The Troll Within
I had a minute to myself. The delivery truck was circling the block waiting for the Sleepy’s truck to finish next door. Had Carlos gone with us, I never would have whipped out my phone. Carlos would have confiscated it until the end of the day, made me hang around ten minutes off the clock to get it back. Even Kevin, the assistant manager, was perusing his Facebook newsfeed.
I never checked my Facebook account. I had no “friends,” not on Facebook, not in New York, not in Phoenix, Arizona, where I grew up. I had family in Phoenix, but I didn’t want “news” from them. I belonged to no “groups.” There was no one I cared to “share” my life with, at least no one who would “accept” me. I brought up The Daily Nation’s website, certain I would find further incentive to shun society.
“Three Killed in Newark ICE Raid Gone Wrong.”
I read the article. I scrolled down to the comments section. Message boards were where most of my human interactions were focused nowadays.
“Three less illegals in our country, boo-hoo. The leftist lib media expects me to cry every time a non-Caucasian pays for breaking the law. I know, stay in your own country where you belong.”
Whenever I encountered a particularly vile remark, the first thing I did was click on the commenter’s profile to read the most recent posts. Unsurprisingly, Darryl2367 was homophobic as well as racist.
“So, he won’t cater your pervert wedding, boo-hoo. The Bible doesn’t consider your marriage real either. Instead of going to church for your fake ceremony, go to pray away that sickness in your souls.”
I returned to his most recent comment, armed with material. I enjoyed annihilating trolls. I had a real knack for it. In fact, my screen name was “Pedro,theTrollHunter.”
“Clearly, you have utmost respect for the law. Yet, you sided with Mr. Everly for illegally discriminating against a lesbian couple. Why not break into his bakery, shoot him four times in the chest? Apparently, it’s up to you to decide whose life holds value. Well, guess what? I’m a gay, Mexican, leftist, atheist lib, and my life matters as much as yours. How wretched you must feel inside, to disparage anyone different. Before you suggest praying away the sickness in my soul, start with your own, you hateful d!ck!”
I hit post. I spotted the Sleepy’s truck pulling away. A moment later, the Hearth ‘N Home truck arrived. The driver got out and opened the back. The other stock boys and I loaded the boxes onto dollies.
“That Sleepy’s truck took its sweet time,” the driver said to me.
“Uh huh,” I grunted.
“What an asshole, right?” he said.
“Uh huh.” I went for a box in the back to avoid talking.
My solitude was a choice now; it wasn’t always. I used to have intense anxiety around others. My movements would turn rigid. My mouth would clamp shut. My gaze would fasten upon the ground. In my mind, I would call it “the ice.” It was like a curse. I had Father Alvarez to thank for “the ice,” for destroying my self-worth. Priests were supposed to lay blessings, not curses, but the world rarely was what it was supposed to be.
Between ICE and “the ice,” it was no wonder I preferred isolation. Fortunately, my fellow stock boys had long since given up on engaging me in small talk. Once we brought the merchandise up to the stockroom, we started unpacking.
“Pedro, my office!” Carlos growled over the intercom. I hurried to his office in the back.
“We need you to cover Exchanges for an hour. The girls are short-staffed,” Carlos directed. As if on cue, my stomach grumbled. I took lunch at two. Carlos glared at me, daring me to point out that my break started in a few minutes. Since the largest delivery arrived at three, my lunch would have to wait until four or later.
“Okay,” I said. I reminded myself I just had to get through the day. By seven o’clock, I would finally be alone in my Astoria, basement sublet apartment. I would pick up where I had left off in my Gabriel García Márquez novella. Once I finished, I would start my Margaret Atwood or my George R.R. Martin, depending on my mood. The novel I planned to write one day would read like the love child of all three.
“Well, get your ass down there,” Carlos barked. I scrambled downstairs.
Sonia and Aaron were at Exchanges. Referring to them as “the girls” hadn’t been a gaffe on Carlos’ part. He always referred to retail clerks as “the girls,” though several males held those jobs. Reputedly, management favored women and effeminate men for customer service positions. I was gay, but I didn’t look it. I didn’t act gay either, in the sense of actually sleeping with men. Still, I had loved a man once.
Seeing me, Aaron let out a suggestive “mmm.” I blushed. I was handsome, lean, tall and muscular. I wasn’t physically repulsive anymore. Now, I had to make a conscious effort to keep people away.
“Stop harassing your coworkers. We saw a video about that,” Sonia smirked. She grabbed her purse from under the counter. Apparently, I would be alone with Aaron for the next hour.
“Are you saying that ‘cause I’m black? There was a video about that too.” He feigned offense.
“Oh, shut up Aaron,” she groaned.
“See how this white bitch talks to me?” he huffed. “You’ll be sweet though, right?” he said, grinning at me.
“Good luck,” she said to me, giving me a wry smile as she left.
“Is this your first time?” he asked. I looked down, abashed, thinking he was flirting with me. “At Exchanges,” he clarified with an eye roll. “Relax, I don’t want to convert any straight boys. They always turn needy. I’m like, ‘shoo, go find a vagina to play with.’”
“I’ve done it before, but it’s been awhile,” I said, choosing to ignore everything after his question. He giggled, seemingly now hearing a sexual innuendo. I frowned. I realized, in sexual terms, it was true. I was twenty-two years old and the only sexual experiences I had were abusive. That struck me as so pathetic.
“God, you need to lighten up,” he sighed. “Anyway, back to less interesting topics. You scan the item you want to exchange, press the red button, scan the item you’re exchanging it for. Call me over if you get stumped.”
We heard the clearing of a throat. An elderly, African American woman stood awkwardly, clutching an iron in its box. In her austere dress and blazer, she might have come straight from church. She gazed disapprovingly at Aaron, his purple hair, his nostril stud, his shiny lip gloss. He had a baby face. If one squinted, he looked like a sweet-natured boy. She shook her head, as if thinking, “what a shame.”
“Yes,” he said.
“It’s broken. I’d like to exchange it,” she said, tersely. She took the receipt from her purse and dropped it onto the counter.
“No problem, you want your money back or a new iron?” he asked genially.
“Well, I still need an iron. I must’ve just picked a defective one,” she said through clenched teeth. It seemed to be taking all her effort not to declare him an abomination. Yet, she wanted her iron.
“Sure, grab one from aisle ten. Leave the old one right here. If there’s a line, come right to me. You don’t have to wait,” he smiled.
“Fine, thanks,” she said.
“I suggest the Ultra F200 instead. It’s almost the same price. No one returns those, unlike the model you’re holding,” he said. She nodded. She set the iron down. Nonplussed but grateful, she shuffled away.
“Kill them with kindness,” he said. I threw him a curious glance. He elaborated, “If you know someone hates you, don’t give them a reason to. Eventually, they’ll see they’re the problem.”
“I don’t hate you,” I said. I was aware that I sometimes gave others that impression. Several times, I had overheard jokes about me coming to work with a rifle.
“I never said you did. You’re just a loner. Maybe you have trouble trusting people. I bet I could get you out of your shell,” he said. I shrugged. With the past I had, I was afraid of “who” exactly was encased in that metaphorical shell. I imagined it was someone better off confined.
A man with a juicer came to his register. As I glanced around for another customer, I spotted a pair of blue eyes staring at me. My heart stopped. I recognized Professor Royle. Despite how often I envisioned his face, I noticed features I had forgotten: the bump at the bridge of his nose, his arched eyebrows, the beauty mark on his cheek. My instinct was to take a photo with my phone, to capture him perfectly forever. Instead, I tried to etch his image into my mind as deeply, as accurately as possible.
He abruptly looked down. His face reddened. He shot me a last, desperate glance. I couldn’t tell if it meant “stop looking at me,” or “don’t.” It probably meant both. He reached for the hand of a woman, his wife. I hadn’t registered her presence before. They seemed so suited for each other. Both were blond, both slender, both around forty. She jumped, startled by his touch, as if he rarely showed her affection. I wondered if some part of her knew it was not for her at all.
“It costs too much,” he said, glancing at a vacuum. He pulled her away. I wanted to shout at him, expose him. I couldn’t bring myself to hurt him, even if for his own good. Despite how he had betrayed me, I couldn’t forget that he had saved me too.
When I started English Lit 101 my freshman year at Manhattan College, I weighed two hundred and ninety pounds. I dressed like a slob. I didn’t wear deodorant. I was weird, ugly and smelly. I was basically a monster. Still, Professor Royle saw my potential.
Reading “See me after class” scribbled on my paper, I was terrified. The red “A” quelled me only slightly. I dreaded conversation. I was tempted to run out when class ended, but Professor Royle might dock me a grade. Being good at school was all I had going for me.
“Excellent paper, the best I read. You plan to be an English major, I hope,” he said.
I nodded. I didn’t trust his kindness. No one was kind to me unless they pitied me, and pity made me feel more pathetic. The kindest thing anyone could do for me was leave me alone. As if sensing my desire to escape, he stood from his desk, walked to the door and shut it.
“There’s more to life than excelling academically,” he said. I nodded, though I knew there was nothing more to my life. I was disgusting. I had no friends. With my nonexistent social skills, I could barely function in the world.
“You’re incredibly smart. I could tell after one paragraph. And the thing is, if your mind is that powerful, it can accomplish more than you realize. It can change everything about you. You’d be amazed. You can become unrecognizable.” He smiled brightly, as if recalling something magical. “I used to be just like you, very shy. I thought I’d never get over it.” His eyes shone. He brought his hand to his face. He wiped away tears. I was mystified. I had only been in his class for a few weeks, yet here he was, crying in front of me.
“I’ll try,” I muttered. I knew I would never overcome my shyness. I promised in order to get away. Others’ concern distressed me. I feared scrutiny, that someone would discover just how crazy I was.
“You tell yourself you’re worthless. You denigrate everything about yourself. Your every thought becomes how repulsive you are. You resent others for how they see you. You can’t even bear to be looked at.” As he carefully selected the right words, his gaze turned thoughtful. “It becomes like an ice encompassing you. You know how you’re supposed to behave, yet that invisible ice holds you back. It will melt one day, I promise, more rapidly than you think. You just have to try, really, really try.”
I shivered, spooked. I couldn’t fathom how anyone else knew about “the ice.” It took me a moment to understand. When he said he used to be just like me, it was the truth. Somehow, he had transformed from a hideous beast into handsome, popular Professor Royle.
“Trust me,” he said. He clasped my shoulder. I flinched, as I did whenever anyone touched me. Seeing my reaction, his expression grew anguished.
“Don’t listen when people say you can’t change. They can’t, maybe, but you can. You are not like them. We are not like them.” His voice trembled with anger. He took a deep breath. He returned to his desk, quickly composing himself. By the time he sat down, his face was impassive.
“It starts from the outside,” he said in an offhand tone. Still, his words struck me as very deliberate. He opened a folder on his desk. “You can go,” he said.
I staggered out, bewildered. It was incomprehensible, yet, deep down, I knew it was true: Professor Royle had escaped “the ice.” He was once just like me. He had been hurt as horribly as I had. Now he was perfectly fine.
I followed his advice immediately. I skipped lunch, instead spending forty minutes on the athletic center’s treadmill. I shed weight quickly, necessitating a new wardrobe. I put together a stylish one. I applied deodorant fastidiously, no doubt to my roommate’s relief. By the end of the term, I had completed Professor Royle’s implicit assignment. I was someone new, and surprisingly handsome. Perhaps I had succeeded too well for Professor Royle’s comfort.
Professor Royle fled with his wife, vanishing into the hardware section. I held in my conflicting, raging emotions, but it felt like too much, like containing an explosion.
“Are you free? Estás libre?” a middle-aged Hispanic woman suddenly appeared in front of me. Aaron still had his customer.
“Yes, sorry,” I said.
“This curtain is too long. The guy sold me the wrong one. I want my money back,” she said irately. The window curtain was outside its packaging, folded haphazardly.
“Sure, receipt?” I said.
“I don’t have the receipt. The woman at the register forgot to give it to me. It’s twenty-six ninety-nine. I remember exactly,” she said.
“No returns without a receipt,” I said. There was a sign taped to the register stating those same words. Nonetheless, she had clearly come prepared to do battle.
“First that pendejo sells me the wrong curtain, then that tonta forgets to give me my receipt, now I’m stuck with a curtain I can’t use? I don’t think so. I was here last Tuesday at exactly six twenty. Get security to play the tapes. I’ll wait. I’m not some crook off the street. I don’t like your attitude. I’d like to speak with your supervisor,” she spouted at me. She crossed her arms, tapped her foot.
“As if you didn’t rehearse that whole tirade. As if you didn’t come in here ready to scream and lie, do whatever it took. You’d get me yelled at, fired, for twenty-seven lousy bucks. Even if you did buy that here, your pettiness is appalling. I hope you have no illusions that you’re a decent person,” I snorted. The woman’s jaw dropped. She clutched the curtain like a toddler with a blanket. For a moment, it seemed she would cry.
“Twenty-seven dollars, right here. Thank you, ma’am. Have a lovely day.” Aaron handed her the bills from his open register, having finished with his customer. The woman snatched them. She shoved the curtain onto the counter. She stormed off. He burst into laughter.
“O-m-g, I did not expect that. You shut that bitch right up. I hated giving her that money, but the truth is, no one checks that shit. It all goes on the clearance rack, receipt or not,” he said. I put my hand over my mouth, shocked by my outburst. I never lashed out at anyone like that, save for internet bigots.
“Don’t worry, she got what she wanted. If she does complain, I’ll say you were as polite as a princess,” he said.
“Thanks, I didn’t mean to lose my temper. I saw someone I knew. It upset me,” I said. After one glimpse of Professor Royle, all the aloofness I had cultivated was gone.
“That blond, Sting-looking dude?” he asked. I was aghast again. No one knew about Professor Royle. “I saw him staring at you for like five minutes. He was practically salivating.” Imitating Professor Royle, he leered at me, panting with his tongue hanging out.
“You didn’t tell me?” I felt incensed, though rationally I knew it wouldn’t have mattered. He would still be married. Nothing I did would have kept him from absconding.
“I figured you were used to it, a cutie like you. You must’ve learned to block it out,” he smiled. I glanced away, embarrassed. Now, he was definitely hitting on me. I wasn’t interested. Professor Royle was still the only one I wanted to be with. I couldn’t help longing for him, any more than he could help longing for me.
“What happened? He wanted to sleep with you? But you’re not into cock, right?” he asked, rather transparently trying to gauge my sexuality.
“I am gay,” I said aloud, for the first time ever. I refused to be like Professor Royle, ashamed of who I was.
“I knew it! I told Sonia. I told Kim. I told Jake. I said straight boys aren’t that shy. Show me a shy, straight boy, I’ll show you his Grindr profile,” he laughed. “So, he’s like your ex? You into daddies?” he asked, intrigued.
“He’s a pathetic, closeted coward. He’s lying to himself, to his wife, to his kids. He’ll be miserable his whole life. He couldn’t admit what he felt for me, when it was so obvious,” I seethed. “Even you could tell,” I asserted.
“Oh, yeah, total closet-case. Why deny who you are? Whoever doesn’t accept you for you is a douche bag better off not knowing,” he pronounced. The woman exchanging her iron approached his register, holding the model he had suggested. Judging from her scowl, she had caught the tail end of our conversation.
“You listened. Gurl, you will not be sorry,” he said. He took the iron from her. He scanned the old iron, pressed the button and scanned the new one.
“Do not call me ‘girl,’ young man. Someone clearly failed to give you a proper upbringing,” she said. It was apparent she wasn’t only referring to his manners.
“There’s three dollars, twenty-one cents due, ma’am,” he said sheepishly. Killing her with kindness clearly hadn’t worked. Luckily, as “Pedro,theTrollHunter,” I had a talent for insults.
“I know, right. Anyone who hates us just needs someone to look down on. They love feeling morally superior, but they aren’t moral at all. Isn’t true morality kindness?” I continued the prior conversation as if she never arrived, yet I glared at her. She remained silent as she paid. Once the bag with the new iron was safely in her hand, she couldn’t resist spewing her hatred, disguised as compassion. “I’ll pray for you both,” she sighed.
“Thoughts and prayers…With that and thirty bucks you can buy a shitty iron,” I sneered. She quickened her pace.
“With three bucks more you can buy a good one,” Aaron added. We snickered. “We need to stop. Someone’ll complain,” he sighed. I nodded in agreement, but the snark continued.
When a white man in an expensive suit tried to cut the line, I coughed, “white privilege,” then ignored him in favor of the woman behind him.
When a woman took a call in the middle of an exchange, I shouted at an invisible coworker to restock the toilet brushes until she hung up.
When a man took a patronizing tone with me, repeating three times that he bought his garbage pail last week, I asked if he had, “deposited any refuse, victuals and such, which may have conceivably tarnished the veneer.”
As the hour drew near, I dreaded returning to unloading boxes. I was having such fun.
“Damn, you are a riot. Who knew you were hiding this other person inside? You’re like a drag queen when she puts her wig on,” Aaron chuckled. I grinned. For too long I had been hiding the real me, only letting him loose online. Professor Royle had summoned him, riling me up more than any alt-right nut job could. Sonia ran over, back from lunch. I glanced at the clock. It was two minutes past three.
“You going back upstairs?” he asked.
“No, I’m starving,” I said. I was through being a pushover. I would be back at four o’clock: rather, two minutes past four.
“Enjoy. Don’t go back to ignoring me, okay? I feel like we really bonded,” he said earnestly.
“If you say so,” I teased him.
I walked to the Subways on the corner. I ordered a six-inch sub, scarfing it down in minutes. It was a nice day out, perfect for reading on a bench in Union Square Park. Unfortunately, my book was in my locker upstairs. Once Carlos saw me, he would force me to work. Or, he would try. I returned for my book; Carlos couldn’t intimidate me anymore.
“Where the fuck were you?” Carlos snarled the instant he saw me. He wasn’t at his desk. He was unpacking boxes with the stock boys. Clearly, my absence had forced him to get off his ass.
“On lunch,” I said. “I’m still on it.” I walked calmly towards my locker.
“Like fuck you are!” he shouted. My coworkers continued to unpack, unfazed. Carlos screaming wasn’t a rare occurrence.
“Per New York state law, employees are entitled to forty-five-minutes of unpaid break for every six-hour shift. I started at nine. Keeping me past three is illegal,” I said. Now, my coworkers collectively paused. Talking back to Carlos was unheard of. He nodded his head, as if considering my words.
“Is that so? What about when you went down for that shipment around one and the truck couldn’t park for twenty minutes? And, at eleven, when the freight elevator was stuck, and you were just hanging around downstairs? That adds up to a paid forty-five minutes, doesn’t it?” he said thoughtfully.
“You have to announce…” I said. He talked over me.
“If what you say is true, you owe me time. Forty-five minutes for the break I paid you for and the fifteen minutes you just took. Looks like you’re staying until seven today.” He shrugged mockingly. He turned around and walked back to his office.
“What made you so abusive?” I pondered aloud. He stopped. He turned around. He walked towards me, his nostrils flaring. I continued.
“For everyone it’s different. Some were abused themselves. I don’t think it’s the case for you. You’d feel empathy for us. You’d believe it was for our own good. All you feel is contempt. For you, it’s pure arrogance. You think you deserve more than what you have, that you’re smarter and tougher than anyone else. Nothing will ever satisfy your warped ego. You could be president of this company and still be a miserable pendejo,” I sneered.
He walked right up to me. I kept my face defiant. I wasn’t afraid. Nothing he could do to me was worse than what I had already endured in my life. He grabbed the box cutter from the table. He cut open a box.
“You’re fired. Get out,” he barked, not looking up. The other stock boys swiftly went back to work.
The rage drained out of me. It suddenly seemed futile. No matter how right I was, my words couldn’t change anyone or anything. I removed everything from my locker, my book, my charger, my jacket. I wondered how I would pay my rent, if I would have to move back home. I didn’t get along with my parents. I couldn’t forgive them for being so blind. I should have known this wouldn’t end well. The first time Professor Royle sparked a transformation, it had turned out just as abysmally.
As I slimmed down and dressed fashionably, the way Professor Royle looked at me changed. It started during the final weeks of English Lit 101. He seemed entranced. His eyes glistened. His words trailed off. His mouth dropped open. At the same time that I noticed his attraction to me, I fell deeply in love with him.
What he had told me was true; we weren’t like other people. Although I blended in more each day, I felt as alienated as ever. My roommate nattered on about applying to medical school. I never wanted anything out of life except to not be repulsive. My classmates ridiculed the campus misfits, expecting me to join in, forgetting I was one not long ago. Of all the historical and fictional figures that I learned about, none had a past like mine. None turned into a new person at eighteen.
I yearned for someone who understood the “ice,” no less so as it melted, as “hellos” and “good mornings” flowed more freely from my mouth. I refrained from taking Professor Royle’s courses. I would wait until I was ready, not remotely chubby or awkward. Every time I hit the gym or forced myself to socialize, it was with the ultimate goal of being Professor Royle’s Prince Charming.
Junior year, he taught the class down the hall from mine. Once I realized it, I passed by his room after the end of each class. I walked there slowly, to make sure his students had cleared out. I knew he anticipated seeing me. Our eyes always met. His door was always propped open.
After handing in my final paper, I was determined to talk to him. I headed to his classroom. I stood in the doorway. We stared at each other. Abruptly, he stood, grabbed his satchel bag and rushed past me. Though I was new to human interactions, the source of his ambivalence was no mystery. I had passed him with his family several times in the street.
Without him, I was utterly alone in the world. I was patient for three years, but I knew senior year was my last chance. The first course I enrolled in online during the summer was Professor Royle’s Contemporary American Fiction.
On the first day of class in September, I sat in the front row. When he walked in, his eyes scanned the room and settled on my face. He banged into the podium, knocking down his lecture notes. After picking them up, he backed into the chalkboard, getting chalk on his blazer. He stumbled to his desk. He read the names from the roster. The students replied, “here.” Oddly, between “Thomas Ryan” and “Deborah Saul,” there was no “Pedro Sanchez.” I assumed he had skipped over me in his nervousness.
“Now for all you students whose name I didn’t call, I’m sorry, but this class is at capacity. There’s a list of open courses at the enrollment office,” he announced. There were several groans. A handful of students left.
“You, I didn’t call your name. I’m sorry, you’ll have to leave.” He pointed at me. I was stunned. I was about to insist to see the roster. Something pleading in his eyes made me acquiesce. I left, but I didn’t go to the enrollment office. I stood outside the door during the hour and a half long lecture.
It felt agonizing to be so close, yet still separated from him. We ached for each other; why deny us both? It was needlessly cruel. If he refused to admit his feelings, I would make him. Finally, class ended. Once the last students trickled out, I marched inside. He was at his desk. He glanced up. He didn’t look surprised.
“You’re not eating enough. You’re too thin,” he frowned. I shut the door behind me. I stomped over to his desk.
“I’m enrolled in this class. You can’t kick me out,” I snapped. He remained infuriatingly calm. He turned his attention to his lecture notes. He flipped the page. He underlined a word. He put an asterisk next to another.
“I don’t know if I mentioned it, but I have a wife and two sons,” he said casually, ostensibly ignoring my assertion. His eyes were still focused on the page. He crossed out a sentence.
“I see how you look at me,” I spit out. I stared down at him, but he refused to look up. I bent down. I put my elbows on his desk, bringing my face right up to his. He kept scribbling.
“You helped me when no one else would, no one in my whole life. You’re the only person who ever thought I was worth something, a poor, Spanish, sexually abused, ugly, gay freak.” My eyes stung with tears. He glanced up. His grin heartened me. For an instant, I thought we might kiss.
“Eat more, please. You look unhealthy,” he said.
“Coward!” I slammed the desk with my fist. I stood straight.
“Discipline is important. It’s our salvation. It turned me from a kid everyone made fun of, to a popular guy everyone liked. I took it too far, I see that now. I grew gaunt. I found a girlfriend. I married her,” he sighed resignedly.
“She’s better off knowing the truth,” I declared.
“Gain ten pounds, and you’ll be perfect.” His eyes roved up and down my body. As he took in every part of me, his expression turned to unabashed desire. There was a sense of finality to this gesture, as if he promised himself this would be the last time. It felt demeaning. I wanted more than his gaze. Yet, I stood still for him. I couldn’t deprive him this one, small indulgence.
“The key is finding the right balance. It’s not so simple. You might think you’ve got it, then you realize you went too far in one direction.” His gaze drifted away from me.
“You’re gay,” I exclaimed.
“I am happy. I am comfortable in my life,” he recited like a mantra.
“You aren’t. You’re sad. I know you are,” I said. I was certain I could make him happy. With love, we would forget our pasts; not even this betrayal would matter.
“Please, find another class this term, if you really feel indebted to me.” He stood. He stuffed his papers into his satchel bag, slung it over his shoulder. He made his way out. At the door, he turned back to me.
“I am not sad. But you shouldn’t abstain from pleasure. Hopefully, you’ll find the right balance.” He gave a gentle smile. He kicked the doorstop down, positioned the door open. I watched him walk down the hall. I yearned to chase after him, declare my love, kiss him. He had freed me from “the ice.” It was my turn to rescue him from his self-imprisonment. I stood frozen, powerless. What could I do, if he chose to suffer? He turned the corner and was gone.
I dropped the course. Still, I never lost hope that he would give up repressing his sexuality, like a monster inside him. I didn’t only stay in New York after graduation to be near him. I certainly wasn’t eager to return to Phoenix. Yet, I did fantasize that I would one day pass him in the street or in the store, and he would greet me warmly. We would discuss the books we read. We might exchange phone numbers or become Facebook friends. I signed up for Facebook only for that purpose.
That fantasy was over. It was just a shame I had to say goodbye to New York too. I had grown to like it. There was no better place for a gay, Mexican, leftist, atheist lib to be.
“Hey, I thought you weren’t going to ignore me anymore,” Aaron said. I had walked right past Exchanges without noticing him.
“I was fired,” I said.
“Shit, that sucks,” he said.
“I know,” I frowned. I realized Aaron was the only thing I would miss at Hearth ‘N Home, and I had worked there for a year without talking to him. I regretted having avoided him, even more than having lost my self-control.
“Who cares? Jobs like this are easy to get. You’ll be hired in a week,” he assured me.
“I can’t list this place as a reference. How will I explain the gap between graduation and now?” I said hopelessly.
“Bitch, please. Give them my number.” He yanked out a slip of paper from the register, wrote his phone number down and handed it to me. “Oh yes, Pedro Sanchez. I remember him quite fondly. He is, without question, the finest worker I’ve ever employed,” he said in a dignified voice. I glanced at him skeptically, but stuffed the paper into my pocket.
“Are you open?” a man asked. Sonia was helping someone. Aaron shot me a concerned look.
“I’m glad I got to know you,” I said thoughtfully. With a wave, I headed out.
“You are fierce, don’t you forget that!” he called out after me. I smiled. Of course, being “fierce” had led to me being unemployed.
After talking to Aaron, my situation did seem less dire. I didn’t have to pack up my things and book a flight to Phoenix just yet. I sat down on a bench in Union Square Park. I Googled “nyc jobs” on my phone. One billion, one hundred and twenty-two million results came up, any one of which had to be better than being Carlos’ lackey. There was even a walk-in temp agency a block away.
I needed a resume. I could write one on the computer at the library. Technically, Aaron had supervised me, for an hour, so listing him as a reference wouldn’t be a lie. The prospect of a fresh start both frightened and excited me. Who would the Pedro be that showed up to his new job? I mustn’t act too meek, nor too bold. I couldn’t cage my inner troll. I couldn’t let him run rampant. I remembered what Professor Royle advised me, “the key is finding the right balance.”
Not a day passed that I didn’t think of Professor Royle. Sometimes I cursed him. Sometimes I pitied him. Sometimes I loved him. Now, I felt a pang of remorse. I never thanked him, and his words were helping me still. He turned me from a troll to a prince, then back to a troll, and I needed it. I promised myself, the next time I saw him, I would say, “Thank you.” That was the right balance.
Scott Bassis is a young writer eager to establish himself as a serious talent. He has had short stories published in Poydras Review, The Furious Gazelle, The Writing Disorder, The Acentos Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, Image Outwrite, Quail Bell Magazine, The Missing Slate, Jumbelbook, Furtive Dalliance, Fiction on the Web and Rainbow Curve.