“I geev you de el-lis-dee, yah?”
With those words, Tomas Sladek walked from the kitchen to the gigantic 1920s-style living room, carrying two tabs of acid. Rob hoped that they would be as good as the orange sunshine he had tripped on at the State University at Albany, almost 10 years ago. He also hoped it wouldn’t be like that bad purple acid that he’d taken soon after that. It had exaggerated the sensation of gravity so much that every step seemed like he weighed 500 pounds. He had sworn off psychedelics for good after that — until now.
Rob still couldn’t believe the good fortune he’d encountered soon after he moved to 181st Street when, while buying food at a nearby grocery store, he discovered Tomas, a young engineering student, Tomas’ wife, and their roommate Rosa. He desperately needed new friends, especially friends who were intellectual or creative. After talking to them for what seemed like hours about Allen Ginsberg, Stravinsky and Miles Davis, Rob was even more overjoyed to find that they all lived on Fort Washington Avenue, right around the corner. Their jeans, long hair, work shirts and Gauloises cigarettes were apparently still in style in communist Czechoslovakia, from which they had escaped a few years beforehand. That style was already rapidly fading in New York in favor of the black-clad, short-haired, shades-wearing punk look. Taking acid was part of that same hippie thing. Rob wondered how Tomas had even gotten a hold of it. After all, it was 1980 now, not 1970.
Tomas offered Rob a glass of Diet Sprite, and Rob swallowed the tab. The Grateful Dead music in the background, the gray cat crawling under, around and on top of the furniture, the well-worn copy of Carlos Castaneda on the couch and the American Indian baskets spread throughout the room all contributed to the vibe. “Where are Dana and Rosa?” he asked.
“Dana is out, studying for her anthropology exam,” Tomas answered, idly shutting off the record player and turning the TV on to get the Yankees-Red Sox game. Dana was Tomas’ wife, although frequently his wife in name only. “Rosa is in her room, reading. She vasn’t interested. She can’t take de ellisdee — she is too psychotical already!” He laughed uncontrollably.
Rob hoped the LSD wouldn’t have too much of an effect on him. Later in the afternoon, he would have to visit his latest semi-girlfriend, Carol Rossinsky, in Riverdale. Carol was very problematic. She shared none of Rob’s interests. Rob listened to rock and modern jazz; Carol’s tastes ran strictly to the opera and the symphony. Rob’s favorite authors were Ginsberg and Kerouac; hers, Emily Dickinson and Wordsworth. She wore plain black or gray polyester skirts and shapeless white blouses — probably to hide her portly figure, Rob suspected. All in all, he felt, she was more like a woman of his mother’s generation than of his own.
The one thing they shared was sexual attraction. They were incredibly turned on by each other, so much so that sometimes, when they walked down the street, they would kiss and grind against each other at every streetlight. That’s basically how they met — at a “young Jewish singles” event they both attended, they stared at each other for what seemed like an hour, they talked briefly, then they went in the hallway and started kissing passionately.
Yet, they rarely got a chance to make love because even though Carol was the same age as Rob, 27, she still lived with her parents. Once, she came over to his apartment and had sex with him, but she later said the experience made her feel “guilty as hell.” As a matter of fact, she had been a virgin until just last year. For a week now, he had resolved to break up with her the next time they saw each other.
On TV, Ron Guidry was pitching to Jim Rice. Tomas watched the game briefly, the turned it off, putting on the record player again, this time a Thelonius Monk LP. Rob took a deep breath. He felt an unusual sense of relaxation.
“You know, Tomas,” he said, suddenly, “I’m supposed to see Carol at 4:30 this afternoon.”
Tomas shook his head. “Rob, she ees not de girl for you.”
“Dat’s OK! I von’t let you lose track of de time. I’ll let you know when it’s time for you to go! In de meantime, just relax.” Rob closed his eyes and felt just like he was floating on his back, in the middle of a lake. The cat, Viktor, came near, and Rob petted him on the head. When Viktor gently bit his finger, Rob didn’t even care.
“So,” Rob asked, looking up at the taller Tomas, “how’s school?”
“School’s OK, but I’m broke! I got to wait until next week, ven I start my job at de lab again. Dis system is so unfair! I can’t vait til I’m a finally an engineer!”
“That’s too bad,” Rob answered. One of Tomas’ chief complaints was that, although he was one semester shy of finishing engineering school in Czechoslovakia, the requirements here were different, and he had to start all over again. Rob sympathized with him because he was in a similar, although much less severe, predicament — he had a degree in city planning but he wasn’t able to find a job in his chosen field yet, so he worked as a low-level bureaucrat for the city.
Tomas lit up a Gauloise and took a puff. “You know, Rob, at time like dis, I think about my fader. Because of de way ve left Czechoslovakia, I can’t even write to him. I have to write to my uncle in Germany, den he writes to my fader! Eef I ver to go back der, I vuld be arrested!”
Rob didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing. “Things have to change, sooner or later,” he finally said. “I always hoped that the U.S. and the Soviet bloc, um, starting from opposite ends, would both evolve toward the same direction, toward a Western European-style social democracy, or, if you want to use the term, democratic socialism.”
“Vell, you can kiss dat idea goodbye if dat stupid cowboy actor becomes elected president dees November!” Tomas replied emphatically. “But Czechoslovakia — yes, change, more freedom, ees inevitable. But I hope eet doesn’t become like dis goddamn U.S. All dees materialism! Dese advertisements, dese shopping malls! Dey just vant to make money!”
“But, like, doesn’t Sam, the shoe guy, also want to make money?” asked Rob, playing devil’s advocate. Everybody knew Sam, the Italian shoe repair guy on 181st Street, with his 11 kids, his missing teeth and his broken English.
Tomas waved his hand. “Sam, he just wants to survive. Same thing vit all de oder guys who own small stores. But dees people who own de malls, dey vant to live GOOD!”
Rob stared at the ceiling. The floor seemed to be rocking back and forth under him, but in a nice way. He felt the need to talk about his background, too.
“You know, my parents used to live in Israel?”
“Yah, I think you told me. You ver born der, right?”
“I think I’d like to go back there to live someday.”
“Vot. Vit all dees fighting? Are you crazy?”
“Well, I don’t really like what’s going on now, and I basically agree with the Israeli left wing and support a Palestinian state. But that’s only part of it.”
“Vot do you mean?”
“When I saw the Wailing Wall, the old neighborhoods like Yemin Moshe, the Jerusalem windmill, the ruins in Bet She’an, I felt a strong connection. I know I’m not formally religious — I’m not kosher, I don’t observe Shabbas, I only go to synagogue two or three times a year — but I have a strong belief in God. And I can’t help feel that as bad as things are in the Mideast, it’s all somehow part of God’s plan, the Biblical prophecies are coming true, and when God wills it, there will be peace.”
“Rob, ven you talk dees way, you know like, vot you said, Biblical, I don’t understand it.”
Rob didn’t answer. He couldn’t expect Tomas to understand — he came from a part of the world that was traditionally hostile to Jews, and, on top of it, from a society that for years had denied all spirituality and mocked any vestiges of religion. Even though Tomas had rejected that society, Rob thought, 20 years of communist education had to have had an effect on him.
Seeing Rob’s uneasiness, Tomas decided to take another path. “You mind if I just turn on de game on de teevee for a minute?”
“Definitely!” Rob was pleased at how Tomas, after only a few years in the states, had grown to love baseball. Both looked at the screen. Mike Torres was on the mound, Rickey Henderson was at bat. There was a full count, 3 balls, 2 strikes. Torres threw a fast ball, Rickey struck out. Rob turned the set off and turned the music back up.
“You sure Rosa is in the other room?”
“Definitely. I didn’t hear de door close.”
“I’ll go to say hello to her.”
Rosa’s room was just down the hall, but under the influence of LSD, it seemed halfway across the world. After a brief initial flirtation when they’d met, Rob had stayed away from Rosa. Tomas was always putting her down. Rosa was promiscuous, Rosa shoplifted right and left, Rosa hung out with hard-core punks, Rosa made up outrageous lies to get jobs — jobs she always lost in a week or two after it became clear that she didn’t have the experience. Implicit in Tomas’ rap about Rosa was a criticism of his wife, Dana, for being friendly with Rosa in the first place.
In the room, Rosa was relaxing in bed, reading a book in Czech. She was dark-haired, dark-eyed, with a hint of Gypsy ancestry. On the walls were black velvet paintings. She looked up at Rob. “Hi, Rob” she said in a weak voice.
“Hi. That’s a nice scarf.”
“Thank you. I got it at de street fair last week.”
“So how are you?”
“OK. I met some new friends. Dey are Poland people, you know, from Poland. I vent vit dem to dees punk club in East Village last night, dey said dey’d get me a job behind de bar.”
Rob lay down next to her, stroked her hair, kissed her lips and neck. He didn’t feel guilty — he and Carol hadn’t reached the step where they’d agreed to be full-fledged boyfriend and girlfriend. He moved his hand over Rosa’s breast. She brushed it away.
“Well, uh, I guess....”
“You guess gude. But just playing, like dis, is fine.”
He cuddled with her and kissed her briefly, then told her he was going back to talk to Tomas. As he was leaving the room, she said, “I vant to go to California next month to see my friend. Could you geev me a hundred dollars?”
“Well, I don’t know...”
“You geev me a hundred dollars, den you know vot happens?”
Rob got the point, but now, he wasn’t interested. As Rosa lit up a cigarette --not a Gauloise this time, but a Lucky — Rob left the room. He walked to the bathroom to take a piss, then went back to Tomas, who was playing with the cat. “Ver you making love vit Rosa?” Tomas suspected.
“No, not really.”
“You should be vit her. Go, go to her.”
“No, nothing went on.”
“Dat’s hard to believe. I screwed her myself!” Rob was only mildly surprised. Tomas once again turned the music down and put on the TV. The score was 6-2, Red Sox. The Yankees had replaced Guidry with Goose Gossage, but still, things weren’t going to turn around so fast. Rob turned it off.
Rob began to feel the beauty in everything around him — the same mood he got into when he drank too much. He flashed back to that orange sunshine trip he had taken in Albany. John DiGiovanni, Richie Goldberg, Elaine Cohen. In his mind, they were frozen in time, tripping in that dorm room. Hmm ... as far as he knew, they were all living in New York. As a matter of fact, Richie Goldberg lived here in Washington Heights, around 192nd Street near the park, although he hardly ever saw him. He went to the phone, looked up the number in the phone book and started dialing — he couldn’t wait to share his good fortune about the trip.
“Rob, who are you calling?”
“I’m calling one of the guys I used to take LSD with up at school. It’ll be great.” In his mind, he was stepping back into that room in Albany as if nothing had happened in 10 years. He was disappointed when the phone kept ringing and no one answered.
“Rob! Leesten to me! He ees not tripping,” Tomas exclaimed. It’s as if he can read my mind, Rob thought. Dejectedly, he put the phone down. He looked at the clock. Three-thirty. Soon he’d have to leave to see Carol. He was glad he had the presence of mind, through his LSD-induced haze, to remember that.
“Tomas,” Rob said, “Look, well, I’ve got to leave to see Carol.”
“OK,” Tomas answered. “I call you tomorrow, yah? See you.”
Rob started walking down the foyer toward the door. When he got to Rosa’s room, he yelled through the narrow crack in the doorway, “Goodbye, Rosa! Say hello to Dana!” He left the apartment and waited for the elevator.
He got off at the ground floor, opened the door to the street and — he was totally overwhelmed!
The world seemed like a magnificent festival of color and light. All the people seemed to radiate positive energy. Everything was full of splendor — that car there, that streetlamp here, the woman pushing the baby carriage, the old Russian man with the hat. They were all his friends! No need to wait for the Messiah — it was right here! Now he knew what Jesus meant in the Gospel of Thomas when he said “the kingdom of Heaven is within you!”
He turned the corner and went into Kevin’s grocery store to buy a Coke and a bag of corn chips. Everyone in the neighborhood knew that Kevin was a jerk. A few weeks ago, he was getting a box of cereal for Rob from the shelves, saying nasty things about Blacks and Hispanics as usual, when a young Black woman came in. Immediately he said, in a loud voice, “Why, I’m so even-minded, I wouldn’t even care if there was a Negro pope!” Rob didn’t believe that woman was fooled for a minute, never mind the fact that people hadn’t used the word “Negro” for more than 10 years. But today, all Rob could see of Kevin was his big grin, his friendliness, his desire to help everyone who came into the store. It was as it Kevin, in the past, had been only two-dimensional --now, he was three-dimensional, larger than life.
As Rob continued to walk down the street, he saw Sam, the old Italian shoe repair man that he and Rob had talked about earlier, standing in front of his store. “Hey,” Sam said, “I know where-a you going! You go-a to Riverdale!” Last month, Rob had told him about Carol, and ever since, Sam had teased him about “going to Riverdale.” “That’s right,” Rob said, smiling happily, “I’m going to Riverdale.”
His mind turned to Carol. He’d planned to break off the relationship today. But now, she, too, began to take on a different light in Rob’s mind. She was a cherub, a wonderful, beautiful fat cherub! So what if she didn’t meet conventional standards of beauty? So what if she still lived with her parents? That was only temporary, right? All he envisioned now was her warm smile full of genuine feeling for him, her sparkling eyes, her giving, caring attitude.
No, he wouldn’t break off with him! On the contrary — he’d marry her!
And so, Rob Rothstein, high on LSD, headed to Broadway to catch the Number 10 bus to Carol Rossinsky’s house, where he would tell her he loved her and ask her to marry him.
New York, USA
Sent on 31st August, 2008