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Oct/Nov 2000 spotlight

Patroness of the Arts

by John Palcewski


On my first morning in Manhattan, I bought a copy of The New York Times and sat on a stool in an Irish bar and grill near the YMCA on Lexington Avenue. There was a most interesting ad. A single room for a gentleman was available, on the upper West Side, $7.00 per week.

I got on the subway, went uptown. Breathing hard I knocked on the door of a brownstone on West 87th Street. The landlady looked me over and invited me upstairs. The room was about ten feet wide and fifteen feet long. A monk's cell, with a window on the end. A bed, a table, a chair. Bathroom with shower down the hall. In another room lived a Turk, a foreign-exchange film student at NYU. Yes, she said, the rent was $7.00, which would include her changing the sheet and pillowcase every week, but there was to be NO cooking in the room, and of course no noise, because she in her advanced age needed peace and quiet. I gave her a month in advance, plus a two-week security deposit.

I quickly found employment as a typist at X publishing house on Park Avenue near 54th Street. A most genteel place with soft carpets, soft lighting, and an informality that initially made me feel welcome. I worked hard the first few months, filling in for absent secretaries, going from editor to editor, department to department, receiving excellent marks for my speedy and flawless typing. When I got to the Syndicate Department, my boss Sally liked my enthusiasm and productivity and made arrangements with personnel to get me to work full time as her secretary.

Sally, recognizing my ability to improve her letters, gave me a shot at writing promotion copy for the serializations of bestsellers X's Syndicate Department was peddling to newspapers throughout the U.S.. My first piece of professional writing was an upbeat blurb about a book by an evangelist on the topics of sin, sex and self control. I went on to write blurbs for other bestsellers by some very famous authors.

At X I met Mark. On one of my inter-departmental typing assignments, I'd taken a seat at what I thought was a free desk, when he came into the room in his rumpled white shirt and askew silk tie and demanded, in an imperious baritone, whether I had "ensconced" myself permanently at his desk. I made apologies and moved.

His initial gruffness was replaced by a quick smile and explosive laugh, and soon we became friends. He had blonde hair and a rough, pock-marked face, which strongly resembled the engravings I'd seen of Beethoven. I told him so, and he was pleased, because he loved Beethoven, especially the late quartets and the piano sonatas.

Mark was a researcher on a special company project and also a musician. He sang with the Bach Choir at his Presbyterian church up in New Haven, his home town. Most important, he was a Harvard graduate, Phi Beta Kappa. An intelligent man, a most articulate man.

When I met Mark, I had already written the opening chapter of my first novel. A short chapter that I'd typed on my new portable on expensive 25 lb. bond paper. When I finished those ten, fifteen pages I placed them on the seat of the chair. I opened up a fresh half-gallon jug of Italian Swiss Colony sherry, and sat on the bed, my back on the pillow against the wall. I drank and stared at those beautifully typed pages. I became delirious with a flooding sweet joy that here was, at last, evidence I was a serious writer, a literary artist.

And by that time I was deeply involved with Victoria. Oh, Victoria! I've tried many times over the years to write a story about her, but never succeeded. There was just too much pain permanently attached to my experience with that strange, lovely woman. Anger at the way she treated me. And deep guilt and regret for the way I ended up treating her. I wish I could find her now.

I'd tell her how sorry I am.

The portable typewriter I'd used to write my debut novel's first chapter was a gift from Victoria. My new shoes were also a gift from Victoria. She'd laughed at the shoes I'd come into town in, and said of course they had to go. They were bowling shoes, which I'd stolen from Cowtown Bowling Palace in Ft. Worth, and had painted with black liquid shoe polish. The red and green colors were not entirely masked. Oh, yes, she said. They had to go. As a novelist I could not walk the streets of Manhattan in those awful shoes.

Victoria was the breathtaking vision I saw just four days after my arrival. I'd walked in the wet snow from my room on West 87th Street to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and there she was in a long tan coat and high leather boots, in the lobby at the information desk, gathering brochures of the various exhibits. I boldly approached her.

"Would you care to join me?" I asked.

She turned, looked me up and down, grinned and said, "Why not?"

She was from Stuttgart, recently arrived in New York, and was staying at the Plaza until she found an apartment. Victoria's hair was long and blonde, her eyes were light blue, and her nose was thin and flared nicely, like Marlene Deitrich's. Her English was excellent. She also spoke French and Spanish. This young woman was beautiful, sophisticated, and sexy. And I wanted her, badly. She smiled when I rattled off what I knew of Degas, Van Gogh, Picasso, Hopper, and classical music and literature. It pleased her that I was trying so hard. I probably could have saved myself all that effort. I believe she decided right off that she'd take me as her lover, that very first moment in the lobby of the Met.

After an hour or so wandering the galleries at the Met, we walked in the slush down Fifth Avenue, toward the Plaza. She locked arms with me and listened to me talk about the novel I was writing. I was sober that afternoon, but my head was swimming. How was it possible that I was in the greatest city in the world, with a such a beautiful woman at my side? How did that come to pass?

Victoria said, "Why don't we go into that restaurant, and have a bite?" It was French, very ritzy.

I flushed. "I don't have any money," I confessed.

She laughed. "Don't worry! I shall buy you dinner. You must eat. You must take care of yourself!"

I replied that being a starving artist is exactly what I'd always dreamed about becoming, since I was a boy, reading the biographies of famous novelists.

"Nonsense," she said. "You do not need to starve to be an artist."

Three days later, in her small room at the Plaza, she whispered, "I must submit to you." But when I tried to pull off her sweater, she resisted. I stopped. "What's the matter?" she said. "Have you lost interest?"

So I resumed, and she resisted. It became a vigorous wrestling match. But gradually off came her sweater and her black-laced bra. Her breasts were perfectly formed. Smooth, white semi-globes, with small nipples. Her trousers were dark corduroy. I fumbled for the top button, but there was no button. A safety pin was all that stood in my way. That gleaming safety pin holding her buttonless trousers together at the top was, and remains, a most poignant image to me.

Sex with Victoria was the most intense I've ever experienced. When we were naked a flush would spread over her cheeks and neck, and her eyes glistened, and she grasped me and drew me into her. It was impossible not to be swept into a sexual frenzy by the sight and feel of her naked, perfect body.

"Why do men always come so quickly?" she once asked after a violent but enormously satisfying encounter.

"Because you are so incredibly beautiful, so incredibly erotic," I replied, running my fingers gently down her flat, moist belly.

"Excellent answer," she said, smiling. "Now do it again! Schnell!"

A week after the consummation of our relationship, she bought me a beautiful portable typewriter in a green metal carrying case, several boxes of high-quality 25 lb. bond paper, and a new pair of shoes. I told her that I would pay her back someday. She told me don't worry, forget it, she'd always wanted to emulate a great 18th Century Russian noblewoman. Princess Yekaterina Romanovna Dashkova, friend of Catherine the Great. A patroness of the arts.

Meanwhile, she said, she had some important news for me. Which was that Lloyd, a wealthy older man she had recently met, had today offered her a proposition.

I blinked. A proposition?

"Yes," she said. "He wishes that I become his mistress. He will provide a lovely apartment right off Fifth Avenue in the upper 60s, and will pay all the bills, and expect to see me once, twice a week. I'll be free the rest of the time to do as I please."

I stared at her. She was relating this happily, as if she were a nine-year-old at her birthday party, opening a gaudily wrapped package.

"This will be perfect for us," she said. "We can continue as lovers, and I won't have to worry about living expenses." She saw the look of disgust that twisted my face. "What's the matter?" she said.

"Tell me," I said in a low, angry voice, "what would be the difference between that arrangement and prostitution?"

Her face hardened. "How can you say that to me?"

"You'd be trading sex for money."

"Not quite," she said.

"What in hell do you mean, not quite?"

"At his age he isn't capable of having sex. He would just want to..."

"What?"

"Give me oral sex."

I shook my head. "That's just about the same thing."

"So you are saying that if I agree to this I'm no better than a whore."

"What do you call trading your body for money?"

"So you don't want me to do this."

"I can't tell you what to do."

"But you are against it."

"What do you think?"

I didn't call her for a week, and finally she called me to say that she had finally decided to turn Lloyd down. So, she said, why don't you come over and we can pick up where we left off? She didn't mention the "proposition" again.

Of course I had to introduce Mark to Victoria. I wanted him to see the kind of woman I was able to attract. I wanted-needed to show off. I invited him to the apartment. Victoria looked great in a thin, black, clinging blouse and trouser combination.

She brought drinks and joined our conversation. It didn't go well. Somehow the topic of the German language came up, and she got out her dictionary. She handed him the book and, bending over his shoulder, translated from the preface.

"Excuse me," Mark said gruffly, "but I can read German." She frowned at his rudeness.

Ignoring her, Mark turned the pages until he came to a chart depicting language origins. Suddenly he laughed out loud, an explosive laugh.

"Ha!"

"What do you find so amusing?" Victoria wanted to know.

He laughed again. "Look," he pointed. "It says Indo-Germanic."

"So what is wrong with that?" she asked.

"It's typical German arrogance," he said. "Don't you realize that it's actually Indo-European?"

Victoria's cheeks flushed. They argued loudly for a while, and eventually quieted down, but the evening was ruined.

Afterward I asked him what he thought of my girlfriend. He didn't hesitate. "That woman is a fruitcake," he said. "Absolutely insane." I thought he was jealous.

One afternoon I was sitting in my jockey shorts in Victoria's apartment, reading some galleys I'd brought from work, bare feet up on a stool. I heard the elevator open down the hall and the familiar sound of her voice. I thought she was speaking to a neighbor. Her keys rattled in the door, and she pushed it open.

She saw me, and I was about to say hi, but she quickly closed the door. A murmur of a man's voice. And then her loud voice. "Oh, merde!" After a few seconds the door flew open again, and she entered. Following her, carrying a brown grocery sack with a rod of French bread sticking up out of it, was a balding man in an open overcoat and a plaid muffler. I sat and stared.

The man put the bulky grocery bag on the counter. He was probably 40 or 45, and chunky. His eyes were droopy sad, like a basset hound's. He saw me and half smiled, as if he expected something like this. "You have company," he said quietly. "So I'll see you later."

"Don't be ridiculous," Victoria said. "Stay. Allow me to introduce you to my friend. James, this is Harold. Harold, James."

But Harold was having none of it. He cleared his throat. "No, I'm going." He headed for the door, but stopped and turned. "Let me give you some friendly advice, James," he said.

I looked at him. He wasn't mocking me, he was serious. "Don't ever believe a word this woman says." And then he left.

I expected Victoria to be apologetic, but she wasn't. She began unloading the grocery sack. French bread. Two-inch-thick steaks. A bundle of fresh asparagus. A net bag full of potatoes. Two bottles of champagne. I remained seated, paralyzed, my heart thumping. What should I say? What should I do? I had no idea.

"We might as well eat this stuff," she said. "You're hungry, aren't you?"

Harold was a spur of the moment thing, she explained later that evening, after we had finished his French bread, steak, potatoes, asparagus, and champagne. Harold was in a most unhappy marriage, but his wife refused to give him a divorce. She wouldn't have invited him were it not for the fact that he held a most important position at the United Nations. He was high up in the personnel department, in charge of hiring all the language interpreters. Which was what she wanted very much to do. She had to find a job soon. Why? Because her money was running out. "And why shouldn't I look out for myself?" she shouted. "I can't expect much from you along those lines, after all."

She was right. What right had I to complain? She was, from the beginning, very generous to me, and I had very little to give her in return. She couldn't be a patroness of the arts indefinitely.

"And by the way," she said. "You should have called to let me know you were coming. You might have spared yourself some embarrassment."

"But you gave me a key, for Christ's sake," I said. "Nevertheless," she said, "next time call."

One evening she stood naked, talking in French, on the phone. I thought of climbing out of bed, going over there, bending her over, and shoving my cock deep into her as she carried on her ever-so-cheerful conversation. Her caller--whoever in hell he was--would hear a grunt or two from of her, that's for sure.

She pranced back to the bed. "My friend says there's a most interesting party going on right now, and I'm invited."

"Excellent," I said. "I hope you have a wonderful time."

"I want you to come with me. There will be some important people there."

I didn't want to go. But I did.

It was awful. She had every man in that Third Avenue penthouse captivated and they circled her like a pack of sniffing dogs. At one point she came up to me and nodded toward a dark-skinned guy in a tuxedo, who stood expectantly beside her. "Darling, would you please give Pablo my telephone number? I don't remember it because I never call myself."

She had a twinkle in her eye. Pablo insouciantly reached in his jacket pocket and pulled out an elegant leather-covered notebook and a huge Mont Blanc. I recited the number, and he wrote it down. "Agradecimentos muito," he said.

Back at her apartment that night she was insatiable. Her drawing all that attention at the party had turned her on. Perhaps those handsome, elegant men told her exactly what they'd do to her if they ever got her in a dark, private place. She pulled me to bed, and she insisted that I do precisely what she said. She wanted to make this last for hours, and it was absolutely essential that I obey her every command. "Verstehen sie?" she said. "You must NOT come right away, you must hold back."

I nodded.

"Concentrate," she whispered hoarsely.

Four hours later, still before dawn, I felt her nudging my arm. She was gazing at me. "Are you awake?" she whispered.

"Yes," I replied.

"Listen," she said. "No matter what happens to us, no matter whoever else we might end up with, I will always be ready to make love with you. Just call me, and I'll come to you. Do you understand?" I nodded. "Yes. I understand."

"You are a perfect lover, James," she smiled. "I'm yours forever, whenever you want me."

Three weeks later we were lying in bed, naked, as usual. I had my hands clasped behind my neck. My heart was still pounding from what we'd just done. "I have to tell you something," she said softly.

"What?" I said.

"Tomorrow morning I am going to Mexico," she said.

I blinked. "With whom?" I asked.

"A friend."

"How long will you be gone?"

"Three weeks, perhaps more, perhaps less. We're driving down."

"What's his name?"

"Giancarlo. He's just a friend. We will have separate rooms."

"Separate rooms?"

"Yes. I said he's just a friend. I don't intend to go to bed with him."

"Oh, no? You expect me to believe that?"

"Yes," she said. "Because it's the truth. I've always wanted to see the rest of this country. And Mexico."

"And you'll do anything to get what you want."

"Don't be rude. And besides, where have YOU ever taken me? Answer me that. You can't even afford to take me to a concert, or a movie. I didn't come to America to spend all my days and nights in a dreadfully tiny apartment like this."

I sat up in the bed. Her light blue eyes didn't blink. I raised my hand and struck her, very hard, on the side of her face. A bright red trickle of blood came from her flared nose, and dripped on the front of her cotton nightshirt. Bright red spots that soaked quickly into the delicate embroidered yellow flowers. She reached for the tissue box. I felt like hitting her again, but the sight of her blood brought a serious lump to my throat. I wanted to cry. I wanted to kill her.

"While I'm gone, will you check my mail for me?" she asked, pressing the wadded tissue under her nose. "I'll leave you a key to the box."

"Check your mail? Are you serious?"

"Yes, of course I'm serious. I want you to forward my father's letters."

"I can't believe this."

"Please?"

While she was in Mexico I went to her apartment every day to check the mail. Letters came addressed to her from Stuttgart. German postage stamps. A return address and address in heavy, black block letters. Herr Dieter F. Hoffman. Also letters came addressed to me. One each day. Envelopes filled with dozens of pages of thin paper with the imprint of close lines of script written with a ball point pen. Tiny letters, straight blue lines, a meticulous script. From those light, crinkly pages a scent of lavender.

She wrote about the long trip from New York, the drive south toward Florida, and then west through Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas. I scanned the lines, not allowing myself to hear the sounds or to see the landscape she enthusiastically described. No, all I could think of was the guy who was driving the car. What's-his-name. The guy who was just a friend. Giancarlo. Who had agreed, like an idiot, to have separate rooms. I could think only of them together, having dinner at hotels, all those long, intimate conversations.

That's all I allowed myself to see. I hurried through the lines of poetry she'd written for me, full of bright desert images of baked red sandstone and shimmering orange sunsets and saguaro and prickly pear and barrel cacti and speckled green lizards that stood motionless then vanished. I would not allow her naive, sentimental lyricism to soften the hardness that was forming inside me. I bundled her father's letters into a large envelope and sent it to Mexico City's Hotel Marquis Reforma, which she said was located on the famous Paseo de la Reforma, overlooking Chapultepec Park. And that was all.

When she returned from her international jaunt, she insisted I come over. When I arrived she asked, "So why did you not write to me?" Which led to a loud argument.

I told her, "You betrayed me. You were disloyal. Unfaithful. That's why."

She looked surprised. "How can you accuse me of these things?" she said. She was perfectly serious. She believed what she was saying. She insisted she had not gone to bed with Giancarlo, that she had been faithful throughout.

"Each night I wrote to you," she said, "alone, yes, alone-in my room. Betrayal? I have never betrayed you. I have been totally honest with you, every step of the way."

I told her that there were just too many other men in her life.

"Oh?" she said. "And what about you?"

"Me?"

"I seem to recall that you have a wife down in Texas."

"Yes," I shouted. "And that's the point. She is in Texas, whereas I am in Manhattan. The men in YOUR life are only a few blocks away."

She repeated that she had never cheated on me. And so on, back and forth, shouting at each other, until I just ran out of gas. I stood while she sat on the sofa bed, and I suddenly felt battered and exhausted. Finally I told her, quietly, and I meant it: "I'm sorry, but I can't do this anymore. I just can't. I've had enough."

And I walked out.

Three weeks went by. I was beginning to think I was going to make it okay, when the phone rang.

"You've got to help me," she said.

I closed my eyes, and shook my head. Jesus. It just never ends. "What exactly do you want?" I said.

"I am broke," she said. "Totally broke. I don't have money even to buy dinner."

"What about your benefactor Lloyd? Or Giancarlo. Whatever happened to them?"

There was a long silence. "Just tell me, James, if you will help me. Yes or no."

"I don't have much," I said, which was the truth.

"Bring me whatever you can spare. Tonight, if you can."

"The bank is closed, it'll have to be a check," I said.

"Thank you," she said. "I really appreciate it."

The next day at work I very calmly and deliberately called my bank and asked how one went about stopping payment on a recently written check. A check that I had written. Yes, just last night. I wish to stop payment on it. Well, the clerk said, just stop by and fill out a form.

Which I did. I wanted to hurt Victoria as much as she'd hurt me. It made me sick and angry to think of her with Lloyd, and then Harold, the guy with the grocery sack, and then Pablo with his Mont Blanc, and then the big cross-country expedition with Giancarlo. Maybe there were more men she hadn't bothered to tell me about. So I would pay her back.

Between and even during relationships over the years I've pleasured myself remembering how it was being with her. It's always been easy to recall Victoria's esthetic and erotic perfection, the look and feel of her smooth nakedness, the most delicate sweep of her blonde pubic hair, the flush of her cheeks, her grasping me, urging me. This gift of hers has remained with me all my life.

And yet despite that I have, until now, refused to recall the look on her face in a chance encounter in Greenwich Village just a few weeks after I stopped payment on the check I had given her. She was wearing the black silk blouse and trouser combination she'd worn when she met Mark, and her hair was pulled back into a pony tail.

She saw me. She looked tired. In her pale blue eyes I saw not anger, but acute disappointment.

 

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