The Survivalist, Chapter One: “The Fever”

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Below is an excerpt from my upcoming novel, The Survivalist, available this fall on Amazon and Audible.  Previously, I posted the Prologue online.

Here, is a preview of Chapter 1.

May 2012

Ten minutes into the second date, Warren could not stop looking at Tracy Moyer’s breasts. He tried hard – extremely hard; unbelievably hard – to not be so obvious after they sat down to dinner. But the plunging neckline on her red halter dress had him wishing for other plans that night.

It was early May in New York City. Summer had arrived, and everyone was finding an excuse to get half-naked. After 16 long weeks of snow, cold, and Saturday night Netflix, people wanted to get laid again. There was always something about the rising humidity. Dating in New York experienced a seasonal uptick. And though no horny New Yorker would say it: many wanted to meet the person who would make their life perfect. Behind a million OKCupid profiles were a million little spoons and big spoons. But even if romance seemed perilous: at least summer in New York City offered endless options.

It had been a little over a year since Melissa Chase told Warren Eves, “I don’t want to marry you.” In the 13 months since that fateful night, she was gone and sitting in front of him was Tracy – a 26 year-old woman whom he barely knew. Tonight, her jet-black hair was up in a bun, exposing the light complexion of her neckline. Her blue eyes pierced through the haze. Her lips wore a dark red lipstick. They matched her dress and the wedges on her feet. Warren wore a black button-down shirt, straight leg jeans, and his Frye boots. The clothes were aged; second-hand or “vintage” – depending on your interpretation. He had been at a loss since he caught sight of her. Arriving early, he stood outside Café Habana, at the corner of Prince and Elizabeth Street, listening to Bruce Springsteen on his iPhone. Night was coming, and he turned his head east only to melt through the pavement. As the sun set that warm Saturday night, and the sky turned a dark purple, while cars honked, sandals clapped the pavement, and fireflies flitted in and out tree leaves, Tracy walked down Prince from the downtown N/R train, centered in the frame of a Billy Wilder black and white romance. She was beautiful. That was all Warren could fathom as she met him, and flashed her smile, “Hello, Mr. Eves.”

Warren led her into the crowded restaurant. Café Habana was a madhouse – a cramped, noisy diner that had survived since the late ‘90s. The food was always excellent; it was getting a table that was murder. They ducked and weaved hot plates and hipster platitudes to reach the back of the restaurant, where a hostess seated them at a half-booth, near an open window to Elizabeth. Tracy brought a menu to her face, and Warren brought his eyes to her cleavage. A whole litany of thoughts ran through his head:

She’s gorgeous. She loves Joni Mitchell – remember that. Why did she agree to go out with me again? Jesus, Eves…

Part of him wanted to fall in love with her tonight. Part of him hoped that this was the start of something long-term, something he could get invested in, something that would give his life meaning. But that part of him ignored what Warren really wanted: despite the sum of all her parts, Warren really only wanted to see her naked.
He had been nervous leading up to tonight. Their first date – bowling at Brooklyn Bowl – ended in them each nailing 6 gutter balls, and getting drunk together on tequila.

Since his break-up, Warren had had sex with two women. The first one he met after work, on the 7 train back to Queens: a pretty legal assistant who made eyes at him until he finally worked-up the nerve to say “Hello.” A week later, over drinks, she would tell Warren that she had been in New York for 10 years, and hated the bar scene – that’s why she loved meeting guys on the subway, especially on the morning commute. Later that night: Warren noticed her orgasms sounded as if she was loudly pushing a watermelon through her vagina. The second was a shy bartender at a friend’s birthday party in Greenpoint. She was happy to go home with him, since it meant getting away from her roommate and her latest cuckold. Following a very self-conscious sexual performance (still nervous from the watermelon chorus), he made the morning after more awkward when – at the train – they exchanged numbers and he stupidly offered, “I be down to hang out again!” She texted him for a week, demanding to know why a proper date never occurred, and if her body disgusted him.

Tracy – without question – was the most attractive girlfriend candidate he had dated since Melissa. Not just physically, but her confidence floored him. Like him, she loved music – citing Joni Mitchell, Radiohead, Elliot Smith, and the guilty pleasure of the Backstreet Boys as her favorites. She talked about the impact of Kanye West relative to OK Computer. She had real opinions about structure, orchestration, production. Warren – in turn – “really liked Springsteen.” It was evident that she was smart, and he was “nice.” He wanted to show her that he thought about the world, too, and was terrified of blowing it.

She had, however, given him a vote of confidence. Their first date ended with a grope-y make-out session on the Bedford Avenue platform of the L train. When he left her a voicemail for a second date, she called him back in 10 minutes. It was obvious that Tracy liked Warren. There was a strong physical connection between them. But for all the green lights she might have flashed, Warren’s confidence held him at the crosswalk. He was too afraid to boldly suggest sex without jumping through the necessary hoops of dating politics. Tracy was a special; better to play it safe. God help his life without something special in it.

Tracy did her best to ignore Warren’s obvious glances at her chest. She kept her eyes glued to her menu.

“Oh, hey – did you see Moonrise Kingdom?” Warren asked Tracy.

She looked up, “No, not yet. I want to though. Did you?”

“Yeah. It’s… really good.” Warren let his critique hang in the air before looking back down at his menu. Wes Anderson was her favorite director, so the question was not out-of-place. But she could tell that Warren was sitting on something. Is he nervous? she thought, Why is he nervous? She fought against her impulse to make a joke of it; be witty and sarcastic.

She had been looking forward to this date for the past week. Warren was the first guy – in almost a year – for whom she had a genuine attraction. She wanted to “Wow” him tonight, but she did not expect that he would be reduced to an awkward, uneasy mouth breather. She took a deep breath and gave him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe some food and drink will loosen him up, she thought. Just don’t be an assholeyet.

“Oh great. I can’t wait to see it. How’s the Chicken Diablo sandwich?”

“Not bad,” Warren squeaked. He cleared his throat, regaining his normal tone. “Delicious, if you like spicy.”

*************

You let him cop a feel? It was the first date, Trace!” Jess said to Tracy over the phone.

Tracy chewed her salad at a small green metal table in Bryant Park, as the 11:30 a.m. sun shone down and traffic stayed at a hum. She sidestepped an argument with her older sister back home in Philadelphia. “We were both terrible at bowling, and the bartender kept offering free tequila.”

“I mean… this is new, Trace.” Jess sat behind her desk in her law office; she was supposed to be reviewing debriefs. “You’re not one to be so easy.”

“Shut-up.” Being described as “easy” pissed Tracy off.

“I’m just saying: you must really like this guy, or… you felt really sorry for him?”

Tracy paused, realizing how much time had passed since she actually “liked” someone, “Yeah, Jess. I do like him.”

Tracy did like Warren. He was cute. He was sweet. He actually tried.

On their first date – after the second shot of tequila – she demanded his iPhone, and was impressed by what see found in his music: The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Saves The Day, The Get Up Kids, and a shit ton of Bruce Springsteen. Not just the studio albums, but bootlegs of concerts in Akron, Ohio from 1992. Warren was a superfan, and that was refreshing, considering the last guy she dated owned “that Kings of Leon CD” because “he heard it at The Hurricane Club.”

“Wow. Springsteen fan, much?” Tracy quipped.

“Um… yeah.” Warren took the phone from her, clicked it shut, and put it back in his pocket.

“You shouldn’t be embarrassed.” Tracy loudly said over the sound of bowling pins.

“I’m not.” Warren replied “I just don’t want to look obsessed.”

“But you are.”

“I know, but…” Warren stopped himself, a deer staring at a green light. “I realize that it’s weird.”

Tracy laughed, she had never heard anything so stupid said in sweet earnest. “It’s okay to be weird. I like weird. I’m having a good time, weirdo.”

Tracy Moyer had dated her fair share of assholes. For 7 years, she worked front desk reception at Price, Stern, and Wanamaker, LLP and partied the nights away. How she arrived in New York was still a secret to Warren, one that she was not going to reveal before she was ready. All he knew was: she had lived in New York since she was 19, and she loved music. But the stories she could have told Warren – maybe one day, if whatever this courtship was lasted more than a few weeks – might have only made him squeak higher.

There was the Wall Street trader, who loved cocaine and yelling at waiters.

There was the Columbia Economics professor who made her wait in a hotel room for 4 hours while he was at a summit.

There was the grad school poet who “came out” as “bisexual”, and urged her to join him at a couple of group sex parties.

There was also Krista – a painter from Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. She, of all of Tracy’s partners, was wonderful. Tracy still had a portrait Krista had done for her; it now lived in her bedroom closet, right next some Bach LPs and a very dusty violin case. It was fun to date another woman. Men could be bulls; Krista was crane – delicate, artful, focused in getting what she wanted. But after only two months, Tracy realized that Krista was a lesbian and she was not. Leading her on would not be fair.

She ended their relationship two summers ago, right when something began to not feel right. Tracy woke-up one morning – on a Tuesday, no different from any other – and was filled with empty. Nothing felt unusual, until she started losing sleep. For weeks, she woke up at odd hours with night terrors and lucid dreams that would pull her out of bed. They always ended at the same place: her in pajamas, standing in front of that same closet, hand firmly placed on the doorknob. When she snapped out of it, she pulled her hand away in shock. But as it continued, the shock would turn to fascination. Tracy knew what was on the other side of that door. It was the thing that birthed the Tracy of the last 7 years, and guided her to party after party, boyfriend after boyfriend, kept her at a dead-end job. She had run from it out of anger, out of fear; and yet here she stood – the two of them only separated by a flimsy plywood door. The question remained: What are you going to do about it, Moyer? A siren screamed through the night below her Upper West Side apartment, shaking her awake. It was 2:45 in the morning, and she was exhausted. She looked at that doorknob one last time, before she turned and crawled back into bed. She sipped from the water glass on her nightstand, closed her eyes, and tried to make the most of the remaining two and half hours before her alarm went off. As her body relaxed and she drifted off, her mind began to run again. Another restless night lay ahead.

*************

“Warren?” Tracy said. He drifted off, his neurosis leading deep into a mental playground. Tracy, meanwhile, had made up her mind, and put her menu down. “Warren.”

His eyes lit up, and he came back down to Earth. He had been thinking about the smell of her neck – she wore a perfume that had a sweet vanilla scent. He wanted to press his nose against her nape while his lips would move down her spine, and his left arm wrapped around her shoulder, fingers pinching into her socket. His penis had grown erect.

“Hm? Yeah! Chicken Diablo sandwich. Delicious if you like spicy!” Warren repeated as he started to cross his legs, but moved too fast and crushed his testicles. “GAAAAAHHH!” Warren choked, soaking in the pain. He quickly uncrossed his top leg, and banged his knee under the table – hitting squarely on the nerve. “Fuck!” The table jostled, causing their waters to quake. Warren splayed over the table, and grabbed both of them before they tipped over. His face went red.

“Are you okay?” Tracy’s voice had concern.

“YEAH! Yeah! Just, uh –“ he released the glasses from his grip, and sat back down, “ – uh… moved a little too quick on the ol’ leg cross.” Warren shut his eyes in embarrassment, Why the hell did you just say that?

“Oh. Uh. Okay.” Tracy did not know the care protocol for a man crushing his balls. “Well, don’t kill yourself. I mean, I get it – you like what you see.” Tracy put on her best W.C. Fields impression as she waved her hand over her breasts. The minute it came out, Warren’s face went a full white.   She immediately regretted it.

“Yeah,” still searing from the pain, Warren searched for the right words “your boobs are great.”

The table went dead silent. Neither of them knew where to go from there. Warren took a sip of water to stall. In the back of his mind, he heard Haha! Oh Warren, you’re such a fucking mess! It was Melissa’s voice.

A waitress approached the table, “Is everything okay?”

“Yup. Just, uh… just banged my knee.” Warren stammered as he turned out to speak to her.

“Would you like an icepack, sir?”

“No. I’ll be fine.”

“I must insist.” the waitress commanded. She slapped a sandwich bag of ice wrapped in a dirty towel to his knee. Warren winced as the cold chilled through his jeans. “City law says we have to.” the waitress continued, “Plus, we need you to fill out an accident report.” She shoved a clipboard into his hands.

“Accident report?!? Can we order fir – “ As he tried to pass the clipboard back to her, the waitress snatched it from his hands and violently slammed it on the table with a smile. The waters quaked again, and other diners began to turn their heads.

“I know,” the waitress rolled her eyes, as if to say Bloomberg, amiright? “but we just need to let The Department of Health know you weren’t hurt as soon as possible. And then there’s our insurance. That reminds me, look at my phone – “

Before Warren could say anything, the waitress whipped out her phone, the flash snapped, and it was back in her pocket. Had he seen the photo, Warren would have been greeted with the sight of him and Tracy, washed-out; his eyes blinded by an LED flash while a large puddle began to drip down his slightly swollen knee, the annoyed looks of the surrounding tables turning to see the commotion, and Tracy wearing an expression that summed up the whole night so far, “What. Is. Happening?”

“Sir. I’ll give you a few minutes to fill-out all the necessary forms – you can keep the pink copies for yourself. After that: I will be happy to take your order. But until then – if you even asked for a Coke, I would assume responsibility. I can – however – lawfully elect to bring you some plaintain chips.”

With that, the waitress disappeared back into the crowd. Warren – still woozy from the flash – turned back towards Tracy. They were both bewildered. An anxious second date was derailing. With nothing left to say, Warren reached for the pen from under the clipboard. “What’s your date of birth?” he said as he clicked the tip out.

Tracy let out a laugh; a loud, deep laugh that said everything Warren needed to hear. “What just happened?” she covered her mouth as she tried to stifle more giggling.

“Apparently,” Warren said, “God hates me.” He cracked a smile. “But at least I don’t look like a jackass, right?”

Tracy began to laugh even harder. She couldn’t stop; poor Warren – who wanted to take her out for nice meal – had been reduced to a sad sack of dirt in less than a minute in front of the entire restaurant. The night was not going great. But at least he could laugh about it. That took a certain amount of character.

As she pulled her hand away from her mouth, Tracy smeared half of her lipstick on her fingers and mouth. She looked as if she had just devoured a small animal. Warren’s eyes widen, “Oh no.” he said in between a giggle.

“What?” Tracy replied.

“Your – “ he could barely finish without laughing, but he pointed to her fingers. Tracy looked down at her hand and nearly died.

“Oh my god!” she said “Oh Jesus Christ – what a fucking night.” Her face began to blush. He put the clipboard down, and took her hand.

“Here.” he said. Dabbing a napkin in his shellshocked glass of water, he wiped her fingers clean with one end and dried them with the other. He crumpled up the napkin into a ball and pocketed it. In his palm was Tracy’s hand: soft and sweet smelling. Warren’s palm reminded her a paper shopping bag. Tiny pieces of skin flaked away at the creases, which meant that he did not moisturize. If nothing else, his heart was in the right place. In her 7 years in New York, Tracy had not seen that in a man. He laid his thumb over her palm, and she curled her pinky and ring finger around it. They looked at one another, and suddenly it was clear: nothing was going to go to plan tonight, and that was just the way it worked with the two of them. So if they could each be okay with that, then why should either pretend to be something they were not?

“Do you –“ before Warren could finish, his face was on the table. The waitress returned with the plantains on a tray, but right before she put them down, she turned away – thinking she heard her name, but it was just the fryer crackling through the paper-thin walls of the kitchen. The tray clobbered Warren in the back of the head. His face smacked the table top, finally knocking over the waters. As liquid drenched the formica surface, Warren felt a numbness run across his cheekbone and lower jaw. Under him, strands of red began to mix in the puddles. He pulled his head up, and tasted metal in his mouth. His tongue ran along the ridge of his gums: a bloody bruise had formed. Below him, his blood formed perfect circles and dripped off the table, into his lap. For a moment, he wondered if this was some cosmic sign of life’s cyclical nature – or just a really pretentious Instagram photo waiting to happen. He looked back up at Tracy, whose face had lost all color. She did not seem to notice or care that her dress was getting stained.

“HOLY SHIT, EVES! Are you okay?” she quacked.

For the first time in a long time, Warren held the attention of an entire room. Tracy. The waitress. Other patrons. The cook staff. The world stood still for him. It was everything his rock and roll days never delivered. Warren used the balled up napkin to wipe his mouth and fingers. The wound continued to bleed as he thought for a second, before he told everyone what exactly was on his mind.

“Do you want to get out of here?” he said to Tracy.

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