When I come home from Paula’s dinner party, Phillip is still awake, sitting up in bed, contemplating a book. I know from experience that he is not reading.
He doesn’t look at me, but furrows his brow and stares intently at the splayed pages, as if reading is very hard work. After enjoying this charade for a moment, he makes a display of turning back the corner of a page—something, of course, a real reader would never do—and closes the book. He watches me undress and says, “How was it?
I can feel his gaze upon me, assessing my girth. I turn sideways. “Oh, fairly dismal,” I say
“Fairly dismal,” is one of our descriptive catch phrases. The others are “adequate” (lifted from a time we dined with Phillip’s parents, and his father, after tasting the wine, declared it “adequate”) and “sick-making.”
“Was Paula drunk?” he asks.
“Of course,” I say. “Everyone was.”
“Except for me. How was your evening?”
“Quiet,” he says.
Since Phillip and I started dating—well, sleeping—with other men, many of our friends, including Paula, refuse to invite us both to their soirees. They think it’s hypocritical for us to reap the social benefits of coupledom whilst covertly enjoying romance (and sex) with others. Sour monogamous grapes.
“I sat next to Ramona,” I say.
“Oh, how is Ramona?”
“She’s fantastic,” I say. “Her word. She’s just emerged, incandescently, from rehab.”
“I’m not sure,” I say. “With Ramona, it could be just about anything, and she seemed to assume I knew, so I didn’t hazard a guess.”
“I’d like to go to rehab,” says Phillip.
“Oh, nothing in particular. But it changes you, doesn’t it? I’d like to be changed.”
I find this remark somewhat unnerving, and I am naked. “Can I turn out the light?” I ask.
Phillip looks up at the light, considering. At the present time in our relationship, any question like this, which involves a decision that affects us both, is fraught. “I suppose you might as well,” he says.
I do and get in bed. The bed seems to make more noise than necessary accommodating my weight, and I feel, irrationally, that it is in some ventriloquistic way expressing Phillip’s judgment. I am not fat. When the options on online profiles are SLIM/SWIMMERS/GYM FIT/BODYBUILDER/AVERAGE/SOME EXTRA/FAT, I can still tick the average box without perjuring myself. Before my accident, my body was different: I went to the gym. I wasn’t exactly GYM FIT but I was better than AVERAGE. In some ways, it’s a relief to be done with—to be banished from—all that. Phillip is still a citizen of that world. He ticks the GYM FIT box.
In bed we almost touch but don’t. We move so that the sheet moves and touches us. Then I reach out and touch Phillip, his neck. His tendon is mysteriously taught.
“She told me an awful story,” I say.
In an uninterested faux-sleepy fashion he asks who.
“Ramona,” I say.
“Forgive me, but I don’t want to hear Ramona’s awful story,” he says.
I smell the nape of his neck, and gently part his hair with my nose.
“There is something I should tell you,” Phillip says.
I want to say, Forgive me, but I don’t want to hear what you have to tell me, but I don’t. I don’t say anything. I just wait.
“It’s about Corsica,” says Phillip.
Phillip is renting a house in Corsica for the month of August, although of course he calls it a villa. I’m not going for a lot of reasons, but the official reason is that I can’t bear flying that far: sitting in an airplane seat for more than an hour makes my body spasm in agony. Phillip is going with his brother and his brother’s partner and his brother’s partner’s ex-boyfriend.
“What about Corsica?” I ask.
“I’m taking Caleb with me.”
Caleb is Phillip’s boyfriend.
“He’s never been out of the country,” Phillip adds.
“That’s hardly a reason to take him to Corsica,” I say. “Millions of people have never been out of the country.”
“You know I would like you to be there with me. But since you can’t, why shouldn’t Caleb come?”
I realize that if you have to argue with your partner about him taking his boyfriend along on his vacation, it isn’t really worth arguing about, so I say nothing.
“And plus,” Phillip says, “this would be a good chance for you to get your life in order.”
“What do you mean?” I make the mistake of asking him.
“Well,” he says, “you seem at loose ends. Maybe you can try to find a job.”
Phillip is a partner in the law firm where he has seamlessly worked since graduating from law school. People who have jobs don’t understand how impossible it is to get one. Employability, like lovability, is a trait that must remain active; if extinguished, the pack senses your failure and turns its back on you.
“I’ve been looking for a job,” I say. “It isn’t easy, you know.”
“I know,” says Phillip. “But it isn’t impossible, either.” He guides my hand gently from his taught neck to his solar plexus and holds it there. I can feel his heart beating. He pushes himself back against me, and I think of drivers parallel parking in the street, how they gently make contact with the car behind them, and then pull forward, placed.
The next day I see Caleb at the acupuncturist. Caleb is young—he claims to be 25 in his profile—and rather attractive in that messy, organic way that works for certain younger people. Eventually he will look a mess, but it hasn’t happened yet. He’s wearing an ironic thrift-store shirt and cargo shorts and cowboy boots. He points his pointy feet outwards, like a dancer, which he isn’t.
We are the only ones in the waiting room. Except for the fish in the aquarium and the bird in the cage. It’s that kind of acupuncturist—the waiting room cluttered with flora and fauna, in an effort, no doubt, to suggest that life here is appreciated and successfully sustained. The sign on the entrance door says:
DR. AUGUSTUS YEE, M.D., L.Ac., LMT
HOLLY AMBERGIS, N.C., C.N.C.
Yet the fish seem bored and the bird is sullen. The plants could use a good dusting.
“Fancy meeting you here,” says Caleb.
“Didn’t I tell you about Dr. Yee?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, “you did.”
“Well then, you can hardly fancy meeting me here.”
“Of course I can,” he says. “I can fancy anything I want.” Caleb is one of those people who say everything with the same benignly pleasant intonation. He speaks as if the world is a Romper Room and he is Miss Nancy. “Did Phillip tell you about my new job?” he asks.
“No,” I say. “Phillip and I don’t discuss our lovers.”
“Do you have a lover?” He stands up and bothers the bird, which ignores him.
I lie and say yes. I realize he’ll ask Phillip and Phillip will tell him that I don’t have a lover, but that will be later and this is now. Or perhaps by then I may have a lover.
Caleb turns away from the bird and gives me an I-know-you-don’t-have-a-lover look. It’s a look I’ve been getting often lately, even from strangers on the street. “I’m working at Athos Papadiamantopoulous’s new bookstore,” Caleb says. “Actually, I’m managing Athos Papadiamantopoulous’s new bookstore, but that sounds like bragging.”
“Who’s Athos Papadiamantopoulous?” I ask.
“You don’t know who Athos Papadiamantopoulous is?”
“Apparently not,” I say.
“You should. He owns the Papadiamantopoulous Gallery on 25th Street. And he’s just opened this bookstore in Dumbo. It’s called 100 Books. We only carry 100 books at a time and only one copy of each book. For one-hundred dollars.”
“Are they editions of one?”
“Oh, no. I mean some of them might be scarce or rare, but not necessarily. The idea isn’t about books as commodity. It’s about books as artifacts. As art.”
“Interesting,” I say. Sick-making is what I think.
“We choose a different person to curate the collection every fortnight,” Caleb says.
“Yes. Biweekly. Or is it semi-weekly? Every other week. Every two weeks. You’re a writer or something, aren’t you? Would you be interested in curating a collection? I could suggest you to Athos if you are. It wouldn’t be for a while, though—we’re pretty booked up for the next year or two.”
“I’m not a writer,” I say.
“Oh, I thought you were. Aren’t you something with books?”
“I was an editor.”
“Oh, right—of a magazine or something, right?”
“Yes,” I say. “Performance Art Today.”
“It’s a daily?”
“No,” I say. “It was a quarterly.”
“Then shouldn’t it be called Performance Art Quarterly?”
“You’re absolutely right, but it’s a moot issue. It folded several years ago.”
“What do you do now?” Caleb asks.
“What do I do?”
“Yes,” says Caleb. “What do you do? Now?”
“Lots of things,” I say. “I talk to you for instance.”
Caleb laughs, as if this is very clever.
“But what about you? I didn’t know you were a fellow denizen of the literary world. I thought you were a skateboarder or something like that.”
“Ha-ha,” says Caleb. “I could actually have turned pro if I’d wanted. Or still could, for that matter. But, no—I was an English Major at CCNY.”
I happen to know that this is a line that Barbra Streisand sang in her Broadway debut as Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get it for You Wholesale but I’m not sure if Caleb is quoting it or not. Could he really have been an English Major at CCNY? Does CCNY still exist? More intriguingly, could he be a musical theater queen, and if so, does Phillip, an opera snob, know?
“I heard an awful story last night,” I say. I don’t know why I want to tell someone Ramona’s awful story, but I do. It’s like a curse I feel compelled to pass along. A hot potato.
“I love awful stories,” said Caleb. “I’m writing a book of awful stories. It’s like an anti-Bible. Full of stories that have no redeeming value at all. Stories that corrupt and degrade. Stories about sweet little girls in pinafores who get eaten alive by rats. I once saw a headline: ‘Tiny Tot Beauty Queen Attacked by Rabid Rat.’”
“That sounds very jolly,” I say, “compared to my awful story.”
“You’re very competitive, you know,” says Caleb. “You should work on that.”
Dr. Yee opens the door of his consulting room and looks out at us dolefully. Freeing people from their pain does not appear to make him the least bit happy. Even though I’m fairly certain my appointment is the earlier one, he calls Caleb in first.
I make sure I’m in the bathroom when Caleb emerges from the consulting room, because I don’t want to interact with him anymore. It upsets me. Dr. Yee’s office is one of the few places of refuge left for me in the increasingly difficult and inhospitable city, and I don’t know why I told Caleb about it. I have this awful need to endear myself to everyone, even my partner’s new boyfriend. The night I met Caleb, he was complaining about chronic pain in his left shoulder, a result of a recent skateboarding accident, so I immediately told him about Dr. Yee. I practically set up an appointment for him on the spot, so I have no one to blame but myself. I realize that I have no one to blame but myself for most of my problems, but that only makes them harder to bear. Blaming others is therapeutic, although Dr. Yee would disagree with that. He believes that pain is blame and anger and depression internalized, trapped in the branches of our nervous system, and the stimulation of acupuncture shakes free these clots. Sometimes Dr. Yee doesn’t even need needles. Sometimes he can do it with his bare hands.
I am trying to take responsibility for my problems. For instance, I no longer refer to the accident as the accident. I refer to it as my accident. Last fall I was driving home from New Haven after attending a symposium on Eva Le Gallienne and the Civic Repertory Theater. Actually, I wasn’t driving home after the symposium; I was driving home after the dinner that followed the symposium at which I had drunk at least a bottle of red wine. At some point between Greenwich and Danbury I realized I was driving into, not alongside, the concrete divider. The last thing I remember thinking was, Good, at least I’m not hurting anyone else. But I did. A young man named Hector Guzman Jimenez stopped his car on the shoulder and tried to cross the lanes of traffic and help me out of my burning car. He was hit and killed by a woman named Cornelia Hamelin. She broke six ribs and punctured a lung and needed major facial reconstructive surgery. I broke a lot of things, too, and was badly burned. And I have this pain.
Like many people who are deeply and mysteriously spiritual, Dr. Yee has an odd propensity toward kitsch: on the wall of his bathroom hangs a framed needlepoint sampler, on which the words THIS IS NOT THE ONLY WORLD are surrounded by flowered garlands and what appear to be windmills. Or perhaps Celtic crosses. And on top of the toilet tank, a beautiful plastic flamenco dancer conceals two extra rolls of toilet paper beneath her voluminous sateen skirt.
I can hear Caleb lurking in the waiting room, apparently waiting for me so he can say goodbye (antagonistically). But he gives up and leaves. I step out of the bathroom hesitantly, in case I am mistaken. I wouldn’t put it past Caleb to fake his exit and trap me.
Dr. Yee is standing just inside his open office door. He watches my timid emergence.
“You OK?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say.
I follow him into his office. “I heard an awful story last night,” I say.
“Please, no talking,” says Dr. Yee. “Just quiet.”
So I’m quiet. While he washes his hands, I undress and lie down on the table. A trace of Caleb’s warmth lingers. Perhaps his smell, too. One of our rules is that neither Phillip nor I is allowed to sleep with anyone in our own apartment. We do not “host.” We “travel.” But like many rules, I think this one has been broken, because the warm scent of Dr. Yee’s table seems familiar.
When Dr. Yee touches me, when he lightly places his warm clean hands on the center of my scarred back, I start to cry.
“The pain is bad for you?” Dr. Yee asks.
I tell him yes.
Of course I don’t mention my scars in my profile. I’m talking about my physical scars, the ones from getting burned in my accident, not my emotional scars. They are pretty much assumed. But at some point before I actually meet someone, I do mention that my body is scarred. I used to say badly scarred until I met a man who, when he saw me naked, told me I wasn’t badly scarred, just scarred. But of course he had problems of his own. All he wanted was someone to hold him while he lay on his bed, listened to Appalachian Spring, and wept. Another man was very nice about it all as well, and even though we did have sex—if a blowjob in the foyer counts as sex—all he wanted was someone to admire his impressive collection of cold-painted Vienna Bronze reptiles. Another man longed only to be used as a footstool, and I could spend countless evenings with couples that just want someone to watch them, even if—especially if, I sadly suppose—that someone is a masturbating stranger.
Outside, walking up along the Bowery, people look odd to me. Not deformed, exactly, but certainly malformed: their heads rise out of their bodies in a weird way, their necks and jaws thrust heroically forward like figureheads on old ships. And of course, with the help of cell phones, they’re all arguing with themselves. I often feel disoriented when I leave Dr. Yee’s office. I don’t feel pain, but things look strange. Gradually the world shifts back into its correctly familiar focus, and inexorably the pain that Dr. Yee has persuaded my body to forget, returns.
I’ve walked up the Bowery as far as CBGB but of course it’s not CBGB anymore. It’s some men’s clothing store where I can’t even afford to look, the psychic cost is too debilitating. But I stand outside anyway.
I came to CBGB my first night in New York, in 1979. I remember it perfectly: a band called Donna Parker at Camp Cherrydale. I was starting an internship at the Public Theater the next morning. Joseph Papp was alive. I was illegally subletting an apartment on the ninth floor of the Westbeth overlooking the Hudson River with two friends from college. I met Paul, my first lover, that night. We went back to his apartment in the East Village and made love on his futon. Paul and I were together until he died in 1984. He was the first man I knew who died from the plague. And the youngest, too: 25. RIP.
It comes to me, slowly, as I stand there on the hot sidewalk in front of what isn’t CBGB anymore, that I’ve reached the end of my life in New York. It’s come full circle, and I haven’t got the strength or patience or money or a thousand other necessary things to continue.
Before I moved in with Phillip eight years ago, I had a rent-controlled apartment in Washington Heights, but I let it go. It’s not that I thought we would last forever, Phillip and me, I just thought the other end would be different from this. I can’t even afford to move to Brooklyn now. I’ll have to move someplace far away, someplace no one really wants to live. Or no one like me. I can get a job teaching Theater History. I still check the job listings: you’d be surprised how many Podunk community colleges have Theater History programs. You’d think they’d have caught on by now as to the futility of it all, but they haven’t. I’ve taught before and I’m quite good at it but I never got tenure on account of my drinking. I was always very open about it: I wasn’t one of those professors with a bottle of scotch squirreled away in a file drawer, I had a little tea trolley bar in my office and a mini-fridge stocked with champagne in case there was ever anything to celebrate, which of course there always was. Or if I can’t find a job teaching I can always be one of those middle-aged men working in Starbucks or Kinko’s in Wichita or Eau Claire. They have well-trimmed beards and reading glasses on a lanyard around their thick necks and wear sweater vests and crepe-soled shoes. They’re usually the manager and are very proud of how clean and orderly their shop is; they’re not afraid to pitch in and wipe down tables or fill the creamers or change the toner or unjam jams and they think of themselves as mentors to a staff of tattooed slackers who despise them. I can be that.
Maybe it isn’t a curse, Ramona’s story. Maybe it’s simply a warning. Not a hot potato but an amulet.
There was this insufferably lovely couple living on my floor, in the back apartment, facing the garden, Ramona said. He was an architect or something and looked British even though he wasn’t and had that wonderful premature gray hair and shoes, not premature gray shoes, just wonderful shoes, usually suede and the color of ginger or lichen and she was lovely too, her name was Marie—his was Simon. She was a textile designer or a haberdasher or something creative and gentle like that and they were always pleasant and quiet and listening to classical music and they had a tortoise about as big as a dinner plate named Consuelo and whenever I saw them, which was almost every day, at least one of them, they would be perfectly charming in a reserved, non-intrusive way, as if they knew we lived too close to one another to actually be friendly. It’s the top floor you know, a walkup, just the hallway and the two doors, 5F which is me and 5R which is them. Was them. Now it’s some prissy adolescent hedge fund manager who asked me not to park my bike in the hallway. Anyway, one day I see her, Marie, and she looks terrible. It’s her hair I notice: she has this wonderful hair, very curly and hennaed and always a bit of a mess, you know, some pinned up and most falling down, but an exquisite mess, an artful mess, but this day when I see her it’s just a mess, there’s nothing artful or exquisite about it, in fact it’s dirty and there might even be some food or something in it and she’s pale and gaunt and is wearing sweatpants and before I can stop myself I ask her if she’s okay, or what’s wrong, or something like that and she looked at me sort of vaguely, but tragically vaguely if you know what I mean, lost, lost, and said, Oh, you know, sometimes it’s all too much, and I said, I know, I know, but are you OK, and she said, I’m fine, thanks, I’ve just got this pain. And I said, pain? What pain? And she said, it’s nothing really, just pain, it comes and goes or something like that. And then I don’t see her again. I saw her looking awful taking her garbage down to the street in pain and I never saw her again. And then about a week later I come in and Simon’s at the mailbox sort of tugging his mail out from it in an uncharacteristically hostile way and he just nods at me, he didn’t say hello or something charming, he just nods, and I look down and see that he’s wearing those hideous plastic shoes that look like jellies on steroids, what are they called?
Crocs, somebody said.
Oh my God, yes: Crocs. He’s wearing Crocs. Orange Crocs. They might even be fake Crocs. Bargain Crocs. So he yanks all his mail out of the box and starts upstairs, and I wait a minute before I follow him, because he obviously isn’t in the mood for company, even polite, distanced, company, so I wait and then I follow him and when I get up to the fifth floor he’s standing in front of his door, very close to it, almost leaning his forehead against it but not quite, and the mail has dropped at his feet and I think he might be crying. Crying! I don’t know what to do. I mean, what would you do? Simon, beautiful elegant Simon, in orange mock-Crocs, crying. I pass by him and gently unlock my door and push it open but I can’t go in and leave him there, I know that, I know that in some way he must want me, or need me, or he wouldn’t be standing there outside the door, he’d be standing inside the door, right? So I say, Are you OK? And of course I remember saying the same thing, or something like it, to Marie just a few days before in the same spot, her coming out of the apartment with the garbage and with food in her hair. And pain. He doesn’t say anything for a moment but I know he heard me, I know he knows I’m there, so I just wait. I close my door and we stand there, him in front of his door and me in front of mine. And then he turns away from his door and I see that he was crying and he says in an odd, adversarial way, You don’t know? And I say, No, know what? and he says, Marie is dead. She killed herself last week. I don’t say anything. I mean, what can you say? I’m shocked. Stunned. I say, Oh my God, I’m so sorry, or something lame like that, and then I unlock my door again and push it open and say, Would you like to come in? Would you like a drink or something? And I hold the door wide open, wide wide open, as if the opener it is the better, and he sets his briefcase down against his door very tenderly as if it’s a pet and walks past me into my apartment and I follow him and turn on the lights and point to the couch as if it’s not obvious and tell him to sit down and go into the kitchen and pour two vodkas and bring them back to the living room and I see that he’s kind of looking around the room, at the books and the paintings and I think, Oh good, he hasn’t lost his other people’s apartments curiosity, and I give him one vodka and sit down next to him with the other. I don’t say anything. I sip my vodka and he sips his and continues to look around and then after a moment he looks at me and says, Did she ever talk to you about the bag? The bag? I say. No. What bag? The Gristedes bag, he says. A yellow Gristedes bag. You know those bags? Of course, I say. Well, he says, last fall when the leaves fell off the tree outside our bedroom window, I think it’s an ailanthus tree, one of those weed trees, you know. A Tree of Heaven, I say and I only knew that because of Jeff, do you remember Jeff, he was that guy I dated who always needed to know more about anything than you did? And Simon looks at me blankly and I say, I think they’re called Trees of Heaven, and he says, Oh, well there’s one outside our bedroom window and when the leaves came off it last fall Marie saw this Gristedes bag caught in its branches, and for some reason it bothered her, she loved the view out the window, at the tree top in the summer with the green leaves, shaking and in the winter with the bare branches, it grew up as tall as our window and there it was and she loved it, but she hated this bag. It drove her crazy. It was like a tangle or something in a knot she couldn’t untangle. She had me go around the block to the people on Charles whose backyard the tree was in and ask them if they could get rid of the bag but of course they thought I was crazy, I mean it was crazy, but Marie didn’t understand. She called 311, you know the City hotline or whatever, to report a bag in a tree and insisted they come remove it. She called the fire department. It was like something personal, something horrible that was ruining her life. This fucking bag in a tree. She got so she didn’t want to sleep in the bedroom because she didn’t want to see the bag in the tree. Even with the curtains closed it bothered her, just knowing it was there. During the winter it got less yellow and shredded a little but it hung on, nothing, not wind or rain or snow, nothing freed it, not sleet nor the darkness of night. He finished his vodka and I went into the kitchen and got the bottle and came back and poured us both a little more. After a moment he said, I know it was not just that but that’s how it seemed, it seemed to be all about the bag. I know there were other things and the bag was just a symbol, something she could focus on, obsess on. I brought a bunch of rocks back from the beach and tried to toss them out the window into the bag, I thought I might be able to fill it with rocks so it would come loose, fall, but I couldn’t get the rocks to land in the bag. It hung upside down. He stopped talking and cried a little, wet and choking, like men cry. But he seemed like a boy then, when he cried. Like a little boy.
Ramona said, Simon didn’t tell me the rest of the story but the next day the woman in 3R did. It had happened a few days ago, early in the afternoon, when everyone was at work, she said. Marie unscrewed a broom pole from a broom and attached an opened wire hanger to the end of it and leaned out the window and tried to hook the bag, and then she must have apparently sat on the windowsill to lean further out and fallen and no one found her until Simon came home and saw the open window and looked down into the courtyard, and the bag was gone, she had reached out far enough to free it.
A young man emerges from the air-conditioned gloom of the store that isn’t CBGB anymore. He’s carrying two shopping bags, one in each hand. He has that air about him that shopping is important, hard work. A rep tie is thread through the loops of his tight white jeans. Don’t tell me ties are belts once again.
He stands there for a moment. I think he must be looking for a taxi, but then I recognize the strange face reflected in his mirrored sunglasses. He is looking at me.
“Are you OK?” he asks.
“What?” I say.
“You don’t look too good,” he says. “You shouldn’t be standing in the sun. Here.” He puts down his shopping bags and maneuvers me over into the shade beside the store. “I think you’re dehydrated. You need something to drink. Stay here.”
He walks to the corner and buys a bottle of water from a pretzel and hot dog cart. I look down into his shopping bags. Clothes swaddled in tissue paper. Luxurious cotton shirts with their arms folded and pinned behind their backs.
He returns and hands me the bottle of water. “Drink this,” he says. “And stay out of the sun for a while.”
“Thanks,” I say.
“Take care,” he says. He picks up his bags and disappears around the corner.
The bottle of water feels very cold and beautiful in my hand. I hold it up to my forehead, my cheeks. I unscrew the cap and drink the water.
I wish he had not been kind. It makes it harder to leave New York, kindness like that. And it is hard enough already. Or maybe it will be easy, a huge relief, like quitting the gym.
First published in Subtropics and reprinted by permission of Irene Skolnick Literary Agency.