“I like it out here,” I said. “It’s a little urban decay, sure, but it’s also got…” I didn’t have the right word for what I saw.
“Breathing room,” he finished.
“Yeah. That’s it, I guess.”
“If you want to know, I’ve already officially declared this an unspoiled fringe area.” He stepped back and raised his voice. “So watch it, gentrifiers—this area is cupcake-shop-protected.” I smiled; but when he reached behind into his back pocket, I was suddenly frightened.
“What’ve you got, a knife?”
“Almost.” Casually, Kai withdrew a flat silver flask.
“Ah.” I watched as he unscrewed the top and took a swig. “Hot coffee?” I guessed. Not hard, since the scent of dark roast wafted in the air.
“Yep. Why else would a person carry a flask?” He leaned forward to hand it to me. As I took it, I saw the initials R.G.O. inscribed.
“Roberto Guillermo Ortiz.” But he didn’t offer more, so I sipped and handed back the flask. I thought it seemed cool and un-nosy not to ask. Though I really wanted to know.
“What’s your deal, outside of being the unauthorized protector of industrial Bushwick?” I asked instead. “You go to school around here?”
“Sorta. I’m enrolled in pickup and night classes so far, but it looks like I’ll head to Pratt next semester,” he answered. “With a concentration in silk screen. That is, when I’m concentrating. Check this out.” He pulled a small notebook from his back pocket. “My new inspirational five-by-seven. And”—from his jacket pocket—“a bottle of Parker Super Quink Ink.”
He tossed them both to me.
“You’re a human pack rat,” I joked. But the notebook was tiny, a black marble composition. The ink was contained in a sealed glass bottle, like an exotic indigo perfume.
“I start a new one each year. It’s sort of a datebook, sketchbook, journal type of thing.”
I turned the book over in my hands. “The spine isn’t cracked.”
“The first mark’s the hardest.”
“Or maybe you just don’t know what to write.”
“Maybe now I’ve got something.”
My cheeks went red. Again. He meant me.
“Lately I’ve gotten really into T-shirts,” Kai said, easily switching subjects. “Me and Hatch. We want to start a business: ‘Tao of T.’ We’ve got the name and we know what we want to do with our massive profits, but so far that’s it. No business model.”
“So can you skip to the end? And tell me the post-massive-profits part of the plan?”
The right question. He smiled. “We want to start an after-school arts center, with our T-shirt empire funding it. Underserved youth, some people call them. I just call it kids from where I’m from. I want to give them more than what I had.” He looked embarrassed, even as he laughed. “That’s my dream. You’re up.”
“I don’t think I have one right now,” I told him.
“You move like a dancer,” Kai explained. He had a way of staring at me that was so curious and unflinching, I wanted to look away.
“You’re right, actually. I was dancing for so long—I loved it. All of it. Being part of a troupe, running from classes to rehearsals, auditioning, seeing my name on the list.”
“It stopped being fun,” I said, surprising myself with my honesty. “I got sick of stressing out about my weight. Standing in a leotard between two matchsticks and feeling like I was the crazy one. Or spending two hours making a chocolate silk pie, and not letting myself have one single bite because I needed to be exactly this or that many pounds. My parents lived for my recitals. I’m an only child and I hate disappointing them—but what was I supposed to do? Dance my whole life away for my parents?” I stopped. Shocked that I’d just admitted such excruciating, almost surprising, things to this guy.
And was it true? Was I always planning my exit from the dance world—and the car accident simply forced a perfect path out?
“You can dance whenever you want,” said Kai. “Recreationally, I mean. Like any sport.”
“Sure.” I didn’t have any desire to tell him about the accident, either. My scars, Addington, the therapy I was missing this afternoon. There was no reason to confess everything and burden the moment.
“Anyway, you seem like you know yourself by instinct, more than by analysis,” he remarked. “So it was probably the right call. Some people use up their whole lives trying to stop caring about their parents’ approval. That’s not you, am I right?”
“That’s…yeah.” I felt shy. Who was this guy, who seemed to have me figured out cold? And yet who wasn’t trying to figure me out as one of the walking wounded? Under his gaze, I felt springy, newly sprouted.
“Anyway,” said Kai with a wry smile, “I wouldn’t want to be denied chocolate silk pie. Unless it was a choice between that and a slice of pizza at Grimaldi’s.”
“Or a slab of Junior’s cheesecake, with strawberries.”
“A hot dog with everything from Nathan’s.”
“Arancini from Spumoni Gardens.”
“Cheesesteaks at Yankee Stadium, followed by baba ghanoush at Fez.” At my puzzled look, Kai explained. “It’s good, promise. Eggplant and onion. Fez is up by 161st Street, the Yankee Stadium stop. How about we go there sometime? They’ve got speakers in the windows and this crap, concrete dance floor—and come to think of it, everyone dances pretty crappy there, too. It’s stupid fun.”
“Sure.” Was he asking me out? Or just being nice?
“We’ll get you the dancing back. It should be an impulse. Like art.” And then Kai jumped up and began to move in the tiny square of the fire escape. He was a good dancer, even without music and even as he started to pull out some self-consciously joking moves.
And then it was so gentle, it was just a continuation of his dance and his fun, the way he rolled my hand into his and pulled me up to meet him so that we were standing together, facing each other.
Ice and heat pounded my temples. I closed my eyes. Opened them again.
He was still staring at me. His eyes seemed to find me at my center.
“Funny thing is, I came out here for no real reason,” I told him. “And I met you instead. It’s so…” I couldn’t betray myself with something corny, some “past lives” idiocy. Kai’s eyes didn’t break our connection, so I made myself say it. “Do you believe in coincidences?” Fate, I’d wanted to say. Except that fate was such a loaded word.