I left my partner, L, alone to move into our new apartment in Toronto because a few months ago we were together in New York and I pulled my pants down in public in front of the American flag and the cops showed up and now I have to go back for my court date for this silly thing that happened out of love, this strange and beautiful thing, and I want to go back to her because I love her, I don’t want to be on this plane in the air in the nothing between the clouds and the nothing that rolls on and on and on to America.
There’s a man a few seats up from me, he’s handsome and I can’t stop staring, he has slicked-back black hair, tattoos on his neck, his eyes are deep blue almost white and he’s charming the stewardess, she touches his hand, they share little smiles, secret smiles when she passes. I turn my head away when she passes and I hope she doesn’t see me, I grip the armrest of fiery death this metal box of wires in the sky in the nothing. The handsome man drinks his drink cool, his cool drink and he smiles and everything belongs to him and I shouldn’t be here.
In secondary security at the Newark International Airport I see the handsome man again, he’s arguing with a US customs officer who threatens to send him back to Canada, he says he’s here because he’s in love with a woman and he won’t leave he’ll fight to see her and I love him now and now I’m the handsome man. A customs officer calls me over.
“Why are you here?”
“I have a court date tomorrow.”
“When are you leaving?”
“In two days.”
Silence, no eye contact.
“Welcome to America.”
It was July. It was July 6th. It was wedding season, we’d driven through the Independence Day states of north-east Maine and New Hampshire now New York, New York with L, American flags were in bloom and we were too. We found one flag one afternoon, massive and shining of jewels in a Williamsburg park, by the baseball diamond shining, she dared me to pose nude in front of it, the American flag and we giggled and I did it because I loved America and I loved her and now and a click of the camera, quick.
And then the cops came. One of the officers was young and disappointed in me like an older brother might be disappointed in me, like my actual older brother in my actual life is disappointed in me, he looked me in the eyes and he said, “People have died for that flag,” and he wasn’t kidding and he was right. He handed me a yellow ticket with a court date, disorderly conduct. I called a lawyer and she told me up to 15 days in jail was the worst that could happen, 15 days and I’d never go back to America, the worst thing.
Back to now. I’m on a train, it’s grey and it’s raining. A woman sits next to me and she smiles and she smells like Halloween candy and spends the entire train ride texting and I read my book, Alan Watts’s The Way of Zen. At Penn Station she’s there still in the street and she smiles and the sun is shining now through a mist of the grey rising away into the nothing, a dreadlocked construction worker smiles too and her eyes are blue and she looks like she’s high and I smile and we’re all smiling now, smiling in America.
There’s a jazz band playing behind everything, playing from a bar low beneath our feet like nostalgic non-existent 1950s, tourists gape, their phones in the air aiming at their faces. I walk to 37th and 9th where a friend moved from Toronto, she has an apartment and she has a couch for the night and she hugs me on the stoop and she’s busy and has to leave but puts the key in my hand, in my pocket, and she says, “I’m seeing this new guy, he’s cute and tomorrow we can all grab drinks if you don’t end up in jail!” We laugh. She offers me no coffee, no wine, there’s a cat in the room and it’s wearing a bowtie. I text L, I tell her I’m safe, soft words, I’m safe.
And it’s night now and I walk my entire life through lower Manhattan and if I stand here long enough something will happen. My phone rings in my pocket and I ignore it, it’s my mother calling she doesn’t know I’m here. No one knows I’m here. No one but L, my host and the state of New York and a woman asks me directions. She’s looking for a bar called Local 138 and it’s on this street and “I don’t know it,” I say, “but I can help you find it, the numbers go up from here,” and she says, “That would be swell,” her drawl is the wind through the wind chimes, we’re approaching 100s and we walk.
We talk about nothing, we walk together in the night, she’s a student and she’s new and her name is Mary Lou and she’s from Needles, California, “The greatest wasteland armpit west of all of Ohio, which is also an armpit,” and the bar is warm and she asks me to sit. Six men fill the table beside us, none of them speak, they’re watching a muted TV with the moving mouths of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and Mary Lou won’t tell me who she’s voting for, she says, “We’re in New York, take a wild guess ya lump of coal,” and she tells me about the price of apartments and the price of tuition and the price of transit, I tell her about my court date and she laughs. We’re drinking flat beer in the heart of the world and she says, “Well I gotta go, boy,” I ask her to stay and talk more. She smiles, says good luck, have fun, maybe she’ll find me in Toronto some day. She won’t. She leaves. I stay with another flat beer and the six silent men, then wander, wonder like nets in the night. I think of L. I text her, “I love you.” She doesn’t text back. It’s late.
Morning. I wake, I learn to tie a tie. I thought of maybe a woman maybe I’d marry one day who would maybe want to tie my tie for me forever and then, outliving her, I would feel the need of her, of another, of any other as I stare at my now forever untied tie. How much I could lose, everything all at once.
The line outside the courthouse curves around the block of the great brick building of justice and scatters into the sleepy morning street. Here’s what happens to me: I’m ushered through security, a metal detector, I stand in another long line, I hand my yellow ticket (the one I’d been given earlier in the story) to a woman at a counter behind a plastic window and I’m told to go to Courtroom 3. People fill the halls like we’re all in high school between classes everyone shuffling feet and slouching. I walk into Courtroom 3. Here’s what happens to me: pews on both sides like a church, mostly full. I sit next to a man who falls asleep and is kicked out of the room by an officer. I’m the only one, aside from the lawyer representing the hundred mostly men in this room, wearing a tie. All eyes look down complacent, mostly indifferent. The judge looks kind, her red hair to her shoulders, and she speaks and a fury of disappointment veils her face. I breathe. I think of Alan Watts. I breathe for 60 minutes and I’m quiet and after 60 minutes my name is called and I stand next to a lawyer, in front of the judge. The worst that could happen. Her glasses slide to the end of her nose as she reads from a file.
“So apparently you exposed yourself in front of the American flag.”
She laughs. The officers around me all laugh, some of the indifferent men too.
The lawyer next to me shuffles, “Are you sure it was in front of the flag?”
“Oh yes. The officer was quite explicit in his language. . . . I’ve never come across this before. I suppose it’s lewdness but . . . I guess he didn’t like the flag too much.”
I want to say, “No! I love America! It was a silly gesture of love,” and I think of Alan Watts and I stand there in my tie silent in the laughter like the wind.
“Hmm. . . . We’ll just fine you $25?” she says like a question.
I look to the lawyer next to me. He asks if that’s okay. I say yes. I’m told to wait outside the room, someone will collect my money. A man in the hall asks me if I’m funny. I don’t know what he means.
“You know, you funny or somethin’? Like, was it a serious protest type shit or was you just bein’ funny?”
I was being funny, I tell him, it was my girlfriend and I was thinking it would make a good photo. He looks me up and down he says, “You crazy.”
I pay my punishment. $25. I text L, tell her I’m safe. She asks when I’ll be back. I say soon and no response.
Subway to Williamsburg. Men singing on the subway car, if I have to beg and plead for your sympathy / please don’t leave me girl. I buy Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America. Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi. This notebook. I’m in New York wearing a tie and I’m free and all is right with the world now, coffee. Stoops like altars on every building, I’m yearning now, this is what it feels like to want something, to worship something, I want to sit smoking cigarettes. I wonder that because I grew up Catholic all my heroes are dead or saints or both and I go back to my couch, the empty apartment and I rest.
My friend comes home. She asks me how things went. I tell her everything I’ve written here and we laugh then we sit together on the L train. A woman drunk looks at my friend, she says, “Don’t you look at me, sheeit,” and my friend looks down. The woman says, “I’ll fuck you up, don’t you fuckin’ stick your eyes at me bitch. Fuck.” Quiet. Our stop. We’re in Bushwick now and we meet with her boyfriend and we go to a bar and we buy some cool drinks and we drink them real cool. The presidential debate plays on every television, Obama and Romney projected on the wall, on every wall, electric in the air. Americans gathered in America, all speaking America, more and more drinks. What a nice night.
My final morning in America. As I walk to Penn Station, New York becomes one sound, magicless and gray. Blonde weave, hair on the ground, I barely notice now. Hung over, bad dreams: my best friend leaves me, my partner upset, I’m a jerk always. I’m a fool of the worst kind and the worst part is I romanticize it all. I sit waiting in the airport, I’m alone. An orthodox Jewish couple reading with their child, old ladies playing cards, people in suits, people on their iPhones. The airport smells stale like the iron smell of seeing someone you love walk away with another person, another person who isn’t you, who isn’t the handsome man. I text L and she doesn’t text back. Later she’ll leave me. I’m sitting alone in the Newark International Airport.
Brad Casey’s first book, The Idiot on Fire, was released in 2015 by Metatron. He is the founder and head editor of The 4 Poets literary magazine. His writing has also been featured in publications such as Vice, Noisey, and BAD NUDES. “The American” is the first story in a series of stories from a collection currently in progress.