Authors: Beth Nugent
Copyright © 1992 by Beth Nugent
All rights reserved under International and
Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
Published in the United States by Vintage Books,
a division of Random House, Inc.,
New York, and simultaneously in Canada by
Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Originally published in hardcover by
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in 1992.
Some of the stories in this collection have appeared
in the following publications:
The Gettysburg Review,
Grand Street, Mademoiselle, The New Yorker,
The North American Review, American Short Story Masterpieces,
Best American Short Stories 1985
The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
City of boys: stories / Beth Nugent. — 1st Vintage contemporaries ed.
p. cm. — (Vintage contemporaries)
—My little sweetheart, she says, bringing her face close enough for me to see the fine net of lines that carves her face into a weathered stone.—You love me, don’t you little sweetheart, little lamb?
Whether or not she listens anymore, I am not sure, but I always answer yes; yes, I always say, yes, I love you.
She is my mother, my father, my sister, brother, cousin, lover; she is everything I ever thought any one person needed in the world. She is everything but a boy.
—Boys, she tells me. —Boys will only break you.
I know this. I watch them on the street corners, huddled under their puddles of blue smoke. They are as nervous as insects, always some part of their bodies in useless, agitated motion, a foot tapping, a jaw clenching, a finger drawing circles against a thigh, eyes in restless programmed movement as they watch women pass–they look from breasts to face to legs to breasts. They are never still and they twitch and jump when I walk by, but still I want them. I want them in the back seats of their cars; I want them under the bridge where the river meets the rocks in a slick slide of stone; I want them in the back rows of theaters and under the bushes and benches in the park.
—Boys, she says. —Don’t even think about boys. Boys would only make you do things you don’t know how to do and things you’d never want to do if you knew what they were. I know, she says, —I know plenty about boys.
She is everything to me. She is not my mother, though I have allowed myself the luxury of sometimes believing myself her child. My mother is in Fairborn, Ohio, where she waits with my father for me to come home and marry a boy and become the woman into whom she still believes it is not too late for me to grow. Fairborn is a city full of boys and parking meters and the Air Force, but most of all it is a city full of my mother, and in my mind she looms over it like a cloud of radioactive dust. If I return, it will be to her. She is not why I left, she is not why I am here; she is just one thing I left, like all the things that trail behind us when we go from
place to place, from birth to birth, from becoming to becoming. She is just another bread crumb, just another mother in the long series of mothers that let you go to become the woman you have to become. But you are always coming back to them.
Where I live now is also a city full of boys, and, coming here, I passed through hundreds of cities and they were all full of boys.
—Boys, she tells me, —are uninteresting, and when they grow up, they become men and become even more uninteresting.
I know this too. I see how boys spend their days, either standing around or playing basketball or engaged in some irritating, persistent harangue, and I can draw my own conclusions as to what they talk about and as to the heights of which they are capable, and I see what they do all day, but still I want them.
The one time I pretended she was a boy, she knew it, because I closed my eyes; I never close my eyes, and when I came, she slapped me hard. —I’m not a boy, she said, —just you remember that. You know who I am and just remember that I love you and no boy could ever love you like I do.
Probably she is right. What boy could love with her slipping concentration? Probably no boy could ever achieve what she lets go with every day that comes between us, what she has lost in her long history of love.
What I do sometimes is slip out under her absent gaze.
—Where are you going, what are you going to do? she says, and, wallowing in the luxury of thinking myself a child, I answer: —Nowhere. Nothing.
In their pure undirected, intoxicating meaninglessness, our
conversations carry more significance than either of us is strong enough to bear, together or alone, and I drag it out into the streets today, a long weight trailing behind me, as I look for boys.
Today, I tell myself, is a perfect day for losing things, love and innocence, illusions and expectations; it is a day through which I will wander until I find the perfect boy.
Where we live, on the upper West Side, the streets are full of Puerto Rican men watching women. Carefully they examine each woman who passes; carefully they hold her with their eyes, as if they are somehow responsible for her continued existence on the street. Not a woman goes by untouched by the long leash of their looks.
Ohh, sssss, they say.
, and when a woman looks, they smile and hiss again through their shiny teeth. In their eyes are all the women they have watched walk by and cook and comb their black hair; all the women they have touched with their hands and all the women they have known live in their eyes and gleam out from within the dark. Their eyes are made only to see women on the streets.
Where we live, on West Eighty-third and Amsterdam, there are roaches and rats, but nothing matters as long as we’re together, we say valiantly, longingly. Nothing matters, I say, stomping a roach, and nothing matters, she agrees, her eyes on a low-slung rat sidling by in the long hallway toward the little garbage room across from the door to our apartment. I told the super once that if he kept the garbage out on the street, perhaps the building would be less a home for vermin.
—What’s vermin? he wanted to know.
Vermin, I told him, is rats and roaches and huge black
beetles scrabbling at the base of the toilet when you turn on the light at night. Vermin is all the noises at night, all the clicking and scratching and scurrying through the darkness. —No rats, he said. —Maybe a mouse or two, and maybe every now and then you’ll see your roach eggs, but I keep this place clean.
Together we watched as a big brown-shelled roach tried to creep past us on the wall. Neither of us moved to kill it, but when it stopped and waved its antennae, he brought his big fist down in a hard slam against the wall. He didn’t look at the dead roach, but I could hardly take my eyes off it, perfectly flattened, as though it had been steamrolled against the side of his hand.
—Maybe a roach here and there, he said, flicking the roach onto the floor without looking at it, —but I keep this place clean. Maybe if you had a man around the house, he said, trying to look past me into our apartment, —you wouldn’t have so much trouble with vermins.
I pretended not to understand what he meant, and backed into the room. Rent control is not going to last forever in New York, and when it goes and all the Puerto Ricans have had to move to the Bronx, we will have to find jobs or hit the streets, but as long as we’re together, as long as we have each other.
—We’ll always have each other, won’t we? she says, lighting a cigarette and checking to see how many are left in her pack.
—Yes, I always say, wondering if she’s listening or just lost in a cigarette count. You’ll always have me, I say. Unless, I think, unless you leave me, or unless I grow up to become the woman my mother still thinks is possible.
Today is a day full of boys. They are everywhere, and I watch each of them, boys on motorcycles, boys in cars, on
bicycles, leaning against walls, walking; I watch them all to see which of them in this city of boys is mine.
I am not so young and she is not so old, but rent control is not going to last forever, and someday I will be a woman. She wants, I tell myself, nothing more than me. Sometimes I think she must have been my mother, the way she loves me, but when I asked her if she were ever my mother, she touched my narrow breasts and said: Would your mother do that? and ran her tongue over my skin and said: Or that? Would your mother know what you want, sweetheart? I’m not your mother, she said, I stole you from a mattress downtown, just around the corner from where all the winos lie around in piss and wine and call for help and nobody listens. I saved you from that, she said. But I remember too clearly the trip out here, in the middle of a car full of people full of drugs, most of them, and I remember how she found me standing just outside the porn theater on Ninety-eighth and Broadway, and she slipped me right from under the gaze of about a hundred curious Puerto Ricans.
—Does your mother know where you are? she asked me. I laughed and said my mother knew all she needed to know, and she said, Come home with me. I have somebody I want you to meet. When she brought me home, she took me right over to a big man who lay on the couch watching television. —Tito, this is Princess Grace, she said, and Tito raised his heavy head from the pillow to look me over.
—She don’t look like no princess to me, was all he said. I never thought much of Tito, and she never let him touch me, even though our apartment is only one room, and he was sick with wanting me. At night, after they’d finished with each other, she crept over to me in my corner and whispered in my ear, —Sweetheart, you are my only one.
As Tito snored through the nights, we’d do it at least one
more time than they had, and she would sigh and say, —Little sweetheart, you are the one I wanted all the time, even with all those other boys and girls who loved me, it was always you that I was looking for, you that I wanted.
This is the kind of talk that kills me; this is the kind of talk that won me, in addition to the fact that she took me in from the hard streets full of boys and cops and taxicabs, and everywhere I looked, the hard eyes of innocence turned.
That first time with her, I felt as though my mother was curled up inside my own body giving birth to me; each time she let me go, I made my way back inside her.