We were jammed in together on the landing of narrow stairs that spiralled down a half dozen floors below us. The hallway, dimly lit and poorly kept, meandered down to corridors that made me uneasy to have hovering at my periphery. But we would go no further into this labyrinth. We had arrived.
"Yeah, man, I'm cool. C'mon, when have you known me not to be cool?"
My friend Ross shook his head at me from underneath his hoody, the only part of him that moved. It didn't make me feel any better. "Look, Quills, the last time I took you to a place where a guy lit up a joint you danced around like you expected to have the door kicked in all night."
"Well, we were in a public place!"
"And at my Christmas party when that girl showed up with the keg."
"She was seventeen," I answered, knowing full well that I'd get the same speech I got before we left. I just hung my head and tried to look regretful that I had ever been so lame and let him talk.
"So what, man? Half the people there were seventeen. Nobody cares. Just like nobody cares that we're going to walk in now and talk to a guy who has something I want and I'm going to buy it. You understand? And you said you were going to be cool but I'm going to tell you, this guy smells uncool like you had a dead cat down your pants and he is not going to be cool with you being uncool."
"Right. Be cool and all will be cool."
"Exactly," Ross said, clapping me on the shoulder. "You're learning, you prissy bastard. You're learning."
Ross knocked twice on the door and we were lead in. The apartment was as dim as the hallway, perhaps even dimmer. We were in some sort of foyer, with a woman greeting us and offering us a drink if we wanted it. I heard Ross answer no for both of us as I tried to see my way ahead.
Ross walked into the room beyond and I followed. It was obviously once a living room, but it had been converted into some sort of meeting place, with chairs and couches and large pillows everywhere. There would be room for three dozen people if they didn't mind getting close.
Tonight, however, it was just a man sitting in a large, worn down armchair near the open window. In February the open window let in a blast of cold air, cutting through the stuffy smells of cooking and living that we left behind in the hallway. It was like breathing alertness, though I was already cold in my jacket.
The man in the chair was tall and thin and obviously unbothered by the cold despite wearing only a white dress shirt and a hat struck at a jaunty corner on his head. He was reading by city glow and moonlight, a cigarette in one hand and a book in the other, shafts of light brushing by the smoke heading out the window.
"Hey man," Ross said, stepping forward. He reached out his hand and the man in the chair stuck his cigarette between his lips to shake Ross' hand. "It's been a while."
"I'm here anytime," the other man said. He glanced over at me and even in the gloom I could see he was a good looking guy, maybe not even thirty, though he certainly looked more intense than anyone I had ever seen Ross hanging around.
"Oh, yeah, this is Quills. Quills, this is my man Justin. Quills is green to all this, so don't go too hard on him, a'ight?"
Justin leaned forward and extended his hand. I shook it, though it was as cold as the winter air coming in from the window. I didn't know how he wasn't shivering sitting there like that. "It's nice to meet you," I said, returning the handshake even though his grip and the cold combined into the splash of pain in extreme temperatures where your mind is still trying to sort out if you've been burnt or frozen.
"Quills, that's an interesting name."
"Ah, just a nickname," I said, suddenly self conscious. His eyes danced across a shadowed face like they were picking up the moonlight, though with it framing him I wrote it off as a trick of my nerves. Trying to be cool was so hard.
"I see. Well, Quills, why don't you have a seat wherever you like and let me and Ross get down to business. You seem a bit uncomfortable."
"No, I'm fine," I said a little too quickly and a little too loudly. I laughed nervously. Ross just rolled his eyes at me, which only made me feel more panicked. I didn't want to mess this up. I had begged Ross to bring me along, to prove that I could live his lifestyle without any trouble.
Justin laughed. "If you say so. You sure you won't have a drink? I'm sure Cheryl will be happy to get you whatever you want."
"Um, some ... water? Or coffee, if you have it." I realized even as I said it that that wasn't the drinks a place like this would offer, but what was said was said and I could only stand there looking dumb, mouth agape, trying to think of a drink that would immediately show that I wasn't as terrible at this as Ross assumed I was.
"Let's split the difference, then," he said. "Cheryl!" His voice was loud and resonant in the empty room and the woman came from behind the door. "Get this poor boy an Americano before he runs out of here screaming."
Cheryl looked over at me with a smile that normally would make me nervous for a whole other set of reasons. But in a place like this, it was the normal smile of a pretty girl and it was real and relatable and I felt instantly calmer. As she retreated into the kitchen I found myself settling into the nearest seat, the middle of a long low couch that stretched across most of one wall.
“Anyway,” Ross started, “I know I haven’t been by in a while but things have been pretty crazy. I hope there aren’t any hard feelings about that?”
“Of course not,” Justin answered, taking a long drag on the cigarette that had been idling between his lips. It flared back to life, the one spot of warmth in the room. “I understand how it is. Times are tough all around. You don’t exactly see this place as lively as it used to be.”
“Yeah, I hear you keep it going on from time to time.”
“What can I say, I like having friends over,” Justin said with a smile. Ross handed him an envelope which he barely bothered to look at. I knew Ross was saving up to buy something from him, drugs of some kind, but I didn’t know and I really didn’t want to ask. Ross was a friend but sometimes it was good to know the boundaries. I couldn’t try to be cool for everything.
Justin set the envelope beside him in the chair and then gestured for Ross to take a seat. When Cheryl came out, it was with a large, steaming mug of coffee for me. I wrapped my hands around it, glad to have some warmth flowing through my otherwise icy fingers. It was soothing. I couldn’t imagine staying in here for any length of time comfortably, especially if all I was doing was reading. The idle thought crossed my mind that Justin was some kind of vampire. I laughed quietly to myself over the coffee.
I shot a look at Ross but he just shrugged so I answered Justin, telling him about the cold between careful sips of the drink in my hands. It was like heaven, a warm blanket wrapping around me from the inside.
Justin laughed in return, louder than mine. “Vampire? Man, you kids these days and your vampires. No, no, I’m perfectly normal, more or less. I don’t really feel cold.” He handed Cheryl the envelope, and she disappeared into the room she came from.
Ross chimed in. “It’s true, we all thought it was just some macho bullshit until we dared him one time to do that polar bear challenge thing where guys go swimming in ice water? And he totally did it. There were these guys who had been there for decades who said he was unreal.”
“They wanted to take me to a doctor and see if there was something wrong with me,” Justin said. “I refused, of course. I’ve lived this long with it, haven’t died of hypothermia yet, why start worrying about it now? But I’ll admit sometimes it makes guests uncomfortable. Tonight I’m not entertaining so I just let the air in. I find it refreshing. Reminds me of the mountains.”
Cheryl walked back out and handed Ross a small envelope. I glanced at it curiously but didn’t ask. It seemed small if it was drugs, smaller than the envelope he handed over would have justified. Cheryl turned to me. “If it’s too cold out here, you can come into the kitchen, keep me company. I’ve got a heater in there and everything.”
Justin shook his head. “Don’t go throwing out the welcome wagon just yet. He’s green and likely to startle.”
I shook my head. “I’m not startled. Some warmth sounds nice,” I said up to her, going to stand up.
“Be careful, tiger, she’s a man-eater,” Justin said with a grin.
I looked up at Cheryl, who just shrugged. “You can’t believe everything you hear.”
Ross laughed. “Yeah, but that works both ways. C’mon, you can work your charms if he gets up the nerve to come back. We have a party to go to, thanks to you.” He tipped the envelope against his forehead in a salute, which Justin returned with a tug of the brim of his hat.
I looked down at my warm coffee, and up at Cheryl looking suddenly put out at being shut down by both men. Now that we were here without incident, and I was warming up, and there was the offer of an even warmer place and a friendly face, I found my earlier nervousness dissolving in the smoke and the moonlight.
“Aw, c’mon Russ, do we have to?”
“Quills, you try me.”
“What are friends for?”