I open my eyes and am startled to find a body next to mine in bed. I sit up and protectively pull the blankets all the way to my chin before realizing that the body is Attila Johnson's and that I've invited it to be here. My heart rate returns to normal as I glance down at Attila's form. His pale hair is glowing in the darkness and he seems painfully innocent in sleep even though, when awake, there is too much life in his face. I look over at the clock. It's four in the morning. I get up as quietly as possible, not wanting to disturb his sleep. Before meeting me three weeks ago, I don't think the man ever slept. Or ate. Right now he weighs a hundred and fourteen pounds, one pound less than I do. To him, of course, this is overweight. He's supposed to keep his weight under one-ten. This alone is an act of heroism, never mind the rest of his life that is devoted to rendering his body a light and muscular instrument meant to steer a thousand pounds of thoroughbred around a racetrack at thirty-five miles per hour. Which is a thing Attila does purely out of love. He got into riding too late to ever hope to be in the big leagues or do much more than work his tail off just to pay the rent. But the man loves and understands horses. This is part of why he's so compelling to me and why he's here, sleeping next to me when I still have unfinished business with another man, Ed, who up and left town just when I'd gotten to really liking the fact that he was around.
I put my robe on and walk into the living room, pulling the bedroom door shut behind me. Stinky, my large Buddha-like cat, looks at me from his post on the couch and, when I tell him aloud I'm not going to give him a snack, puts his head back down on his paws and sighs deeply. Lulu, Stinky's calico companion, is nowhere to be found and is presumably holed up in a shoe box somewhere, dreaming of murdering birds.
I go stand at the window. The snow has stopped for a breathing spell but the wind is howling its song along Stillwell Avenue, echoing through the snow-covered rides of Coney Island, the place I call home.
Lulu suddenly materializes and jumps up on top of the piano, forcing me to look at the instrument that I haven't touched in days. Above the piano hangs a small Bach portrait. Johann Sebastian appears to be scowling disapprovingly at me and my wanton musical ways. I didn't take up piano until age thirty-one and I have to work very hard for even slight improvement. My goal is to be able to play at least some of Bach's Goldberg Variations before hitting forty. I have a little more than six years to go but it's not looking promising right now. Between my newfangled thing with Attila Johnson and the blizzard that hit town five days ago, my whole life has been suspended. I haven't practiced the piano or returned friends' phone calls. The Coney Island Museum has been closed so I haven't gone to work. I haven't done much of anything other than lie around naked with Attila and I'm starting to get restless. I find myself seized with a need to talk to someone other than Attila or myself. I open the front door and look across the hall to see if Ramirez is home and awake.
My neighbor's door is open and he is in his customary position at the kitchen table, staring ahead, apparently doing nothing at all. He is wearing his outfit of choice: soiled white undershirt and faded pants. His arms are big but middle age is starting to slacken the muscle tone. His broad face is heavily lined, giving him a gruff look that's offset by large, kind eyes.
"Ruby," he states.
"Ramirez, what's up?"
"You want some tea?" he asks, as if visiting each other at four o'clock in the morning is the most natural thing in the world.
"Sure," I say, still standing in my doorway, suddenly hesitant about imposing on my neighbor.
"You can keep standing there if you want but maybe it's easier if you come in and have a seat." Ramirez indicates a chair.
I pull my door closed behind me and do as he suggests.
"Where's the jockey?" he asks sarcastically. Ramirez, like all my friends, seems to have his doubts about this liaison. I suppose it came on a little suddenly. For two months I was heartbroken over Ed's leaving for a job assignment in Florida--and our never having discussed exactly what was or is going on between us--then, suddenly, I was shacking up with Attila.
"He's sleeping," I tell Ramirez, tilting my chin up defensively.
"I don't want to know," Ramirez counters, putting up a hand as if warding off lurid sexual details that might involuntarily spout out of my mouth. Not that I've ever dreamed of telling my neighbor about my sex life--with Attila or anyone else--but there's something about Attila--or me with Attila--that seems to make people think I'm going to carelessly relay graphic details of our sex life. I think it's because he's small. Sometimes small people seem perverse to large people. As if a raging libido lives inside of them, making up for their diminutive stature.
"Elsie's still in Puerto Rico?" I ask, even though I know she is.
My neighbor nods his head and then, as if in homage to his absent girlfriend, gets up to start brewing tea. Ramirez was never a tea kind of guy as far as I could tell but Elsie knows about and uses herbal teas and medicines and, before heading down to Puerto Rico to visit a sick aunt, left Ramirez elaborate instructions on brewing certain teas for certain occasions. I don't know what she told him to brew should I visit before the crack of dawn, but I'm sure it'll be interesting.
"You hear from Ed?" Ramirez asks with his back to me.
"Not this week," I say through clenched teeth. Ramirez never seemed to approve of Ed while we were actually seeing each other, and it wasn't until Ed left for Florida that my neighbor took any interest in him at all. When I started this thing with Attila, Ramirez suddenly became Ed's strongest advocate.
"I told you we left things up in the air," I continue addressing Ramirez's back.
"I know what you told me," he says, finally turning around.
Ramirez is no idiot. He knew exactly how strongly I felt about Ed without my telling him.
"Why don't you like Attila?" I ask him.
"I like that jockey fine," Ramirez frowns.
"No you don't."
"I don't trust him, lady," Ramirez says, sitting down heavily.
"How can you not trust him? You don't know him."
Ramirez shrugs. "I just don't want to see you in anymore trouble with men," he says, making it sound like trouble with men is my life's pursuit.
"Can we talk about something else?" I ask.
"When's Elsie coming back?"
"Soon I guess. Not sure. Aunt's still sick."
"There's something about those eyes of his. They're a funny color, Ruby."
"What? Whose eyes?"
"His eyes are blue," I protest.
"They're a funny bright blue. I don't like it. I knew a dog with eyes like that once."
"You're comparing the object of my affections to a dog?"
"No, just his eyes."
This is disturbing. Ramirez has never poked his nose so firmly into my affairs. Elsie, yes. But not Ramirez. He stands up and goes to the stove to see about the tea.
"Drink your tea," he says a moment later, setting a cup in front of me.
He sits back down and frowns again, causing his dark eyes to disappear under folds of forehead. "I'm sorry to be in a mood, Ruby," he sighs. "It's the snow. It's getting to me."
"Don't be mad," he urges, uncharacteristically patting my hand and squeezing it.
"Okay," I shrug.
I sip my tea and, as soon as it's slightly cool, drink it all down and bid my neighbor good night.
"You're sure you're not upset with me, lady?" Ramirez asks, escorting me back to my own front door.
"No," I sigh. "I understand."
"Understand everything," I say, not wanting to explain myself.
"That makes one of us," my neighbor says.
I go back into my apartment. Stinky is still on the couch and Lulu is now keeping him company--though she's sitting about a foot away from him, pretending she doesn't like him enough to get closer.
I walk back into the bedroom where I find Attila still sleeping but turned onto his side. He's bunched up, like he's riding a racehorse in his sleep. I get in bed next to him, prop up on my elbow and stare at him. His blond crew cut is growing out and some of his hair is mashed to the side of his head. His entire body is, even in repose, rippled with muscle. It occurs to me that racehorses and jockeys are similar in their impossibly lean but muscular physiques. Horses don't have to vomit up their dinner to keep to a certain weight though.
I rest my head on the pillow and look up at the ceiling which, for some reason, I recently painted leafy green.
"What are you doing?" Attila suddenly asks. I turn my head and find that his eyes are open.
"I woke up and you weren't here," he says, reaching for me.
"Just went across the hall to say hello to my neighbor," I say, entwining my legs with his.
"That Ramirez fellow?"
"That guy hates me."
"What makes you say that?"
"I just know. You spend enough time around horses, you develop a sixth sense. Mostly about horses, but about people too."
"I think he's just protective of me."
"So you admit it? He thinks I'm bad for you? He's got it in for me?"
"No, nothing like that," I protest, running my hand down Attila's forearm, kneading the muscles there.
"What, he liked your last boyfriend better?" Attila presses on.
"Not that either. He's a Vietnam vet, he's suspicious by nature."
"Uh-huh," Attila grunts, not buying it. "The man can't stand me," he declares.
To take his mind off this alleged hatred, I run my hands over Attila's compact chest and then down into his boxer shorts. He growls, wrestles me down, and pins me underneath him.
"Nobody hates you," I say softly into Attila's ear.
"That's not entirely true," he says, putting his mouth to mine.
I didn't believe him. But I should have.
Excerpted from Gargantuan by Maggie Estep. Copyright © 2004 by Maggie Estep. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.