Context warning for: nudity.
“So you survived two semesters alone?”
Franco chuckled over the phone. “Don’t say that before finals are over, okay? But just imagine how good it’ll be with you,” he said. “It’s a lovely city. I’m watching the sunset right now.” The Bridgeport skies turned into a dusky gold as Franco ambled along the streets of Bridgeport, before ending up somewhere near the main bridge off to the hills. As much as he enjoyed a Twinbrook sunset, nothing so far beat watching it through a sea of skyscrapers.
“I hate being young.”
“It’s just your senior year after this,” he said. “Yours has to be better than mine…right?”
Hannah chuckled, but it took Franco a while to realize how lifeless it sounded. “Oh…of course. As long as I don’t sleep with anyone else and you don’t get me pregnant…right?”
“I’ll do my best with that,” he said. “Uh, do you mind giving me the time?”
“It’s ‘bout 8:30 here, which means it’s-”
Franco had to get to the Bridgeport Museum of Fine Art by 7PM, and it was 6:30 in Bridgeport. He ambled along the streets of the city to a place he couldn’t make sense of. He lived in the city since September, and by May, he still couldn’t navigate any of it! Even going from his apartment to the college required a map and fixing several wrong turns. And he just let himself take a walk to…
…wherever that was. Yes, it was near the water, but knowing that he was near the sea and on St. George Street didn’t help much. And wasn’t the museum on the other side of that small peninsula?
Franco looked up at the tattered billboard above him and sighed. If he kept walking, maybe he would find one of the underground stops and a map.
Only a block up was there a construction site. Since night was approaching, of course everyone had left the job. Franco looked over his shoulder to make sure, though. While he often saw that crane up in the sky wherever he was in the city, he never ventured to that side of town. Unlike the rest of Bridgeport, it had its own eerie silence. Even the motor buzz of a taxi whizzing by was rare on that street.
He heard some rustling, and wanted to brush it off. Anywhere else in Bridgeport, and he wouldn’t have cared at all. But it stuck out, like the sound of a falling object in the dark.
Against his best reasoning, Franco continued on the sidewalk, until one skinny little man stopped him.
Drop your wallet!
He couldn’t have been more than half of Franco’s size, but he wielded a gun. His hands shook with the weapon in them, and the barrel shifted from being aimed at Franco to being aimed at a bush.
“Just give me your fucking money,” he snarled, even if his voice still cracked a bit.
Franco through his hands up, though hesitantly. “I’m not carrying anything,” he said. Even if he hid a roll of cash in his sweater-vest. “What else could you want from me?”
“Empty your pockets, there’s gotta be somethin’! Because…because I can still put a fucking hole in you.”
He pretended to dig around, but wondered what good it would do. Franco needed that cash. Maybe not all of it, but he still had to catch a subway to the art museum due to his oversight. And he’d be damned if he went down like his father did, paralyzed from a shot in the gut. It looked like that’s where the gun was aimed.
The young tramp’s patience seemed to wear thin. His face twitched as Franco ran out of places to look.
Franco could have crushed him like the loathsome insect he was. Weighing 270 pounds had a few advantages, like that. But he waffled with the decision. It could be a few seconds before the little tramp put Franco in the same place Bill once was. However, Franco spent so long trying not to be the typical Waverly-Racket. No crime, no guns, and for him, no crushing.
He was saved by someone beating him to the punch.
The attacker was on all-fours and in pain, thanks to one bystander. Franco caught a glimpse of that bystander, as he was leaving the building they were near, but his shirt and tie looked too nice to get dirty. But no matter who it was, he held the gun instead, and pointed it away from Franco.
After staring down the barrel of his own gun, the young mugger scampered off, leaving Franco with a different kind of stranger.
His breathing was a little heavy. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” he said.
Franco was still frozen in place. “How…why…is this your job or something?”
“Nah, but it’s what I deserve for living here,” the other man said. “Are you new to this city?”
“Well, I shouldn’t be.”
“Too bad no one told you that St. George Street is terrible after dusk.”
The man looked off into the distance, quirking up an eyebrow. “I have a lot of problems with how this place treats youths.” Franco didn’t even bring up that the guy looked no older than 25 himself.
“Look, I’d love to learn more, but I need to get to the Bridgeport Museum of Fine Art,” said Franco, wringing his hands together. “I mean…if there’s a point. I’ll be late anyways.”
He looked almost as nervous as Franco when he turned around again. “Oh…I think your best bet is the stop on Covino Street. It’s about two blocks down. Uh, Green Line to Evergreen Boulevard is probably the route.”
“Thanks,” Franco muttered. As he left, it hurt him to think that the strange man in the shirt and tie was one of the only people to have helped him in Bridgeport. And to think more that he hoped to never have to meet him again.
It wasn’t long later that Franco, with a free morning, woke up bright and early to get a London Fog at his favorite local cafe. He dressed in a casual polo and hoped for a day of hot drinks and people-watching in the closest park.
That was what city life (outside of school) had turned into for him, even when Bridgeport was a giant and loud place.
Even the cafe tested his limits, as many people crowded inside for coffee and lattes and those delicious handmade bagels. But Franco could have easily waited for his drink and then scrammed.
Instead, he heard a familiar voice. Was it a classmate? He had trouble placing it, and the mystery would bug him if he left it unsolved.
So Franco took a seat at one of the tables inside, and listened to a fight.
“I’m not having you screw over another tenant like that! And I never wanted to bring this up in public, but you left me with no other choice.”
“You can’t evict me under Clallam state laws for knocking up-”
“Shut your mouth, lawyer boy. It’s about the missed rent and trying to be some sort of neighborhood vigilante and…yes, this.”
Franco tried to watch only in passing glances, pausing to stare down into the foamy steamed milk at the top of his London Fog. But he did get the picture. One tall, imposing landlady. He would kill for her biceps. One young woman in a summer dress, with a hand resting on her protruding belly. She must have been the one knocked up by…a well-dressed, slender Asian man. Possibly Vietnamese, possibly Hmong. Or both? You could be both, right?
He looked like such an un-threatening dork, in his untucked polo shirt and clean leather shoes. And a dork like Franco, in his favorite polo shirt and leather shoes that day too, had no qualms saying that about another man.
“Do I have to use my law student voice? None of this breaks my lease. I paid my outstanding dues. It’s covered under self-defense laws. And there hasn’t been a paternity test done anyways.”
Franco finally got a look at his face.
He wasn’t going to be the guy who thought that all Asians looked the same. Hannah would chew Franco out for that with no hesitation. But there was no doubt in his mind that he had run into the same man who protected him from the mugger. Every detail was in place. The way his hair was coiffed to the right, his slight underbite and slack jaw, and his incongruous American drawl.
The landlady crossed her arms. “You forgot the clause that allows me to evict you after three consecutive late payments. I’ve let you slide for five.”
“I don’t give a damn, Seng!” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “30 days, starting now. And you know what the school will hear if you mess up again.”
At her last sentence, Seng fled the shop.
Franco, trying to stay light on his feet, followed him outside. Seng was close to the door and pressed a phone up to his ear.
“Come on, you gotta have a clerk there,” he muttered, rubbing his temples in frustration. “You warned me of Saturday shifts-”
“Just for the record, I think she was stepping out of line too, bringing all of that into public” Franco said to Seng.
“Fuck, no court’s gonna listen to a law student about this. And I’d rather talk now than later.”
“You realize I’m here right now, right?”
Seng clenched his fists. “Fine, if I go to Newman & Newman instead, then so be it. He began to storm off until Franco raised his voice.
“HEY! Maybe I don’t want to see you so frustrated like this.”
And yet again, they locked eyes.
“…holy shit,” Seng said, in a low tone. “It’s you again.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Franco asked, sneering.
“Look, I was gonna ask you when we first met, but…I don’t know what you are.”
“I wish I knew too.”
Seng scratched the back of his neck. “Well…are you gonna mess with my perceptions of the world as I know it? Better than getting evicted.” He emitted a nervous laugh. “Man, I am so screwed.”
“I…I wish I could help,” Franco said. “I live a nice life here, but everyone deserves a home and help.”
“Stop trying to flatter y–actually, do you mind doing a guy a favor and getting me an Americano? I came here for one and it’ll be pretty awkward facing my landlady and the babymomma again.”
Franco gave him a cheerful smile. “It’s the least I can do.”
He and Seng spent a lot more time together that day than planned. Franco thanked anything that his classes were over for the summer, or else it wouldn’t have been worth it at the time. Because at least that day, Seng was still a near-stranger. But they got a little closer as Franco learned more about him.
Born and raised near Lake Mishigamaa and Brew City, though his extended Hmong family was scattered across Laos, China, Thailand, and Vietnam. Third of four children. His two older siblings were delinquents, shitheads, and Seng’s parents wanted to try a little harder for him. They were proud, even if Seng was up to his ears in debt after only one year of law school.
He was trying to get an apprenticeship with Frederick Smith, a small criminal lawyer in town. Seng’s phone call was to his office, for any ounce of help. Otherwise, he just did his best to stay afloat in a difficult school program. His favorite things were good friends, good beer, and regular 10K races. He was trying hard to get below 50 minutes for the last item. And he was always up for gaining more of the first, which he said while meaningfully gesturing to Franco.
It was nighttime when they got to Franco’s place, and when he offered to let Seng stay the night. Though he failed to warn him about the faulty elevator door. It got stuck and Seng ended up stumbling to the ground after trying to push the door open.
Franco was fine with it for a night. Maybe even several, but he first promised himself that he wasn’t going to let Seng be a permanent roommate. Not even one for a year. Loneliness in his flat was fine. It had only one bedroom anyways, and if he had to share it, it was going to be with Hannah in a year or so. Not with a near-stranger.
“And I welcome you to my humble abode,” Franco said, waving an arm. Even he saw the irony. It cost $3,000 a month in rent, which was a small price to pay for a Waverly, but not for many others. But in spite of the price tag, it was still a small place. 350 square feet to contain a living room, easels, a dining table, and a small kitchen. The bedroom and bathroom were a different matter, but still not exactly spacious. The prime real-estate and stellar view of the city was its selling point.
“Interesting choice, rich boy,” Seng said.
Franco gave an unusual toothy grin. “But isn’t it so great?”
Seng raised an eyebrow. “You live in this great place alone? My old place had one window and leaking pipes and I still could barely afford it by myself,” he said. His eyes darted over to Franco’s easels, where one finished painting was propped up. “So you are serious about being a painter.”
“And I’m very proud of that.” Franco was quick to defend that blue painting. It got some mediocre remarks at the gallery showing some days prior, being cited as “soulless”. A lot of his paintings got that criticism. There seemed to be a lack of background and identity and struggle behind what he did. It was almost like it came from a privileged rich boy.
It wasn’t a problem that Franco preferred not to drag his mother’s drama into art. And it shouldn’t have been a problem that Franco had few of his own that he was willing to make public. It just felt wrong to drag the dead into it, even if Franco could get countless paintings over loss of his own. Shark and dad and Carmen, and his mum’s casualties…
…not to mention that culture and identity were the big winning messages of the student art that people praised. And Franco was just in the dark about his own. Again, not his problem.
“I like it. Was it for a special someone?” Seng asked him.
“I had her in mind, yes.” It was a painting of a heterosexual couple holding hands on a bridge. “But it was for class. I tried a little harder with it…say, do you like cinnamon buns?”
“Holy fuck, it’s been months since I’ve had one,” Seng said. “But I’ll only eat them fresh.”
“Not a problem,” Franco said. He got out his phone to send Annette a quick message.
Yes, Franco learned about one way to take advantage of his mother’s otherwise hated antics. She might have been a wretched thief, murderer, and apparently was wanted on an interstellar scale for her ring. But that ring could send her to Bridgeport in a flash, and Franco could save the trouble of eating out or cooking for himself (god forbid) by asking nicely.
They were chatting at the table with mugs of tea when the room filled with a bright blue flash. It took a while to prepare those buns, and Seng kept bothering Franco about whatever crazy he scheme he had to get fresh pastries. But after an hour, Franco got his wish.
The light and smoke cleared, and one happy Annette stood there, holding a plate of sticky buns up. She brought Sagebear with her, and the dog stretched out after the rough beaming there. “You’re lucky I had some dough prepared. Samira begs for these all the time,” Annette said. “And I thought I’d give Sagebear a taste of the city for once.”
“Thanks mum,” Franco said. He looked over at Seng, who didn’t seem so thankful.
He held up his hands in fear or surrender. “Christ, what was that?!” he asked the both of them. “That’s your mum?”
“I know that he looks just like his dad,” Annette said. “You must be one of Franco’s friends.”
“I guess I am.”
Franco clasped his hands together, composing himself. “Mum, this is Seng Thao. And Seng, this is my mum, Annette Racket.”
Seng then gingerly shook her hand, and took a sniff of the cinnamon buns. “I like you already, Ms. Racket.”
“And is there a reason I should like you?” she asked him.
“Well, I’m the first in my family to go to college.”
“Study anything useful?”
“I’m in law school. That had to count for-”
“I like you too.”
Annette and Seng bonded fast after that. They both had strong opinions about the best IPAs and whether they enjoyed Schwarzbier or not. Annette loved it, and Seng would take a red ale over it any day. He poked fun at her for having trouble beating an hour at her best 10K, but Annette reminded Seng that she was short and old. And with a heavy heart, Seng had to admit that most of his family’s recipes were passed down orally, so getting them to Annette would be a hassle.
As for Franco…he just listened. It was an innocent and friendly side of his mum that he rarely saw. And as long as Seng was enjoying the conversation, then Franco was fine with it.
Plus, those buns were always to die for.
“This is a party city,” Annette said. “Seng, are you a party animal?”
“Don’t tell my professors,” he said, with a laugh. “It almost looks like you guys would know the best events up in the hills here.”
Franco shook his head no, but Annette interjected fast. “Every Saturday there’s this one amazing party thrown by none other than the Matthew Hamming. He gave me an invite last time I was here, but motherly duties called…are you in?”
They both gave a knowing look to Franco, who nearly choked on the last of his cinnamon bun when they started talking about parties.
“Come on, let’s have some fun tonight!”
They hailed a taxi up to the hills, which took them to a modern-looking mansion. It was just the place to expect a movie star. Franco was star-struck for a split-second when the gate opened, but it turned to sharp nausea once she saw Annette start to unbutton her ripped jeans.
“Mum, please don’t tell me that this is one of those parties,” he said, in a queasy voice. Seng just watched in mild interest at his new friend’s mother, stripped down to her underwear and striking a confident pose.
“It’s a big place. You can easily avoid me,” Annette said to Franco. “Plus, it has to be dreadful not living with Hannah and not getting any.”
“That is no excuse!” Franco snapped at her. “Ugh. You make me sick.”
Matthew answered the door, and Annette shot him a seductive grin. In any other context, Franco would feel fine. He wouldn’t do Matthew Hamming, but he could appreciate the guy’s body when he was shirtless. It worked when he was watching the climax of Thousandfold Empires. And the topless woman holding onto his arm as no one to stick his nose up at either.
“Well, blue woman, you finally got in,” Matthew said. “Everyone’s upstairs…are these your guests?”
“My son and a friend. They seemed eager to join in.” Franco furrowed his brows even further.
“I’ll deal with them. There’s food in the dining room and condoms scattered everywhere if you need them.”
Franco averted his gaze, but Seng didn’t bolt inside either. He fidgeted in place, bit his lip, and muttered a few confused “uh’s” and “um’s”.
“I don’t care what you do. I just want you to be safe,” Franco said, grumbling.
Seng then turned around. “You know what, I’ll ditch this. Maybe I can show you something you’d like better?”
“No sex parties, no flashing lights,” Franco said.
“You like beer?”
“Well, we can’t be friends unless you find a brew you like.”
Seng’s favorite spot was the Bridgeport Football Club, which showed soccer matches and served a delicious array of European brews. Franco tried not to budge, but Seng wore him down enough into paying for beer, whether he liked it or not.
“Can we please leave?” Franco asked, not ten minutes into the excursion. He leaned over the counter and pouted. “The menu doesn’t even look that great.”
Seng tore himself from the conversation with the attractive woman in the miniskirt, and swiveled his barstool around. “I know this menu well…I’ll help you. Do you like to drink anything?”
“…I’ve only tried wine.”
“Did you like it?”
Franco had to wrack his memory. It had been so long since he had his first and last drink, laughing through a bottle of wine he shared with a dead girl. And yet, it had been just five years prior too. For a moment, it mortified Franco to think of what had changed in that time. Samira and Julian were little more than tiny embryos, and he still had Carmen. And Shark. And Bill.
But its flavor and feeling down his throat was so rich and warming and good, not unlike coffee.
“Yes, I did.”
“You might want a Flemish red, then. They have a couple here.”
Franco ended up having two or three Rodenbachs, and Seng followed too. He couldn’t see straight himself, but even then, Seng looked like he’d topple over. And they both had a bad decision in them: follow it up with mediocre Heinekens.
It was late by the time Franco brought his new friend home, with Seng unable to walk upright without throwing an arm around Franco’s strong shoulders. He crashed on the couch and lived, and Franco stayed up all night awake in bed.
Even if he was drunk, it was the perfect time to draft up a lease in his head.
A/N: IT’S A RETURN TRIP BECAUSE TRIP HAS RETURNED-
I’m so glad to be back, but the hiatus was needed. I’ve done a lot in the meantime. 🙂
So if it wasn’t clear, this takes place about a year before Chapter 59 does. Hence Annette’s face being intact.
Brew City is a nickname for Milwaukee, and Michigan gets its state name from the Ojibwa word “mishigamaa”, hence Lake Michigan getting that name in the Cicadas world. Seng’s birthplace is intentional, as Wisconsin has one of the biggest Hmong populations in the United States.