Two weeks after Labor Day the Continental opened its door without a liquor license. Limos lined West 25th Street well past dawn, as models, actresses, and strippers danced with abandon to the city’s best DJs. Movie stars snorted coke with two-bit dealers and national politicians seduced Amazonian TVs on pop-art sofas.
Few revelers cared about the illegality of an after-hours club. The precinct police were on the take. Sanitation inspectors glommed drinks with big-hair wives, plainclothes cops strong-armed bribes, and Jimmie Fats siphoned the cash cow for the firemen. Greed blinded the bagmen to Arthur's wearing a wire for Internal Affairs and the FBI investigating our Russian investor for counterfeit twenties. I was counting the ays until it all went bad. I hoped to not be there then, but $100 tips pushed my day of departure back weekend by weekend.myopia from $50 tips blotted out my better judgment.
By Halloween I had $5000. $5000 became $6000 by mid-November.
Arthur sold a half his share to three men in black suits.
“I thought you were going.” Arthur paid me $500 for the week.
“I don’t know where to go.” My pockets were crammed with tips. It was getting cold, but I still hadn't spoken to Lisa.
“Anyplace, but here.” Arthur nodded at his new partners.
Their shoes were FBI issue.
“I’ll leave after Christmas.” Another month was worth $3000.
“Don’t wait too long.” He was trying to tell me something only I wasn’t listening as long as Lisa’s Nordic profile, blonde hair and sculptured shoulders dogged my peripheral vision.
She was a siren and to other men as well.
Vadim’s bodyguards explained Slavic etiquette to these suitors in the alley. My obsession rejected fear and I cornered Lisa once, when Vadim was out of town.
“All I want is explanation.” It was almost Thanksgiving. The anniversary of her leaving.
“Of what?” She had embraced the comfort of amnesia.
“Why you left and never came back.” I had thousands of answers. None of them added up to one plus one equaling two.
“If I explained that, then I would have to tell you everything.” She looked through me as if I were glass and wearily walked away, saying “Sometimes you don’t get answers.”
Refused an answer, I provided them by flipping a coin.
A half-dollar got the best results in flipism.
Heads meant yes. Tails no. “Does she love me?”
A spike jabbed my heart.
“Will she come back to me?”
I lived in darkness.
“Will we have sex again?”
My boundless obsession accepted these random replies as the truth, especially since Lisa’s neglect was a game and she chose to exploit a pawn in December.
The winter dawn broke on the club’s fire escape. Danny was playing the Members’ SOUNDS OF THE SUBURBS. I stood on the rusting steel, watching the stars fade from the night. High heels clicked onto the steel grating. Lisa wore a black sable fur coat. It was open and her silk shirt was unbuttoned to her waist.
“I needed some air.”
Her flawless skin was the color of the first snow.
“Cold this time of year.” I started for the door.
“Not that cold in this coat.” She leaned against the door. “Don’t worry. Vadim is too high to care what I do.”
“What about his bodyguards?”
“They’re drunk too. Russians like their drink.” She reached out for me. “Hold me.”
I melted into her like a nuclear core going China Syndrome through the Earth.
After a breathless kiss the ashen blonde claimed, “I haven’t stopped loving you.”
“Me neither.” I wished our bodies were wrapped in silk sheets instead of buffeted by an alley wind.
“I can’t give you any answers.” Her hands spoke with desire. looked over her shoulder as if her eyes could see through the steel door.
“I don’t want words.” It was a well-rehearsed line.
“Good.” She pulled me closer and we embraced like lovers in a silent movie for a half-minute. Her heart was bare to my hand and beat like a clock ready to sound its alarm.
“I have to go.” Her Cinderella clock ticked fast after midnight.
“I wish I didn’t have to go.”
“Then leave with me. I have $6000. We can go anywhere. Europe, LA, Florida. Anywhere.”
“$6000 goes fast.” The narrowing of her eyes revealed that she was adding up the pros and cons of my proposition.
“We can rent a house in Key West.”
I could work at a bar. We’d watch the sunsets from the pier. I loved the sea. It was only one of a million possibilities, if she said ‘yes’.
“Vadim says you’re headed nowhere.” She was weighing my worth.
“Only because I’ve been waiting for you.”
Applause from NYU co-eds rewarded my poems about two days stranded in Garrison Junction, Montana, yet a drifter’s code wasn’t tattooed on my skin. “I could get a real job. Move into a nice apartment.”
>A nine-to-five held little glamour to someone who has travelled first-class through Europe and her icy stare announced her final appraisal. Her hand withdrew from mine.
“Sean, it’s a nice dream, but life’s too short to live a dream.”<
“Why you never call?” Asking questions was not part of my daydreams.
“Your phone got shut off.” An unpaid bill was only partially the truth.
“You could have sent a postcard.” This plea cut the scene short.
“The last thing I need in life is someone who’s only interested in breaking the score of CBGBs pinball machine.” Pity was not her forte.
“I’m good at pinball.” I owned the record for the SLASH machine at CBGBs.
“But your name isn’t Tommy.” Lisa fled inside the club like Vadim might have woken from his stupor.
She joined Vadim and his partner, Viktor Malenski, in the VIP lounge.
Before I could broach the velvet ropes, his two Ukrainian bodyguards formed an immovable barrier. I possessed other means of touching Lisa and went to the DJ booth with two beers.
“Nice entrance.” Danny sported a broken nose and two black eyes. His hailing from Old New York money more than compensated for a crooked beak with the girls at the International. They loved him all the more.
“I wasn’t trying to be discreet.”
“You’re threading on razors.” Danny touched his nose.
“I’m not worried about Vadim’s thugs.”
“Really?” One punch had taught Danny to keep his distance from Lisa.
“Not at all.” I pushed him away from the turntables and picked out an LP. Danny grimaced at my choice of the Romantics' WHAT I LIKE ABOUT YOU.
“That song only has an audience of one.”
“Two. You’re forgetting me.”
Two years ago the Romantics had played Hurrah. Hundreds of young women packed the uptown rock club to see the Detroit band. I took a break from the door to check out the show. A blonde stood before the speakers. Her beauty belonged in a fashion magazine and I leaned forward to smell hair fragrant as peaches dipped in burnt tar.
Mere mortals didn’t stand a chance with her, but she backed into me, as the group played their hit song. Her intent was more than flirtation and I should have retreated to the club’s entrance.
My hillbilly girlfriend waited at our East Village apartment. She said she loved me. I ignore her declaration of devotion and grabbed the blonde’s hand. The double encore of their hit accompanied our sex in the stairwell.
Now Lisa laughed, as if the song was for someone else. The dance floor emptied quickly. Arthur frowned at the DJ booth and slashed his hand in the air to cut the song short.
“Sorry, but I get paid to make people dance.” Danny didn’t need another broken nose.
“Put something else on.” I accepted its failure.
Danny segued to Chic’s LE FREAK and ransacked the EPs for a floor-filler to cover his tracks.
“There are other women out there.”
“And I’ve been with more than a few.” Vixens lounged on the club’s over-stuffed sofas in a languid mockery of foreplay and braless teenagers danced like they had graduated from stripper training school. I had slept with several. None of the one-nighters succeeded in erasing the ruins in my head. There had to be a magic word. A gesture. Something to change the present into another now.
“You ever hold something in your hands and know it belongs nowhere else?”
“My Little League baseball bat.” Danny grasped an imaginary slugger. “Women are mist on the water and no man can hold onto a ghost.”
“Lisa’s flesh and blood.”
“A zombie is the one ghost you can never raise from the dead.”
“She told me she loved me.” I watched, as she led Vadim onto the dance floor.
“No phone calls, no letters, and a Russian boyfriend don’t spell love in any language.”
“Not if you’re only reading the subtitles.” Lisa swayed to the music without looking my way and Vadim moped like a trained bear. I danced better than him and I had read her TS Eliot in the bed of a Niagara Falls Hotel. Poetry under the sheets had to count for something, but cutting in was not an option. The bodyguards glared at me.
“She never said she was going away forever.”
“Never can change to forever in a heartbeat. You were a poet a year ago. Your shit was funny. Why you stop?”
“I walked into a bookstore. Thousands of books were on the shelves. At least five hundred said what I felt.” Self-pity served as the coup de grace to my muse.
“So now you’re a thug.”
“And Vadim is a gangster.” Vadim and Lisa stopped dancing and went to the coat check. They were leaving for the night. My quitting time was dawn.
“If a woman has to choose between the lesser of two evils then she’ll go for the money.”
“Love’s not about money.” Not at the moment of orgasm.
“That coat is worth more than you earned last year.” Danny focused a light on Vadim covering her shoulders with a sable fur.
“So?” My memories of Lisa rotted like a Playboy pictorial left in the rain.
“So no matter how much a woman loves you, she’ll always seek the safest harbor.”
“And my life’s too messy to offer any woman shelter.” My apartment was in a ghetto, my bank account languished in double figures, and my plans for the future extended no further than breakfast.
“You’re a storm at sea.” Danny spun TAINTED LOVE and revelers thronged onto the dance floor.
Arthur waved for me to return to the door, as a flat-chested brunette in a slick black leather dominatrix outfit slinked into the DJ booth. Several men on the dance floor recognized Sherri. My cousin had starred in scores of XXX movies. Her most famous role was as a teenage runaway. I had seen the film twice. We had met in a Times Square bar after she tilted my pinball machine. Our mutual affinity for self-destruction determined that we were better off friends than lovers.
“Hi, cous.” Sherri greeted me with a kiss on the cheek.
>Sherri was more than a hellbound succubus. She was smart and very funny. We had good times together. Claiming a family tie avoided any explanation of our relationship.
“You’ve really have to give her up. No woman will cross a bridge she’s burned.” Sherri followed my eyes to the couple exiting the club.
“What if I walked across water?”
“We’re sinners.” Sherri’s failures in love rivaled my debacles. “And only saints can depend on miracles.”
“I can change my ways. St. Paul did.”
“St. Paul wasn’t chasing another man’s woman.”
“He thinks their bodies were created for one another.” Danny almost played James Brown’s IT’S A MAN’S WORLD and then switched to Sly Stone’s TAKE ME HIGHER. “Like Adam and Eve.”
“I don’t care what they wrote in the Bible, God created the first woman for himself. Adam had to make do with the animals until God got tired with Eve.” Sherri’s opinion of men hovered low to the ground.
“I’m not saying Lisa was created for me.”
“No woman is created for any man.” Sherri preferred girls. Her fans did too.
“And worst you think there are only two kinds of women other than your mother.”
“Only two.” I had thought there were at least five.
“Marlon Brando has his way Blanche in STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and two minutes later is calling out, “Stella.” Your ex-girlfriend looks like a virgin, except she’s sleeping with another man. Men can’t choose between the virgin and the whore. You have one. You want the other. No woman can be both. Not the Virgin Mary. Not even me.”
“Your audience does.”
“They’re suckers.” <
“Most men are, but all I want is someone to love.” I was hoping that she possessed a secret potion, instead Sherri said, “Your first night with Lisa you made ‘love five times. At least that’s what you told me.”
”Five times?” Danny’s eyes widened in admiration.
“My heart was on fire.”
“Yes, you’ve been using that 'five times' as a yardstick for involvement with a woman. Lust is not love. Lust is lust. See the girl in the boa feathers.”
A scantily-clad redhead teased a circle of leering men. Che Chasta was the leading lady in Sherri’s films.
“I told her you were good in bed.”
“How would you know?” Danny turned up the volume.
“If I’m great, then my cousin has to be at least good.” Sherri tapped my cheek.
“Are you two really cousins?” Danny had a thing for Sherri.
“Blood’s thicker than thieves.” Sherri dragged me from the DJ booth. The hopes of the redhead’s admirers were dashed by Che’s kissing my cousin like a snake swallowing its prey.
“Che, I think you should go home with my cousin." The two women were more than on-screen lovers, but Sherri wanted to keep her distance. "He needs some TFC.”
“And I’m an expert at ‘tender fucking care’.” Che’s feathery caress scintillated my marrow. “Anything stopping you?”
Lisa had left with another man. The sexual revolution was burning the moral tenets of America. Everything was ‘go’ and not ‘no’.
“Just a second.” I went up to Arthur. “I need to go home.”
“I can see why.” The wily owner glanced over my shoulder at the waiting redhead. “Good luck.”
Envy accompanied my departure. The bouncers flicked thumbs up, as we got in the taxi. Che gave the driver a show on the way to a Tribeca loft. In the elevator she stripped naked, singing Rick James’ SUPER FREAK, “I’m a Super Freak, Super Freak.”
“You’re really sexy.” Her lingerie smelled of cigarette and Estee Lauder perfume.
“I hear that all the time.”
“You have anything else you want to tell me?”
I spoke dirty. She cooed with a little girl voice and caressed herself with a shiver. The elevator door opened and she danced into the loft. Cameras and lights were arranged around a large bed.
“Tomorrow Sherri and I are shooting two sex scenes.” She unzipped her boots. “Tonight is rehearsal.”
Che lay on the sheets. Her breasts flattened on her chest. I peeled off my clothes. I knelt between her thighs. Her tongue licked at her lips and hands guided me inside. I shut my eyes. Men across America would have killed for this moment of heaven, except my erection withered under a phantom’s stranglehold and I faked a premature ejaculation.
“Don’t feel so bad, softies happen to a lot of men with me,” Che consoled with an expertise forged by cinematic sex. “Let me fluff you for seconds.”
Che expertly tried to arouse me, but something was broken. After three minutes she stopped and asked, “You’re not gay, are you?”
“No, I’m sorry.” I didn’t feel like talking about my futile fixation and deserted the sex icon, for my East Village apartment, where I scissored women from glossy stroke books to construct a Frankenstein collage of Lisa. Our reunion was the one lie I believed, as December collapsed towards Christmas.
I lived off cocaine bribes from customers and sold the excess to customers. My $6000 rose to $8000, but I wasn’t leaving, despite things going downhill fast. Sherri was arrested by the precinct police for possession. My threat of snitching to Internal Affairs prevented her being the station house’s party favor. Vadim ODed on heroin. My reviving him earned scant thanks from Lisa, although the Russian stopped thinking that I was his enemy. Danny’s parents threw him out of the apartment after he stole a family heirloom. He crashed on my couch. We were our own worst enemies. Inexplicably outsiders viewed our lifestyle as glamorous.
A French magazine front-paged my photo and their journalist wrote that I was a legend at 29. Bernard based this title on my urban exploits without any knowledge of my stalking Lisa from her apartment on East 73rd Street to Vadim’ Central Park penthouse or tailing the couple’s ricochets around Manhattan.
Vadim never spotted my surveillance, as he met with Odessa diamond traffickers and his thugs visited gulag violence on complete strangers. Lisa endured the beatings with heartless sighs and I wasn’t the pair’s only shadow.
Right before Christmas Vadim’s partner was arrested by the FBI. Viktor refused to talk. The precinct police were called before Internal Affairs. They maintained a silent wall of blue. These harbingers of the approaching end failed to pierce my narco-ambulation. My wake-up call came on New Year’s Eve, when Viktor Malenski was shot dead in front of the club.
This execution bared the Continental to a public frenzy fed by the city’s newspapers. I wasn't witness to the murder, yet my name skirted the periphery of the widening scandal of drugs, fame, and beauty with NYPD’s Internal Affairs drawing lines between the dots.
Lisa came to my apartment. We stayed in bed for an entire day. She swore that she hadn’t pulled the trigger. I believed her every word and confessed nothing during a police interrogation.
“Don’t leave town.” The Internal Affairs sergeant wasn’t buying my version.
19 cops were suspended from the force. I knew half their names. Arthur knew them all. A phone call from Paris averted my appointment as state’s witness.
Bernard told me that the magazine Actuel wanted for an American to work a nightclub in Paris. Bad French was a prerequisite for the position of physionomiste. A round-trip ticket was waiting at Air France. My passport was up-to-date and I asked Lisa what I should do.
“You have to go. We won’t be safe here.” She lay in my arms naked. Her skin still smelled of tar. “I’ll meet you in Paris five days from now.”
“Notre-Dame.” It had to be easy to find.
“At noon.” She sealed the pact with a long kiss.
The morning of the flight I felt like Ingrid Bergman’s leaving Rick in CASABLANCA.
Lisa walked away from East 10th Street, saying. “Twelve noon.”
“In five days.” I tried to hold her scent in my lungs but exhaled as her taxi merged with the traffic on 1st Avenue.
Sherri drove me to the airport. Che was in the front seat. They were driving cross-country to set up a life in LA. I sat on the rear seat with Sherri’s parrot, Boo.
“Best thing about this trip is your leaving that blonde bitch.” Sherri dodged a truck. She was colorblind and couldn’t see brake lights.
“She’s meeting me in Paris.”
Both women groaned and Boo cackled, “Ha-ha.”
“You really think she’s going to meet you?” Sherri glanced in the rear-view mirror.
“She says she loves me.” That changed the odds to 50/50.
“You buy her a ticket?” Che swung her head to the back.
“No, she said she would get it from her agency.”
“Make that 9 to 1.”
“Which are better odds than I had before.” Slush on the Grand Central Parkway slowed traffic. I leaned back in the seat. Paris would be our refuge. I would write a book. Lisa would grace the cover of ELLE. We’d practice French in bed, drink espresso in small cafes, and wander along the Seine in the rain.
“Everything will be fine.” Sherri turned on the wipers.
“Whenever I’m in her, I feel like she is a glove.” Lisa’s scent simmered on my skin as burnt fruit. “She has to feel the same way too.”
“I’ve been hundreds of men and I’ve never found one that fit me. On the other hand women are another story.” Sherri reached over to Che. Boo screeched her support.
“This will work out.”
“Cous, don’t bet all your heart on a long shot,” Sherri was glad to say it about someone else other than herself.
“I promise I won’t.”
Sherri braked before the Air France terminal. We hugged good-bye. I said she should visit Paris. She told me the same thing about LA and then drove away into a flurry of snow.
I half-expected the police to stop my boarding the Air France, but I got on the plane and within in an hour the 747 was banking north over the northern tip on Long Island.