You can’t judge me for forgetting William. He was one of those kids that blended into the scenery, the ones that sat in the corners of a classroom never interacting with the rest of the student population. I would have been completely oblivious to his existence if it weren’t for that one afternoon we were paired at a Parks Department summer internship. We were left alone in a secluded section of Central Park. I kept within rake’s distance while he babbled to himself. Then he stopped babbling, demanded my telephone number, and didn’t take a grunt for an answer. It was freaky and I foolishly gave him my mother’s telephone number just to shut him up. He recorded it in a little notepad he carried in his back pocket, so tattered it was held together by a rubber band and we finished our project.
I can’t remember seeing him in the hallways afterward. He didn’t call while I was a commuter student in college. That afternoon together in the wilds of Central Park faded away like any uncomfortable moment you’d rather forget. Turned out he saved mother’s number and out of nowhere he called my apartment. My second mistake was that I agreed to meet him at my favorite spot. What can I say, there was this sad desperation in his voice and somehow I found myself agreeing.
I told him to meet me at the Astor Place Barnes and Noble, the first corporate store with the book store as destination concept, complete with sofa-seats and coffee shop. I spent many afternoons in that book store, hanging out, listening to readings. It was a far cry from slaving at Goldman Sachs, analyzing stocks and assisting Issachar Raab, the Senior Director who never reads anything for pleasure.
I searched the two floors for William, hoping to end the reunion short and when I didn’t find him, I searched the street. Nothing. I re-entered the store, stumbled into the latest Manuel Meléndez novel and read the prologue at the coffee shop over Tazo Tea. When I was headed towards the cashier’s line on the main level a desperate looking William nearly rammed into me. He was thinner than I remembered and very well dressed except for a pair of mittens and a hat, out of season for Spring.
“Thanks for waiting,” he said, out of breath.
“Yeah.” He sat on a chair by the staircase so I sat opposite him. “It was hell getting here, pure hell.”
“Well, I’m glad you made it.” I’m infamous for betraying myself with body language so I made a conscientious effort to contain my disappointment; looked him in the eye, smiled with teeth, just like Issachar taught me indirectly when he interacted with upper management or clients.
He looked around the bookstore avoiding my eyes.
“You’ve changed,” I said.
“How so?” William continued scanning the store.
“Well for one thing, you’re much thinner. Your face’s cleared up. You lost the bifocals. You wore bifocals, right? You look… Good.” In actuality, red veins dominated the white of his eyes. It was obvious he hadn’t slept in days.
“What have you been up to?” William said.
“I’ve been working myself to the ground. It’s funny how everything becomes work related. I haven’t been to this place in ages.”
“This Barnes and Noble?”
“I mean where do you work?”
“It’s not the parks department.”
He stared at me for some time and then looked away. “This is a nice place,” he said.
“How about you?”
“What have I been doing?”
“Did you attend college?”
He didn’t answer and regret started setting in. He looked normal by all accounts but there was obviously something off. I glanced at my watch and finally snapped my fingers to get his attention. “William, are you alright?”
“Of course I’m fine. What makes you think something’s wrong?”
“Well for one thing, you can’t keep still. You’re making me nervous. For another, you asked me here because there was something you wanted to talk about and you’re not talking.”
William searched the store and stared dead in my face. “I’m sorry,” he said but gradually continued the behavior.
“I have a very strenuous schedule coming up. I can’t afford to be here all night. What’s so important we needed to speak in person?”
“Nothing. I’m gonna go home. Do me a favor, lose my phone numbers, okay.”
“No!” he shouted loud enough to silence the entire floor.
I could feel eyes on us and I slowly sat down. “Okay… Stop playing games, then. What do you want? Why’d you call me?”
“Not here,” he said. When I didn’t respond he began rocking in his chair.
“What do you mean not here? You agreed we’d talk here.”
“I gotta show you something.”
I looked around the store- A lot of eyes still staring in our direction. I couldn’t bare it and William continued rocking, his mittens and hat becoming more and more conspicuous. “I don’t bend that way, man.”
“It’s not about that,” he said.
“What do you propose, then?”
“Come to my apartment.”
“Come on, man. You’re an hour late. You’re playing these stupid games. You…”
“You’re my best friend,” he said, his frantic movements ceasing; His eyes burning into mine. “Help me?”
“Because I don’t have anywhere else to turn to.”
I wasn’t convinced and I’m sure my expression betrayed me.
“Because I’ll scream.”
We got on the Bronx bound five train on 14th Street, William conversing with himself along the way. I couldn’t make out most of his ramblings but I picked up phrases like ‘I have to,’ and ‘I have to show him.’ I slowly distance myself and when the train became elevated after the Third avenue station, he was calm and I was on the other side of a long strip of bench. You would think that someone as reluctant as myself would quietly exit the train car but as unwilling as I was, my curiosity increased during the commute. William, at least, brought some excitement to my routine. It’s shallow but it was my reality.
I followed him out of the Simpson Street station and into his studio apartment, a walk-up like most tenement buildings in that area, and watched him pace the room, talking to himself in a serious, albeit inaudible, conversation.
“William, have a seat,” I said. He waved me away and continued pacing, mumbling, arguing with himself.
“I’m gonna go home,” I said after minutes of this. “I’m tired of your fucking around.”
He came up to my face, close enough for me to smell the acid in his breath. He came out of nowhere and I pushed him away. “Get away from me you freak.”
“No. Please,” he said. “Have a seat… Please.”
“Is this some sicko thing? I told you I don’t bend that way, William. I can’t believe I’m here.”
“I’ll explain everything… Have a seat… Please…”
“Fine. Will you explain what’s happening?”
He was hesitant but eventually nodded. “Yes.”
“Alright. Make it quick.” I sat by the edge. William brought a chair resting by his little circular dining table and sat in front of me. His eyes were more clear- focused.
“Why am I here? What’s so important you made me travel back to your apartment?”
“You’re a good guy. You’re really a great guy.”
“Everyone else is cruel. They make everything impossible. But when I worked with you that day, you were really cool. You talked to me. I remembered that when this happened.”
“I appreciate that but I’m losing patience, dude. What kind of trouble you talking about?”
He removed his hat and started on the mittens taking his sweet time like some burlesque performer. I leaned my shoulder back, prepared to clock him if necessary. “Why am I here, William? Work was excruciating today; I’m tired and tomorrow’s another day.”
“The voices,” he said.
“The voices. I hear them night and day. I’ve always heard them. Even before I could talk, I’ve heard them.”
“Find yourself a shrink.”
“What for? People see shrinks when they’re crazy. I’m not crazy.”
“I see.” I was definitely changing my number.
“The voices and I live peacefully together. They only communicate when I’m alone which is great because I’m always alone. Few months ago they said they wanted to see me. You see, they live inside me but couldn’t see through my eyes. I’ve described sunsets, beautiful girls, boxing matches. But there’s no substitute for experiencing it yourself. At least that’s how they explained it. At first I thought they were joking. They constantly joke. But then—”
“What? What happened?”
William looked at me with the saddest expression I’ve ever seen. He completely removed his left mitten and then his right. I leaned forward and prepared myself for anything, half terrified and half needing to satisfy my sick curiosity. He lifted his hand in a fist and I leaned back. Then William slowly opened his hand and in his copper-toned palm there was some eyelashes. I looked closer, confused at what I was staring at and that’s when I realized that a single eye blinked and stared right back.
“Shit!” I jumped off the bed, made for the door, my hands shaking so terribly I couldn’t open it.
“No!” William cried. He grabbed me with his left hand and turned me around. “Don’t leave me!”
“What the fuck! Get away from me!”
William shook his head profoundly and threw himself on the bed sobbing. I could have run, left that damned man to his misery. It was so tempting. But William had good instincts; somehow he knew I’d stay. I watched him sob uncontrollably, letting it all out like a child, and released the doorknob.
“Stop crying,” I said. “I’m still here.”
William looked up and wiped his face with his shirt sleeve. “What are we gonna do,” he said? He looked scared.
“Let me see,” I said.
“They’re afraid. They don’t wanna see you.”
“Do you trust me?”
“Yeah.” It took some time to get that out of him.
“Then let’s see the eye.”
William pulled out his arm, jerked it back three times before finally stretching outward. He opened his hand and the eyelid opened revealing a single amber colored eye. It blinked, adjusting itself to the incandescent light, then focused on me with hatred, love, confusion, lust. I could feel their thoughts, like voices coming down a school hall or shadows of people toward the end of the day. That eye was a portal for a sea of souls, all of which burned a hole through me.
I acted quickly; I heated up water and placed it in a basin I found under the sink, brought some Isopropyl rubbing alcohol from the medicine cabinet; found a butter knife in the dish rack, and a clean tee-shirt from his drawer. William watched from the bed, holding the hand close to his chest.
“What are you going to do?” he said.
“We’re getting rid of that… That thing- what you think we’re gonna do?”
William nodded, swallowed.
I placed the butter knife on the night table, and convinced William to place the hand on its surface. He winced when I placed my foot on his wrist to keep him steady.
“Are you ready?”
“No,” he squealed. “But go ahead.”
“Close your eyes,” I said. “The ones in your head.”
The eye kept shifting in terror until its gaze locked on my face, all its disdain on me. I could feel them trying to penetrate my psyche and it slowed my movements. But I grabbed the butter knife before I lost my nerve, drove it into the corner of the eye and popped it out. William knocked me down so I wrestled him downward and locked his arm and when I had a good enough grip, I severed the eye at the optic nerve and it dropped into the basin where it floated, blood spreading in the water.
“They’ll kill you,” he cried as he pulled me away, holding his arm against his chest. He began rocking himself and whimpering.
“Give me the hand,” I yelled as I opened the bottle of rubbing alcohol. I forced his hand away from his chest and emptied the bottle on the wound. William jumped so high he knocked me back to the floor.
“They’ll kill you,” he said in a weak whimper.
My head was throbbing, blood racing down my face. I didn’t initially know it came from me. I picked myself up and went for the clean tee-shirt, and ripped it as straight as I possibly could with a spinning head and a nauseous stomach. William was talking to himself and unresponsive when I bandaged his hand with the strip. He didn’t say a word as I went into the bathroom to nurse my forehead; nor did he look towards the door when I made my quiet and un-ceremonious exit.
When I returned to my apartment, I collected every clean article of clothing that fit into a suitcase and took an indefinite vacation, leaving a message on old Issachar Raab’s answering machine telling him to shove his job up his ass. Life’s too short to sit still in some office. I spent seven weeks with my father in Chicago and never looked back, never shared my experience with anyone. He thought I was escaping some horrible relationship and I let him believe that. I eventually landed a lucrative job stocking books at a Barnes and Noble in Boston. I make a fraction of what I made at Goldman Sachs but I survive.
William was never far from my mind, the eye that so intently stared into mine, then hanging off his hand as I cut it loose. Did he bleed to death? The eye attempting to penetrate my mind. Most of all, I thought of the last things William mumbled as I left his studio apartment. “They saw you” and “they’ll kill you.” Then there was this theory that I imagined the whole thing. I was making a ridiculous amount of money but was miserable. Was it my way of escaping that passionless lifestyle?
Yesterday I was working my shift when I found William lurking in the ‘how to’ section. I didn’t recognize him initially. He gained weight and grew a goatee. It was the dark browns staring at me I recognized. I didn’t run. Why should I? Something told me there was no hiding. Instead I walked up to him with the most genuine smile I could muster.
“I barely recognized you,” I said.
“Michael?” William said as he extended his left hand. “Michael Aroyo?”
I was reluctant to shake but did it anyway.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m searching for a book.” He was totally calm and congenial. “I wanna start a business. You work here- what do you recommend?”
I looked at the row of books, and pulled out a book requested by many customers. “I think this one’s good.” He reviewed the back cover.
“William? About that night. How you doing? How’s the hand?”
“Come again?” he said.
“The thing that happened awhile back… The eye.”
He looked confused. “What’re you talking about?”
“Your hand,” I demanded. “Let’s see it.”
William smiled. “You okay, buddy?” He took his book and began to walk away.
I didn’t press the matter. Whether the experience was real or imagined it was history. That’s where I wanted it to stay.
“It was nice seeing an old friend, Michael.” I turned to see William waving with his left hand, palm up.
I waved back feeling silly until the eyelid rose to reveal a single amber colored eye.
David Quiles Guzman lives in New York City with his wife and three children. His articles and opinion pieces have appeared in New Youth Connections, West Side Spirit, Inner City Press, and El Dario/ La Prensa. He’s currently working on a novel.
Image by Michelle Tribe