, his mother screwed-up on occasion with finances and family priorities causing their frequent relocations.
With AJ’s mother gone for the weekend, his apartment had become the perfect opportunity for us to hang-out, away from the restricting library and cold baseball field.
He lived on Main Street in downtown Shelby, less than a mile from my house. I walked to his place the following day, after his mom left. I showed early afternoon.
The dead leaves of late fall were raked from most yards, bagged on the curbs, and waited for trash pick-up. The maples and oaks were bare skeletons against the graying clouded skyline. Snowflakes started to spit from seemingly no starting point, floating gently in the frosty breeze as I approached AJ’s apartment. It was the first snow of the year. Two inches of conglomerated frozen ice was predicted by the weather man.
The chill in the air turned bitter. My gloved fingers tightened the wool scarf wrapping my neck. Relieved that I wore my earmuffs after thinking they might look too childish, I adjusted them gratefully, responding to the drop in temperature.
Town Liquor was in sight. AJ lived above the tiny corner package-store. The brick building was part of a lineup of small downtown municipal stores centrally located for its resident’s convenience. Above them were single-leveled apartments. The entrance to AJ’s building was between the packy and an antique shop.
I shot up the two stone steps between the sidewalk and door, and shoved my weight against the rusted steel slab to open it. On the phone with AJ earlier that morning he had mentioned to me that the door sticks, and to use some force when opening.
The hallway was dimly lit by a solitary hanging bulb in the narrow foyer. The puck marked, horse-hair plastered walls were painted a bleak shade of moss, with the air an analogous scent of dank must.
The adverse reality of AJ’s home life was startlingly real as I stood scanning the seedy hallway. A twinge of pity pierced my chest.
He said he lived in apartment 2B located on the second floor.
Ascending the creaky wooden staircase that felt dangerously hazardous with every step, my gaze caught sight of the door to AJ’s apartment at the top of the second landing, immediately to the right. A chill of nervous anticipation prickled the hairs behind my neck as I stood inches from his door. I wanted so much to spend time with him alone, away from the library visitors, and other nomadic teens at the baseball field.
My hand rose to rap on the door. It opened before the padded surface of my knuckles met the wooden exterior.
“Hey Yari.” AJ was poised before me, beaming a lofty smile.
A muddled giggle slipped my lips. “How did you know that I was outside your door?” I matched his greeting with equal gravity.
“I heard you coming up the stairs. Come on in.”
Hand-me-down furniture filled the seven-hundred square-foot space. The couch and recliner were mix-matched as were the tattered coffee and end tables. Regardless of the simplicity of his residency, it was warm and cozy.
I started to remove my accessory layers.
“It looks like the snow came early.” AJ broke the momentary silence.
“Yeah, wasn’t it supposed to come after midnight?” I shuffled my hands to warm them.
“That’s New England for ya,” he staggered a laugh.
We stood behind the couch inches from each other, wondering what to do next.
“Oh, I uh, thought we could order a pizza for lunch. Have you eaten?” AJ’s tone was ebullient.
I was hungry, having left my house in a rush. Both Josephine and Marty were home. They were arguing about money taking it to an aggressive level. So I snuck out without telling them where I was going. It wasn’t like they cared anyway. Half the time neither of them even noticed if I was home or not. The only benefit to their intentional disregard for my existence was that I could basically do anything I wanted, and go wherever I felt without their permission. Occasionally I’d offer my itinerary. Then another living person would know where I was in case I should fall into a ditch and die, or be put there. That consideration eventually stopped for lack of a caring audience.
“Pizza sounds great.”
“Cool. Have a seat and I’ll get the phone book. There’s Paul’s Pizza two blocks from here. They have awesome food.” AJ sauntered over to the tiny kitchen adjacent to the living-room.
Walking around the arm of the couch, making for the flat surface of the cushions, my attention cascaded to the living-room window, I approached it. The street and sidewalks were already covered with a dusting of snow. My gaze narrowed confused by the unexpected change in the landscape.
“That’s coming down awfully fast for just two inches.” I harped. “If we’re supposed to get snow all day and it continues at this pace, it’s gonna accumulate to a lot more than what was predicted.” I was leaning over a spider plant in front of the drafty window.
The insignificant flakes of earlier were no longer specks of dust wisping along the breeze like albino insects drifting aimlessly. A steady flow of cottony-white patches were streaming on a sharp right angle before hitting the ground.
“Didn’t you hear?” AJ called out. “The storm system shifted late last night.” “They’re expecting a Nor’easter to move up the coast with six to eight inches.”
A large yellow phonebook rested on his lap once in the living-room. I leered at him dumbfounded.
“So, are you telling me that I’m going to get snowed in at your place?” My tone was marginally upset by this potentially precarious arrangement.
AJ chuckled halfheartedly at my palpable assessment of things, shuffling through the pages of the four-inch thick book. He too, seemed intrigued by the possibility of me having to sleep over his place. More upfront about wanting me to be snowed-in though, he delighted in the prospect with a continued haughty grin.
I on the other hand, kept him speculating, offering not even the slightest gesture or indication that I, too, wished for this to happen.
“So what do you like on your pizza?” AJ looked up at me with a self-satisfied smirk.
We shared a medium, pepperoni pizza, while watching MTV music videos. When AJ and I got our carb fill, he suggested a game of cards.
Our conversation was light, talking mostly about the latest album releases, videos we watched, and the Aerosmith concert. The snow was piling, nearing four inches. We stopped checking after four o’clock, neither of us caring after that point. I was having a great time hanging-out with him. I didn’t care about anything else.
I took a sip of my soda after beating him at gin for the third consecutive time.
“Ugh, I keep getting my ass kicked by a girl,” he snorted then laughed. “Not fair.”
AJ glowered at my winning hand laid-out on the coffee-table.
“Sorry,” I chuckled. “I’ve always been really good at cards.”
“You’ll have to teach me to be as good as you.”
I watched him as he piled the deck before shuffling them.
“When were you thinking about showing me your bedroom?” I asked without thinking about how AJ might interpret this loaded question.
His eyes flashed to mine, wide and steady. “What?”
I caught myself and what I’d said. Nervous laughter fluttered my chest. “What I meant was, I’m curious to see how you’ve decorated it. That’s all.” I shot him a surly look.
“Oh,” he receded. “Come on, I’ll show you now.”
I had already snuck a peek when passing for the bathroom, but I wanted to get a closer look.
AJ shared a bedroom with his little brother Tommy, so half of the tiny room was decorated with trains and Tonka trucks. AJ’s half was covered with rock posters and his pencil drawings. They were really good.
My attention narrowed-in on one particular illustration tacked up, depicting a meticulously detailed medieval castle. AJ was an incredibly talented fantasy artist, creating images from his own imaginings of dragons flying over lochs, or warriors carrying half-naked princesses. His ideas were a little too graphic for my taste.
“What’s with all the tits and ass?” My eyes scoffed at his Playboy inspired creations.
He laughed at my obvious dislike for his muse. “They’re fantasy. Everything’s supposed to be exaggerated.”
Unsatisfied with his explanation, I shot him a pissy look. He continued to chuckle over my jealous brooding.
“So, they’re your fantasies, then?”
A shit-eaten grin smeared his face. “I guess that’s one way of looking at it.”
“Still, you’re an amazing artist.” I diverted my attention back to his skill. “Do you wanna do something with your talent someday?” I asked, sitting on Tommy’s bed, admiring a life-like charcoal portrait that AJ sketched of his brother.
He sat next to me on the small bed. “That’s my dream. I wanna be an artist for graphic novels. It would be so cool to have stories to match my art work. I love the whole medieval, dungeons and dragons lore.”
I never saw his face light-up with such resolve. I was glad to hear that he had expectations of getting away from that fucked-up home.
His aspiration to draw, to be creative, was uncannily similar with my own love for singing. We possessed the same spirited spark of escape in our eyes.
“I find all that magical stuff fascinating. I love Celtic history, especially.”
“It’s no wonder we get along so well.” He shot me an intense gaze.
“I’m into the arts, too. I love to sing.”
The uncertainty of his response to my revelation was unnerving.
As if he were looking at me for the first time, completely enchanted by my presence, AJ seemed to be searching for words. I didn’t expect this reaction.
“Wow, you do? How come you’ve never sang for me?”
I shrugged. Fear of rejection. It wasn’t like I’d ever sung in front of anyone before. What if my voice wasn’t as good as I thought?
“Sing something. I want to hear your voice.” AJ’s intrigued expression beckoned me to submit to his request.
My face filled with heat. That was the first time anyone had ever asked to hear me sing. It was overwhelmingly nerve-racking. I stood to push away from the demand.
“Yari, don’t be shy.” AJ assured. “Come on - it’s me. You can do anything in front of me and not have to worry about being criticized. Please?”
The only time I ever sang out-loud was when no one was home at my house; when I went for walks alone; or, softly at the library with my headset on. I was almost certain no one had heard my singing. I did trust AJ though, and was confident that even if I had mediocre chords, he’d be delicate for the sake of my feelings.
A nervous exhale puffed from my nostrils. I did want his feedback to see if my pitch had any weaknesses.
“Alright,” I said with an edge of reluctance.
AJ sat up in attention. “Will you sing one of your songs?”
Oh great, he wanted full on judgment. Not gonna happen. “They’re still in the works. I’ll sing one of my favorite jazz songs for you.”
AJ maintained his polite smile upon me. I stood two feet from him. My lungs saturated with air as I inhaled slow and steady to calm my nerves. There was only one ballad that I felt somewhat confident to croon in front of a live audience, and that was because I’d sung it a gazillion times to myself. It had to be near perfect.
“Ready?” I asked in a meek voice.
AJ was nearly falling off of his brother’s bed with anticipation. “I am.” He flashed his perfect smile.
My lips folded into my mouth. The lids of my eyes flickered closed then open again to wash away the remained nerves. When my deep tenor filled the confines of his bedroom, my attention lapsed away from AJ’s gaze and into my comfort zone.
“Every honey bee fills with jealousy - when they see you out with me.
I don't blame them, goodness knows - honeysuckle rose.”
My voice was smooth as butter. The pitch was perfect from high to low. This
assessment gave me the confidence I needed to finally connect with AJ’s eyes. His expression was no longer that of polite interest, but rather, besieged awe.
My eyes closed with the rhythm of this classic jazz melody. I let the passion of the words take hold.
“When you're passin' by, flowers droop and sigh - I know the reason why.
You're much sweeter, goodness knows - honeysuckle rose.
Well don't buy sugar - you just have to touch my cup.
You're my sugar, and it's oh so sweet when you stir it up.
When I'm takin' sips from your tasty lips - seems the honey fairly drips.
You're confection, goodness knows - honeysuckle rose.
Well, don't buy sugar - you just have to touch my cup.
You're my sugar, and it's oh so sweet when you stir it up.
When I'm takin' sips from your tasty lips - seems the honey fairly drips. . .
You're confection . . .” I dragged out the bridge and indulged in AJ’s
gaping mouth, brought on not only by the provocative meaning of the lyrics, but also the sultry kneel of my voice. “Goodness knows . . . my honey . . . oh, my honey . . . my honeysuckle rose.”
AJ was speechless.