“I couldn’t tell them,” Gage said. “I wanted to tell them many times. But I couldn’t. After they kicked you out, I was all they had left. You were the favorite. You were the one with all the personality. They had to settle for me. It would have been too cruel to tell them. It would have killed them five years earlier.”
“But it was okay to toss me out on the street and let me fend for myself?” Luis said. “It was okay for me to go live with Dr. Barton, a man twice my age, until I couldn’t take it anymore and wound up running away to New York with nothing but the clothes on my back? And it was okay for me to make a living as an escort in New York, with clients in their sixties and seventies? I guess what happened to me didn’t really matter at all. The only one who ever gave me a break after I was kicked out of the house was our uncle, the one you didn’t like. But he was too sick to take me in. When he died of AIDS, before I had a chance to help him with money so he could get his HIV drugs, I was devastated.”
Gage frowned and felt a lump in his throat. “I didn’t know he died.”
“That’s because you never liked him.”
“He always favored you and ignored me.”
“I loved him,” Luis said. “It wasn’t easy on my own. When I look back, I don’t know how I did it all alone at such a young age.”
Gage looked around. “I can’t believe you’re complaining. You didn’t do too badly for yourself, Luis. You saw our options and took advantage of them. I wish I’d done the same thing, but it took me a long time to realize I had options. From what I can see you have no right to complain about anything.”
“You have no idea what it was like,” Luis said. “And it’s all because you outed me, thanks to the fact that your so-called boyfriend, Snake, who smelled like a horse’s ass, wanted me more than he wanted you.”
Gage lowered his voice and spoke in a growl. “You have no idea what it was like back in Tennessee after you left,” Gage said. “You were the favorite, and they never let me forget it. Even though I did all the dirty work after you left, they still kept looking in the mail for something from you. When nothing arrived, they took it out on me, mostly with their blank silence. I think Pop even blamed me for telling him what you were doing in the barn with Snake. I think he would have preferred not to have known.”
Luis turned and said, “Go fuck yourself, you self-righteous asshole.”
“No. You go fuck yourself,” Gage said. Then he stormed out of the bedroom and ran down the stairs so fast he took them two at a time.
It took Gage almost an hour to get back to his apartment in Brooklyn Heights. He tended to stay near his own neighborhood and the neighborhood in the East Village, where he worked at a strip joint. He wasn’t familiar with the way the subways ran on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and Luis didn’t offer to let his “driver” take Gage home. So Gage took the wrong train downtown and wound up in Long Island City, clutching his fists and cursing his twin brother the entire time.
Thankfully, all he had to do was cross the street in Long Island City and take another train to backtrack. He didn’t have to be at the strip joint until nine that night, and it was only four in the afternoon. But he’d only slept about three hours the night before and he wanted to take a nice long nap before work. There was nothing worse than a male stripper with dark circles and puffy bags beneath his eyes. Most of the guys he was competing with at the strip club now were in their late teens and early twenties. Gage was pushing twenty-eight and he knew the clock was ticking. Though he could still pass for a guy in his early twenties in the right light, he knew he wouldn’t be able to do it forever.
When he reached his building in Brooklyn Heights, he took a deep breath and walked into a small grocery store sandwiched between a used bookstore and a dry cleaner. His studio apartment was above the grocery store and the only easy way to get to it was to walk through the store, into the back storage room, and out the back door where there was a set of wooden steps that led to the second floor. There was also a side alley, but it was very narrow and you never knew when a rat would scurry by, so Gage preferred walking through the store. Gage was the only resident who lived there. The owner of the building used the third-floor apartment as his own personal storage space and filled it, supposedly, with antique furniture and castoffs he couldn’t seem to part with.
Gage smiled at the owner of the store and said, “Hey, Billy. How are they hangin’?” Gage had been living there for five years and the grocery store had only been there three years. When Gage had rented the apartment, the storefront had been vacant. So when the landlord rented the storefront to Billy two years later, he worked out an arrangement between Gage and Billy so that Gage could gain access to his apartment at any time, even when the store was closed, so Gage wouldn’t have to walk up the narrow side alley. Billy gave Gage a key to the store and trusted him completely. Gage knew the security system code and often worked at the store part time whenever Billy needed extra help in a pinch. Gage had even filled in for Billy when Billy had the flu.
In return for the inconvenience of having to walk through a grocery store to get to his apartment, the landlord gave Gage a discount on the rent. Although there was nothing luxurious about this building or his apartment, he felt safe and comfortable there, as if it were his own little private corner of New York no one else knew about. And he was surrounded by very nice people all the time.
“Hey, Gage,” Billy said, with his usual hoarse voice. “They’re hangin, like they always hang: one lower than the other.” Billy was the type of guy who smiled more than he frowned and he treated Gage like a kid brother. The twenty-year age difference between them, and the fact that Billy had a wife and two kids, kept them from socializing often. But they both knew they had each other’s backs at all times.
Gage crossed to the rear of the store and swiped a green apple from a basket on top of the deli counter. “I’ll pay you later,” Gage said, biting into the apple. He hadn’t eaten all day and probably wouldn’t have time to eat until after work.
Billy laughed. “I’ll put it on your tab, kid.” He was slicing American cheese that day for a special he ran during week. A pound of American cheese for $2.99 brought him customers from all over Brooklyn who wound up buying other things as well.
Gage glanced down at the huge meatball sandwich next to the slicing machine and frowned. Billy weighed close to three hundred pounds and he was always eating the wrong foods. “I thought you were starting your diet this week,” Gage said, taking another bite of the apple. He wasn’t insulting him because he was fat. Gage worried more about Billy’s health than his looks.