On payday Gupta planned to tattoo his neck. “Getting my street name here,” he said, touching just below his left earlobe.
“What’s your street name?”
“White Boy?” I’d only ever spoken with Gupta on the street and I’d never heard his street name. Or maybe I had, and just assumed I was being taunted.
“How about United Nations?” I asked, because Gupta was plenty more than white. Gupta considered. He drew the characters with a fingertip and shook his head.
“Wouldn’t fit, yo.”
“Just ink ‘United’ on the left and ‘Nations’ on the right.”
“The right is reserved for my set name, fool! LPS.”
“Local Pot Smokers.”
“Local to where?” Gupta, White Boy of the Local Pot Smokers cased the block, suspicious of eavesdroppers. Of snitches.
“Yo,” he said. “We’re everywhere.”
We’re loafing outside the Salvation Army Minors’ Dormitory. Gupta straddled his pride, a bicycle of little girl proportions. Although he kept his phone fixed on “walkie talkie” mode and spent hours chatting with not-so-local pot smokers, Gupta often referred to his bike as his “best friend”. When I asked Gupta why he had chosen such an ill-fitting best friend he claimed that they had selected each other. “You always recognize a friend” said Gupta. I didn’t question his logic. I feared his ire. Gupta slept in the Salvation Army because he’d decked his stepdad in the Bronx and been banished from home.
“Banished,” said Gupta.
“Like Cain,” I said.
“Nah, that fool still lives up on 174th.”
I lived in a room in the building next door to the Salvation Army because I was post pre-med. Four years past college graduation, MCAT books served as my yellowing nightstand. I had murdered the test. I sincerely wanted to be a doctor. I just wasn’t ready to apply. I just. Couldn’t.
“Could you do Gupta a favor,” said Gupta. “Could you tell Gupta how fly he looks?” Gupta wore a thrifted suit that a colorblind pimp might have donned for a night on the town when New York City was still a town. Loafers of the laminated cardboard variety.
“Gupta looks like he’s serious about getting the position,” I said. The new Shoe Mania was NOW HIRING! and Gupta had an interview.
“Coach me, yo,” said Gupta, so I affected the lower octaves of a general manger.
“Son,” I said. “Why do you want to join the Shoe Mania team?”
“To afford neck tats, sir.”
“I’m afraid we enforce a strict ‘No Neck Tat’ policy here.”
“How about at your Broadway location?”
“Look,” I said, snapping back into my natural register. “Want advice? Now don’t get mad but that bike is not your friend. You’ll do fine as long as the manager doesn’t see you riding it. People assume you ripped off a toddler.”
“Nobody shittalks my homey,” said Gupta. I cringed as he raised his decking arm. He smoothed his brows, then cycled uptown on the rusty Schwinn.
I lost track of Gupta after his arrest. One of my current peers, however, clears his hip-high bong before commuting to the laboratory where he tasers cells with an electric probe. He seeks the precise voltage at which the membrane becomes optimally permeable.
“It’s like,” he says. “An extremely intricate video game.” Another colleague hears into the future. We’ll be conversing with a patient and when the patient departs my friend might comment: “He’ll stroke out. You can tell by his voice.” I’d been pre-med among savants like these, but I’d never confused myself with them. That Salvation Army summer I bussed tables in an orange vinyl button-down shirt. Gentrification had availed my neighborhood of restaurants fancy enough to take reservations, and then fancier restaurants chic enough not to. After Gupta cruised off to his interview I changed into my orange busboy uniform and walked to work.
That night I ministered to the woman to whom I had lost my right hand thirteen years before. I had a left hand and a Heather Martin. Or rather, a left hand and a grip that morphed from one of Heather Martin’s orifices to another at the speed of fantasy. I’d heard she was kept by a notoriously eccentric media mogul. I kept her water glass brimming and her tablecloth crumb-free despite my full-body palsy and ballistic heart. Clearing her apricot and walnut salad, I brushed Heather Martin’s naked shoulder. Setting down a third appletini, I grazed Heather Martin’s naked neck.
“I loved her before those tits!” I screamed at Heather’s escort, sort of. More precisely, I said “Right away, sir!” and fetched extra kale chips and decided to finally avenge myself on Heather Martin. I would humiliate her in front of her friends and date by asking whether Eduardo Pepe of Camp Wonkentauk really slung an uncut cock.
A lake divided the Boys’ Side from the Girls’ Side of Camp Wonkentauk, but by the time campers matured into F Group, coed activities booked four evenings each week. Adam Fleischman considered four socials insufficient. He smuggled a pair of walkie talkies onto grounds and palmed one of the transmitters off to Sarah Green at the Welcome Back! Ice Cream Cotillion. We’d be able to talk dirty after lights out because a counselor no longer slept in our bunk because we F Group men were bar-mitzvahed. Except for the greenhorn camper, Eduardo Pepe. Eduardo wore a crucifix and, rumor had it, foreskin. He bleached his teeth and tweezed his brows. While most of us already identified as pre pre-med, Eduardo stepped to home plate wielding a Slugger he’d commissioned custom from Louisville. It was obvious he was going to the majors. At the end of the ice cream cotillion, he went to first base with Heather Martin. An hour later Adam Fleischman’s walkie-talkie cackled.
“Me gusta habla Eduardo,” said Heather. It may have been the static, but I think she tried to roll her ‘r’. Eduardo swung out of his bunk, snatched the walkie talkie and strutted into bathroom. He dead bolted himself into the plywood toilet stall for privacy. Something like seven minutes later Eduardo posed in the threshold of the bunk spanking the invisible ass into which he pumped his crotch, tongue out, eyes whites. “Be gentle with her!” I would have said, but I just couldn’t. And by the time I was ready to, the walkie talkie had been passed.
The circulation of the walkie talkie crystallized F Group’s hierarchy of popularity. One by one my bunkmates migrated to the bathroom for their shortwave dates while three of us pretended to sleep. Pimply Leventhal. Fat Schwartzy. I’d been nicknamed for a high school where two sad teens had snapped. I was strange for all the normal reasons: preferred the Art Shack to the hockey rink, Sharpied runes across my knuckles and neck. Us untouchables lay tensed beneath our blankets facing bunkhouse walls. Sometimes Fat Schwartzy fake snored. In the glow of a flashlight I once caught Pimply Lenventhal fluttering his eyelids, counterfeiting REM. Each night I willed Heather Martin to request me. Each night when Eduardo paraded to the bathroom I sheathed my snipped member into a calcified sock, erect with certainty that down The Knoll, past the beached kayaks and the floating dock and the diving platform on a toilet in Girl’s Bunk F right now Heather Martin was fiddling with herself however girls did.
“You’re lucky, Columbine,” said Eduardo, after a particularly lengthy tryst. “When we finish? Girl likes to be talked to. Yap yap pillow talk like we’re in bed instead of the shitter.” Eduardo’s brutishness mitigated my jealously. He might make the majors, but never med school. “It’s like bitch,” said Eduardo. “Do I give a freaking fuck if you go tubing or ride the zipline for flex period tomorrow? I’ve got ball to play. Let a hustler sleep!” While Eduardo slept, I prayed. Although I’d been called to the Torah, that F group summer was the first time I’d sincerely petitioned God. He granted my prayers on the Tuesday night before Saturday’s Home-Going Gala.
On the Tuesday night before Saturday’s Home-Going Gala, Heather buzzed across the frequencies.
“You mean Eduardo?” said Fleischman.
“Columbine.” I strode across the stunned bunk with the fearlessness of someone certain he’s dead. Resigned to be brained by Eduardo’s one-of-a-kind bat. Cradling the walkie talkie in quaking hands I turned for the bathroom but Eduardo seized my shoulder and shook his head. He said he wanted to hear this. Standing in the center of the bunk I depressed the ‘talk’ button and spoke as cool as Gupta.
“Well um. You know there’s that dance on Saturday and. See I. Well. I just wanted to know —.” I am the most envied camper at Wonkentauk. I am cheek-to-cheek dancing with Heather Martin in a blush of lavender strobe. I am reciting vows to Heather Fischer under the chuppah in synagogue, stomping a napkin-wrapped glass.
“I love you Heather Martin. In sick times and in wealth. I. Love. You.” Brief pause. Explosive laughter. Every girl in F Bunk laughed through the walkie talkie. Doubtless they heard every boy in F Bunk laughing back. Wedged between two sonic walls of derision, I stood still and blissful, elated that Heather Martin knew my actual name.
“It’s good,” gasped Heather, choked with glee. “It’s great to know that Columbine loves! I hope that means I’m —.” Another paroxysm. “I hope that means I’m low on your hit list! But seriously, Columbine, stop oogling me at dances.”
At Saturday’s social I hazarded a peek, a definite non-ogle, at Heather. She blocked my gaze with the palm of her hand. Smug in her cruelty. And although I’d seen her that way, I didn’t see her that way. I continued to mistake her loveliness for kindness. I saw her as my bride not to be.
I saw her lean over and whisper something to her eccentric mogul boyfriend, who stood and came at me fast.
“Look, clownshit,” he snarled. “Stop ogling my lady, ok? Or I’ll assfuck you bloody.”
“Or I’ll spoonfeed your eyeballs to my snake.”
“Ah.” Just then Heather half-stood in her seat.
“Oh God,” said Heather. “Oh God I — Flush? Flax? Everett Flax?” She had my initials just right.
“Hi Heather,” I said, but she was already addressing her six friends, briefing them on my history.
“So what’s up Columbine?” she asked. “I figured you’d be a doctor. You own this place or something?”
“How, sort of?”
“So did Eduardo Pepe really —. You know Eduardo never went to the majors right?”
“He went to Mount Sinai.”
Four hours later, at two a.m., I stormed home and unlocked the gate to my building. Gupta had chained his pygmy bike to the fence and I knew, suddenly, that he had scored the job. Shoe Mania was within walking distance and anyway, with his new income, Gupta would be able to purchase a proper bike. Right then I decided to do Gupta a service. From my room I retrieved my stethoscope, a college graduation gift. I applied the instrument to the back of Gupta’s combination lock and cracked it easy. Riding east, the city streamed by beautiful silent; an exhibit behind thick glass. I propped Gupta’s bike in a courtyard of the Jacob Riis housing projects and walked home to my shower where I assfucked Heather Martin. Assfucked her sudsy. Stroked myself out. And I didn’t withdraw right away, either. Even when my palm skin pruned I lingered inside of Heather, kissing where her neck would have sloped, murmuring to her until the hot water went arctic. I knew girl liked to be talked to.
Next morning Gupta paced the sidewalk in a tie made of what, tinfoil? It looked like he’d hitched the blade of a broadsword to his collar.
“You got the job!”
“You seen my bike?” I walked over to the heaped bike chain and knelt in a pose of examination.
“But you can buy a better one right? Instead of tattoos? You got the job?” He hadn’t. He was dressed up because he planned to return to Shoe Mania to demonstrate his perseverance. Prodding the membrane. Awaiting admission.
“Nothing’s been clipped,” I said, standing. “Maybe you left the lock open by accident?”
“No, yo. I’ll find my bike.”
“It’s probably been chopped up for parts. Painted at least.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said, staring at me with unmistakable suspicion. “You always recognize a friend. And I’ll find and cripple the fucking motherfucker who ripped off my friend!”
The fucking motherfucker found us. After two weeks of vigilant searching, Gupta was finally begging to accept that his friend was gone. We were hanging outside of the Salvation Army smoking Bugler roll-your-owns when a small girl peddled past on Gupta’s bike. We gawked, dumbfounded. Gupta bucked his stupor first.
“Yo!” He sprinted towards Bowery and braced himself in front of the bike. Brakes squealed. “Get off my bike!”
“Off!” roared Gupta.
“It’s mine!” screamed the child. She was crying now. “I found it!”
“Because someone stole it from me! Count of three. One.” I knew of Gupta’s volatility, the temper that had exiled him from his home in the Bronx. “Twoooo.” I had to confess, to admit that I had pinched the Schwinn. But I wasn’t ready. I was afraid. “Three!” Gupta threw the child from the bike. Her head gave against the curb. All I could think was that were I a doctor, even though I’d been too cowardly to protect the girl, I could still help her now. As police shoved Gupta into a cruiser, I made other vows.
Before beginning medical school, accepted students receive a short white coat. This short coat anticipates the long coat of practicing physicians and surgeons. Hospital code obligated us to wear our white coats in the presence of live patients. Today, we wore them in deference to the covered cadavers splayed across our dissection tables. Dr. Taylor broke our class of thirty-two into small groups, four students per body.
“Most of our specimens,” he warned us, “are unidentified persons. They’ve been donated by the NYPD coroner.” He directed us to pull the plastic tarps away from our cadavers. “Depending on the sex,” he said, “you will respectfully refer to your cadaver as either John or Jane.”
“Gupta!” Thirty-two heads spun on me as I ogled my gurney. He had gotten those neck tats after all. Dr. Taylor instructed everyone to begin by shaving their cadavers hairless. He asked to see me up front, where he asked me to explain myself.
“I can identify my unidentified,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
“You always recognize a friend.”
“What’s the name?”
“Last name?” I shrugged. “Do you know where he lived?”
“We can’t do with that information,” said Dr. Taylor. “Maybe you’d be more comfortable switching groups?” I thought about this, and decided no.
Back in my group, Chase Rovit had poised the point of his scalpel at the base of Gupta’s trachea.
“Open wide White Boy,” said Chase.
“Don’t call him that.”
“It’s tattooed right on his neck.”
“White Boy was his street name. Gupta is his hospital name.” Chase scoffed and sliced. The epidermis, the membrane, parted fluidly for his blade. And although perhaps not as impressive as hearing into the future, over the next weeks of dissection I saw into Gupta’s past. I examined the respiratory system of a Local Pot Smoker. I could have dried out Gupta’s lungs. I could have diced them up and sold the bits in nickel and dime bags. I gripped the bone saw in my Heather Martin and split Gupta’s skull to reveal a contused cranium. Maybe he’d been pitched helmetless from a new best friend. Maybe he’d lost his temper with someone bigger than a little girl.
Gupta was gray pickings by the close of the anatomy unit. After the final class I filed out of the lab with my peers. On the pretense of having forgotten my white coat, however, I circled back. Alone among the bodies, I stood considering my old nickname when the intercom cut on, walkie talkie style. Dr. Messineo to Operating Room C. Dr. Knox to radiology. When I closed my eyes, I was squatting outside the Salvation Army. I lay fetal in a bunkhouse after lights out, not hearing my name.
“Yo.” My eyes snapped open. Before me stood an orderly swathed in an orange hazmat suit. A mirrored visor masked his eyes and he breathed through two filtered nozzles. “You ok?” he said. Compared to Gupta?
“Could I just help you with this?” I asked. The orderly didn’t mind. Over the next five minutes I slid Gupta’s remains into a thick, opaque plastic pouch. No ceremony could have ennobled the procedure.
“You alright?” repeated the orderly, as I handed him the heavy bag.
“No” I said. But I’m ready to be.
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