I'd gone out to get food to bring back to my apartment, which was just a little studio thing over a small bookstore in the student housing area near New York University. I was on my way home, carrying my bag, passing all the tipsy girls and guffawing guys when I heard a woman scream.
I turned around and saw her stagger out of an alley way a couple blocks back. She was dressed in a pair of farmer jeans with nothing underneath except a bra. She had on a pair of Ked trainers, but looked like the type that wouldn't normally wear shoes. She looked freaked out, but her numbers were okay.
"What is it?" I yelled back to her, turning and walking towards her. She was probably on something, I thought to myself, and this was a bad trip.
"He's dead!" she cried.
I moved quicker. "Who's dead?"
"This.. this bum," she squeaked.
I reached her side and she was pointing down the alley way."Oh God, I think he's dead."
I looked down the alley, my heart pounding in my chest so loudly I was surprised she couldn't hear it. Faintly, at the other end of the alley, I could just make out the red glow of numbers, but I couldn't read them.
I didn't bother asking her why she'd been down the alley way to begin with. It didn't have an outlet at the opposite end, and the dark hollow of it between the two buildings that created it was unnerving, even for me.
I began walking tentatively down the alley toward the man, who laid sprawled on the ground in the grime and mirth of the untouched parts of the city. I kicked syringes to the side, and they slid under dumpsters, sending rats scurrying away. "Shit," I whispered as a cat ran out from behind one of piles of rotting garbage, going after the rats. The cat streaked away down the alley.
I reached the guy after much trepidation and near falls, and knelt down at his head.
She turned and ran away from the mouth of the alley.
I bent over the man more, turning him over so that he was face-up. His neck rolled with the motion, jaw hanging slack, eyes unfocused and dry. My hand ran down his forearm and I could feel the pokes in his skin from the syringes.
"Hold on," I told him, "Help is coming."
There are times when being able to see the time helps, like this one, I knew we had time to stay still and wait for the ambulance, as opposed to me trying to move him.
He was bleeding at the corner of his mouth and I dug a napkin from my pocket and wiped it away. "You're in crappy shape," I told him. He probably has a disease of some sort, my head told me as I glanced uneasily at the syringes. Oh well, it's not like you can die, right?
I could tell the moment the ambulance was on its way because his time changed.
When the ambulance got there, paramedics came running down the alley. The rats were thrown into a frenzy again as they shoved a gurney down the narrow passage towards us.
"This your friend?" the first EMT asked as he knelt down next to me.
"I don't know him," I answered. "I was on my way home and a girl had seen him like this and asked for help."
He nodded as a surge of yellow-jacketed guys came running down the alley to help.
The EMT noticed the blood stained napkin in my hand. "Woah there tiger, careful with those fluids." He reached a gloved hand for the napkin. "Dangerous handling things like that these days," he said warningly.
I relinquished hold on the napkin without hesitation.
"Any idea what his name is?"
"Not at clue," I replied.
They lifted the guy onto the gurney, and began wheeling him back toward the gaping mouth of the ambulance. A blue light pierced the air outside as the NYPD joined the ambulance at the curb. I followed the EMTs and the stretcher out of the dark, watching the man's numbers all the while.
I shook my head, "I was on my way home," I pointed in the general direction of the apartment I lived in, "And a girl came out of the alley here, screaming 'cos she thought he was dead."
He adjusted his blue hat while he considered me. "I'll need to bring you in for some questioning, if you don't mind..."
"Okay," I answered. "I don't know much, though, I'm afraid."
I followed the officer back towards his police car, stooping to pick up my grocery bag where I'd left it by a mailbox on the curb. The EMTs loaded the guy's gurney into the back of the ambulance, and I watched, concerned, as the seconds flickered away on the guy's time.
It turned out that his name was Daniel. He was 27 years old. The night that I'd rescued him from the alley he'd tried to kill himself. He was a artist who painted in abstract shapes and forms more than pictures. They were images that he swore were inspired by the colors he saw when he squeezed his eyes shut too tight. They were more likely the result of acid trips.
He called me up two days after the rescue from the hospital, explaining that they'd given him my number when he'd requested to thank the guy that had made it possible for him to keep breathing in and out. He exploded into a tirade about how he had visited heaven during his near death experience, and met Jesus Christ. "He's a blast, man," he told me enthusiastically. "You, like, got me a new lease on life - you know?"
But all I could remember was the dwindling numbers that had been floating over his head when they'd loaded him onto the ambulance.
Because I'd saved his life, he wanted to do lunch with me... to thank me in person. It turned out he wasn't at all a bum who lived in an alley way, but the son of an investment banker. "My dad wanted me to go into business and law school," Daniel explained to me, waving an orange mug full of coffee around in his hand, sloshing it about everywhere, "But I was like 'fuck that man', you know, man?"
The second time that Daniel's time was nearly up, I stuck by him, insisting that we hang out instead of letting him go home alone from the record store we'd been perusing all day. He came back to the apartment with me and I chided him into playing Monopoly. He never said anything, but about halfway through the night I'd obviously made him feel wanted enough that he changed his plans, and his numbers flipped from hours to a little over a year.
Having successfully saved Daniel twice, only once to his knowledge, I made it my challenge to save him a third time as well. Consequently, we forged a friendship that I came to depend on as much as Daniel did. I avoided smoking pot and drinking because of the crazy things that it did to time (I'd tried it once and woke up the next morning at 4am on the fountain in Washington Square Park with a migraine and no clothing on), but this complimented Daniel's lifestyle perfectly. Daniel was one of those people who didn't care what people thought of him. He wore dirty clothes and let his hair grow long and greasy. He enjoyed getting rowdy and working up a sweat dancing. He mourned the fact that he'd missed Woodstock. He loved the idea of the raves that were starting in California. Having me around was like having a built in designated driver.
The summer after I met Daniel, on a night when he had only 4 days and a few hours left, we'd gone to Cape Cod to surf. And by surf I mean carry boards around all day, talking about the waves and listening to the Beach Boys on the sound system of his orange VW van, trying to pick up chicks. None of the girls had been too impressed with Daniel, but he'd been pleased about the way I seemed to attract them, and we'd ended up playing volley ball and splashing around with a couple of nice girls that lived in Nantucket.
As the night closed in and the girls took off in their yacht, though, Daniel and I retired to the van. We opened the back doors up and laid down in the back with our heads resting on the bumper, looking up at the stars. Daniel had taken a shot of God-knows-what, and was in a mellow state, while I was wondering how, after a brilliant weekend like this, Daniel could possibly want to kill himself within the next four days.
"You know what I think?" Daniel asked me suddenly.
"What?" I asked him, coming out of my reverie.
"Time - it's weird," he said.
I twisted my neck to look at him, but he was staring at the stars and stroking the air beside him as though there were a dog there, even though there was nothing. I stared at the side of his head. "How so?" I asked.
"Like the way it moves and flows around us," he crooned, "The same way water does, you know man? Time is like -- it's fluid. Like love. Like art."
Daniel had often been a drug-philosopher, but this particular tirade wasn't of his usual style. Usually when his philosopher side kicked in, it was to bitch about the troops in Vietnam or to voice his opinions on his father and his slutty wife. This was the first time he'd delved into the topic of time - a matter, obviously, very dear to me.
"Yeah, time's pretty radical," I agreed.
Daniel was quiet a moment, evidently absorbing the concept. Then he said, "I think time works like dimensions."
"Dimensions?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said, "I saw this movie in 3D the other day, man, it was so real, you know, because the stuff's like right there at you like this..." he held a hand to his nose, momentarily stopping the patting of the air. "Like it could bite you and touch you." He resumed the patting.
"What movie was it?" I asked.
"I don't remember, man, I was with Shirley, you know?"
I laughed, "So you were reaching out and touching her, then," I said.
"Yeah," Daniel laughed manically, then stopped, too-abruptly. He looked at me. "You ever think about death, man?" he asked.
And here it was, I thought, he was about to confess to me why he wanted to die, why he wanted to kill himself.
"All the time," I admitted, because it was true.
He looked back to the stars. "Think its scary?" he asked.
"A little," I answered, "But only because I don't know what's out there."
Daniel nodded. "Yeah, true. But I mean, dimensions, right? Like imagine like a cake. And the layers of the cake are years, and they just pile right up - up, up, up - to the sky..." he raised his arm as he said this, like he was going to grab at the stars.
I looked at his arm. Rows and rows of scars and cuts and little blisters where he'd taken drugs or tried to cut himself open. I frowned.
"There could be like, dead people, right here. Right amongst us." He waved his hand around the van's cavern. "But we don't know it, cos they're in another dimension. Trippy, huh?"
"Very," I replied.
We were quiet for a few minutes again, him processing the idea, me wondering where this was all coming from really. Away across the dunes some local kids were starting a bonfire, shouting loudly and singing.
He looked at me. "I'm dying, chief," he announced.
"What?" I asked, surprised by the sudden bluntness of his sentence.
"I'm dying." His voice was final.
"Eventually everyone does," I said. Except me.
Daniel rolled onto his side and sat up at an angle, his eyes focused for the first time all evening, and stared at me. "I really am, Nick."
"Why?" It sounded stupid, but it was all I could think to ask.
"The syringes," he said. He held one up he'd used.
Overdose. "Why would you want to do that?" I asked.
"I don't. Anymore. I did." He paused. "I have a disease. Or a virus. They don't know shit - doctors. But they think its the needles."
I remembered wondering if he did when I'd first found him in the alley, surrounded by all those syringes. Maybe I'd been right, even then. I couldn't think of anything to say, though, even though I'd suspected it.
"It's poetic, really," he declared, laying back down. "I'm dying like the poorest parts of the world."
I realized then that there was no way I could save him.
Daniel died exactly when he was 'scheduled' to, according to time. Five days after that night in the back of the VW van, I read in the paper about his death. It was an obituary listed by his father, and mentioned nothing about Daniel's love of art and music or his drug addictions, party habits and the disease that I later learned was AIDs. The article painted a picture of the perfect trust fund kid, who had tragically died for reasons unknown.
If there hadn't been a picture of him in the paper with the article, I never would've believed it was about Daniel at all.
I never told AJ, obviously, but the night I found out he was doing drugs and drinking Jack like water, I thought of Daniel. AJ reminds me, in many ways, of Daniel, except that, unlike him, AJ got the chance to start over again.
I wondered once if that's what had made me approach AJ to be friends with him at that audition years ago, in 1993 - the audition that started the whole Backstreet Boys thing. Every once in awhile, something he says or does makes me remember a particular Beach Boys song or the taste of Coca-Cola fresh from a heavy, green glass bottle.