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Between The Lines
by Chris Conroy

(Between The Lines, set in mid 1990's New York City , is Travis Hill's first person account of the two weeks before the final curtain rises on him at New York University , the college he's set to graduate from as a theater major. Not only is Travis a serious, passionate and talented actor, but he's also a confused nihilist who, by his absurd choices, dangerous surroundings, desperate needs and numerous addictions, puts his dream—and even his life—in jeopardy.)

"The whole conviction of my life now rests upon
the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare
and curious phenomenon, is the central and
inevitable fact of human existence."

Thomas Wolfe,
God's Lonely Man

I'm in Washington Square Park eating my bagel. There's an open bench next to me but I'd rather watch the world standing. Bums and strangers are happy under the changing sun. Strong winds bend bare branches. Dead leaves litter the sky. A girl with a dirty face comes up to me and tells me she'll give me head if I drive her to Fort Lee. I tell her my Corvette is in the shop and she says oh and then asks if I have any money. I give her the change from the bagel and she leaves. The sun fades orange behind the tall bricks and I leave too, thinking about a blowjob and how I never want to have a daughter.
    Home. My roommate Frank is watching the Discovery Channel and cutting the drug. He's not wearing a shirt and looks too tan for December.
    "Hey," he says.
    "Hey," I say, and hit the bathroom, door open, lights off. Frank yells from the TV room and I flush the can and go sit on the couch. "Say something?" I ask.
    He's staring at the television. Lioness on the hunt: Closer, closer, pivot, leap, snagged—blood—death. "You see that shit, man?" He looks down, starts cutting again. "Women do all the hunting…then they come home and fuck the king." He looks up. "Now that's a woman. Who's Samantha?"
    "Some Samantha chick called for you."
    "Samantha? Samantha? Who the…oh yeah, must be that girl from Cheetah. That's it. I gave her my number. Damn, I was messed up." I think about the girl with the dirty face. Wonder if she's hungry?
    "She's on the machine, left her number," he says, and starts filling the gram bags with powder-cut coke. "You going to call her?"
    "She was cool," I say picking up the remote—Weather Channel. "Big Daddy says rain for tomorrow…yeah, I'll call her, why not?"
    My other roommate walks in. His motorcycle helmet is under his arm, resting on his hip. "I wish the weather would stay like this all year," he says and disappears into his room. Frank's got a nice pile of gram bags made up and is now working on the bigger shit: the party bags, yuppie pussy bait, Doctors' overtime, John Doe's addiction. Actually he has very few customers compared to what's really running the city. Mostly professionals looking to buy in bulk, looking to keep their wives happy with long hours and a hard dick. Grams usually go to students at the University, also under close surveillance. Frank knows all his customers by name. He's a business major here at NYU, hopes to be in sales.
    I think about calling that girl and Middles comes out of his room wearing a green towel around his waist and sits on our soft leather couch. "What you end up getting your sister?"
    "Couldn't find anything. Got a bagel at that new place Donnie's and sat in the square—watched the freaks."
    Middles snaps his fingers, leans back. "Yeah, how's that place?" He grins.
    "How's my boy Donnie?"
    "Donnie's an asshole, real tight with the dough," I say, and switch to Sports Center. "This girl in the park offered to blow me if I drove her to Fort Lee, real freak."
    Middles leans forward. "And?"
    "Told her my Vette was in the shop."
    "Should've brought her home," Mike says smiling. "Should've brought her home for Frank."
    "She was about twelve," I say.
    Frank looks up, smiling. "All the better." He laughs and forms a small line with the remaining dust. "Who wants it?"
    Middles gets up and goes for a shower and I do the small line and then get up to call that girl—Samantha?
    Close to nine o'clock on Sunday and I'm in my room reading over the 'Great God Brown' and waiting for that girl to show up. "From the time I realized it wasn't in me to be an artist—except in living—and not even in that!" I say Dion's line over and over, but can't nail it. Should've gotten Brown's part. I put O'Neill down and raise my Venetian blinds to the city. The Park is closed off now and people walk in dark silence. Cops drive in slow circles looking to bust small time dealers or slap an open container fine on some Jersey punk drinking a forty wrapped in a paper bag who probably just bought shit weed off some small time dealer. Protection.
    Mom calls and tells me Aunt Sandy died and that the funeral is Tuesday and I say she's finally at peace. She tells me I'm right and then starts up about heaven and hell and the Holy Ghost. I tell her I have another call and that I have to take it and hang up. The apartment is empty and I think about growing old and living alone. Dying alone.
    The buzzer goes off. I hold down the button and let the girl up. I open the door and wait with sweaty hands. She turns the corner and walks down the hall towards me, looking at me, smiling confidence. She hands me a red rose, says, "Hello, Travis." I smell smoke.
    Last night comes back to me when I look into those green eyes. "Hey, come in...what's this?" I ask, holding the rose, remembering how casual conversation was.
    She smiles in return and proceeds to take a tour of the apartment. "Well, Travis, you have yourself a fine place here…nice couch," she says running her hand over the soft black leather. "How do you afford a place like this?"
    I hold the rose up to my nose, breathe in. "My roommate's father, Mike, the one you met at Cheetah, owns the building. Don't pay that much at all…got hooked up, we all did." I blow on my palms.
    "Lucky you. Where are your roommates?" She walks past me and into my room. "Is this your room?"
    "Yeah," I tell her, wondering if I want her in my room. "Mike's at class and Frank's out…somewhere."
    "Is De Niro your favorite actor?" She asks, looking at my Taxi Driver and Goodfella's posters.
    "I need to redecorate," I tell her, looking at her back, her ass. "You want to get out of here, get something to eat?" Great ass.
    She turns around and I smile. She smiles back and says she's starving and we leave.

    We're in Campagna picking at the warm Italian bread and I'm wondering what to order and she tells me she's starving again and feels like Fettuccini Alfredo.
    "Sounds good," I say reading my menu. "I'm liking the veal, possibly a sirloin." I look around to find unfamiliar faces scattered at surrounding tables, my table.
    "You eat a lot of meat?"
    "Relentless carnivore," I tell her and catch my reflection in the mirror behind her head. Last night's hangover under the eyes. "Why, do you not eat meat?" The waiter comes over and I order a bottle of Cabernet and tell him we need more time. He lights our candle and walks away.
    "No, I do…I'm just not, how'd you put it—a relentless carnivore." She looks down at her menu. "Fettuccini, yes. That's it, that's what I'm getting," she reassures me. "You ever just get a craving?"
    I cut the candle flame with my finger and it flickers. "Never."
    She tells me to shut up and gives my shin a light kick from under the table. We both smile at each other and I think about her in my room and the rose I left on my bed.
    "So, Travis, we meet last night and here we are, the next night out to dinner. Pretty smooth. Know something? I don't even know what your last name is or what you do. What do you do?"
    The waiter comes back and pours me wine and I wonder what I'm doing here. "Hill," I say, "my last name's Hill." I smell the wine and take a sip. The waiter's waiting for a response so I tell him, while spinning the liquid, "exquisite, just perfect." He fills Samantha's glass and says he'll be right back for our order.
    She smiles and takes a sip. "Travis Hill, I like that. And Travis Hill what is it you do?"
    Here we go. "You mean you haven't heard of me?"
    The waiter returns and she orders her craving and I tell him I'll have the rib-eye and he asks how I want it done and I say, "rare, nice and bloody."
    "Well, this is only my second week in the Big Apple but, no, I haven't heard of you…should I've?"
    "You never heard of T. Hill? The movie star? I'm famous, filthy rich." I shake my head. "I'm shocked, really thought the world knew me, oh well."
    "Right," she says. "Cute. Really, though."
    "College. NYU. Theater major." I finish one glass, fill another. "Thought I'd do a little acting, little dreaming if you will—more wine?"
    "Please. That's great, it really is. I'd love to see you in action. Are your roommates in the theater as well?"
    "What? No." I place my napkin on my lap and inspect my silverware. "Characters, though." I think about telling her more about them, that Frank's a cocaine dealer and Mike a manic depressive, but don't.
    "All the world's a stage, right?" She holds out her glass.
    I fill her up.
    "Isn't that—thanks—isn't that what they say?"
    "Something like that."
    "So, Travis, what's next—after graduation?" She taps the table with her spoon. "I'm starving, but I don't want to fill up on bread," she says pushing the bread away from her. "What year are you, anyway?" She tears off another piece of Italian bread and takes a small bite. "Starving."
    I wonder if they drained the blood from my aunt yet?
    "I'm a senior," I say, "graduate this semester." I pull the basket of bread away from her. "Cutting you off," I tell her.
    "Good idea," she says, then, "are you nervous?"
    "Nervous?" I look at my hands, rub them together. "No, not really," I say. "Maybe a little."
    "I think it's so cool that you want to be an actor. Have you always wanted to be—an actor?"
    I smile and glance at her breasts. "High school, sophomore year, I had a crush on this senior—Keri Franzetti. Drama club hottie. I ended up joining, and..."
    "You loser," she says, grinning. "Anything for a piece of ass—public humiliation, silly costumes, anything, eh?"
    "She wanted nothing to do with me. I was sixteen and painfully short, but I did land the Tin Man role, and, well…never looked back."
    "If you only had a heart, Travis." She picks something out of her wine with her pinkie finger. "What do you have going on now? I mean, can I see you in anything—at NYU or..."
    I finish my wine. "We have a play opening in two weeks, end of the semester—O'Neill's The Great God Brown." I pour the rest of the bottle into my glass.
    "O'Neill? Long Day's Journey, right?"
    "Yes, Impressive." I'd rather burn than be buried. "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
    "I took a drama class at UCLA—only did a year, don't ask—read some Williams, some Beckett, Shepard, Albee, O'Neill. I really liked Shepard's work."
    "Yeah, Shep's great." I drink some wine. "I was in True West last year."
    "That's so cool. I'm happy we met, Travis."
    "We're going to need to order more wine," I say, avoiding the friendship trap. "So, how come only one year at UCLA?" I snag a piece of bread and start buttering it.
    "More wine?" She looks at her filled glass, picks it up and takes several sips until it's almost empty. "Yes," she says, "more wine."
    "You're not going to tell me?"
    She smirks and leans back in her chair. "Do you have any brothers or…"
    "A sister. Enough about me, what's your story? You're still a ghost," I tell her and look for our waiter, our food.
    There's a strange silence for a second and then her eyes go wide. "BOO!" She shouts. "Well, two weeks ago I got on a plane in LA and around four hours later I was here: New York City, the Big Apple, the city that never sleeps." She smiles, starts singing, "Start spreading the news...I'm leaving today..."
    "So, Samantha? Samantha? Saman..."
    "So, Samantha Hunter, what is it you do after being here just two weeks?" The wine is now in the blood. Or is it the blood in the wine?
    "So far I've been doing quite well. Free dinner every night." She kicks me again, only harder. "No. You really want to know?"
    I raise my wineglass.
    "First of all, I had to get out of Cali…things were becoming, well, I don't know, old I guess. My Grandparents lived in New York their whole lives and when I was young we used to visit, but then my parents got divorced and my Grandpa died, and things just changed. Am I boring you?"
    To death. "No, not at all," I tell her, "go on." Definitely need more wine.
    "Well, things just changed, but I still stayed in touch with Lucy—that's what I call Grandma, says it makes her feel young—we wrote each other, stayed in contact, and well about a month ago I was talking to her on the phone and she knew how I was feeling so she told me to come east and stay with her and I did, here I am."
    She's lying to me, there has to more to her story. Recovering heroine addict or an abusive father, something laced with tragedy, but I don't feel like pressing her, at least not yet, so I mutter "huh" and watch our waiter walk in my direction with steaming plates, hoping they're ours.
    I've been on my floor now for four hours with my eyes shut and the room black, but still I remain wide awake. Just thinking, wondering about the days that pass by like cars on the highway. Wonder about this girl sleeping on my bed and those that say they love me: my family, some friends…me. I fall asleep to the fast pounding storm outside.


    When I wake my bed is made and Samantha is gone. I read the note she left on my pillow: 'TRAVIS, GREAT NIGHT. CALL ME, SAM. P.S. COOL MOVE!' I put the note on my desk, grab a towel from the floor and hit the shower. Hot water soaks my head as I attempt to recall the night. Let's see: she came here, got rose, small talk, checked ass…then to Campagna: ordered wine, my life, her life, more wine, food, talk…Cab ride back home in rain: cab ride? cab ride? First kiss in cab…My Bedroom: perfume, breasts, lips…Morning: wake on the floor with my bed made and a note on my pillow saying CALL ME…COOL MOVE. I shut the hot water and turn my face to the cold hard stream, wait about fifty seconds with my eyes closed and when I open them I'm up—awake.
    It's ten thirty and I'm showered, dressed and eating my breakfast in the TV room. Middles is at class. Frank's in his room? Sleeping? I puncture the egg yolk with my English muffin and watch the morning news: problems in the Middle East, woman raped in Central Park, cancer patient gets his wish, O.J. on the golf course, more rain. I wait to hear news about the dirty faced girl but don't so I flip to Sports Center and check my bets from yesterday—Miami and Green Bay covered, up eighty bucks, first time all year. Frank walks by wearing NY KNICKS boxers, mumbles something and then stumbles into the bathroom. Seconds later he's out on the couch next to me scratching his scrotum, breathing hangover. "How'd it go last night with that chick?" He mutters, digging his knuckles into his eye sockets. "Ever go out?"
    "Samantha. Yeah, went to Campagna…went well." I finish my milk. "How'd you know?"
    "Machine. Heard her message." He slaps my back. "Fuck her?"
    Knew that was coming. "No, I just met her two days ago," I tell him, knowing it won't hold. Not with Frank.
    "Yeah, so…unless?"
    "Unless what?"
    He smiles, starts singing: "when a man loves a woman…can't keep his mind on…" He fades, not knowing the words.
    I'm laughing. "Love, that's a good one. No, we were all fucked up, killed a bottle of wine at dinner…then came back here for some shots. We were hooking up in my room, but guessed we passed out. She's from…"
    "What? She slept here?"
    "Yeah, we passed out on my bed," I lie. "She was gone when I got up. Unless she left in the middle of the night, but I don't think…"
    "She slept here and you didn't get laid?" He shakes his head. "Damn, Hill, you're losing it."
    "You got me buddy. Losing it and falling in love. Hey, I've been meaning to ask you, will you be my best man? I mean I should be married in a few weeks, and I need a best man—and you're the best I know. How 'bout it?"
    "I bet you see her tonight. Hell, bring her here so the best man can check her out. Deal?"
    "Fuck you," I say, and check the time. "Shit, I'm late for rehearsal...catch you later."
    I get to rehearsal and Davis, also a theater major, tells me Director French canceled rehearsal until tomorrow and that they're all going to studio to rehearse at four and I tell her I can't make it at four, that I have a funeral tomorrow and she says sorry and then asks if I have a cigarette and I tell her I don't smoke and she says sorry again and I leave pissed off.
    Got time to kill before my next class so I hit Bleeker Street and try, for the third time, to find a birthday present for my sister. I think about getting something for my aunt, but remember people don't get presents when they die…only flowers. I feel guilty for some reason and walk into a small head shop hoping to find the perfect gift. The distinct smell of marijuana lingers in the air and Hendrix plays low from hidden speakers. A guy with a red goatee comes over to me and asks if I need any help. I tell him I'm looking for a present for my sister.
    "Older? Younger? He asks, too excited.
    "Older," I tell him, wishing I said I was just looking.
    "Perfect," he says, twisting his shaggy face hair, looking me up and down. "You a cop?"
    "A cop? Me? No. Why?"
    "Perfect. Some great stuff"—he winks—"came in today…make her feel half her age…interested? I'll cut ya deal, ya know, for her birthday…what ya say, dude?"
    Scumbag. "No, not her style. How much for that angel?"
    "What, the candle?"
    "Ah, yeah…is that what it is?"
    "That thing, shit, twenty-five bucks, normally thirty-five."
    "Good." Two chicks in tight leather walk in holding hands. "I'll take the white one," I tell him and think about the dykes in action. Me in the middle.
    I give him a twenty and a ten he gives me back five wrinkled singles and I leave with the wax angel wondering if people ever light these things.
    It starts to rain again and I decide to skip my breathing class and go see If Tara's home. I knock on her door. She asks who is it and I tell her Travis and she opens her door. She's wearing a white T-shirt that stops below her knees and her long hair is wet and pushed back. Fresh shower. Such a turn on. I drop my bag to the side, kick the door closed behind me and quickly find out she's naked under the shirt. She unbuttons my jeans and our hands arouse each other as we fumble to the floor. The unmade bed is a few feet away, but there's no time for that so I enter her and she arches her head back and moans and I push harder and she digs her nails into me and bites my shoulder and I love it. We finish and she tells me things are starting to work out with her husband now and that this has to stop.
    "What about haircuts? You could still cut my hair," I say, and throw on my sweater, look around for my other boot.
    She's on her bed now. A dark blanket covers her legs and her small breasts are exposed in the gray light. "I think…it has…it has to stop," she whispers, and brings the blanket to her chin, covering her cold hard nipples. "All of it."
    "Well, whatever," I say, and grab my angel and leave.

    Walking home in the soft rain I agree, I tell myself it has to stop. Soon must come love.

    At home Frank is on the couch giving free samples to one of his regulars. The guy looks familiar: suit, balding, dark circles under the eyes, but they all wear that shady look so it's hard to be sure. I ask Frank if Middles is home and he points to the kitchen. I go in and find him at the stove. "What's cooking," I say, "pun intended."
    "Hey man, what's up," he says and looks over his shoulder. "How'd rehearsal go?" He turns back and stirs with the wooden spoon.
    "Canceled." I take a seat at the table. "Strange, French never cancels."
    "Yeah." He shakes some spices over the big pot and mixes them in. "You have to try this chili—three meat—got the recipe from Lisa's mom."
    "Check it out," I say holding up the angel.
    He turns from the stove with the dripping spoon in his hand. "What is it…a candle?" He slurps over the spoon.
    "Yeah, got it for Al. Birthday's tomorrow."
    "Tell her happy," he says and pulls two bowls from the cabinet, uses the silver ladle on the counter to fill them with the chili. "She's into that candle craze—huh?"
    "No, angels…she loves'em."
    "Light it up." He sits down and pushes a steaming bowl at me. "Eat."
    "Yeah, thought about it…be cool to watch an angel melt." I dig in. "Hey, can I borrow—damn, hot soup—your jeep tomorrow?"
    "Where you going?"
    "My aunt, remember my Aunt Sandy?"
    "I think? Drives that huge Caddie, right?"
    "Yeah, used too…well, she's been real sick with cancer and she just died. Funeral's tomorrow…and my sister's birthday."
    "Shit man, sorry." He blows on a spoonful.
    "Yeah, she was real sick."
    "Sure…might have to gas it up."
    "So, I hear you're in love." He smiles. "It was that girl from Cheetah, no?"
    "That be the one." I'm still not clear on my cool move.
    "She was sweet," he says. "So, how'd it go…let's hear it."
    I tell him what I remember and he tells me he bought Lisa a ring and says it's been over four years and I think about calling Samantha and asking her to marry me. Crack myself up.

About the author:
I am a 2000 graduate of the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY. An excerpt from my novel (entitled Kings at the time) was published in Whetstone Art and Literary Journal. Between The Lines / Kings was awarded the Waitman Barbe Novel In Progress Award. Some of my short stories have been published in Carsons and Kestrel. I am also the co-founder of an online creative writing school: A short bio of me can be found there.

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