1 — ROLLING HOME
I stood alone at the front of the boat. The deck sloped away from me, running with dew. The ferry’s prow split the water into two clean lines of white froth as it plowed its way across New York Harbor, that grand old decaying basin rucked up with centuries of tides and traffic. As the wind, smelling of brine and diesel, lifted my hair from my forehead, I felt like the klieg-lit male lead in an old MGM musical, about to burst forth in a full-throttle tenor. Straight ahead, the Twin Towers’ tops vanished into grizzled clouds. Off to the left was the Statue of Liberty, green as a garden gnome, and beyond, the improbably beautiful industrial banks of New Jersey: O brave old world, that had such smokestacks in it.
It was seven thirty-eight according to the radioactive little numbers on my wrist. I’d left Frankie splayed naked in the sheets, lying on his stomach with his shoulder blades folded together and his arms above his head, sucking a bit of pillowcase into his open mouth as he inhaled, wafting it back out again on the exhale. He hadn’t been so beautiful awake, he’d been a wiry, unprofessional, foul-mouthed waiter. He was a complete stranger to me, and I to him. He’d waited on my friend Max and me the night before in a little Italian place on Carmine Street. It had been a nice job cracking him in two and showing him what was what. He’d put up a gratifying struggle. He was a bantamweight, but he was slippery and fast. Toward dawn I’d pinned him, then let him go to sleep and lay there watching him, listening to the mice in the walls, squinting in the glare of the bulb of his closet. He’d brought me to his house, entangled his body with mine. Now he slept peacefully, having allowed me to ravish him. Was it my low-key manner? The fact that I’d put on a condom without being asked? But for all he knew, I was a mild-mannered, condom-wearing serial murderer. I wanted to shake him awake and warn him: Next time he might not be so lucky.
Instead, I got up and dressed, let myself out into the heavy, fresh morning air. The sidewalks were broad and cracked; the trees hung low overhead. I walked through a moist, spooky tunnel smelling of moss and water with a greenish light, like a dream, then hiked all the way down a long, sloping strip-mall-covered avenue to Bay Street. I must have unconsciously charted the landmarks and directions of our stumbling journey last night to Frankie’s lair; retracing it, alone and in reverse, I found the vast gray empty ferry terminal and boarded the boat waiting there.
On a bench just inside the ferry’s cavernous cabin slept a fat but frail old woman with her head wrapped in a dirty white bandage or turban, her belongings in bags under the bench. Her face was as purely beautiful in sleep as Frankie’s had been, leathery and weary, but free of the disfigurements of dementia, mood, hunger, calculation. I could smell her. She reeked from stewing in her own animal juices day after day, eating garbage, drinking rotgut. I was sure if she awoke and caught me looking at her, she’d fix me in a hostile glare, but for now she was a sleeping beauty, sad but serene.
The towers of the financial district grew slowly until they loomed ahead, a forest of silent giants bigger than redwoods, denser than cliffs. A crowd gathered at the closed gates on the deck, waiting to be let onto solid ground. I felt them all around me, mild and still half asleep, heard their soft morning breathing, gentle as cows waiting for the farmer to open the pasture gates. I’d always felt an impersonal, brusque fondness for the fellow travelers I brushed up against on my way some- where, strangers who neither got in my way nor let me get in theirs, all of us suspended together between past and future in a temporal tunnel of watery-green privacy like this morning’s sidewalks. The ship docked with a thud and a grinding of underwater gears, a creak of the gangplank.
I walked out of the huge, echoing South Ferry terminal and headed up Whitehall Street. I caught pleasurable whiffs every now and then, the funky residue of Frankie wafting on gusts of warm air from inside my clothes. After several blocks, Whitehall became Broadway. The statue of a huge bull pawed at an island in the middle of the street. I crossed over to inspect it, and without thinking, reached down to cup its testicles. Giving them a gentle squeeze, schoolboy hilarity bubbled up in my chest. As I looked uptown with the bull’s balls in my hand, the voice in my head sang “New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town; the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down—” After all these years, I could still be amazed by the cityscape on a fall morning, bronze testicles, skyscrapers, and blowing trash. The autumn air, whether cloudy or clear, had a quality that was present at no other time of year; in the fall, other New Yorks, past and future, real and imaginary, seemed to quiver just beyond the brink of the visible one. Other people’s memories haunted me on every corner, as palpable as my own skin as I passed through them. A yellow cab slid by; its funhouse-like reflection smeared the green glass skin of one building, swelling then compressing to a vanishing blip.
O brave old world. Craning my neck like a tourist, I looked up the side of a skyscraper, straight up its ramrod-sheer belly. I’d never worked in an office. Most of my knowledge of offices came from sitcoms or movies. I thought of them as places where cadres of men with gym-cut muscles under Oxford shirts engaged in homoerotic banter; I imagined corporate men’s rooms as the settings for rushed, silent, half-brutal encounters, a sullen mailroom boy collared in the hallway by an Armani-clad V.P., ordered to step into the gleaming empty room and stand against the wall with his hands splayed against the tiles. The image of the boy’s tight khakis pulled down just far enough to cup his buttocks made me dizzy.
I found with my fingertips in my pants pocket a restaurant mint from last night, a small, pillowy square I fished out and sucked on. It crumbled chalkily on my tongue. I’d heard these mints were soaked in uric acid from patrons who didn’t wash their hands after peeing, then scrabbled their fingers around the mint bowl. But urine was sterile, and anyway I’d always been clinically objective or, rather, cavalierly unconcerned about such things. You could go through life wiping every doorknob with a handkerchief and get picked off by a commonplace flu at fifty, or you could let all microbes take their best shots, thereby strengthening your resistance to them. I opted for the latter strategy, and as a backup maintained a steady level of alcohol molecules to confuse any invading bugs, in hopes that they would wander through my body’s corridors like locked-out hotel guests, too blotto to find my cells.
It dawned on me then that I was ravenous and caffeine depleted. No wonder I was dizzy. Directly ahead lay an open deli, a bright little trading post on the canyon floor. I ducked in and loitered through the aisles for a moment until a small knot of people in suits at the counter concluded their business and cleared off. I breathed in the smells of Pine Sol, stewing coffee, and hot grease, glanced idly at boxes of prunes and instant chicken noodle soup. When I stepped up to the counter and ordered my breakfast, the counterman immediately handed me a cup of coffee. One of the things I deeply treasured about this city was the fact that people behind counters moved at least three times faster here than anywhere else in the country. The farther outside of Manhattan you got, the longer you had to wait in line; someone somewhere had probably figured out an algorithmic equation to express the exact ratios.
While my breakfast sizzled on the grill, I took the lid off my sweet, milky coffee and blew on it to make one static wavelet on its creamy brown surface that subsided the instant I stopped blowing. As I replaced the lid, my eye was caught by the cover of the top copy of the National Enquirer in the rack: “Sizzling Stars Heat Up the Sunset Strip.” There were Ted and Giselle, looking smugly into each other’s eyes. Her blond hair blew against his sculpted cheek. A flash of that irrational fondness I always felt when I unexpectedly saw anything familiar in a strange place was subsumed immediately by irritated envy. I was still half asleep; it wasn’t fair of them to intrude on my solitary pleasures before I’d even had my coffee.
Giselle’s husband, Ted Masterson, had been my boyfriend for the past ten years. Or, rather, Giselle had married my boyfriend, Ted, seven years earlier, having no idea that Ted had another life tucked away in New York. For his first several years in Hollywood, his star had seemed perpetually about to rise, but, until he’d married Giselle, it had stubbornly remained a red dwarf suspended about halfway between hori- zon and zenith. In the seven years since their splashy media-orgy of a wedding, his roles and asking price had steadily improved. He needed her; I had grudgingly accepted his marriage as a sound career move, but I didn’t like it. And the few times I’d met Giselle, I hadn’t liked her either; all the things I loved about Ted—his genuine acting tal- ent, his sense of humor, his ironic cast of mind, and most notably his homosexuality—were quashed by her influence. She was a scrappy little white-trash kid who’d clawed her way up the glass mountain to land on the roof of the world. Her pre-stardom name had been Cathy Benitez, a castoff she’d abandoned along with her former self, a chubby, slitty-eyed, Valley-bred mall rat—I’d seen pictures—in favor of Giselle Fleece, white-blond movie star with upper arms as thin as stalks of celery and a practiced half-smile. They’d both married up, in a way. Her alliance with Ted, an old-money Ivy-League Connecticut WASP, gave Giselle a vicarious aura of aristocracy without eclipsing her. And as for Ted, there was no doubt about the career advantages he’d gained in exchange for his bargain with some internal devil, but I pitied him for it. His vanity was his greatest weakness. He’d given up more for its gratification than I could ever imagine sacrificing for anything, except maybe, come to think of it, Ted himself. But I hadn’t made any bargains with any devil that I could think of. I just kept my mouth shut and did as I pleased while he was out of town.
In recent years, our once incendiary, inventive sex life had buckled under the combined weight of his double life and our mutual silence, mine tactful, Ted’s withholding, on all the topics he and I had ceased over time to talk about. I had no high hopes for this weekend’s visit. Half of me was tempted to get out of town for the duration, but the other, stronger half wanted to see Ted as often as possible, even if it meant pretending to be nothing more than his old friend the whole time. But I hoped that he would find a way for us to be alone together, if only for an hour or two.
I pulled the residual aura of my night with Frankie around me like a protective cloak and looked away from the newspaper rack, but the happy mindlessness of my hung-over reverie was shattered. Was there no escape for me from those two, nowhere I could go that I wouldn’t find some reminder of their strategic public alliance? Their show went on every waking moment. Wherever they went, it seemed, the Fleece-Masterson family contrived to be caught in ostensibly casual but alarmingly flattering poses, and not only “heating up the Sunset Strip”—there seemed to be cameras awaiting them at the zoo, the gourmet grocery store, the video rental place, the fro-yo stand, Pink’s, the Four Seasons. In recent published photos taken by enterprising photographers through long-range lenses in Tuscany and Venice, they glowed from a gondola, a balcony, a vineyard, a yacht, a cap of red curls nestled between them like a lapdog. This was their daughter, on whom they’d bestowed the unlikely name of Bretagne, Bret for short, when they’d adopted her five years ago. Giselle was too busy shooting back-to-back blockbusters to take time out for pregnancy, or so their publicists maintained. I’d never met Bret, but I’d seen plenty of pictures, and in all of them she looked like a terrifyingly precocious Hollywood kid, the type of enfant terrible who’d be pregnant, or worse, by the age of twelve.
The premiere for Giselle’s new movie, to which I had been invited formally, by mail, was Monday night at eight at the Ziegfeld. Their private plane was scheduled to touch down early this evening at LaGuardia. Ted and Giselle would arrive in their limo with their entourage shortly thereafter at Ted’s Gramercy Park house, where I lived; I’d hoped not to have to see them until much later, when the photographers had gone away and Bretagne was asleep and the house was quiet.
I paid for my breakfast and left the deli, heading into a thick breeze moving without undue haste past me and on into the depths of the financial district I’d just left behind. As I walked, I wolfed from its waxed paper bed the luscious fusion of salty thin-sliced ham, hot soft scrambled egg, and chewy poppy seed roll, then balled up the paper and tossed it into an overflowing trash can without missing a step or beat of my stride. The morning was cool and hazy, the city’s edges softened and blurred by clouds boiling up from manholes, steam blowing from square aluminum-bright deli vents, the coal-black whiffets left hanging after buses pulled away. Every lungful of air I inhaled held this vaporous urban discharge from vents, grates, and engines, seething with the electric waves from millions of skulls, currents of mental activity to which my own were added along with my outward breath.
Walking through these early-morning streets, the idea of Ted’s fame, no matter how minor compared to Giselle’s, seemed almost ridiculous. How could a person project himself into such proportions all out of keeping with his common, limited, private consciousness? I recalled then a look Ted’s face took on sometimes, a maddening expression of blue-blooded entitlement, his eyes glazed over like a sated overlord’s, his mouth slack and his voice underlain with a flat, nasal Connecticut imperiousness that brooked neither interruption nor dissent. How could I love and hate someone so intensely, both at once? My loathing for parts of Ted felt like a noxious fuel, choking me while it propelled me through the summits and valleys of love, but keeping me to a narrow, strenuous track.
Copyright 2002 by Kate Christensen