by Gemma Sieff
On 56th Street at Sixth Avenue, at a Neapolitan pizzeria called Pizz’Arte, you are celebrating a high-dollar job you have just accepted and will hate. You’re trying to celebrate with an older man, forty-four to your twenty-eight, waiting there with champagne which would seem a sweet gesture, but all you asked from him today and ever was that he refrain from drinking, so disastrous are the consequences on other days when he does, and his eyes, the color of dead grass according to one of his early girls way back in Canada, are the self-pitying eyes of a longtime lush, he’s had a lot more of something stiffer somewhere else you surmise. Somewhat to your own surprise, you break up with him. He sips from his flute and waxes lyrical about what you are throwing away. The past year’s passionate last-minute rendezvous in locales as far-flung and exhaustive as Fort Worth, Texas; Austin, Texas; Xcalak, Mexico; Tijuana, Mexico; Lake Louise, Alberta; Kansas City, Missouri; Belize City; New Orleans; Lyon in the south of France; San Diego; midtown Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn, do they mean nothing to you? All those hotel rooms, all in one year. What else? A diamond necklace, a lacy nightie, Romeo Y Julieta cigars puffed on porches and fire escapes, a trillion text messages, a phone call from a bathtub halfway across the country during which he wetly mentioned he was vertically slicing his left wrist with a hunting knife, two stays in the psych ward, two ex-wives, three daughters, eleven collect calls to your workplace, expensive flowers, designer sunglasses, a secret email account, songs by John Denver.
You will never eat at Pizz’Arte again. But you pass it each week on the way to your psychiatrist, Dr. K. One day just before your appointment you run into your former boss in the block-long upper chamber of the F train station. He asks you where you’re going and you tell the truth.
“Is your psychiatrist an inscrutable Asian man?” asks this guy, your very first boss, a scholar and a writer, for whom you picked up over-the-counter cold medicine and lunch from a Vietnamese canteen in Harvard Square when you were twenty. Back then he asked you if you knew how to darn socks, and in fact your granny had taught you, but you told him not really, afraid of the next question. Your parents sold him their old Volvo, a boxy black 960 circa 1992, and he neglected to change its registration, so that his unpaid parking tickets eventually reverted to your father, away for the year on sabbatical. He replied to an inquiring email with a witty line, “I am that villain,” paid up and was forgiven. He still wears his hair in a long curly ponytail.
Dr. K, he reveals, is his psychiatrist too. You soften toward your old boss because there’s something vulnerable and comradely about going to the same brain man, a gentle person who wears a zennish pendant between the lapels of his dark suit jacket, who has seen you through the pain of many a failed relationship and counsels you patiently and intelligently on every occasion, even (especially) the times your problems present as insane self-sabotage. Dr. K seems to believe in you, and apparently in your boss too, and you awkwardly embrace him—the boss, that is. You’ve never touched your psychiatrist, though you long to give him just one proper hug for his accumulated kindnesses over the years. You are touched by the fact that he displays a tiny cream-colored seashell you gave him two years ago on the lacquered tray upon which he stands a stack of paper cups face down and a plastic jug of filtered water.
Across from Robert Indiana’s Pop Art LOVE sculpture, at 6th Ave. and 55th St., in the depths of midtown, Dan Stuart sits on a siamese standpipe fishing for passersby. He has the rosy girth of a garden gnome and smells of English Leather soap. He has a mobile phone, which he doesn’t always hear. Try him again or leave him a message. He has a story for you, girlie.
Many years ago, Dan worked with racehorses on a big farm in Louisiana. One of his colleagues he disliked from the outset. Her first language was Boer by which he means Afrikaans. She was an expert rider and a hard worker. It was a gut feeling—“I was gonna have trouble with this bitch”—as they exercised purebreds worth $2 million each. “She was good with the animals and frozen with people. She liked to work afternoons, so I took the morning shift. I grumbled, you know? But there wasn’t much I could do about it. She’d worked there longer than me. And she was impeccable on the job, impeccable—like her manners with the knives and the forks.
“One afternoon I hear this cooing sound, like a bird. It’s coming from behind one of the stable doors. At the back of this stable was the john. I went through the swinging door and I opened the door behind. Just a shitty little bathroom. Boer woman is standing at the sink, and she looks over her shoulder at me in a state of rapture. And one of the farmhands, a little Mexican, is crouched down and tossing her salad. Her ass worked hard on the horses and he was working her over. She’s not embarrassed, she’s having a great time. She even says I can be next if I want. So. That was her dirty little secret.”
Dan’s troubles stem from his fear of the dark. He started early so he wouldn’t have to be alone at night and his kids got started early too. He is fifty-seven, he has grandkids older than a girlie in her early thirties. Don’t get him wrong, the sex was great, but it was always a hedge against the night terrors, the abandonment he hates. His cane is taped, and not because it is broken. He can strip off the tape and with it the blood of the person who threatened him. The streets are mean, you’ve no idea. He holds out his clean sweet-smelling palms. “Stay a little while.” You’re sorry but you can’t. Oh, he says plaintively, you know you can.
Outside a bar not far from Dan Stuart’s standpipe, a man whose parents are Sri Lankan-born psychiatrists mock-throttles a woman whose parents are South African-born doctors of blood diseases. He calls you, the woman, “little girl,” although you are going on twenty-nine. Two cops on night watch approach you on foot.
“Everything OK?” asks the younger one, his breath feathery in the freezing air. Oh yes, you tell him, very embarrassed. He’s just playing around. Up close, the man doesn’t look so threatening. He wears little glasses on his tragic pug-like face. The policemen go away. It is hard for you to take this boyfriend seriously, even when, later on, he drinks two-thirds of a bottle of gin at home in a Trump-owned tower and hurls an empty glass in the direction of your head. You know he misses on purpose. You aren’t scared of men in the moment, you get scared in retrospect. In the moment, you find such outward displays of rage ridiculous, oafish, childish, and you play dead i.e. quiet, sweet, soft, appeasing. In the morning, a light-hearted insolence returns to you, the sprite-like posture he finds so incensing, but hungover he can’t get it up to slug you. Eventually you tire of the game and scamper off and he howls after your hologram for years. “I looked you up and saw the crow’s feet!” he writes. “Looks like karma has taken care of everything.”
Years later, a talky night with a leathery golden leprechaun in his mansion on the northwest corner of Turtle Bay. White lines go up and white lies go down easy in his big white bathroom on the top floor. He mentions the Sarkozy moving in next door with his child bride, an Olsen twin. He is meant to have lunch with m. Sarkozy’s mom, a well-coiffed woman whom he cannot fathom having sex with; she looks to him like death. The townhouse directly across from his was formerly a whorehouse. Many well-brought-up women actually enjoy their time as courtesans, especially in Paris. Mercedes Bass, born in Iran, went to school in Switzerland, married well twice, and is single again. The leprechaun is delightful, he knows so many secrets and is willing to spill them. Day breaks over the grid of gardens, one of which used to belong to Katharine Hepburn.
Ground Zero, you missed it. You moved to New York City in 2001 at the beginning of September. You are asleep in your dorm room in the long single bed on the right. The landline rings. It’s your mother, asking with a trace of panic whether you are all right. You sit up quickly; it’s lazy to be sleeping so late on a school day. You’re fine, you tell her brightly. She says there has been an attack and that half the World Trade Center has fallen. Your room faces south and way in the distance you look in vain for wisps of smoke. You never get around to visiting the site, a rite you do not feel is yours to observe. You avoid the crater like the plague as well as the swept-away remains. You scarcely leave campus during your years there, not because of terrorism but because it seems big enough for your small studious self. You protest something publicly precisely once, gathering with students and grizzled, portly, nerdy, vaguely hippie people your parents’ age, among other New Yorkers all colors all creeds, in Central Park to voice your disbelief in the casus belli of 2003. You are mostly irritable. If you won’t be changing the course of history, why are you here except to be counted among the told-you-so’s? “A wallet is not a gun!” someone says into the mic to scattered cheers, getting off-topic, or not.
For most of your twenties, you live in Brooklyn, first Cobble Hill, then Vinegar Hill, in a narrow stevedore’s house, the bedroom a broad wood step up from the living room, the uneven floors an unusual accent. After you take up with the first alcoholic, the old one you left in a pizzeria, R, the man you loved and lived with in Vinegar Hill, kicks you out and keeps the place, steadily improving it as is his way. You stay friends with R and he encourages you to work there whenever you like; you write most of this story in your former living room. This isn’t to say you’ve come full circle—an impossibility in this squiggly grid of city you keep criss-crossing with your familiars, shirking or haunting certain marked spots as your mood dictates. The stalest urine on the tree turns pungent for a minute.
Seven years have passed since you and R walked a stretch of Jacob Riis beach in the winter, dreaming up a sad man in his mid-sixties you named Gerald D’Amato. He had lost a wife on 9/11 and with her his way of life. He’d worked in the bowels of a big midtown building and he retired and started taking photographs, of the pylons and cords that hold up the Brooklyn Bridge, the bridge his wife should have crossed, until a cop told him to move along, his narrow focus was arousing the easy suspicions of tourists. You and R reached the stilted beach cabanas of the Silver Gull Club, where The Flamingo Kid, starring a young Matt Dillon as a cabana boy with a tan to match his hot-pink polo shirt, was filmed in the early ’80s. Its funhouse colors looked leached against the wintry sand. Hurricane Sandy would badly damage the piers the following year; that day, the place was an unbroken shell of its summer self, the shallow swimming pool drained of water and grandkids, the tiki bar closed, and no old guys playing paddleball.