Fucking dogs, Antonio thought as Richter and Swallow nudged at his bare feet. He’d been trying his best to make his way through Bella’s dark and cluttered apartment, dodging clumps of blankets, boxes, and clothes scattered across her bedroom. If he woke her, even accidentally, he’d have to explain. I don’t stay the night, the words didn’t even sound right in his head. The tiny house puppies followed his feet, licking at his toes until he shut the front door.
Safe in the hallway, he passed his wrinkled shirt over his head and smoothed it out as best he could. His flip flops dropped to the floor and he slipped his feet in them. Digging around in his jeans pocket, he pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.
The pretty chicks always got the dogs, he rolled his eyes as he lit his cigarette. His leather watch clicked past 4 a.m. No chance of going home—he was on the opposite side of town, and Bella had tapped out his wallet at the bar. It was the last time he’d party like a rock star with a wannabe porn star, he stood firm. But he had no money and no choice—a forced early morning walk to clear his lungs would have to suffice.
Antonio left Bella’s apartment building to the stares of two of her neighbors, an elderly woman appalled by his crooked clothing and silly schoolboy glazed eyes, and the other was a man a little older than himself, just strolling to his doorstep from a night out on the town, not quite as luckily. He’d tried to mumble a ‘you can’t smoke in here’ warning, but Antonio smiled wider, hitting the front door of the building with a loud metal commotion, and slipping out into the warmly lit city streets of New York City.
His stomach rumbled as he rounded a street corner and spied a tiny café with large front windows and steaming pots of coffee behind the counter. Customers sat in corners and in booths, very few and separated from one another. No money, he reminded himself, poking around his empty pockets, pushing his pack of cigarettes flat against his leg.
“Guys hate to cuddle, at least the ones I’m usually with,” Bella had told him, caressing his long black hair and bringing her fingertips across his tanned, coffee milk colored, face.
If she hadn’t been such a bombshell, albeit a fake blonde, Antonio wouldn’t have let the evening go much farther than that statement. He much preferred women like Annie, the red-haired tart down the block from his own apartment. She’d stopped him on the street after his daily jog to ask for his help with her grocery bags the day before. He went inside for a glass of water, but satisfied quite a bit more than just that thirst. Had she been looking for a relationship, or cuddling, it never would’ve happened.
His mind wandered to Jessica, the girl he’d met at the supermarket while shopping with his friend Sam. Sam kept her eyes on the shelves as Antonio set his sights on the curvy vixen in the sleek black heels. ‘Who wears heels to the market?’ Sam tried to justify, but Antonio had already vanished. He led the stranger to the supermarket restrooms and found it impossible to control himself there as well.
Maybe it’s too much, he felt a twinge of pain in his gut. Maybe I should at least try to take it slow, listen to Sam. She’d mostly yelled about diseases as they strolled through the parking lot of the market, but he refused to be anything but safe, so he tuned her out. He couldn’t deny her concern for him, not once in the four years they’d known each other.
Sam, he thought, and his legs jostled across the street in the opposite direction.
His knuckles rapped lazily on Sam’s apartment door, careful to miss the gold letters, 3B.
Cozy on her couch, curled up with a thick book, Sam heard the knocking. She pulled her hair tighter in the dark brown ponytail and straightened her wire-frame reading glasses. Without a stitch of curiosity, she got to her feet and headed for the door.
In her open doorway, she found Antonio Suarez, the boy she’d kept from the ‘old neighborhood.’ Everything else, she’d burned, bagged, packed and sold, but Antonio Suarez had managed to follow her out of that nightmare. Just the way he knew she would, Sam cleared the doorway and motioned him inside.
“You do know it’s after 4 a.m.,” she eyeballed Antonio, still straightening the wrinkles in his shirt with the bottom of his palm. She handed him a smoking cup of coffee and wrapped her bathrobe tightly around her body.
Antonio nodded, blowing the billowing steam from his cup. He looked at his hands grasping the dainty ceramic cup and the tiny saucer she’d placed the cup on. Sam was the only person, regardless of gender, who could convince Antonio to use a coaster on her coffee table, without resorting to threats and weapons.
“You’re lucky I was still up,” Sam said, sitting next to him on her couch. “I had some reading to do,” she didn’t wait for him to ask, the awkward moment getting the best of her.
Staring into space, Antonio had the most thoughtful eyes, deep brown and lost. The steam from his coffee wafted across his face, floating through the still air.
“Do you think I date a lot?” The words slowly coiled from his full lips, reluctantly.
Sam’s laughter sat lightly above them. “I don’t think I’d call it ‘dating’,” she shook her head playfully. “Are you drunk? Had a little too much fun at the party last night?” Her face changed when she got no answer, her voice became shrill with her rushed emergency tone and she caught his head with both hands, staring deeper into his eyes. “Well, are you? Did you?”
Antonio ignored her amused giggles as she dropped the act. They’d been dangerously close and the concern she showed for him didn’t help matters any. For a tiny second, he had focused on her lips; he’d thought about Sam in a different way, not simply his old friend, and considered doing the impossible—kissing her.
In the same second, he hated himself. He’d almost crossed the boundary put in place to protect them both. Neither could afford to develop feelings for the other, both of two different lifestyles, different centuries it seemed sometimes, but he’d gone and let her lips into his mind. Hadn’t he had enough of that for one night? Antonio grumbled as he shifted on the couch.
The paperback novel, curving and splitting at the spine, in Sam’s hand caught his attention, drawing him from his trance. The windows were closed, the television screen was black, and her bedroom door had been left ajar. He’d invited himself as company not knowing if she’d be bathing, watching a movie, or even sleeping. He’d only been thinking of himself and the way she’d always welcome him inside for a talk.
“I need to go,” Antonio shot to his feet, wiggling his soft pack of Marlboro cigarettes from his pants pocket. “You need to get to bed. I need to think more often.”
“You know that you can always come visit me,” Sam held the top of her apartment door. “Just pardon the mess.” Her eyes wandered around her cluttered living room, and she shrugged. “If you need to talk to someone about anything, I’m here.”
Shifting from one foot to another and balancing his cigarette between his lips, Antonio felt himself slipping. He felt the reactions he often tried to hide, a softened face, his downturned eyes, and a slightly lighter tone in his voice, any time he found himself near Sam. “No,” he barely grazed her shoulder with his hand on his way into the hall. “I’m good. I got nothing. Thanks for letting me in.”
“Take some money for the subway home,” she tossed a few bills at him.
Confused, Sam hesitated to shut the door. Had she not seen the calmness in his eyes at her offer? Everything on his face had her believe that he had a secret, something eating though his mind. “Have a good night,” she whispered.
Antonio waved without looking back, and Sam shut her door.
Blocks of light from another subway train tapped out Morse code across Antonio’s body and face as he sat, slouched and thinking; he imagined the secret message was ‘Hey dude. Stop. You’re an idiot. Stop. Hah. Stop.’ Pushing his hair behind a neatly pierced ear, he sighed. He’d been over the issue with himself countless times. Sam gave him company, a female presence to care about truly, minus all the sexual urges and thoughts. What would they be if the hormones happened to win?
She’d always answer the phone or open her door at all hours of the night. He could express anything to her, and he had in the past—hopes, dreams, fears. But to wake up to her each morning, he wasn’t sure.
And that’s what she’d want. She’d want the old-fashioned boyfriend-girlfriend coupling with matching I-love-yous and his and hers towels. He wasn’t ready for it. He shook his head and slashed his arms in defiance on the subway train; it wasn’t going to happen.
Now, the girl three seats to his left wouldn’t want any of that living-together nonsense. He could tell from her tattooed chest and plunging neckline that she’d toss him out the door herself had he taken too long to find his own way to it. She had glistening beads of sweat brandishing her forehead and the distinct look of a clubbing girl who loved to dance. Her sharp heels slung beside her, dangling from her index finger. Staring out the window, waiting for her platform, she conveniently let her attention sail past Antonio, giving him all the permission he needed to ogle.
Sam’s dull lips faded from Antonio’s memory, replaced by the vibrant red and full ones of his mystery girl. Her slender shoulder beneath her bathrobe gave way to the sharp edges of the alluring woman’s fitted dress, black like her long locks. Before long, Antonio had forgotten his struggle with the thought of Sam. He had new prey within his grasp.
He’d barely listened to the girl as she introduced herself as ‘Ericah, with an h’. She’d left her boyfriend at one club or another, licking shots of whiskey from her best friend’s bellybutton. His ears stood at attention when she confessed that she thought he was cute. They rounded a street corner, dark from a burnt lamppost. Antonio’s eyes scanned the darkness, the walls of abandoned buildings and the cracks between dumpsters and boxes.
It didn’t take them long to test one another’s limits. Antonio wrapped his hand around Ericah’s throat and stifled a joyful scream. He growled into the night.