Plain China

928 Romeo

by Conrad Gregory · American River College
right untitled, Sam Youkilis · Bard College

I was sneaky and I was in love.  I was old enough to have a crappy job and some spending money, but young enough to live without sleep.  Night after night, I would tiptoe out of my mother’s house after calling for a taxi.  Mom’s place was at the top of a hill, and I would stand on the neighbor’s curb and watch for the taxi to appear at the bottom.  It never failed to thrill me when I saw the lit taxicab sign round the bend and start to climb.  A silent torch of my love, I used to think. 

Wasn’t I the gallant one?  Stealing out at night, risking it all to be with the one I loved until the cruel pressure of sunrise tore us apart again.   Of course, we were never really that far from each other since we went to the same high school and lived in the same town.  But what an adventure to hire a cab to whisk me to my girlfriend late at night while the world slept, while our parents slept.  We were so romantic, so mature.  Inevitably, I would break her heart, and in our final moments together she would say, “Pretend you never knew me.”  I like to believe that some small part of me knew the truth, even back then, that dating girls was only a phase, an earnest attempt at an easier life.  But then, I was in love for the first time.  

I took this midnight ride so often that the cabbies in the company began to refer to me as “928 Romeo” on their radios.  My romantic endeavors had earned me a handle, a combination of my street address and a famous lover.  I was proud. I felt dashing.  Climbing into a yellow Crown Vic, the entrance into my own romantic adventure.  The wide upholstered bench of the backseat was always mysteriously stained and pocked with cigarette burns, and yet I’d never sat on anything so soft. 

Most of the cab drivers were silent and polite, not even slightly interested in their late night fares, but I remember the adultness of them.   Their lives were foreign to me as they worked graveyard shifts ferrying strangers across the dark city.  They knew things I did not know, adult things that went far beyond any rated movie.  I imagined them shaking their heads softly whenever they got the call to pick me up, mumbling “teenage love” as they put the taxi into gear.  At 4:30 in the morning, in the darkest hours before the impending sunrise, I would slink out of my girlfriend’s bedroom and cross a side yard to the street.  The cab would be waiting, lights off, engine humming.  Sometimes I’d have to tap on the window to wake my cabbie up.

There was one cabbie who, over a matter of weeks, became my regular.  He was somewhere in his forties and always on the hunt for a good time.  His hair was thin, his face craggy, the kind of face I would now describe as the result of “hard living.”  Back then he felt like my accomplice, a late night courier of love.   We never exchanged names or spoke at length, but he let me sit up front with him and showed me where he hid his porno magazines.    He wouldn’t object either when I would ask him to stop at a liquor store so I could buy underage cigarettes. 

Rolling through the empty, pre-dawn streets, he would share snippets of his romps.  

 “You know about hookers?”

“Um, yeah.  Never been with one though.”  I would casually flip through a skin mag. 

“Well, usually you get either experience or looks, but sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get both.”

I nodded as if I knew what he was talking about.

“We got this chick last week, she was hot and talented.”

“Who’s we?”

“Me and some buddies, you know.  Maybe three or four of us, and let me tell you, she handled us all, no problem…at the same time!”

“Oh, cool.”  I stared down at the magazine of naked women in my lap, unsure of what “handled” really meant, or how a conversation like this is supposed to continue or end.

 “Yeah, that’s my newest mag.  Check out the center, she’s shaved.”

His was a world I could not comprehend.  It was too adult -- too, too.  But it made me feel cool in a way; it rounded out the thrill of those illicit trysts. I didn’t know enough to pity or blame him. I hadn’t fully developed the grownup tools of judgment or righteous anger.  I was getting a glimpse of what felt like a vulgar and uncouth world, and I liked it.  

My world was a teenage fever of marathon make-out sessions and phone calls late at night that went on until we would both fall asleep, the phone tucked into bed.  There was no satiation for us.  Necking was as natural as breathing.  Every sentence we spoke sounded something like, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”  I know now that it’s foolish to look back and pretend there was only fuzzy young love surrounding us.  It’s foolish to even regard what happened between us as love at all.  As if there weren’t greater forces already at work inside me. 

But there was a convenience in having this kind of public relationship.  It was proof that whatever my true feelings, at least I was having lots of straight sex.  The gallantry and adventure added to the theatre I was building and made it easy for me to play the part.  I could cater to her feelings as much as avoid my own.  I believed I had an enlightened sense of love, an evolved love.  I thought it very advanced of me to entertain what I thought were unconventional ideas.  I told her once that if she ever wanted to sleep with someone else, I would be just fine with it.  When other boys would talk to her at school, I took no offense.  I thought I was bohemian.    

“Who was that?” I would ask.

 “Why? Are you jealous?”

“No.  I think jealousy is a waste of time.  People who get jealous must be insecure or something.  I know that I love you and that you love me, no matter what, even if you were attracted to someone else.”

“I get jealous if I see you with another girl.”

“Well, that doesn’t make sense.  You know I love you, I would never do anything.  I don’t even think about other girls.”

How magnanimous!  I was the perfect boyfriend. I even thought I liked cunnilingus.  It wasn’t until years later that jealously would blossom in my heart while dating myfirst boyfriend.  Little claws appeared on my fingers at even the thought of him talking to other boys.  My jealously finally spoke the truth.

Back then I persisted in loving her and reveling in the lust.  Whenever we spent the night together, the sex was the way teenage sex should be: breathless, headlong and flushed.   My dazed glow would trail me from her bedroom to the taxi, as I could hear my own pulse.

One night I hopped into the cab and noticed that my cabbie seemed distracted.  He made no move to get going, but instead tossed one of his special magazines onto my lap, “Hold on a minute. No rush, right?”  I agreed with him and opened the magazine, unimpressed by the pictures as I pretended not to care what my cabbie was doing.  I played it nonchalant. I played it cool.  Besides, I didn’t know I could tell an adult what to do. 

So I just watched, fearful and uncomprehending, as my cabbie carefully folded a piece of foil into a little trough, sprinkled a white powder into it, and then held his lighter underneath until it started to bubble and smoke.  He leaned forward and sucked in the smoke with a cut off straw, sweeping back and forth over the foil. 

“Damn that’s good!” he yelled while kicking his head back, letting the little straw fall into his lap.  I turned and stared straight ahead. I felt trapped.  The sky was turning gray in the east, and I had just watched my cabbie freebase.  Of course, back then I didn’t know what freebasing was.  I didn’t know about drugs and drug addicts, or the attraction of hairless women and fake boobs.  I didn’t even know myself. 

“Ok, Romeo, let’s get you home.  You ready?”

 I wasn’t. 

 

About the Author

Conrad Gregory · American River College

Conrad Gregory is a California native who now resides and studies in Sacramento where he longs for coastal fog and continually attempts to wrangle his thoughts onto paper. A lover of short stories, he hopes to publish his own collection one day. "928 Romeo" first appeared in The American River Review. 

About the Artist

Sam Youkilis · Bard College

"right untitled" first appeared in Bard Papers.