THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Cyril's Palace

by Edward Friedman

published February 28, 2014


The summer I lived with Cyril, we had the most beautiful apartment. The building was near the river, on Palace Street, fittingly enough. A nice, liminal triangle of grass and mud-when-it-rained sat at the end of Palace, before the river, where the highway bridge that spanned the river into the city had had its eastern base before it was abandoned and subsequently torn down a couple years prior to our summer.

     Back then—when the bridge had been emptied of traffic but still stood—my friend Iris and I ate a bunch of pot cookies and walked through the low-hanging November clouds into the corridor of chopped-up concrete and construction vehicles. All we could see of the city were the tall buildings that came up through and over the chain-link fences to our left and right and a mess of parking structures, steeples and unremarkable façades collecting where the bridge touched ground at its other end. It felt quiet and serene in this way. Iris took my camera and took a picture of me smiling with my eyes closed, lying on a concrete barrier. In the picture my hair is long and shapeless, I have an ugly, sparse beard, like a teenager. Then she came over and kissed me lying there, and we made out for a few minutes. That night, still in a fog, I took the bus to New York to have Thanksgiving dinner with my uncle and his friend at his friend’s girlfriend’s house.

     Our apartment’s building was rather rundown, as in every other column supporting the banister of the staircase to the front door was rotten and detached at its base. The landlord had his office on the first floor, where he’d sit with his wife and middle-aged daughter and his daughter’s dog, smoking Virginia Slims and every once in a while parking a giant van from a Korean Church—or, for a couple weeks, a giant blue and yellow RV—in one of the choice parking spots in the lot behind the building. There was a salon in the basement-storefront, which shared the lot, and the hair stylists often complained about how their customers kept getting ticketed for parking on the street for more than two hours, but the lot was full of Korean Christian vans.

     Our apartment was on the third floor, and it was glorious. The front door opened onto a high-ceilinged common area, beyond which stood the kitchen-counter-brunch-bar. The slope of the roof formed the ceiling up and to the left, with a skylight right in its middle. When it rained the edges of the skylight leaked and we distributed cookware on the widely spaced floorboards. Above the bar were two green steel lamps, which had been installed by whoever lived there a couple of tenant-generations earlier. The wires ran from where the lamps attached to the ceiling along the ceiling before disappearing into it behind a full-sized wall clock, which featured colorful songbirds in lieu of numbers. Presumably each was to chirp on its hour, but the hands never moved. Before the bar sat several steel barstools with red vinyl seats from the soda fountain, which, when my grandmother describes it, makes her eyes wet. Their bases were quite narrow, though, and they were not fixed to the ground, so one had to be careful.

     Cyril told me that a tenuous reminder of the present is necessary when perched on nostalgia. So we didn’t change a thing.

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There were three bedrooms in the apartment. Cyril and I each lived in one. In June, my friend Claire and her girlfriend Olivia lived in the third. Claire and Olivia were fun. They cooked big, funny meals and complained about the heat. Olivia was from Texas, but she was very used to air conditioning. Evidenced, for example, by the time she told Claire that—contrived as the circumstance may sound—she would take a big shit in their bed and never explain herself to Claire if, by the whimsy of some cruel god, it would make the heat stop.

     It really was awfully hot, especially for a couple weeks in June. I’d wake up each night puddled in bed. I had no sheets for my mattress on the floor, so I was borrowing a set of Cyril’s. They were designed with big cartoon cactuses and pillars of sandstone rising in the distance of the desert. They were the size for a double, but mine was a queen, and so they wouldn’t stay. And I’d wake up from a dream of having detached my genitals (again) or swimming harder and harder trying to save my twin brother drowning in the middle of the lake (I’m an only child in waking), and my hair would be wet and the corner of the sheets still associated with my body or my area would be totally wet and there’d be water around me, literally pooled in the oblong diamonds of the mattress’s surface as if I’d peed myself. In all cases I hadn’t peed myself, but it was that hot.

     Then, though, Olivia and Claire went to Mexico for Olivia’s research—she was a PhD candidate. I moved into Claire and Olivia’s room, as it was bigger, and from the bed, with my head on the pillow, I could see the skyline of downtown where The Heathman Hotel’s giant neon red-orange sign lit the night. I knew it said Heathman, but the only chunk visible through my window read H-E-A-T.

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Ava was weird and very pretty. She moved into my old room in July when Olivia and Claire left. My friend James went out with Ava off-and-on the year before, and it sounded tumultuous. Maybe she was a little manipulative, but Cyril and I walked around in our underwear and tried to flirt with her anyway. In return, she would make fun of us for only eating eggs and quinoa and black beans, and she would go out of town for the weekend, often, and often for Monday and Tuesday too, to the Hamptons, where her parents had a house.

     Another thing when you walked into the apartment was the spiral staircase right in front of you. The steps were wooden and worn. The banister was a series of black steel rods connected by a wooden railing.  It wound once and a half before emerging onto the loft, into the dining room with the roof closing in around it, lined with funny little windows that didn’t close all the way and would bang and rattle on windy nights. Then there was the sitting room, our crown jewel. Its northern and western walls filled entirely with a window each. West was the grassy triangle, the river, and the high brick of an old power plant. That had been the industry. North-northwest was downtown and The Heathman with its sign again, and somehow, in the evenings, better sunsets than I’d ever seen or thought could be found so dependably night after night on the same cut of horizon. Subtle ones, real artworks and then the firework displays, too, but they always made the sky look tall and narrow in the same way, like it was shot in portrait mode. Cyril and I would sit in the sitting room after work and eat some combination of spinach, eggs, black beans, and quinoa, drink a beer and watch. Sometimes Ava would join us. We had plants—cactuses and frondy things—in there that Cyril mostly watered and a defunct telescope in the corner, for style.

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Cyril was working at the school, giving tours and doing office work for admissions. He figured himself something of an anomaly in this way, coming off a little spunky, edgy, vulgar next to your classic lineup of college tour-givers that may as well have walked backwards out of the womb in Nantucket Red shorts. He frequently told me the story of how the committee had been split nearly right down the middle when it came to offering him the job, so polarizing he was. It was self-congratulatory, but I loved to hear him say anything.

     Cyril’s from North Carolina, and there’s a lilt to his speech. He’s a little taller than me; maybe 6’1” with medium to shoulder-length black hair that he wears greasy but organized like a crow. His father’s father’s father was Japanese-American, interned at Manzanar in the desert just east of the Sierras over in the other corner of the country. I don’t think he’s any part Cherokee, though he tells people that sometimes and gets away with it, because of his hair and complexion and some intangibles, which he’s totally nailing. 

     We liked a lot of stuff together that I might be embarrassed to admit that I liked to others.  It seemed aesthetically coherent nonetheless. Things like the French Press, The Great Gastby, the new Drake album, the pull-up bar, the Pacific Crest Trail, which Cyril had walked while taking time off school and then written a novella about, which I read that summer and let pervade my imagination. We drove to New York some weekends in Cyril’s tiny white two-door convertible Suzuki Barbie car. His uncle—one from his dad’s side who still lived in LA—used to take it out into the desert on the back of his RV and drive around on the sand, I guess, but he gave it to Cyril when he got old or bored or found a more suitable sand vehicle. We would park high on the West Side, windswept, ears ringing, and newly exhausted from the humidity that we hit like a wall as soon as we got across the bridge. The heat came from the concrete and trapped you like Han Solo or a slug. But we had friends around, so we came anyways, and Cyril always said—probably in reference to the era’s most-referred-to commencement speech—“let’s drink like fish ‘til we forget we’re swimming.”

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The memory from that summer that feels the most important now was local. It was a whole Friday evening, but, at 5PM, Ava and I were both home. I don’t think Ava worked on Fridays for her unpaid reporter gig at a local business newspaper. She wasn’t in the Hamptons either. I wasn’t in the Hamptons either. I worked on Fridays, usually, but I worked mostly for a house construction company called Lawrence Brothers, and I wasn’t lazy, but I wasn’t real skilled either, so sometimes they sent me home early when the fence was painted, the cleanup was done, the wall was demolished, and Esteban and Michael were taking the preciser of the nail guns to the more ornate molding, or framing—whatever. Sometimes I got a call at 6:30AM saying I could stay home entirely that day. And I’d go back to bed then sit in the sitting room reading or trying to write little poems.

     But Ava and I were home together, and it was 5pm, not too hot.

     “Do you want to go for a run with me?” she asked.

     “Yes,” I said.

     We ran north, uphill, past campus, into the beautiful residential neighborhood that was up there with the synagogue and varied, pretty houses with yards and views of the bigger river to the east. When we got back to the area of campus we walked, tired, and started to talk about stuff. Ava, because I asked, told me about her parents’ sexless “partnership”-marriage, how it was going to an International high school in Paris, and then graduating from college and being freaked out about looking for a job and stuff.

     To be honest, none of these details were particularly new or exciting to me. I had constructed a much more compelling fantasy-personality for the girl whose iPhone password was “eggs,” who slept (her senior-year housemate disclosed) with a butcher knife under her pillow as she was on the first floor of the house, who was so beautiful and seemed so depressed. I don’t know if it was that I found her boring or vapid or that I knew she wasn’t interested in me sexually (or maybe at all) and so maybe I was externalizing defensively, albeit cruelly. I don’t even know if it mattered.

     When we got back Cyril was there and made a joke about us having sex, and that’s why we were sweaty. Then he made us dinner and we sat at the dining room table to eat. 

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Later that night, we went to see Cyril’s friend’s band play at a dive-y bar on the west side. Dive-y was the word. The bar—old, vaguely maritime-themed—was full of smoke. The band was playing loudly and happily, and the lead was a big guy wearing kind of a limp, dirty chicken suit with a red cape. The clientele was a felicitous intersection of a lot of crazy-looking old people and a lot of hard looking young people. They all seemed like old friends, which I found intimidating. Cyril was wearing a big old New York Rangers sweatshirt, but he’d cut the sleeves off, so it just said “ANGER.”

     We sat at a square table near a corner and I went up to the bar to get us drinks, beer for Cyril and me and a gin and tonic in a flimsy plastic cup for Ava. When I got back Cyril was telling Ava a story. He continued,

     “So we were looking for a place and ended up in the Arts & Crafts building. We boned on the loom that kids used to like weave friendship bracelets for their parents. We got really filthy. I guess that’s it. Your turn, Ava.” Then, to me,

     “Thanks, man. We’re telling sex faux pas stories.” 

     I sipped the beer and pictured a loom in a bedroom, then in the center of the dance floor, where the patrons that had been watching the band stood and perspired and danced less and less as the guy in the chicken suit drew out the last bars. The loom was dusty and lonely looking, and it occurred to me that there was no way that a loom for friendship bracelets would be this big. Ava brought the plastic cup, weeping with condensation, to her cheek, where it mingled with sweat and caught the blue, red, and orange light from all the beer neon around the walls. Hairs clung at her temple.

     The gist of Ava’s story was that on Valentine’s Day a couple of years previous her boyfriend at the time—a guy who we’d gone to school with too—didn’t really make any special plans, they had sex, then he broke up with her. It wasn’t a great story but had this kind of straightforwardness to it that I appreciated. I guess the same thing could be said about Cyril’s, but Ava’s was darker.

     The band was packed up, the stage empty. The lead was wearing normaler clothes now, standing at the bar and talking to a couple of the hard youth. There was some music that someone had put on the jukebox.

     “Wanna dance?” said the woman who now stood beside Cyril, to Cyril. She looked about 48 or a heavy-smoking late thirties with long and waxen blonde hair, a tight, lime-green cardigan and a kind of damp looking and fuzzy knitted purple scarf. She dropped her bag and scarf on the table in front of Ava, and Ava and I looked at each other in a remarkable moment of connection and understanding as Cyril was led away from the table to the nearly empty dance floor by the hand. 

     I tried to maintain the eye contact with Ava but she lost interest and began to text in her lap, so I lit a cigarette and watched Cyril dance. He struck me as very gentlemanly. I didn’t know there were places where you could still smoke inside. I wasn’t tired at all, just sad.