Fiction | March 01, 2000
Coney Island in Winter
Winner of the 1999 Editors’ Prize for Fiction
THE FEELING OF MY FAT on me—and wanting to get rid of it. Seeking to sell it, get something for my fat. Fat sells. My mother’s fat I inherited, her swaddling hips, “childbearing” they’ve been called by a few men, one indifferent, one passionate, one ambiguous.
The ambiguous man, Bob Scheinman, had also been a hooker, which I’ll get into later. While working part time in a women’s clothing store he also discovered he had a knack for taking care of children. When shoppers came in off Second Avenue he was somewhere on the floor, pushing clear plastic hangers around the rounders of orange and green silk shirts, nylon tank tops and pretty lace camisoles. He would set down an armload and pick up little Jennifer, two, or Tony, four, while their mother tried on different outfits for him. He told me later he liked to imagine what kind of bizarre possibilities awaited them. He didn’t think anything terrible had to happen, but he read the New York Post almost every morning, and that offered a myriad of examples of what could happen to anyone. You see something pure and wait to see how it will develop; he called it living in the wreckage of the future.
Like his life, for instance, starting out one way—a poor kid raised in Brooklyn by good parents, honest, hardworking immigrants from Russia. He ended up in the same business of rags, schmatte, the industry of Seventh Avenue. He moved up from being a salesclerk in his father’s store to a delivery boy, and then he got his job at the store on Second Avenue, Mona’s. Eventually he was the manager. And by the time I went to work for him, after an apprenticeship in one of the best evening-wear houses, he was the designer. He had his own company, Bob Scheinman’s Elegant Poofs, which sold to the elite the kind of party dresses you see sometimes in black and white in the society pages of the Sunday paper.
Scheinman was an industrialist, and he was androgynous; the squalid circumstances of his life developed more like mold spores than in any linear way. Events multiplied in a sort of silent, lateral spread, a dappling flood of changes at once connected and expanding. He explained it to me as if he had nothing to do with any of the commotion. I had been working under him for many months, taking messages in the perforated pad and filing invoices in the dusty metal cabinet that rose to my chest.
He was thirty-four when he told me this. And after twenty years of working in any business you’ve seen a few things, you’ve been around the block, so to speak. He was saving his money for the retirement years. He wanted to retreat to a home somewhere near Miami, where he could rub his toes into the hot sand and listen to the spray and bake. And he would meditate on all he had done and then clear his mind of it, vanish into the fabric of a seashore bumpy with worn shells and pebbles as soft as worrystones.
* * *
I had started as a temp in Bob Scheinman’s office. It was late summer, and I meant to stay only a week, maybe two. Suddenly March turned to May, and then it was summer again. The days kept getting hotter; no sign of change, except the fall was approaching again, and Bob Scheinman was designing his poofs in orange and brown.
On that first day I got acquainted with the menus in the front drawer of the desk, left by his last three receptionists, none of whom had lasted more than a month. There’d been a Deborah, a Liana, and one day I saw a Gladys. Her signature was left like a scar underneath the others, at a moment when she had forgotten to use the cardboard strip to keep the message from bleeding. I smoothed over the faint traces of their carbon-copied signatures, starting a new page in the log book by the consul telephone. None of them had left me a note of any kind to explain what was to be expected from Bob Scheinman.
Lotus Garden, Ming Ha Delight, Specialty Korean BBQ, Asian Pavilion, Louisa’s Mexi-Cal Cafeé. The Automat didn’t deliver. I got my first iced coffee from Ben’s Sideshow, and I carried it into the dark office building on West 37th Street and up the elevator to the third floor. It was dark in the halls, except for a couple of inlaid lights in the ceilings. Two others were burned out. I sat reading the most recent Women’s Wear Daily and listening to the sounds behind me; the sewing machines were running, and Rosa and Allegra, the pattern-maker and seamstress, were bantering in Spanish. They arrived at four in the morning and left by three in the afternoon; when I came in at nine, it was almost their lunch hour. I twisted around in my swivel chair and watched Rosa’s long arm using the straightedge to guide her hand across the strip of muslin, drawing lines for Bob Scheinman’s dresses.
At two, Bob Scheinman buzzed me from his office. “Can you order me lunch?”
I had never seen him enter. I’d thought maybe he was on vacation.
“What’ll it be?” I asked him, starting to rattle off the possibilities.
He cut me off. “Chicken burrito with everything, extra guacamole, extra jalapenos and two Diet Cokes with extra limes on the side. Tell them if they aren’t cold enough to make my teeth chatter, I need two cups of ice. To the top.”
If I hadn’t been writing so fast while he was speaking, I would have mentioned that I was broke and didn’t know how I would pay for all that. I ordered myself an iced coffee from Ben’s Sideshow and buzzed him back.
“Excuse me, Mr. Scheinman, do you have money for lunch?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, just ask, I’ll pay. Find out how much it’s going to be, then phone me up when it comes.” He hung up.
I buzzed him right back. “That’ll be $12.85 with tax. Not including a tip.”
He snorted, recognizing my obvious alliance. “You probably think you deserve something for this. You might think I owe you lunch as well.”
“I don’t eat lunch. You can get me another iced coffee though.” I slurped on a straw between my lips.
When Bob came out with the cash, I found that he was younger than I expected. He walked like a young girl, swaying his hips and catching a loose thread at the cuff of his yellow-and-taupe pinstriped seersucker suit. He was thin and tan, and his dark brown eyes glowed in his olive face. He had curls, a thick, luxurious black mass that looked like it was growing, alive, like a Chia pet, which I’d seen on late-night television.
“Hey,” he said as if we were already friends, had known each other for more than just the two seconds when I watched him speed up the hallway. He seemed surprised at me too. I look young for my age, sometimes barely eighteen, even though I am twenty-eight. It’s the freckles and the fat.
He dropped a ten-dollar bill, two ones and some change on my paper calendar that doubled as a blotter. I looked up at him. We stared at each other for a second.
“What? Oh, okay, okay already, your iced coffee.” He reached into the inside pocket of his double-breasted jacket, unbuttoning one of the gold buttons embossed with nautical emblems. He pulled two dollars from a thin black-leather wallet and laid it next to the cash on my blotter.
I looked down at the pile of curling money. Bob Scheinman watched me as I counted it and pressed each dollar down onto “August 23rd, Sunday,” the end of next week. “Tip,” I snapped.
He glared for a minute. Then he smiled and brought out a five from his pocket.
“You think I forgot—no.” He laughed, curls moving around his head like an accompanying halo. “What sign are you?” he asked me suddenly.
“Oh, good!” he roared. “We are going to get along fine. The child and the wise woman rolled up into one. I’m Leo. I need air to stay hot.”
When his lunch arrived I buzzed him again, and he spoke to me on the speakerphone. “Bring it back here. You slurp while I eat.” It was as if he could hear me from his office.
Allegra and Rosa talked to each other rapid fire over the rattle and pressure of machines. I went back to Bob Scheinman’s office and knocked, one hand holding the plastic bag from Louisa’s, the other holding a fresh iced coffee.
He opened the door wearing only a white T-shirt beneath striped suspenders, chest hairs curling up over the ribbed collar. “Let’s sit down here.” He pointed at the sofa and rubbed a patch of white leather for me.
I found a place by the arm, setting my cup on the coffee table; the Persian rug shimmered through the thick glass. He opened the white plastic bag and sniffed. “Oh, they forgot the extra salsa, I just know it.”
I didn’t say, “You didn’t ask for any extra salsa.” I just sipped my iced coffee.
He fumbled around in the bag, pulling out a long red-and-white burrito wrapped like a papoose, and the yellow rice and black beans piled high next to the burrito. He cut into it with a plastic knife and fork.
“You never eat lunch?”
“Nope, never.” I was used to this question. I’d heard it since eighth grade, when I started throwing away my mother’s bag lunches and drinking Tabs for meals.
My impression: Bob Scheinman was eating for me, moving the bite-sized piece of tortilla-covered meat like a matchbox car, dipping it down into the red sauce, then submerging the morsel another inch down into chopped-tomato salsa, and finally plunging it into the plastic cup of mashed avocado paste. He chewed and watched me at the same time. He wanted me to see his pleasure in the food, and how he longed for and delighted in this ingestion.
“Are you ever hungry?”
“I catch dinner when I get home.”
He saw me watching him while he put a finger into the guacamole dish and moved it around in circles, cleaning each crevice of the opaque plastic with the top of his index finger. I waited for him to stick his tongue in there too, wondering if he had a long, pointed or a round, buffed tongue. We were both waiting. Finally he stuck out his tongue, and I saw it was a warm, rosy-hued thing, darker underneath, like a long piece of wet pink fur. He dove in and I watched.
“God,” he uttered. “They make the best guacamole in town. You ought to taste it, Gemini.”
“Lily. No thanks.”
He laughed, his. eyes almost closed. “We’re going to get along fine. Where you from, Lily?”
“A native girl like me. You ever go to Coney Island in the winter?”
“Eighth grade.” I remembered jumping the turnstiles to get home.
He didn’t answer. We sat in silence, which is how Bob Scheinman and I seemed to find ourselves after that moment over and over again.
“I’d like to go,” he said. “I haven’t been there for years myself. Maybe next spring. Before it opens officially.”
For a second I imagined that he wanted to take me to Coney Island. I pictured us on the Cyclone, weaving through metal clangs, the rattle deafening, not trying to talk, while I held on tight to his arm.
After lunch the client’s children came into Bob Scheinman’s show-case with their mother, Mrs. Van der Brooks. He hovered over the stack of inventory slips on my desk, holding an armload of starchy organza, like a huge bouquet of yellow violets. Before greeting the mother or her children, before handing the kids over to me, he whispered in my ear, “Poof dresses can get to you after a while.”
“Even though you are the designer?” I sucked down an enormous gulp of iced coffee.
“Especially because I’m the designer.” He rolled his eyes while Mrs. Van der Brooks waited outside in the carpeted hallway on a love seat. He waved to her from the other side of my Plexiglas shield. I brought the kids of his client into the back room, where the machines whirred with impatient fury. I gave each child scraps of fabric and glue, some sequins and strips of the blank muslin used to make patterns for the dresses. While I watched them scramble around the white linoleum floor, he was fitting Madame into her gown.
* * *
Eventually I learned about the early days of Bob Scheinman, the hooker days, how he got started back on Second Avenue. He used to be able to help his customers in much the same way then. Walking out of the dressing room, the shopper would stand in front of the three-way mirrors and shift around while Jennifer, Jr., and Tony wiggled away from him and ran up to the front of the store. Their mother swept the chiffon layers of a black evening gown aside while Bob pumped her in the dressing room, spraying her with his young milk, pressing her against the full-length mirror, where they could see each other as they climaxed.
The children were often by the cash register, using the price gun to create labels that read zzzzzzz and mne000000000sknoskp] \;llkm.
“Weren’t you scared someone would find you in there?” I was astonished at what he’d told me.
“They left me alone in the store for hours at a time. It was quiet. And she paid me in cash, fifty dollars a pop.”
“But the kids!”
“I kept my hand over her mouth.”
* * *
Bob Scheinman, I later told my sister Laurie, was the only man who could keep these women happy with his dresses. It was incredible how his loyal customers kept coming back.
“Why do you always say it that way, ‘Bob Scheinman’? Do you call him that to his face? What would anyone do with more than one poof?” she asked. We were drinking iced coffees at the coffee shop on Thirty-seventh Street and Eighth Avenue, a greasy spoon that I insisted on almost every time she came west to see me on our lunch hours.
“Sometimes.” I slurped until the ice cubes ran clear. “Usually I don’t call him anything. Or I say, Bob, or Mr. Scheinman. He’s never told me what to call him.”
My sister shook her head. She worked at Lord & Taylor as a buyer, and she drank her coffee slowly, without quick gulps, the brown liquid flowing upward into her violet lips. Laurie was always wearing the latest lipstick, had the right haircut. I kept mine all one length, until one night when I had used a pair of pinking shears to cut a handful away. One side was longer; it dipped down to my cheekbone. This look is in, I explained to the hairdresser who remedied my zigzags. This was 1985. Many women wore asymmetrical hairdos.
Laurie didn’t understand why I wanted to work as a receptionist all year long. The department store had been good for her for six years, and she had a retirement plan. She had gone right into the fashion business after an internship in Paris, where she ran errands for a famous designer on the avenue Montaigne. Going into the family industry made sense after our parents’ success in hosiery and lingerie.
I told her, “He is teaching me a lot about working with clients.”
“You’re hooked on this guy. His party dresses might be selling now, but they’ll go out of style soon. You have to find something less trendy to latch on to.”
“Some ladies have five poofs. For different events, in different colors.” I didn’t tell her I was staying at Scheinman’s showcase until I heard back from F.I.T., the Fashion Institute of Technology, where I’d applied for the fall semester. She would tell me I wasn’t equipped for the business, that everyone wanted to be a designer and that I personally lacked the venom to pull it off. She’d tell me that I should develop realistic life skills, that if I wanted the fashion world to take me seriously I ought to become a props person for photo shoots, like her friend Emily Wydell. I didn’t tell her that I wanted to get into apparel so I could learn about designing swimwear. Bob Scheinman, I hoped, was going to help me.
When we parted I watched as Laurie walked back across Thirty-seventh Street. It was August in New York, hot and muggy, the kind of day when you wished you were near the ocean. I understood how angry the cab drivers got in that weather. If I’d been driving a cab on one of these days, I’d have driven it straight out to the beach and parked by the concession stand. But I didn’t have a car. Instead, on the weekends I rode the train to the stop by the water and then walked over to Long Beach from the station. There wasn’t always a place to lie down—not even enough space for one bath-size towel. Sometimes though, I just went to watch the swimsuits. I stood drinking a Coke while the women leaned back on the palms of their hands, basking in the sun in their skinny string bikinis or bright neon two-piecers. Riding back on the train, I tried to remember bodies and colors and the way the Lycra stretched out over butts and breasts. I sketched ideas in my hard black notebook.
I was going to design swimwear. Long black one-piecers sleek as sealskin. Thick and rubbery patent-leather two-piecers in yellow or green, with broad straps and high-waisted bottoms, like shorts. And a special bathing suit for pregnant women, with a big cutout for the belly, for total comfort and sun exposure—belly peek. When Bob Scheinman’s clients got pregnant, they said they didn’t understand why the designers were so limited. Why didn’t they give them pieces with pizzazz for those special months of incubation? The belly grows larger and so do the feet, one confided in me while she snapped her black leather purse closed.
“See?” She removed her foot from her pink suede loafer. I nodded.
After she left, I made drawings in my sketchbook, which I kept in the front drawer with the pens and staple removers and rubber bands. Bob Scheinman’s poof dresses weren’t well suited for pregnancy, with their cinched waistlines.
Bob Scheinman liked to outfit the party crowd. A few Wall Street brokers shopped with him for special affairs, but mostly they preferred more elegant styles, black sheaths with long open backs dropping down over high-heeled sandals. Bob Scheinman’s poofs were only good for certain kinds of parties; it seemed that high-society women had just the right occasions to sport his fantasy wear.
Parties of all kinds: midnight by the water, in a restaurant on the East River where helicopters brought guests down to land on a short pier, chopper noise drowning out all the early, ice-breaking chat. Escorts helped each woman down, an arm behind her back, the skirt poofing like a parachute. These parties lasted for several weekends in the spring and into early summer, but by July, they’d move out to the Hamptons like circles of migrating seagulls. There they arrived at affairs by water taxi or sportscar. Bob made short-sleeved poofs for the summer. I thought his clients might wear my swimwear to the beach. I wanted to see my name, Lilian, scrawled across the porch of a store in Bridgehampton, where my exclusive line of beachwear would be available for these vacationing women, pregnant and otherwise. I myself could never model my own suits because of the hips. To be a model requires even less body fat than on a boy. I had the face, but I’d have to scout for just the right figures to support my line of bathing suits, even if they were for pregnant women. They have special pillows women can strap on under their clothes to pretend they are pregnant. Everyone knows that even if you are gaining weight for a good reason, no one wants to see it in a picture.
* * *
One afternoon, after lunch with my sister, I brought in a piece of cake for Bob Scheinman from Ben’s Sideshow, a large triangle of lemon chiffon.
“Thank you, honey.” I watched as he cut off a bite, then rolled it around in his mouth, chewing like he had no teeth.
“I had lunch with my sister,” I told Bob.
“How is the duchess?” He kept chewing in soft rounds. He’d met her once when she came to inspect my office, and they had taken an instant dislike to each other.
“It’s a miracle you survived growing up with that Medusa.”
“Hey, I want to go to F.I.T.,” I blurted out.
He eyeballed me from his end of the white sofa. “Really. Now what would you want to study there?”
“Ap-par-el!” Bob opened his eyes wide and stared right at me.
“Yes, I want to design swimwear.”
“Swim-wear!” He sat back on the white leather sofa, with his skinny knee against his chest. He was wearing all black. He left the half-eaten cake on the table.
“My sister,” I tried again, “really wasn’t too supportive.”
“Oh.” He picked up the cake, examining every groove of thick lemon frosting on the remaining wedge. He cut it into a block as if he were measuring a slab for an igloo. It was neither square nor octagonal. He seemed to be making it into a particular kind of shape to admire. Just as he finished shaping it, he plunged a fork down into the center of the pale cream and pushed the two pieces apart like he was splitting the iceberg.
“I want to remind you,” he said, holding a forkful of cake, “that you are under contract here until my fall collection is out and I’ve got spring and summer in the making.”
“I know,” I breathed quietly.
“You did lots of odd jobs before you got here,” he reminded me. “I’d hate to see you throw it all away now that you have some stability. School is hard, you know? Very, very. I was never that happy there, I just plowed on through. But I had extraordinary luck because the man who trained me wanted me to be his assistant.”
You did lots of odd jobs too, I wanted to remind him. I was crossing over to his side, leaving the receptionist’s desk behind, starting a new message pad so there would be no traces of me left for the next receptionist—no signs of my life at Bob Scheinman’s Elegant Poofs.
My move would come in two weeks. First, I had to meet the F.I.T. deadline, and then I’d escape. I imagined myself in bright colors, walking up Seventh Avenue to school, taking a swift left at the open gate, down the cloistered sidewalk, shifting like a runway model. I’d wear a jaunty hat and my A-line raincoat. Purple, pink, aqua. Nothing bland like Laurie’s taupe linen suit, cuffed trousers, saddle shoes.
Bob Scheinman added, “I want that known if I have to have it in writing.”
“Fine.” I stared out his window. “Those birds are nesting again on your air conditioner,” I pointed out to him. The baby birds were squirming on top of the metal box, some feathers caught in the metal grid.
“Oh, Christ.” He got up off the sofa. “I told the janitor to get rid of those things. They’re so, so filthy. Call the building manager for me, will you, Lily? And tell Maurice, if he calls, to meet me here. We’re going dancing.”
Sometime during the summer, Bob Scheinman’s body began to change. I mark the change from the day I buzzed in Sidney Biddle Barrow, the Mayflower Madam, getting fitted for a new dress.
She checked in with me, her streaked hair framing an elfin beauty.
“Don’t I know you?” I asked. Her face was thin and elegant, with an impish smile.
“If you have been reading the papers lately, yes, probably.” She laughed. She seemed classy. I didn’t care what the papers said. She had a class act going—the best clients and the best girls, not street girls like the ones on Tenth Avenue. I thought she would look fine in one of my black bathing suits. I rolled the soundproof Plexiglas screen back across where I sat and buzzed Bob Scheinman. “Ms. Barrow for her fitting.”
I watched her sitting on the love seat, a tan silk scarf around her neck, while he talked to me from the floor where he was trying to rest. “I wish to God that woman would come when I’m not napping. I can’t get a single moment of peace with all these women coming in. Tell her I’m gone.”
“I can say you aren’t feeling well.””Jesus, no. Don’t ever tell them that, okay?” He sighed. I heard papers rustling and a groan as he stood up. “I’ll see her. But she’s got to wait. I need five minutes. Oh, what do these women want from me?”
During the fitting I went back into the pattern-maker’s room. Red pink organza was billowing out from Sidney Barrow’s waist, making her a giant silk poppy unfolding in hot sun. Her spindly knees poked out just underneath the stiff folds of skirt.
“Looks large,” Bob was saying to her. “Come back next week.” He sighed. “For another fitting.”
Then he had her meet him in his office, as a doctor does for your final consultation. I tiptoed back out to my seat behind the receptionist’s desk, where I started filing the ‘orders under their names: Barrow, Calhoun, Kristoff, Moore, Zeckendorfer.
I was rotating my swivel chair in the small, dingy office, reading, when he asked me back to his office. I sat down on the white leather couch, and he lay on the carpet. I knew he was different now. He only wanted to nap. His voice was restless, and although he was surrounded by clients and workers and boyfriends who called all week long, he seemed like somebody who had no one.
To my left was a row of photos from all his different jobs. I especially liked that early one where he wore a midriff and bell-bottoms, at fifteen years old (he had just dropped out of high school to start his career). In the photo, his hair was in wide, leisurely curls, looped like the frog clasps he used for his Chinese brocade poofs. He still had those lips, thick as unbaked cookies, and his smile was young, no wrinkles around the mouth. Even though the photo was in black and white, I could see he was tan. He was at a white soiree somewhere at the beach, maybe West Hampton. “Je was free,” he said from the carpet. “I was a beautiful boy-man, wasn’t I?”
“Yes,” I said, without a thought.
He put an arm underneath his head, and when he did, I saw that he was still losing weight. He’d told me a while back that it was from a bad burrito from Louisa’s, but I knew he was lying because he hadn’t ordered their food in weeks. His ribcage stuck out like one of his models’. I knew he had a sore, too; he was wearing a turtleneck to cover it up.
He admired me from the Persian carpet, which he had won in a raffle for all the merchants of Thirty-seventh Street. “You’ve got those childbearing hips,” he sighed. “Someone should knock you up and get you into the maternity ward at St. Luke’s. You’d be perfect.”
“I want to design swimwear.” I felt bleak, as if I were talking to my family. “You know, long black one-piecers and lemony vinyl.” I kept quiet about the maternity suits.
“I know, I know. But if I were in better shape, I’d do the job. We’d have some kind of a kid, don’t you think?”
I shook my head. “You must be joking.” But at the same time I reflected that although we weren’t a couple, there was something there.
* * *
When he got a call from Maurice, Bob Scheinman announced, “He’s coming to pick me up. We are going to go down to the Boy Bar.”
He said “Boy Bar” in a tone that indicated it was exclusive. He pushed himself up from his prone position into a pose like Marilyn Monroe at the beach. I turned back to gaze into the photograph of Bob Scheinman at fifteen. When he came up behind me, I didn’t push his hand off my waist; I let him move closer. His hip bones were in the flesh of my butt. I felt his breath on the back of my neck. We were in that suspension for a few moments.
“You have my flesh,” he whispered. “While I hang on this cross and wait, you become fuller, more luscious. You are such a woman.”
We were quiet together. I heard the steady, rushing hum of the air conditioner and I felt his fingers around my waist.
“So, lover,” he whispered into my ear. “Are you ready for these next months ahead?” This was the first time that Bob Scheinman indicated he was dying, and I wasn’t sure what to say. In the photo, his eyes seemed to be growing larger, his iris directed into mine. “I’m not going anywhere,” I lied.
I knew he was sick, I’d seen these ghostly men before in my neighborhood. West Eighteenth Street was full of the starving class. When I sat in the diner on my block eating a cheese-and-bacon omelet on Sunday mornings, there were always several, at least, in pairs or alone. It was not the only place you would find these thin men, but there were many here, some of whom I had seen for years before they got the virus.
Bob Scheinman pinched the abundance of my flesh. “Thanks. My little Lilypad. I don’t know what I’d do without you. What’s on your agenda?”
The next day was the deadline for my application, and I had three more drawings to do. I had been erasing the picture of an apreés-sun dress for days, trying to get the sash to hang just right on the terrycloth robe. “Maybe seeing my sister,” I said.
“Girl, maybe you should come down for some dancing. I’m sure Maurice wouldn’t mind. Dance!” He rotated his pelvis out like a hula girl, swaying, swaying.
“I don’t think so. Maurice wouldn’t want me along. Plus, I need my beauty rest.” I batted my eyelashes.
“Nothing pays off like exercise. Come on. It’ll revive you.” He was turning off the lights in his office.
“Oh, come on.” We walked out to the elevator banks. The gray carpeting was a long shadow. The orange lights in the hallways glowed.
“You better remember to have some fun, little Lil. Take it from me.” When the elevator came, we were leaning against the wall like two kids just out from school.
* * *
At quarter to eleven, the phone rang. I was finishing my first drawing, an image that was neither man nor woman, a skinny figure with shorts, a tank top and beaded sandals.
“Can you come down here, and hurry?” Maurice was panting. “Bob’s in deep trouble. Hurry, he needs you.”
“I can’t,” I started to say. “I’m in the middle—”
“Lily! He might end up in the freaking hospital, for God’s sake.”
I put down my pad, covered up the drawing, flipping back to the copies I’d made from old 1940s designs; this look was coming back. I pulled on drawstring silk pants that I knew looked like pajamas and a long cotton blouse to cover my belly. I hailed a cab to St. Mark’s Place. The wind was blowing, and hot air came through the car window. I fanned myself with a magazine I kept tucked in my bag, the September Vogue. I was thinking this was it with me and Bob Scheinman. Enough. I was going to get into F.I.T. and then give notice.
“Right there!” I pointed at the boys spilling out from the doorway. I shoved some money at the cabbie, jumped out of the car and pushed my way in, past the bodies.
This was my first trip into the den of the Boy Bar. Admission was ten dollars; I climbed the stairs. The music was loud; no one was talking. The lights were flickering around the edges of the ceiling. House music circled the room, the repetitious mechanics of synthesized rhythm and melody. I saw men. I walked through couples dancing. I stood against the wall to get a better view. Two men were necking next to me, one straddling the other.
“Have you seen Bob Scheinman?” I shouted a few times.
Alternately bright and dark, light bounced from the spotlights, off white T-shirts, revealing flashes of wet skin on the throat. The glint of earrings and shiny, sweaty hair. Small men were sidling up against big men, fatties with wide chests, like dachshunds trying to get laid by St. Bernards. Two stopped dancing and stood against the wall. Before they could start making out I followed them. “Do either of you know him?”
The larger man glared, his eyes dark as the center of a manhole. His skinny friend wiped his nose with the back of a hand. He had silver link bracelets on both wrists. He cocked his head to one side. His dark hair was cropped like an army sergeant’s. The bigger one’s hair was long, pulled back in a ponytail. He looked like a Hell’s Angel.
“I’m his secretary,” I promoted myself. “I got a call from Maurice.”
The skinny man licked his lips. He took the beer from his friend’s hand and wiped his mouth again. His forehead was sweaty.
“Bob left. He was here. He had to go to the hospital.”
The bigger one looked at me, and I saw how scared he was—in his eyes, underneath the glare. “St. Vincent’s.”
I had to push through men, their elbows high up as they swiveled around. Excuse me, I pushed at the same time. One man stepped hard on my foot. Another did a kind of tennis backhand into my stomach.
* * *
When I found Bob Scheinman, he had double tubes in his nostrils. He was breathing, but he looked very pale. “Lily,” he moaned. I couldtell he was high. His eyes were swimming, and though he was calling my name, I didn’t believe he could see me.
He was getting fresh oxygen. The picture on the wall over his head showed floating faces of children from around the world; behind the poster, the walls were covered with thick yellow paint. Sirens wailed outside the window, flying by on their way out the hospital emergency exit.
“I know,” I said. “Where’s Maurice?”
“He had to eat. God, I couldn’t look at any food. I have to get on the drugs.”
I rubbed his free hand. I’d always wanted to just hold his hands. They were warm. “I promise, I’ll ask for you.”
“You’re so good, baby.”
I saw his eyelids starting to close. It was hard to keep looking at him.
“You’re going to quit on me, aren’t you, Lily? You are going to leave me now that I am sick?”
“Oh Bob, Mr. Scheinman, I’m here.” I looked up at the clock on the wall. If I got home by one, I could get another drawing done.
“You ought to have some kids, do you know?” He was mumbling. Soon he was asleep.
As I passed the waiting area on my way out, I saw Maurice eating a sandwich from the cafeteria. He nodded at me while he chewed. He took a slug of coffee and winced as he burned his tongue.
“Finally.” He stared at me, swallowing.
“I had to find someone at Boy Bar who could tell me where you went. That was no picnic.”
Maurice shook his head. “He’s in trouble.”
I didn’t know what to say. I sat down on the couch facing him. He held the half sandwich and quartered it in a single bite. “You hungry, honey?”
“No.” I was thinking of Bob, in his bed. How skinny his legs were. The enormous freckle on his neck. I heard the nurses at the station talking and the hospital carts wheeling down the hall, surgical pants swishing against thighs. I asked Maurice for a sip of his coffee.
“You got a boyfriend?”
“Bob your true love, sweetheart?”
We both laughed.
“Mine neither. I got to find a man who only wants me.”
I saw a woman wheeling herself down the hall, wearing a light blue. gown with black snowflakes, the same dress as Bob Scheinman’s. Shemust have been just a little older than me. Her legs were crossed at the ankles. She was blinking, waiting for someone. She was thin, and her dark brown hair had streaks of white that looked at first like grease. Her eyes were tired, but still, I could tell we were almost the same age.
She made a well in her lap with her hands; she was crying, and while her shoulders rocked, I became frightened. I wanted her to have a nurse. I looked for the woman who had helped me.
Maurice was watching me. He was skinny too; I wondered if he needed the medication. I moved over, right next to him on the couch. “I don’t like hospitals.”
He shook his head. He wore the sleek black hairdo of a ’60s model: Twiggy with skinny sideburns.
“Bob’s really . . . I mean, like you know, sick,” I whispered.
Maurice looked down at a rumpled copy of The New York Post. “Yeah, well, who isn’t?”
“We’ve got to get him some medicine. I asked the nurse.”
“Him and hundreds of other village boys.”
“Well, he’s the one I know.” I felt my apathy dissolve as he dismissed me. “Aren’t you going to do anything?”
“I won’t leave here until he’s ready to come home.” Maurice looked back down, leafing through the paper for the third time. “Oh, God, Louise in page six. She was wearing one of Bob’s dresses, seen with Boy George. Bob will howl.”
“Here.” I handed him Vogue.
“You are going to have to open up Bob Scheinman’s showcase tomorrow.”
I winced. I was hoping to finish my application and walk it over to school. “You think so?”
“Someone will have to explain to his clients, in English, what is happening. Don’t say it, though, Lily. Tell them he has the flu.”
* * *
I started running up Seventh Avenue, almost as far as Sixteenth Street, where I stopped for a light. It was dark, but the streets were bright and the taxis moved down the avenue, passing trucks, the rhythm swelling as they headed down to the thin end of the island where the bridges led to other boroughs. Just as the light changed, I went back into the corner deli and bought a sweet juice blend. I gulped it down until there was only a quarter of an inch left. Two women walked a terrier that bent its nose down to a clump of what looked like burnt meat. I heard one say, “As if that weren’t all, he is buying her the condo next week.”
I ran back to my apartment and looked at the clock. Three-thirty A.M.
Bob leans into me on the line at the Cyclone. We’ve already walked, slowly, up and down the boardwalk. He takes slow shuffles and stops to point out places where he went as a kid with his parents, then I do the same. Seated next to him on the ride, I scream going up and then hold on tight and say nothing when we head back down the long chute. His arm is only a bone beneath his lime silk jacket. He smiles and looks away from me when I say, Oh, my God, this might be it! There is a loud rattling sound in our ears like the subway magnified a hundred times.
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