Jetting, A Tale of the Upper West Side, Part I

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

Book Review: The Queen’s Necklace, by Antal Szerb

It’s fitting how I’ve been putting off writing this review of The Queen’s Necklace, Antal Szerb’s last book; for Szerb, likewise, seemed to have been putting off finishing it. A lifelong Hungarian Catholic whose Jewish ancestry doomed him to underemployment and murder under Nazi occupation, Szerb passed up several opportunities to escape, preferring to share his people’s fate. With the final, fatal crisis approaching in 1943, Szerb sought refuge in the history of eighteenth-century France, dwelling on its most minute details, digressing and diverting along myriad tangents, as though contriving, like Scheherazade, never to reach the end. The Queen’s Necklace is Szerb’s valediction, how he wanted to go: not in bitterness but in erudite frivolity.

Pausing one last time, just before the close, Szerb makes the subtlest of allusions to creeping melancholy:

This age was as beautiful as the most finely worked lace, as a piece of Sèvres porcelain with its timeless charm and fragile delicacy; as the noble oozings of the Tokai grape, full and rich with sweetness; as the autumn air in Hungary, when the reddening leaves are scented with the inexpressible sweetness of death.

Not inexpressible, Antal. You expressed it. Thank you.

From the Black Creek River to the Grand Canal

The episode with the Mississippi egrets described in my last posting was incorporated into my novel, Southern Rain, now available via Kindle and at selected bookshops in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore; it is also available for pre-order, in advance of the general release of the print version in January.

The appearance of the Mississippi egrets, transposed into Chinese cranes, foreshadows the meeting of the hero, Ouyang Nanyu, and the heroine, Ouyang Daosheng.

Just beyond a tributary called Witch Mountain Spring, Nanyu noticed two white cranes flying upstream and then perching on the embankment. When the boat drew close to them, they took off again, swooping on ahead, before coming to a new resting place at the side of the Canal. Nanyu reckoned that the cranes moved ten times this way over the course of an hour—leading and waiting, leading and waiting—as though luring him ever onward. They didn’t seem to be feeding, and if they were migrating north, Nanyu wondered why they didn’t just get on with it, without waiting for him to catch up. If they wanted to stay on the Canal but were afraid of the boat, then why didn’t they fly to the side, to allow it to pass? For the rest of the day, Nanyu was sometimes invited to share food, sometimes asked for help maneuvering through a lock, and then, he would forget about the cranes; but whenever his activities were finished, he’d look up and there they would be, still scouting out the route.

Nanyu continued to see them after he closed his eyes that night, but in the morning, they were gone.

Image

Mississippi Egrets Haiku

Last Saturday (September 20, 2008), I went canoeing down the Black Creek River in Mississippi. All day long, there were these two egrets in front of us. They rested in trees along the bank, until we almost caught up to them, and then they would fly a few yards downstream, to wait for us to come up. No matter how swiftly or slowly we paddled, they were always there, leading us. We stopped for an hour to eat and swim, and when we got started again, they got back to guiding us. It was so quiet, you could hear the fluttering of their wings. It was poignantly unreal, like a Chinese or Japanese poem, painting, or film.

Back home, I composed a mediocre English and (with Yuka’s help) a pretty good Japanese haiku.

Autumn, the river,
Egrets constantly guiding,
Leading us downstream

夏過ぎて
白鷺共に
川下リ

(Natsu sugite
Shirasagi tomo ni
Kawa kudari)

Thoughts on ‘First Man’

Neil is only comfortable in space. Only when Earth’s atmosphere falls away is he able to escape his bleak, stressful life. And his bleak, stressful life, of preparation for each escape, thus comes to make sense.

As if to emphasize this paradox, each of Neil’s escapes from Earth, via rocket, is jarring and cacophonous, like being in a clothes dryer with a dozen pairs of shoes. And then the booster engine cuts off, and all becomes silent and still, and the stars become visible against the blackness through the window; and Neil smiles.

And then he leaves behind not only the oppressive Earth but the confining spacecraft, to stand on the surface of the moon, alone and finally free.

He walks to the edge of the crater, the one in which he was nearly buried during the landing, and buries his grief in it instead.

Listening to Dvorak with God

The second movement of the American Quartet commenced, and even as the beautiful arpeggios began carrying me away to Spillville and beyond, the perfectionist in me wondered if it was loud enough. However, my heavy limbs could not be moved to reach for the remote to turn up the volume, and I rationalized my inertness by dismissing my perfectionism: If I gave up trying to create the perfect experience (at the ideal volume) and simply let it come to me, then perhaps it would.

At that moment of surrender, the whirring clothes dryer in the next room shut off, and the Dvorak came through in all its purity. I smiled and thanked God for rewarding my faith.

And then the air conditioner clicked on.