Déjà vu was something I didn't typically experienced often, but there I was again, standing on some street corner looking at addresses on buildings. At least this time I could actually read the address. Only, it didn't make sense – the numbering of buildings was inconsistent.
I backed up and looked at the street sign, the numbers over the brownstone building in front of me, then the one across the street. The planner must have been drunk. That was the only explanation. I'd have to ask directions or I'd never find Duo's place. It was midday, and few people were around, though none I wanted to approach willingly. A flickering neon sign in a dingy window caught my eye and I crossed the street, heading for the bar.
Stepping out of the bright sunlight into near darkness should have made a difference in temperature. But it didn't. The squat box-like room was nearly as sweltering as the sidewalk; an overhead fan pushed warm air, making a kerplunk sound as it rotated. I'd visited third world counties with dumps cleaner and it would have made the do not touch anything list if my mother were still around.
But she wasn't, and I was desperate enough to address the unkempt man leaning on the bar reading the paper. "Excuse me, sir," I attracted his, and his lone patron's attention. "Could you direct me to twenty-three eleven and a half Sanborn?"
He looked me over, his lip curling up farther with every inch. I restrained from flinching – never shown your fear – dad used to say, and I wasn't about to here.
"What do I look like? Fucking triple A?" The slouching customer chuckled and turned back to his drink.
In two steps I was in front of the barkeep. My voice low, I informed him pleasantly, "If you were to give me directions, and I were to actually find where I want to be, then maybe I would be so inclined as to bring my friend back to your" I paused just enough, "establishment for a few drinks and maybe a game or two of darts." The man stared at me for a moment longer, his eyes calculating the weight of my words.
"Cross the street, second building. But you gotta go 'round the back." His lips lifted on one side. "Take the alley just beyond the building." He went back to his newspaper, dismissing me.
I offered a hurried thanks, already moving for the door. It wasn't cooler back on the street, but at least the air wasn't so stale and unwashed.
The alley entrance was easy to find, but the smells wafting from it almost made me change my mind. Reading about such conditions had done nothing to prepare me for the real thing. Words like rotten, spoiled or even putrid brought vivid pictures to mind, but there were no words to convey the stench. Breathing through my mouth and trying not to gag, I carefully navigated around the piles, boxes and crates. Though the concrete was dry – something – had stained it; something I censored my imagination from and urged it to believe what I stepped in was liquid leaking from the nearby dumpster.
It was a relief to reach the end and I drew in a few quick breaths, trying to rid the stink from my nostrils. I even scuffed my soles on the sidewalk hoping the residue no longer clung to them.
"What have we here?" a voice behind me drawled. I turned in time to see a hand grab at my shirt, and the lanky teen it belonged to shove me up against the wall. "Don't worry, pretty boy, just gonna take your wallet." He was leaning in close, putting his weight into the arm across my chest.
I looked around quickly, no one was in sight. At least the kid worked alone. The hand not wrinkling my shirt was busy patting down my pants; for someone who appeared awful straight, he spent more than enough time determining I didn't have anything of value hidden in my front pockets. Since his attention seemed elsewhere, I played pansy enough to clutch at his arm, and when he reached around to pull my wallet out, I moved.
Using the wall for leverage, I shoved off, pushing on the arm holding me. A swift short jab with my right fist to his jaw and he was stumbling backwards. He still had a hold on my shirt, and I used the momentum to drop us both to the ground with me on top and expecting it. He landed with a heavy thunk. Given I had brought a knee up to deliberately land on his crotch, he wasn't breathing too well either. His eyes about rolled to the back of his head and his hand dropped away from my shirt.
I leaned in close, and patted his cheek. "Pretty boy wasn't worried." I stood and dusted off my jeans. "Next time it'll be more than racked balls and a headache." He didn't answer, and I didn't expect him to. Looking up at the building, I confirmed it was where I wanted to be.
Duo's apartment was on the third floor, overlooking the back alley. He met me at the door and pulled me inside, grin firmly in place. "Glad you could come," he was saying, pushing me towards a beat-up old couch. "Did you have trouble finding the place?" I started to tell him no, but he rushed right ahead. "I should have met you at the L. You did take the train, right?" I nodded. "Good, cause a nice car'll get stripped in no time down here."
"I'm a big boy, Duo," I laughed at his fussing. "I found my way."
"Guess you're pretty tough for a college boy." He grinned. "Want something to drink?" He'd paused halfway between the closet sized livingroom and the postage-stamp kitchen.
"Sure, whatever you have," I told him. A window AC unit rattled in its frame, but the air was cold. The carpet covering the floor was worn, almost to nothing in spots, but it looked clean. I'd heard stories of places like this, watched movies depicting how others lived. As Duo dropped into a well-used recliner and propped his feet up on the coffee table, it hit me that there were real, true stories and not of the Hollywood kind.
Leaning forward, Duo handed me a bottle of coke. "One good thing 'bout Heero, he knows how to fix crap and make it work." He gestured towards to window. "Last year sucked ass when our old one died." I took a drink, and his eyes narrowed at me. "What'd you do to your hand, man?"
I glanced at it, noticing the first three knuckles were scuffed, and the middle one was beginning to swell. Must have hit the kid a bit harder than I thought. Shrugging with a smile, I told him, "guess I scraped it taking out the garbage."
He grunted, eyeing me suspiciously. "Let me know if you ever need help with the garbage. Sometimes it can be more than one guy can handle." I nodded, hearing what he wasn't saying. Dropping his feet to the floor, Duo asked suddenly, "Seen Nash lately?"
It took me a minute to remember. "Last night," I told him. "We have a date this Friday." My Trowa, his Nash, or Nanashi were one and the same. Heero had an odd sense of humor. It'd only been four days, but they've been the best four I've had in a long time.
Duo was talking, telling me some story about him and Heero before they became lovers, when they were barely friends. I let him talk, let his words wash over me soaking in where I was and playing with the idea of what the next few weeks would hold. I'd graduated from the university not even a month before. A sabbatical, my father had said. Before I had to knuckle down to real life or go back to school for higher education.
Sitting on Duo's couch, drinking generic pop after walking through a neighborhood nose deep in the real world, I believed I would be more involved than father ever dreamed. I looked at my hand again, and felt that maybe I was ready for it as well.