|Jan/Feb 2016 Fiction|
Artwork by Karen Fox Tarlton
It's the kind of party where everyone looks great, but you're not sure if you like anyone there. Old men dressed in navy suits and blue ties of various shades stand in clumps talking about the economy and the stock market in China. I turn my back to the crowd and take a picture so you can see the groups behind me, then send it to Chantal, telling her I'm making new friends. I know she'll like this. When I turn back around, one man, who stands out by wearing a bright-purple tie, is younger than the rest. He's gladhanding and impressing his smile upon as many partygoers as will let him, which is everyone here.
"Skilled, isn't he?"
The man who says this is Chantal's father. Chantal is my girlfriend. He's wearing the same navy suit as the rest of the crowd and sports a royal-blue tie with a sterling silver tie bar. His hair is combed back, silver with dark streaks. From certain angles, he looks like an aging movie star with his smooth forehead and carefully manicured nails. He's only missing the permanent kiss of suntan that would make him look at home in LA.
"I guess he is."
I take a drink of my vodka tonic and scan the room. At regular intervals, the clumps of men break up into smaller clumps and then back into larger clumps. It looks like a coordinated seventh-grade dance. The only rule breaker is the guy in the purple tie. He jumps from clump to clump, leaving smiling faces along the way.
"You know," Chantal's father says. He presses closer. His sugary breath hits me and my stomach flips. "That could be you when you graduate from Columbia."
"No. We don't support candidates. We support politicians."
This I know to be true. Every politician he has supported in recent years is now in government at the federal level. Purple-tie guy is next. I am to be the one after him.
The crisp white bathroom has two urinals hedged close to one another. It makes me uncomfortable, but I find some solace in the small gold trim accentuating the ornate French-Victorian finishing and the restroom's attendant, who is dressed in a white tuxedo with a white bow tie. In the air is the faint scent of artificial alpine meadows. Beside me at the other urinal is purple-tie guy, still smiling like his face is frozen in that expression. He looks down, as though to admire his own package, then looks over at me.
"I don't think we've met," he says, still looking at my penis. "I'm Stephen."
Men talking in the bathroom is nothing new, and some do it quite well. I've never been one of those who do it well. My urine stops, and I become very aware I'm holding my penis while talking to someone else.
"Evan," I say.
"Who's your father?" he asks, wasting no time trying to see what family I come from so he can make a connection or provide me with a compliment.
"I'm a guest."
"Oh," he says. "Are you a member?"
The club we're in is a members-only club, and even though it opened its doors to women over 15 years ago, it still is very much a men's club. And with the group tonight, it's an old political boys' club.
"No," I lie.
My father is a member, and as his son, so am I. But my father hates these types of events, and I came at the request of Chantal's father. Ever since Chantal began interning for a senator, she's been trying to groom me to become one. I struggle with it because she sits right of center, and I don't sit anywhere, not even placid center, which is full of populists.
His smile drops and becomes a grin he's forced to wear. I have become a time waster in his eyes. Someone who isn't going to help advance his cause or his career. He shakes his arms down twice, and that's followed by the faint sound of a zipper.
"You have a good night."
The bathroom attendant turns on the taps and touches his fingers to the water to test the temperature. When he's satisfied, he gestures to the stream of water and purple-tie guy washes his hands. When done, the attendant holds out a crisp white hand towel. Purple-tie guy takes it. He dries his hands and tosses it into the basket now half full of hand towels.
When the door closes behind him, my urine starts to flow.
New York smells different. It doesn't smell bad, but it doesn't smell good, either. It sometimes smells like urine or garbage, but mostly the city just smells like people. The only reprieve is Morningside Park, a block from campus. Or Central Park, a few blocks beyond that. But neither is like the river valley I grew up in, which offered a constant crisp breeze. But that's okay—New York also smells like opportunity, something I never could smell at home.
Natasha turns over in my bed. She's still sleeping, and now and then, she lets out a gentle snore. I want to record a video and post it online. After all, who wouldn't want to see this month's Vogue cover model snoring. But I don't. She made it clear a long time ago that she hates when people record her without her permission, and while most models post videos of themselves doing everything, Natasha plays the role of the beautiful recluse.
I lie beside her in my boxers, waiting for her to wake up. I've been here only two days, but it already feels like months have passed, making my memories of home foggy. I spent the first day wandering around campus like a vagabond, trying to find a dealer I could score some coke from. Turns out, I only had to look in my fraternity.
Natasha's eyes flutter, and her body goes rigid and long in a full stretch. She extends her legs out until her feet hang over the bed.
"How long have I been sleeping?" she asks.
"Only four hours."
Her lips press together, and she looks disappointed. "I was hoping for longer."
"Do you want some coke?" I ask.
She smiles and shakes her head. "Not now, I'm still sleepy. We should just spend the day in bed."
"That's not like you."
"I have a shoot all day tomorrow, and flying back from Paris always fucks me up."
She stretches again. Her body is long and lean, and when she tenses, every muscle is accentuated through her frame. She's wearing only panties—which create the perfect bridge between her hipbones—and nothing else.
"Did we have sex?" she asks.
I pull my vial out and tap a small mound of coke no bigger than a Smartie onto the back of my hand by my thumb.
"Are you sure?"
I snort back the coke.
"Too bad," she says. "I would be more awake if we did."
She rolls over and drifts back to sleep.
"I like this city," she says. "But I would like it more if I weren't always working when I was here."
I take a bite of my bagel and frown at it. It's too dense, and I was hoping for more. The world moves around us as we sit at the small cafe table. Now and then, someone pulls out their phone and takes a picture of Natasha. She doesn't seem to notice. I put my hand up to my face to block the angle of people taking pictures. I'm hoping it looks natural, but know it will look more awkward when the pictures make their way online.
"Nothing," she says.
She pokes at her ahi salad, moving the pieces of tuna around. When she finds one that looks right, she spears it and places it in her mouth.
"Watch this," she says.
She pulls out her phone and holds it in her hand. It doesn't take long before two teenage girls—one wearing an I <3 NY T-shirt and the second wearing a Sex and the City T-shirt—recognize Natasha and pull out their phones to take a picture. When they do, Natasha turns and takes a picture of the two girls. The two girls mouths drop open in a silent gasp, and Natasha takes another picture, then turns her phone around to show them the image she took. The two girls cover their mouths and double over in a giggle fit and say "OMG!" before running away, laughing like they had been caught doing something they shouldn't have.
"They love that shit," Natasha says. "I don't know why, but they do. Especially tourists."
She uploads the picture with the phrase, awesome fans <3<3.
The whole event is foreign to me. Where I'm from, rich people are oil rich, and no one whips out their phone trying to get pictures of the VP of an oil company.
"How often are you here?" I ask.
She shrugs. "Depends."
She goes back to poking her tuna.
"So, what does Chantal think of you being here? For four years, I mean."
"She's okay with it. She likes to tell people I'm going to Columbia."
"I bet," she replies. "It increases your book value."
I summon up a laugh that sounds more like a snort, then flip the top on my bagel open so I can scrape out the lox and capers.
"This bagel isn't very good," I say. "It's too dense."
"There're better places. I'll take you next time I'm here."
Natasha places her fork down and picks up her phone. She starts to type something, then pauses.
"Do you want to come to my shoot tomorrow?"
I shrug. "Sure."
She goes back to typing on her phone, then places it down on the table. "Am I spending the night?"
"Probably not," I say. "The rest of the fraternity is arriving tonight. And I'm only a freshman. Who knows what shit they have planned."
"Oh, come on," she says. "That's not like you. What happened to your I-don't-give-a-shit attitude?"
"This's different," I say. "I'm nobody here."
Natasha reaches into her bag and pulls out a small blue box wrapped with a crisp white ribbon. In black text in the center of the box top says Tiffany & Co. She places it on the table and slides it across to me. She doesn't say anything. She just smiles.
I take the box from her, touching her hand when I do.
A gentle tug causes the ribbon to fall loose. Inside the box is a sterling silver business card holder. It also has the words Tiffany & Co. embossed in small type in the center.
"You're a business student. You'll need business cards."
She reaches over and squeezes my hand. I squeeze back.
I finish unpacking my last bag, a Louis Vuitton Keepall Chantal bought me before I left. She said I should be going to New York with some style and was concerned that if I didn't look the part, I would be ignored. The room is smaller than I was hoping it would be, but it will do. I make a list of posters to buy so it feels more like home but realize it won't feel like home, at least for a while. I was fortunate to get picked by a fraternity with a big enough house that I have to share a room with only one other person for the first year. Next year, I might get my own room, and if I don't, I'll have my own room by year three. At least that's what my advisor told me.
I text back and forth with Chantal throughout the day. What's she doing, what am I doing, her internship with the senator, what my room is like—the kind of small talk that takes up the day. I send her some pictures to which she replies, "Quaint." She tells me it's small and tells me the bed is too small for two people and asks where she'll sleep when she comes. I tell her we'll stay in a hotel. She's two hours behind me, so she's eating a late dinner by the time I'm going to bed. She sends me some pictures of her food, an elk burger with some string sweet-potato fries, and tells me she misses me already, so I tell her miss her, too. I don't tell her Natasha is in town and I'm going to her photo shoot tomorrow. It's just better that way. She sends back a picture of her pretending to kiss the camera. "For you," she says. I send back a kissing emoji, then go to my closet to pick something out for tomorrow.
My dad was once featured on the cover of a local business magazine when his company broke the ten-million-dollar barrier. When we went to the photo shoot, they took him to the side of the room and sat him down in a barber chair. Women moved around him until his hair was slicked down, and his face was covered in a foundation to smooth things out and then powdered to keep the glare down. It took 20 minutes. When they finished, he stood in the middle of the room for some test shots and then the photographer ran around talking about the glare from my dad's shirt. One of the girls, the one who I think did his hair, went over to a rack and came back with a rustic denim shirt. The kind with pearl buttons. She stood beside him while he unbuttoned his white shirt, exposing his torso, which didn't have much more color than his white shirt. He swapped his shirt for the one the lady was holding. It was a little tight in the arms but fit well around his stomach, making him look thinner and more muscular. The photographer took some shots, asked my dad to look up and to the left, took more shots, then up and to the right, then more shots. Then it was done. The entire photo shoot was just under 40 minutes.
Natasha is still sitting in a chair after 40 minutes while her makeup artists—two women—hover over her, applying delicate layers of color, creating shadows that hollow her cheeks. Her eyes are surrounded with dark makeup, and she looks like she has been up all night partying. It transitions from a burning brown surrounding her eyes to a faint brown that fades into her natural skin color just outside her eye socket. Shadows, tinted with red by her nostrils, make her nose look raw, like she has been snorting coke all night. When she finally stands up, after 90 minutes, she is wearing so much makeup she looks as though she is in a theater production.
"What do you think?" she asks.
"The last time I saw you look like that, you had been up for two days on a coke high."
She sneers, then snorts back. "Good," she says. "That's the look they want."
She steps away to the center of the room under the harsh full glare of lights and looks down. She holds her hands out, takes a half step back, and drops her robe to a crumpled pile by her feet, revealing a white studded corset and nothing else. A guy who is almost as thin as Natasha—and smells of strong cologne, like burnt wood— runs over and pulls it away from her feet. At no time does he look up at her naked body, which is glaring and smooth in the lights. She spreads her legs shoulder width apart, holds her arms out by her sides, and freezes. If I had just walked into the room, I would have thought she were a mannequin.
The makeup lady walks over to her and begins to apply a foundation to some thin stretch marks on the top of Natasha's hips. I never noticed them until now.
"You can get Jerry," the makeup lady says. "We're ready."
The guy who took the robe bobs his head and runs out of the room. A moment later, he returns with three other people. The man at the front of the group is wearing a striped shirt and has a mustache looking like it's trying to escape from his face. With each step, his stomach pushes out against the stripes, making his midsection look bigger than it is. He walks by me without noticing I am in the room.
"Natasha," he says. "Beautiful."
He walks over, and she moves her cheek toward him. He doesn't touch her, though he does leave a kiss an inch from her cheek.
She gestures toward me. "I hope you don't mind, I brought my friend."
Jerry turns in my direction. He looks down at my shoes, then up to my face. He stands silent for a minute, then exhales loudly in an apparent dramatic fashion. "I guess."
He spins around. "On the bed, dear. I was thinking stomach."
Natasha turns and crawls on the bed, careful not to smudge any of the makeup applied to her body.
"Center," Jerry says.
Natasha shimmies over to the center and lies facing the camera. When she settles, she looks over and winks at me. The two assistants who came in with Jerry move large silver disks into place so a dramatic shadow is cast just underneath Natasha. Jerry circles around, looking at her from every angle, then stops in front of her. He holds out a single finger. Natasha's eyes lock onto it. When he moves it up, she lifts her chin, then follows the finger down to the right, then to the left.
"Too dark," he says. "Bring it up two."
He taps the bottom of his chin.
One of the assistants grabs a third silver disk, smaller than the other two, about the size of a frisbee, and places it close to the ground, so it's reflecting light under Natasha's chin. Jerry holds his finger out again, and they go through the same routine—up, down, left, right.
"Better," he says. He looks down at Natasha. "Are you ready?"
Jerry slips off his shoes and steps up on the bed. He walks around Natasha until he's behind her. He starts at her legs and scans up the rest of her body. He lets out an audible hum and chews on his lips while thinking. Hmm again.
"Okay," he says. "Bring your left leg up like this, beside you, like you are crawling."
Natasha slides her left leg forward until it's up beside her. Jerry looks her over again, stopping to take in her vagina.
"Good," he says, and hops off the bed.
He moves through a few different positions with her arms first up, then down, then under her, so she's pushing herself up into a pseudo downward-dog pose, and eventually brings them to her side, so they're touching at the elbows and falling to the right side. Natasha looks like she's going to roll herself over.
"Bring your right leg up beside you as well."
Natasha does as she's told and now has both legs spread open. I've seen her like this numerous times, but never from the front before.
Jerry steps back and stands to take the scene in. "Perfect," he says.
The two cameras get positioned off center from Natasha's face so they can take in the length of Natasha's body. The cameras click in bursts of three. In between each burst, Jerry moves his finger and Natasha moves her head in the corresponding direction.
"Less interested," Jerry says.
Something subtle happens with Natasha's face, something imperceptible, but instantly, she looks more melancholy, almost lonely.
Jerry just nods and takes another burst of photos.
"Just stay there."
He walks over to a laptop and clicks the mousepad. "We're done," he says.
Natasha lets out a groan and pushes herself up. Her face still looks melancholy. She steps in front of the bed and runs her fingers through her hair. "Can I get my robe?" she asks.
The skinny boy runs the white robe over to her, and she slides it on. A smile returns to her face, and she walks over to me.
"What did you think?"
"He was looking at your pussy," I whisper.
"That's just Jerry," she says. "At least he doesn't try to sleep with me. Most do."
Chantal texts to tell me her father renewed her membership in the party and also purchased a membership for me. She's going to mail me the membership card so I can show people I am going to be a politician. I'm not sure if it will, because three other guys in my fraternity are the sons of congressmen and one the son of a senator. My shiny political party membership card will mean nothing to them, but I don't tell her that. I just say thanks and tell her I look forward to it.
Natasha is putting on a fresh layer of makeup. The heroin chic is replaced with a softer smooth, natural look that makes her less tragic looking and more like the hot girl in school.
Jerry and his assistants left 20 minutes ago to go to another shoot on top of the building. He just asked us to lock the door before we leave.
"Does that happen all the time?" I ask. "Photographers staring at your pussy?"
"No." Natasha applies some neutral lipstick that lightens her lips, so they blend in with her skin. "Jerry likes to, though. He used to touch girls until a model charged him with sexual assault. She's not working anymore, though. She tells people she quit, but no one wanted to work with her after that."
We go to the observation deck at the Empire State Building, where we take a selfie with the sky-line behind us. A hole exists where the two towers used to be. Some more tourists take a picture of Natasha, and I wonder why they do this. We go to the Met and leave some change in a cup for a homeless guy outside who's holding a sign saying he fought in Iraq. He looks too old to have fought in Iraq, but we leave him money anyway.
I want to go to the zoo, which is only a few blocks away. Natasha and I talked about it before I came. She said she went once but didn't want to go back because she hates seeing the animals in cages and how they've been objectified for our viewing pleasure. I still want to go so I can say I went.
"Let's go in here first," she says. "If there's time, we can go after."
This is Natasha's coy way of burning time so we won't have time to go.
We walk through the Met, and I keep stopping to take in the paintings I would have never seen if I stayed at home. Natasha is a few steps in front of me, and every time I catch up to her, she moves forward as though she's leading me.
I want to text Chantal and tell her I'm having a good time and I went to the Met and saw Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Frank Stella, and more. But I decide not to. It would be wrong telling her how great of a day I had with Natasha when I knew how much Chantal wanted to come to New York and do these things with me. If she comes to visit, I will have to pretend I've never been and it's my first time so it will be special for her as well.
Natasha spends the night, but we don't have sex. We make out a little, and I go down on her. I find it hard to get into it, though, because I keep thinking of how Jerry was staring at her earlier and keep wondering if he is masturbating somewhere thinking about her. After Natasha comes, she gives me a handjob while I hover over her and we kiss. We do this until I come on her stomach. When she gets up to go to the bathroom, I text Chantal: "Hope you had a good day. Talk tomorrow. I'm going to bed."
On the subway, a guy walks up and down the length of the car. He stops by an older lady with a bag full of groceries and reaches for the carton of milk sticking out from the top. Two people nearby hold their phones up and start recording videos. The guy notices them and continues to walk up and down the car, leaving the milk in the bag with the older lady.
The entire car smells like sweat—not gym sweat or locker-room sweat, but end-of-day sweat, faint and sour. No one seems to notice, and I resist the urge to ask the people sitting nearby if all the subway cars smell like this.
I pull my phone out, and there are a few texts from Chantal. She wants to know if I've seen Natasha. She knows Natasha is in New York because of the picture Natasha uploaded to Instagram with two girls wearing touristy T-shirts, one with an I <3 NY T-shirt. She reminds me of my promise not to sleep with Natasha because she knows Natasha and I slept together a couple of times in high school. If I sleep with Natasha, Chantal reminds me, I can kiss my political career goodbye.
I text back that I bumped into Natasha, but I didn't sleep with her and I was aware of my promise that I wouldn't sleep with her if I saw her. And I'm not lying. Kissing isn't sex, going down on her isn't sex, and a handjob isn't sex, either. But I don't tell her those things, even though I want to. Home seems so far away, not just another time, but another life. Like something that was a dream compared to the life I'm now living. Instead, I text Chantal that I'm having fun and I'm hoping to go to the zoo because I've always wanted to go to the zoo. And if I go, I'll send her some pictures. She replies right away, telling me she's going to come and visit, sooner than she thought. She wants to see me, so I tell her that's okay, and maybe we can go to the Met, because I know how much she's always wanted to go.
I can imagine her pacing around her room as she imagines me seeing Natasha. She'll wonder if I am telling the truth and will hope I told Natasha I never want to see her again. But that's impossible. After all, we all went to private school together. It's not my fault Natasha signed a modeling contract when she was 14, and I was one of the only people she kept in contact with from school. I know Chantal's mad, and I wish I hadn't told her I saw Natasha. She doesn't own me, and I should be able to hang out with whomever I want to. But I don't text any of that.
Instead, I get off at the next stop and find a quiet corner where I can do some coke. I always feel better after I do coke, like everything is going to be okay, that life will somehow work itself out, even if I make no real effort.
Natasha leaves the next morning. She gives me head when we wake up, and I tell her I can't see her anymore, that I promised Chantal I wouldn't have sex with her, and my planned-out life would end it if I saw her. I don't know why I tell her about the promise I made Chantal instead of just avoiding her, but I think she should know. She slaps me when I tell her.
"I just swallowed your cum, and you're telling me you can't see me anymore because of some promise you made Chantal?"
She slaps me again. "You're a fucking coward."
I lie in bed while Natasha throws her clothes on. She doesn't say anything as she hurries out of my room and slams the door behind her.
The zoo is full of kids who look like they're in grade three. They're all wearing the same uniform, and it reminds me of the school uniform I wore in school, and I wonder how different my life would have been if I had grown up in New York. Would I be more cultured and refined? I like to think so. I feel rough around the edges, like I come from a city where a denim shirt with pearl buttons is considered suitable for a magazine cover photo.
The kids run around the cage, laughing at the snow monkeys. They stick their hands into the cage and try to get the monkeys to come to them, but the monkeys stare at the kids as though attempting to figure out what the kids are saying. A lady in her early 20's calls to the kids and tells them to keep their hands out of the cage. And the kids all stop and step back as though they have been caught stealing.
The group settles down, and the teacher asks them to find their buddy. When they're all aligned in pairs holding hands, the group moves on down the path and around the corner. I want to follow them to see where they go, but I don't have a buddy. Chantal texts me and tells me she's sorry for sounding so angry yesterday.
I walk up to the monkey cage and turn my back to the monkeys. I pull out my phone and hold it up so I can see myself in it, then move it until I can see the monkeys over my shoulder. I take a picture, then slightly reposition myself and take another. The monkeys edge forward, and one crawls up the cage behind me. It reaches out to touch my hair. I start to step forward but decide to stay. It runs its paw through my hair and behind my ear and then sniffs its fingers. Happy with the smell, it puts its paw back on my head. I take another picture. This time, I'm smiling, and the monkey is visibly running its fingers through my hair. I step away, and the monkey looks at me, melancholy and lonely. I text Chantal back and tell her it's okay, that I found a new friend.