AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
“Spring,” the first chapter of David Gordon’s third and as-yet unpublished novel, finds Daniel Ravitch helping his wife put on their company’s Spring fashion show, which, according to the industry’s sales cycles, takes place during New York’s Fall Fashion Week. Daniel, a native New Yorker turned LA transplant, finds himself out of his depth among the casual, glamorous sexuality of the fashion world, where lithe, naked bodies that crowd the backrooms of tents are anything but erotic. He’s socially and sexually educated by books more than experience, and his inability to reconcile what he reads with what he sees has him feeling like a tourist in his own life, looking but never touching.
Along the way, Daniel’s ruminations on sex, art, and creativity are somehow both smart and misguided. His failure to understand fashion, Gordon writes, “was like a philistine giving Proust one star on Amazon for not sticking to the plot, or declaring that his kid could paint better than Picasso. It wasn’t just that we were wrong. We were like visitors to a foreign country complaining that other people’s private conversations didn’t make sense. It didn’t matter if I understood or not — no one was talking to me anyway.”
Along the way, Daniel’s ruminations on sex, art, and creativity are somehow both smart and misguided.
This is Daniel’s animating characteristic: the worry that he’s excluded from a better, livelier conversation. But as he mimes his way through his foreign-feeling life, he catches glimpses into the worlds that Bataille and Sade and Genet and Burroughs wrote about. Because even when David Gordon is writing about something apparently commericial like a fashion show, a production designed to create an impenetrable facade, readers will sense something untoward underneath. Call it the underbelly. It’s the place all his characters want to go, be they ameteur P.I.s pursuing Hollywood conspiracies and satanic cults in Mystery Girl, or noir novelists hunting down copycat killers in The Serialist. In Gordon’s fiction, this underbelly is the place where seams are ripped open and real life happens — a place subsequent chapters of Seven Seasons in the Floating World, from which “Spring” is excerpted, will surely visit.
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading
“Spring” by David Gordon
“Were you staring at that girl’s ass?” This was Emma, my wife, speaking to me. “Hello? Are you in there?” She peered doubtfully at me, as though something suspicious had flashed across my forehead.
“Who? Me?” I blinked at her. “No. I was thinking about the future, and how it is by definition sort of monstrously beautiful and yet quite literally unimaginable…”
My wife sighed and shook her head. “Well I was. How can you not stare? It’s a great ass but really, day-glo green panties?”
We were in New York to debut our spring collection, which showed in Fall of course — the fashion calendar being six months ahead so that clothes could be made and delivered in time — and with two main seasons, this was “Spring” though we were in September. It was our biggest show ever, the culmination of years of hard work, a major production, complete with corporate sponsorship, meetings at Vogue, models, casting calls, stylists, hotel rooms, everything. I was her sidekick, co-owner of her small clothing line. I wanted to die.
Don’t get me wrong: it was fun at first, being fashionable. After all, I had little going on back then, late in the last century, aside from a bit of freelance copywriting and vague hopes of starting a novel (well the hopes weren’t vague, they were core-deep and exquisitely anguishing, but the novel was). Helping run Emma’s new company seemed like an adventure. Who knew what I’d discover? Turns out, I discovered that I hate the fashion business. In retrospect it shouldn’t have been so surprising, since I hated fashion and hated business. Every morning, as I lay in bed, I prayed to the brownish stain on the ceiling, please let my wife get bought by the Japanese! (Her business I mean.) Then we can have babies and I can write and be a happy house-husband. And please, Brownish Stain, don’t be a leak or anything else too expensive or dangerous.
In the meantime here I was, in New York, with her and Clark, our stylist, watching models traipse back and forth in the clothes, while our rep, who sold the line here in her wholesale showroom, hovered nearby. The particular hopeful under discussion — all sexy bones and blades with her nipples upright in the sheer cotton dress and her pelvis jutting out and her shins bruised — had her bright green panties shining through the fabric. My wife was scolding her: “Of course we’re all staring at your ass, how can we not when it’s radioactive green?” She raised her voice, clapping for attention: “Hello! Everyone listen up! How many times do I have to say it? Rule number one: no panties!”
The models blinked and nodded their heads on their long stalks, like giraffes, absorbing this morsel with utter seriousness. Some were in or half-in my wife’s samples. Some were in their street clothes, sweats and jeans. A few were more or less nude. I took it all in with the glazed, deadeye expression I had developed for facing aggressors on the street and subway. I saw but I didn’t see. I gave up nothing.
“What do you think of her otherwise?” she asked me.
“Great!” I said. “Pretty.” It was true, she was greatly pretty, but they all were. “Tall,” I added. My wife rolled her eyes and turned to Clark, whose opinion counted far more than mine. He was British for one thing, with a suave accent. And gay. And his taste in all things was exquisite. In fact, he was one of the few live souls we both really liked, as he was expert in both of our fields, hers being fashion, design, and status, and mine being… I don’t know exactly, the things that bright but dim, sensitive but senseless men are into: hard books, long movies, complicated music without words or with unintelligible words. James Joyce, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Bruce Lee. You know.
“What do you think, Clark?”
He gave a discreet nod, one lip curled slightly into a hint of smile. “I believe we’ve found our bride.”
“Sophia!” Emma yelled at the lucky girl. “Get out of those awful panties and into the wedding gown.” Sophia trotted off eagerly. The wedding dress was black macramé. The theme of the season was Black Spring (I had suggested the title as a nod to Henry Miller when my wife had shown me her daringly dark palette.) “Next!” Emma called. A brunette stunner stalked out. Emma pursed her lips.
“Clark?” she asked.
He raised one eyebrow a millimeter. The girl was right there mind you, listening for his answer too, as if this were a quiz show. “Ankles,” he whispered.
My wife nodded, wincing slightly as at a hard truth, and turned to Fran, our rep, a supersized woman dressed in a black cloak and dark bangs, sort of a like a boss monk. “No,” Emma told her.
“Next,” Fran called, and the girl skittered off. “Sorry. I know she has fat ankles, but she’s my niece so I had to give her a shot.”
Next out was an almost identically perfect specimen, except this time with a tattoo of a Renaissance angel on her back when she turned. Clark twitched his nose. My wife yelled, “No!”
“Next,” said Fran.
Meanwhile, from the fitting room behind us, Kelli, a six-foot tall Chinese girl wandered out, bored and topless, wearing only a G-string and waving like a willow on her high heels. She sat beside her mom on a couch. The mom — half her daughter’s height and clutching a gigantic Louis Vuitton bag — had just been asking my advice. Should her daughter get new pictures for her portfolio? A new agent? Should she workout? “I don’t want to get too bulked up!” The daughter blurted, wrinkling her nose at me. “I like my legs like this, don’t you?” she asked, extending one before me. I did, but I didn’t think I should. I had a hard time seeing how they’d carry her. If that long hair got caught in the wind she might bend too far and snap. My wife noticed her loitering.
“Kelli! What are you doing out here? Go find Annie and change into your first outfit.” Annie was my wife’s assistant and Kelli would be our opener, in a hand sewn goth-hippy number and a long tattered veil. She skulked away sheepishly, despite the fact that my wife was almost as little as her mom. Tiny but imperious, gorgeous but fierce, immaculately costumed but with a crooked tooth, glasses and a few scars, my wife had morphed from a high-spirited, soulful-eyed, but not terribly ambitious girl, an ex-punk happy with tacos and a beat-up convertible, who started cutting up her old rags to make new clothes on her used sewing machine, into a high-achieving, hard-driving, multi-tasker, bossing around models, employees and, increasingly, me.
“Honey can you arrange lunch for fifteen? I’d have Annie do it but she’s busy and you can’t sew.” She frowned slightly as if that were something I’d lied about on my resume. “And anyway you’re a New Yorker.”
That I was. And happy to escape into the autumn glory even on an intern-level errand. I went to my favorite pizza place and tried to order four pies, but along with being the best they were also the grumpiest and said it would be an hour, so I went to my second favorite of those downtown on the Westside. But my victorious return did not meet with the joyous fanfare I expected.
“Pizza?” Emma asked.
“That’s what New Yorkers eat.”
“I didn’t say New Yorkers. These are fashion people. They don’t eat carbs and a lot of them are lactose intolerant.”
Across the room a model skinned the cheese from a slice and licked it.
“I’ll run out for a head of lettuce,” I suggested. “They can peel off leaves.”
“I’ll just have Annie hand out mints and water,” the wife said, checking her phone and walking way.
I sighed and grabbed a pepperoni slice. Clark calmly sliced his up with a fork and knife he’d gotten from who-knows-where.
“Excellent choice,” he told me. “Second best in the vicinity, I believe.”
That night in bed Emma rebuffed my advances. Her reason was reasonable enough — Clark was sleeping next door in the two-bedroom apartment we’d rented as HQ — but as I lay there, sleepless and rebuffed, I could not but wonder, when was the last time she’d buffed me? I mean really buffed. It felt like ages. In fact it had been the night before we’d come to New York, but that had just been a dutiful side hump with the TV on. Not like the old days when we’d romped passionately in the sheets, and out of them, grappling and groaning in cars, stairwells, shady parks, empty beaches and other people’s bathrooms at parties.
Our love life had cooled, and that was how I thought of it, “our love life.” I was, in reality, kind of an innocent, despite my social and cultural sophistication. I was attractive (more or less, if you didn’t mind the crooked nose, ghost-pale skin, dark eye baggage, and permanent bedhead), smart (if only in select question categories, none of which boasted big cash prizes), and could be awkwardly charming (or so I’d always been assured by women who preferred to remain my platonic pals). But shyness, intense self-consciousness and the self-loathing that intense self-consciousness breeds had kept my relevant experience to a minimum and I remained pretty much clueless. Of love, passion, sex, I possessed a great body of abstract theory, but little or no practice. In general, most of what I knew of life came from books and movies and songs, so I tended to think of women as poetic constructions, beautiful and deep, doomed and dooming. Or else, having been raised in a liberal ’70s New York household, I thought of them as slightly better than “equals”: smart men with larger breasts and something different but honestly pretty vague between their thighs. The truth was all hidden in dense hair back then, too. Morally they were superior of course: It was an accepted, self-evident fact, around my kitchen table, that there would be no war, poverty, or pollution if women ran the world.
Imagine my shock when my first girlfriend blithely dumped me for someone cuter and taller, but also idiotic and mean. Or when a girl picked a vicious fight with me for no apparent reason. Or cried, on my shoulder, for what also seemed, as far as I could see, no reason. Was she on her period? I knew that the guys who said that were assholes, refusing to acknowledge the validity of female feelings, of female rage, but what about when the girl said later, about herself, “I must’ve been on the rag”? Was that still misogynistic? Or just gynecological?
Muddying my stream of consciousness still further was the fact that I got along very well with women as friends, better than men really. I hated all sports, was useless with tools and machines, bored by video games, and horribly, blushingly embarrassed by male discussions of women, whom they seemed to desire to the point of hatred, the way a starving man might both worship and resent a gourmet chef broiling steaks before him. It was as if douchey frat-bros and radical Lesbian separatists agreed: having a penis was in fact a terrible affliction for which women were the only cure.
Thus, through my college years and beyond, I continued to pal around with gals, to watch them fall for brutish dudes or marry dullards, to hear them wistfully muse on how they needed to find a nice guy like me (but not me, obviously), or urge me to be more aggressive and assertive, in fact more of a dick about inserting my dick into girls (but not them, obviously). That would ruin the friendship.
So this, in brief, was the confused corner — post-feminist, post-porn, post-modern, post-graduate — into which I’d thought myself by my mid-20s. Imagine my relief when the wife came along. She was another beautiful friend, a movie, dinner, shopping companion, even joining me on hikes, showing up outfitted in safari shorts, cute vintage boy-scout top, neckerchief and sassy slouch hat, till finally one night, she confessed that she had feelings…and they were for me! Good feelings, as it happens, some located below the waist. I was amazed. That was the main emotion I experienced throughout the courtship phase. Amazement. When we kissed that first night, when I held her in my arms, even when we were having sex I thought: This is so amazing! I can’t believe this is happening. To me! And when she said she was in love. (With me!) When she said we should move in together. When she said we should work together. When she said we should get married. To each of these, I said, Yes, yes, yes. But what I meant was Thank you. Yes, please and thank you. Thank you for saving my life.
The fashion show was a triumph.
Right from the start, everything went well that day. We fucked in the shower. This was a good way to relieve some stress and anxiety, the wife felt, ensure her skin was taut and her eyes clear, and Clark couldn’t hear us over the water. Also it was wise time-management; she bent over and slid me inside her while the conditioner was in her hair. Then she shooed me out so she could seriously prep, an enterprise involving potions and tools that still baffled me even after all our years together. My own regimen was simpler, brush my teeth and deodorize my pits, put on the pants and shirt she’d chosen long before we left LA, and dab a little dip on my do to keep my unbrushable mop somewhat kempt. Clark helped me with the half-windsor. But I tied (and chose) my own shoes. I want to make that clear.
We’d rented a tent, or a section of one, in the high-end circus that camped in Bryant Park for the runway shows, a white caravan filled with black-clad fashion nomads, doors, or flaps, I suppose, guarded by gentle black giants in black suits and shades, and shrill little white witches in high heels and headsets, the whole carnival ringed by bored, hungry photographers, forlorn fans, and confused tourists waiting for someone famous to turn up. We headed over early, picking up the clothes from the rep’s in Soho, and driving them there in two cabs. We’d hired Frankie, a former delinquent I once scampered about with, and who had grown into a semi-adult carpenter, to show up with his dudes and build a stage. (They were cool carpenters with cool wives and cool kids, of course, who lived in Brooklyn before anyone, except the millions of people who had always lived there, and built bars and skate parks and bookshelves for millionaires. In Chuck Taylors and Dickies and shaggy hair, they looked like a band, which they were, off-hours, called Sorehorse.)
Hair and makeup set up shop on folding tables and we made a dressing room behind a scrim so the audience could see the girls stepping in and out of their outfits in silhouette. (That was one of my ideas. Another was to have them walk with G-strings around their ankles, as if they’d had to jump up from the toilet and run to the phone. Sophia had giggled appreciatively and said it was brilliant. Clark had raised an appreciative eyebrow, but the wife had snorted, “Figures you’d come up with something ridiculous. Anyway they’ll fall over and we’ll get sued,” and moved along, although she did end up repurposing the day-glo panty problem and having an assortment quickly stenciled with her logo, which peek-a-booed through lace dresses, white leggings, sheer skirts.)
Marlon, our hair maestro, whom we’d flown in from LA, was marshaling his forces, explaining the “concept” he’d worked out with my wife and the makeup person, a girl we didn’t know named Dutch who dressed in that goofy Goth-puppet look: Frankenstein boots, Halloween-themed leggings, baggy black band shirt, long Crayola hair extensions that seemed to be made of yarn. Her own makeup was clown-like and her skin was not good, so it was remarkable that she did indeed achieve a dewy-fresh springtime glow on the young faces, some still sprinkled with just enough acne to be adorable, that she held in her hand and sprayed like flowers, and which perfectly accompanied Marlon’s princess tresses and wild-child manes, his nests and crowns and storms. He meanwhile had sported the same shaved head, black T-shirt, and black jeans since the day we’d met, years before.
Such is the mystery of Art. It reminded me of my chef friend, a wizard in the kitchen who, as soon as he was off, refused to even boil coffee, trundling to Starbucks every morning as he lit up his first joint, eating McDonalds and Taco Bell, crap I would never touch, then morphing back into a hyper-aesthetic workaholic as soon as he donned his whites. We expect the artist to be an embodiment of his or her art, a walking incarnation of what they do, when in fact it is often the opposite: the art is buried within, invisible, silent, until it is expressed, blooming like a weird flower into the world, and we realize what has been sleeping inside this ordinary person all along.
And what of we who never deliver? Who let our secret life die within us like a cold seed? I can only speak for myself, but I’ve chosen deferral: Emma once noticed that when I was permitted to wander freely, in the Louvre museum, say, or a field of flowers, I had a tendency to always turn left — she surmised because I am a very serious lefty, footed as well as handed, I guess. Whether that is true or not in terms of brain-lobes, her observation seemed striking: I thought I was making random choices, but I was following a pattern, a path. Perhaps it is the same with life: I thought I had set out trodding a more or less straight road to literary greatness, one that had many hills and valleys no doubt, but which I thought led ever forward. But really I had wandered my days away in the garden of deferral, always veering left along the forking paths. And while two wrongs might make a right, a thousand lefts make a circle, a spiral, perhaps a maze. They definitely don’t make a novel.
Really, looking back on my writing career, I was most successful in the early stages, circa ages one to thirteen. My collected crayoned tales are voluminous; I could knock off a haiku about Thanksgiving in ten minutes. But in high school things changed. I decided that I needed to get more Experience (experience consisting mainly of drinking, getting high, and imaginary travel and sex) in order to have something to “say” in a full-length novel. That’s right, I said novel. The unfinished poems and never-started stories littering my desk were no longer sufficient to contain my ambitions: I needed to start not-writing whole books. However, in college I realized I was an illiterate fool who needed to read deeply and discover my “voice” before I could presume to carve the first word of this now towering and epochal novel. Then it occurred to me, I could use a job and a girlfriend, just to get those crossed off the list before I finally dove in to the novel, so most of my creative energy went into com- or ex-plaining about not getting various girlfriends and jobs. Thus time went on, and The Novel continued to refine itself, to evolve and mutate in my mind, if that is even the spot I mean, since I cannot really call it “thinking” or “writing,” this vague activity that seemed to take place just above my head. Perhaps the book was growing in my hair.
In any case, I plained, to my self and my friends, as we sat on the porch or sat in cafes or drove around looking for experience, there were too many important decisions to be made before I could really get down to writing: Point of View for example was essential. All the best novels had them. But what was mine? Close Third? Distant Second? Vague First? What style suited me? Maxi or Mini? Did I favor a neatly trimmed Hemingway or a long and flowing James? Or a sparse but prickly Stein? In real life, I gave style little or no thought, but on the page it seemed a matter of life and death. Then there was my Voice, for which I lay awake, ears cocked, listening.
My girlfriend volunteered to become my wife and, soon after, her home business took off, as local hipsters, then international hipsters, celebrities, and finally stores started buying her clothes. She suggested I put my novel on hold and help. And I graciously agreed to temporarily set aside my now monumental masterwork.
Five years went by and, as it happened, I was far too busy to even think about writing novels or whether my wife still wanted to have sex with me or really much of anything. I woke up by seven (five or six if a fax from Asia was ringing in), and was at the desk in what I had once imagined as my study but was now my office, by 7:10, rarely finishing up before six or seven at night. The day rushed along in a river of phone calls, faxes, mail, and increasingly, email.
Email, you may recall, was still new then, in the late ’90s, and so was the Internet, which I largely disdained as a gimmick that would never catch on. The information was so spotty and so silly that it was actually more efficient for me to drive to the main library, park, and look something up than try to find it online. (We can still question the usefulness and veracity of online information, but the problem is hardly one of speed or scarcity.) Soon, too, I would stumble across the first online sex ads, simple posts for people looking to meet other people. I don’t recall seeing much about odd fetishes or hookers, but I do remember that several were married. I was rather shocked. Even the terms “attached” or “discreet” struck me as new and I remember struggling to figure out what “bf” stood for — “I have a beautiful bf but I need hung.” I had never and would never cheat on my wife. Nor had I on any prior gf. Nor had I ever even considered cheating. Nor, to be honest, had the opportunity ever arisen.
Although I lived in an atmosphere of free-floating sexuality, of half-nude models and piles of undies, of LA babes in bikinis and yoga clothes, to my knowledge, none of the comely figures who crossed my path had the slightest interest in touching me. One might say that this element I breathed was simply Desire, floating about in an abstract and impersonal if concentrated form: a perfume and not a presence. Also, despite the extreme liberality of my own views, and the openness of every mind around me, I was actually very conventional, even innocent: Gay or straight, married or divorced or living together, I presumed that everyone was seeking what I had found: true love with a single soulmate forever, and that any divergence from this, any perversion of love’s righteous course, any impediment to the marriage of true minds, was a mistake, a pity and never a preference. When cutting-edge photographers showed us elaborate bondage shoots over dinner, or we watched an arty foreign film about threesomes and ménages, I chuckled knowingly and sipped my espresso and discussed the lighting and the editing technique, but I never considered the possibility of real people really doing such things. I was, after all, an educated man: I had read Deleuze on Sacher-Masoch, Lacan on Freud, Laura Kipnis on the Bahktinian carnival of pornography, Laura Mulvey on the Male Gaze. I had read all of Sade without once getting an erection — in fact it bored me senseless, proving it was Literature after all — and all the filthiest, gayest sex scenes in Genet and Burroughs without a blink because — fair is fair — that was Literature too. And Literature has nothing to do with real bodies and their live, squishy organs. That was shallow. Real people didn’t actually want the endless number of perverse and ridiculous things they seemed to want. They wanted to escape the isolation of the self, the trap of representation, of identity, which was produced by bourgeois capitalism, in its endless chain of signification, of exchange without fulfillment, of symbols and absences, instilled in us by the Oedipal drama, the separation from the Mother, from wholeness, which is our symbolic entry into selfhood, the birth of Desire, which was really Language too. If I’m not mistaken.
It never crossed my mind that anyone — even Bataille — actually lived like this. Or that any non-theoretical woman really wanted to perform these non-fictional acts. Or that these images and ideas boiled in their minds as they did mine. That perhaps the models, makeup artists, photographers, PR flacks, and reporters, the bitchy or gushy buyers, and ditzy or glitzy stylists whom I moved among all day could possibly be thinking such things. That when I flopped into bed at night, too exhausted by the Labor of Desire to fuck, too dazed by the Labyrinth of Language to write or even read, maybe my wife was actually pondering such wild and wondrous ideas, lying right there in bed beside me, grinding her teeth in her dreams. Maybe…or maybe she was dreaming of the sharpest heel for the softest boot. The blackest, whitest lace, like smoke breathed on skin. Of panties with her name on them. Maybe she was dreaming of socks.
There was, I had learned, a kind of alternate world, or at least an alternate economy, which continued to elude my understanding, despite that fact that I made my living from it. When I left the showroom to hunt up that pizza in Soho, I’d passed a shop selling nothing but fancy soap and candles. Two young women in tight jeans and expensively distressed extra-thin T-shirts were handing out samples and the smell was so sharp I sneezed just passing the open door. My eyes stung. I couldn’t step inside without suffering a full blown allergy attack, but I peered through the window and saw more girls in cut-offs and tanks and headscarves, sweeping, packing, pouring, rubbing the stuff onto customers, who eagerly forked over wads of cash and plastic. I felt as if I were peeking into a secret sorcerer’s workshop, a crystal cavern hidden in a magic mountain, where elves mined and forged strange treasures — soap, wax, creams, lotions, powders — that were toxic to me, yet adored by the fairies.
Not that I looked down on female-fairy-magic. One thing my wife had taught me was a respect for fashion, in exactly this aspect: as an art, a private language, and as such, not addressed to my kind. More than once she had scandalized me by leaving the house in a ludicrous costume that struck me as clownish or bag-ladylike, only to have some other stylish woman compliment her. One dark night in New York, we saw Rei Kawakubo, the designer for Comme des Garcons, and as we passed, the great lady glanced over and took in my wife’s clothes. “Rei checked me out!” Emma squealed once we’d turned the corner.
It was then that I realized, high fashion, avant-garde fashion, was in fact an intricately coded means of expression developed by exquisitely refined and sophisticated women and gay men. My failure to understand why she wanted to wear what looked like a dead possum on her head, or drape her body in an asymmetric coal sack, or put on two mismatched shoes and leg warmers, or jeans under her dress, was like a philistine giving Proust one star on Amazon for not sticking to the plot, or declaring that his kid could paint better than Picasso. It wasn’t just that we were wrong. We were like visitors to a foreign country complaining that other people’s private conversations didn’t make sense. It didn’t matter if I understood or not — no one was talking to me anyway.
Thunder broke. A gaggle of models shrieked and then everyone laughed. Rain spattered the roof of the tent. The day had turned stormy and I worried about how this might affect the harried buyers, reporters, photographers and stylists for whom we were mounting this show. We were a small line, and if they found themselves caught in traffic or if they got mud on their new shoes, the small lines might get a miss. But the rain sounded good, thumping the tent’s white skin like fat fingers on a drum, the light outside changed to blue and grey, and even inside, under electric bulbs, some quality in the atmosphere shifted; it felt closer, yet theatrically heightened, as costumed performers and busy workers moved through dramatic lighting and ion-charged air.
“Sophia is lost and it’s raining!”
“What? Who?” That was me, shaken from my musings.
“Sophia? My star model? She’s lost? And it’s raining?” That was my wife, hair up, measuring tape over her shoulders, taking deep breaths between frantic utterances.
“Tell her to just get in a cab.”
“She doesn’t have money. She was going to walk over from the hotel but she got lost and then the storm started.”
“Ok, Ok where is she?”
“On her phone.” She handed me her own chunky cell. I pressed it to my ear like a shell. I heard the rain and an ocean of static, roaring and fading.
“Hello? Hello? Sophia?”
More thunder crashed above the tent-roofs and the voice on the phone squeaked. At least that meant she was close.
“Sophia? Hello?” I was yelling into the phone, but I always did. These were early cell days, and I still felt like I was on a kid’s walky-talky. “Hello!”
“Hello?” A small voice came out from the whirlwind. “Hello?”
“Sophia, it’s Daniel. Where are you?”
“Yes. Remember, we met at the casting? Sort of. You were…” I was about to say in green underwear. “Being fitted.”
“Oh yeah. Hi.”
“Hi. How are you?”
“Fine, but we’d be better if you were here. Where are you?”
“In a store?”
“Hold on. Excuse me, Sir? Where is this store?”
I waited. A short round Asian girl in thick round glasses ran by me holding two huge clumps of hair like captured animals, one blonde, one black.
“Hi. He said it’s on 40th and Ninth? Does that make sense?”
“It does to me. Can you get here from there? It’s two blocks uptown, then…”
“Which way is up?”
“North. Up is North.”
“How do I know it’s North though?”
“The numbers. The street numbers go up.”
“Just fucking go get her!” My wife had reappeared, wielding a giant pair of fabric shears. I flinched.
“Don’t you need me here?” It was raining after all.
“No. Of course not. What do I need you here for? I need her here!” She waved the shears in my face — just for emphasis I assumed — but I leaned back in my chair anyway. “Just go,” she yelled. “Go!”
“You know what Sophia? I’ll come get you, Ok? What’s the name of the store?”
“Um. Hold on. Sir? What store is this? The name? What is the name of the store?”
I held a hold finger up to the wife. “I need my phone back,” she whispered throatily, but the shears were half-cocked at least.
“Excuse me, Sophia?” I said. “Hello?”
“I have a business card. I’m at…Lady Fascination dba Strange Destiny. It’s a subsidiary of Erotic Imports Limited Liability Corporation.”
“Where is she?” the wife demanded, shears rising.
“Close,” I said to her and into the phone: “I’m on my way, Sophia. Stay right there. And try not to touch anything.”
The rain was picking up, and I’d forgotten my umbrella, but I didn’t want to turn back. As soon as I left the tents, relief coursed through me. I silently prayed that the Japanese buyers’ flight was not delayed, that no lightning struck the plane.
When it came to high fashion, the Japanese were such important customers that many showrooms made sure at least one of the girls they hired to fetch water, answer phones, and try on samples for buyers also spoke Japanese. But tonight’s buyers were extra-VIP. They were high-end retailers, among our biggest customers, who had now expressed an interest in investing: essentially they would buy a share of my wife’s name and then replace me as her partner. I was actually afraid to admit to Emma how desperately I longed to be replaced.
Just stepping away from it all for five minutes, to fetch pizza or shepherd a lost lamb through the rain, I felt a rush of freedom, like a kid when the school bell rings, like a rabbit sprung from a trap. I usually hated midtown, the crowds, the business busy-ness, the ten-dollar pretzels, but as a fall evening fell, and rain dimmed the lights, shined the streets and blurred the windows, another city emerged from the bedrock: older, darker, cut from stone. The passing crowd, hushed by rain and the whisper of tires, filed through streets and around corners and down flights of steps into trains, blank figures in black and grey rain coats, holding their umbrellas up like empty thought bubbles above their heads.
I found the store. The sign actually read “Fascination Lady” but it was the only glittery red and gold banner on the dreary grey block so I took a chance. The window held mannequins with extra big boobs and booties in body suits of red and black and one dressed as Wonder Woman, along with an unappetizing display of dusty wigs on plastic heads whose machined features and painted-on eyebrows, eyes, and mouths made them seem like barbaric trophy-heads or a row of sawed assistants, abandoned mid-trick by the magician. I went in out of the rain. Inside, it was a costume shop or maybe a novelty place gearing up for Halloween, filled with those slightly sleazy short-skirt outfits that women supposedly wear to parties, though I had never seen one: slutty schoolgirl. Slutty cheerleader. Slutty maid in French black or pastels. Slutty nurse. Slutty cop. Slutty firegirl, weirdly, in a plastic yellow slicker and short skirt. Slutty Batgirl. Slutty Catgirl. Slutty Spidergirl was a surprise. Was there even real a Spidergirl? (If real is the word I want here.) There were masks of all sorts, monsters, presidents, devils and birds. There was a rack of noses and glasses and beards. The strangest touch was how each of the outfits displayed on the wall was sealed in plastic, no doubt to protect it from dust, but in the garish light they hung as if shrouded, empty bodies, hollow masks and gloves, floating in embryo above us, a shining cloud.
“Welcome my good friend, to Lady Fascinations!” The voice was loud, but it took me a second to locate the source. The counter was raised, so that one had to look up, and there, poking over the edge, were two little old heads, one tan, male, and bald, with round glasses, one pale and female, topped with a fine haze of red fuzz. His accent was South Asian, like the obsequious waiter at an Indian restaurant trying to sell you on the questionable fish special. She, when she spoke, sounded like a Brooklyn yentah. “Come on in owdah that rain, My God, you’ll catch your death out theah.”
“Hi.” I stepped up to the counter, but then I couldn’t see their heads, so I stepped back. “Hi.”
“Yes, sir how can we be of assistance?” he asked. “Are you seeking a specialty item perhaps, for a party or memorable occasion or a thoughtful gift for someone precious?”
“The precious someone can be male or female, hon,” she added. “We’ve been here thirty years. We seen it all. If you’re happy and you’re making someone else happy, God bless you.”
“Yes,” the fellow added, “God bless you very much.”
“No,” I said. “I mean thanks, but I’m just looking for someone. A friend.”
“Ah I see…” the man said. “May I enquire if it is a lady friend?”
“She’s in the back, hon.” I looked around. The store looked empty. “Right through the curtain.”
I realized that, beyond the shelves and racks, was a red plush curtain, like in an old movie house, dividing the space. Probably Sophia was trying something on.
“Here?” I wondered aloud.
“Go on,” the little woman’s head said. “Nothing to be afraid of, darlink.”
“Yes my good sir,” the little man nodded. “The one you are seeking awaits you.”
“Ok,” I said. “Thanks.” I put my hands out and walked. The stiff folds flapped around me and I had to swim through, smelling old smoke and mildew. I found myself in a short hall of curtained booths, with a mirror at the end. I looked at my reflection and was surprised to see I seemed a little frightened. Annoyed, I shook it off and squared my shoulders as I stepped toward my image, as though about to fight my double. “Sophia?” I called, in a high whisper. Louder, again. “Sophia!”
Then I saw the shoes. There were people in the booths. Awkward. What if a half-changed woman caught me sneaking around? Then I noticed, all the shoes — basketball sneakers, construction boots, loafers — were men’s, and I understood. This was a peepshow, not a dressing room. But what was my lost model doing here? Now that I was listening, the sound of breathing and grunting behind the curtains seemed to charge the air with an added menace. Plus the booths, with their pairs of feet, some draped in sagging trousers, had a men’s room vibe, even a men’s room smell: bleach and mildew and sad sweat. I had never been in a place like this. Once at a bachelor party, I was obliged to visit a strip club and found it horribly depressing, even humiliating. I felt awful for the women and, if it makes sense, I felt ashamed for the men too, as if we were all being exposed, stripped of more than just clothes: they were nude or mostly nude, but we somehow were transparent, skinless, raw. We were dressed but wounded. They were naked but armed.
I heard a female murmur from a booth. The curtain hung open. “Sophia?” I whispered harshly now, like a scolding parent in the library, but when I stepped inside, Sophia wasn’t there, just a folding chair set before a plexiglass square in a wall. Beyond the glass, a boney pale woman in boots and a fishnet body suit was paddling a very fat Hispanic girl in a girl-scout skirt, uniform cap and nothing else. I could see other dim figures watching from other booths. Most were just hunched men staring in stillness, like mannequins themselves, but a couple were clearly masturbating, and in one booth I thought I could make out two men, both in uniform, a mailman and a UPS guy maybe, one kneeling before the other. As the tall woman brought the paddle down, the scout’s massive thighs quivered like a flan, the smacks left red welts, her gigantic tits swung low, nipples stiff. But when she turned to face me she was smiling placidly. Her punisher looked exhausted. She paused to wipe the sweat from her brow.
“Holy shit,” I gasped, but I felt stuck, as if I’d stepped in a glue trap. My legs wouldn’t move, but my knees trembled. I’d never seen anything like this. I’d read about it, in theory, but this was not the same. This was praxis! The big scout smiled at me again and gave me a nod, as of recognition. She mouthed something I could not understand.
Just then a lid snapped over the window and they were gone. A stenciled note read: One dollar per minute. Tokens at front. I noticed the mechanized slot. Did I have a dollar in my pocket?
“Hey, there you are.” It was Sophia. I jumped.
“What? Hey! Where were you? They said you were trying on clothes.” I stammered, growing even more embarrassed as I felt myself blushing. My armpits burned with shame. “I thought this was a changing room. Which is the only reason I am back here.”
Sophia leaned in to whisper, her long hair tickling my ear: “It’s not really a changing room. It’s a peep show.”
“Shhh. We’re late. I’ll tell you outside.” She led me down the hall, backpack bouncing, and out through the shop. “Thank you,” she trilled to the couple, who bobbed their heads happily and blessed us. It was raining harder now.
“Fuck,” I said, waving pointlessly, like a drowning fool. “We’ll never find a cab.”
Sophia laughed. “So oh my god there was totally like an S&M lesbo schoolgirl scene going on in there. You missed it.”
“Yeah. Dudes were whacking off too,” she reported in a chipper tone. “I think one was getting a BJ. From a guy.”
“Wow,” I said. Then, experimentally, “Gross…”
“Hey whatever gets you off, that’s NY right?”
“I meant gross that it has to be like hidden and paid for and all, when everyone should be free to express themselves openly. With full consent.”
“I don’t know. I think it’s sort of cool how it’s all underground. And sleazy. Like a secret world.”
“Exactly,” I agreed. “It is definitely cooler as a secret. We probably shouldn’t even tell your agent about this or my wife. She’s really stressing.”
“We’re so late too. We’d better grab a car.” In her now wet T-shirt, black bra shading through like the shroud of Turin, she waved a thin arm in the rain and a towncar instantly halted. She got in back and I followed.
“Um, the tents please,” she said.
I leaned toward the driver. “How much to Bryant Park from here?
“But it’s like five blocks, that’s crazy.”
He shrugged, as if acknowledging that it was indeed remarkable but what can you do? The world was a crazy mystery. Meanwhile we were already moving, sort of, nosing back into the stalled traffic. I reached into my pocket to count my damp money. Sophia pulled out a book. “Speaking of your wife, she said I should ask you to explain this to me. She said you were like a super bookish nerd. I have to read it for a class.”
It was Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, a difficult, beautiful, and disturbing book by a difficult, beautiful, and disturbing Brazilian-Ukrainian-Jewish writer. I’d read it decades before in a Women’s Studies class called “Truth To Power: Speaking for Women of the Developing World.”
“Well,” I said, clearing my throat. “What does it mean to you?”
“What I want to know specifically is why she uses a male narrator. I mean, she’s telling the story of a poor rural indigenous woman of color who is systematically destroyed by male brutality, religion, capitalism, racism and patriarchy, but instead of using the woman’s own speech and giving her a voice, she has her tale told by a male narrator who is educated, privileged, he even has a cook. So is that like acquiescence or appropriation? Or is she saying, this woman has no voice and can’t speak? Or is she critiquing his very idealization of her, his romanticizing of her suffering as a kind of martyrdom and generating a dialectic through satiric distance? Or is she simply returning the male gaze, focusing it onto the scene of subjecthood and subjugation to implicate the reader in her abjection?”
“Um,” I said. “I think it’s a combination of those. Where do you go to school?”
“Yale,” she said. Her phone rang. “Fuck. Hello? Where are you? What do you mean? You promised. Ok, Ok pick me up after. Fine. You totally do owe me big time.” She closed the phone. “Ugh. Don’t ever date a trader. It’s like he’s cheating on you with JP Morgan or something instead of another girl.”
“I’m already married,” I pointed out. “And I’m straight.”
She laughed loudly, mouth wide, and slapped my arm. It was rather charming. “That’s not what I meant. It’s just that you’re Emma’s husband. So I don’t think of you as a man, you know?”
The rain halted and the air was clean. It was a beautiful night. Traffic eased and the important people made it to our show. Fran escorted the Japanese buyers backstage for a peek then set them in the front row, cooly mild-mannered men in polo shirts or soft button-downs, khakis and vintage sneaks, teenage-looking girls who cooed “kawaii” at everything but represented millions in buying power. We ceremoniously presented each other with business cards.
Wind rippled the tented ceiling slightly. The assistants stepped out to smoke. Through the scrim, the audience watched the models being readied, slipping into dresses, lining up. The lights went down behind the scrim and up over the catwalk. The music started on time, only twenty minutes late. The curtains parted. And fifteen minutes later it was done. Six months of work, hundreds of crazed hours over the last weeks, many thousands of my dollars, all shot in a delirious wad for an audience of a hundred people, of whom only a few dozen really mattered. As artforms go it was one of the most absurd, and yet oddly compelling. A kind of contemporary potlatch, a theater of nothingness in which nothing happened, and the only drama was the parading of the costumes themselves through the sets and lights, a stunning waste of resources which nevertheless served a specific function: based on this carefully orchestrated insider commercial, buyers would come to the showroom over the next weeks and write orders, perhaps for hundreds of thousands of dollars, reporters and photographers would decide whether or not to run reviews and pictures, stylists would take note and return later to pull garments for photo shoots or equally ritualized celebrity appearances, and we, hopefully, would pay our bills for another six months.
There was magic too, I admit. There was glory. The thoroughbred long-step of the models stalking out, hard on heels and glare-blinded, bewitched into fantastic species: birds, ghosts, warriors, demon-children, tigers and gazelles. Their hair flared in the fake wind. Their faces were ancient masks. Hips and pelvis, fists and teeth, spoke to all the longings and greeds and buried fears in the room, and at the end of the walk, a phalanx of cameras blasted, without cease, as each girl stopped before the firing line, posed, bared her face to the light, and turned it away. At the end, the bride emerged, as from a tomb, taller than anyone, as though standing on her own column, holding her gay husband by the hand and with delighted, frightful children, flower girls, train-bearers, drum-boys, scampering before her and stumbling in her wake. It was Sophia of course but I didn’t know her, I mean I wouldn’t have. She had vanished into her own appearance, become a vision of my wife’s, the skeleton bride, the dead maiden, an Ophelia risen from the black lagoon, white faced, black eyed, a cloud of blond, arms like claws and legs like knives, body powdered to death, under black yarn woven by the arthritic hands of a club of old Chinese ladies in Gardenia (I knew because I drove out there and paid them) and under that, black lace (sewn by the strong plump hands of Guatemalan single moms in basements in downtown LA), and under that, invisible yet pantie-less, unseen yet the burning focus of every eye and camera and light in the room, the secret that all the money and stupidity and boredom could never hide, like the sweat soaking through the makeup: sex, birth, death, pussy, cock, ass, and blood.
There was applause and backstage kissing. Fran said the buyers were pleased, making appointments for tomorrow. Big ones too, Barney’s, Bloomies, B Altman. Some who weren’t there were calling in already, a sign that word was spreading. And best of all, the Japanese wanted a meeting, with their money people and their legal people to discuss partnership with our money-and-legal people, who were, unfortunately, me. The models turned themselves back into gawky kids and rushed off with cheek-kisses and the bartered clothes they’d snatched from our racks, to other jobs and parties. Sophia vanished with her boyfriend, a tall fellow in a white shirt and yellow tie with a jacket over his shoulder and a phone attached to his ear. She didn’t say goodbye. In a mood of jubilant exhaustion, we took everyone out to Odeon for steaks and/or salads. We toasted Clark, Marlon, Dutch. We ate victory soufflé, drank victory espresso and the most expensive water they had, the naturally carbonated tears of Icelandic virgins. We kissed everyone on both cheeks and paid for it all on a credit card. Then we went home to our rented bed and fucked.
We slept in or tried to. The neighbor woke us with her crying and carrying on. A typical New York annoyance, the kook next door, wailing and whining, “No God, please no…” Most likely crazy, or drunk and reliving the past, first thing in the morning. I rolled over and covered my head with a pillow to blot her out along with the usual cacophony of honks and shouts and sirens that I was no longer used to. It didn’t work. I was up and now I had to piss as well. I staggered to the bathroom, then pulled on my clothes and moved into the living room where I smelled coffee. Clark was brewing a pot and had turned on the TV.
“What movie is this again?” he asked, drawing on one of the few fields where I just might know something he didn’t — dumb American movies. The screen showed billowing smoke.
“I don’t know. Sorry.” I filled a cup.
He changed the channel. “Pardon me, Daniel,” he said, in a flat low voice, a whisper almost, that immediately made me afraid.
“Yeah?” I came back in.
He was flipping through the stations. They were all the same. “I don’t think this is a movie.”
We both ran for our shoes, and by then my wife was up, and staring at the TV and crying, and in a panic she tried to stop us from leaving, she actually blocked the door, but we pushed past her and so she followed us, down the stairs and out onto Fifth Avenue.
“Where is it?” she asked and I pointed down the street to Washington Square Park and to the column of smoke that for my whole life had been a tower. Then the second plane hit.
Everyone remembers. Everyone already knows. I have nothing to add. I remember the people walking out of ground zero, bewildered and covered in ash. I remember the passersby sitting them down and helping to wash them off with Evian, with Fuji water, with Poland Springs. I remember the line for cash at the ATM, the line at the deli buying peanut butter and canned soup and bread. I remember the frantic calls to my family, the overloaded circuits. To my father who worked nearby and watched from his window and said he stopped watching when he saw people hold hands and jump. To my cousin whose company had an office in the towers, but who was at the Midtown branch that day. To my mother at home and to my sister who worked for a hospital and was essential personnel and had to stay. I remember walking around after dark with bandanas over our mouths for the smoke and the burnt odor, and not wanting to say out loud what everybody knew, this is the dust of vaporized people we are inhaling. I remember restaurants handing out food, and the servers, most with thick foreign accents, many having already fled other disasters to come to New York, the place where old hates, old curses, old nightmares were supposed to be left behind. Now history had caught us here. I remember an old neighborhood character, born and bred on the LES, raging to his neighbors in Tomkins Square Park, they fucked with the wrong people, those camel-fuckers, New Yorkers fight back. I pictured a planeload of gold-chained cornerboys and fat dudes with baseball bats heading to Afghanistan. I remember little kids running around, playing fiercely, despite everything. I remember the pictures, the pictures and the notes posted on the Armory, letters to the missing and the dead. I remember thinking, this is a new world and who knows how we will live in it? Perhaps we will be fighting for water now. Perhaps we will be hunting for food. For all we knew it was the first strike in the final, the total war. Using Amex to buy lunch you thought: does this mean anything anymore, this plastic card? Will this bill ever come? I remember the fire trucks and dumptrucks and police cars and ambulances, up and down the West Side Highway. I remember the people lined up all along the road to watch them, cheering, with flags and signs reading Our Heroes and We Love You and Nothing Can Stop NY, and I thought look, let the world see, let our enemies see, let those Americans who hate us see who we are, here in the most famously kooky neighborhood in the most liberal city of all, the gayest, artsiest, fartsiest, Jewyest, blackest, brownest, yellowest, pinkest, leftist piece of real estate on the map, let them see: No one running. No one hiding. People on the street cheering and saluting and hugging and crying and waving flags. Standing up, shoulder to shoulder. And for the first time I can remember actually stopping to realize: how proud I am to be from New York, the greatest fucking city in the world.
We drove back to LA. The airports were closed of course, then the flights were jammed, and although I suspected (and Clark, who went off to connect with other friends, later confirmed), the smart thing would have been to catch a later plane, my wife couldn’t wait. She was in a panic. Before, she couldn’t move. Now she had to move, to leave the city, right then. So we joined forces with a gang of Californians and rented two cars that we picked up in Hoboken, driving day and night shifts with Marlon and Dutch. That morning, New Jersey was smothered in grief. Ohio was brick houses and old trees. Indiana was fried steak in a diner and the tear-stricken waitress hugged us. In Illinois the gas station attendant said God bless you all and the cops shook our hands. Missouri was green and rivers and a nap in the back. Across Oklahoma we stopped for coffee in styrofoam cups at a store on a reservation and it was the one place where it was like it never happened. Even their black and white TV was showing an old Western. We stopped, finally, in a truck stop motor lodge, herds of giant semis sleeping on acres of parking lot. In the morning we saw the lot lizards creeping out of the trucks, sleepy hookers like early birds with crumpled plumage, a crack-skinny white girl in fishnets stumbling on her heels, grabbing the shoulder of a big black girl in red hotpants as they tottered off into the dawn. Texas scared me at first, grim weather and a sign directing us to the world’s largest cross seemed like a bad omen, but maybe for the first time it was a plus to be from New York: everyone treated us with grave respect, even the highway patrol, who drove alongside for a mile like an honor guard and tipped their hats. There was a rainbow crossing into New Mexico and the valley was red and green and sage-grey. Arizona was tacos and almost like home. LA was the same as when we’d left. We stopped in at the neighbor’s barbeque, thinking we were carrying news from the front, but everyone was busy, drinking beer or iced tea, chasing kids or worrying about the coming week. They stared and listened when they heard where we’d been but they didn’t ask questions and wandered off as soon as they politely could. We were making them uncomfortable. The veggie burgers and turkey dogs were ready. A kid jumped into the pool, opening a white flower in the chlorine blue. New York seemed very far away.