Underground

Urban Renaissance rehearses in the basement of a low-rent apartment building in West Harlem, a claustrophobic space lit by low-wattage bare bulbs, with an ancient coal chute in one wall and a crumbling, disused brick chimney dominating the center. They’ve spread cheap rugs over floor in the corner where they set up, and hung posters on the cement walls. God knows where they got it, but there’s also a legless couch plopped on the floor far enough away to sit and listen, its cushions sagging into worn-out springs, covered with several clean sheets that at least mask the dusty, musty smell wafting from it.

Leon’s skin crawls when he enters, but he decides he’ll put up with a messy underground space to listen to Rain play. He takes a seat gingerly on one arm of the sofa. It creaks alarmingly, but holds out. “Are you… are you sure this is gonna be okay?”

Rain is elbow-deep in the sound board, hooking up connections, but he pauses to look up at Leon. “It’s gonna be fine. I talked to Simon after we got back, and he’s, he’s – he’s still kinda pissed, but, but – but mostly at me, y’know? Not, not – not really at you.” He flashes Leon a wry grin. “Though he made a point of telling me again that – that if, if – if you hurt me, he will, and I quote, ‘Knock his fucking teeth out.’ So it’s, it’s – it’s a good thing I haven’t – haven’t told him about you trying – trying to break things off with me.”

“Hey, I – ”

“I’m kidding. I like you with – with your teeth still in your mouth.”

Leon slowly slides into the corner of the couch, making certain to keep a layer of sheets under himself and trying to suppress his grimace.

“And,” Rain continues, “Simon is kind of – kind of seeing someone since, since – since the party.”

“Oh yeah? Anyone I know?”

“Well, yeah. Enrique.”

“Oh, awesome. Enrique’s fun.” As soon as the words are out of his mouth he wonders how Rain feels about him talking about other lovers.

But if Rain is bothered, he doesn’t show even a flicker of it when he looks up again. “I know this isn’t – isn’t the kind of place you’re used to.” Either Leon’s face gives everything away, or the boy is damned intuitive. Probably some of each. “We’re, we’re – we’re working on something – something better. But this, this – this is cheap and, and – and at least it’s dry.” He makes another connection, and something electronic buzzes to life. He gets to his feet and picks up his guitar, begins fussing with the dials on the front. “Y’know, I’ve been at your apartment.” Now he seems to be avoiding Leon’s eyes.

“Really? I think I would remember that.”

“It was, was – was about four in the morning, and – and I found Diego, strung out and, and – and wandering around half-naked.”

Leon has a guilty flashback to Diego spending the night on the bathroom floor and flushes. “Ah.” It’s a low, near-voiceless sound.

“I got him home,” Rain says. No question, he is avoiding looking up. “He, he – he called me a savior. Wanted – wanted me to stay. But, but – but he looked so young, and – and I didn’t really – really feel good about it.”

“He is young. He’s seventeen.”

Now Rain does looks up, his expression both surprised and alarmed. “Seventeen? You know he, he – he was telling everyone at Saratoga he was nineteen.”

“What? Fuck. Really?”

“Yep.”

“Jesus.” Leon runs both hands through his hair. “I may not have been around when he was born, but I sure as hell remember how old I was when I tried to see if it would work with a woman. I was seventeen, now I’m thirty-four, and that makes him seventeen. What the hell was he thinking?” He pauses a moment and puts his hand over his eyes. “What the hell was I thinking?”

Finished with his guitar, Rain sets it on a stand and comes over to sit next to Leon. “Hey, you didn’t – didn’t make him lie about, about – about his age.”

“No, but I dragged him into all of this in the first place. I took him in when he left home, gave him his first taste of coke, introduced him all around town. Rain, you gotta know… I’m kind of a mess.”

“Yeah. I know. I didn’t – didn’t know it was your apartment then, but, but – but part of why I didn’t stay was – was it looked like a drug den. Like – like my parents’ house always – always looked.” He wrings one hand in the other. “I got Skye and myself out of there when – when they couldn’t really – really take care of us.”

“You care about him.”

“He’s, he’s – he’s selfish as fuck and, and – and a goddamn pain in the ass. But… but he’s my brother.”

Leon wants to say more, but just then there’s a bang from the top of the stairs, and footsteps come clomping down. Simon is in a variation on the only clothing Leon has seen him in: a black vest covered with buttons and zippers, black pants, black boots, and a scowl that deepens when he sees Leon and Rain sitting close on the couch. “Nice.”

Ignoring the sarcasm, Rain looks at his watch and sighs. “Fucking Skye. He’ll probably – probably be an hour late, if he even – even remembers to show.”

“We can go without him.” Simon takes a place at the keyboard and plays a few bars, stretching his fingers out. “Is Leon staying?”

“I wanted – wanted him to, to – to get to listen to some more of, of – of our stuff. We’re going to, to – to collaborate on – on something.”

“Not for Urban Renaissance.” It isn’t a question.

“No, it’ll be our, our – our own – own side project.” Rain gets up and takes his guitar.

“Fine,” says Simon. “Whatever. Let’s play.”

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