I lived in New York for three years in the mid-90s and sucked at it. I just had no idea what the rules were.
One Saturday night, my friend Lori invited me to a party on West End Avenue and then blew me off to hang out with her ex-boyfriend down in the Village. Having no other plans, I decided to go to the party without her, even though I was unknown to the hosts.
Upon arrival, I noticed that in lieu of the usual vintage punk, some kind of spa music was playing on the stereo, which filled me with the hope that I would be able to converse with someone without shouting. Immediately, I focused on a girl with auburn hair and purple tights, who stood out from the other guests, all dressed in the obligatory black leather. I caught her looking at me too and thought I detected a familiar, searching vulnerability in her eyes. In spite of how often my instincts had led me astray in the big city, I surrendered to them one more time: Across the room I went.
“Hi, what’s your name?” I introduced myself. (New Yorkers are supposed to like directness, aren’t they?)
She said her name was Lucy, conjuring in my mind a replay of Charlie Brown charging upon the football. I began calculating the advisability of sharing this thought as an icebreaker, but as I did so, I broke off eye contact, which, at this early stage of the conversation, was a fatal mistake. Lucy promptly cast her own attention elsewhere and before five seconds had elapsed mumbled a “Glad to have met you” and retreated in the direction of the kitchen, where she commenced an enthusiastic dialogue with a tall young man wearing sunglasses.
I looked out the window for a minute or so, my no-big-deal smile becoming wooden until it hurt, and then I sat down on the sofa. Only a fresh start in conversation could have saved my spirits, but I was now too gun-shy to initiate one, and nobody came to rescue me. Soon I’d become the proverbial turd in a punchbowl.
I craved escape. I hadn’t lasted ten minutes, a new record.
Just as I was rising to leave, the sunglass guy came over and bade me to sit back down. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. Probably, he was Lucy’s boyfriend, come to warn me away from his girl. I considered dashing for the door but didn’t want to make a spectacle of myself. If he was going to chew me out, at least he would be discreet.
“I’m Ephraim,” he said, with his hand on my shoulder.
“Ah, Ephraim,” I answered, girding myself with sarcasm. “To what do I owe the pleasure? Don’t tell me: You’re Lucy’s boyfriend.”
Ephraim grinned. “Not really. I’m just looking out for her.” He was channeling every baddie from the movies.
“Well, you’re doing a fine job. One can’t be too careful these days. Lot of creeps around here.”
He grinned again. “But you like her, though, don’t you?”
I threw up my hands. “Yep, you got me, Ephraim. Guilty as charged.”
What’s it going to be, Ephraim? I thought. Just go ahead and say your piece, and then I can get out of here.
He kept toying with me, though. “She’s cute, isn’t she?”
I said nothing. I wasn’t going to play this game.
“Don’t be shy,” Ephraim drawled. “If you want something, all you need to do is ask.” He glanced left and right, before fixing his eyes on Lucy, still standing in the kitchen doorway. She smiled back, as if in anticipation.
“In fact,” said Ephraim, intoning his voice upward, “For a hundred dollars, you can do whatever you want to her.”
“What!” I blurted. I exhaled in despair, with my hand to my forehead. A confused tornado of emotions and instincts churned inside me. Desire was a part of it. “Do whatever you want to her” was an arousing set of words; but it was a twisted set of words, enmeshing my desire in wretchedness. One of the worst things about living in New York, I later realized, was just this tendency for the simplest, most natural behavior to be viewed with suspicion, in the most uncharitable light. For instance, when leaving the city by rental car the previous summer, I’d spotted my classmate crossing the street and beeped my horn in greeting. She pretended she didn’t hear me. I beeped again. She ignored me. I beeped again. She ignored me again, by which time I felt like a dirty old man, harassing a pretty co-ed. Here at the party on West End, all I’d done was to say hi to a girl in purple tights, and next thing I know, I’m wenching. I hated the degradation, especially considering how pathetic I felt to begin with.
Now feeling more indignant than guilty, I would have been justified to leave in a huff, yet something changed in Ephraim’s expression, compelling me to wait a bit. He seemed to break character, as though I’d just flubbed my part in an onstage dialogue and he was signaling me with his eyes to get me back on track. As disconcerted as I was, I managed to observe that he didn’t look like a typical pimp. His spiked hair, stubble, sunglasses, and obligatory leather jacket could not conceal – indeed they advertised – his bourgeois background. I pegged him for a barista from Michigan (which is exactly what he turned out to be).
“Take it easy,” he said. “It’s just jetting.”
“It’s just what?”
A couple of tall young women, overhearing this exchange, turned in our direction with knowing smirks.
“Jetting,” Ephraim repeated, the sinister overtone now gone from his voice. “Don’t freak out. Just go with it,” he whispered. “If you want to see Lucy, you can.” He cleared his throat. “All you need is a hundred dollars. Bring it and hand it to her at the beginning of your date. Tell me the time and place, and I’ll arrange it.”
The word “date” calmed me down, somehow.
“Next Saturday at noon,” I said. “At the Kossuth statue in Riverside Park.”
“What do you want her to wear?”
The idea of ordering my date’s costume threatened to rekindle the feeling of degradation, but I bit the bullet.
“Purple tights,” I said.
To be continued…