|I'm late again and this time it's a big deal. The new manager will wait until after closing time to scold me. He'll first address me by my full name, Matthew, in a condescending tone. Then his young face will burn red and his thin body will shake with rage inside his cheap suit, and he'll threaten to fire me again. But this time I'm actually scared because he has good reason to. I'm spinning at The Island, like I have for almost ten years now, but tonight isn't like any other night. Tonight is the party after Pride 2006 and I was supposed to start an hour ago. I sneak in through the lobby of the attached hotel, slither my way through the crowd along the outside of the stage, and climb into the adjacent DJ booth.
I quickly throw a few switches and electronic devices at waist level and they light up in greens and yellows and reds. The two wafer-thin monitors take too long to boot up, and I double click on the DJ program. I don't look through the Plexiglas above the controls and out at the crowd; I imagine a sea of moisturized faces, some more intoxicated than others, staring down their DJ, upset that it's taking so long to start the soundtrack to their party. Finally, the program loads and I begin the clicking, letting the program match the next song's beat to the last for a seamless transition. There are no records or turntables in this DJ booth. An old CDJ that I used to be able to manipulate now sits in a corner waiting for repairs, wrapped in its own red and white RCA jacks. It's the reason I've become habitually late in the past year or so. Without the records, or at least the CDs, there's nothing to come into the booth for. After ten years, this job finally feels like a job.
I especially miss spinning the record. I miss the feel of the label moving beneath my fingertips. I miss walking the record up to speed or holding the spindle to slow it down. I miss losing myself in the music, and having to read the record's groove to remember where I am. Now there's no more vinyl. It's all abstract zeros and ones, intangible information, that a computer beat matches to the zeros and ones already playing and starts in perfect time when you hit the lighted button. Spinning no longer involves spinning. All its character, all its gut, all its audacity and rebellion, has been stripped and melted in the name of improving profit margins. It's no longer an occupation that needs specialized skills; anyone who can press a few buttons and has an ear for a hit can do this job now.
Finally I look out at the crowd. The club is packed with dancers holding their teetering drinks carefully above their heads, standing and sweating from the heat created by so many bodies packed together. The transformation still amazes me. It was eleven or twelve years ago, I was in my early twenties, when I first stumbled on The Island. It, like most of downtown Asbury, was a dump. The Island consisted of one tiny room with wood paneling, an empty dance floor, one bar and a bartender with not much to do; the hotel was an unusable eyesore with dirt-caked chairs upturned on its rotting balconies. But now, after the state released the private developers on downtown Asbury like a pack of wolves on raw meat, the club has expanded to two rooms and an outside pool area, and during the summer the rich fags pack their Speedos and skin tight jeans, ride the train from their Upper East Side apartments, and pay a small fortune for the luxury of soaking in the view of Asbury's black rocks jutting up from the rolling ocean, all while seated on those once-rotting balconies.
I spot the manager snaking his way through the crowd, but I can't see his face, so I'm not sure if he's angry with me. I focus on the crowd again; there are three types of fags that come to The Island. First there are the older men, most in jeans and solid button down shirts, a few in cargo shorts, at least one wearing one of those obnoxious Hawaiian shirts spotted with white flowers. These are the records you find in beat-up boxes in your parents' basement, warped and dusty with dated graphics and bands you've never heard of, and you know you'll find one or two in mint condition if you just put in the time to search. These records have been placed on an untold number of platters, read by an infinite amount of needles, handled by innumerable foreign fingertips.
Second are the newbies. These are usually the younger ones, though not always. They walk in without the beneficial knowledge of overpriced hair care products or facials or men's nail salons, in frumpy solid shirts and ill-fitting jeans or jean shorts. They're still test presses at this stage, checking that the volume levels are just right, checking for defects in the record before they commit to the genre.
Finally there are the more experienced twinks, normally my favorite kind of fag. They show up last because they went home between the parade and the scheduled club to nap, to shower, to stare in front of their parents' bathroom mirrors and search for pops and scratches in the contours of their faces, then bury the defects in dabs of cover-up. They wear the latest trends: ridiculously tight jeans, tight polo shirts with the collars stuck straight up, pink and purple and rainbow belts with outrageous diamond-studded belt buckles. They have four goals: look good, dance, get high, and get laid. Which is fine by me. I like to take one home whenever I can. It's not just the sex, which sometimes is mind-blowing and other times awkward; it's their attitude. I love to circle it, to orbit it, sometimes enter it and touch it, then exit back into the orbit again. It's the reason I started spinning in the first place.
You see, one thing I haven't told you is that I'm ugly. My skin is a pasty white and looks like its sweating even when it's not; my nose looks like it was once broken even though it never was; my teeth have grown in at strange angles, overlapping here and there. After coming out it seemed a cruel irony that these physical traits made me eternally uncomfortable in spaces amidst house music and gorgeous boys and overpriced alcohol, spaces where I was supposed to belong. I realized early on that I was destined to loneliness unless I found a gimmick. Then I befriended a local DJ in the area named Parker. He was gay but never embraced the club scene he was supposed to adore; he hated fashion and wore the same grey T-shirt and camouflage pants for weeks at a stretch; he wore his matted black hair however it looked when he woke and refused to tweeze or wax any part of his hairy body. He thought that spinning the latest house remix of a top ten hit for a bunch of cruising drunks was beneath him and instead became a turntablist, traveling the country, making his money by winning spin-offs.
We met at a rave at The Oceanfront Hotel when I first moved to Asbury. Although there's a waiting list for the hotel's rooms now every summer, back then, like so much else in downtown Asbury, it had been neglected; left to unceremoniously fade from its glorious post-WWII past. The rave took place in a ballroom rotting from the inside out, spots of paint peeling, floor to ceiling cracks up the corners. Parker, along with three other DJs, stood over their turntables set on the rotting wooden stage, scratching and cutting and dropping songs harmoniously, letting the needle settle into the groove for only a few seconds before pulling out another record with one hand, checking the label at its center, flipping it over, pulling up the needle with his other hand, then replacing the old record with the new, and restarting the process.
After the set he started our first conversation and eventually invited me to his run down one bedroom apartment on the boardwalk. Standing across the room from the thin ragged couch he had found on a curb, surrounded by piles of dirty stained underwear and socks and towers of stolen milk crates filled with records, he effortlessly beat-matched the upcoming song to the one presently spinning. His penetrating blue eyes locked on the records spinning below as he scratched beats and samples at will. His muscles pulsed beneath his white skin decorated with tattoos of spider webs and skulls and multi-colored stars as he rhythmically pressed into the record and released.
Eventually I moved in and we became a couple. I finally felt I had a partner, something I thought I'd never find as a gay man looking the way I do. I had resigned to the belief that my growing library of porn would be my only lasting intimate relationship. And more importantly, I found my place, the two of us belonging because we didn't belong; united against a subculture that valued the superficial, that judged you on your hair and teeth and skin and choice of outfits, that didn't dare dig past your imperfections to something beautiful and eternal because then the subculture might have to face the ugliness inside itself. Parker taught me everything I know on the decks, first showing me what to do, then standing behind me and guiding my hand with his stubby rough one when I had trouble. Then he'd let me take over the decks completely, while he either crashed on the stained mattress lying crooked on his bedroom floor, or chopped up and inhaled more crystal, in which case he'd return to release the new energy bubbling up beneath his skin. He'd jump around the decks and me, giving me more instruction.
And he taught me that everyone wants to sleep with the DJ. No matter what he looks like. "It's the power," he told me, as his fat red lips, which always looked like they were about to burst with juice, moved above his silver labret piercing. Of course, that was a long time ago. Long before I found Parker dead that morning, sprawled out on the living room floor in piss-soaked boxers, his pale body twisted at the torso, distorting the Aztec sun tattoo whose center was his right nipple. His heart had torn itself open from a crystal overdose and he died of a heart attack while I spun one of my first sets at The Island.
Tonight The Island is filled with a lot of Jersey twinks to choose from. Blondes. Brunettes. One or two redheads. Light skin. Light skin that's been turned a perfect golden by a suburban tanning booth. A few shades of brown skin. One looks Indian or Pakistani or whatever—from that region—and the other two look like some kind of Latin. And a few black ones. While I'm waiting to press the blinking play button, I look back and forth from one to the next and back again. I'm sure I could have any one. But I don't know. They're all long past the test press stage; the vinyl has been pressed from a master whose father was created long before any of us in this room, and we're all just waiting for the wax to dry. And soon the background noise will creep in from the pressure of countless needles. I'm looking at songs that, technically, are different, but are only off a few beats per minute from each other, and all contain the same phrasing, the same buildups and breakdowns, the same breaks for lyrics, the same verse-bridge-chorus structures. I don't think I'll be taking any home tonight, even if Parker's ghost appears and picks one for me. Yes, you heard me right, Parker's ghost.
Most nights Parker appears in the crowd in his signature shirt and camouflage pants, and points to the twink I should take home. At first I thought it was actually him, and I purposely cued up a ten minute remix so that I could leave the booth and search for him. I shoved my way through the thick crowd to the bar where he was leaning, his mouth open and about to order a drink, most likely his favorite, Rum and Coke. I tried to hug him but he disappeared as my hands and arms sliced through his image and I almost lost my balance. I knew I looked ridiculous but I didn't care. I reasoned that I must've been hallucinating from the crystal-induced sleep deprivation I'd been suffering for about a week after his death. But even after I had sobered up and caught up on my sleep, he still kept appearing. I thought maybe I was going crazy until one summer night a twink in a pink shirt and whitewashed jean shorts two sizes too small came up to me after a set and described somebody fitting Parker's description, who instructed the twink to come find me if he wanted me to take him home. That's when I knew it was Parker's ghost. We were a team again, us against this superficial scene, executing the ultimate revenge, using the power Parker had passed onto me to help the ugly guy get the cutest ass in the club. But like I said, I'm just not interested tonight. I'll just play the music they want to hear until closing and go up to the after-party. And it looks like I might have bigger problems. The manager is coming toward the DJ booth.
To my surprise there was no yelling from the manager. Once the lights had gone up and the crowd left, he was elated at the night's profits, and all he did was tell me in passing to buy a watch. So I left the club for the hotel after-party. For every Pride there are multiple after-parties in the hotel, but the after-party of after-parties is held on the last floor, paid for by this gross old rich man who uses the money from his years as a lawyer to keep a steady flow of twinks coming to him.
The old man lets me in. He's dressed in a windowpane shirt and blue tie and I'm forced to smile and thank him and kiss his leathery thin cheek. All the hotel rooms have the bathroom to the right as you walk in, two double beds, a large dresser with a television sitting on it, a large mirror hanging above, and a balcony overlooking the pool. A laptop connected to a stereo blasts some big black diva demanding everyone leave her alone and let her live her own life. The song came out a few years ago; I know I played it sometime earlier in the night and it's just come out on one of those frightening gay party compilations, filled with mantras that rationalize the scene's superficiality, every song anchored by the same tribal beat, using the same synthesizers because they're all remixed by the same half-dozen producers. In their tight black outfits and cropped haircuts, the usual Island fixtures flutter around the room. One or two clank glasses on the far side of the dresser.
The TV sits on the floor beneath the window, and a line of handheld mirrors have been placed on the large dresser. Some faghag with a pretty intricate rainbow painted on her chubby cheek is setting up the lines as another faghag and a few queens come up behind her and snort them with cut straws. I'm sure they're all pretending they're Andy Warhol at Studio 54, thinking about the good old disco days none of us are old enough to remember and have constructed using bad movies that rerun on VH1, the days before AIDS, the days when cocaine was a recreational drug and any sexual misadventure could be cured with a visit to your local pharmacist. Although I don't mind coke I just don't feel like any tonight. And even if I did, I'm sure as hell not waiting for this queer trash to suck up all the good powder and leave me with residue.
I push past a wall of Island fixtures, slide open the glass door, and enter the balcony. A pair of twinks stand at one corner, smoking. One looks like all the other Island queens. The other stands out and sparks my interest. He's wearing some kind of punk rock outfit, a tight black shirt with some band's name scribbled on it, those red pants with plaid designs and all the belts, and big black boots. He's thin and his hair is buzzed short and dyed purple. His long lashes fan out and frame his blue eyes. His skin is pale with a few freckles and I can see some scratches in various stages of healing around his chin and right cheekbone. He reminds me of one of those straightbait guys in some gay porn; guys who are straight but experiment just that one time it's filmed, and you know the whole time they're actually flaming fags beneath those scratched and rough exteriors, but no one dares say it out loud for fear of ending the fantasy for the viewer. I approach them.
"I'm not intruding am I?" I say with my hand flat against my chest, my eyes staring at my purple-haired target.
"Oh no, not at all," the queen says. I move past him to my target and names are exchanged. His is Mikey. The queen places his smooth fingers on Mikey's shoulder. "I'm gonna see what's going on in the other rooms," he says to Mikey. "I'll take my time getting back."
"So what are you doing here?" I ask him.
"I was brought here for a purpose. I might be letting down my friends, though."
"I don't mean that. Shit, almost everyone is here for that. What I really meant..." I begin, "well, it's not like," I survey the room, then fix on his blue eyes, "you don't fit in very well around here."
Mikey laughs, opening his mouth wide. His teeth are straight and white. Probably the result of painful and regular orthodontist visits, a sign of a good suburban upbringing. "I know. Some friends from college thought it might be fun to take me to my first Pride."
"How do you like it so far?"
"Eh. Not really my thing. We did the parade this afternoon, then went home to nap and shower and stuff, then came back. We didn't get in until the club almost closed. Then one of my friends met this old guy who invited us all up here."
"Did you hear any of the music in the club?"
He nods indifferently.
"How did you like it?"
He shrugs. His bony shoulders rise and pull up his tight shirt. For a moment I imagine his pale lower back, the start of his spine, the rubber waistband of his briefs.
"I'm the DJ," I say.
Normally these three words cause the young eyes to light up, all of the attention focuses, and the boy asks me what it's like to be a DJ. You can see the wheels turning in his head, strategizing how to get me into bed. But not this one; this one looks unfazed.
No one speaks and I'm scared now. The DJ thing didn't work, didn't cloak me in a mystique that hides my jagged teeth and pasty skin. I assume our conversation is over. But then he speaks.
"Do you spin records?"
"Of course. Real DJs only spin records."
Now his eyes light up. His hands become animated. He's wearing a black leather bracelet with metal spikes on his left wrist. He loves records and we talk about vinyl and needles and outrageous prices we've paid, and analog versus digital, and counterweights and gauges and cartridges. Finally he asks me if I want to see his record collection.
Before we leave we have to find his friends. We re-enter and he spots them across the room and says he'll be right back. I see him talk to two white queens, both blondes in tight polo shirts, one pink and the other bright orange.
"So you're going home with one after all," I hear beside me. I immediately recognize the voice.
"Yeah," I respond and turn to Parker. He stands on the balcony right outside the open glass door. The ocean breeze kicks up, whipping a few chunks of his greasy hair as it moves past. I look around. As usual, no one seems to notice me talking to a ghost.
"What made you change your mind?"
"He's different from the other boys you've brought me."
"I didn't bring you this one. And why is he different?"
"Look at him. He's not some sex-crazed, catty narcissist. He's one of us."
"You don't know that for sure."
"I know it."
"Just be careful. At least the sex-crazed narcissists know what they want."
Parker disappears and I see the pink and bright orange queens dragging Mikey back to me. They stand at either side of him. I don't know what Parker's problem is. The contrast between Mikey and these other two is obvious.
"Finally," the pink one says, his tanned profile locked on Mikey and manicured hand resting on Mikey's shoulder, "our little bi punk rocker is becoming a faggot."
"I remember the straight days," the bright orange queen says, his tanned profile locked on Mikey as well, one hand resting on his square hip and the other hanging freely. "Where did the time go? They grow up so fast."
The queens laugh and Mikey smiles like an embarrassed little kid. I smile reactively, making sure to keep my mouth closed.
Between semesters Mikey lives with his parents in the new condo complex at the three-point intersection behind The Island's back parking lot, so we walk. The salt air moves through us and the sun rises out of the ocean horizon, giving everything a dull, orange glow. There's no sign of Pride now, except for a few little rainbow flags and some pink triangle stickers in wire mesh trash cans. While we walk we talk. Well, he talks. He tells me that he's just started college, he thinks he wants to be some kind of artist, he wishes he lived back in the sixties and seventies because he loves all those old album covers, like that Rolling Stones tongue one or the Velvet Underground banana one. He's living in the guest rooms of his parents' new condo, the condo they bought after retirement and want to die in, the condo they made clear to Mikey is only a temporary space for him until college is done and he can live on his own.
When we reach the complex standing at Cookman, Ocean, and Kingsley, a complex where the buyer needs at least a quarter of a million, I remember the rotting landmark that stood in its place for over a century before. Palace Amusements occupied one block and overlooked Wesley Lake, the man-made lake that separates the hedonistic Asbury Park from its religious neighbor, Ocean Grove. At Palace Amusements' height at the turn of the twentieth century, masses of children and fathers in top hats and mothers twirling umbrellas would enter the building, perhaps get lost in the maze of mirrors or ride ornate and lavishly painted wooden horses on the largest carousel of its time.
But by the twenty-first century the horses had been sold and shipped far away. The paintings on the exterior wall of Tillie, the head of a Victorian boy, and the multi colored letters spelling FUNHOUSE and TUNNEL OF LOVE were left to be eaten by the ravenous salt air. The empty building was occupied by junkies until 2004 when a private developer rolled noisily onto the three-point corner with a crane. It stretched its neck over the building then dove, its metal teeth ripping until the building finally collapsed. I imagined the gaunt junkies, now skeletons of their former selves, pricking their fingers as they scooped up needles and little black globs of heroine, some escaping through passages created earlier by breaking down the rotting wood and plaster, and others getting lost in the maze of mirrors, the alarm growing on their gaunt faces as the mirrors came down around them, shards slicing into their stretched and pale skin, their bones pulverized into white dust. Watching this, my heart fell; the crane ripped out the last guts of the Asbury I knew. That was around the same time The Island permanently retired its vinyl and CDs.
The new complex consists of circular courtyards, parking spaces, and half-moon-shaped balconies holding small glass tables and lounge chairs and pots spilling over with foliage. Mikey unlocks the door and lets us in. We have to take off our shoes in the tiled foyer. The paint on the walls still smells like chemicals and the wall-to-wall carpeting covers the living room and runs up the steps. Mikey says the condo was built for the modern homeowner, with a big open kitchen that flows into a dining room on the first floor and large walk-in closets for the two bedrooms upstairs and a separate bath for the master bedroom. He offers me a drink which I politely decline and we go up to his bedroom.
At one side sits his unmade bed, a dresser, and his walk-in closet. Next to this stands his Technics turntable, an amplifier, and two little speakers on a wooden structure with a few black milk crates of records besides it. At the other side of the room sit piles of boxes. Everywhere in between are dirty clothes, a few pairs of those strange red pants with the plaid designs and all those belts, some tight black T-shirts with band names, lots of socks, and a few boxers. The room smells of musk and dirt and sweat and boys, a wonderful oasis in this desert of the vacuumed and Febrezed.
He looks down at the dirty piles and up at me and seems embarrassed. He cups his hands together and starts scooping up the stained underwear and socks, a sock or two fall back down through the gap between his arms, and he turns his head back and forth, as if unsure where to put what he's left holding.
"Please don't worry about that," I say.
"Are you sure?"
"Definitely. My place looks just like this." My place doesn't look just like this; I've become more frequent about my house cleaning as I've gotten older. But I don't mind it—I even enjoy it—because it reminds me of Parker and the first apartment we had together. I had gotten some shitty retail job in the day and sold pot at night to help Parker pay the bills. We lived in a dilapidated apartment building next to Palace Amusements; our neighbors consisted of small time drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes.
Mikey smiles softly, nods once, and drops the clothing. "Do you wanna see my records now?"
I sit on the bed and he stands over the turntable and amplifier, switches them on, removes the dustcover, and starts going through the milk crates. He pulls out mostly black sleeves, with band names like Buzzcocks and Circle Jerks and Discharge, some written in slime or blood that slides down. He holds up an album depicting uniform lines of gray bonfires and red block letters that read Stiff Little Fingers Flammable Material.
"This is one of my favorites," he says, his blue eyes penetrating mine. "It's their debut album, first pressed in 1979." He slips the record from the sleeve. "It's near mint and didn't cost that much, but it's one of my favorites. Well you know that, I just said it." He smiles quickly, nervous and embarrassed, and turns his back to me. Now his ass is eye-level, his skin tight pants pressing his thick buttocks together, and I fight the impulse to touch them. "This song is amazing," he says, placing the needle midway through the record, "It changed my life."
A fat guitar rips through the speakers and then a beat starts. Mikey turns back to me and nods his head to the beat. A voice rough like gravel, and at moments swallowed by the surrounding and obnoxious drums and guitar, screams about refusing to becoming a soldier and wasting his life. Even if the song is literal, its use as a metaphor is obvious. I imagine it's the metaphor that changed Mikey's life.
He bends down. "You like it?" he asks, his breath caressing my ear.
"Yes," I say. I don't tell him that the immature lyrics remind me of my own stereotypically rebellious teenage years and make me cringe inside. But at the same time they reinforce my original thoughts on Mikey. He's an individual, like me and Parker. And unlike those superficial twinks. While the record continues, I look through the milk crates. One by one I feel the cardboard sleeves and plastic protectors. Each record clicks and slaps after it's pulled halfway up for inspection, dropped back down, and pushed forward. The process reminds me of my hours spent in dirty little record shops tucked away in alleys, or mainstream record stores that pretended to be unique, poring through thousands of dance and pop and rock and jazz and spoken word records. Looking through Mikey's records makes me miss that, makes me miss buying old vinyl for pennies on the dollar, and taking them home to clean with special record cloth.
"What's this?" I ask Mikey after the song ends. I slip a record with a white cover from the milk crate. Pink lettering says, "If you were a transformer you'd be…" and then in a cartoon-like font and colored in rainbows it reads FAGATRON.
"They're an amazing queercore band," he says.
I nod like I know what queercore is.
"But they're broken up now."
As I hand him the record he almost drops it, perhaps out of nervousness, which I find endearing and makes me want him more.
"Tell me what you think of it," he says.
He carefully places the needle on the last song and the speaker pops. The same kind of obnoxious crash of guitars and drums and bass explode from the vinyl, the lead singer screaming out the vocals to Madonna's "Like a Prayer."
"So?" he says once the song's over.
"I think it's…interesting."
His blue eyes widen. "I think I have a double." He goes through another milk crate and pulls out another of the same white album with pink and rainbow lettering.
"Do you want it?"
I'm not sure what to say. I'm not sure if I want it. "Of course," I tell him.
He hands it to me and smiles like a little kid offering a school drawing to his parent, and I smile back, so comfortable I don't realize I've shown my teeth.
"So show me something," he says, pointing the turntable.
"Show you something?"
"Yeah. Like some scratching or something." His young eyes light up and his attention focuses.
I move over to the turntable, count a steady beat in my head, and start with a baby scratch. It's pretty simple; I just pull the first sound of the record forward and backward on the upbeat. I look down at the record and then at Mikey. He's nodding his purple head. He moves closer and I smell him; I smell his musk, his dirt, his sweat.
I turn the baby scratch into a chirp scratch and use the volume control on the amplifier to move it in and out, and end with a scribble scratch. He's right on top of me. His breath brushes against my neck. His cheek's peach fuzz touches my face. He's going to kiss me.
I wake up spooning Mikey. The salt air floats in through the open window and it looks to be early evening. My arm is draped over his sleeping skin and his soft fingers are interlocked with mine. He lies naked in a fetal position, his body smooth except for bushes of untamed hair surrounding his penis and escaping from where his ass cheeks meet. I managed to slip into boxers and a T-shirt after he first fell asleep. I softly slide my hands along his smooth, inexperienced skin, and trace the fleshy contours of his body. It reminds me of the time when life was new and desirable, when invincibility was as natural as the night and the future burned with powders and parades and colored lights, when Parker was still alive.
The image of Palace Amusements returns and I wonder where this specific condo would be, where Mikey's bed would be and where we would be lying, perhaps in the maze of mirrors, where multiple images of Mikey would surround me and I could take them in, but at the same time I'd have to systematically ignore the duplicate images of my ugly, pasty self.
The touching slowly rouses Mikey. He squints for a moment, his long lashes crashing into one another. He turns on his back and my arm now rests right below his tiny nipples. He breathes heavily through his nose once and smiles, cups his hand behind my head, pushes it toward him, and kisses me. In his kisses the future burns again, whiting out my crooked teeth and nose and shiny skin.
"You know what's always fascinated me about records?" he asks, his naïve face poised like I always imagined professors looked when about to lecture, as if something profound was perched at the tip of his tongue.
"When you spin a record, when the needle hits the wax, the weight of the needle slowly destroys the record. And there's nothing you can do about it. Yeah you can use the counterweights to slow the wearing down, but eventually, as the needle cuts deeper and deeper into each groove, you're going to get white noise and pops, until finally the record is ruined. So, really, in order to listen to it, you have to be willing to destroy it."
I nod and tell him I didn't know that, even though I do; Parker told me the same thing once, but he elaborated. One night after we'd been drinking cocaine dissolved in Rum and Coke, he sitting on the stained couch, his legs splayed with bushes of black hair escaping from his boxers, he said, "Spinning a record is like our life, you know?"
"How so?" I said, looking over the turntables at him.
"All the drinking, the drugs, staying out all night. Living like this means you have to be willing to slowly kill yourself."
"Why don't we stop then?"
"Because you're never really living until you're almost dying."
I think about our apartment again, and that crane coming down on Palace Amusements again, and I find myself angry. In the name of revitalization the private developers were brought in and let loose. In devouring the abandoned buildings and spitting out high end restaurants and trendy bars and nightclubs, they've pushed out the people Parker and I always held dear, the prostitutes and drug dealers and addicts, pushed them half a mile west past the train tracks, to make room for more desirable populations like domesticated gay couples walking their bulldogs down the boardwalk, or trust-fund kids in tight jeans and logo T-shirts who think they're artists, or aging baby boomers like Mikey's parents who want to retire and die and have their ashes sprinkled at the Jersey Shore. And anyone who might know these seedier things once existed now pretends they never did.
But what these people don't understand—don't want to understand—is that the people they don't want to acknowledge, the hookers and pimps and junkies and drug dealers, are the true ones. The newcomers occupying downtown are constantly running from themselves on trains to and from Manhattan, running in and out of gallery openings, hiding from themselves inside dimly lit bars that sell over-priced specialty drinks. But the ones pushed out have faced themselves, have come to terms with and own their flawed selves. They know exactly what they want and you know exactly what they want from you; there is no addressing you as "dear" or "darling" after a peck on the cheek, no kind words to your face and then catty remarks to friends once you've disappeared. The ones pushed out own their addictions, own the lines and cracks running through their weathered faces, the cycles of ecstasy and withdrawal that dictate their existence. They want to be forgotten by the newcomers because it's easier to forget than to have to stare at yourself in the mirror without the benefit of hair care products or cover-up, and lay yourself bare in front of yourself, to accept the person you wish you weren't.
Mikey's smooth face wrinkles with alarm. "I hate to ask you this," he says and pauses, "but my parents will be home tomorrow morning. Do you think you could be out of the house by then?"
"You're not out to them?"
"No problem," I say, smiling.
He slides out from beneath me, and kisses me once quickly. He stands for a moment to compose himself, his young body falling naturally into the perfect proportions. "I'll be right back," he says, "I have to take a leak." He smiles again and leaves the room.
So he's not out to his parents. I can respect that. I can wait. We can see each other at least once a week at the club until he leaves; maybe we can go out for something to eat now and then, talk some more. Maybe we can do it tonight. There are a lot of nice restaurants around here now. We'll figure out how to manage college when we get to it. It's only late June; the summer's just begun. I lie on my back and soak in the salt air for a moment.
"Hey Mikey! We're comin' up!" I hear from the window.
I hear the toilet flush and Mikey's clumsy footsteps approaching. His naked body re-enters the room.
"You might want to put some clothes on," I say smiling. "Somebody outside said they're coming up here."
He rushes over to the window, examines the situation, and turns back to me. "Fuck!"
"It's Tony and Kate."
"They can't see you here." His nude form bends down, picks up the pile of my clothes sitting next to the bed, and throws them toward me.
"I'm not out to them." He scoops up a pair of briefs and clumsily pulls them up his legs. Then he puts those pants with all the belts on again.
I look at him puzzled.
"You met my college friends; these are my high school friends." He pulls a tight black T-shirt above his head and I see bushes of armpit hair. He curses as he tries to get the shirt over his head. By now I'm dressed.
"I can leave now if you like."
"No. They'll see you and wonder what's up."
I hear them taking off their shoes downstairs. "I think they're in the house."
"Fuck! I always forget to lock that fucking door!"
"I could go into your parent's room, then leave when they're in here." I hear them coming up the steps.
"No, it's too late for that. Hide in the closet."
"Come on, please." He walks across the room and opens the closet door.
"You've got to be kidding."
"Just for a few minutes—I'll get them out fast."
The footsteps are coming down the hall.
"No way in hell!"
His face stretches with alarm and he pushes his hand downward, signaling me to keep my voice down.
"I've worked very hard for what I have," I say in a softer, calmer tone. "I'm not going back."
"Please," he says. His blue eyes lock on mine, melting my anger. "Just for a minute."
I imagine our future together again and reason this is a small sacrifice to make. I walk into the closet and he closes the door behind me.
The smell of musk and dirt and sweat and boys is more intense in here and makes me nauseous. My back is to the dusty light filtering through the door's slats. I'm standing on piles of clothes and a few pairs of boots. How much goddamn clothing does this kid have? I hear his friends walk in.
Kate asks him about the strange shoes downstairs.
"I don't know," he tells them. "They were here when I got home last night."
I keep still and listen to the conversation, afraid that if I move I might lose my balance. There's gossip about people I don't know, discussion about hair dye, concert tickets, a possible run to the mall. And no mention from Mikey of the man he just slept with now perched on a pile of mildew-stained laundry in the walk-in closet.
Listening to this mindless, immature chatter angers me. This is ridiculous. I wanted to experience a whole different genre of music with different instruments and rules and lyrical content and I got it in Mikey. The punk Mikey, that wax has dried and hardened, the grooves have been somewhat worn, and the record is familiar. But the gay Mikey, that vinyl isn't even in the test press stage yet. And what if after listening to it he decides he doesn't like the new song, doesn't like the phrasing, the buildups and breakdowns, the breaks for lyrics, the zeroes and ones? What if he decides he doesn't want the vinyl, doesn't want to branch out into new genres, and stays with the familiar master? Where will that leave me?
"What the fuck are you talking about?" I hear behind me. A cycle of adrenaline runs through me and I jump and turn. I hit my head on the shelf directly above and almost twist my ankle as I lose my footing on a boot lying sideways on top of an uneven layer of laundry.
"What was that?" I hear Kate say.
"It's nothing," Mikey says, his voice shaking slightly; the space between his words stretched out. "My parents stuffed so much crap in that closet. It's not all stable."
"Uh huh," she responds, sounding unconvinced.
My heart slows inside my chest. Through the shafts of light, Parker sits in front of me.
"Will you keep your voice down?" I whisper.
"Nobody can hear us, Matt."
His presence makes me uncomfortable and I can't stand to make eye contact, so I drop my eyes like a scolded child and stare into the dirty darkness below me. His rough hand takes a hold of my chin and gently guides my stare back to his blue eyes.
"What the fuck do you see in this kid anyway?"
I don't answer because Parker already knows the answer.
"This kid isn't me."
"And even though we had a lot of good times together, neither of us can go back."
Parker disappears. I brace myself. Feeling another injection of adrenaline, I open the door and enter the room.
The conversation stops. Kate, with red spiky hair and a diamond in her nose, says hello.
"Hello," I say. The other two stay silent, their eyes directed toward the floor.
Kate, wearing a smirk, turns to Mikey. "Mikey, you didn't tell us you were hiding a man in your closet."
Mikey stares blankly.
I move past the bed they're sitting on to the turntable. I pull the record off the platter and put it back in its sleeve. "Thanks for the record," I tell Mikey.
I make my way downstairs and into the tiled foyer. Mikey never leaves his room in pursuit. It only stings for a moment. I slip on my shoes that are waiting in a line with the others next to the front door and exit. It's dusk now; a sliver of sun melts into the ocean horizon.
I'll return to my apartment on the other side of the tracks. I'll pass the female and tranny hookers starting their work day in my parking lot, wearing constricting jean short skirts, pouting their lips to ready them for pink and cherry lipsticks pulled from tiny metallic handbags. Once inside, beneath a ceiling buckling from leaky pipes, I'll switch on the turntables and see what samples I can get out of this Fagatron record. I'll analyze the milk crates of records I've been ignoring for so long and pull out some of the collection inherited from Parker. And who knows; maybe I'll even ask around, see if any club owners are still looking for a DJ who spins records.
Title graphic: "Stylus" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2011. "Spinning the Record" was originally published by Battered Suitcase in substantially different form.