Neon Red – Chapter 5

(DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. It’s important to remember this is all totally fabricated, embellished, and exaggerated for entertainment purposes.)

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February 2017

Hollywood Hills

(Present Time)

“Paris?”

“Paris…” I sighed, seated on the edge of the bed beside him, slipping my heel into a wobbly YSL boot. They were his. Our feet weren’t exactly the same size, but they’d do. Whenever we set our palms and soles together, his were wider, not much longer. It’d been that way since we were teenagers. He laughed down at my feet today, wondering if I was into Chelsea boots suddenly. Only this pair specifically, I told him, since he’d worn them all week. I pocketed something whenever I left and he rarely ever saw it again, but deep down I knew he liked the idea of me pilfering parts of him.

Three years ago I’d pinched his favorite belt; flimsy and discolored thing it was. Mosaicked with broken leather. Hanging pale and powdery looking in the back of my closet. Flung amongst scrawny t-shirts and unraveling jumpers and scarves that had seen better days——all his. Old faithfuls, I called them. Fraught with a fusion of weird odors since they had walked with him the longest. Abandoned things, merely waiting to be discarded. His leftover traces evaporated by the day, and I clung to them as long as I could. Archiving it all so methodically I’d know if one had gone missing or been rearranged in the slightest. A reaper of personal effects. The bone collector. The hoarder.

Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You” eased the room as I sneezed into my sleeve. I’d been feeling a bit ill since I woke up, trying to come down with the flu, I’d imagine. He seldom ever turned the heat on for the LA winter, except at night when I told him I was cold. By now it had taken its toll on me.

“Bless you…” he said, following a second sneeze.

“What’s the time?”

“Half, six.”

“Shit, already?” I puzzled, running a hand through my bangs.

“How long?” he asked, staring mournfully at his lap; all depleted looking. I hesitated.

“How long what?”

“How long’s it gonna be this time?”

“Youh know…long as she needs me.”

“Long as she needs you?” he repeated, with a sort of false incredulity. He knew the routine.

“Yeah…I suppose. That’s what I said, innit?”

“Right…ok…” He sneered; the gesture but a minimal twitch of the lip. “Mate…well, that’s not gonna work, alright?” There was something like disillusionment in his voice. He rubbed an eye to occupy his face——to keep it from emoting. “You always make indefinite plans, then?”

“Latelyh, yeah…”

“What’re you, like, unemployed or something?” I hated when he used humor to mask his annoyance. Passive aggression made me nauseous, like ascending elevators. “Your schedule that open, Z?”

“I mean…it’s whateva’.” I chuckled thoughtlessly. “Youh know how I am. I ain’t gonna trip about nothin’.”

“Well, you ought to—”

“What?”

“I said you ought to!” he snapped. Retreating, he pretended his concerns were pragmatic. “You should keep busy, y’know. Keep out of trouble. An idle mind— and all that.”

Today, we were misaligned. I shrugged, dusting off a ripped pants’ leg; finding any excuse to avoid eye contact to deaden his hold over me. It was tightening by the moment——the way a constrictor applied more pressure the harder you sought to escape. I couldn’t make him understand anything lately without bringing her up. It was the only sore subject that ever got the best of us, and he was forever picking at it like a scabbed wound.

Time strove against me from the moment I woke up. I was running late for a meeting with Taryn to wrap up changes to the France itinerary, but there was no way to convey this without giving him the distinct impression I was thrilled to go. Frankly, I wasn’t. Fashion Week in Paris would be hectic as hell, and since G was needed on call for all sorts of random shit, I needed to be as open as possible——certain not to withhold emotional availability, of which she often accused me.

Now he rubbed a bare foot back and forth along the carpet in sheer agitation—frantic enough to spark a fire. It was the final mechanism of self-restraint. And like a virulent toddler, he’d get to throwing shit if I weren’t careful. I couldn’t take my eye off that reddening foot; and there was a need to be wary, because he might’ve taken my observation as mockery. I envisioned the friction seeping into his restless bones, channeled in currents from the rug. Microscopic eruptions of energy, imperceptible to the naked eye. The electricity would transfer the moment he touched any surface. I hoped it wouldn’t be me.

“Easy, Haz,” I said. He kept going. I rolled my eyes at the tattoo on his big toe—although the scroll of George Michael lyrics on his ankles were pretty sick. I checked the time on my phone like he hadn’t told me a moment ago, hissing inwardly. There was no time to make it across town to Beverly Hills before traffic set in, and I still needed coffee to resuscitate my brain following the activities of the previous weeks. Most days I’d lain here beside him, all but comatose. 

It would take all the strength I could muster to resist the craze of the airport this morning, plus, Taryn would be pissed if I missed our last sit-down before the flight to NYC. I texted her to have coffee waiting for me in 45min. Her response was dry but gracious; still annoyed I’d spent the last couple of weeks in an undisclosed location, refusing to take her calls. I bet she’d blow a head-gasket if she learned where I’d slept most nights.

“What about you?” he asked again, taking my phone from my hand and tossing it onto the bed. He’d been talking, apparently, and I hadn’t heard. All I saw were his big palms moving. His voice a familiar drone. Sometimes it withdrew to the back of my mind in habituation. The equivalent of comfortable silence or finishing each other’s sentences without error. A symptom of profound intimacy.

“What?”

“I said, ‘What about you?’ Aren’t you even listening?”

“What about me, exactlyh?” I grinned. “I ain’t too busy these days.”

“You ought to be—”

“How’s that?” I lifted my brows, looking him in the eye. His features looked peeled back, like he was gritting his teeth. “What, youh my manager now or somthin’? I ain’t payin’ youh, broh.”

“Right, ’cause you couldn’t afford me,” he muttered.

“Oh yeah?”

Yeah. You’re too cheap.” We laughed.

After I stood up and stretched, he grabbed my belly, chewing on his top lip. I sidled away, needing to temper whatever was rearing between us at the moment. Unsettled tension thickened with sexual nervousness, enough to keep us going at each other well beyond noon. Fucking and fighting, one behind the other.

He lay back across the mattress, clad in nothing but resignation and the creased towel. He stretched his arms up over his head and all I could see was the bottom of his ribcage and the edges of the butterfly.

Paris…” he repeated, as though the word held ulterior meanings.

Par’ee…” I replied, in an affected accent, moving to the vanity to get a splash of his cologne. He kept one hell of collection. An assortment of fragrances he deemed genderless, which could easily be mistaken for the countertop of a high-end perfumery. There were dozens of them. Loads of Tom Ford. Vintage Chanel. An array of Gucci and some other Italian junk that smelled like a loogey hacked up by a dude who’d eaten a handful of garlic cloves. I asked him to toss it out a while ago because it made him smell like a busted old man. He said it was a gift, but that he’d get rid of it for me.

“This still here? What I tell youh about that?”

“I forgot—”

“Smells like ass. Sweaty ass——”

“How d’you know what that smells like?” I laughed and tossed it into the bin beside the nightstand, whose surfaces reflected a tiny, dented version of the room. A world askew.

Paris….” he sighed again, sometime later.

“Why d’youh keep sayin’ it like it’s a death sentence, yeah?” I watched him through the mirror as I combed my fingers through my hair. “It’ll only be a week or soh, babe.”

“I know…”

“Then chill, alright? What’s the big deal?”

“Ever think it’s because you never took me to Paris, idiot? Never even thought to ask me if I wanted to go. And you never even let me take you anywhere either.” Ella Mai’s “10,000 Hours” drowned his mutters.

“True,” I conceded, half-heartedly. “But youh can’t really say we haven’t both been in Paris at the same time, now can youh?” I was used to spinning shit in my favor. Getting people to realize they already agreed with me. Sometimes I thought I’d make a good lawyer. “Plus, we all seen the Eiffel Tower together, remember? Lou got sick after eating all them oysters before——”

Escargot—”

“Noh, it’s oysters, innit? Remember?”

“Fuck the Eiffel tower.”

“Oh yeah? What’s it ever done to youh?”

“It’s so boring, mate!” He laughed a defeated laugh. A cringe attempt to sound unaffected. “It’s such a cliché! Everybody’s always making a big deal out of it and shit—”

“Sounds like you’re the only one making a big deal out of everythin’ today—”

“M’not…,” he sulked. More derisive as the morning wore on. It was his way of advising me I better not take her to the Eiffel Tower. That he couldn’t handle it if I did. Lucky for me, G had been to Paris a million times and with each visit, these colorless attractions were the furthest thing from her mind. If it was on a postcard, she’d likely visited a dozen times, so their appeal diminished to the periphery of her general interests. Obsolete; like outgrown clothes or day-old news.

Try as he might to pretend otherwise, Haz was wild about these touristy things. The Eiffel Tower was the predominant image of romance around the world. With his quixotic outlook on love, something like this held great significance for he and I. It should have been understood that it was preserved for us, but I learned this the hard way when I took Pez to the tower in 2013 during a TMH Tour stop. He came plodding into my hotel room afterwards, super annoyed.

“Youh know Hitler almost got rid of the Eiffel Tower?” I ventured. “It literally survived World War II, and you’re sittin’ around hatin’ on it——”

“Fuck Hitler.”

“Babe, chill,” I snickered. “I’ll take youh later this yearh, alright? We can, uh…like find a way to get over there somehow, right? Might have to fly separately, of course——”

“And wear disguises once we get there? Forbidden from holding hands on the street? Oh, gee thanks. Can’t wait, mate.”

I stepped into the quiet of the toilet to breathe for a minute, and returned with my hair presentable. Time to hit the road, as Paulie used to say. My flight was at 9am to jet back to NYC and finalize details for the Paris run, and I still hadn’t properly packed. Always busting my ass at the last minute, cramming mostly sentimental things into the smallest bag I could find, murdering the straps with each trip. I wouldn’t be surprised if one ripped clean away from the seams this time. I hated luggage, I hated having to unpack and repack at TSA, and I hated checking bags. I sought to minimize the time I needed to stand before those vultures, and that meant bringing as few items as possible. I guess I was still scarred from my earliest flights with the band, which revealed my supposed “kind” were problematic flyers. Delayers.

My first trip to the US had not been a dull or routine. I could never pass for one of those regular Joe Schmoe type of guys. The sort who didn’t raise questions at first glance; like those posh boys in clothing adverts I envied growing up. I was pegged as soon as I walked into that place, and I would never forget that flight. 

Before escorting me worlds away to dominate the scene with my mates in America, that trip had forced upon me many embarrassing lessons. Firstly, the boys had terrified by asserting the plane would perform ludicrous maneuvers mid-air; sure to defy physics. Apparently that morning it was my turn to be colluded against. We often turned on each other with the pitilessness of politicians—and I found that I didn’t enjoy the idea of being lied to, even in a ploy as innocuous as this. That I even believed their lies revealed much about me at the time. Such as the depth of my own unacquaintance with life outside the meager blocks of my Bradford neighborhood. Ignorant of all things beyond the shabby terraced housing that nurtured me.

Straight out of the gate, TSA treated me like a public enemy they were keen to collect the bounty on. Dead or alive; any condition would do. Since 9/11 I’d heard horror stories from friends and family of how adversely they were treated at airports for years following the attack, but I wagered they were just exaggerating to gain pity or to have interesting hiccups to talk about at the gym or over dinner. It wasn’t until I faced the spine-numbing gravity of being questioned firsthand that I knew it was real. As real as anything the eye could discern, or mind conceive. Never business as usual for me.  

I nearly missed my flight because I was profiled relentlessly the minute I stepped within a hundred feet of security, despite it being over 10 years following the attack. All this in spite of our team having it out with them for separating me from the other boys who were gifted the Joe Schmoe Pass.  

A large black woman with tinted glasses set her sights on me first, and looked more than disinclined to engage. She had a neat French roll and eyed me like fresh-meat as I approached, later dealing out instructions as though I were the thousandth person she had encountered that day and was exasperated of repeating herself. From there I was steered into a separate TSA line for the problematic where their hostility only escalated. It was wildly apparent, no longer, implicit. They spoke sternly and impatiently. Barking orders, instead of the typical firm but polite guidance.

Their suspicions of me were so inevitable it felt comical. It all played out exactly like the stories forewarned, leaving me numb over life’s boggling irony. It was sort of like discovering bigfoot was real firsthand; not just a dreadful fable murmured over campfires. Like I’d seen him walk square up to me and look me in the eye; mano a mano

My dad warned me about “random selection” security checks before I took off, with all the gnashing hesitancy of the time he told me my German Shepherd was dead. It had been missing a few days when he finally found it run over near the auto repair shop owned by a family friend. It had lain a few days undiscovered, stewing in its own rot, I’d heard, eaten all over with insects and stinking up the vicinity. Everyone was too afraid to touch it, women and children alike (even the flinty-eyed shopkeep who was rumored to have killed a man in the 90s.) The other local lads only approached to take pictures, which they would later pass among friends at neighborhood haunts.

My dad wouldn’t let me see him. ‘It’s taken care of’ was all he’d ever say. Each time I asked, he’d clamp a hand onto my boney shoulder and incline his head. A grievous sigh usually followed. Then he’d shut his eyes, the gesture betraying knowledge of monstrous things he longed to unsee. And despite his efforts to shelter me, I still dreamt of viscera for weeks on end. My imagination producing images far worse than any hell reality could render.

Now he urged me to be cautious and instructed me on how to behave once I got to the airport, as if preparing me for war. I was seventeen and still drenched behind the ears, so he dutifully did all he could to prepare me for the adversities I’d face beyond his reach. For the times he couldn’t storm to my side like he had my entire life. Always the first to gather me up when I’d fallen from my bike, or gotten kicked out of school, or got into neighborhood scraps that resulted in black eyes and bloodied knuckles; which my mom nursed tenderly.

I was too dumb and entitled to appreciate how good he was to me. I was eager to get onboard that flight and prove him wrong, so I never really heeded the things he illustrated about air travel, or how it could spell trouble for a boy my color. He knew there was no way I would blend in with the other four, as I’d been a sore thumb ever since I started school. I was careless to think he’d be wrong, even though I was different from other brown boys of my lot. Born lucky, no doubt. My fortune with the band was evidence enough of that alone.

Once I experienced my fair share of airport horror, I was unable to call him and tell him things had gone well like I hoped. Often, I wondered why I had been so eager to disprove him. Longing to see a fracture in his façade; in his stony resoluteness that assured him he knew best. Teenage defiance manifested in many forms, as corrosive as cancer, and I thought leaving the pitiful boundaries of Bradford would be the first step to proving I could be better than my parents; better than my cousins; better than my feckless classmates. My small-world parents who went on in a bumbling, humiliating ignorance of all things greater, larger, farther.

Boy had I been wrong. I would come to appreciate how dimensional they were in time. How subtly knowledgeable. How well-travelled on the paths that truly mattered. I’d also come to value my roots more and more as I got older. The airport incident was the first rude awakening I would receive in a series of many. Bradford wasn’t just a place; it was a state-of-mind. A worldview. A flesh-searing brand that dominated my manner of speech and modes of thought. It had authored my aspirations and was now the only thing that bound me to the earth when outsiders sought to elevate my mere humanity.

Once we landed in America, I was pulled aside and questioned for hours about my family tree, my religion, my education, and all sorts of other absurdities. Fathomless things my 17-year-old brain was incapable of contriving; like the dealings of foreign governmental entities, weapons-making, and money laundering. They talked to me like I was 40. Like I was from an underdeveloped nation and likely to have affiliations with covert terrorist organizations; as if I was likely to be related to murderers. 

From then on, I felt nothing but paranoia and misanthropy creeping in, always questioning my surroundings and mapping out escape routes. It altered the landscape of my mind irreparably. Agoraphobia sprung roots and would continue to grow every day for the rest of my life like a brain tumor. A frightening and cureless mental atrophy.

From that moment on, I was acutely aware that everyone I encountered thought I looked like a bad guy, and there was nothing I could do about it. Whether I was or wasn’t a bad guy remained irrelevant. How could that be? When I assessed myself in the mirror, I didn’t feel devious or capable of harming others. I didn’t look weird or calculated, like I was harboring machinations to upend the world. And it wasn’t because the way I dressed that they questioned me like a far down and bottom-feeding thing. Making me feel like the whole world was staring down at me through a microscope. It was my face, my coloring, my aura, my name

According to them, the name Zain Malik had “flagged” something of concern in their system, and they were only following up on that. No racial prejudice motivated their inquires, they assured me. ‘Yeah, right.’ I wanted to respond sarcastically. ‘Likely story.’ I wondered if the name Joe Schmoe might flag anything in their system of concern. How many Zain Maliks were there, anyway? And just how many happened to be connected to radicalized terrorists?

I didn’t have the balls to demand they tell me what had been flagged in their system, even though I had called their bluff straightaway. Instead, I stood there woodenly and let them have their way; looking to other adults for help, which they were not permitted to give under any circumstances. Just like when you had to witness a family member being accosted by traffic police. It was instinctively understood that we all became powerless in those moments. As a kid I’d watched my godlike dad who was greatly esteemed in many households be reduced to “yes, sirs'” around white men just because they were wearing a particular uniform or totting a slew of honorific badges. Wielding a license to kill if they saw fit. Most of them were younger than him too, so to witness him being berated by someone half his age had been scarring. The hostility it bred in me became asphyxiating over the years, because for too long a time it had no outlet. But that was before music saved me.

TSA threatened to place Paul Higgins on a governmental no-fly list if he protested any further on my behalf. How could I be blamed for something so completely beyond my control, he’d asked. I wondered the same, asking myself how I could look more blameless in order to set everyone else’s minds at ease? I could never not look like the villain if they judged me on physical attributes alone. It was a despairingly hard pill to swallow, and my first introduction to real self-loathing; not just that teenage angst shit when I was weirded out by my own body. God forbid I grow a beard or dress traditionally; I couldn’t imagine the glances that would’ve been leveled my way then.

That was my first experience in the United States. Massive double doors slamming as they herded me down a weakly lit corridor to a frigid office. Interrogated all alone. No counsel; no cohorts or friendly faces. They offered me water as it trying to present themselves trustworthy. I felt like a cornered rat. It certainly wasn’t my first brush with racism or xenophobia, since school had been my introduction to each of those. Kids were emotionally feral. They’d say anything that popped into their mind, and I got the brunt of that growing up. However, this was the first time it had been done to my face; not shouted behind my back as sat in a crowded classroom or walked through a teeming cafeteria. This time it had been done face-to-face by an adult in a professional capacity, in an airport full of others choosing to look the other way. 

The institutionalization of my mistreatment and all these other thuggish practices put in place for people of color were especially ghastly. That shit was written in the rulebooks, it was agreed upon and considered standard practices. It wasn’t the work of a few covert racists on the force breaking the law to accost me. It was the law. I felt helpless because I damn well was. And I became enraged the longer I sat there. But I knew any display of emotion would falsely confirm their suspicions and give them probable cause to take the examination further, so I bit my tongue and remained quiet. I bit it so hard that it bled.

That day, I would never forget. It was a horror show that deepened my anxiety about flying to the max, one I’d be sure to tell my kids about. I was mortified by the time I was released to the others in the waiting area of Arrivals. They had stayed behind for me instead of going ahead to the hotel to get comfortable, and that was like a soothing balm applied over the open gash TSA left on me.  Still, the pang I felt at seeing them on the other side hassle-free made me want to vomit. But I didn’t want to resent them either. They were as blameless for their names and coloring and history as I was. 

I ignored Harry when he asked me if I was ok, something he had asked compulsively since we first met. I avoided all contact and hoped he wouldn’t take it personally. Any excitement I felt about leaving Europe had been completely shat on by the run-ins with TSA; both going and coming. In the car, I put my headphones on and zoned out; heart beating a mile a minute. 

Now I ran a hand down my face to shake off the memory, feeling awful for the tormented kid I once was. After dredging up the past, I now feared the impending trip more than ever before. Thankfully, following the explosion of 1D onto the global stage, I no longer had issues with TSA. They knew me as a frequent flyer and a model citizen, who rarely inspired a second glance from them these days. Even so, I couldn’t help but despair for the millions of other brown boys out there with similarly ethnic names, who would never be gifted the privilege of fame or money to ease their inequities.  

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