I headed for the black silk dress with spaghetti straps. A man held it out at arm’s length and told the salesgirl, “I’ll think about it,” handed it back and walked away. I rushed over as she was putting it back on the rack. “How much?”
“Okay, I’ll take it.”
I went to the cash register and took out my wallet. The man reappeared. “You’re buying it?”
He was wiry and animated. His smile sprouted into creases and angles, plucked eyebrows, black leather jacket, black horn-rimmed glasses, bat-black hair falling in random directions below his jaw line, dead white skin.
“You’re buying it?” he said again.
Something about his face made me smile. “He who hesitates— Did you really want it?”
“I was thinking about it.”
“Well, if you’re lucky, you can see me wear it on New Year’s Eve.”
“Really? What are you doing for New Year’s Eve?”
“Who were you buying it for?”
He didn’t answer.
“You wanted it for yourself, right?”
He grinned— “You’re really pretty.”
New Year’s eve he shows up at my door in black Prada, I’m in velvet. We’re dancing with his thigh between my legs. He lifts his shirt, revealing pierced nipples. He kisses me and a tongue stud knocks against my teeth. The rest of the night we’re dancing, kissing and laughing, drinking champagne at the bar. “Hello—” he says, giving me a lap dance, sliding his hand up my leg. He reaches into his pocket and takes out a lipstick. “I bought this today. Can you put it on me?”
“Hmm…Cinnabar.” I slide the lipstick over his mouth—“Impish leather boy,” I say, outlining one leaping cheekbone with the tip of my finger, “Crow morphed into man, creature of bark…You’re attracted to women who wear your dress size.”
That grin again.
We get back to my place at dawn, drink Bordeaux, smoke clone, roll around like cats. I fall over next to him and watch him lie there with his eyes closed, grinning. For an instant he looks familiar, but I can’t place him. He’s morphing: Hedy Lamar, Susan Hayward, Garbo. The name doesn’t fit. Henry.
This is how it happens.
I fall into a hole in the couch and land in Heaven, which is a Byzantine church at the top of the Spanish Steps.
She said she wanted a green couch and didn’t particularly care what kind. She was paying and said I could choose so I found one in soft Italian leather, forest green, and knew it was okay when I saw the bewilderment behind her glasses. That was the first time I ever saw that look. It was charming. Now I know it’s just a sign that she’s relatively sober and gives me permission—it’s my turn to be in charge.
I’m lying on the green leather couch, dreaming that I’m falling down a hole, trying to grab onto something and a backache wakes me into the living room. I’m aware of a mute irritation trying to pull me back to the dream. The green couch, like her bewilderment, is both reassuring and uncomfortable.
She’s passed out. Words hang from the ceiling like ghostly goo:
“Goddammit, take your fucking money and shove it up your puny ass, Candice!”
Stella hates it when Candice and I fight. Candice always brings her into the argument, no matter what it’s about and shouts me down when I try to stop her. Last night she called Stella a fat-assed bitch. No one’s ever spoken to Stella like that, no matter how fucked up. Stella grabbed her backpack and ran out of her room, escaping into the night to Michelle’s, her mother, who she calls “Mother-Gothness.” She takes total advantage of Michelle’s laid back junkie routine. Whenever Michelle tries to clean up her act it’s hell, but that’s not very often. Most of the time she doesn’t even remember whose house Stella’s supposed to be staying at. Who knows what Stella’s walked in on.
I take two Nembutals, go into Stella’s room and slam the door. I flip on the TV and drift off in the middle of an all-night Planet of the Apes marathon. I wake up, reaching for Candice and knock over the stack of books that Stella uses as a night table.
I prop myself up, aim the remote and flip through the channels. Someone preaches God’s love in a suit and tie, Jane Fonda’s carefully soiled face gazes into a Technicolor sky, Moses faces the Red Sea, a mule train is lost in the Andes.
The Public Access station shows an upside-down head with a red mouth. It has painted-on eyes and a doll’s wig resting on the chin. It’s loud and vulgar, talking non-stop while a hand feeds it string beans from a can faster than it can chew and swallow.
Stella doesn’t allow smoking in her room. My head is throbbing. I light a joint and get up to get some nighttime aspirin from the bathroom then fall onto the couch.
A slight draft releases the odor of stale beer and cigarettes from the bedroom. Candice is dreaming perfect cities, moving through them with clean precision. She wakes and reaches for me, grunts at my absence and goes back to sleep.
She wakes often, usually wanting some combination of nicotine and sex. After three or four pulls on a cigarette she drifts back to sleep, her hand hanging over the side of the bed. I turn on one raised elbow to see if she’s asleep. She murmurs, “It’s okay.” One night I’ll wake up choking, trapped in a shapeless blaze.
A few minutes ago I heard her stir. She walked out of the bedroom to take a piss. Except for broad, sinewy shoulders she looks almost skeletal, pulled along by the buoyancy of her breasts, which are cartoon perfect on her thin silhouette. Once, long ago, I watched her stretched above me, fiercely beautiful and breathless. I said things I immediately wanted to call back—how she looked like a goddess and I couldn’t think of any other way to put it and I wished I knew her when I was eighteen and I wanted to be eighteen for her. She said twenty-two wasn’t all that different and anyway she felt embarrassed. I asked why, expecting her to say she was embarrassed for me saying such a corny thing, but she said it was because she didn’t feel worthy. I was a little relieved.
The next five minutes could be the beginning of what? Marathon sex? Days of talking to the side of her face? Here she comes, back from the bathroom. She disappears into the bedroom again without a word, doesn’t even look at me. She’s got me in a corner, firmly pressed up against the end of the world and when I’ve had enough I’ll push back and she’ll rise up, cornered, and I’ll let her do what she does because it’s all okay again when I touch her, when all of what happens after that happens.
And this is how we do, back and forth, like we’re accumulating evidence for some future crime. Anyway, I just might end this whole stupid farce once and for all—start over in a small cheap apartment, play Sufi chants loud at 4 a.m., candle wax on the table, things stuck on the wall with tape, condoms in the night table drawer.
I’m standing at the window smoking, watching snow fall down the dark airshaft. I bend down so I can see the breach of white sky above the brick wall, lit by the sources of light a city gathers around itself. I think about what distance was before I had words. I remember the exact moment the world dropped its walls. My mother carried me to a window and pointed at the street—“See Henry? There’s your sisters getting on the school bus…See? There’s the school bus...See?” I thought I was looking out at another room. I couldn’t really identify school bus—couldn’t see, no matter how much my mother pointed. ButI kept on looking, nodding, trying to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
Back to the couch, the window, the couch, my ancient fear of the dark. If I don’t move maybe I’ll fall asleep. Here comes that creepy first light when morning comes too soon. Still—it’s a relief. It must be about an hour since I heard the crumple of the pack, the match, the smell of her cigarette.
I slip in, careful not to wake her, look at her face, touch my cheek to the smooth narrow chest, feel her rapid heartbeat beneath the tenderness of bone. The first time she looked at me I saw the arrow go right in. It supposedly goes through the heart but the wound was in her eyes—bewildered, listening to me talk about how I wanted to go to North Africa. “So...am I going to have to follow you? To Morocco?” she said, clasping my wrist. It was the first time she pressed me with her long angry fingers that way that every time since has brought me some kind of beautiful death, wanting her to strangle me so I could feel the white nothing, her strength, the wall between life and death disintegrating in her hands.
She always did what she said she would. We drove around for weeks, starting in Tangier, all the way to Ouarzazate. Sex, food, architecture, books. Without ever saying so, we agreed on their importance. When we ran out of books we checked the guidebooks and drove to the closest town with an English language bookstore, Agadir. It reminded me of Miami. Cement and glass ramparts built against the sea, pizza joints, big-assed women in sequined sweats. We stayed in a small hotel outside the city. It was off a main road lined with gas stations, video stores, and places selling cheap furniture. There was a tiny stagnant pool that no one used. A boy spent the afternoon cleaning the scum around the perimeter with a toothbrush. Moroccan soldiers from a nearby army base gathered at the hotel bar on Friday nights. She said our only option was to stay five days until our reservation in Essaouira was available. I checked the guidebook and found a remote auberge up in the Atlas Mountains run by a French woman—a much better place to wait before moving on to Essaouira. She got pissy and said it only rated two stars and that no less than three, preferably four, were acceptable. I said the rating system was arbitrary and inconsistent and, anyway, wanted to be closer to the heart of things—we could give up a little comfort. She wanted to know what the fuck I was talking about. Hadn’t she taken me to palaces, treated me in a style that anyone with a brain would think was great? She reminded me that she wasn’t twenty anymore, and even though she was fifteen years older than me, I was already twenty-eight and should stop acting like an adolescent. I had to hear the backpacking thing again, bedbugs, sleeping in airports. She was past that. She pulled my passport and return ticket out of her bag and threw them on the bed, threatened to leave me there and go on by herself. She called me an ungrateful asshole. We argued loudly in the middle of a large square. People turned and watched. Women snickered behind their veils, men laughed openly. She kept walking in long strides fifty feet ahead while I tried to catch up and straighten things out.
Which they inevitably are. I can never predict when or why, but she always comes around and we both fall into some kind of love haze, or murk or poisonous fog—something along those lines.
She turns onto her side, cuddles closer, and throws her arms around me. Without releasing me she reaches across for the cigarettes, pulls one from the pack and lights it. Her steady breathing lulls me back to sleep. I startle awake to the lengthened ash about to join the map of burn marks on the floor, take it from her fingers and stub it out. Then I’m lying there wanting a cigarette, but rarely smoke in bed. I prefer smoking at the window where it’s quiet, staring at the bricks until I don’t see them, until I forget that I’m thinking. That weird blueness outside is making me want to go out where I can walk and smoke in the empty streets. I throw on jeans and a tee shirt, slide on cowboy boots. I don’t bother with socks.
On Broadway the lights change from red to green, the only witness besides me is a seagull shadowing a car. Half a block further on Canal Street gulls circle the Chinese fish market, which won’t open for another two hours. I walk east avoiding the dug up sidewalk bordered by hills of newspaper and Big Mac containers, then turn down Mott to Mee Sum Mee. I walk into a vapor of coffee, vanilla and frying scallions and take a red Naugahyde booth. I order coffee with cream, no sugar, and a steamed pork bun. A red and gold altar hangs in back with long sticks of sandalwood smoking from a brass burner and cutout dragons spitting electric fire. A couple of men sit at a Formica table, reading the Chinese newspaper and smoking. Some of the waiters sit around a big table with a giant mound of ground pork in the center. Between drags on their cigarettes they’re laughing and talking, lifting globs of raw meat with their chopsticks and folding them into won-ton skins. My coffee and bun arrive and I wish I’d bought a newspaper. I look around and exchange nods with the waiters. I don’t understand any of the conversations around me and that’s fine.
Rising above the Chinese I hear: “Black coffee, no shugah,” the inflection mildly slurred, Boston Irish. I turn and see Harry Moon standing at the counter in a green army jacket and jeans. I wait for him to see me, but he’s negotiating coffee and a bun so I walk over.
He smiles, his teeth protruding from under his handlebar mustache—some black hairs, mixed in with the gray, the same raw chin, the awkward, melancholic laugh. He’d gotten a case of frostbite in the Korean War, which left his feet smelling like bad cheese. Twenty years ago he phoned his wife from the Oyster Bar at Grand Central—there was a five-year-old daughter who they’d named after a famous French slut— he told her that he was through with advertising and wasn’t coming home. That was the beginning of a two-decade bender—a steady stream of confused women and lost boys. He once got hit by a bus and lived. There was something of Rasputin about him.
He could be nasty, but it was never physical. The nastiness would peak, and you knew he would shortly black out—a Darwinian adaptation to his environment. You could see it coming: precisely aimed, head-fucking bombs dropped on complete strangers, violence—never in his favor. It happened so often as to seem the point. The bouncer usually threw him out onto the sidewalk, where he’d crumple into a drooling heap. A rogue. A loyal knight.
The last time he called, about twelve years ago, was from the Kenmore Hotel at 4 a.m., the same room he’d checked into after he left the Oyster Bar. He said he was sitting on his bed with a loaded shotgun pointed at the door waiting for the CIA who would be there any minute—he was going to blow their brains out. Aside from that, the real reason he was calling was that he’d met Luca Fratelli at a party and I should tell Michelle he could get her a show at Fratelli’s gallery. It wasn’t bullshit so much as a way to be important in my life.
We shake hands. “I can’t believe it. Harry—I thought you were dead...I was sure you were dead by now.”
“No, man...here in the flesh...we’ll have no ghosts here.” He sips a laugh through the little space between his upper teeth and lower lip and throws his arm around my shoulder...”You’re not dead either, my boy…”
“What are you doing down here?”
“…Yes, very much alive.”
“Barely. What are you doing down here?”
“Wandering a bit. I just left a friend’s loft on Division Street, thought I’d get a cup of coffee and…you know…something to keep the blood happy.”
“I’m sitting over there.”
The coffee is thick with circles of cream floating on top.
“You are one mystifying kid. You still...
“Beautiful, the same, beautiful.”
“I’m not the same. Well, the same...but not the same.”
“What about Michelle?”
“We split—nine years ago. She’s a brilliant artist—right? But so what? I thought of us old, rocking on some publicly funded porch upstate, her still shooting up, trying to get clean, flipping out. So I ended it. Like that. I wanted something else. Then I met Candice. Now I feel like I have to… I don’t know. Michelle. There’s history. We hang out sometimes. I don’t know what I’m trying to say, Harry. There’s a lot. I always had this idea, you know—walk around the world, every continent. A boat or two, like at the Bering Straits. I’ve checked it on a map...”
We watch my finger plow through the crumbs. “Southern France to Santiago de Compostella, south to Gibraltar, boat to Morocco, walk the Northern Coast through Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, avoid Libya...down through the Sahara, camel through Mali, Sudan, Zaire, Ethiopia, along the coast to Somalia, Rwanda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique—”
“You memorized the map!”
“I’m obsessed. I bought Stella this globe…”
“Those are some hairy places.” He’s laughing.
“It’s been done. Keep a low profile. You know, stay neutral.”
“That could backfire. Literally. You’d probably end up getting fucked back there by a large group of Saracens lost in the desert on their way to Mali.”
“Isabella Eberhardt did it. Dressed in drag. Nobody fucked with her. Maybe I should wear a burkah.”
“Are you kidding? Ha ha… Did she really pass or were those nomads just being polite?”
“It takes a totally untamed intelligence—”
“—or complete stupidity—”
“—to construct, let alone maintain, a lie like that.”
“Will you marry me?”
“Sure—how much money you got?”
“Everyone on the planet’s changed but you, Henry. Let’s run away. Everything in this country’s too fast, too big, I’m left in the dust. People in their thirties think I’m a little off. People in their twenties treat me like a piece of amusing history. Teenagers think I’m, heh, heh, mythological. No one gets it—no one has any idea. But you—you’re the same. Just like—”
“Thirteen years ago.”
“Thirteen? Shit—is it thirteen? Already? The same old Henry—crossing continents in a woman’s djellaba.”
I’m thinking that having a kid when you’re fifteen isn’t exactly the road to Zanzibar. Then—there’s this thing Harry does whenever I’m feeling full of shit— like he’s read my mind—he laughs, he straightens his back, speaking his high Boston Brahmin then lets out a reckless cackle. It’s honest to goodness amusement and there isn’t a speck of ridicule, so I let him get away with it.
“Noo, noo, noo, my dear. You don’t have to fall into that bullshit, Henry.” His voice ricochets against the tiles. A Chinese woman, alone in the next booth, turns around, chopsticks in mid-air.
“ ‘Unrealized genius destroyed by a hormone moment.’ Come on, you know that’s nowhere...you must get off this self-pity bullshit.” He reaches for my arm. “Look at me, haha...how do you think I do it? Why do you think I’ve kept the same room for twenty years? It’s changed from a low-key cheap hotel to a municipal tit. Nathaniel West got smashed on Jack Daniels there—Dashiell Hammet. Now it’s a crack convention hall. But like I always say, ‘Live like you still have your whole life ahead of you.’ ”
“Does anyone read Nathaniel West anymore?”
“Does anyone read anymore?”
The population outside the window is multiplying.
“Want to go up to the park?”
“Yeah. Let’s move.”
The sun is higher. It sprawls over the streets like it’s June. Fruit and vegetable vendors fill the streets—fishmongers, curried squid stalls, tables laid out with cheap socks and tiger balm. The snow is almost melted. We go down the subway stairs against the rush hour and head for Central Park.
Bonny Finberg's chapbook of short stories, How the Discovery of Sugar Produced the Romantic Era was published by Sisyphus Press. Her work appears in Evergreen Review, four Unbearables Anthologies and Lost and Found: New York Stories from Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. In Paris she has contributed to Le Purple Journal and Van Gogh's Ear. She has been translated into French, Hungarian and Japanese. She recently finished her first novel, Kali's Day.