Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Monday, February 27, 2012
Paris suffered through a horrendous bombing campaign in 1986. Explosions rocked the French capitol with unexpected frequency. The attacks killed and maimed innocent people throughout the winter and spring, while the Gaullist government played tough guy with the terrorists demanding the release of their imprisoned comrades. Chirac announced on the radio that France would not submit to blackmail, although everyone in the city understood that a few more victims were destined to join the casualty lists before the two parties agreed on a final price to end hostilities.
The summer passed without any detonations rocking the city, but that lull was broken by four deadly blasts in September. One Sunday night explosion on Rue Faux had destroyed the lobby of the Israeli bank on the corner of the Grand Boulevard. No one had been injured in the blast, however the fiery shock wave had shattered every window on the block, torched a dozen cars, and ripped apart our nightclub’s ornate entrance.
On Monday morning the owner and I surveyed the wreckage.
“On a la chance.” Serge ran his finger over the heat-blistered interior.
“Yes, we were damn lucky.” If Le Reve had been open for business, the casualty list would have run into the hundreds.
A mustached man in a rumpled suit clambered over the damaged interior. The comptoir had withstood the shock wave, but scores of bottles had been concussed to shards and the smell of alcohol overwhelmed the odor of charred wood. The man moved with a callous deliberation. This was not his first time at a crime scene.
Serge introduced me to the police inspector. I was more a doorman than a bouncer. The French titled my position 'physionomiste'.
"L’Amercain." The police investigator pronounced my nationality with an accusatory tone. Ronald Reagan had tested the bonds of 'Lafayette we are here' with the April bombing raid on Libya. The French government had refused the F-16s access to French air space. 1917 was a long way in the past from 1986.
"With an Irish passport and working papers." I presented my documents. Everything was in order.
"Irelandais." Irish translated to IRA and bombs to the cop’s dog brain. "I have a few questions."
“Only a few.” We sat at a charred table. Serge poured cognac from a salvaged bottle. The nightclub impresario was elegant even with his paratrooper overalls covered in dust.
“It is merely a formality.” The possibility of a thirty-two year-old American heading the ‘dead’ list didn’t deter a police inspector from interrogating un estranger as the primary suspect. He asked the same set of questions a dozen times. I repeated my answers without deviation. The truth was easier to remember than a lie.
"Thank you for your assistance.” The chain-smoking investigator had not interviewed anyone else on our staff. They were French.
"Do I need a lawyer?” The French justice system considered everyone guilty until proven innocent and the policeman shook his head with a nicotine laugh. “Not unless you are guilty.”
"I'm not." I had been in bed with my girlfriend on Sunday.
"We will check out your alibi." The 'flic' folded his notebook and exited from the club.
I hated talking to cops and downed my cognac.
"You try to be so cool, but you run around like a chicken without feet after a few questions by the police." Serge had a knack for messing up American axioms.
"It's 'chicken with its head off'."
"I like my way better." The French were as infallible as the Pope, but his blasé demeanor evaporated with the contractor’s estimate that the repairs would take at least a two weeks.
“This is impossible. I have a business to run." Le Reve was extremely popular with the BCBG of Paris. The young rich from the 16th arrondissement spent their parents' money with an abandonment missing from their bourgeois lives. A bottle of cheap champagne cost 600 francs and a whiskey-coke 120 francs. Le Reve was a cash cow for all concerned parties.
"Today is Monday. Tomorrow I get supplies, Wednesday we take out the wreckage." The wine-nosed contractor recited the litany of this reconstruction to the centime.
"Enough, enough." Serge waved away the contractor, who shrugged with inbred Gallic nonchalance. After his departure he ranted against the sloth of French workers. A few cognacs redirected his rancor to the real culprits.
“C’est le guerre.”
He was right. It was a war. I bid Serge good-bye and returned home on the Metro. Every passengers was nervous. They warily studied unattended bags. Bombs didn't have to be big.
Getting off on my stop in the 15th arrondissement deflated my anxiety. The only potential target on Rue du Basfroi was the Bureau des Objets-Trouves across the street from Candia's atelier and I doubted if anyone was turning in a bomb to Paris' lost and found.
Candia greeted me with a kiss. Her nose wrinkled with a twitch and the thin teenager pushed me away with both hands, as if the odor might have clung to her clothing.
"You smell like a pig barbecued in brandy."
"The bar was destroyed by the blast and the front was burnt by the blast." Her description of my scent sounded delicious. I took off my jacket and hung it on a hook. Candia hated a messy apartment. "It'll be at least a month before we open."
"And you get 'chomage'?" Candia clapped her hands in eager anticipation of my answer.
"I guess I do." We had been together for a year. Sometimes I forgot that the half-French/half-Puerto Rican girl was young, especially in bed with the lights out.
"Then we can go on vacation." The eighteen year-old and I had never gone on holiday. Our schedules were in constant conflict. She was days and I was nights.
"What about your work?" Her modeling agency had been fighting fashion editors to get her a magazine cover. An innocent face surrounded by blondish curls should have been an easy sell, yet race was an unspoken issue in her profession.
"Work is slow." The bombing campaign hurt every aspect of life in Paris. They had blown up everywhere in the last ten days. "We could go to America for a week."
"Let me think about it." I hadn't been to my East Village apartment in three years. My subleasee said that Internal Affairs hadn't called for me in six months.
"You never want to go anywhere." Candia stormed upstairs and slammed shut the bedroom door. Teenage tantrums were her specialty. At thirty-three I was old enough to be her younger uncle. She didn't let me into the bedroom until 11. Our bodies didn’t touch that night and in the morning I dressed as soon as I woke. Candia didn’t want me around the atelier and I got dressed in heavy boots, jeans, and a leather jacket.
“Where are you going?” Candia asked from under the covers. Her agency had called to say it was closed for the duration of the bombing campaign.
“To check on flights to the USA.” I bought my tickets from an agency in Les Halles.
“As if we are going anywhere.” She pulled the blankets over her head.
I didn’t bother to reply and left the atelier for the Metro.
While we made love with regularity and I told her that I loved her once a day, I couldn't remember the last time the words 'je t'aime' crossed her lips. Something was broken between us. It felt like something neither of us could fix.
The train into Les Halles was empty. The randomness of the attacks frightened people. My travel agency was shut and its closing was not for lunch. I tried to call Candia from a cafe. The phone rang without an answer. She was playing a game and I slammed the receiver into the cradle.
Distant bells tolled the hour and I strolled over to the Marais to light a candle at Eglise St. Gervais. Old habits died hard, even for non-believers.
The sky was dotted with scattering clouds and the September sun warmed the streets. The few girls on the sidewalks were sporting short dresses. I decided to take a steam at the Hamman on rue Des Rosiers. I fell asleep on a bench for several hours and then ate a pastrami sandwich at the deli.
I tried Candia’s atelier again with the same result.
It was getting late, but crossing the courtyard of the Hotel de Ville, I took off my jacket. The weather reminded me of Indian Summer in New England. I didn’t have time to reflect on the similarity.
A powerful detonation knocked me off my feet before a subsonic thud rattled my body. I remained on my knees for at least a half-minute, then checked my limbs. There was no blood. I was untouched by the shrapnel.
As I stood slowly, the loud ringing in my ears was replaced by the screams. Several men and I ran to the nearby post office to wrestle the wounded from the debris. The firemen arrived within minutes. The police ordered us to leave. This was a job for professionals and Paris was a city for the French.
I arrived home and said to Candia, "We should go to America.”
“What changed your mind?” She seemed hesitant, as if she didn’t want to go anywhere with me.
“There was a bomb attack at Hotel de Ville.” I didn’t say that I had been there. “We can go to New York.
“You think I can work there?” Her career was in a state of stagnation. The better-paying commercials and editorial work in France were reserved for girls with Caucasian roots. Candia was only a little white.
“They love girls like you there.” A mulatto stood a better chance in America, plus a friend was the photo editor for Details and another comrade shot photos for Elle and New York has to be safer than Paris.”
"Fantastique. I want to see Disneyworld.” She squealed with breathless delight. The French loved Mickey Mouse as much as Jerry Lewis.
"Yes, we can go see Mickey.” I didn’t have the heart to explain that Orlando was over 1200 miles from New York and reaped the benefits of that deceit in bed.
In the morning I opened the atelier windows. A soft breeze carried the traces of Africa. An hour passed without an explosion. At noon Radio Nova announced that the Chirac government had freed the Lebanese prisoners. Hearing the news, Candia hugged a Mickey Mouse doll.
“What about Disneyworld?” Her voice was tinged by the realization of betrayal.
"Let me see what Serge says."
“You promise we see Mickey.” Her feet stamped on the floor. This was not just about Mickey Mouse.
“I have to check on the nightclub.” Dishes flying at my head was a favorite reaction to not getting her way and I dressed quickly in the same clothes as yesterday. They almost smelled clean.
“You can sleep at the club tonight, if you love that place so much.” Candia folded her arms across her chest.
“I’ll be back.” Flowers and a nice dinner worked wonders.
“Why bother?” Her cold green eyes revealed that we never had been more than two people sharing a bed.
“Why bother?” We were no longer a we. I blinked in disbelief. I hadn’t seen this coming, but I wasn’t the type to give up without a fight. “I’ll be back later.”
“Suit yourself.” She turned her back on me. I was no longer there even before I left the atelier.
I arrived at Rue Faux, expecting no progress on the club, however a new wall had been erected in my absence. The entrance had been restored to its gaudy glory, liquor bottles had been stacked over the bar, and the dance floor had been shined to the brilliance of a lacquered mirror. Serge stood at the newly refurbished disc jockey booth. Several milk crates filled with records lay at his feet.
“Surprised?” Serge was dressed in a 40s Zoot suit and dropped Willie Bobo’s SPANISH GREASE on the new turntable. The new speakers favored Latino Swing.
“Shocked.” When a French worker says, "Two weeks", he usually meant six weeks.
"A phone call here. A phone call there." His brother held office in the government, the club’s liquor came tax-free from a military base, two of our bouncers were off-duty marines. None of these favors were deemed ’ inappropriate'. Serge’s head bopped to the flute hitting a high note. “Opening date is in five days.”
“Damn, I promised Candia a trip to Disneyworld.” I rolled my eyes. “Now we’re opening I’ll have to cancel.”
“Ah, quais, Mssr. Mickey et les filles.” Having known Candia since she was 14, the suave Parisian was surprised that I had lasted longer than her other boyfriends and cued up Maurice Chevalier’s THANK HEAVEN FOR LITTLE GIRLS. “If you want to go, go. The workers will take another week at least.”
“Thanks.” I went to the bar to telephone Candia. She hung up a dozen times. Finally she answered and I blurted out, “I have a surprise for you. We’re going to Disneyworld.”
“I can’t. I have a job in Milan.”
“Then we can go to dinner at La Coupole tonight."
”My plane leaves this evening.” ADDICTED TO LOVE was playing in the background. She hated Robert Palmer’s hit, since she hadn’t been chosen as an android model for the video. Something must have changed her mind.
“Oh.” I suspected that he was in the apartment and told Serge that I would see him tomorrow.
“Embrace your chouchette for me.”
I exited from the nightclub. The carless street resembled a scene out of the 1870s. A tent had been erected under a balcony and a young clochard was cutting vegetables into a pot. The thin bum was better dressed than the derelicts sleeping under the Seine bridges, yet a tremor sizzled in my spine, as he lit his stove. It didn’t explode and I flagged a taxi, elated to have survived my fears.
At the atelier Candia was alone. A stubbed cigarette lay in the ashtray. The filter was unstained by lipstick. Candia threw it in the trash and packed her bag for Italy. Her good-bye kiss was a peck on the cheek.
Serge and I worked twenty-hour days. The countdown to opening shrunk to a handful of fingers. I called the hotel in Milan every evening. The desk clerk explained in bad English that she wasn't in her room. I left a message about the opening with the number of Le Reve. The phone never rang for me.
The contractor had performed a miracle inspired by money, but five minutes before the doors opened, an electrical surge blew the fuses. Serge found the breakers and switched on the lights. We were ready for business.
Fun-loving Parisians swarmed before Le Reve. Jacques and the two marines held back the horde. I picked and chose old faces to mingle with the young. The crowd at bar piled up three-deep. Serge’s DJing drove the teenagers onto the dance floor and Paris' elite drank with a thirst spurred by surviving the bomb campaign.
Candia showed up unexpectedly with her Puerto Rican father, who ran a small boite de nuit in St. Germain. She looked like an angel on the run in her tight white dress. I offered them a bottle of champagne. Candia's kiss was warm, but before I could hold her in my arms, Jacques tapped my shoulder.
“I need you at the door.” The handsome Martiniquan was quiet-spoken for his size. The young ex-con avoided trouble. He had already spent too much of his youth behind the walls of La Sante Prison.
"Someone?" I hated mysteries and accompanied Jacques to the door. The black giant pulled apart the curtains. The young clouchard was struggling with a lighter.
"He wants to see with you."
“He say why?”
“No,” Jacques had worked breaking and entering before my hiring him. All I had to do was say the word for him to prove his gratitude. “You want I make him go away?”
“No.” Twenty francs would buy the bum a bottle of wine and good luck for Le Reve. “I’ll see what he wants.”
Jacques unlatched the ropes for the quartet of golden youths from the 16th Arrondisement and I pulled out a few spare coins. The bum raised a smiling face and said in English "Hey, you don’t recognize me?"
Squinting I scrapped away the filth. I hadn't seen Danny Wall since leaving New York three years ago. I hugged the lanky DJ. Our embrace was a short-lived.
“When was the last time you bathed?” He smelled of zombie dirt.
“I didn’t think the French cared about personal hygiene.”
“Hey, I’m an American.” Parisian men’s one bar of soap per annum didn’t excuse his smelling like week-old garbage and I opened the ropes to the amazement of several waiting customers. “We have a shower in the basement. I’ll cuff you a couple of drinks afterwards.”
“That’s an offer I can’t refuse,” Danny broke out of his slouch. “I ran into your cousin in New York last year. She said you were here. Didn’t you leave right after Viktor Malenski got killed at the Continental?”
“A week later.” The passage of almost four years hadn’t erased the memory of my involvement in that deadly night. “I’ve been working in Paris since. I get paid to act rude to the French. Can it get better than that, can it?”
“You’re my new hero.” He nodded to the buxom cashier, who held her nose, as I led the ex-trumpeter to the basement changing room.
“So how about a shower?” I opened the taps of the washing room.
“Be a new man after that.” Danny stripped off his clothes and climbed into the steam-filled shower stall.
I left the washroom with his tattered clothes. They had outlived their usefulness several people ago. I dumped them in the trash bin and rummaged through a backstage closet. I hung a musty suit from the 1950s on the door and went upstairs with two cases of champagne. Serge was waiting at the bar.
“So who is your guest?”
“A friend from New York.” I ordered a whiskey.
“So the Americans are exporting bums to France.” My partner scoffed with the immense pleasure of hearing that an Amerlot had plunged to the bottom of the barrel. His happiness was short-lived, for a twenty-minute shower and a suit transformed Danny into a modern-day Casanova for Le Reve’s haughty female clientele.
“A new man.” I led him to the bar.
“Same old me, just cleaner.” We toasted the East Village. Candia danced with him twice. Her father knew Danny’s dad. I had another drink. It wasn’t my last.
Candia announced her departure and I gave her a sloppy goodnight kiss.
“You are not so handsome as a drunk.”
“Everyone else is pretty.”
“I Love you.”
“You say those words so easy.” She spoke with an even sharpness.
“I mean it.” I escorted her to a taxi.
“Then what is love?” She shut the door before I could think of a good reply. The answer should have been on my lips.
I drank the rest of the night with Danny. As the night drew to a close, I asked the New Yorker. “You have anything in your ‘room’ you want to keep here?”
“No, ain’t nothing worth stealing.”
“What about your trumpet?” His band’s deconstructed version of SONGS FOR MY FATHER with Danny’s neophyte trumpet stubbornly orbiting the free-style band’s chaotic non-melody had been a show-stopper at the Mudd Club in the late-70s.
“I hocked it in Spain.”
“Pawn it? You lived for your music.” If he wasn’t playing his horn than he was spinning records.
“Like you used to live for your poetry.” Danny chugged his whiskey.
“I couldn’t write in meter.” My grammar school nuns had beaten a respect for classical cadence and proper grammar into our knuckles and editors came from the same school. I had rebelled against the teachings and stopped writing to prove them wrong.
“Your stopping partially inspired my dumping the horn.”
“Please don’t follow my failures.” My blame plate was full. “You could have been another Chet Baker.”
“I’d rather be Horace Silver, but who was I kidding? We sucked and no one cared if we sucked. We were young and pretty. I don’t regret quitting music and DJing and I bet you don’t regret stopping writing either. “All that ‘art’ shit was a monkey on our back. Now we can live as real men are supposed to live.”
Danny spoke with the coolness of a man who had abandoned a woman he didn’t love after seeing her with another man.
“Better than pretending to be Hemingway.” Ghosts of stories lurked in my skull as half-built ships in dry docks.
"Or Chet Baker." The lean New Yorker pushed back his wavy hair.
"But why are you living on the street. You belong to a cult giving away their possessions?”
“I’m waiting for my ship to come in.” The ex-trumpeter nearly swooned off the stool. “The whiskey kinda went to my head. I’ll be fine once I’m out at sea.”
“Your parents bought you a boat?” His family had money. A 50-foot catamaran was not beyond their means.
“I’m not taking their money anymore.”
“Yeah, fuck money.” I said, while wishing that his parents adopted me.
“I’m talking about fishing and not the rod-and-reel shit either. Nets and trawlers and thousands of hooks capable of tearing the flesh off your bones. And tons of fish on the wild sea.” His voice climbed an octave with an imagined voyage to the North Atlantic. “Fishing ala Captain Courageous for cod on the deep. Hacking fish from a line, as the ship plows into the sea and resurfaces streaming foam. Fishing in the black of night, the wind___”
“Stop already, I’m seasick.”
“Mal de mer has two cures. Land or drowning.” Danny was possessed by a convert’s devotion for his new profession.
“If you love fishing so much, what are you doing in Paris?”
“A long-line boat from Gloucester is supposed to dock in Brest and I’ll fish the Georges Bank.” Danny picked at a front tooth. It looked a little brown with decay.
“When is that?” I had lived in Gloucester. Fishing was a tough both on and off shore.
“Maybe a week. The wait is unimportant, if I’m on a boat in the end.”
“I wish I could offer you a place to stay.” A week was a long time on the street. Even longer at my place.
“Thanks, I’m fine in my humble hovel.” Danny lifted a hand to forestall any extra excuses. “You remember what your cousin said about men wanting a virgin or a whore. Well, I have my girl coming from Madrid. Crazy girl. Young like your girlfriend. Her mother was a flamenco dancer. Likes having sex. Her body is insatiable____” Limb by limb Danny reincarnated an ancient sex cult’s goddess, finally accusing her of nymphomania. “It’s no Roman orgy. It’s hard work. You’ll see. Believe me, you’ll see.”
His prediction was almost a curse and that night a super 8mm porno movie flickered in the shadows of my mind. The teenager noticed my distraction and asked, “What are you thinking?”
“About how much I want you.” It was a lie.
"Ouais?" She rolled out of bed to vainly examine my clothes for the telltale signs of infidelity, however the only traces of another woman were in my mind. She lay on the bed, fiercely clutching her Mickey doll. I reached over to Candia. She wasn’t having any of me and I fell asleep on my side of the bed.
Danny’s girl sounded too good to be true, but whenever models, dancers from the Paris Ballet, French actresses, artistes, and svelte students from the Sorbonne tried to seduce Danny, he told them, “I’m saving myself for Elana.”
One night Danny didn’t appear at his usual hour and I checked his shack. The canvas sea bag was gone. Paris was as tough a town as New York and two days later I reported his disappearance to the prefecture on the third night. The gendarme at the desk joked that people frequently disappeared in Paris.
“Sometimes on purpose. Sometimes by mistake.”
I didn’t laugh, but should have, for the next night Danny approached Le Reve, newly shaven with his hair cut. When he hugged me, I smelled a woman’s perfume.
“Let me guess. Your girl came into town.”
“I told you she would." He beamed the joy of a sailor on leave.
“I was beginning to believe she was a fragment of your imagination.”
“No, Elana’s the real thing.” danny looked over his shoulder.
A slender female in a cotton shift was crossing Rue Faux. Her black hair was disheveled by the rough touch of a man; several buttons had been popped from her dress and her cheeks were flushed from exertion. She personified the wraith from my dreams and even more so when Danny whispered, “We had sex on top of the Opera house.”
“Good view.” Two bodies atop the art-deco palace.
“We didn’t go there for the view.” Danny introduced us.
“He talks about you.” A serpentine arm encircled his waist.
“What he say?” I led them inside Le Reve.
“That you’re a genius for not wanting to be a genius.” The two clung to each other to form one body.
“I specialize at failurology.” I ordered three glasses of champagne at the bar and fended off my jealousy. “Here’s to making Danny happy.”
“To everyone’s happiness." Elana stopped my raising the glass. "Yours, mine, and Danny’s.”
“Watch out, my friend.” Danny slapped my back. “Elana has you in her sights.”
“I have a strict rule about sleeping with friend’s girlfriends or wives.”
“I like a man of principle.” Her body melted into his and I feebly excused myself to count cash in the office.
When I returned, the staff and customers had vanished from the bar. Plastic Bertrand’s JET BOY JET GIRL was playing underneath my feet. I descended the spiral staircase and pushed my way through the bustling crowd to the dance floor.
Danny was in the DJ booth and Elana was writhing against a shining steel pole, then the song segued to The Kingsmen’s raucous MONEY and she stripped off the cotton shift and flung it to a wide-mouthed Serge. She deftly popped a flimsy bra to bare cupcake breasts and her fingers salaciously beckoned the men to join her in a dance.
My attempt to break through the mob came too late, for Danny leapt into the circle and yanked Elana by the hair. The club-goers were delighted by the impromptu Apache dance. Danny seized the girl like a Roman taking a Sabine woman. I advanced one step to cut in, then the song stopped and the crowd applauded the two dancers.
Serge put of Gainsbourg’s LOVE ON THE BEAT and Elana bowed her head, so a string of black hair bisected her face. This apparition of a lost Mayan princess paralyzed nearly every man in the room and Danny held up an empty glass.
“Hey, man. You’ll break your eyes that way.”
“I liked her dancing.” It had emptied my soul.
“Only liked?” Elana stepped into her dress and stuffed the bra into Danny’s pocket.
‘He loved it.” Danny laughed hard. “And you owe us a drink for the show.”
“More than one.” I ordered the bartender to give Danny and Elana whatever they wanted before leaving the nightclub to clear my head. The late September night air was cold and I prayed against any more temptations. I hadn’t prayed to God in a long time and He averted his gaze, for a voice said with a Castilian lisp, “I saw your look.”
”What look was that?”
“Like devil was trying to buy your soul.”
“What’s the temptation?”
“You and me naked in warm weather so sweat will form on my belly and___”
“You’re Danny’s girl.” She was his.
“Relationships don’t stop the work of the Devil.” Her hand grasped mine. “I tell you a story. I was born in Madrid. My mother she worked as a flamenco dancer and also took men home too. Una puta. One night she didn’t come back. Where she went, I never found out. My aunt took care of me. We moved to Barcelona and she worked the Ramblas. Men came to her room and I hid in the closet. At first I shut my eyes, thinking they were killing her. After a while I watched. It was better than TV. Sometimes I had to wait in the corridor with the other children. We played the same games as our parents; only it was a joke, then when I’m twelve a man comes to my aunt. He is handsome. He wants me to watch. Nothing more. My aunt tells me to leave. I say I have already seen her do everything. The man gives us both money. I think one day he will take me too. He never does he touches me. Not when I was thirteen fourteen or even fifteen. I watch and he wouldn’t let me touch myself either. Watch. Nothing else and then one day he stopped coming to see my aunt. Maybe she was too old or I was too old. You know what?”
”What?” I was helpless.
“You look a little like him?”
“I've had never been to Spain."
“That shouldn’t stop you from making my dream come true.” She rubbed her body against mine like a stray cat seeking a home and then slinked into the club, murmuring, “Moi et toi.”
I bit my lip and followed her into Le Reve.
Elana pushed a handsome boy off a stool. His frustration was almost audible, as my hand trailed up her thigh hiking the short dress higher.
“You touching me while other men watch thrills every atom in my body." She arched her neck back with eyes searing the ceiling. "They want to be you and I want you in me. Can we go someplace?”
A cheap hotel was across the street. No one would miss me for an hour, however my answer died with Candia’s entrance. She stormed out of the club and I leaped off the barstool in pursuit.
“What about us?” Elana caught me at the door.
“I’ll have to take a rain check.”
“Rain check?” I didn’t waste any time on translations and chased Candia to the corner. Our fight continued on the cab ride and in front of our atelier she tried to hit me with her high heels. I grabbed her arms and begged her forgiveness.
“Because I didn’t do anything wrong. I’ve never been with another woman since I met you and you’re more to me than a warm bed.”
These words granted a temporary absolution and we went upstairs to make love so frantically that our ardor massacred every woman in my life to a first kiss in kindergarten, however in my sleep Elana danced out of the mist, wearing a sheet of sweat. My tongue must have been licking my lips, for Candia punched my arm, “If you dream about other women, sleep in another bed.”
I wandered into the living room. I was trapped by a ghost. One from the future.
The next night I constructed a bed of pillows in the nightclub office. My preparations were wasted. Jacques handed a note from Danny. The New Yorker was going down to his ship in Brest. Elana was accompanying him to the sea.
At the end of September Candia left for a photo shoot in the Alps. She phoned the first night to say her boss had invited the fashion team for a weekend hiking trip. I bit my tongue and drank heavier than normal that weekend.
Candia called on Sunday to say they were stranded by a snowstorm. When she hung up, I convinced myself this was a fling and everything would be like it was before, otherwise she would have never bothered with the call.
On the day of her return I cleaned the apartment, bought flowers, chilled a bottle of champagne, and sprayed a perfume on the bed for an evening of coaxing her into my arms.
Candia arrived late. A silver fur coat adorned cinnamon skin untouched by the alpine sun and my heart crumpled like a cheap beer can. The telephone rang and she snatched the receiver out of my hand. After several whispers Candia announced, “I have to meet a client at the Hotel Crillion for dinner.”
She left without mentioning what time to expect her home. It wouldn’t be early.
I had dinner at La Coupole and took a taxi to the club. It was an off night and I ordered a whiskey-coke. By 3AM I drank myself partially deaf and dumb.
“What’s wrong?” Serge stopped my dancing on a stool to Arthur Lee’s HEY JOE.
“Nothing another whiskey-coke wouldn’t cure.” I shouted for a refill and Serge annulled my order. “Go home and sleep this off?”
“A house is not a home.” I staggered to the entrance and a runway model from Baltimore waylaid my departure. “Care to join me for a nightcap.”
“Where?” I had champagne waiting in a bucket of melted ice.
“Where is unimportant.” And she whispered an obscene proposal. Her idea of a nightcap differed from mine. “So?”
My girlfriend was probably making love to another man, however I held the high moral ground. “Another night.”
“Another night?” The beautiful redhead graced the cover of Elle. No male in their right mind had refused her favors. “You’re making a big mistake.”
“It won’t be the first or the biggest.” I weaved out of the club and trudged toward the Seine. The river lay between the two banks like octopus ink and I lifted my leg onto the parapet.
“Eh, vous.” A fat policeman appeared out of the gloom and I ran off the bridge, as the flic yelled, “Arrête, arrête.”
I outran the fat cop and marched relentlessly to the 15th arrondisement, realizing while I might not forget this trespass, I could forgive Candia’s sin. I just needed the chance.
Reaching the Impasse Dantzig I lifted my eyes. The lights in the atelier were off. My key turned in the lock. The door opened with a creak. An empty champagne bottle was on the floor between shiny Gucci loafers. They were neither my size nor style. A man moaned behind the nearest closed door and I charged into the bedroom with a roar. A balding man lifted his arms too late to deflect my fist and he tumbled semi-conscious onto the floor. I threw Candia on the floor. The girl nursing my cold, the lover cuddling me after sex, and the dinner companion laughing at my jokes were gone.
“You know why,” she spat with an unrecognizable hostility. “You never loved me. You loved a ghost. A ghost of a woman that does not exist.”
I envisioned a deadly blow, police, and trial. No French court had convicted a man of a crime de passion, but my blow would have been revenge for her speaking the truth. I chucked the Mickey Mouse telephone through the window into the street, after which I scourged the couple from the apartment with the frayed wire. The man’s suit and shoes followed it out the broken window as a petty act of vengeance.
I packed my clothes, journals, tape deck, camera, and photos. Five minutes later I fled the apartment fearing the arrival of the gendarmes, and hailed a taxi on the nearest boulevard. The hour and my bag explained the story and the unshaven driver shrugged knowingly, “Un hotel?”
“Ouais, le Hotel Marais.” My accelerated breathing worried the driver, who asked, “Mssr., vous etes okay?”
“Ouais.” I lowered the window. The cold air failed to pluck the splintered razors from my lungs. A bottle of tranquilizers rested in my coat. Three or four were on the menu. It took the driver 20 minutes to reach Rue Des Ecouffes. I paid with a 100-franc note.
“Keep the change.” The sky was fettered by glowering gray clouds. The morning offered no dawn.
“Merci.” He drove away to pick up a couple holding hands.
I entered the hotel lobby with my hand gripping the bottle of tranks. The old woman was asleep at the desk. Waking her seemed a sin, except I had nearly broken the 5th Commandment twenty minutes before. I rang the bell and she blinked several times before recognizing my face from the previous stay.
“Ah, Mssr., je imagine que vous voulez une chambre.”
“Une chambre pour un nuit.” A room with a bath fulfilled my physical needs.
“Chambre 312.” She passed over a brass key and indicated the stairs.
It was the room from before. Nothing had changed. I sat on the soft bed and weighed my options. The pill bottle was only one route. The window was another. Neither would save my soul and I dropped three pills. The rest would have to wait for a more desperate occasion.
I woke to the shouts of the little gangsters on Rue des Ecouffes. The bells from a nearby church toned out the noon hour. The throbbing of my hangover was replaced by the resurrection of Candia’s infidelity. She had brought her lover on purpose. Jack Lemmon must have felt the same way in THE APARTMENT when he realized Shirley MacLaine was having an affair with his boss, Fred MacMurray.
My hands mimicked the act of strangulation. I choked her dead. Thin air was no replacement for a seventeen year-old’s neck, except I was only a murderer in my most grievous thoughts.
I tore up the photos of Candia naked in the changing cabinets of the Piscine Deligny, singing in Clermont-Fernand, and visiting her grandmother in Vichy. The shreds built a pyre in the hotel ashtray and burned with a chemical speed. The flames wrinkled her face and an acrid fume corkscrewed into my nose. Fearing Candia might invade my body, I flushed the flaming photos down the toilet, then left the hotel for a drink.
The October wind hurried me to the Tartine on Rue Du Rivoli and I sat on the terrace sheltered by a glass wall. The waitress wrote down my order of a cafe au lait, croissant, and two shots of Calvados before disappearing inside.
Waiting for my breakfast I regarded the passing couples with hatred. Two more Calvados numbed my senses to the grisly weather and diminished the bite of Candia’s words. After a fifth applejack I failed to register someone sitting beside me, until he lit a cigarette.
“I’ve been looking for you.” Judging from the stubble Serge had not woken at his apartment.
“Why?” My face was numb from the alcohol.
“I called your house this morning and spoke with your girlfriend.” Serge signaled to the waiter for another round.
“More like my girlfiend.” Dropping an ‘r’ from friend was lost on the Frenchman.
“What the bitch say for herself?”
“She is worried about you.” Serge’s eyes pursued two schoolgirls.
“If she cared about me, why she bring home that man?” I blew into my hands, envying his freedom.
“You Americans treat women as men. They are women and we have to protect the double standard, otherwise the battle between man and woman will be lost.” Serge waved to a model heading to a casting call. “You allowed her to have affairs and she concluded you did not care about her.”
“I almost killed her.”
“C’est vrai, and now she appreciates you.”
“Yes, a woman is a horse. You hold the reins tight and the horse will throw you. Too loose and she will run away.” He slapped his hands together. “Yeei.”
“You’ve been watching too many cowboy movies.” My parents had reared me to not hit a woman. It was their one rule that I obeyed without question. I was sadly learning that there should have been more.
“The caveman drags a woman by the hair to the cave.” Serge inhaled deeply on his cigarette. “They have a little corps-a-corps. She stays with him. Not the man who lets her ugh-ugh with another caveman.”
The only drawings of a Neanderthals dragging a woman by her hair existed as TV cartoons, however man’s dominance over woman needed no historical proof in France. “This is the almost the 21st Century.”
“Eh, alors, the collapse of classic family structures reinforces the need to establish a rapport de force,” Serge stubbed out his cigarette. “Yell at her, hit her, and make love. She expects you to act like a man, not a Mickey Mouse.”
“Couldn’t I be another animal?”
“No, you are not a dog, you are not an ape. You are man.” My passivity ignited his machismo for my own good. “I have seen you throw Brigitte Bardot out of a nightclub. Your friend Danny talked about your fights with the Russian mafia. Are you going to let a teenager push you around?”
“Sometimes you have to know when to do nothing.”
“If you let this wound bleed, you will be no good for the next woman you meet.”
”I’m done with women.”
“Ha, there is always another woman. A plus tard.”
To prove his thesis Serge stalked a fashionably-attired woman in her thirties.
Within a few paces she rewarded his boldness with a smile and they linked arms.
Serge was right. I had sung I’M A MAN a hundred times.
Restrengthened by the Yardbirds song, I shambled to the boulevard, foreseeing my kicking in the door, except every taxi was occupied and the urge to reclaim Candia was humbled by the wait. My problem with Candia had nothing to do with her infidelity and I returned to the hotel not wanting to leave my room.
The owner brought me tea and a baguette every morning. Candia came to the club and asked for a second chance. It was more like the fifth. We slept together three nights and I got a venereal disease. She said it came from a toilet seat. Our final good-bye was at the VD clinic.
I bought a typewriter and wrote a novella about a nightclub owner being offered fame and fortune by Satan. A French production company invested money in a script of GO-GO GIRLS FROM HELL. Serge hired three models to cut a record TAKE ME HIGHER. The three models got pregnant from their boyfriends and blamed me for the miracle of Immaculate Conception. The hundred sample records of TAKE ME HIGHER arrived warped as potato chips and the film company lost interest without the girls. I had nothing keeping me in Paris and bought a one-way ticket to America from a travel agency on the Boulevard St. Paul.
A taxi got me to Charles de Gaulle Aeroport with an hour to spare. I dumped my spare change into the charity bowl for children. There were no good-byes.
My parents didn’t question my return and I celebrated a family Christmas with the usual trimmings. My brothers and sisters sensed my smiles were superficial and asked me to stay, except Boston was too small after Paris and New York.
The Amtrak train took 5 hours to reach Penn Station. A taxi drove me to East 10th street. My apartment was small after living in Candia’s atelier, but the pizza at Stromboli’s was good and TV was in English. My friends initially greeted me with suspicion, since any absence from the city was regarded an act of treason to New Yorkers.
At the end of January I instructed Serge to sell my share of the club. He warned this was an imprudent business move. I needed the cash. The money arrived the end of January.
An albino producer hired me to write a screenplay. We spent the winter in the Berkshire Hills, fleshing out a tale about a young mistress inheriting an offshore island in the Keys. He had me sign over the rights to WHERE THE HIGHWAY ENDS for $10,000 and a 1964 Triumph Tiger. The movie was made it to film.
“You should come out to LA,” My cousin Sherri said XXX companies were paying good money for porno scripts.
“You said that before.”
“And you said ‘no’.”
“Give me a good reason to come out.”
“Maybe you can meet a nice girl.”
“Are there any?”
“Well, maybe not nice, but sexy.” She never lied to me.
“I’ll be there.”
I flew out to the valley and wrote several screenplays, however the industry was switching from film to video for the fast-forward action crowd. Starlets would rather fuck a car valet than a writer. North Hollywood was hell for writers.
Without Che’s star quality my cousin’s films had degenerated to sloppy free-for-alls. Her name dropped from star to supporting roles and Sherri’s condition worsened with an arrest for indecent exposure. After I bailed her out, she drove her battered Skylark directly to the dealer in Sunland.
“Maybe you should cool out. We could go to the desert.”
“So you can fuck me like everyone else?” This was the drugs speaking.
“No, so you don’t die.” Her arms and legs were stitched with tracks. She was nodding behind the wheel and we narrowly missed a semi-trailer on the Ventura Freeway.
"Let me drive."
"You're going to kill us." I was desperate, but not that desperate.
“I survived being deserted by my mother. I survived adoption. I survived these films. I survived Che leaving me.” She cried for an hour by the side of the road. I held her in my arms. Worst was sure to come.
“You can’t die on me. You promised you would push me down the stairs.”
“I’ll live that long.” Sherri sniffed away the tears. “Even if it kills me.”
Several days later Sherri dropped me at LAX and I wondered whether I would see her again. Our friends and enemies died from AIDS, ODs, suicides, and stupid accidents. Natural causes were for the rest of the world and so were normal relationships.
New York women were looking for millionaires. I didn’t stand a chance against bald-headed bankers or loud stockbrokers. On a visit to Boston my mother suggested visiting Ireland to find a woman like herself or my sisters.
“I’ll even pay the ticket. I know you want to marry and have kids."
"I do.” It was the first time I admitted this goal.
“You’ll never meet a girl like that in New York.”
“Other people do. Maybe I’ll be lucky.”
“Lucky is for horse races.” She believed more in prayers than casinos. “What about Ireland?”
“I’ll save it for a rainy day.” Every Irish woman leaves the Emerald Isle once she’s old enough to breed or else she’ll have a brood of five before she’s 20.
I returned to Manhattan even more committed to finding solace as a bachelor.
Life was comfortable. A doorman job at a nightclub paid my rent. I worked five days a week. My days and nights were a habit of routine. I saw them lasting forever.
In late April I was rolling on the Triumph along 3rd Avenue after a rainstorm. Not many people were on the streets; a trio of addicts on 14th Street, two junkie whores working the car traffic of 13th Street, and at 12th Street a raven-haired girl in a long leather trench coat struggling with a bald man in denim.
When he slapped her, I jammed on the brakes and the bike skidded on the wet pavement to halt a foot from the couple. Her assailant unbuttoned his jacket. A gun was tucked into his waistband. Any sane man would have roared away like an A-4 jet slingshot off an aircraft carrier deck, instead I warned, “Don’t touch the girl again.”
“You want a piece?” He wrenched apart her coat. She wasn’t wearing any clothes underneath. A vee of pubic hair fluffed below the pouting belly. The pimp forced her forward by a shank of hair. “Sometimes we have force them into what they like?”
The streetlight hit the face.
“You’ve met before?” The bald man relaxed his grip.
"You really do get around."
"Fuck you." Elana dug a high heel into his foot and she jumped on my bike. “Go, go, go.”
We burned a red light at St. Mark’s and she snuggled against my spine.
“You happy to see me?”
"Take me someplace."
I drove to a bar far from 3rd Avenue. The three old drunks on the stools straightened their postures for Elana. I ordered two beers from the bartender and led her into a dark corner. Lifting the tail of her coat, Elana sat on my lap and her rounded ass settled into my crotch.
“I liked your lips in Paris.”
“I haven’t forgotten yours.”
“We weren’t so lucky that night.”
“Where’s Danny?” I had to ask. He was a friend.
“Danny and me go to Brest. His boat comes in. He says to meet him in two months. I wave good-bye and cry. I work in a dance bar in Amsterdam.” The intonation on ‘dance bar’ meant a strip club. “I make money. You like my dancing?”
“Who can I forget?” Her dance at the Reve was acid-etched in my retinas.
“Never I hope.” Elana wriggled sinuously, as her reptile tongue slithered into my mouth and I fell without any safety ropes to haul me from the chasm. Finally she released her hold. “Many men love me in Amsterdam. I meet this bald man and he buys me a ticket to New York, so I can find Danny. We arrive this afternoon and this night two friends visit his place. They want a ménage a quatre. I refuse and he beats me.”
Elana pressed my fingers to the raised welts on her belly. The story was simple and they always are, if the worst parts are left out. My muscles tensed into knots. She opened my fingers and guided my hand underneath her coat.
“That doesn’t matter any more. I need you. You tell me where first.”
No man can retain his sanity after hearing such an offer, but I only had time to lose half my mind, for the bald man shouted from three feet away, “You bitch.”
How he found us was unimportant and I shoved Elana at him. She scratched his face. Her attack opened his defenses for a hard-swung beer bottle. Blood spurted from a gash in his forehead and he fell to his knees, pistol in hand. One kick to the skull and he flopped to the floor. The bald man had paid more for the sins of others as well as his own.
Elana deftly rifled the man’s pockets. The bartender shouted he was calling the police. Brandishing a wallet and keys, she jumped to her feet and grabbed my hand. We ran to my Triumph.
The bike started with a backfire and we roared away from the bar. My temples pounded faster than the pistons of the 650cc engine and I wondered if the entire episode had been a cheap thrill. A glimpse over my shoulder revealed the bald man wasn’t a joke.
“We go to his place, get my clothes, and then you can have me any way you desire.” Elana directed me to a decrepit three-story building in Chinatown. The streets were empty and she slipped off the bike.
“I’ll be a minute.”
The door slammed shut and my hand revved the gas. Leaving was the smartest thing to do. I waited. Two minutes later Elana emerged with one bag.
"I half-expected you to be gone."
"I'm not going anywhere this time."
"So this is a raincheck?"
"Good.” Her arms curled around my chest and she nipped at my ear. “Let’s go to your place. Fast.”
We reached East 10th Street in less than two minutes and climbed three flights to my apartment in thirty seconds. I opened the door and she scampered into the unlit bedroom. Shucking her leather coat she fell on the mattress to become a carbon-black shadow on the white sheets.
“Come to me.”
I knelt between her legs and she locked her ankles around my hips to guide me deep inside her, saying, “Oh, yeah.”
With each orgasm Elana shape-shifted from vivid temple whore to virginal lover to hardened streetwalker to an aging courtesan, and finally an old lover telling a dirty bedtime story. There was no bald man, no Danny, no New York, no Paris, no anything. When I tried to roll off, she held on. “Stay in me longer.”
She aroused me once more with a stroke of my thigh. Her fingernails feathered the tight flesh behind my testicles and her teeth scrapped my foreskin. She hadn’t learned this technique at dance school.
“You bitch.” I grabbed a length of hair.
“I’m whoever you want me to be.” Her hands peeled her ass cheeks and I followed her darkest wish, this time for an hour and the next time to dawn and sleep.
I woke in bed alone, but Elana was no Cinderella. The water was running in the bathroom. Elana rested under a steaming surface with her black hair fanned on the curved edge, so she resembled a fairy-tale princess in slumber. With closed eyes Elana asked, “Do you have a girlfriend?”
“It matter, if I did?”
“Not this time.” She lolled her head and I pressed my thumbs into the taut muscles of her neck. Her sibilant moan verified if I didn’t have a girlfriend, I did now and she stood up in the bath.
“Are you scared?” Elana was five foot-four and weighed a hundred pounds.
“I can deal with you.” I wrapped her in a towel.
“You know that story I tell you about that man. I go look for him everywhere last year. In the end I find is you.” She let the towel fall to the floor. I will kiss your skin and kiss your heart. I will kiss your body.”
I could have asked why. There had to be more than one reason. Maybe more than two, instead I let her fulfill this promise during the next three days in bed. The number of times we spoke could be counted on one hand. Truthfully words would have rotted the bonds of flesh. On the fourth evening Elana dressed in a black plastic dress and a matching coat.
“We’re going for a ride. I’ll tell you where, when we get there.”
The night air was warm and the trees were budding bright green leaves. My bike sped us downtown to under the Brooklyn Bridge. Elana tapped my shoulder and pointed to the concrete bumper encircling the Manhattan support tower. Upon reaching the concrete causeway to the bridge tower, she ordered me to stop.
“I have a special place to show you. It was in this movie WOLFEN.
“WOLFEN had a scene on top of the bridge.” I had seen the urban tale of werewolves several times. “There’s nothing here.”
“Only you and me.” She crawled through a breach in the chain link fence and walked out on the corroding concrete bumper. A tug hauling a barge blew its horn and its wake lapped at the pier. Traffic hummed overhead on the bridge’s steel gratings.
“I saw this pier in the background of the movie.” Elana placed her hands against the tower’s base. “You can feel the power of the city in the stones. Vibrating with a hum. Feel it through me now.”
“Here?” No one was in sight.
“Now.” Now had one meaning and afterwards she said breathlessly, “I have some more places to visit too.”
Elana was wild and I had no intention of taming her.
Out on a fire-twisted Hudson pier we coupled with total rejection of self-preservation. Inside an elevator stopped between floors with the alarm blaring I brought her to orgasm with my tongue. During a downpour we fucked against a post office wall, her skirt pushed above her hips and shirt opened to the waist. Neither of us noticed the passers-by. Once we were joined together, nothing and nobody was pulling us part. After a handful of such episodes I understood that Elana’s insatiability was destined to break me and I was beyond caring whether the wreckage was my body or soul.
I took her to see my favorite film, Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacClaine. She was Warren Beatty's brother.
"Why do you like that film? The man gets hurt by the woman. He gets hurt by everyone. Is that what you want?"
"I liked it as a boy." I liked it as a man too.
"You're not a boy anymore
The word ‘love’ was forming on my lips and other people loved Elana too. The homeless people on Avenue A called out her name. She always had a spare change. The police cars whooped in passing. She flashed her ass. The kids in the park loved to see her dance. She befriended the old Puerto Rican lady across the hall. They would sit in her kitchen and laugh at the Latin DJ’s jokes. Whenever I asked what was so funny, they laughed harder.
Elana attended the dance classes at the community center opposite my apartment. From my fire escape I watched her lewd spinning around a pole. This move offended the modernists, until a lascivious gesture dissipated their resistance and they gathered around the heretic like moths in a maelstrom for a reward of raw abandonment to which I was no stranger.
Elana returned from these classes to perform Salome to the music from the movie, VAMPYROS LESBOS, an earth nymph to Joni Mitchell or a jazzy waif to John Coltrane. Sapped of her reserves, she would collapse on the sofa and softly beckoned to take her.
One night as we lazed in the sexual afterglow, she said, “You not love me for me.”
“It’s not that I don’t love you.”
“You are scared I can hurt you.”
“Not be sorry. You wanting my body is fine. I want you the same way. One girl in the dance class has seen you spying us. I told her you were my boyfriend. She wants to meet you. Can you handle two women at one time?”
“I can satisfy you, can’t I?” I dragged her into the bedroom and my heart nearly burst through my ribcage to prove my ardor.
She was ready for more and said, “I win.”
The proposition was forgotten, although I remembered her questioning my involvement. I wanted more from her. Walks in the rain and fireside chats were becoming more appealing than sex.
I returned to the apartment with flowers and found Elana was underneath a heavy-bodied female. She reached out with a rehearsed lethargy.
Powerless I dropped the flowers on the floor and days elapsed with the decreasing need for what she was more than willing to give without my telling her that I wanted something else. We were locked in the language of sex. My fingers entered secret passages, my tongue explored caves, and my penis was swallowed to the root, then the phone rang at dawn.
It continued throughout her free-fall of orgasms and I tried to knock the phone off the hook. She blocked my hand and held the receiver to her ear. Hearing the voice on the other end she squealed with an unbridled joy. “I’ll come to you.”
The caller was Danny and I smiled to hide my heart crumbling to dust.
“Where is he?”
“Gloucester.” She stroked my side. “Is it far?”
“Far enough? When are you leaving?”
“Today, if you give me the money for a bus.”
I swallowed hard. “Not tomorrow?”
“No, I have to leave today.”
“Get packed and I’ll drive you to the Bus Terminal.”
She collected her few belongings and informed my neighbor about her departure. The old bruja kissed her forehead. “Buena Suerta.”
Driving to Port Authority I contemplated leaving her on the street, except too many women had vanished from the bus station and I bought a round-trip ticket to Gloucester, thinking one day she might use the return half. At the gate for Boston, she said, “You knew one day he will call.”
“But not this soon.” I got no explanation how Danny knew she was at my place.
“I had fun.” Elana motioned for the driver to wait a second.
“Laughs too.” I was deaf to my heart begging her to stay. “You better hurry.”
She kissed my cheek and boarded the bus. It pulled away in a choking cloud of exhaust. I panicked and ran to my bike. The bus route was straight up 8th Avenue. I arrived outside to find a Midtown cop writing a parking ticket and he wasn’t buying any love story. Back on East 10th Street I purged my apartment of scent-saturated sheets, soiled panties, stray stockings, lipstick tubes, make-up, nail polish remover, combs, brushes, and hairpins.
Within two hours my place was as devoid of female accoutrements as a Trappist monk’s cell. Not the way I liked it, simply the way it was.
The spring rains washed the dirt from the streets. Thunder echoed across the city and lightning slashed jagged bolts through the sky like a celestial film crew was remaking THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW. Every song was written about Elana and I was tossed out of several bars for punching out the jukebox.
Other women had lips too thin and their eyes dead from too many boyfriends. I begged the old Puerto Rican lady to exorcise Elana from my soul.
“You tell her stay?” she asked in broken English.
“No, she wanted to go, so she went.”
“Stupido, you no say no go, she go. You say stay, she stay.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I am a witch.” The old lady slammed her door. “Not your mother.”
May plowed relentlessly into June. Couples strolled hand in hand and I woke day after day alone in my bed. Summer promised much more of the same, then one morning someone jiggled my front door. The East Village was overrun by thieves. I grabbed my baseball bat and ripped open the door.
”Don’t hit me.” Elana cringed in the hallway.
“I won’t hit you.” It took a couple of seconds to lower the bat.
“You mad?” She leaned against the door.
“No, surprised.” She had a black eye and wore a thin cotton shift.
Everything else was in a paper bag. “And Danny?”
Heart-rending sobs racked her body and the old senora leaned out her door, her left eye armed for a hex. Elana rattled off an explanation in English and added, “He’s not bad man.”
“You take care of her or else.” The wizened witch warned with a wavering finger.
“I will.” As a superstitious Irish-American I feared her ‘or else’ worse than any hell promised by the nuns and priests.
Elana was sitting on my living room couch. I joined her and she laid her head on my lap. Her tears dried on my jeans and she regained her breath. The window was open and music played from the dance studio. It was Isaac Hayes' version of BY THE TIME I GET TO PHOENIX.
“I get to Gloucester and Danny is very happy." Elana wiped her nose with the back of her hand and then continued, "We move to an old boat in the harbor and make love for many days. After two months I ask him to marry me.” Her confession chipped at my heart. “Danny goes crazy. He throws me out of the boat. He beats me, telling me I am trying to steal his freedom. I stay on his boat and cry myself to sleep. I wake up, Danny is gone to sea. I wait one week. He stays at sea. Where can I go? Not home. I come here. You are my only friend. Can I stay with you?”
“As long as you want.” Maybe forever.
“It has been so long.” She stripped off her clothes to reveal the fading belt marks and bruises, but she sighed, “They will leave. I will not.”
The door remained shut for days. She was my slave and I hers. Somehow the sex was different and I put my finger on this change one afternoon, as we lay naked on my bed.
Elana’s lips were moving in what I thought was a slattern incantation, but then I deciphered two syllables. With her eyes closed I was Danny. This substituted identity sobered my lust and I rolled off her.
“I’m tired.” Like that the end began.
Each time she tried to seduce me with her hands or mouth or body, I said I wasn’t in the mood. Frustrated she would storm off to the old senora. I quelled my discontent with drink and drugs, a deadly combination on a motorcycle. One night I fell through the door in a near-stupor.
“You should not drive in that condition.” Elana helped me to bed.
“I was waiting for you.”
“Why? Couldn’t you find one of your little dancers or another version of Danny?”
Her face went white and she ran into the bedroom.
Comforting her was a small price to pay. Perhaps one day she might have called my name. My pride argued I didn’t need her. It didn’t take long to discover the penalty of my self-deceit.
When I crawled into bed around dawn, ready to repent, she showed her back.
That afternoon I told her, “Elana, my sister is coming to the city.”
“I have to leave?” Her feet slowed across the floor.
“Do you have anyplace to go?”
“Yes, I will stay with friends.” She stood without mentioning who those friends might be and I left before I regretted my lie.
When I returned, she was gone. A quick check of my apartment revealed that she had stolen a couple hundred dollars. It seemed a small price to pay for her leaving, only I was hiding the real cost.
The old lady across the hall asked about Elana.
“No se.” There was no note.
Wicked Spanish hissed from her lips and I fled inside my apartment too late. Chicken bones were scattered on my door step and her cackling filled the hallway. Her curse sentenced me to another desert.
Some women sought to be friends and others thought I was gay. Mrs. Adorno seemed to shrink every week of this penance. I searched the streets of the East Village for Elana. No one would say where she was, even though I could tell they knew.
My cousin Sherri flew into town for a dance session at Show World. She patiently listened to my story and then said, “I used to think that sex was the answer, but I’ve learned that the sex is sex. Nothing more and people make too much of it. To sell movies. To sell TV time. To sell cars. It’s not about the sex. It’s about the way you feel when you have sex with someone you love. Everything else you can get from jerking off.”
“Everything?” I had my doubts.
“Well, only if you don’t think masturbation is a sin.”
“I was brought up Catholic.”
“Then you’re doomed to damnation.”
“And wouldn’t have it any other way.” Sherri and I were destined to survive our tribulations if only to tell people about them, since most of what we would have to say was unbelievable. We weren’t the only people with stories.
In early autumn I ran into Danny at a gallery opening for his friend, Jean-Michel. His face was weathered by the sea. I lunged at him and people had to hold us apart, but finally I calmed down and he asked, “What did Elana say to you?”
“That you had beaten her.”
“I never touched her.” Danny grabbed at a passing glass of wine. I took another. Like me he wasn’t a woman-beater. “I wasn’t pissed at you for taking care of Elana. When she came up to Gloucester I could tell it was different between us. We only had sex that first night and the rest of the time she would look out the window at the harbor.”
“You lived in a house?”
“On a wharf really.”
I knew Gloucester and bet the wharf was on Rocky Neck. “She lied about that?”
“She tell you a story about her mother abandoning her?” Danny’s eyes went sad. “I met her mother and father in Madrid. Had a dance school. Nice people. The other story was what you needed to hear. What men wanted to hear, because she thought she wasn’t enough to be who she wanted to be?”
“I didn’t see her that way.”
”Neither did I, but she did.”
“So now what?” The belt marks and bruises had come from somewhere, but that somewhere was not Danny.
“Let’s get drunk.” We drank whiskey at the Odeon. He slept over my apartment and in the morning left for Gloucester. I wished him luck.
Leaves fell from the trees. The air grew cold. I saw my friends, drank at bars, and told stories about Paris. Their laughter proved that tragedies could become comedies with time.
The night before Halloween I was sitting on my Triumph before Madame Rosa's near the Holland Tunnel. A yellow taxi pulled into the alley and stopped a foot from my bike. A blonde in a black leather cuirass and steel-strapped girdle emerged from the Checker. The Devil would have been proud how this sadistic apparition paralyzed every man on the street. Her unworldly eyes trawled for prey and settled on me.
“Elana.” I revved the engine.
“I’m happy you have not forgotten me.” She threw a leg over my bike. “Let’s go. Anywhere.”
My heart thumped through five gears. Within minutes we were on 10th Street. Twenty seconds after my apartment slammed shut, we were naked. It was like our first night. Neither of us held anything in reserve and the pleasure became a pain, which I quelled with a stuttered ejaculation.
As I strained to regain my breath, Elana explained, “You throw me out. These punks from the park live in a squat. We live as animals and are animals with each other. Not washing and eating food we find in the trash, fucking like savages. Soon the men only want me. The other women hate me. One day I meet this woman. She and I perform dominatrix shows for businessmen. They love us. We are the best. This girl and I start a business. I have a loft and a beautiful girlfriend. I thank you for throwing me out.”
“You didn’t come to tell me that.”
“No, the old senorita told me she had placed a curse on you and the only way for it to come off was for me to make love to you.”
"You fucked with me, but didn't deserve that."
“Why the stories? About Danny? About the man in Madrid. About everything? Did you really love Danny?”
“Yes, and you too. You both only wanted me for sex and I gave myself freely, but not anymore. Men pay me $500 for an hour. There is no way even a thousand free orgasms can add up to an hour, but life is way too long not to fall in love and I have that with this woman. The sex is good. Everything else is so much better. Maybe you helped me to understand that. Maybe you didn’t, but I’m almost happy now. Happy to be me and not a fairy tale for someone else like your stupid movie THE APARTMENT. Your friend Sherri told me to watch it, but it was just a movie. Nothing else and you’re not either man in the movie. You’re not bad and you’re not good. You’re just you and no one else.” She attached the leather and buckles and clips with the care of a samurai suiting for battle and slowly counted out $400.
“I owe you that.”
“Where are you going?” I felt more like me than I had in a long time.
“Uptown. A priest needs a succubus to a ritual crucifixion.” She offered a full view of her body, as her gloved hand reached for the door. “Do I look like a goddess ready to die for her sins?”
“You’ll have a million worshippers.” I was one of them. Saying I love her might change everything. I said nothing instead. She already had someone to love.
“I’ll be seeing you.” She went to the door.
“I hope so.” This was a good an ending as I could hope for the both of us, although for weeks afterwards I searched the Daily News’ police reports without reading about the discovery of a crucified woman matching her description.
No one saw her again. Not me. Not Danny. Not the old lady across the hallway. At least the chicken bones vanished from my doorstep and this said Elana was fine.
I started looking for a woman. I had been a fool to love a woman who didn’t love me. A greater fool to not love someone who loved me. Six years was a long time to learn this lesson, but I was happy to know in the future I would be a fool again. Any sinner will be as long as they’re willing forget the past, forgive the present, and live for the future.