Issue 214, Fall 2015
I met her two days before Christmas at a holiday pop-up market on the Lower East Side. This was 2006, and she was selling refurbished antique furniture, which she’d placed around her taped-off space like someone’s fancy living room. She wore tight red trousers and a black shirt that looked like the top of a ballerina’s leotard. Her hair was frizzy, bleached blonde, and she had a lot of makeup on—too much, I’d say. Her face was pinched, as though she’d just smelled someone farting. It was that look of revulsion that awoke something in me. She made me want to be a better man.
While she was busy with customers, I sat on a chaise longue for sale and pretended to be fascinated. I pushed at the springs with the palms of my hands. I lay down like a patient in analysis, then sat up again. The thing was priced at $2,750. I took out my cell phone and pressed some buttons, pretending that I wasn’t staring at the girl. Finally she noticed me and came over.
“King Edward, home on the range” is the first thing I ever heard her say. I had no idea what she meant by this. “It’s all mahogany. Late Edwardian. Only that panel has the inlay missing.” She pointed. I turned around to look at the wood. “The festoon there?” she was saying. “But I like it without the mother-of-pearl. Mother-of-pearl would look chintzy, I think, with this shade of leather.” I could only clear my throat and nod. She told me she had reupholstered the chaise in leather from an old armchair she’d stripped on the side of the road. “It was like skinning a deer,” she said. “This past summer in Abilene.”
I turned back around to face her crotch—a tender triangle swollen and divided by the thick protuberance of her zipper fly, thick thighs pulling at the weave of the red wool. A tiny key hung from a coiled loop of white telephone cord wrapped around her left wrist. She fingered the coils with long, chipped black nails. I had to marry her. If I couldn’t, I would kill myself. I broke out in a sweat as though I was about to vomit.
“Field dressing,” I blurted. And then, “Field dressing?” I looked up at her face for some kind of validation. Her eyes were a dark, watery blue.
“Oh, are you a hunter or something?” Again, her face like someone had farted—fragile and strangely condemning, like a queen’s.
“No,” I answered. I went back to pushing on the springs. “But there’s a new book about hunting by this guy in Montana, I think, who says you should smoke weed when you hunt because it attracts the animals. Apparently they’re attracted to it, to your energy and, like, the vibrations in your brain. I don’t totally remember. Not that I smoke weed. I mean, I did in college. I’m thirty-three,” I added, as if this explained something.
“You’re reading a book about hunting?”
She folded her arms. Her mouth, as she waited for my answer, was a heavy, wilted rose.
“No,” I told her. “I was just reading about the book. Online.”
“Oh, okay.” She scratched her head and started to walk away. “The springs are all new,” she said, not bothering to turn around.
I got up and followed her. I asked if she did custom work. “I have this ottoman,” I lied.
“Any custom work would have to wait until after the New Year,” she told me. But I could e-mail her photos in the meantime and let her know what I had in mind.
“I’m definitely going to think seriously about the couch,” I said. I was scared I’d mispronounce the words chaise longue. She gave me her business card and smiled falsely. “Gee, thanks,” I said. She said nothing. And so I left, stumbling over the legs of a wicker rocking chair and waving back at her like an idiot. I went straight home and lay in bed, moaning in ecstasy, over and over, each time I read the letters of her name: Britt Wendt.
“That’s not a name, it’s the beginning of a sentence,” Mark Lasky said over coffee the next day when I told him I was in love. It was Christmas Eve. “And you met her where? Working at a furniture store? Nick, you went to Yale, for Christ’s sake.”
Mark was my oldest friend, the first of many to suddenly quit smoking, lose his hair, get married, and buy a brownstone in a part of Brooklyn he wouldn’t have set foot in five years earlier. Some of these friends had even conceived children already, which seemed preposterous to me at the time. I was nearly thirty-four, approaching the end of my “Jesus year,” as it’s often called. In Christ’s honor, I’d grown my hair out past my ears. I had to use a rubber band and bobby pins to keep loose strands out of my eyes when I went running.
“She makes the furniture herself,” I explained to Mark. “She refurbishes the furniture herself, I mean. She has her own business. She’s an artist.”
“An artisan,” Mark corrected me. “Did you sleep with her already? Has she seen your apartment—excuse me—your room?”
“I don’t see why you can’t date Becky or Elaine or Lacey Freeman,” Mark said.
“Gross,” I said. “Lacey Freeman?”
“Okay, not Lacey. But Jane? Jane Germeroth is perfect for you. Jane Germeroth is smart and she has good boobs. Listen to me, Nick. Cut your hair. You look like a drummer in some shitty band. You look like a fucking bartender. Also, your scarf is gay.”
My scarf was gay indeed. It had cost several hundred dollars, but it was beautiful—red-and-white checkered silk with long tassels.
“And it’s offensive,” Mark went on. “It’s supposed to look like what Yasser Arafat wears on his head. Now teenagers are wearing polyester versions like it’s some hip-hop thing.”
“This is silk,” I protested. “From Barneys.”
“You know you can buy that shit on the street in Chinatown for ten dollars?”
“Well, you look like a gynecologist,” I said. Mark was wearing a monogrammed cable-knit sweater and khakis.
“What does that even mean?”
“It means you look old,” I told him. “And, you know, perverted.”
“What do you want me to do? Wear tight jeans and roll my own cigarettes? I’m a grown man.”
“Rolling your own is better for you,” I said quietly, collecting the last crumbs of my cinnamon scone. “Less tar.”
Mark groaned and finished his coffee. “You’re not in love,” he said. Then he paused to watch a girl in a short skirt bend over to tie her shoe. A few days earlier I would have clung to the image for weeks—the lines of her panties under the opaque black tights, the soft dimpling down the backs of her thighs. When she stood back up, her thick brown hair seemed to undulate around her shoulders in slow motion. Her face was irreverent, almost pug-nosed, mean and adorable. But I was unaffected. I had Britt Wendt now. Other girls meant nothing to me. “So are you going to buy the couch?” Mark asked finally. “Where would you even put it?”
For the past year I’d been renting a room month-to-month for $350 cash in a flophouse owned by a Hasidic slumlord. I had to myself an eight-by-eight windowless corner of the building, which had once housed a plant that manufactured little tongue-colored erasers. The place still smelled vaguely of burning rubber. My room was on the top level. The other tenants up there were all hip young people. I didn’t know anyone’s name. Downstairs, Middle Eastern gypsy cab drivers slept in shifts on bunk beds, their black sedans parked outside like a presidential cavalcade. Streetside, there was a soaped-up storefront full of car parts and broken computers. The building should have been, and probably was, condemned.
The only furniture I had was a twin mattress and a low glass coffee table, on top of which I piled my shoes, each pair in a Ziploc freezer bag to keep the vermin and roaches out. The walls between the rooms were single sheets of gypsum board. Hand-drawn signs in the crumbling hallways read: no bedbugs! no street mattress! no homeless! The place had two communal bathrooms full of silverfish and a shared kitchen full of mice. I was constantly looking for a sublet or a room in an apartment or a cheap studio, but nothing seemed good enough. I couldn’t commit. Plus, I was always broke. I kept spending all my money on clothes.
Christmas morning, I was woken up by my neighbors having sex. Usually I’d pound on the gypsum, but that morning, in the spirit of the holiday and in honor of true love, I let the grunting slide. I stayed under my comforter with my laptop on my crotch, listening to the sex sounds and googling Britt Wendt for the thousandth time. The Britt Wendt I found on Myspace was twelve years old, lived in Deering, New Hampshire, and posted inspirational photos of nature scenes with captions about how to be your best self, jokes about periods, links to articles about Olympic skating and beauty pageants. The only other Web pages that came up for “Britt+Wendt” were Swedish genealogies. My Britt Wendt was a mystery. I looked at her business card again. It was minimal, just her name and e-mail address and the words redesigned antiques. The font was generic, Arial Bold. The card stock flimsy. It was like she just didn’t give a shit. After my neighbors finished, I heard them walking down the hall to the showers. I considered visiting my go-to site for porn but chose not to. With Britt Wendt to pine for, watching videos of strangers having sex felt sacrilegious, like squirting a mayonnaise packet into your mouth while riding the elevator up to Per Se.
“Hi Britt” is how I decided to begin my e-mail.
It took thirty minutes of Google image search to find a photo of an ottoman that conveyed what I wanted to convey: I lived in an expensive converted loft, had a very high quality camera, and was an organized and broad-minded music aficionado and reader of literature. The photo was perfect—sunlight streaming in through a wall of opaque factory windows, neat shelves of books and records, the corner of an electric guitar leaning against the exposed brick wall in the background. The source of the photo was the for-sale section of Craigslist in Providence, Rhode Island. The ottoman itself was just a lame gray, fabric-covered cube. The legs were short, angular, blond wood stubs. I could tell it was a factory piece from the 1950s and worth more than the fifteen dollars the seller was asking, but not much more. I understood that I’d be deceiving Britt Wendt by claiming ownership of this ottoman, but I reasoned that as soon as she fell in love with me—perhaps she already had—the existence of furniture or lofts, any trite reality, would become laughably irrelevant. So I downloaded the photo, adjusted the levels in Photoshop, attached it to my e-mail, and wrote, “It’s the dude about the stoned hunters and the chaise longue from the other day. Would love your ideas and a rough quote on reupholstering this ottoman (attached) in vintage leather from your Texas roadkill or other source. Merry Xmas?” I signed my name “Nicholas (Nick) Walden Darby-Stern” and added my phone number. “P.S. Did the chaise longue sell? Still pondering . . . ” How could she not love me now? I wondered.
I spent the rest of the morning in bed, eating steel-cut oats with maple syrup out of my mini slow cooker and watching DVDs on my computer. I checked my e-mail every two minutes. Each time I saw that Britt Wendt hadn’t written back yet, there was disappointment, but also great relief. In the infinite realm of possibilities, I felt I still had a chance. That was the last dreg of youth, I suppose, that hopefulness. I watched Face/Off and Con Air and a few episodes of Fawlty Towers. I took a shower and put a sheet down on my floor and did sit-ups and push-ups in front of my space heater. Then I watched the first ten minutes of Marathon Man and the first five minutes of Hoffa, clicking back to my e-mail all the while. My neighbors through the gypsum had gone out. Everyone was out, it seemed. The flophouse was strangely quiet.
At such times, it was my habit to buy things online. But I had resolved to try to cut down on my spending. All I had to show for my earnings as a graphic designer were my computer and a rack of expensive clothes, each item safely sealed in a clear plastic garment bag. Despite my refined taste, I blended easily into the rank and file; my clothes were just high-end versions of the crap everyone else was wearing. My workday uniform usually consisted of black jeans from MDR; a plain, handpicked-pima-cotton T-shirt from Het Last; a washed linen button-down and a heather-gray hoodie, both from Deplore; and white leather high-top limited-edition Chucks, or my perforated wing-tip leather miner boots from Amberline, if there was snow on the ground. At home, I wore satin pajamas—burgundy-and-blue striped top and bottom from Machaut—and a heavy Peruvian parka I’d won on eBay. I had recently splurged on rabbit-fur-lined deerskin gloves at Modo and a custom-ordered cashmere hat from an atelier in Tokyo that I’d read about in Mireille. I’d had to measure the circumference of my head for it. I rationalized these expenditures easily: luxury accessories were better investments than, say, the seventy-five-dollar goat-milk soap from the Swiss Alps, which had taken a month to get through customs and lasted me exactly twelve showers. For the previous six months, I’d been working part-time without benefits at Indent, a lifestyle magazine for rich intellectuals. It did not pay well. My bank account was empty. My credit-card debt by this time was in the five figures. I’d even cut up my cards in an effort to curb my spending. Until Christmas money from my father arrived, I would have a hundred dollars cash in my wallet, plus a fifteen-dollar gift card to Burger King that Mark had given me for Hanukkah as a joke. He had gone off to Vermont with his wife to be with her family. Everyone else was home with their parents, or on glamping trips in Joshua Tree or sunning themselves in Maui or Cabo or Puerto Rico with their girlfriends. My father was skiing in Tahoe with his new wife. He hadn’t invited me along. Without the funds to buy anything, I could only drift through online stores and put things into virtual shopping carts. It was all so futile. It was all just trash. What I really wanted was to run the tip of my tongue across Britt Wendt’s pale, trembling throat, then suck each of her ears until she begged me to fuck her. “Tell me you love me, or I’m pulling out,” I’d demand. “Oh God,” she’d say as I entered her. “I love you, I love you,” she’d pant at every thrust.
In the afternoon, Lacey Freeman texted to invite me to Christmas dinner at her apartment. This kind of last-minute invitation was typical of Lacey. “Herding all the strays over for my annual Xmas feast, so stop by if you’re lonely Λ 6-11 pm.” Every time I saw Lacey, she’d gained five more pounds. She was turning into the kind of obese girl that does her hair like a forties pinup, wears bright red lipstick, a blue polka-dot dress with a white doily collar, colorful tattoos across her huge, smushed cleavage, as if these considerations would distract us from how fat and miserable she had become. In a few years she’d get her eggs frozen, I predicted correctly, and the rockabilly thing would disintegrate into Eileen Fisher tunics and lazy, kundalini yoga. Any man interested in Lacey would have had to be seriously self-loathing. I knew this because I’d made out with her when we first met at Mark’s birthday party five years earlier. I got drunk and went back to her place, came to with my face buried in her back fat, about to consummate my desperation. I left quickly and rudely. I never told Mark about it. The next time I saw Lacey she acted unfazed, like we were chums who had merely shared a funny moment. “That scotch!” But having held my dick in her hand, she seemed to feel she’d earned the right to belittle me as much as possible. “Are you getting by okay?” she liked to ask me. She was a sad person, sheltered and confused and ineffectual, et cetera. She’d recently become obsessed with canning and baking and making her own bitters. The last thing I wanted for Christmas was her homemade eggnog and gin-pickled okra. “Merry Xmas! I’ll try to make it!” I texted back. But I had no intention of giving her the satisfaction. Mark texted me a photo of his father-in-law’s model replica of a World War II battlefield. I did not reply.
For the rest of the afternoon I watched more DVDs, checked my e-mail, and pined for Britt Wendt. I fantasized about our life together. We’d get a one-bedroom in Flushing, fill it with her furniture, cook roasts, and drink expensive wine bought with the money we saved by living in Queens. Our repartee would be rich with subtlety and sarcasm, as smart and funny as mid-career Woody Allen. Our fucking, like Werner Herzog, serious and perplexing. I could imagine Britt Wendt lying beside me in bed, her frothy blonde hair flattened into a fuzzy halo. We’d be like dope fiends for one another, reaching out our swollen hands for one more hit, her body pale and freckled, nipples pink as sunsets. “The worse your morning breath, the more I love kissing you,” I’d say, slipping my tongue into her hot, bitter, velvety mouth.
I think by then I’d been single longer than is healthy for a young man. I’d had just one serious girlfriend since graduating from college. Post breakup, there was a consequent jag of failed sexual reprisals (including the one with Lacey), a two-year dry spell, then a single and only semi-interesting encounter with a completely hairless Taiwanese girl I met at Bloomingdale’s. Next came a few standard Brooklyn bar hookups with insecure twenty-five-year-olds, then three more years of nothingness, not a drop, not a cloud on the horizon. By my Jesus year I was practically a virgin again. My father told me to focus on my career. “Women are attracted to money,” he had said over the phone before leaving for Tahoe.
“I’ll die alone,” I told my father. “I don’t care.” This was all before I’d met Britt Wendt, of course.
“There are plenty of girls who would be interested in you,” my father said. “You’re a long-term investment, they’ll think. Women are good about the future. They can see farther down the line. I’ll mail you a check when I get back from Tahoe.”
When the sun went down, I checked my e-mail one more time, found nothing, got dressed, pinned my hair back, jogged through the snow, bought a can of soup and beef jerky from a bodega, and walked back in the dark feeling heroic and despondent. Mine was not the usual self-pity, but the kind of fearful admiration one feels watching footage of young tribal boys performing dangerous rites of passage.
I passed by Schoolbells and Soda, a bar where all the young, hip gentrifiers of the neighborhood congregated and, as they tended to do, ignored one another every evening, taking advantage of the Tecate and tequila special and the plein air seating with fire pit out back. The interior was all old, weathered wood sourced from Navy Yard scrap, the lamps Edison bulbs hanging from thick ropes, the glasses jam and mason jars. At the time, this was considered innovative design. I’d been a regular there until mid-November, when I got caught refilling my beer glass from the tap myself. I’d actually been stealing beer for weeks and could refill my glass one-handedly by then. All I had to do was rise slightly from my barstool, get my glass under the spout, hold the rim with my fingertips and lower the tap with my thumb. It took two seconds. When the bartender, in his suspenders and bow-tie neck tattoo, caught me in the act, he turned red, shut his eyes, and began to inhale and exhale dramatically, his lips moving as he counted each breath. I recognized this practice as an effort to reduce violent rage. I couldn’t imagine him beating anybody up. He looked like one of those portly, nebbish types that if you shaved him and scrubbed him and dressed him in Van Heusen, you’d discover your cousin Ira, a tax attorney in Montclair. The whole bar hushed. Joanna Newsom yodeled and harped from the speakers. After ten breaths had gone by, I felt I had to do something. So I pulled three dollars out of my wallet and waved them in the air. “I’m happy to pay for the extra beer,” I said. The bartender simply shook his beard and pointed to the door.
Mark loved to convict me of being an alcoholic. The Schoolbells story in particular seemed to arouse him. I made the mistake of recounting it a few days later. He listened attentively, said, “I feel like an opportunity has presented itself,” then made a big fuss about silencing his phone. He went on to explain how embarrassed he’d been at his bachelor party two years ago when I’d made a joke of calling his cousin Daniel “Herr Schindler” in front of all the groomsmen.
“I’m Jewish, Nick. That means something to some of us. And why Schindler? How is that even funny? Do you even know what Schindler looked like? Or were you thinking of the actor in Schindler’s List? Ralph Fiennes?”
“It’s pronounced like rape, but with an f,” I said.
“Fuck you,” said Mark.
I nodded. “It wasn’t a great joke, okay? But Dan had been making a big deal about paying for the stripper, blabbing every chance he got, being a Schindler,” I said. “It was a joke about self-interested generosity, the glove on the invisible hand thing.”
“What invisible hand thing?”
“Like when people tell you they gave money to a homeless person. The invisible hand of selflessness, only it’s wearing a glove so everyone can see it.”
“You could have called him Queequeg or Alyosha,” Mark said. “But did Schindler really brag? Was he blabbing? Is that the takeaway, that he was a blabber?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It was insensitive. I get it. Who is Queequeg?”
“The cannibal from Moby-Dick, idiot.” Mark turned the ringer on his phone back on. “In all seriousness,” he said, “please get a grip on the drinking. Have some self-respect.”
For the six weeks since the incident at Schoolbells, I’d limited my drinking to Fridays and Saturdays, and only beer from bottles, and only alone in my room, safely cast away in my dark corner of the flophouse. As a result of this discipline, I was sleeping better. My morning jogs were faster. My small talk at work was funnier and more enjoyable. When I met Britt Wendt, I wasn’t bloated or burpy. My eyes were clear. I was in prime condition. Such self-improvement was worthy of reward, I thought. And it was Christmas after all. I stopped in front of Iga, a Polish bar across the street from Schoolbells. I’d passed by it countless times, but I’d never been inside. A buzzer sounded. I pushed on the door.
The place was bigger than I thought it would be. There were a dozen tables with red checkered tablecloths and worn metal chairs with black vinyl seats. The floor was parquet, and my footsteps squeaked as I walked haltingly toward the bar. There was no music on, nothing. A small cat slunk by, then rubbed itself against a stack of old newspapers. A radiator hissed and sputtered. The only light came from neon signs on the walls, and an old light-up beer advertisement with a broken clock. The back wall of the room was covered by a dark curtain. In the corner by the door to the toilet sat a large potted plant and a statuette of Adonis or David or Hercules or somebody, a Santa hat on its head. A middle-aged woman stood behind the bar, smoking a cigarette. Otherwise the place was empty.
“Jewish?” asked the woman, waving her cigarette smoke around with a thick, grubby hand. She seemed a little drunk to me. She asked again. “No Christmas for you. So, Jewish?”
“Well, half,” I said.
She put a cocktail napkin on the bar. Her face under the strange pink light was yellowish and waxy, her hair purple, slightly bouffant, but she was not unattractive for a woman her age. “Half is good. You have both sides. What will you? Beer?” She lowered her voice, mockingly. “Ho ho. You are a beer man?” I sat on the stool, put my plastic bag from the bodega on my lap. “Or for your Chrystus half, maybe we celebrate tonight. You know slivovitz?” She didn’t wait for an answer. She poured out two shots from an old water bottle. “This is coming from Warsaw. Homemade,” she said, sliding my glass toward me. “The best.”
“Thank you,” I said, smelling it.
“Very good. Na zdrowie. Ha!” She swallowed hers in one gulp, then coughed and belched. Her eyes filled with tears. “Now you,” she said, pointing her thumb at me.
I drank mine and coughed and cried, too. The stuff was like perfume mixed with battery acid and lighter fluid. She gave me a pint glass of water and offered me a cigarette. I took one. We sat quietly, smoking, me fingering the plastic bag in my lap, her tapping a finger on the bar in time to nothing. After a few minutes, she blew her nose and stared into the crumpled tissue. “I see blood,” she said softly, then tucked the tissue into the cuff of her sweater.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She snorted and poured out two more shots. We drank and coughed and cried again, the woman eyeing me comically, her gaze distant and soft now in the weird light. My eyes paced the shiny surface of the bar. The cat purred. Then the woman went to the bathroom. A few minutes passed. I thought to leave, to go home to check my e-mail. If Britt Wendt had written me, I’d have to be careful not to write her back too quickly. The last thing I wanted to do was send her a drunken e-mail. Then I pictured Lacey Freeman’s buffet spread—roasted suckling pig with an apple in its mouth, whiskey-laced yams, German chocolate cake. I was hungry. I ate a piece of jerky and listened as the woman flushed the toilet and blew her nose again. When she returned, she poured out two more shots, and this time when we drank them we winced and moaned, but we didn’t cry.
“You like it here?” she asked. “Nobody comes here. But you? You like it?”
“It’s great,” I said.
She nodded, folded her arms, and rested her elbows on the bar. Swaying absentmindedly, she started singing an out-of-tune folk song, then caught herself and laughed. She seemed deep in thought for a while. I can’t really say what her deal was. It was like I had walked into some kind of cosmic warp zone. Then all of a sudden she looked up at me. We locked eyes. When I blinked, she smiled cruelly and squinted, as though calling me a coward. What nerve, I thought, to try to take me down, her only customer. I felt insulted by her bravado. And so we had a staring contest, like a game of chicken, to see who was the least penetrable, whose mind would conquer whose. I cleared my throat and stared long and hard. I felt my face go cold, my teeth clench. Her face remained relaxed, eyes open wide. Even when she puffed on her cigarette and the smoke rose up, she didn’t blink. She was amazing. There was nowhere to hide in the eyes of this woman. I could see that she was reading me, and my challenge was to resist her taunting expressions and try to read her even more deeply, with even more scorn and disgust than she had found for me. I tried as hard as I could, but all I came up with was my own foolishness. I blushed. It was like I was naked before her, holding my own limp dick in my hand.
She sucked her teeth and stubbed her cigarette out in the ashtray, still staring. It was clear that she had beaten me. But I didn’t want to look away. Nor did I want her to. I enjoyed the attention, the scrutiny. So much of my life I’d been faking my reactions, claiming to myself and others that I liked what I liked because I believed it was good for me, while in fact, I didn’t like that shit at all. This woman could see that I wanted to be ruined. I wanted someone—Britt Wendt, maybe—to come and destroy me. “Murder me,” my eyes said to the woman. She laughed, as though she heard my thoughts and found them ridiculous. I laughed back at her, a false, triumphant laugh, as though she were a bitter ex-lover come to dance on my grave and mine was the zombie hand rising up out of the earth to strangle her.
“Psss,” she said, and looked away finally. She poured two more shots. We drank. Wordlessly, we mended our rapport. Then she offered me another cigarette and I lit the wrong end. That did it. “You waste,” she said and clucked her tongue. She put the bottle away. When I took out my wallet, she just waved her big fat hand. “It’s nothing,” she said. In perhaps my first genuine expression of gratitude, I leaned over the bar and tried to kiss her cheek. She moved out of the way and laughed at me again, this time with great satisfaction, like a rare wondrous beauty, arrogant and magical. She pointed to the door.
Later that night, leaning against the crumbling, mildewed tile of the shower stall back home, I looked down at myself. I was beautiful, I thought. Legions of curious fingers should be reaching out to touch me. My arms were thick and strong. A spurt of wiry black hair rose from my wrist, trembling in the warm spray like a delicate morning tendril in the dew. There I was, spectacular and alive, and the whole world was missing it. Britt Wendt was missing it most of all. I thought I heard someone call my name, some sweet angel descending from heaven just to appreciate me—I was that great. But of course, when I stumbled out into the dark hall, there was nobody. No one in that flophouse even knew my name. The only faces I could ever hope to recognize were of the lovers on the other side of the gypsum. I’d seen them entering their room once on my way back from the toilets. Where were they now? I wondered. Dancing in the fucking moonlight? I stumbled back to my room, lay on my bed, checked my e-mail, and, finding nothing, cried a little with loneliness, and then a little more with hope. I fell asleep naked in front of my space heater.
“what are dimensions”
All lowercase, no punctuation. These were the words Britt Wendt had e-mailed back to me on December 26, seven minutes past midnight. I read them in the early dawn, my eyes still crossed with slivovitz, but the meaning was clear: she was interested. I rubbed my eyes, read her e-mail again, praised Jesus, then ran to the toilet and vomited with joy.
By noon I was on a Chinatown bus to Rhode Island. My message to the anonymous Craigslist-generated e-mail address had resulted in a tense and flurried correspondence with one “K Mendez” who would happily meet me at the Providence bus station to exchange the ottoman in question for fifty dollars cash, a sum more than three times the original amount listed. “There are other interested parties,” he’d threatened. My e-mail at the crack of dawn, “IS THE OTTOMAN STILL FOR SALE???????!!!!” may have come across as a bit desperate. I had to pay him what he wanted. After spending twenty dollars on my round-trip bus ticket, I’d have only five dollars and change through the New Year. I’d never been that broke before. I’d have to live off ramen, give up a few days of cappuccinos, but it was worth it. “What are the dimensions?” I’d e-mailed K Mendez. He answered that it was about a foot high and weighed around twenty pounds. “I’ll take it!” I replied. I figured I could go to Providence, buy the ottoman, turn around, get on the next bus home, and e-mail Britt Wendt back by nine. I closed my eyes as the bus veered out of town. I would have no book, no earphones, nothing to distract me from my thoughts and thirst and hunger and headache for three hours and seven minutes. I could live on cold, potty-scented air for as long as it took, I told myself. Soon, Britt Wendt would be safe in my arms, forever.
Halfway to Providence, the bus stopped at a McDonald’s outside of New Haven. It had been more than a decade since I’d set foot in that town. In the bathroom, I studied myself in the mirror. If my twenty-two-year-old self could see me now, I wondered, what would he think? What would he say? I wore my double-breasted cashmere peacoat from Junetree, a two-ply cashmere turtleneck from Boxtrot, vintage Fendi belt, my usual black jeans, my Amberline boots, the hat from Japan, my Yasser Arafat scarf, the rabbit-fur-lined gloves. “You look like a tool” is what I imagined Nick at twenty-two would say. “But my hair,” I’d protest. “Would a tool have Jesus hair?” I debated back and forth at the urinal. My piss smelled like toxic waste. “Yes,” Nick said in the mirror on the way out. I imagined what I must have looked like to the woman at Iga the night before. She must have thought I was one of those rich jerks ruining the neighborhood.
I got back on the bus.
In Providence, I waited, paced, and fumed, and when K Mendez turned up at the bus station thirty-six minutes late in a taxi, I was ready to crumble. The kid appeared to be in his early twenties, tall and thin, wearing baggy jeans, a Thrasher T-shirt, and an unzipped ski jacket with a fake-fur-lined hood. He barely looked at me as he set the ottoman down and straddled it between his Vans. I worried that the upholstery would get stained from the dirty, salted layer of slush on the ground, but I was too stunned by his pluck and swagger to air that concern. I held out his money. He turned away and spat and lit a cigarette and told me, in a passionless monotone, “It’s two hundred bucks now. Plus the cost of the taxi.”
“That’s insane,” I argued. “I have fifty-five bucks. And a fifteen-dollar Burger King gift card. It’s all I’ve got.”
“Fuck Burger King,” he answered. Without another word, he picked up the ottoman and headed back to the taxi stand in front of the bus station.
“Wait!” I cried out, shuffling after him. He was a fool, a punk, privileged and greedy, but he had what I wanted. “I’ll give you this!” I said, pulling the scarf off my neck as an offering. K Mendez paused and turned back to face me. His cheeks were riddled with soft, red acne scars. His teeth were like fangs. His eyes, indecipherable. He was probably selling his furniture for drugs. What else?
“Yeah, okay,” he said, surprising me. “Plus your hat. And your coat. That should do it.”
“This coat is worth twelve hundred dollars.” I laughed. I held out the scarf and waved it around. “Here. And the money.” He turned his back and got in line for a cab, looking at me surreptitiously now and then, like a dog. It was a bizarre standoff, and I probably would have won out if I’d stood my ground. But I was impatient. My future was at stake. I came away barely clothed. He even took my Burger King card. The ottoman was a piece of shit, but that didn’t matter in the end.
Back in Brooklyn that night, walking home from the subway with my ottoman, I couldn’t help but smile at all the nice happy people. Each face seemed spectacular in its originality, like a walking portrait. Everyone was beautiful. Everyone was special. It was cold and windy, and I had just a T-shirt on, but the moon was full, the sidewalks cleared of snow and sparkling with salt. A fleet of fire trucks blared by, deafening and cheerful. When I turned onto my street, there they were again. The flophouse billowed with smoke. Firemen strutted around the area, looking, I guessed, for a hydrant. My neighbors, the lovers from through the gypsum, stood together across the street from the blaze, naked but for towels, watching as flames leapt from an open window like a red flag. As I approached them, I could see that the girl’s eyes were pink and teary. She was thin and short, nose warped like she’d been punched, shoulders concave and white and goose-pimpled in the frigid air. Her skinny legs were plunged into mammoth black motorcycle boots, presumably belonging to the boyfriend, who stood beside her in the snow. He was perversely tall and lanky, his sinewy torso spattered with black moles like flecks of mud. He coughed and reached an arm down around the girl. The vertical disparity between their bodies made me wonder how they’d managed to have so much effective intercourse. An EMT worker came and gave them each a thick gray blanket. I wished for one myself but was embarrassed to ask.
“They think someone left their heater on,” the girl said to me, arranging the blanket over her shoulders, trembling.
My heart sank, but not completely.
“Was it you?” asked the boy. His mouth was like a horse’s mouth, frothy and shuddering with plumes of white vapor and spittle in the frozen air. “Did you start the fire?”
“Come on,” the girl said gently. “Don’t get feisty. It’s just a bunch of crap burning up. Who cares?”
The boy spat and coughed again and hugged her, his wide nostrils flared and dribbling with mucus.
I set the ottoman down in the snow and considered the boy’s question.
“I didn’t start the fire,” I said, like the dumb man I’d become. “This is an act of God.”