StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

Scruffy AristoCat

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on August 26, 2016

Scruffy Aristocat

By Kyle Thomas Smith

I grew up on the northwest side of Chicago and went to high school on the near south side. This meant I’d have to take the EL train 14 miles from my middle-class/upper-middle class neighborhood and through (what were at the time) low-rent areas that artists had been moving into. As I’d watch this Midwest La Bohème society board the train for their day jobs or art-school classes every weekday morning, my heart would swell with the feeling that I was seeing my own destiny unfold.

A lot of shit-paying jobs in and out of college ensured that I had indeed been watching my destiny unfold. I did go on to live in some cheap places in some happening areas but when the leases would be up, I’d be priced out of those areas and into neighborhoods that I and other white artsy types had been pushed into after our pale faces had made our last neighborhood a little too safe for building-flippers and plucky Yuppies.

There was a certain glamor to living where you could get mugged on your way to or from a simple toothpaste-run but, after a while, the sounds of shoot-outs and stray dogs fighting, and stray cats mating, in the alley every night and the sight of a new line of bashed-in car windows on my street every morning on my way to work got to be too dispiriting.

So I couldn’t pack up the U-Haul fast enough when a family friend let my mother know that her son had moved out of the condo they’d bought him on Sheridan Road. They asked if I’d like to live there instead at the cost of the assessments, which came to a grand total of $400 a month.

Twice I’d live in this family’s place: once in my mid-twenties before I went off and failed as a writer in Europe and New York and again in my late twenties when I was saving almost half of each paycheck to move back to New York.

Living on Ramen noodles most nights, I might have looked, dressed and acted like a character in “Rent” but I sure wasn’t living like one. Sure, I was paying peanuts for this apartment but it was on the ninth floor of a 28-story high-rise that stood right on Lake Michigan. It had floor-to-ceiling windows with a north-side view of a singularly Chicago cityscape. I’d fall asleep to the sound of waves breaking on the Granville Avenue rocks. It also came fully furnished with a Murphy Bed built into the other side of the kitchen wall. And by my early-late twenties, my time in the grant-writing trenches had landed me a much better job writing for a fair-housing organization, which was good for both my conscience and my savings account as I was able to squirrel away more and more money for the comeback I was staging in New York.

In the meantime, there was love to find and online dating to do.

Aside from one actor friend who had never managed to so much as find the on-off switch on the retooled word processor that had been donated to our theater and that had sat gathering dust on his desk for a full three years, I was the least tech-savvy person I knew. Nonetheless, I did manage to go to Kinko’s and scan and upload to the dating site a couple surprise Polaroid shots that were taken of me gorging at the chips-and-dips table at one of our cast parties. I’d also written and rewritten my ad to show I could rub two brain cells together, all so I could meet a guy who could do the same.

I ended up meeting a lot of cement-heads who were just out for hook-ups, though, and while I was game for that, I was also naive enough to think these crash-and-burns would lead to something. They never did. For however streetwise I pretended to be, my heart was too fragile not to break when it’d all be over in the morning and no messages would be left on my answering machine and no had-a-nice-time emails would land in my inbox.

I started missing even more meals so I could save more money so I could move to New York quicker and get away from the mood that was building up and taking over my sweet-deal apartment. After so many lonely nights and blue Mondays, I began to refer to this sweet deal in my journal as “my tomb with a view.”

I still left my dating profile up, though I was now scrolling through profiles of guys in the greater New York City area as I counted down the days till I could date them.

But then a guy in Chicago wrote me. He was a young oncologist named Nelson who was completing his residency downtown. “Wow!” he wrote, “Right when you’re just about to give up, you find the ad you’ve been waiting for all along.” He gave long and winding reviews of all the books I’d listed as my favorites. He said that picture of me dipping my carrot stick in the French Onion dip should be on display in galleries. I looked at his profile. He had a clean-shaven head and coruscating emerald eyes. My heart swooned. I came clean in an email to Nelson, though: “Like I said in my profile, I’m moving to New York.”

He shot back, “I know. But you’re here now, aren’t you?”

We exchanged phone numbers and, though we had to make it quick since we were both at work, we made plans over the phone to meet in person. He told me to meet him at a chi-chi bistro in Andersonville.

“Oh, yeah. I know it,” I said, “It’s not far from my apartment.”

He said, “It isn’t?” He seemed astonished. I was in too much a rush to ask why, though, so I said, “No. It’s really close by. I’ll see you there.”

“Okay,” he said, “It’s a nice place but there’s no need to dress up.”

“Um, okay,” I said, screwing up my eyes, “Like I said, I know the place. I’ll probably be coming right from work.”

Our workplace was casual so I wore jeans and my usual rings and things to the restaurant. I had gone to Citibank first and withdrawn more money than I’d hope to for dinner but it’d been so long since I’d had a good date that I sucked it up and crumpled the ATM receipt without so much as looking at it.

Nelson was every bit as handsome as his profile and he gave me a huge hug and kiss on the cheek when I got there.

We sat down. We both ordered the spaghetti frutti de mari and he chose a wine called Sangiovese. Nelson tasted it, approved it and after the waitress poured it for both of us, he raised his glass and said, “To you.”

It was hard playing it cool when someone says that with such green eyes but I’d taken what I’d learned from actors and played coy.

Nelson said, “Wow, you’re really pasty.”

I gulped, “Yeah. I’m afraid my first ancestors were the last in line when they were passing out pigment.”

“No, no,” he said, “I like it. I’ve always had this thing for Irish guys, especially when they’re artists.”

Say that to a guy who hasn’t worn shorts since he was laughed out of no-uniform day in fourth grade, you’ll get him rethinking his plans to move out of town.

Nelson was of German extraction. He grew up in small-town Pennsylvania but he had a most resourceful mind that had made him his town librarian’s special favorite. At dinner, I discovered he knew even the minor works of August Strindberg as well as Ingmar Bergman’s variations on them.

Nelson shared with me how his mother and father used to go on a long walk together each and every night and how, the one night his mother decided to stay home because she was tired, her dad went out on his own and was run over and killed by a hit-and-run driver. I gasped and Nelson put his hand over mine, closed his eyes and shook his head.

He changed the subject to how, after his first year of med school, he’d somehow gotten an audition for a touring company of “Rent,” even though he’d never been an actor and hadn’t sung a lick since he was in the boys choir. The casting director stopped him two bars in and called the next singer on but that one experience a lot was a lot more fun than all of med school had been.

“But I figure I’m better off saving lives,” he shrugged, “It’s what I’m meant to do.”

Nelson asked if I wanted crème brûlée. Nobody had ever asked me that before. In my head, I repeated the words, “crème brûlée, crème brûlée,” as though I were rolling around in a whole vat of it.

Aloud, though, I said, “Lemme check my wallet.”

As I went to reach for it, Nelson put his hand over mine and said, “I’ll pay for it.” I said, “Don’t be silly.” He said, “Come on. Please. How often do I get to take out a starving artist?” I wasn’t sure if this was a rhetorical question but before I could hazard a guess, Nelson said, “Besides. You need to save your money. New York ain’t cheap.”

He was right. The last time I’d failed there proved that. I put my wallet away. The crème brûlée was delicious enough to put a muzzle on my ever-growling stomach.

Nelson offered to drive me home. We both wore bashful smiles as we walked the two blocks to his car, which I noticed was a jet-black BMW. He opened my side first and closed it when I got in. Nelson hopped into the driver’s seat and smiled as he turned the ignition.

“So, how do we get to your place?” he said as we headed east. I told him to take a few right turns and then there we were at my high rise, the waves breaking on the shore up ahead.

“Wait,” he said, looking at the building, “You live here?”

I said, “Yeah.”

He said, “But this is a nice place.”

I didn’t know what to tell him, so I just said, “Well, my other apartment is in the projects.”

Nelson looked down. After a few seconds of pro forma canoodling, I said good night and exited the BMW. My building’s doorman let me in and I took the elevator nine floors up. My phone didn’t ring for the rest of the night.

The next morning, I emailed Nelson that I’d had a good time but he didn’t write back. Despite myself, for the next several days, I’d call to check my answering machine but there were no messages from him. His online profile showed that he’d been active every day since our date and, by the next week, he had added pics of himself and his friends partying during the weekend he’d just spent in Baltimore.

It seemed when he’d written me, Nelson was in the market for a stray but what he’d gotten instead turned out to be a scruffy AristoCat. It was time for him to call the next character from “Rent” on to the audition stage.

This was the last date I’d ever have in Chicago. I decided to skip even more meals so I could move to New York even earlier after already having moved up my move date.

I traded in my $400-a-month apartment in a doorman building on the Chicago lakeshore for a studio in Fort Greene, Brooklyn that was half the size and two and a half times the rent. Even that apartment was considered a steal, though, even after the broker’s fee and two-month’s deposit. Later I found out why I’d lucked into such a bargain. I had a backyard apartment that looked out on to an abandoned building where prides of feral cats lived. Now instead of falling asleep to the gentle undulations of waves, I was grinding my teeth and twisting my limbs in my blankets to the sounds of female cats screaming blue murder during mating season.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010 – He lives in Brooklyn with his husband Julius and his cats Marquez and Giuseppe. Their lives together are chronicled in Kyle’s newest book, “Cockloft: Essays and Flash Scenes from a Gay Marriage,” which will be released when he can find a publisher for it.

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