Fear Response(s)

B/W photo of the E train, by Sean DuBois
Photo courtesy of Sean Dubois

Crazy was on my morning commute.

This is New York, so that’s not unusual. Doesn’t matter which line, if you take the NYC subways to and from work, you have your own share of guess-what-happened-on-the-subway-today stories.

I appreciate subway musicians, and almost always drop a dollar in the hat, good or awful. They’re trying and 90% of the time my day is better after listening to the acoustic guitar/drum circle/mariachi band/guy with the harp at Grand Central/drummer with no arms/guy who sings to recorded music/every musician who has ever played under a banner–or without one–in the New York City subways.

A breakdancer/gymnast/acrobat team means spending most of my time too distracted to read, worrying whether or not I’m going to get kicked in the face during a double flip in that very cramped space.

I’m almost immune to the panhandlers. Most of us have seen the same man/woman/man with child/woman with multiple children whose house just burned down, again, for months. Years. I won’t give cash, but I have been known to give food, even that can burn you.  The homeless kid begging for cash to feed his dog. I said “Let’s get off the train at the next stop and I’ll buy a case of dog food.” He wasn’t interested, and I wasn’t surprised.

I’m jaded. Maybe because I misspent part of my youth panhandling Penn Station, playing off my young/girl face, appealing to parent-aged people with the sob story that I’d been robbed/lost my purse/needed to get home to Long Island/my parents must be worried. This was before cell phones and kids with credit cards.

After an hour, I’d have had enough to drink all night in downtown bars, without having to dip into my paycheck.

Maybe I’m jaded because of the grandma (blue flowered dress, short thick body, pill box hat with a net) I gave $20 to in the 80s. She’d had her purse snatched; she just wanted to get home to Riverdale. My grandma lived in Riverdale, hence, the $20. Twenty dollars was a lot in the early 80s. A few months later I ran into her again. Same dress. Same pillbox hat. Same purse snatching.

Not this time grandma, I’m on to you.

The Jesus-told-me-to-tell-you folks, well, them I just want to send home to Jesus as fast as I can. I think you know what I mean. I know for a fact Jesus wants me to have quiet time on the subway to read. It’s the whole reason he made subways. It’s why he makes the train stall in-between stations–so Jodi has more time to read. It’s all I can do not to stand up and scream in my best I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-it-anymore voice: Jesus wants you to shut the fuck up and let me read.

But I don’t. I do what everyone else does. I put in my earbuds.

And then there are the fights, the verbal intimidation. Large men to small men. Men to women. Women to men. Occasionally, when it seems prudent, I intervene. Like the giant man berating a smaller man–a racial thing–big man wanted the little guy’s seat. It looked like it was going to get ugly, so I got up and offered big man my seat. He didn’t take it, but it did defuse the situation. I sat next to a woman being sexually harassed by a man, another being attacked with hate speech.

You live and work here and you learn to deal with living in close quarters. You make judgement calls in overstuffed metal contraptions that are hurtling under the streets of New York.

Yesterday, crazy was on the E train for my morning commute.

I got on at 74th Street/Roosevelt Avenue. There are five stations you speed through before the train stops again. 65th Street. Northern Blvd. 46th Street. Steinway. 36th Street. And then Queens Plaza.

I define a good morning as one where I get a seat on the subway, so I can read comfortably, as Jesus intended.

Yesterday was a good morning. Shortly after we pulled out of 74th Street, the yelling started. Not unusual. A raised angry voice. It happens.

It started to build, quickly. It was coming from a young man at the other end of the car in front of one of the doors, and directed to an older (but not old) man casually leaning in a corner. If something had happened, I didn’t see it. Angry young man got angrier. Louder. Pounding on the floor of the car with his feet hard enough I could feel the vibration in the floor at the other end of the car. Pounding on the windows and door with enough force and rage I worried the window would break or the door would open.

People were quiet. They glanced sideways to assess the situation. It was one of those times we knew, in a pack mentality, a hive mind, not to turn our heads. Except for that girl—there is always that one girl— sitting across from me surreptitiously filming him on her iPhone and laughing to herself.

But that’s how emotion comes, sometimes. You cry when you’re angry. Or you laugh when you’re scared.

No one was talking. No music leaking out from anyone’s cell phone. No children chattering. The one small child with his mother at the far end of the car, sat silently, looking straight ahead. He looked calm.

The pounding, the rage, the yelling got louder. As if frustrated that the yelling wasn’t eliciting a response, he started cursing. Someone was a little bitch. Maybe the man in the corner. Maybe a person only the angry man could see.

I put my book away. My umbrella was the only weapon I had, for offense or defense. A redheaded girl sitting nearby wondered quietly if someone should try the intercom on the wall to alert police. No, I shook my head. Other folks did the same. Quietly, we shook our heads. No.

Don’t draw his attention, you may as well throw lighter fluid on a fire.

I thought about texting 911, thought how if the cops met the train at the next stop, it would screw up everyone’s commute.

I rethought my vehement anti-wifi on all subways position. This would have been a very good time to have wifi. My phone said No Service.

It got louder. More rageful. He was losing focus and letting his rage start to spread.

What are you looking at bitch? Was I talking to you? Was I talking to you, bitch?

To no one in particular, to everyone. Pounding. Pounding. Pounding. With so much force on the floors with his sneakered feet, on the door with his closed fists.

The train stopped in one of the dark tunnels between stations.

If you ride the subways to work, you know this happens with such frequency, at least for a few moments, that most of the time you’re not even aware of it. This time, I felt everyone hold their breath, do some mental calculations, predicting what might happen next. What would happen if this was a prolonged delay?

If you’ve ridden the subways with any regularity you have spent at least 30 minutes stalled between stations, at least once. Probably more times than that. We held our collective breath and hoped this was not one of those times.

Pounding. Yelling. Pounding. Spitting, unintentionally when he yelled and again, spitting intentionally. His rage had found a new outlet. It was reaching out. It sounds like nothing, spitting, but it seemed he was looking for a new target for his rage, seeing how far he could push all of us/each of us/one of us.

We sat in silence, each looking as if nothing was going on, our unspoken agreement, our learned behavior in the face of real honest-to-god dangerous and crazy. Some stared at books, or stared ahead. No one had headphones on or earbuds in. We were alert and acting as if we weren’t. But we were.

The redhead, the iPhone girl, and I agreed–in whispers–we were getting off at the next station. iPhone girl was going to switch cars. I was going to change trains. I didn’t know what the redhead had planned. I feel confident assuming the rest of the passengers were making plans of their own for when the doors opened again.

The train began to move, and as well pulled in to Queens Plaza crazy crossed over and stepped to the door that was about to open. I got my first good look at him as he stepped up and started pounding on that door with his fists. Smashing his chest into it. Trying to pry the doors open before we’d even pulled into the station.

He was young, maybe in his twenties. Skinny, with a backpack. Other than that, he was unremarkable. I wouldn’t be able to describe him to anyone, not in any way that would distinguish him from the thousands of other tall, young, thin men with backpacks.

Rage was his distinguishing characteristic. His most memorable feature.

He stepped out onto the platform at Queens Plaza; I stayed ready to leave the train, should he step back on, because crazy will do that. Crazy will fake you out. Crazy will change his mind with no obvious reason and then you’re trapped in a metal box with him again.

The doors closed, crazy and angry on the outside, us safely pulling out of the station, and in a heartbeat the car buzzed with more than the usual buzz of conversation. We talked about him. Some folks had theories about what his problem was. Others thought they had information about what started it. People were chattering.

I just had relief.

I looked at the redhead and iPhone girl .

“I’ve been on the train with a lot of crazy, but this is the first time I’ve ever been scared.”

They nodded. The little boy and his mother had begun playing finger games and laughing. A girl put her ear buds back in.

We’d been really scared and now it was over.

I opened my book. I was in the middle of the scene in Abigail Thomas’s newest book, What Comes Next and How to Like It: A Memoir, where she confronts her daughter about something that had caused a rift between them. It’s a touching moment. I started to tear up.

Abby is an excellent writer. And it was a very touching moment, but it was the timing.

That scene in that book was there just when I needed it, giving me the opportunity to turn that hyper-vigilance and fear into something I could let go of.

In the moment, I couldn’t think about being afraid. I’d assessed my weapons, my options, the rest of the folks on the train, the chances of this going south, all the public violence that has happened, random killings, the guy with the hammer that had gone around smashing folks heads in, the rage you don’t see coming and then you’re hurt or dead or trying to put a stranger back together.

Fear, in the moment, can make you sharp. It can make you ready. It will stop time so your brain can make plans.

My heart was racing when I got topside. Until I was standing on the corner of 8th Avenue and 35th Street, I hadn’t even been aware of how hard it had been working.

When danger is removed, fear doesn’t always go away with it. No one has taught us what to do with the residual fear. Depending on the level and length of fear/danger, some folks drink. Or suffer with PTSD. Or become numb. It’s why there are support groups after major disasters like school shootings and terrorist attacks.

But we don’t have those for everyday life. We don’t have those skills in place when crazy boards the train and takes everyone hostage as you crawl through five subway stops without stopping.

Sometimes, you’re lucky and your brain finds a way to let it out safely, like air seeping quietly and slowly from a leaky tire. Page 68 provided a tiny hole that let my fear leak out. Slow enough for it to be effective, while still looking like everything’s okay on the outside.

 

 

Drive, she said.

Driving  a Long Island highway after dark,  air cool and damp the way it does when winter turns to spring, how it does in early summer near the beach, air so heavy with moisture I turn my wipers on to shear away the mist, the beach air, and the cool and damp; loud music, turned up to 11; blacktop gently curves. I move smoothly between broken white lines; turn the music up until it drowns out the car, the other cars, my thoughts; following red tail lights going as fast as I am, passing the ones who refuse to speed up to double the speed limit whatever the speed limit is and there is that moment. That moment when I am here, right now.  And here, forty years ago.

Speeding down a Long Island highway at night coming home from a day caring for my mother slides into that other night/many other nights, four decades ago, driving home to my mother’s house from Long Beach after a crowded club and loud bands, Twisted Sister turning it up to 11. I exist in both nights, two of me occupy the same seat in one car, two cars become one: the 1975 Ford Pinto is the 1999 Volkswagen Golf. One littered with empty cigarette packs, beer bottles, and cassette tapes. One with empty candy wrappers, water bottles, and CDs. Steering wheels feel the same, the cool damp air still keeps me alert, and driving calms my nerves. I’m twenty and I’m sixty.

I taste vodka in the back of my throat. I have not had a drink since summer, 1990. The ashtray overflows with cigarette butts, all Marlboro. I smoked with delight, with panache, windows open, smoke and scarves and common sense flying out the windows behind me, Isadore Duncan without the talent, or the untimely death. There is no ashtray.

There is no ashtray.

Like rivers and creeks, time eddies and swirls, spins in and out of little whirlpools, diverts, evaporates, pools in gullies, returns as rain, seeps into the ground/pulls me into the mud/deeper still, rises as mist, settles like dew, washes me clean, pummels me, and chills my bones.

If a pack of Marlboros appears on my dashboard, I will smoke without a single thought. If a glass of vodka and seven was nestled in the seat next to me, with a single red swizzle stick, I would drink the same way I had night after night after night all those nights ago. Drinking, driving, smoking, and speeding. Some nights are just made for that, no matter how fast you’ve driven, how long, or how far you’ve come.

No, he says, you don’t.

unnamed
I say I want to live in a small town.

No, he says, you don’t. You’re such a wonderful person and you’re so beautiful.

I can be wonderful somewhere less crowded.

He says, You don’t want to isolate, you’re so gregarious.

I’m not.
I’m a yappy little shelter dog who has learned enough tricks to keep the world at bay. That’s what I think.
I say: I like my own company.
I mean: I don’t think I like yours.
I think: How soon can I get off the phone?
I think: I want to be somewhere I can hear my own thoughts.
I think: I want to be somewhere I can walk down a sidewalk, a road, a dirt path and not have a man who doesn’t know me tell me who I am.
I know perfectly well who I am.
I have known me all my life.

He is still talking. Now, about how much I will love Fiji.

I have deliberately moved places people would not want to visit.
Several times.

I’m training to be a cranky old woman, I say.

No, he says, you’re not. You’re not old. Or cranky.

Looking at my watch, I think: I am older and crankier than I was before the phone rang.

You would have loved Belize in the 90s. You will love (insert hot tropical place).

I like Vermont. And I can like more than one place. But if the world crumbles until there is only Fiji and Vermont I will be the Queen of Vermont and you can be the King of Fiji, I think.

He’s written a script for his life and in his movie we live on a desert island, we backpack through Europe. A Rom-Com with no Com, I imagine that sounds to him like him and me against the world. Or him and me discovering the world. Or sharing. Or something tender and sweet.

I think: Who wrote this Hallmark Lifetime Mr. Rogers script for you, bub? Quentin Tarantino wishes he could option the scripts in my head. Chuck Palahniuk steals my dreams. Damon Runyon named a cheesecake after me. Nora Ephron wished upon a star for me. Patricia Highsmith wanted to be me. Hank Bukowski was my hero. These are my script writers. My collaborators.

I have intimacy issues I say, I’m a runner.

No, he says, you’re not.

Lesson Number One

dark-and-dingy-roomsPreviously published: BUST Magazine Spring/Summer 1996 (as Scarlett Fever)

He pushes me inside a yellow cab and stuffs himself in beside me. I hear the first gunshots exploding like Chinese firecrackers in February as the door slams closed.

“Drive”, he says to the cabbie. “Relax, CeeCee. It’s over.” He dropped a bloated pink hairless hand onto my thigh. “Consulate Hotel. West 49th Street,” he says speaking to the driver, and looking at me, the question in his eyes.

I don’t say anything. How bad can it be? He’s not mean. I need a car. I need his money to get it.

“I need three n’ a quarter, Lloyd.”

“OK, Cee, three hundred and twenty-five dollars it is then.” He smiles at me, rubbing his pink hand up and down my thigh vigourously, anticipating. I catch Abu Ben Taxi Driver looking at us in the rearview mirror. Listening in. Deciding what I am. What Lloyd is. The vodka from my last drink rises back up my throat and tastes awful.

Next week I can drive into the city in the car I bought with the money from my first trick. How bad can it be?

The hotel room, the lights are out, the blinds open. The room lit only by a full moon and the street lights below. Lloyd lies naked on the bed, a great white beached whale. His skin iridescent in the moonlight, broken only by an archipelago of eczema that dots his massive body, the source of the medicinal aura that floats around him at all times. I stand at the bathroom door, my clothes at my feet, and try to imagine the feel of his skin, the texture of the rash. I leave my body. My heart and soul float across the room settling sadly into the wing chair in the corner. A voyeuristic sadistic pleasure keeps me watching as the scene unfolds. I watch myself, in awe of what I’m capable of.

I see myself in the moonlight, breasts full and plump, ass round and creamy, hips rolling seductively as I walk over to the bed. My face a blank mask of concentration and focus as I look down at him. Thinking about what? The car? The money? The task at hand?

Lloyd lies on the bed, legs spread wide, stomach rising up above everything, a four hundred and fifty-pound island of flesh lit blue-white by garish street lights, waiting for me.

He reaches out entwining his chubby fingers in my dark curly pubic hair and shoves his thumb inside of me (an audible gasp bubbles out of my mouth, escaping into the night). His thumb probes deeper, twirling around.

“Suck my cock,” his voice no longer whiny, no longer begging. He pulls his thumb out of me, pushes me towards the end of the bed, and shiny with my juice he sticks it in his mouth and suckles.

Proportion takes on a profound meaning when a man’s cock is surrounded by so many hundreds of pounds of flesh. Finding it alone a labor worthy of Hercules. Tucked inside the many folds of his massive thighs, deep inside the crevices below his bellys, I watch myself root through his flesh like a pig after truffles. Holding a belly up with my elbow, a thigh away with my hand. Finding my prey, my pound of flesh, short and hard, no bigger than his thumb or a pale breakfast sausage, I bend and take him into my mouth. Covering it with my own saliva, stroking him slowly, making him harder, squeezing and pulling, rubbing my breasts while cranes over his belly to watch, squeezing my nipples, getting us both ready. He lays there, unable to move, a giant turtle on his back, a great sea mammal washed ashore and abandoned, at my mercy. My juices are flowing. I touch myself, separate the damp hairs, the outer labia, the inner labia, open myself up and rise up, rise up, Venus rising from the foam. I close my eyes and mount him as best I can.

“Suck this,” knocking his hand away from his mouth and sticking my fingers,my whole hand, slick with my own juices, in his mouth. I ride him, leaning forward as he grabs my tits, pulling painfully at my nipples. I grip his round arms and ride him, forgetting about his rash, his size, his lack of size. I ride and pump and thrust and grind. I moan and curse and Oh baby, and yes, yes, yes as he comes inside me. I ride some more, pulling on my own nipples now, rubbing my clit up against the overflow from his big firm belly, bringing myself to climax. I stroke his immense round gut as I feel him shrinking, I contract inside and try to hold him there a bit longer. Shrinking. Shrinking. He slips out.

And I think about where I will go in the cute blue Pinto I will buy with his money.


The money, the real reason I’m here, I tell myself. Yet, even today,when I describe it, my juices flow and the tingles grow in that secret place deep inside me. His flesh repulses me, the act of selling myself does not. Having someone desire me so much he will pay me, pay what I ask, opens me up inside.

To be in charge.

To be in control.

To be paid.


He’s coming out of the bathroom, already having washed my scent off and stuffed himself back into his oversized brown polyester slacks when I realize no money’s changed hands yet. No crisp bills waiting quietly on the nightstand like in the movies.

“Lloyd, uh…are you leaving…?” My clothes were on the bathroom floor. He stood at the doorway to the bathroom, a wall of flesh between me and my clothes. The fluorescent bathroom light creating a gargantuan silhouette, his huge polyester behind the only thing reflected in the mirror.

“Yeah. Look, I gotta go see what kind of damage was done in the club tonight. Keep the room, babe. I paid for the whole night.” He struggled into the brown and grey plaid sportcoat, patted me on the head, checking his pockets as he did and heading towards the door.

“I don’t wanna stay here all night. We talked about the money Lloyd… What about the money?” Not wanting him to let him escape. I grabbed up my clothes. Pulling them on without washing him off of me. Liquid Lloyd runs down my leg.

“Look CeeCee, I don’t have the money with me…”

“What do you mean, you don’t have the money? You paid for the cab, the room…?”

I came here to get paid, to turn a trick.

“That’s about all I had on me. I have just enough to get home from here. Everything else is in the safe at the club. Do you need cab fare or are you OK?”

Cab fare you mammoth pig? I need three hundred and twenty-five dollars. I need your head on a platter. I need my fucking money.

“OK? OK? I’m not OK. What about my money. You said you’d pay me three…,” It’s not a trick if I don’t get paid. If I don’t get paid it’s just a nightmare, ” hundred and …”

“Hey,” he interrupted. His inflated Macys’ Thanksgiving Day parade ballon hand on my naked shoulder, “do you think I’m trying to cheat you?” Yes, that’s exactly what I think. “What did you want me to do, tell the guys on the stairs to wait, don’t shoot up the place till I get money outta the safe to give to my girl?”

“But I thought you had money with you…”

STUPID, STUPID STUPID. STUPID BITCH

” No, CeeCee,” he spoke softly, like you do to a child, “You stop by the club tomorrow night and we’ll straighten everything out. OK?”

I’m such a stupid bitch.

I nod silently and sit there, even quieter, watching in the mirror as he kisses me goodbye. Silent as I watched the door close after his fat shit brown polyester ass. Silently I sit as my heart and soul walks over and rejoins me, a little thinner now, a little paler. Silent as I finish dressing and head down to the subway and back home. I can panhandle whatever I need for the Long Island RailRoad.

Or maybe it wasn’t like that at all. Maybe I was too scared or too stupid to ask for the money afterwards. Maybe there was just a chubby girl having sex with a huge fat man, expecting him to keep his word. Maybe it wasn’t sensual at all. Maybe it was a dirty little room in a cheap hotel with no full moon, only the street lights and the eczema.

Stupid bitch.

Lesson Number One – get the money up front.

Dating for Dollars

Sexy sitting couple in car

Previously published: Johns, Marks, Tricks & Chickenhawks (Soft Skull Press, 2013); Best American Erotica, 1995 (Touchstone Book published by Simon and Schuster, 1995 as Scarlett Fever)

Originally published: BUST Magazine, Summer/ Fall 1994 (as Scarlett Fever)

I paused at the doorway to the dining room of Laurent—it was not quite Lutece, but it was in the same neighborhood, the same price range, and just as French and fancy. I let the room get a good view. My deep purple spandex dress fit like a wet suit in the few places it bothered to cover. One arm bare and supple, the back cut low and the sides cut high. My nipples, straining against the tight material, managed to rise to the occasion of all the attention. The maitre’d smiled and motioned, across a sea of perfectly coiffed silver heads, for us to follow. The gentle murmur of polite conversation slowed as all heads turned in concert. I heard the whisper of pearls across black velvet, the subtle intake of breath, and the click-click of my three-inch heels as polite conversation stopped to watch me stroll across the room. The maitre’d, seemed to be getting a real kick out of the attention I was getting. He took his time parading us to the center of the dining room, then turning to direct us back to a semi-private corner banquette. I felt the watery eyes of flaccid ruddy-cheeked men gaze surreptitiously, while the eyes of wives shot hot arrows of disgust.

I loved this.

I didn’t belong here. My dress was too tight, my hair too short and too red, and my class too low. My date was my ticket in. It was as if the stripper who popped out of the cake at the bachelor party showed up at the wedding on the arm of the bride’s father. No one could ask me to leave. The men knew what I was. The women suspected. So I took pleasure in just being there, in that tiny bit of power I held for that moment. The power not to be thrown out of a place that ordinarily wouldn’t even have let me in.

My date for the evening seemed only slightly uncomfortable in his conservative suit and foolish grin. Maybe the simple gold wedding band he wore was too tight. Or maybe he wasn’t prepared for the reaction my appearance in a place like this would create. Whatever it was, it was his problem, not mine. He’d paid me my fee for the evening, two hundred dollars—just shy of a months rent—to compensate for the money I was losing by being out to dinner with him, and not working at the Mardi Gras.

I slipped next to him on the brocade cushions of the banquette, our thighs touched and I felt the heat rise as his face colored slightly. His uneasiness excited me. The more uncomfortable he was, the more comfortable I became. We shared several martinis before dinner and he began to relax, asking the questions they all do eventually.

“So, do you like your work?” Oh sure. When I was little I always imagined I’d grow up, be naked and spend my time drinking cheap champagne with assholes.

“Do you get turned on with everyone watching?” If I was turned on do you think I would be charging you?

“Does your family know?” Sure. Sure they do. They brag over holiday dinners. They’re thinking of including photos in the next family newsletter.

“Have you ever done it with a woman?” C’mon, buddy. Have you?

I could think whatever I wanted, but I told him what he wanted to hear—that I loved what I did, I got horny when I danced, that I got me wet just thinking about him watching me, that I fantasized about being with a man and another woman—and tiny beads of sweat began to appear around his hairline. There was a moment of relief for him as the waiter came for our order. I leaned over to whisper in his ear, one hand resting between his legs, letting my breast and one fabulous hard nipple rub against his arm.

“I don’t know what I want. I think you should make all my decisions tonight.” I left my arm, hand, and breast on him while he ordered, feeling his erection growing.

“Thank you,” I whispered as the waiter retreated, “I knew you could take good care of me, Daddy.” His name was José. Or Jack. Or Jabberwocky. It’s crazy how many men get hard when you call them Daddy, so I stuck with that. It was hotter for him, and less for me to remember. I let my hand brush across his cock as I leaned back and fished the olive from my martini. He smiled and slipped his hand between my legs as I sucked the vodka off the olive. I crossed my legs, trapping his hand, “Not here, Daddy…after dinner it’s all yours.”

We had a sumptuous dinner, watched by proper mature ladies whose glares he tried to avoid, and envious men whose eyes I caught intentionally and smiled directly into while my hand tortured Daddy Jabberwocky’s erection beneath the linen tablecloth. The women were self-righteous and upset, their balding overstuffed husbands—thinking of the deflated breasts and dry pussies across the table from them—groaned in desperation. My date was straining for the release of orgasm. Everyone was right where I wanted them to be and I was in my glory. I had my little bit of power.

“Check,” he called, unable to stand the teasing another minute.

“And coffee, please,” I added.

He pulled out his gold American Express card. It’s what I’d been waiting for all night, the pièce de résistance.

“Would you pour me the last of the Cristal? It’s a sin to let good champagne go to waste.” Actually, it’s a sin to let any champagne go to waste. He reached over for the bottle and gave me a clear view of the gold card. It’s just a matter of memorizing a short series of numbers: fifteen numbers divided into three segments. A child could do this. I took one sip of the champagne and excused myself to the ladies room.

I slipped into a phone booth instead. Charlie answered on the first ring; he’d been waiting for my call.

“Am Ex. Gold. Member since 1981.” I thought for a second, pictured the card in my mind and reeled off the name and numbers on the card. I don’t think I’d known his last name before that. I’d barely bothered remembering his first. “I gotta go, Charlie. I don’t want to lose my momentum.”

“You comin’ home?”

“Later, he’s still got some cash I think should be mine.”

“Tomorrow, then?”

“Tomorrow.” Click.

The dried-up women and unhappy husbands watched again as I walked the length of the dining room back to the secluded corner where my Romeo of the moment was waiting. He was thinking about a hotel, I could see it on his face. The wedding ring he wore made it obvious he couldn’t take me home with him.

I always looked for the wedding ring. This was one of those situations where the existence of a wife actually made my life much easier.

He didn’t even suggest my place, saving me the trouble of coming up with a reason we couldn’t go there. Sometimes I used the excuse of my imaginary kid. The one I trotted out whenever it was convenient. The one I home-schooled, because I didn’t know the names or locations of any real schools. His, or her, father was dead, killed in action, in prison, had abandoned me, or raped me, or was dying of terminal something. A good lie has a bit of the truth at the center. I’d been pregnant, and involved with men who were now dead, or in prison, or who had abandoned or raped me, so I never felt like I was lying all that much when I talked about my kid. But this one wasn’t interested in my home life.

“Let’s get a little blow and a drink before we settle in for the night. What d’ya think? Coke makes me really crazy.” I let my body brush full against his. He was lost, he was helpless, he was mine. I hustled him into a cab and we headed thirty blocks downtown and two flights up to a dim and dirty cavernous space where I knew everybody. Through a dark room with an old pool table and a couple of warped sticks into a darker room where the bar was. The liquor was cut-rate, the glasses were plastic, and the music was blaring.
Now he was the outsider, the one who didn’t belong. These were my people—unfortunately that meant that everyone there wanted his money as badly as I did. But I had a leg up. Literally. Next to him on a threadbare corner couch, with one leg sprawled across his lap and snaking down between his legs, pressing against the ever-present erection. My hand slipped inside his jacket and played with his nipple while Max the Mumbler wandered over with pockets filled with cocaine. My Jabberwocky flashed his bankroll, and paid for an eight-ball.

Nightcrawlers and coke whores can follow the scent of cash in the air like hyenas on the smell of a rotting carcass. Drifting closer, they slowly surrounded us, drawn by the sweet perfume of a sucker’s money. We were the center of this particular universe as long as we had cocaine and money. He loved it. He’d never known people like this. The red light of the club gave it all a surreal and dangerous quality, but he felt safe with me. We shared our coke with his new friends: Johnny Blue Eyes, Mouse’s old man and a jewel thief wanted in five states; Franco, a Richard Gere look-a-like who would have sex with anyone for $100 and would eventually marry Patti; Wella, recently released from an eight-year bid she did for dismembering a Japanese trick (She’d stuffed him in Hefty bags and stored him in the closet, dragging one bag out each day until a leaky bag left a bloody trail from the curb to her closet.); Smilin’ Dennis who was anywhere Raymond was; Raymond, who designed g-string outfits for the girls and was anywhere girls and booze were; Jack the Jew, a card counter banned in all the Vegas casinos and the Atlantic City casinos as well; and Jimmy Bug Eyes who had an after-hours and was hooked up with the mob in some way I was never able to make sense of, but he was and he made sure you knew it. The more coke we had, the more friends we had. José, or Jack, or Jabberwocky, the longer the night went on the less sure I was that his name even began with a “J” so I just stuck with Daddy or Baby when I needed to use his name, but whatever his name was, he loved it. They talked to him as if he was one of them. He began to imagine that he was not just a daytime citizen anymore, that he was something more, something darker.

I was beginning to lose control. There were too many fingers trying to stick themselves in my pie. I steered him to one of the blackjack tables in the corner.

“I wanna play too,” I pouted. He peeled off a $100 for me and settled in to play cards.
“Oh, Vincent’s here,” I whispered in his ear, “his coke is so much better than Max’s…please, can I, Daddy? You’ll see. You’ll see how good it is.” Daddy gave me money, I got an eight-ball, of which I let him have half a gram and kept the remaining three grams for myself. I sat in for two hands of Blackjack, both of which I promptly lost.
“Too rich for my blood.” I pushed away from the table stretching my body out against the thin plum fabric of my dress. I let my hand drop into his lap and caress his cock, which—thanks to all the booze and cocaine—had shriveled down to its original birth weight. That’s the thing about men and cocaine. It tells them they can go all night, when the truth is they can’t go at all, really. I was just fine with that situation. I spent another twenty minutes feeding him more coke and more cocktails and letting my breasts rub across the back of his head while rubbing his shoulders from behind. He was losing like crazy. And everyone was happy. The house had some of his money, I had more of his money and most his coke, and he thought he had me.

“I’m gonna shoot pool with the Mouse out front. Come get me as soon as you’re ready. O.K. Daddy?” He turned and looked at the Mouse, her breasts barely covered by the black strapless number she was wearing. Her breasts had a gravitational pull all their own, and her long hair slid over them like dark water, washing them, caressing them. She slipped her arm around me and he looked as if he was ready to pass out. It’s the reaction we got when we were together, we were an irresistible one-two punch. If I couldn’t hurt them, she could. If she couldn’t hurt them, I could and there were damn few that could resist the combination of her dark voluptuousness and my pale outrageousness.

“Yeah, here take this.” He handed me his vial of coke. “I just want to get a little even here. Turn your friend on, too.”

“Oh, I was planning on turning her on. You ready for me to turn you on, Mouse?”

“Ready, J,” she purred. We turned. We kissed. Long and soft and warm.

“Don’t keep us waiting too long.” We walked away, my arm around the sharp curve of her waist, her hand on my big round ass. We walked away from the card table, and past the bar Johnny Blue Eyes was leaning on, watching us, and not saying anything. He never said much. I don’t think he liked me, but he didn’t seem to mind the fact that Mouse did.

Mouse and I entered a barely lit room where the pool table was occupied by a couple of baby pimps. We couldn’t’ve played in those dresses even if the table had been empty. The minute either one of us leaned over to shoot, our respective breasts would roll out of our respective dresses and display themselves on the worn green felt. But the thought of actually shooting pool had never crossed either of our minds.

We strolled right on out the door, down two flights of stairs, and into a yellow Checker cab headed east into the morning light. Me and the Mouse sat cross-town in another after-hours club drinking cheap vodka, sharing the coke and laughing over “Daddy’s” probable reaction when he discovered that we, as well as the coke and his money, were gone.

The game was fixed.

The whole evening was fixed.

He would always be just a daytime citizen. And this was my world, where no matter what the sun was doing, it was night o’clock. They would not let him back into the club the next night or any night unless he was with someone like me. Or Mouse. His wedding band was my guarantee he wouldn’t go the police and risk having the wife find out.

Other people’s wedding bands were my insurance policy.

He would go home and tell outrageous stories about his wild night with a bad girl to his buddies over backyard barbecue, exaggerating what actually happened and leaving out any embarrassing details. And when I got home some time that afternoon, what ever time I finally made it home, there would be a new American Express card, exactly like his, waiting on my pillow.