New York City on Sunday, December 11, 1994
Madeline and I are walking home from the Nuyorican Poets Café, where these people with lousy day jobs, like waitressing or temping or sometimes dealing, read their poems, which are always about having really good sex or being a black woman.
We go there on Friday nights, always Friday nights, and we fold our legs beneath us on wooden floors, sipping cheap drinks and sweating under bare bulbs that make the place look ghoulish.
Next to us, the poets. Ahh, the poets! People of mystery, of magic, of words. We know they write quatrains and couplets on paper napkins at cafés on Sunday afternoons, stirring lattes, buttering croissants, consuming raspberry tarts—oh, we envy them their free verse!
Madeline and I, two in the morning, eye makeup black and thick, walk fast because we’re in Alphabet City, which is like a suburb of the East Village but not really. We can handle the East Village freaks, but crack houses are another story.
Despite winter, I’m on fire—the kind of fire wrought by that rare and special combo of man and lyric together. Tonight, the poetry wasn’t great—not great at all—but there was this one man, this one poet, a guy from Jamaica with dreadlocks, a black lanky body, and a somber long face. His poetry—sparse, unpretentious, not about being a poet—crawled over to me on the floor and punctured internal organs under a crystalline glare. It made me want to say something to him: anything.
In that moment, maybe like other moments before, I forgot my own paramour, my own backlash boyfriend, rarely present, rarely even imagined.
I forgot and no one reminded me, so I turned to this Jamaican poet with a searing, easy lust—I turned to him with famished, desperate eyes—and I listened to what people said: Teaches high school English in Brooklyn. A cab driver, a bard.
So I knew; I knew then he was both soulful and earthy.
I made my approach, touching his arm lightly. “Yours was the best.”
He turned, his eyes lifting to mine, a honeyed Jamaican voice haunting his breath. “You are the only one who thinks so.”
I do, I do, but I do.
It was like being thrown against the wall by a great gust of wind, and this is why I live in New York. This is why.
Now, walking fast with Madeline, I imagine this Jamaican poet/Brooklyn high school English teacher and me owning a loft in TriBeCa. In our loft, there’d only be a mattress. The room would be strewn with sheets, white and gauzy, blowing in a breeze that sallied through open windows offering up the scent of city, skin, and naan bread from the Indian restaurant below.
I think about meeting the Jamaican poet on corners at nightfall, how he’d see me coming and I’d see him standing there with his I Don’t Care body posture—that lovely, lanky I Don’t Care body posture—which would briefly, fleetingly, shift to reveal his thrill at seeing me walking toward him. I’d stare into his sleepy sad Jamaican poet face, and I’d probably have to weep just for the beauty of his poet approach.
Madeline, the only thing I’ve kept from a long string of temp jobs, points to a torn poster on the wet ground. “Glass Half Empty is playing at the Fedora on Friday.”
Glass Half Empty plays there monthly, and we go religiously because, we say, when we analyze the situation over coffee at a diner or a Village café, it makes us feel like we have a community, and we know from our private dwellings—our beds and the places we stand alone, places in front of Xerox machines and other instruments of capitalist alienation—that we have no community, no community at all.
And this is what I want, what I need, what I choose. I temp, my lust is fruitless as temp lust always is, and whomever I love today will not be the person I love tomorrow.
And so: we watch Glass Half Empty play. It’s the repetition of action, the sanctity of ceremony, the joy of the familiar. We need it to make us believe we are alive. To prove we are, indeed, alive.
I heard from some girl at Yaffa Café that the singer’s wife died a year after they married and he still, seven years later, wears his wedding ring around a swollen finger. Though some may find this morbid, I think it beautiful. Perhaps he understands what it means to have loved and lost. Perhaps he really understands.
This time, in my head, it’s the singer and me.
We’re on a shag carpet because Rob is rather retro—a throwback to a time never had. It’s the shag carpet, a messy apartment, a pizza on the coffee table. He probably bought this coffee table at a sidewalk sale on the Lower East Side one Saturday afternoon, after wandering for hours and hours in search of used CDs by Buffalo Springfield and old paperback novels with prices like seventy-nine cents on upper right-hand corners.
He’s my kind of man, as the elastic of his Scooby-Doo boxers surely attests. I’m certain I’d be far happier with Rob than with my beautiful Jamaican poet. The poet would want profundity, and I am simple.
Madeline lets out a yelp of disgust, an Ewhh! a Don’t look now!
Of course, I turn my head to the steps of NYU’s business school—the bane of my existence—and, here’s what I see: some guy getting a blow job, the girl not even visible.
Must I be privy to this? Did anyone hear me ask for such a sight?
Madeline and I look straight ahead, walking fast until we’re well into Greenwich Village, which is where I live in somebody’s basement with a guy named Tom who can’t stand the sight of me because I once freaked when he left the keys in the lock on the outside of the door overnight. But he’s in Greece for a year studying the Pythagorean Theorem, and his dad pays his rent.
By now we’re obsessed with this most recent vision on our otherwise pure evening.
I remember how my mom responded when I told her that, one balmy summer day, when I was walking on Twelfth, I saw this guy taking a dump right on the street—right in the middle of the street—and how she couldn’t believe I chose this existence, and I tried to tell her this is my life.
Mom, this is my life.
Saturday, January 7, 1995
Into my world he comes.
After I wake up early and write my column for two hours, I reward myself by doing laundry. “I’m trying to picture what you do during the day.” I’m sitting next to a guy wearing orange pants in a grimy Laundromat on West Fourth at the beginning of a new, hopefully stunning, year. Saturday morning calls for wearing red sweatpants featuring Mickey Mouse on the left hip, dragging dirty clothes in a blue plastic basket with a broken handle five blocks to a slightly cheaper Laundromat than the one around the corner from my basement apartment, stuffing as much as humanly possible into a single machine, and relaxing while drinking deli coffee with half-and-half and eating a low-fat berry muffin while reading the Times as my laundry spins. This is the way it’s been for over four years. Any variation and I’m thrown. Possibly made angry. Maybe I’ll mope. I focus on the guy in orange pants. “You have to have another job. You can’t be making it by playing a club once or twice a week.” I look at him doubtfully, trying to quickly remember how much I weighed when I woke this morning. “Can you?” I blow on my coffee and suck in my stomach, which is tough when sitting down.
Kim, the Korean man who works behind the counter, adjusts the TV picture. We’ve known each other for as long as I’ve lived in the West Village. When it’s only the two of us, he’ll play an Anne Murray tape in his cassette player and sing out loud: Could I have this dance for the rest of my life? I pretend not to listen. This image is something I hold on to: the Korean man singing Anne Murray songs at the Laundromat on West Fourth.
I know who the guy in orange pants is. He’s the lead singer of Glass Half Empty. Alternative rock, Manhattan scene. Madeline would be very, very envious. Jeff, however, wouldn’t care. Out of nowhere, Rob Shachtley, rock ’n’ roll singer, strolled into my Laundromat to do his laundry on a Saturday morning in the West Village. We spoke immediately, without shyness or formality. He said, I recognize you from somewhere. He recognized me from the audience. From the Fedora, Sin-é, the Cooler, the Mercury Lounge, other clubs. Madeline has a crush on Dave Stomps, the drummer. What began as Dave Stomps Watch turned into a weekend plan. Something to do, almost like commitment.
“I bet you’re going to say you work with underprivileged kids, aren’t you?” I cross my red legs. “Don’t even say Teach for America.” With two fingers, I pinch a fat cranberry on my muffin. “You work for Blockbuster Video, I know it. Admit it.” I pop the berry into my mouth.
He looks around my age: thirty, thirty-one. He resembles Roy Orbison, with thick-rimmed glasses, dark sideburns, and a slight but unobtrusive gut. He’s a young, rather tall Roy Orbison. His clothes are mismatched and he probably got them in the East Village, which means they’re pretty expensive. The white t-shirt he wears has the Burger King logo on it, but instead of Burger King, it says, Burger Christ. He’s wearing East Village garb but he’s doing his laundry in the West Village.
When I lived on the West Coast, girls asked each other, “Is he cute?” Back East, they ask, “Does he have money?” Looking at young Mr. Shachtley, I’m not sure how I’d respond. He’s not drop-dead gorgeous, but—among certain girlfriends—I’d say, “I’d do him.” He sings in an unknown band, but he dresses in trendy attire; he’s not rich, but he’s got spending money. A nice-looking guy who lives above the poverty line.
“Close, but no cigar.” He eats sour-cream-and-onion potato chips. I hear them crunch in his mouth. “Catering. I cater.”
“You’re divine.” I practically suckle the word. I mean it too. I mean it because I like his goofy hair, his slight but unobtrusive gut, and the way he eats potato chips at 8:30 in the morning. “Chips so early?”
“I haven’t really gone to bed yet, so this is like a late dinner.”
I lean forward. “What’s the Burger Christ t-shirt all about? Are you trying to make a point?”
He leans forward too. “You know, usually I am, but this time I’m not.” He smiles. “Does it make you uncomfortable?”
I look at his t-shirt. “I’m just wondering if there’s a message I should be getting. I’m wondering if you’re commenting on yourself, on contemporary life, or on Burger King. Which is it?”
He winks and clucks his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “Just remember me as the groovy guy with potato chips and mixed messages you met in the Laundromat. That’s all.”
“What do you wear when you cater?” I ask, imagining he has to wear something besides that t-shirt.
He doesn’t stop munching. “Did you ever work in a movie theater in high school?”
He’s killing me softly. “As a matter of fact, I did.” How does he know? And should I ask for a chip?
“You remember the outfits?” When he tilts his head to the side, his hair shifts. Most people only dream of eating potato chips the way this guy is doing it.
I look at a water stain on the ceiling and envision the black vest and matching pants I wore at sixteen. I came home smelling of popcorn, the bottoms of my shoes tacky from cola. “There was a shiny strip of satin down the seam of each polyester leg.”
Rob nods, excited. “That’s what I wear.” He stuffs more chips into his mouth.
“Wow.” He’s the lead singer of a rock ’n’ roll band and he caters in black polyester. “Do you live around here?” I’m bold, an opportunist.
He shakes his head and brushes crumbs from his lips. “Nah. I stayed at Dave’s house last night.”
“Dave Stomps?” I nonchalantly ask as if I already know. I’m in the know. Dave, Dave Stomps, the drummer.
He clicks his tongue twice and points a finger at me. “Yep. Dave lives around the corner. Sometimes I stay over. I had to do laundry—a girl vomited on my leg last night.”
“Gross.” I look at his washer, the clothes spinning around in bright colors.
Rob scrunches up his nose. “You have no idea.” He crumples the bag of chips into a ball and shoots it into a garbage bin loaded with used fabric-softener sheets. “I’m doing Dave’s towels too. I really live in the East Village.” He sucks in air. “What do you do?”
I sip coffee. “Columnist.” I pause, deciding to try something out. Why shouldn’t I? He’s wearing orange pants, for God’s sake. “I’m a writer for a hip paper with mass circulation.”
His jaw drops open. “You write for the Village Voice?”
I can’t hide the frustration. “No.” I shake my head violently. “New York Shock. I write for New York Shock. ”
“Oh.” He smiles. “I like New York Shock.” He’s possibly lying. “Who are you?”
Glittery eyes. “I love ‘Abscess.’” He leans forward, looking like Rodin’s The Thinker, but with clothes on. “I don’t even know your name, ‘Abscess’ writer.”
“Sybil Weatherfield.” My name embarrasses me. Too pretty. I secretly like it.
Rob Shachtley extends his hand. “Nice to meet you, Sybil Weatherfield. Wow. ‘Abscess.’” We shake. “You’re like a celebrity.”
Abscess—an open wound. Sounds a lot like obsess. “It’s a neurotic little feature,” I tell him. The racing of the mind, the bouncing off walls, the manifestations of cerebral overload . . .
Rob Shachtley stares at me the way people stare at newscasters at the mall, weathermen on the street.
“‘Abscess’ sold. There was practically a bidding war for it.” I look him in the eye to see if he’s buying this. I can’t tell. “Not only did New York Shock want it, but so did a small college paper in Wyoming. The paper was called Bitch and Moan, Stick and Stone. Lots to grumble about in the boonies.”
Rob, still leaning over like The Thinker, straightens, crosses one leg over the other, and looks at me strangely. No longer like I’m a lesser celebrity. For a second, he just stares. Under his gaze, I become self-conscious, aware of my physical appearance. I remember the recent trip to the gym, where they squeezed way more than an inch and gave me a percentage to keep with me, in my heart, perhaps to wear in writing on fine parchment inside a locket around my neck. I feel my medium height, my medium weight, the overall average quality of my presentation. I move a strand of brown hair behind an ear. It’s brown hair I’ve described as chestnut on better days. I turn my hazel eyes to the ground—eyes I’ve called gray on my driver’s license since gray suggests something stormy, smoky, enigmatic. Under Rob’s scrutiny, I remember my fair but dry complexion, my pretty but unmemorable face, the scar on my forehead—the one I got when I ran into the dining room table at three. I raise my hazel eyes to his and see him hold me in his gaze. A baggy t-shirt covers a lot, but it doesn’t mask certain aspects of the body. Mostly, when men look at me, I know what they see: a pretty girl they won’t remember later. Rob’s eyes hit the indentation on my forehead. They travel the length of my low-maintenance long hair. They pass over cheekbones, throat, clavicle. They pause over breasts, invisible but medium-sized. His eyes go down my legs, past the sharp angles of knees, and up again, pausing briefly once more—this time on lips. I blush but know he can’t actually measure body fat; he can’t detect the realities of skin and bone. I watch his face and see him assess the beauty. I see it. I’ve seen it before; I’ve seen men take in my appearance. I know it’s an unspectacular beauty—it isn’t breathtaking or earth-shattering. I look at Rob and wonder how long he’ll hold on to his admiration. He speaks. “You know, you’re divine too.” And then he smiles, turning his eyes to the ground.
He squints, looking at me through a line of eyelashes.
A few copies of New York Shock are scattered in the corner of a table people use to hold their coffees and put down their bleach. After a long moment, Rob Shachtley stands and walks over to the disarrayed pile.
He picks up New York Shock, which is like—I have to admit—picking up a little piece of me, even if it’s a silly, sanctimonious, possibly offensive suggestion of who I am as a woman: effete, alone, brainy, bitter. He thumbs through last week’s issue, arriving at my column. For a second, I think of snatching it away. I’m self-conscious about him seeing it, about him being made privy to my meditations. He spreads it open on his lap, lifts his index finger into the air, and says, “Two minutes.”
And while he reads, I work on my low-fat berry muffin.
Jennifer Spiegel has an MA in Politics from New York University and an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Arizona State. Also the author of the story collection The Freak Chronicles, She lives in Phoenix with her husband and two children. Love Slave is her debut novel.
Author Photo by Anastasia Campos.
Adapted from Love Slave by Jennifer Spiegel. Copyright © 2012 by Jennifer Spiegel. With the permission of the publisher, Unbridled Books.