New York in the summer of 1981 was everything it wasn’t in the winter of 1979.
The temperature boiled the asphalt. Punk had been replaced by New Wave and somehow the city had escaped bankruptcy. Money flowed on the streets and even the East Village exhibited signs of regeneration, since abandoned tenements can only be burned so many times before ashes won’t catch fire.
People had work.
Mine was menial construction on an after-hours club along the Hudson River.
After paying rent, I had enough money for either Chinese take-out or beers at CBGBs. I lost weight and thought about robbing a bank. Whenever I entered one, guards placed their hands on the guns like they had been studying ESP. I was no Jesse James.
Daytime employment seemed the solution to my desperate situation. I had a college degree. My record was clean. I’d worked nine-to-fives before and knew they didn’t kill you, however Arthur, the nightclub owner had promised the work crew various jobs once the International opened its doors.
At his previous after-hour club I had coined $500-700 a night. We hoped to open before Labor Day. On August 13th the club was $20,000 short of our goal. Construction lurched to a halt. I started reading the New York Times’ Help Ads.
The International was saved by the arrival of a criminal refugee from Odessa. His money was rumored to come from smuggling Tsarist icons. The source was unimportant. The club was a dead issue without his help.
Arthur said Vadim had a beautiful blonde girlfriend. “Almost cover girl pretty, but too short to succeed on the runways.”
“Sounds like your old girlfriend.” Danny Gordon, the DJ, had heard that she came from Buffalo.
“No, couldn’t be.”
A year ago Lisa had left for a modeling job in Milan. I hadn’t heard from her since. No calls. No letters, although when I spotted her in a French lingerie magazine, I almost flew to Paris, except she could have been in London, Milan, or Munich, so I remained in New York to be haunted by her distant footsteps on cobble-stoned European streets.
“She’s gone for good.”
“No one leaves New York forever.”
Native New Yorkers like Danny considered anywhere else purgatory. “She’ll be back.”
“That’s what I’m worried about.”
Up to now I had been forgetting Lisa piece by piece. The smell of her skin after sex. Her laugh if I told a bad joke. Her stilted dancing to the Psychedelic Furs. Buying leather jackets together. Hers white, mine black, yet some memories had lives of their own. No matter how many drinks. No matter how many days.
“Still it would be funny if it was her.” Danny wasn’t letting go either. He had a thing for her. Any man would if she looked his way.
“Funny, but not ha-ha funny.”<
I hoped it wasn’t Lisa, but despair told me it was and I chucked a hammer at his head. The missile missed by a foot and put a dent in an op-art sculpture from the 60s. Arthur noticed the damage a week later. Danny and I denied any knowledge of how it got there.
The Russian’s cash accelerated the final stages of the construction. The walls were painted lilac purple and the sound system was wired through the club. A Labor Day opening appeared realistic and on the hottest day of summer the Russian came to inspect his investment.
We were tearing down a last section of the ceiling. It was a dirty job. Rat dust caked my sweating flesh. Danny and I couldn’t have been lower of the feeding chain of Manhattan.
“Guys, I want you to meet Vadim.” Arthur shouted from the entrance.
The gang on the scaffolding stopped working and sucked on bottles of water before glancing through salt-stung eyes at a muscular man in his late-20s. Vadim was wearing a pastel linen suit. He was clean. The crew muttered hellos. Mine was silenced by the sight of a slender blonde in snug Versace. Lisa’s b-grade beauty was as haughty as a dethroned princess checking into a Holiday Inn.
“So much for the lack of coincidences.” Danny nudged my ribs.
“It’s a small world.” My throat tightened under a garrote of lost memories. “And a long life.” “Think she recognizes you?” Danny wiped a layer of grime from his face.
“Not unless she looks my way.” My body was black with soot.
Her head turned to our perch. A dice roll of jade green eyes indicated my lack of social progress had not disappointed her low expectations for a punk poet.
“No, she hasn’t forgotten.” Danny laughed at my pained expression, as Vadim, Lisa and Arthur disappeared into the office.
Right before our lunch break, Lisa and Vadim exited from the office. She covered her mouth with a scarf. Vadim did the same with his hand. They left the site without a glance in our direction. After lunch we resumed work at a faster pace. By 4pm the ceiling had been replaced and Arthur called it a day. He was easier to work for than his other partner, a model who was on the cover of Time Magazine as a herpes sufferer.
As the rest of the crew filed from the club, Arthur pulled me aside. “This isn’t going to be a problem?”
“What?” I played dumb.
“You and Vadim’s girlfriend.” He was serious.
“Lisa?” Over the past year her name had floated in my mind a million times. This was the first time I had said it.
“Is it a problem, kid?” Arthur was risking his health by taking on Vadim as an investor. Russian from Odessa were no punks.
“No, she’s nothing to me.”
“Good, then stay away from her.”
“That what I intend to do.”
“Good.” He lifted a finger. “Vadim is a piece of work.”
Obeying his advice wasn’t hard. Lisa ignored me and I couldn’t blame her. I was a failure and not even 28. The Continental might change that status. Three months as the doorman would earn $5000 in tips and salary. That amount could finance a winter in Maine to write my first novel about a free love community in the 1840s.
WATCHIC POND was destined to garner the best-sellers lists. The world would worship my words and Lisa would run to my arms. Self-delusion rarely offers the wrong options.