All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air…
Hi. You might have noticed that I have an upcoming book called Love and Linguistics. There’s kind of a fun story behind it – a fun story. After I wrote Return of the Chauffeur’s Son, which is an homage to Sabrina, some of my readers started suggesting movies that might make good contemporary gay romance themes. One was My Fair Lady. I thought that sounded like a fun idea – a young man from a neighborhood with strong accents that wanted to get an IT job, but his accent stood in the way.
I started writing, but very quickly realized that the book wasn’t a happy-go-lucky romp. In fact, it had a dark side. I kept fighting that tendency, but one day I was driving and started singing “All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air — ” and I realized that the themes of My Fair Lady may be lovely in a period musical, but in a contemporary romance they’re not happy. I stopped fighting the tendency and let the book take on a shadowy edge.
I think you’ll find it’s just as romantic as you’d want it to be, however, because unlike in the play or the film, Henry and my version of Eliza do end up together.
Excerpt from Love and Linguistics
ELIO MARTINEZ stared down at the application form and tried to keep his hands from shaking. Guiltily he glanced at the gringos sitting around the perimeter of the waiting room, many of them with computers or tablets on their laps, doing, he assumed, the same thing he was—filling out an employment application. El didn’t have a laptop. Well, he did, but the thing was so old and ugly it not only didn’t fit on his lap, he wouldn’t dare bring it to a place like this and blow his cover. Chances were fucking good none of these sánganos was making a major decision on how to fill out the first line of the form like he was. The line that asked for his name.
He released his breath and wrote Elvis Martin, then the address of the girl he’d met when he’d hung around that midtown coffee shop, trying to blend in. His blending success—not so much, but the girl had liked his looks anyway. She’d walked up and said, “Has anybody ever told you that you look like that singer, Ricky Martin?” He’d grinned and told her his name was Martin too. She said, “I know he’s gay and old now, but no offense, you’re young and gorgeous like he was back in the day.” He’d laughed, but not for the reasons she thought.
She’d practically drooled when she let him use her West Side apartment number. Good thing she hadn’t tested his cojones. He had enough trouble pretending he liked women for sex in his own neighborhood.
A young guy sitting next to him, looking preppy and geeky at the same time, leaned over. “That IT test was a bitch wasn’t it?”
El just nodded. In fact, he was pretty sure he’d aced the test they’d given him when he arrived there today, but no way would he say that.
He bent back over the form. Reluctantly he filled out the name of his real school because they’d probably check. At least it had a good reputation for IT training, even if it was in a bad part of town. And he’d gotten the grades. The best.
He stood and took the completed application to the counter, where there was a basket to hold the few forms being filled out by hand. He dropped his in and tapped on the window. It opened and a woman grabbed his form. Bam. It closed again as a guy walked out the door of the inner office, trying to look cool and confident. Balls, that asshole would never get hired for this job. El swallowed. Will I?
Plopping back in the chair, he smoothed the pants of the tan suit he’d forked half a months’ pay to get from that discount warehouse. His palms dragged a little from dampness. Not good. Gringos liked firm, dry handshakes and a direct gaze. Not like his neighborhood, where a steady stare at a man could get you a slap across the face or a fist to the jaw. Trying to look natural, he wiped his hands again.
The door opened and an older woman said, “Ms. Arthur.” A pretty young woman got up from the chair closest to El, flashed him a smile, and walked into the back. She was well-dressed and looked smart as hell. Just the type they’d give a job like this. Damn.
He couldn’t be enough of an asshole to pray. Since he’d been convinced a long time ago that he was going to hell no matter what, asking for shit took real balls. But Dios mío, he sure as hell needed a way out. Pushing chimichangas in a Mexican shithole while missing more than half the Spanish words the customers said and cringing against the day that somebody wised up their ass and called him a fag in front of Angel or L’il T didn’t exactly spell future. More like death. He needed a break.
El shifted in his seat as two more people came out, both looking disappointed. They must be running them through multiple interviewers, because they were moving fast. He took a breath.
The door opened. “Mr. Martin.”
He plastered on a pleasant smile, but not one so big it looked like he was nervous or trying too hard. The older woman who’d called him gave him a quick look and then met his eyes. That glance said she might be fifty, but she still liked what she saw. “Right this way.”
He followed her through a long hall into a big cubicle farm and then to a small room with a glass wall. Shit, in there everyone could see him sweat. He looked to the head of the table and sighed. Double shit. His interviewer was a man.
The woman opened the door and said, “Mr. Oorderman, this is Mr. Martin. You have his form.” She pointed at the table. The woman stood back, El crossed in front of her, and she closed the door behind him.
Not fucking much scared Elio Martinez. He could barely breathe, but he’d practiced the smile so many times in the mirror, it leaped onto his face. He walked forward, extended his hand, and Oorderman took it.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Martin. Please sit down.”
El sat in a seat on the right while Oorderman stared at the form El had filled out.
Oorderman chuckled. “I see someone’s mom was a fan of the King.”
El’s mouth opened. ¿Qué cojones? “Uh, what?” He’d practiced saying fifty things. Not one of them fit.
Oorderman looked up. “The King. Elvis. Right?”
“Oh yeah, I get’chu. Funny.” He smiled, but his stomach curled into some fucking ball of pain.
Oorderman frowned just slightly and then said, “You did extremely well on the IT test, Mr. Martin.”
El nodded. “Good.”
“I see you have experience serving customers at a restaurant. While you were in school, I assume?”
El nodded and took a breath, then smiled.
Oorderman leaned back in his seat. “So why do you want this job, Mr. Martin?”
He’d practiced this one. “I wanna git ahead in my field.”
“I see.” He looked back at the form and then glanced up. “Pretend I’m an elderly help-desk customer and I can’t figure out how to erase my emails after I’ve read them.” El’s stomach flipped. Oorderman went on. “What would you tell me?”
El wanted to yell Don’t ask me this fucking question. No use. He sighed, and Oorderman probably heard it. I should just go. But he opened his mouth and let it all fall out anyway. “I’d say, ‘I know what’chu mean, lady. They don’ make dis easy, but I can hep you wit dis.’” He cleared his throat, trying to pretend the dude’s face didn’t look like somebody had hit him with an f-bomb. “So, what’chu do is dis—”
Oorderman held up his hand. “Thank you, Mr. Martin.” He stood but didn’t smile.
If El was somebody else, he’d cry. He rose, thought for a second about offering his hand, but Oorderman didn’t, so El turned and walked to the door. What the fuck, he’d never see this guy again. He turned back to Oorderman and raised his head. “So I figure I’m not gettin’ any job, am I right?”
Oorderman looked surprised for a second, then exhaled really loud. “May I speak frankly and off the record?”
El shrugged. “Sure, man.”
“It’s not your fault. You did an excellent job on the test. One of the best we saw today. But I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that a customer service rep does just that. Serves customers. I’m afraid you just wouldn’t, uh, be appropriate on the phone, and that’s far more than half the job.” He pinched the bridge of his nose with two fingers and looked like he actually gave a shit. “May I ask if you speak Spanish?”
“Not really, man.”
“Are you Dominican?”
“You sure don’t look it.”
“Yeah, well, what’da we look like? Besides, dat and five bucks’ll git ya a Stahbucks.”
“No offense, but you should get some help with language.” He looked up at El with a frown. “You can sound any way you want. I just mean it might be harder to understand you on the phone, especially for someone out of state or international. I could get in trouble for saying that.”
“I’m not tellin’ nobody, man. You think I wanna brag?”
“Okay. Do it or not.” He shrugged.
“Thanks.” El opened the door and walked out.
Only iron willpower kept him from smashing a fist into the wall. He should have fucking known no universe he lived in would ever give him a fucking break.
By the time he got to the door in the outer office again, he’d pumped up to a solid pissed-off. Who he was pissed at was a little murky, but who gave a shit? He slammed open the door, charged through the waiting room, and was out in the hall before he realized that the pretty girl—Ms. Arthur—had been sitting there. Maybe they’d told her to wait because she got the job. Maybe she’d been waiting for him. Dios mío, that made him even madder since he didn’t seem to have any trouble attracting women, but if he tried to have a boyfriend, he’d get his fucking head bashed in by a bunch of assholes led by his fucking father.
In the elevator he leaned against the wall and tried to ignore the two women who sneaked looks at him out of the sides of their eyes. On the street in a fuckload of offensive sunshine, he gave serious thought to hitting the nearest bar, but he’d learned it was a crappy idea to protest the fucking universe that didn’t give a shit by punishing himself.
The Starbucks across the street—one of the many words he couldn’t seem to get out of his mouth right—would work. Besides, there were no fucking pendejos there to tell him real men don’t drink tea.
He stalked through the store to the order line and told the girl at the cash register he wanted a chai latte. How was that for a fucking girlie drink? Of course, $4.95 for tea definitely didn’t fit his nonexistent budget. When he got the cup, along with a wink from the barista—female, of course—he walked down the street toward the train station sipping cinnamon-flavored tea.
Inside the station he opened the locker he always used, took out his paper bag, and carted it to the men’s room. After a few minutes in a stall, he carried his carefully folded suit and shoes back to the locker, closed it, and turned to face the world. When the woman walking past widened her eyes, frowned, and curved her path away from him, he knew Elvis had left the building. He slouched his shoulders, threw his hips forward to keep his black jeans from falling off, adjusted the cap that covered his too light hair, and pushed his shades up on his nose, then strode toward his train to the Bronx. Elio Martinez was on his way home.
Like always, the sway of the subway lulled him, and his eyelids drooped even though he was hanging on to a pole. He was tired. Tired of dirt and ugliness. Tired of bullets and fear. Tired of no job, no hope, no future. He should be like his mother and off himself, but he couldn’t. Face it, idiota, you’re the son of your fucking father.
The cloud of perfume on the woman next to him made him cough, then sneeze. He sighed.
So that dude, Oorderman, told him to get help with language. How? ¡Mierda! That asshole sure pegged El as a loser. Everything in El wanted to scream that he was as good as any of these people. He’d worked hard and deserved a fucking job. But facts were facts. Nobody would hire him for the kind of job he wanted—the job he’d earned through hard work and brains, dammit—as long as he sounded like a ghetto rat…. Maybe Mr. Hernandez could help.
I’ve got to do something.
The second the doors parted, El shoved off the train and landed on the platform, already walking fast. You never knew what pendejo was waiting to bash you. He made it to the escalator and ran up it, swung himself off at the top, then broke into a run until he got to his neighborhood and finally slowed.
Two blocks from Angel’s apartment—he never called it his since he hated both Angel and the apartment—El scooted behind the youth center building. Emilio Hernandez ran the place. When El was real little, Angel and the gang had let him go there since nobody wanted to take care of him. Man, he’d loved that fucking place. All the crayons and an old beat-up computer. Heaven. But as soon as Angel and L’il T saw El as old enough to be useful, they put him to work delivering drugs and collecting money and made sure he never went to the youth center again.
He walked quietly to the back door of the falling-down building and opened the squeaky screen, then the door. Inside he heard the yells and squeals of kids having fun. For a second his chest hurt.
Tiptoeing across the kitchen space that never had enough food, he looked in the big room. Mr. Hernandez leaned against the wall while the little kids worked on art projects on the tables. Later, the few big kids who managed to escape the gangs—either because they had mean-ass scary parents who stood up for them or they seemed too weak to be able to handle any useful jobs—would come in after school.
Kids smeared finger paint across papers and laughed as they wiped some on each other. Whoa. Hard not to envy that happy ignorance. El blinked, and suddenly he saw every kid there covered in tats, cigarettes hanging from their lips and guns in their belts. He shuddered. So few years away—and most of them would never get a choice.
El waved toward Mr. Hernandez. It took a few arm gestures, but he managed to get the man to look up. Hernandez saw El and started to smile, then got this real suspicious look, but he still walked over slowly. When he stepped into the kitchen, El said, “Hola.”
“Why you here, El?”
“Nothin’ bad, honest.”
Hernandez crossed his arms. “Okay, talk.”
“Ya know how I went ta tech school to learn IT?”
“Yeah. I never believed Angel didn’t fuck it up.”
El shrugged. “He figures I’m his meal ticket fer life.”
“Dat makes sense.” He stared at the kids.
“Anyways, I wanna get a job, but I gotta tawk bettah.”
Hernandez shook his head. “So you can be his meal ticket?”
El lowered his voice even more and glanced around. “No. So I can get the fuck away.”
Hernandez frowned. “Shit, man, that’s dangerous.”
“Yeah, tell me.”
“As a gunshot wound, man.”
“But you need to tawk bettah?”
Hernandez shook his head. “It’s a big problem.”
“Ken you teach me?”
“Dios, El, listen to me. I’m only a little better’n you. And I don’t know anything about teaching language anyway.”
El slammed a palm against the wall. A couple of kids looked up, and he tried to smile. Nothing wrong here. When they went back to coloring, he said, “Shit, man, I’ll never get outta this rathole.”
Mr. Hernandez cocked his head. “It won’t come back to bite me in the ass if I help you?”
El raised an eyebrow. “I’d swear on my motha’s grave, but I don’ know if she’s dead and I don’ giva shit, so you’ll have ta trust me.”
El got a look that said Hernandez was contemplating life and death. He must have decided. “Hang for a minute.” He walked out of the kitchen and disappeared around the corner toward his office.
El was smiling before he looked at Pablo, a feisty ten-year-old who followed El around when he had the chance. “Yo, Pablo, how ya been?”
“Okay. Where you been? Was lookin’ for d’ju.”
Pablo leaned his skinny body against the wall. “You like dat school shit, yo?”
“Yeah, man, I like anyting dat makes me bettah.”
“No shit?” He gave El a long glance, dark eyes narrowed. “T’ink I could go to school like you?”
“Sure, man, but you gotta do good in regular school or they won’ take you.”
“Yeah.” He stared at his holey sneakers, and El felt like he could puke. Pablo’s father was third in command of the gang. Pablo’s chances of getting out? Fucking zero. Of course, that shoulda made El’s chances less than zero, so he shouldn’t give up on the kid.
He reached out and gave Pablo a pat on his shoulder. Wish I could help him.
Hernandez walked out of his office. Pablo looked up and sauntered back to the table where he’d been finger painting. He already had the gang member’s walk, all slouchy and I don’t give a shit. He gave El a raised fist and an explosion of fingers along with a grin.
El grinned back and said, “Pablo’s a good kid.”
Hernandez nodded. “One of the best. Damned bright, like you.” He stuck out a piece of paper to El. “Heyah.”
El frowned. “What is it?”
“I heard about dis doctor guy who they say ken really make a person sound classy.”
“Who are they?”
“I looked it up, man. Take it or not. It won’t bite.” He fluttered the page.
El took it, and maybe he got a tingle like in the movies when something special happens. Yeah, right. He opened the folded paper.
Dr. Henry Fairhaven
Linguistics and Speech Transformation
There was a phone number, address, email, and website.
El glanced up. “Really? Transfohmation?”
Hernandez raised his shoulders. “Don’ know, man. What I heard.”
A loud crash from the other room made Mr. Hernandez spin around. “Later.” He ran into the big room, where some kid was crying.
El squished the paper into his pocket, slipped out the back door, and looked around the edge of the building before he walked to the cracked sidewalk and headed toward the apartment where he lived. When the steps of his building were in sight, he slowed.
From across the street, L’il T stared at El through his sunglasses. He raised a hand with two fingers extended. El waved his hand back. Okay, stop. El leaned against the graffiti-covered bus sign and waited. No, he didn’t want to talk to fucking L’il T, but twice as bad, he didn’t want to look like he didn’t want to talk to L’il T.
T sauntered across the street, his tats glowing in the late-afternoon light. El liked that word. Sauntered. It sounded like T moved. Some animal deciding if it wanted to lick you or bite you.
“Yo, T. How you doin’?” He wasn’t going to answer in Spanish because T didn’t speak any more of it than El did.
“Nuttin’ much. Where you been?”
None of your business! “I had to do a thing for school.” Everybody knew El was the weird fuck who studied and Angel let him do it, so that excuse worked. Not totally a lie.
T narrowed his eyes. “I tol’ d’ju. You learn dis fucking computer shit for us, man. So you can fuck over the gringos.”
El shrugged. “Still gotta do the school shit, man.”
The crash of the door slamming against the wall behind them made both El and T jump a foot and raise their fists, ready to fight.
Angel Martinez leaned out the door, weaving so bad it was a miracle from Mary he could stand up. “El. You fucking fucker, get the fuck in here and cook me dinner. T, leave ’im the fuck alone so he can do his fucking job.”
Yep, that was El’s father. A model of language use. Shit.
L’il T didn’t take orders from no fucking man, but Angel “the King” was an exception. Yeah, he might be a repulsive pile of vomit now, but his rep still made bad guys puke. T pointed toward the door. “Get yo’ ass movin’.”
El followed his direction. Angel waited for him at the top of the stairs, and when El came up beside him, Angel delivered a swipe to El’s head that might have knocked him out if El hadn’t been ready for it and Angel hadn’t been stoned.
El ran up the stairs since he knew it’d take Angel a few minutes to get up three flights, and that’d give El a couple of minutes to get some tacos put together. Angel might be Puerto Rican, but he loved fucking tacos.
If he hurried, maybe he could sneak out the window before Angel finished eating and decided to take his belt to El for being late. But when his feet hit the ground, where could he go?
El touched the crumpled paper in his pocket. Gotta get out of here. Gotta.