‘It just…It just, in a way, sometimes, but not always, doesn’t somehow seem real.’
The wonderful thing about actors was that they could take a mundane sentence and elevate it to a perfectly pitched note. But when it came to expressing their own thoughts, words seemed to work against them, revealing the sorcery behind stage-presence.
‘My method is about making a connection,’ Soraida, the lead actress, persisted. ‘How can I, as a black woman, get into character when the character is just a vehicle for a white-friendly Ida B. Wells story?’
I dropped my legs down from the backrest and straightened up in my seat. Soraida was right. Something had to be done. The question was by whom. As the director I was the next in line to make script changes, but I felt more like a stodgy CEO of a toy company forced to fill in for the youthful creative director. I had the ability to make changes at the highest levels, but my choices only translated into bland simulations that appealed to almost no one. My power became a farce, apparent through stilted dialogue, redundant stage-direction, and the occasional missed apostrophe.
‘We could have used this feedback three weeks ago.’
‘Phil was always saying this was his baby. I felt… I dunno…’ Phil was the playwright who had fled with his boyfriend to an artists’ retreat upstate. There was no telephone, fax, or internet at the retreat, but there were three daily catered meals, house-service, and an optional evening horse-drawn ‘contemplation’ carriage ride. He hadn’t yet returned a single one of my messages.
“How can I get into character when the character is just a vehicle for a white-friendly story?”
Patiently or impatiently (real, non-manufactured urgency being so hard to infer from these upper-middle class, screeching, twenty-something minorities) Soraida drooped on her wooden stool like a geranium in February. She said, her voice hanging with the stage dust, ‘No group of white boys ever threatened to gang-rape me because I was black. If they ever did, I would have kicked the shit out of them.’
‘So what are you saying?’
‘I’ve been responsible for all my choices throughout my life.’
‘This script is Maya Angelou pandering bullshit.’
‘You mean cross-over.’
‘Don’t be a dick. I’m serious.’
Soraida’s strength teased my insecurity. I felt an emerging admiration for this young black actress who was boldly risking her opportunity at a breakthrough role on Broadway, to tell me, a highly regarded white director, that this script, by a Tony-award winning white writer, about the life of a black prostitute, did not feel real. It was something that even, during the height of my career, I never would have been bold enough to attempt.
“Gerry. There’s nothing to think about. We can replace the girl.’
Welling was the finest Connecticut had to offer; delivered into the hands of his nanny, raised by a prep-school, escaped to an ivy-league, never struggled a day in his life kind of guy who bubbled with infectious optimism. His loyalty as a producer verged on homosexuality. Over the years he had received each and every one of my anxious three a.m. phone calls, patiently over-sympathizing with every triviality I presented. He had coddled me throughout my career, trusting that my talent would somehow carry us through the rough and toxic water of Broadway. And, at least critically, he had been right. My decisions had won us the awards and critical reception envied by every graduate drama student. Awards didn’t always translate into fiscal success so when the money was tight, Welling’s zealotry regarding my creative abilities lured amateur executive producers from Rosie O’Donnell to the CFO of Chase Manhattan Bank. Because of Welling, we never opened late, never closed early, and never, never went unpaid.
Now backstage, Welling gazed at me like a dog waiting for a cat high in a tree.‘Lydia’s stocking up on minorities for the national rep of RENT,’ he suggested.
‘Give her a call. Tell her we’re doing “Black Like Me” the musical.’
He snorted, adjusted his glasses, and pointed to my slip-ons, ‘You’re really into the bachelor thing aren’t you?’
I slipped out the rear entrance of the theater and wandered through the dizzying and disturbing heaven of advertisements of Times Square, pressed past groups of young Christian teenagers in matching navy WWJD t-shirts screaming the name of a band performing inside MTV’s studio, stepped around the dazed tourists who quietly pledged never to return to such a city again, and made my way to the soothing side-streets where families sat on stoops and young quarterbacks launched offensives from the curb.
I turned onto Second Avenue, pausing in front of my wife’s favorite Indian restaurant. When I had eaten there in the past, I felt that the food was somehow inauthentically ethnic, as if the owners were catering too my sense of what a dining experience in Punjab should be like. The glasses were crystal, the dishes copper, and the music New Age. I explained to my wife that the hypocrisies of so-called Indian fine-dining blunted my appetite and only reminded me of my membership in the Global Elite. My wife rather enjoyed having her misperceptions pandered to and said that if she was truly interested in more of the third world than just their cuisine, she would be living in New Delhi and not New York.‘Gerry,’ she would add. ‘You put on plays about corrupt foreign regimes and colonial abuses while charging fifty-bucks a head. If anyone benefits from illusion, it is you.’
As I passed the restaurant I felt a pang of regret. In the past, on days like today, I would go home to my wife, drink a bottle of Cabernet, and relate the hostilities of the day. Now, there would be no one to talk to, to whine about so-and-so’s incompetence or how the general decay of society was slowly infiltrating my career. There would be no chopping onions together on the copper-counter kitchen island and speaking grandiloquently over the Clinton years.
Most men in my field describe their divorces in terms of ‘irreconcilable power struggles’ or ‘life-altering emotional traction with an outside party,’ but I grew up working-class Catholic so I’ll admit that my separation and eventual divorce had been entirely my fault. But I’ll tell you how it really happened. After twenty years of marriage my subconscious embarked on a ruthless campaign to persuade me that I was morally and spiritually entitled to all willing flesh. I had always mentally undressed millions of young women, from the subway to the ATM line, but at some point my libido manipulated my cerebral cortex and it became impossible to control my impulses. Powerless to the cliché, the first fall came when I slept with an aspiring actress I met during casting call. Later, I slept with her roommate. When I tried to sleep with them together, they stopped returning my calls.
After twenty years of marriage my subconscious embarked on a ruthless campaign to persuade me that I was morally and spiritually entitled to all willing flesh.
My infidelities peaked seven months ago when I inadvertently dispatched our upstairs neighbor’s venereal disease onto my wife. After several treatments of medication, the disease had gone away and so had my wife with half of our possessions. I had remained in our upper-Eastside Brownstone, lumbering from room to room wearing my silk robe like a sackcloth and bemoaning my lack of virtues. Meanwhile, my wife had purchased a Trump cubicle with a doorman who discouraged my drunken midnight confessions with a NY Yankees bat.
‘Forgive the cliché,’ Susan, a producer and one of my closest Broadway friends, had once said to me over lunch. ‘But you men really do think with your dicks.’
‘I do consider myself an intellectual.’
‘Gerry. Really. Almost sixty and you have hormones of a teen.’
I wanted to tell Susan that I hadn’t been acting on hormones, but something far deeper. When I grabbed my conquests hair or pinned them to the bed and slapped their face with my penis like an impuissant Rocco Siffreddi, I was expressing an anger not at women, as the feminists would chirp, but with frustration over my own supple machismo, with the sheer impotency in which my career had left me, with my inability to truly be the sexual brute I had always fantasized becoming. Sir Francis Bacon said something along the lines of ‘lack of opportunity makes us all a cheat.’ Or maybe that was how I wanted the quote to sound.
I remember the time I stuck an apple in my lover’s mouth, bound her hands with a rope, and fucked her with an unbridled passion that I had never experienced before. Her giggly submission to my rage, the well-rehearsed squeals and groans in which she received my thrusts, were all indications that indeed I had retained the skills to become a gentler sort of stud. When I peed on a colleague who admitted her love of ‘golden showers’ I felt the swell of a primal, animal strength that I had once been forced to suppress as an undergraduate at my liberal arts college. Standing above the bathtub while my urine splashed onto her naked, middle-aged body, I barked at her, cleared my throat with a swig of mid-market champagne, howled at the Manhattan moon. When I called her ‘my little fucking urinal,’ she closed her eyes, smiled with delight, smeared my excrement over her body, her submissive abandonment in a billowing crescendo with my wild dominance. I’m not sure why we never spoke again after that night.
You see, galavanting was the easy part. There were always women waiting to have their various expectations of how men disappoint met by addled married men like myself. I am convinced self-fulfilling prophesies are the lifeblood of any western culture. We are too narcissistic for it to be any other way. Therefore my voicemail was always full with feminine voices screeching, ‘I just knew this would happen.’ I would text them back, always text, ‘so why did u do it then?’
My modus for cheating was always the same. Feigning a late rehearsal, I would tell my wife not to wait up, respond to her baby kisses with a forced ‘I Love You Too’ and then minutes later, I would pin my nubile conquests to a mattress, press her face into a pillow, and enter them from behind. I would spank, tug hair, bite their necks. And, being who I am, I made it a point to order sushi afterwards, whether they liked raw fish or not. Why? Because a Norwegian play-write I respected once told me Nigiri added sophistication to even the basest of affairs.
Since it was a Friday night and there was jazz until eight, I wandered over to the Metropolitan Museum, thinking that maybe high culture could somehow provide adequate distraction from Broadway.
For the first time in my life I paid the full-price of admission and not my own whimsical, often mood-related contribution. Perhaps I felt that simple acts of generosity would somehow baptize my sins and revive my marriage. Or perhaps I felt I couldn’t handle another silent judgment, even if it came from a perky, purple-haired cashier with both sides of lip pierced. She gave me a Met button, a printed receipt, and nodded as if recognizing the virtuosity of my financial act.
I entered the Greek room first, gleaning affirmation from the historical relevance of decadence. The shiny black figures on the vases carried on an array of harried activities against a taupe background, their ebullience having lasted through the collapse of one civilization after another. Like tonsils or adenoids, the disfigured pagan statues lining the corridors still inspired reverence for an earlier human condition; when heroes with real power modeled their authority and passions after carnivorous animals. They were illiterate in guilt. Instead, they drank and fucked and murdered then celebrated afterward.
My diarrhea was a result of a Derridean realization of the Other
I tailed a remarkably beautiful couple, consumed with burying their hands in each other high-priced denim pockets, into a special exhibit on Guinean and West African masks. One particular mask was arresting in that its eyes were bloodshot, its lips fat and mischievous, almost vicious. It was one of those masks that, even taking distance, stood out from the rest, a funhouse mirror that distorted in a way that felt almost like a personal attack.
The accompanying text described a form of art called the Baga Nimba or the D’mba headress, explaining: ‘This type of art-form represents the abstraction of an ideal of the female role in society. The Nimba is viewed as the embodiment of woman at the zenith of her power rather than as a spirit or goddess.’ The couple that I had followed into this room had found a corner and were kissing, yet barely touching their bodies against one another. I suddenly felt a bout of diarrhea coming on and ran for a toilet.
It was somehow in the silence and sterility of the bathroom that I realized my diarrhea was a result of a Derridean realization of the Other. I had lived a full life of ir-reality, that I had strived for so long to solidify the imaginary, that my career had been nothing more than the pursuit of transforming the artificial into the believable, of turning a crafted sentence into an honest expression, and within that process I myself had disappeared along the way. My resume was a Baga mask, an ideal that represented a zenith and nothing more.
That night I sat on my front steps, torturing myself with an Australian Shiraz and peering in through the windows of the surrounding Brownstones. I was solitary, but in an auspicious way; a pernicious reminder to the male neighbors of the high-price of immorality. My wife had departed for a better life in another neighborhood and, rightfully, leaving me behind, an upper East-side Doctor Faustus chained to a plastic cup of a wine whose vintage came from a land of boomerangs and kangaroo. But who were my neighbors to feign superiority with their over-over-over-mortgaged Brownstone, wife addicted to Oxycotin, lesbian daughter at Dartmouth depleting trust fund and guilt to save Marmosets. The men had their own discreet weekends in Vermont, extended business trips in Oahu, three-hour dog walks.
Tonight, one by one, my neighbors, seeing me alone on my stoop, dressed their smug satisfaction in a curt parade-wave and pulled their blinds shut. I was left alone with the magnificent sounds of New York, a city at motion without me. Cars honking, subways rattling, and planes scratching a white line on a blackboard. It was a little like speeding by a drive-in movie on the interstate, where you felt the community of viewers, the colors of the screen, but the only lasting impression was a wish to go back and experience the movie itself.
“Trish isn’t black. But we’re Chocolate Escort. Don’t worry.”
The wine furthered my diarrhea and I spent much of the hour from 11:30-12:30 on the john. While waiting for my cramps to recede, I flipped to the back of a Village Voice I had picked up on my return from the Met. There I found page after page of blurry-pictured women, bending in various supposedly erotic poses. I closed my eyes and sent my finger Kamikazeing onto the page. When I looked up, my index finger had landed squarely on Chocolate Escort Service. A sure enough sign. I dialed from my cell-phone and on the second ring a gentle sounding receptionist, much like the one we used at the box-office, answered.
‘Hi,’ I bumbled.
‘Hello sweetie. How are you tonight?’
‘I’m fine. I need something.’
‘Sure you do. What were you looking for?’
‘We have girls darling. Where are you calling from?’
I told her my address and her tone flattened to theatrically professional.
‘How long are you looking for?’
‘Two. Three hours.’
‘How about Trish? She’s near you.’
‘I need someone black. An African-American at her zenith. Is Trish African-American?’
‘Trish isn’t black. But we’re Chocolate Escort. Don’t worry.’
‘They have to be real old. I mean not real old. I mean someone who has been doing this for a long time.’
‘I want them to teach me something new. About myself. This prostitute.’
‘We have girls sugar.’
‘Right. I didn’t mean…’
‘There’s Honey. Honey is $150 an hour. She’s very dark. Perfect skin.’
Here the receptionist paused. I waited. She waited.
‘Oh,’ I said finally. ‘Let’s do three hours. There’s a parking garage on the corner.’
‘She has a driver.’
‘Sure it is sugar. You just sit tight.’
I might as well have been a lost child in a grocery store.
I stood in the brightly lit cubicle while the ATM flipped twenty-dollar bills at a dizzying rate. As I left, a man wearing a woman’s ski jacket and torn jeans, opened the glass ATM door for me and rattled a Dunkin Donuts cup. I showed him the stack of twenties and shrugged.
I was sitting on my front balcony when the silver Jetta double-parked next to my neighbor, Stan Moskowitz’s Volvo station wagon. Honey stepped out of the Jetta, gray-stocking legs followed by torpedo breasts. As she stood, her skirt, which had ridden up to an indecent height, was smoothed mid-thigh by pink tipped fingernails. Honey surveyed my sleeping neighborhood with interest, as if arriving to a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by strangers. She rubbed her nose, adjusted her tiny silver handbag, and clicked unsteadily upon her stiletto heels across the sidewalk.
Even from the third floor, Honey’s apparent vulnerability ascended to my perch. Her ill-fitting clothes with common brand names splashed here and there hinted at a desire for high-style overruled by economy and practicality. Her fleshy arms, rolled hips, and meaty thighs suggested a lower class diet of white bread, pork products, and soda. Finally, her obviously rehearsed strut had the confidence of an Olympic swimmer suddenly dropped into the Atlantic, three-hundred miles from any shore.
But it wasn’t her fault. She wasn’t made to fit here. She was made for another climate.
‘I’m buzzing you up!’ I shouted down to her, the wine emboldening my stupidity. Her head snapped back and she scanned the adjacent balconies. Poor Honey. So out of place. She would never understand the safety of a neighborhood security detail, the tranquility of drifting off to sleep knowing that there would be a $300 fine for anyone who honked after nine, and the pleasures of Peruvian macadamias, Swiss chocolate, or Chilean bass all sold at a market a block away. She would never understand the magnificence of having fifty types of sushi only a phone call away, the ease at which one could hail a taxi on the corner, and the short proximity to some of the greatest museums in the world. No. Honey most likely lived in a world of drive-by shootings, drug-addicts, and crack-houses; a by-product of slavery and segregation and fertile soil for an oak of white guilt.
I went back inside my apartment, pressed the door buzzer, and waited. After a minute, I heard her click her way up the stairs, a sound that retrieved earlier pangs of yearning. For years, I had begged my wife to wear tiny little shoes that cost hundreds of dollars, but she found such style compromising to her freedom. ‘Those little Italian jobs… They’re a stylized form of bondage,’ she would say, shaking her head, troubled over my boundless ignorance of her feminine principles.
Honey clicked and clicked and before I even saw her, I got a whiff of perfume. It reminded me of an apple orchard in late November, pastoral, wintry, and in the final stages of decay.
Soon the sound of heels was linked with a face. Honey had a slow shyness to her, like a lion approaching a safari bus. Up close, I was surprised that her facial appearance was just as I had imagined her from the balcony. Her rich, braids, clasped at the tips by plastic beads, draped over her shoulders like a cheerleader’s pom-pom in the silence before a touchdown. Her face was newborn, almost doughy, but her blue eyes shone so energetically that her languid expressions became mere details to an impenetrable façade.
‘Enter my humble abode,’ I said.
She raised an eyebrow and took a heavy step inside.‘That’s some climb.’
‘Yeah, well, so, the board keeps turning down our proposal for an elevator.’
‘Oh. I know. Right. They said so. On the phone.’
‘Gerry,’ she said as if pronouncing a foreign interpretation for the word for ‘nigger.’ ‘You don’t look like a Gerry.’
‘What does a Gerry look like?’
She didn’t answer, but brushed past and clicked onward, into my home.
‘Those are nice shoes,’ I said. ‘I love the straps and exposure of toes. They always make a woman seem so…’
‘I wasn’t sure if I should wear them,’ she cut me off. ‘They’re tiny and make me feel as if I’d just crack the heel with my weight.’
Prostitutes were to be brash, outspoken, used to fighting for everything they got (or at least this is how I had directed Soraida), but Honey… She was strangely honest. I almost wanted to ask her to say that last line over once more, but with extra bravado.
‘You fit them just right. They’re nice shoes.’
But Honey had moved on to the photos over the fireplace. She didn’t pick them up or manhandle them, but bent forward, brushing her hair to one side, keeping her nose a few inches from the frame. She inspected the photos of me camping with my wife, me traveling in Africa with my wife, and me eating at my brother’s wedding.
‘You take these with a digital camera?’
‘Not all of them.’
‘Who took these pictures? You used a tripod and timer?’
‘Not always. Sometimes we asked people to take the picture.’
I had expected her to be awed by my collection of African art, to lower her street-wise attitude for a brief moment in admiration over these cultural antiquities. But she was only interested in the technical aspect of my family photos. And even at that her interest was not amateur, but strangely voyeur.
‘Did your wife ask people to take the pictures?’
‘How did you know that was my wife?’
‘Wives ask strangers to take a picture. A photo means more to a woman.’
‘Then why didn’t my wife take all those pictures with her when she left?’
‘If she moved… that’s what you are saying right?… and didn’t take them with her…then I think you answered your own question.’
Honey turned and looked me over, making a final judgment. I felt inadequate.
‘Where would you like to go?’
‘What do you mean?’
She cocked her head.
‘Where do you usually go?’
‘The bedroom,’ she replied.
‘Do you want some wine first?’
‘Naw.’ She then flipped her index finger side-to-side. ‘Which way?’
‘If you walk down the hall. It’s on the right.’
Her fleshy arms, rolled hips, and meaty thighs suggested a lower class diet of white bread, pork products, and soda.
I had reworked the most tasteless romantic-comedy scripts, been contracted to advise on saccharine musicals like Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang or Annie Get Your Gun, and prostituted myself out as an acting coach for infomercials in order to finance my seven cross-continental African tours in which I had purchased most of the tribal masks, hand-carved ornaments, and colonial antiques in my bedroom. Although Honey would have every right, as an African-American, to repatriate my collection, I couldn’t let her just go into my bedroom and, perhaps, outright steal. We’d have to negotiate, at very least.
Years of liberal education suddenly collapsed in seconds. Thus, I decided to forego my drink and, instead followed Honey to my room, examining her body the entire way with juvenile curiosity. The halogen lamps in the hallway enhanced tiny pocks of cellulite under her high-sheen, skin-tight skirt. Her thighs were strong without being muscular and her ankles bent slightly outward with every heavy step she took. The outline of her back, a shadowy labial outline arching from her hips to her shoulder blades, was a demonstration in good posture. Her body was sexy yet matronly, solid yet soft. A Freudian goddess.
She traced her finger along the wall, over our prized Kandinsky, her pink nails with silver sparkle a direct contrast to the faux Venetian plaster. When we arrived in the bedroom, she sat down on the bed and began to take off her shoes. I leaned against the doorway, lowering my head and conjuring an aloofness from the best of Bogart.
‘It’s four-fifty,’ she said tossing a shoe to the corner.
My cognitive processes dimmed then shined. Money not time. I reached into my pocket, producing an obscene wad of twenties. I handed them over to her. As she counted I asked: ‘How long have you been doing this?’
‘Awhile. Off-and-on.’ She glanced at a Tutsi ceremonial bowl on the floor. Next to it was a stack of National Geographic’s. ‘Your wife take the furniture?’
‘She left me a few things.’
I looked at Honey to see if she was expecting more, but it was obvious this all fell into the category of small-talk, where cryptic responses were left to sink.
‘What about you?’ I asked. ‘Do you live alone?’
Honey took off her top, revealing a pink bra that struggled to hold in her enormous breasts. There was no seduction, no move on her part to tease.
‘I live with my brother. He drove me here.’
‘He doesn’t care?’
‘If I had a sister…’
‘He set me up with my cousin. Shit, I was fifteen. Made forty bucks. That’s a lot of money when you’re still in junior-high.’
Honey removed her bra, exposing stretched, sagging breasts that had been pulled upon by their own sheer weight and not a lack of care. There were white streaks of stretch marks at the top that ended at the black saucers of her nipples. Her stomach was lost in three small rolls, the bottom the largest and the other two piled on top. The skin on her arms sagged and she hadn’t shaved her pits. But everything about her physicality stirred a buried excitement in my soul.
I had always found something slightly unhealthy about my wife’s Pilates classmates with their stringy arms, sculpted stomachs, and veined legs. When they would visit, wearing body-suits and sipping green tea, I would stare at the low bulge between their legs or their avocado-sized breasts and wonder how such a body could feed a child. Somewhere back in my brain, I was able to remember the dull smell of my mother’s nipple and the weight of her breast against my face while I pulled the milk out of her body. Afterward, I fell asleep on the hills of fat that was her belly, my nose pressed between the warm crevices. What would the children of my wife’s friends remember except a six-pack stomach and knotty thighs.
‘We’re going to my other brother’s party later,’ Honey said. ‘On the way over here he made me call all my girlfriends and invite them.’
‘Do your friends know about what you do?’
‘Do your friends know what you do?’
Honey bent over, and took off her stockings. I removed my t-shirt and pants, letting them fall to the floor.
‘What do you do at your parties? You and your brother.’
‘Why am I so foreign to you? Hello? What do you do at parties. We drink. Talk. Smoke weed.’
‘When I was younger,’ I said. ‘Back in the seventies, we put all our car keys in a bowl and went home with the person whose keys we chose.’
I could tell she was annoyed and turned to me with a particularly fierce look.
‘Do you want me to tell you something? Something you want to hear? Like we all fuck each other. Or you want me to tell you I eat pussy?’
‘No. I mean…’
‘Sometimes we fuck. Doesn’t everyone?’
‘We play pussy-basketball.’
‘You play that with your friends?’
Honey stood, drew down her skirt, revealing a large swath of black pubic hair that extended to the stretch marks on her stomach and over to her inner thighs. As she lay down on the bed and spread her legs, I stepped back, and tried to control an almost adolescent giggle.
‘Get a piece of paper,’ she said, now lying down and peering through the V of her legs.
Next to the trashcan was a stack of mortgage bills. I grabbed one at the bottom, the oldest, and displayed it for her.
‘Crumple it up and see if you hit my pussy.’
‘What do I get if I make it?’
I crumpled up the piece of paper, focused, and took a shot. I hit her exactly between the legs.
‘Come over here,’ she said, returning to a less compromising position and waving a condom in the air.
Her black cheeks went back and forth over my white penis secured under an even whiter condom
During foreplay, my wife would perform oral sex as if forced to eat the food she hated most: string-beans. She would only put the tip of my penis in her mouth and if I thrust or lightly pushed her head lower, she would gag and choke, then stop with a regrettable shake of the head. Sometimes, usually after a few glasses of wine, she would continue for ten or fifteen minutes, teasing the most sensitive parts of my penis with the tip of her tongue, but just about the time when I began to enjoy the act, she would stop, as if anticipating my pleasure, and apologize that her lips were getting numb. I wondered if her grandmother or mother, during some secretive backyard social, had once suggested to my then young wife that oral sex was only a necessary requisite to intercourse; a requisite that should be conducted with selfish discretion and apparent apprehension. The final result, I could hear them lecturing, should leave the man unfulfilled and slightly humiliated.
Yet, Honey hid nothing. She sucked and sucked with disturbing determination. Her black cheeks drawn inward, her violet lips pressed outward, went back and forth over my white penis secured under an even whiter condom.
I would glance down at her and shudder at the sheer impropriety of it all. The electricity derived from committing this act, all the un-political correctness….
My orgasm came suddenly, violently, piercing the points where my skin connected to my flesh. I let out a childlike cry, feverish and shrill. I grabbed the loose flesh of her arm and although I knew I was probably hurting her, I wasn’t able to let go.
‘You O.K.?’ she asked, worried, once I had relaxed.
‘Should I call an ambulance?’
‘That’s never… I’ve never come like that before.’
I wanted her lips, her tongue. I leaned forward to give her a kiss, a kiss that would show her how much I cared for what she had done. A kiss that would bring us closer. She pulled back as if I had offered a python. ‘No kissing sugar. We don’t do that. You should know better.’
Often, right after my wife had her period, we would have sex and the pungency would be off-putting, distracting, but in no way emasculating. Honey was different. Her smell was sickly, but not putrid; rank, but not repulsive; almost… almost self-excretory.
When I first entered Honey, I was surprised by her wetness. It reminded me that somewhere in her body was excitement, excitement of being with me, a man whose last name she didn’t even know. It also gave me hope that I had a general physical draw on the opposite sex, even to a black sex worker.
‘I’m gonna fuck you,’ I whispered in her ear.
‘I’m gonna fuck you so hard.’
‘That’s right. You keep on going sweetie.’
I thrusted with all my strength, but she barely moaned, barely made a sound. In turn, I became more violent, aggressive. I pulled her ass-cheeks apart, staring at the dark black hole of her anus. Her pussy was black tipped as if lined with mascara. Her inner-lips flashed pink as the whiteness of my penis slid deeper into the warmth of her body. Her breasts swayed, her butt-cheeks bounced, and she gripped the pillow, forcing her mouth into the soft padding. The only thing that didn’t move was the tattoo in the middle of her back, the tattoo in pink cursive letters that read: HONEY.
As I pounded into her, I realized that no matter how much I studied Honey, how many questions I asked of her, how many times I penetrated her, I would never wholly grasp the reality of who she was. She was not Soraida, she was not a victim, she was not a symbol of white oppression, she was Honey.
And she was used to harder, harder than I could deliver.
I I left Honey alone in my bed and wandered into the kitchen naked. A moist spot at the base of my penis, where her fluids had not yet dried, attracted the cool early morning air. I touched my fingers to this dewy place, the junction where the tight skin of the penis gave way to the wrinkled dermis of my scrotum. I lifted her scent to my nose and sniffed with delicacy, as if studying a steaming mug of Chinese medicinal herbs.
Had I been a canine I could perhaps discern between the acerbic and the enticing. For if I smelled long enough, examined thoughtfully the mixture of Honey’s scents, I might be able to separate the sweeter side, the light essence representative of femininity, the nectarous odor that had roused me during our oral sex. Beneath the pheromones lurking here were richer, like a pile of decaying matter, a whiff, a hint of a smell that could only be described as a societal effluvium; an acrid pungency that elicited impoverishment, despair, and resignation.
Just as a wine connoisseur might, I inhaled again, using two fingers, and discovered an entirely new array of smells; the peeling paint on her apartment wall, the 99 cent-store detergent in which she washed her underwear, the synthetic material of her couch, how much Folgers she drank daily, the economy-sized strawberry body soap hanging from her shower, and her hard blue plastic vibrator. And, just below the larger scents was a trace of financial anxiety, family bereavement, emotional trauma. But the strongest scent was something similar to moldy cilantro, a heavy, almost acidic twang, that conjured almost immediately in my mind a life in which hope had rarely if ever sweetened the meaty bouquet of rancid poverty.
How a single scent can bring about such vivid images I do not know. An ambitious olfactory? An overactive somatosensory system? I have often watched how a primped poodle or docile basset will study a urine stain, absorbing every inch, investigating the history, and then determining whether to leave his or her own mark. One could equally ask how the Darwinian process had unfolded within canine cerebellums where a certain scent produces the reaction of a rear leg being lifted.
Medical journals will have you believe that depression or schizophrenia can be tested through a series of ‘scent tests.’ Sociopaths have undergone many such tests and failed the basest sensory tests. But to believe that there is a connection between the mentally unstable and deficit in smell is, I think, academic exaggeration.
I once watched a documentary about ‘scent’ scientists who worked for large food corporations. They would spend their days concocting smells in order to enhance a product. The scientists would trademark fragrances for such common foods as French fries, caramel apples, chai, baby carrots, Ranch salad dressing, and bubble gum. We might always believe that cream of mushroom soup smells one way, but these scientists adapted, processed, and improved to smell to become more real, creamier, more mushroomy than the ‘real’ thing. The scientists competed with one another, recognized others work, and even gave yearly awards for such things as: ‘Complexity in Character’ or ‘Most Improved Fruit.’ Throughout the documentary, the scientists claimed with nerdy modesty, that they were simply ‘improving nature’.
I remember quietly admiring the arrogance of those scientists and wondering how I could incorporate such techniques for the stage. I salivated at the chance to make the artificial, the Broadway stage, ‘real’ while the ‘real real’ became second-class, worn, bland. A singing junkie would be the benchmark, while a ‘real’ junkie, the one rattling change in his hat on the A-train, festering with sores and mismatched shoes…that junkie would become only an unbelievable, pathetic simulation of the ‘real junkie’ we, as directors and producers, had created for an audience.
I touched my finger to my tongue to see if perhaps there was an accompanying flavor to Honey’s smell. But there was nothing except the taste of my own skin. My own white skin. Such a strong personal fragrance with no correlating palatable flavor. The unexplainable imbalance invoked such a strong curiosity within me that I wrote a note, something I had once heard on a commercial: ‘Smell is essence…’
I prepared two Manhattans, letting the caramel-colored liquid trickle down over the ice-cubes. At one point I cut a lime in half, a personal touch to my Manhattans, and marveled over the fruit’s tangy bite and distinct lack of aroma. I returned to the notepad and added: But taste is not necessarily smell.
Her smell was sickly, but not putrid; rank, but not repulsive; almost…almost self-excretory.
WWhen I returned to the bedroom, Honey had tossed the sheets on the floor and was sprawled sideways on the bed, reading the label of my prescription cream for my eczema. As I sat down next to her, she returned the cream to the bed stand, but didn’t follow up with any questions about its use. I handed the Manhattan to her and after a first, cautious sip, she cooed over its hypnotic strength and bittersweet taste.
‘I wonder if they make Manhattans at Club Arka,’ she said. ‘Cause if they don’t I’m gonna ask the manager to start making them.’
‘My aunt used to drink these all the time.’
Honey smiled distantly and we drifted into silence. She was warm, solid in my arms and I could almost feel the texture of her skin color. I played with her nipples, running my index finger over the black circles and bulls-eyed licorice tips. When she spoke, I could hear the words coming from her diaphragm, traveling up past her lungs, into her pink mouth, and out those wonderful umber lips. ‘I wish I had time for another.’
‘I’m not going anywhere.’
‘Yeah, but my brother…’
I said, turning to her: ‘I really tried to be a good lover.’ Although it felt strange to admit this to a hooker, I suddenly needed her to understand that I wasn’t just another John. I wasn’t the guy who tossed the money on the bed or zipped up my fly with an insidious grin.
‘Some women even say I’m a perceptive lover.’
She glanced at my alarm clock next to the bed. I lifted my drink and as my hand came close to my face, I smelled her on my fingers again: menthol cigarettes, feather comforter, roast pork lo mein.
‘You got a lot going on in that head Gerry.’
‘I’m thinking about you,’ I replied. ‘Who you are.’
She sipped her drink, shifting away from me an inch or two. I had crossed an invisible boundary, an intimate disclosure forbidden in the world of prostitution.
‘People ain’t puzzles,’ she said. ‘There ain’t no pieces.’
‘What’s a better metaphor?’
‘Soup. You can tell the carrots from the peas, but after that you have to guess.’
She shrugged, took my drink from my hand, and finished it. After handing the empty glass back to me, she nodded toward the wall, where I had a ceremonial mask from Guinea-Bissau.
‘Why do rich white people spend money on African things? Why do you care about a bunch of ugly looking masks made by hicks.’
‘Those people that carry jars on their heads. The women with them long titties.’
‘There are lots of black African art collectors.’
Honey frowned and finished her drink, slurping the bottom. A car horn honked outside. She stood up, her nakedness full and magnificent under the track lighting.
‘Can I ask you a question?’
She snapped on her bra. ‘Baby, you were the best.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘That’s not it. I know I’m not the best. I want to ask you something about me.’
She drew on her lacy thong underwear, the delicate back string lost in the crevice of her voluptuousness.
‘Do you,’ I started, clearing the bubble from my throat. ‘Do you remember everyone?’
She shrugged, tugged on her top, and popped her right, then left arm out from the holes. She went to the mirror on the wall and straightened her hair with her palm.
‘I wouldn’t know if I forgot, would I? But I think I remember. Most of them. That’s not to say if I saw you on the street next year I’d know your name right away.’
‘I assume you’ve been with other white men?’
“I really tried to be a good lover.”
‘Was I everything you dreamed of when you imagined being with a girl like me?’
‘How do you know,’ I stumbled. ‘That I’ve never been with a black girl before?’
She didn’t answer. The car horn honked again. Honey walked over to the window, pulled the velvet curtain back, located her driver, and held up her index finger.
‘I gotta bust.’
Honey swept by me and gave me a kiss. Suddenly she stopped and looked down her leg.
‘Oops we got a spill.’ She wiped her finger along the inside of her leg and displayed a wet tip. I hoisted the Macy’s sheets and stuck my head underneath. Once again I was confronted with her smell, so overpowering, so hypnotizing that the broken condom lying within the folds of the sheets barely registered with my consciousness.
The next day during rehearsal I could barely keep my eyes open. After Honey had left, I only slept a few hours before waking rather violently. She was everywhere, in my sheets, my clothes, the furniture, and skin. I showered for almost an hour, using what remained of my wife’s perfumed soap. I doused myself in cologne and after-shave until I smelled like a teenage boy going on a first-date. But even then, submerged under designer oils and spices, I could still smell her tart, piercing odor. I scrubbed the bedroom, vacuumed the carpet, mopped the floor, and eventually threw away the sheets. I returned to the bathtub, filled it with a salts, scrubbed my skin with pumice, and spread cheap rose lotion all over my body, but even then. Even then. The smell remained.
‘You smelly perty,’ Welling said as I trudged into the theater’s side-entrance.
I didn’t respond, but went immediately to the drinking-fountain.
‘Can I ask you a question?’
‘The smeller’s the feller?’
I stared at Welling. ‘What?’
‘I’m just kidding,’ he said. ‘Your smell. All the cologne.’
I wiped a sliver of water from my mouth. ‘It’s hard to get AIDS from a woman right?’
The stupid grin on Welling’s face melted. ‘AIDS?’
‘It’s hard to get it from women. If you sleep with one.’
His smile returned, but hesitantly. ‘I see why you’re tired.’
‘Can you tell me?’
‘You should have used a condom Gerry.’
‘Jesus Welling. You’re my producer, not my mother.’
There was a low commotion on stage. One of the stage-hands had dropped a microphone. Welling listened intently, estimating how much the damage might cost.
‘You could sue,’ he said after a second. ‘Especially if she knew. It’s like attempted murder now or something.’
‘You’re an idiot sometimes, you know.’
‘Do you have cuts?’ he asked, his voice flat. ‘Little cuts. You know if you masturbate a lot and get raw. Her fluids need to make contact with your blood.’
I searched his face. This time the trademark concern seemed to have evaporated and was replaced by indifference. Something had happened. A wall had been built between us overnight, but I wasn’t sure how it had happened.
‘You don’t sound sure.’
‘I’m not going to be responsible for this Gerry. Go get a check-up.’
‘I can’t go to my doctor. He’s better friends with my wife than with me.’
‘Here,’ Welling said, handing me his Blackberry. ‘Check the internet. They probably have a clinic in the Bronx or something like that. Our taxes have to go somewhere right?’
He paused and put his hand on my shoulder. His sympathy felt staged. ‘You’ll be fine,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to get your mind back here. Back to the Titanic. We open in two weeks.’ He leaned in closer.
‘I’ll meet you on the stage. The rumor got around that I was looking for a replacement. I think our lead whore is ready to apologize.’
“I think our lead whore is ready to apologize.”
I quietly slipped out of rehearsal and located a free clinic six blocks away, but as I stepped out into the overcast day I almost tripped over Soraida, who was smoking a cigarette.
‘I didn’t mean to stand right by the door,’ she said. ‘I didn’t want to get my cigarette wet from the rain.’
‘It’s not raining.’
Somehow this wasn’t important to her and she said: ‘Welling said I should talk to you. I know I should too. Besides what Welling said. I fucked it up the other day. What I said.’ She shook her head five times, too long.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ I said.
She grabbed my arm and held tight. It sent shocks straight through my body.
‘I had a wall up. A wall I had to tear down in order to see over. But it’s real. The script. It’s very real.’
I wanted to tell her that what I had written was crap. That the whole play was crap. I wanted to ask her how she could lower herself. I wanted to ask about her pride. I wanted to ask her if she could smell what I smelled.
‘I have to go,’ I said.
‘I think you’re a genius,’ she whispered.
II took a cab to Washington Heights, near New York Presbyterian and although it cost me twenty-five bucks, money was arbitrary by this point. The ATM was still reeling from my earlier withdrawal.
Inside the clinic I sat on a hard blue chair surrounded by black and Latino faces. There was one exception however. An elderly woman that I sat down next to, moved to the seat across from me, and returned to her magazine, taking small peaks over the frayed edge to survey me.
The doctor came in after the weight measured, blood pressure gauged, blood drawn, and preventive pamphlets distributed. The doctor hardly seemed surprised to see me. I was willing to pay him to be surprised, to pretend that humiliated white men like me didn’t come to his clinic on a regular basis.
‘Your tests will be back in two to three days,’ he said. ‘I could send them to your regular doctor.’ He had a subtly patronizing, distantly Jewish expression. Shaved head, gray beard, and Birkenstocks. I deduced that he most likely went to Oberlin or Wellesley and instead of admitting defeat to his Ivy League buddies became a servant of the poor where he remained in silent competition with their financial successes.
‘I don’t have a regular doctor?’
‘It says Heinrich on your insurance card. East 76th.’
‘Sure,’ I said with a ridiculous wave of the hand. ‘Look. You know why I’m here. Send the tests to my house. Please.’
He smirked. I wanted to tell him to write a book. A memoir. I could be that man. That white chauvinist CEO or alcoholic banker whom the selfless doctor must care for.
‘But I have to ask you something,’ I said. ‘It’s something a little… Something different.’
‘Do you smell something on me?’
‘Smell,’ I repeated, lower. ‘Do you smell?’
‘Come here. Smell…’
The doctor scrutinized me, scratching his beard.
‘Can you just do it?’ I pleaded. ‘Can you just smell me and tell me? There’s something there. I don’t know how to get rid of it. Please.’
And when he leaned over I saw a thick black mole on the back of his neck, sprouting a single, equally dark hair.
I could say that because I didn’t get HIV and the play failed I learned my lesson. During the two weeks after my encounter with Honey I wrote and rewrote the script, with Soraida sitting next to me, editing here, reprimanding there. We visited some of her friends in Jackson Heights. Talked to more prostitutes. The play took on an authenticity that I hadn’t experienced in any of my previous plays. It was hard work.
But after opening night Welling approached me with an unusual somber tone. He no longer bounced or sidled. Instead he leaned close to my ear and said: ‘The reviews Gerry,’ he said.
‘It’s good this.’
‘Every damn paper says it’s not believable. It’s insensitive. My phone’s on vibrate just waiting for the NAACP. The only people who liked it were the New York Post and that’s a crowd we don’t want here, do we?’ He studied me and, for a brief second, I thought he might be sniffing. ‘We got to shut this down somehow. Delicately. Decently. Without putting your name to it.’
Suddenly, I thought of every reviewer, every white, sensitive reviewer that I could think of. I knew why they didn’t approve, why they objected.
‘This is how I wanted to go out,’ I said to Welling. ‘Let me go out this way.’
‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘I’ve worked with you for years and have always respected your opinion, but this time I’m pulling the plug.’
‘I’ve always looked after you Gerry. I know what’s best in this situation. You lost your way this time. It’s a first after many, many years. We’ll do better next time. I know you will.’
As he walked away, I sat down on a bench and looked at the stage doors, the red carpet, the colored glass over the fluorescent lights. Between the doors and the carpet fibers, way down at the microscopic level, were fragments of dust, skin, hair, from the millions who had been in this theater, each unwittingly leaving a little physical piece of their existence to be either vacuumed up or picked up by the sole of a stranger’s shoe.