Peter Weissman is the author of I Think, Therefore Who Am I?
"Club Manhattan" is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress.
They weren’t kids, but I thought of them that way as they frolicked in the circular fountain, beneath the geyser, glided around it on wheels, up and down paths that spoked out through Washington Square Park. I sat cross-legged on a patch of worn grass, attempting to read a book on Buddhism, staring at the page as if the Four Noble Truths or whatever might acclimate me to this new reality. But in fact the wavering words were a rebuke, refusing to afford me an escape. I was only thirty-four, but I felt old.
Where did these kids live? What pictures were on their apartment walls? What drugs did they take? Where hippies had sauntered not that long ago, they moved with a different kind of carelessness, dominating the landscape as if spring full-blown from it.
I was the outsider, having just moved to Manhattan, a dense warren of compartments. I’d beat out dozens who’d seen the same classified ad, ready to surrender two months’ rent in advance, to secure the place. Within a week, I moved in with a suitcase of clothes, a typewriter, and a carton of notebooks and of manuscripts.
It wasn’t much: a basement studio to which I added a convertible couch and bamboo blinds to block the sight of pedestrian feet and a moribund flower bed. As if I’d recently died; a sober thought tempering newfound freedom. Time had moved on in the ten years I was away. Even the neighborhood was new -- SoHo, for South of Houston -- a former manufacturing district whose buildings had been renovated into high-ceilinged lofts, the older streets abutting them becoming prime property as well, accounting for the blue and white faux marble facade of 101 Sullivan Street, with its screeching floors and roaring plumbing. There was, of course, money to be made from the latest fantasy boom that brought a new wave of people into the city.
The Roaring Seventies. Disco music, which I still didn’t like; movies I couldn’t stand: memories of another time accentuating the difference.
I delved for it at night, and encountered ghosts; traipsed the old tenement streets to find once familiar oases gone. The Forum, the head shop next door, the Cave on the corner, even the Subway sandwich shop, all gone; boarded up or reborn as a boutique, a record store. Only the ghosts were there, flitting through the coffeehouse that now sold furniture; gathered at tables in the former nightclub, entombed now, sealed shut with cinder block. Startled, I stared in disbelief at the emptiness where the band shell had been, a trepanned skull the night of my undoing; razed, I later learned, because of the junkies who congregated and sheltered there.
Yet, to my surprise, the old streets had lost something else too: the noumena that elicited fear and dread.
How had it happened? Had I relived those days so often, recalling them again and again as I rewrote my still unfinished book, that I finally came to accept the past and make peace with it? What part had seven years of marriage played? Work? Friends and acquaintances? Books? Travel? How had I become a different person?
The fire escape facades still conjured stories, but perhaps the people had become characters. You can live with them more easily.
The people I knew now gravitated to eateries and cafés in other, more pricey neighborhoods. But then, they had jobs now. In the evening, they gathered to discuss this and that, to assert and nest within a larger, collective identity. I didn’t quite fit in -- I never have -- but like them, I was bemused that our disco descendants lacked our social commitment, didn’t care about Vietnam, civil rights, and the other things that characterized us while coming of age.
These were Mark’s people, his friends, and they had become my acquaintances. Since moving in, I saw more of him, accompanied him once a week to the group he’d put together to talk about society, serious conversation that spawned banter, which I preferred. Once in a while, I’d have something to say, from a welcome perspective, so far as the others were concerned, though they didn’t know where I was coming from: the drug era, and its lessons; marriage, which no one else had experienced; working a deadline job for the post office, running out of money in Europe, languishing in a gardener’s cottage on the Gold Coast of Connecticut as my life fell apart.
In fact, I was losing interest in theorizing and opinionation, even skipped a few meetings, which might have been why Mark decided to form a new group, one that would appeal more to me.
In fact it did, viscerally, because of Denise Kaminsky.
* * *
The first session took place at Denise’s apartment, though her inclusion was a puzzle. She wrote badly, had trite things to say about the women’s movement -- the most frequently discussed topic in that group too.
“So,” I said to Denise when the session was over. “Mark tells me you know Gerry." I'd never liked him and didn't understand why Mark did, except out of loyalty to an old friend.
"How do you know Gerry?" she asked, flicking hair off a shoulder, animated, curious.
"He was editor of the college newspaper when Mark and I were reporters, and then he lived in the building next door, in the tenements."
"I wrote a column for him," she said. "Gerry's a hoot."
"I haven't seen him in years. He must be pleased, ruling the roost at his own magazine." A glossy thing specializing in photos of naked women and editorial filler about sex.
She snickered. "Why wouldn't he be, presiding over a harem?"
Which was what I'd imagined.
She laughed; a light, tinkling sound. “Presiding ... is a bit strong. He looks but doesn't touch, flirts with the interns and once in a while gets a blowjob under his desk.”
I pictured Gerry Gornish with his pants around his ankles, buddha belly protruding as he got blown. Like the photo in his old pad, tacked on a wall with other candid shots of women he’d known in college.
“He gets off on that,” she said, grinning “He's harmless."
I'd watched Denise, deflect whatever the men in the group might say about the glib piece she'd read aloud with a glance and a knowing smile, implying a disarming expertise about the world of sex. Though it was politically incorrect in that circle, it had the desired effect; no one had been as tough on her, taking her well-formed legs in tinted stockings, her dress sliding up her thighs as she recrossed them. I'd been taken too as she smiled at me across the room, her glossy lips a moue.
No one had said anything interesting about writing, but after that first session, I came to them regularly. And because Denise became a participant in that other, larger group, I didn't miss any of those either. Mark had indeed rekindled my interest.
Her pert body, so well put together, long lashes blinking open to present eyes firmly set on mine: I was awash with lust. Effortlessly, she made a mockery of my indifferent male power pose, as someone in the other group called it; the facade I’d adopted as an adolescent, having heard that women responded to men who weren’t needy. In fact, I could not have been needier, and felt like a discombobulated teenager around her. Which amused Denise, who seemed to delight in disconcerting me, with knowing smiles, a tilted head, the flick of hair off a bare shoulder, as if baring it for me.
One night after the larger group regathered as usual at a restaurant someone swore was reasonable and good, I overcame my teenage directive and offered to drive her home.
“You have a car?” she asked, surprised.
“Sure,” I replied. “I was living in America, y’know, before I showed up here. I can take you for a ride, if you want.” A nervous blurt, not intended to be lascivious, though it sounded that way.
But Denise smiled as if it had been, and now chose to pretend otherwise, saying, “I only live a few blocks away. Not much of a drive.”
“No, I meant--”
“Yes, I know. Chivalrous Sir Launcelot." She reached across the table and rested a hand on my arm. "The noble knight, offering to usher a lady back to her castle.”
A surprising fantasy, as if she'd been considering it awhile. That occurred to me and then was gone, like the makeup she so carefully applied, the tinted stockings and sheath dresses, the coy glances, which left me aswirl in self-consciousness and wondering what she thought of me, excluding what Denise revealed about herself.
Myths of male and female sexuality, with wine or sangria at those late night dinners, led to clinical talk about clitoral and vaginal orgasms. The women then took center stage, held sway for a change, the supposedly enlightened men conspicuously silent. Me too. After seven years of marriage I knew next to nothing, felt that lack as I drove Denise home, detouring through adjacent tenement streets to point out former hot spots before finding a parking spot in Stuyvesant Town. Getting out of the car, I stood bemused on a road in the red brick complex of identical buildings until she slipped a slim arm into the crook of my elbow and led me, as she would from then on.
In her apartment we took off our coats, hung them on a rack in the vestibule, then Denise kicked her shoes off and told me to take off mine. In the living room, she poured glasses of wine, scattered record albums on the parquet floor and told me to pick whichever ones I wanted. I sat down cross-legged, studied the covers as she perched herself above me on the couch, tucking her tinted legs beneath her.
“Good choice,” she said when the first record was on the turntable, and patted the cushion next to her, indicating what I should do next.
Shifting closer when I settled in, her dress rode up, revealing a darker band of tint higher up, accentuating her supple thighs.
“You seem tense,” she said. “Why don’t you stretch out with your feet in my lap. I’ll give you a massage.”
I complied to that too, was relieved that she'd taken charge, watched her peel off my socks and go to work on my soles, my toes, my ankles, becoming more worked up at her touch rather than less …
There was physical certainty in Denise's world that precluded explanation. Bodies and what they responded to were beyond the subtleties of social and political opinion, whatever mental confabulation might be attached, including the confusing notion of pornography, since I was always aware of her monthly advice column, even though I hadn't read it. That incontrovertible physicality explained her self-assurance, the provocative half smile, her indifference to the hesitation of men when the subject of sex came up, as if it was something more serious than other things, rather than less.
Not for me that night, which had the aspect of an initiation. Her ministrations set my thoughts spinning almost uselessly, since they sustained me when I might otherwise have gone off like a firecracker. She would have woke me up the following morning, had I been able to sleep, but instead I rolled over to be dazed again, and afterward left in a stumble.
The next time, as if I now knew what I was doing, I went at Denise without hesitation, and she quickly put me off, took charge again. In fact, from the moment we entered her apartment, she always took control, with a massage, after applying baby oil from a bottle of baby oil; or food -- she was a good cook, could whip up a soufflé in minutes, then watched me eat, as if to make sure I was fortified for the upcoming activity; or she'd tell me to wait in the bedroom while she showered, and afterward slip under the covers next to me, moist and warm.
Her bed was a mattress on the floor in a room vaguely illuminated by a streetlight filtering through Venetian blinds, no frills at all -- the better to concentrate, it seemed, as she went to work applying lotions and lubricants, touching me with fingers, lips, tongue, then directing me to do her, from her toes to her earlobes, which she was particularly fond of, and then her nipples, which pearled as I laved one then the other, nibbled each, and down to her clitoris, to circle it, trill it, suckle it. From me, she asked for no instruction, took charge of my penis, stroked, engorged, or clamped down on it below the head as I throbbed in tumescence, then began to work it up again, up the shaft to the head, bringing me to an ever more heightened or agonized state before finally positioning me or herself to couple this way or that ...
There was a technical aspect to all this that would have been prosaic if not for the constant state of excitement. Then one night, sensing that I’d gotten the hang of things and was less in thrall than usual, she brought me up short, abruptly stopping foreplay by saying, “Are you going to fuck me or what?” as if I were suddenly a stranger expected to perform; letting me know who was in charge.
We were stepping out of her orgone pit by then, going places.
I drove us out to the racetrack, Denise wearing what was for her a casual outfit of tight jeans, a fur-trimmed leather coat, and chukka boots. With beginner’s luck, she hit a longshot in the last race and squealed with excitement, like a little girl, and for a while we were two different people, learning new things about each other. My parents were in Florida at the time, so we spent the night in their apartment in Queens, screwing with the illuminated span of a bridge visible out the plateglass windows, the Manhattan skyline in the distance.
We went to a gallery opening Denise knew about, though it didn't seem she had much interest in, only the happening. It was followed by a loft party with men who wore slacks and cashmere and women who looked as elegant and desirable as Denise. And on New Year’s Eve, I trailed alongside her, an appendant as we took cabs from one party to another, culminating at a penthouse on the East Side where we ran into her brother and his wife.
That was a shock, a dose of the ordinary, sitting on couches and plush chairs around a glass cocktail table, the three of them chatting about mom and dad as I nibbled crackers and cheese and sipped wine. It seemed I'd become part of Club Manhattan, as an associate member in someone else's niche.
But my alienation was an ineluctable thing, for though it seemed I somewhat belonged to something larger than myself, it was also clear that Denise and I were not a couple. I didn’t know quite what we were, and until then hadn’t thought about it.
Though secretive about it, I knew she saw other men, presumably on nights when she wasn't available; Tuesdays, Thursdays, sometimes Saturdays. Surprisingly, since I’m not immune from jealousy, it didn’t bother me. But then, by the time I realized that Denise went out with others, and might even have taken them home, like me, I’d begun to accept the limitations of our arrangement; and with that, viewed her from an analytical distance more typical of me, a detachment seared for a while by the heat of sexual promise and its satiated aftermath.
Her silence in certain settings, for instance, now made an impression. Though still self-assured within her sexual appeal in the writers’ group, where she was usually the only woman, I noticed that she never read anymore, only commented occasionally. And in the company of other women in the larger group -- a sociology professor, graduate student, and freelance reporter for a progressive weekly newspaper -- Denise often seemed uncomfortable.
By January, I sensed that our relationship had run its course, that I was less engaged when we were together; in fact, less interested in her. Like an opportunist riding a hot streak, I knew it would eventually end and meanwhile making the most of a good thing, since I was hardly jaded: an underlying attitude that Denise no doubt picked up on as she cooled toward me.
Still, when the truth of it surfaced, it came as a surprise.
She was as enticing as always, in a black form-fitting dress and open-toed high heels, turning her back to me in her living room, lifting up her silky hair so I could unzip her. She turned back as she shrugged it off, the dress slipping down her slim white shoulders, revealing the swell of milky breasts above a lacy black brassiere.
“But you still have your contacts on,” she said.
“I’ll keep them on,” I replied, ignoring the surprising dismay in her tone. Until that night, I’d always taken them off, at her suggestion, and put on the black-rimmed spectacles I brought along, knowing I’d spend the night.
It seemed inconsequential now, that I wouldn’t, but she frowned and narrowed her shoulders, the open dress top reclaiming some skin.
All along there were hints that would have explained her displeasure, but I'd been too besotted to carry them to a conclusion: that I was a character in a particular fantasy, one in which Denise exerted control over a nearsighted intellectual; and now that I declined the role, the rewards that went with the part would no longer mine.