by Lisa Locascio
How many nightclubs in the world are just like this one? Faded layers of black paint on the floor, widescreen televisions dangling from the ceiling, flashing neon tubes in the walls. Tall brown drinks sweating in clear plastic cups. Girls gyrating frantically in cheap stretchy dresses, hoping the low light will hide the oil stains they can’t remove, even with dish soap. Scuffed white athletic shoes on their little feet, glistening stilettos in their hands. Petty rituals of beauty and desire, smears of color on temples and cheekbone hollows. Every face is a ghost’s, looking over my shoulder in the mirror.
I want to say: girls, I know you. You’ve made a good choice, here in the dark with other women. Touch each other with jeweled hands. Push your mouths together. Don’t look for me, or for the other men here. We, too, are wrapped up in each other.
Another solitary man turns and smiles shyly at me. Would it be easier that way?
I thought this place would be different, but it is not. It is so same that I am embarrassed. The horrible intimate thump of music. The sticky round tables, the windowless walls, everyone yelling into each other’s ears and laughing nonsensically to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Strangers kissing in the corners. Everyone belongs to someone.
I know who you are, girls. I have met you in every bar in the world.
But I came here to find her.
I raise my eyes. The man watching me catches my gaze and then looks away coquettishly. He has an unlikely orange tan, a stiff visor of hair, white lips.
I only saw her once, on the subway: a small dark-haired woman in a lush brown leather bomber jacket, swaddled in ugly yellow light like a warrior baby. I studied everything but her face: the scuffed toes of her black suede boots, the wet crimson umbrella glowing like a distended muscle in her gloved hand, silver buckles at her knees, thighs in sheer black stockings, the full skirt of her red silk dress. Her leather gloves shone bruise-purple. Sharp silver points hung from her ears. She had a crest of red and brown hair like brindle fur. When she blinked, I looked: delicate nose, lavender shadows, gold-painted eyelids. Her dress was cut low in front, and her jacket hung open at the collar, revealing a clavicle like an alien vertebra draped in rosy skin. Below were small breasts like injuries on her narrow torso, a boy’s neat hips.
I wanted this girl in my arms like water, impossible to hold, falling all over me. I would wash my face in her spit. I would press my hands, with their brittle beaten skin and peeling cuticles, into the glutinous rise of her perfect stomach. I liked the curve of her neck, whiter than the rest of her, a nook cut just for my mouth. There would be a twin indentation on the inside of her left thigh: a place to rest my chin.
Thrown forward and back by the stumbling train, she looked like my angel. I thought of how to start. But then she got off at the next stop, First Avenue, shaking her umbrella behind her as her little heels clicked up the long staircase. The doors closed and she was gone.
I shut my eyes and saw the train car from the platform in the moment before she disembarked, both of us there in the round-edged window, clutching the bar attached to the ceiling like dancers in a music box. I imagined reaching for her, saw myself do it. The train–the real train, not the scratched bullet in my head–screeched to another stop, then hurtled into the dark.
At Union Square I climbed out from underground and crossed the dim park, low-hanging branches bumping wetly against my forehead. I went to a cafe with computers, sat in front of one, and posted an ad for her: Beautiful woman with me on the train: red umbrella, brown bomber jacket, purple gloves, and silver earrings.
I would find the city’s secret place and take her there. A wood for only us two, a damp picnic outside a little cottage. We would be completely alone, but I wouldn’t even try to take off her gloves until the third date. I wanted chivalry, gentility, kindness. We would eat each other with our eyes, and it would be enough.
The computer blinked, giving me a message from an unknown, illegible address, a string of numbers at another string of numbers:
That was it, no salutation, no punctuation, no explanation. I passed strange moments discovering that Heaven was a gay nightclub in Chelsea, open every night until five in the morning.
I came to New York as if on the crest of a massive wave, a force both gentle and impossible to resist. The pieces of my old life in the old world ran out: my employment contract, the lease on my flat, my desire to sit in dim pubs and drink warm beer with red-faced old men. It was November already, the brief Scottish summer long over. Arthur’s Seat loomed bleakly in every bus window. The wave came, warm and coaxing, and I bought a plane ticket. I thought I was going on a vacation.
Over the ocean, I looked out my window and saw the bottom of Greenland nudging into the north Atlantic. I stared until the island blurred into one white pixel, thinking: eternal winter, cattle eaten down to the toes. Then I closed my eyes and rode my bicycle across stone bridges over a frozen river, a memory as distant as a fresco on the wall of a sealed cavern.
The wave: purple water rose smooth as glass. In its depths I saw shadows, and I thought they were other people, but when I looked closer I saw they were merely reflections of my own crabbed body, my head pressed to my chest, chin digging into breastplate, like a person asleep in an uncomfortably small seat, and then I woke up at John F. Kennedy International Airport, a woman’s voice speaking my language. It was the last time I would hear it for a long while.
The wave deposited me, bare and blinking, in a fifth-floor walk up in Greenpoint. My new landlady lived in the basement, a low-ceilinged capsule wallpapered in purple velvet. She opened the door wearing a shapeless yellow tunic and smoking a brown cigarette. A crimson plastic rosary hung around her neck. Her pouchy, oddly unlined face registered no surprise, luxuriant in the weak sun sneaking in her small window. I saw myself, an immigrant cliché: a man clutching a single suitcase, overdressed in a gray greatcoat, my cheeks chapped from the cold. All I needed to complete the image was an inappropriate item from my suitcase: a salami, maybe, or a pile of forms in triplicate.
“Hello,” she said. “Please.” And she gestured to her own paperwork, a contract to rent the room for three months. As I signed the lease with a green felt pen, she explained that she was taking a chance on me because she had had positive experiences with other men from my country. “I have a European perspective,” she said. “I understand the situation with your credit.”
My credit was, of course, nonexistent. I had spent my life avoiding debt because I was sure that responsibility of paying it down would encourage the arrival of the apocalypse, or some similar event that would prevent me from escaping debtorhood. This landlady was the only one who would have me as a tenant.
“I trust people from your country, men in particular, okay?” She looked at me with an evaluating eye, biting her bottom lip like a much younger woman, and pointed at a chair. We sat at a pitted orange Lucite table. She lit a new unfiltered cigarette and pushed a curtain of pale, thin hair behind her tiny mushroom ear. Her wide mouth was painted the same dark brown as her cigarette. Pairs of feet appeared in the window above her head: blue sneakers, imitation taupe leather heels, tan workboots with green laces.
“My father was a Filipino aristocrat, Franklin Jose Santos de Tenorio.” She trilled her father’s name in one thick accent, then dropped gutturally into another. “My mother, Oksana Popiełuszko, was a founding member of Solidarność.” This lineage explained her name, Wladyslawa Santos de Tenorio, as well as her mismatched features: slanted brown eyes and lank cornsilk hair. She was short but solid. She said that she had sewn her caftan from a pattern passed down by another ancestor, Alexander Pushkin.
“The Russian poet,” I said. “He designed clothing?”
Wladyslawa sucked her teeth at me. “Shoo,” she said like doves. “Shoo, shoo. Pushkin was African, do not forget.” She squinted at me, almost smiling, and opened her mouth as if to explain. But then her eyebrows sank into her smooth eyelids, and Wladyslawa ashed into the murky swamp in her teacup. I wondered if it was alcohol and leaned forward, hoping to catch the smell. Wladyslawa leaned forward, too, and handed me a small tan envelope. She pointed at the stairs with a tobacco-stained fingernail. With her smoke in my overgrown hair, I climbed the stairs and entered my new home, panting.
The flat was only one room, maybe four meters square. There was a white ceramic sink in the corner near the door, a hot plate atop a miniature refrigerator, and a black table in front of a massive window. The bed was a blond wood platform bolted into the walls half a meter from the ceiling, bearing a futon made up in green and white striped sheets. I laid down and found I could only sit up halfway. How would I ever be able to bring a girl up here?
I stared out the massive window. I saw the outlines of buildings – a church, a house, a storefront – but the bright sunlight made black skeletons of everything, hieroglyphics I couldn’t decipher.
New York City lived in a part of my mind where old cartoons played constantly in a dusty movie theater hung with velvet curtains. In the lobby stood a glow-in-the-dark globe divided between real and unreal: on one continent, the house I grew up in, my first city on the sea, my flats in Berlin and Edinburgh, and across the ocean, the gleaming lit map of America. The middle of the country was a sleepy violet valley. Palm trees soared on the left and skyscrapers loomed on the right. The city burned red. What lay in wait in that amorphous polygon, beyond the black boundaries of the color-coded states, beneath the dizzying layers of subway maps and bus schedules? Even when I closed my eyes I saw black lines against white.
The music stops, and the white-lipped man winks at me. At first, I like this–it’s quaint, old-fashioned. Then he whips his neck away, his whole body an S, and I don’t know what to do.
A new song starts, one everyone seems to love: a woman rapping in a high squeak, threatening violence to all comers. The dancefloor blooms girls who shimmer like the scales of a massive fish. I tell myself I have night vision and feel my sight go from me in a blue line. For a moment, I see her, and it feels like a blow: my train angel, her head thrown back, in a white dress identical to the red she was wearing on the day on the train. I stand. Then she turns. It’s not her, but someone else, with a long ponytail and a blunt face like a bull terrier.
When I turn back the man has unbuttoned his shirt to the middle of his chest. His glistening skin fills me with sadness. I need another drink. I turn to the bartender, an odalisque in a cowboy hat and crocheted bikini top, and order the thing they call “absinthe,” a burning green liquid that contains no wormwood.
I saw her on my third day in New York. Tonight is my sixth. Time moves us apart, little by little.
On the first night I went to sleep near dawn and woke at dusk, cold and afraid. I boiled water on the hot plate and drank it plain, watching the street through the uncovered window. All of the people wore shapeless dark coats, as if ugliness was extra protection against the cold. The winters were harsher in my home city, but people there didn’t wear these blighted faces, these irritable scowls against the wind, and they didn’t walk this hopeless walk, half-limp, half-shuffle. Maybe they were invalids, all destined for the Catholic church on the corner, a tall tan brick edifice with little white Virgins tucked into outdoor sconces. It had a Polish name: Saint Stanislaus Kostka. I wondered if Wladyslawa went to Mass there. I had never met a Catholic, but I had an idea of what it was like inside: brown clouds of incense swung into the nave by a priest in gold and red vestments. I will go inside the church, I thought. I will go to Mass. But instead I put on my coat and my scarf and walked to the subway station.
The noise of the train, the yellow light, the miserable sniveling expressions of the passengers: all of these were surprises. The trains I had known glided up beside me like sneaky friends, and my fellow passengers never smiled, but they never looked so dejected, either. My home city suddenly seemed sleek and efficient, a grid of well-groomed people reasonably navigating a comprehensible place. Everyone here was weighted by heavy coats and bags and bundles of unclassifiable black cloth. No one smiled as, over and over again, a crowd of teenagers told a story about a friend named Joe who had missed an important chemistry test that day, each of them repeating, “Joe gonna be straight up fucked,” with evident glee. One girl crowed loudest, a sturdy Amazon in a black knit cap and puffy green jacket, her white teeth smacking against her pink lipgloss. “Straight fucked!” I wanted to smile at them, to be a co-conspirator in youth, but I was freezing and I felt a migraine coming on. I had more in common with the adults. This thought was so depressing that I got off at the next stop. First Avenue.
And then, the city. First the occluded gray sky between the jagged shapes of tall buildings, coughing dark clouds like breaths of smoke. Then a line of people snaking around a corner, each cradling a slice of white pizza, staining their gloves with grease or soothing their shaking bare hands. I walked past long racks of shining fruit into stores lined with coolers of beer. Cashiers stood in elevated glass and wood boxes, watching surveillance feeds and guarding thousands of cigarettes. The sidewalks were full of beautiful women, their soft hair slipping out from under hats and earmuffs, their liquid dark eyes another kind of light. I watched men hold flames to each other’s cigarettes, I saw homeless people open the doors to ATM kiosks like butlers in fancy dress, I caught snatches of arguments and songs from open doors: I just don’t think she understands what the position entails…Are you going out? Now?…Take me, take me with you, please oh please.
Above every storefront were orange windows like doors into warmth. In those buildings, I told myself, people are living, just like you. They are waking alone and drinking hot water to chase the fear. I almost believed myself. But when I looked up again, the next window was a mess of black hands shadowed against a throbbing red light, and the one after that was jumping blue shadows on a dirty white wall, and I understood that there was no one like me here.
I went back to Greenpoint and trudged between the gray hunks of ossified snow that bordered the sidewalk. Wladyslawa met me at the door. “I saw you coming,” she said, and emitted a rattling noise that was either a chuckle or a coughing fit. “In my little window.”
“Hello,” I said, and tried a smile. It felt like a bridle in my mouth.
“You are so thin,” she said, and took my wrist in her hand. “Let me feed you, okay?”
She pulled me into her apartment, took my coat, and sat me again at the Lucite table.
This time it was covered in a green-and-white check tablecloth. A wide bowl of steaming brown chicken on a bed of white rice had been laid out at a place setting with a red napkin and a plastic knife and fork. I stared at the food, trying to decode its smells: vinegar, pepper, garlic, maybe honey.
Wladyslawa was wearing pearly lipstick, black eyeliner, and a shiny emerald caftan. She smiled and pressed her thumb into my chin.
“You are not vegetarian?”
“No, but – ”
She took her hand away. “Good. I had to ask. It’s Brooklyn, you know? Okay, so what will you drink?”
I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t hungry at all, that I was tired and still full from the bagel I had had for breakfast, a ridiculous bagel the size of my face that I labored and labored to butter as it broke into crumbs in my hands. But instead I had to answer her newest question, and my answer was ludicrous. I wanted a drink I hadn’t had in years, a cocktail I drank during the summer I was twenty and never again, available only at one bar in my home city: clear grain alcohol poured over syrup, mashed mint leaves and crushed ice, a sleazy beverage with no name.
Wladyslawa lit a cigarette while I struggled. Then she said, “You look like my mother used to when I asked her what she wanted for breakfast, in the years before she died.”
She went and stood in the hot maroon light of a tall lamp, which lit the jeweled bangles on her thin wrists as she took a framed black-and-white photograph from a shelf and handed it to me: a young blonde woman smiling above a Peter Pan collar.
“She came with me to New York, after my father died. And I would make her breakfast–oatmeal, eggs, fruit salad, whatever she wanted. But when I asked her, she said, ‘I want a breakfast I cannot have.’ Tomatoes from her grandmother’s garden, cold cuts from the butcher in the town where she went to teacher’s college, and cheese from Krakow, where she met my father. And she never even wanted me to try.” Wladyslawa leaned over me and stroked the picture. “Even when I went to the best Polish butchers here, with the so mean old men, she did not want me to try. For everything else she lied and told me that I had done well, but her breakfast was impossible.” She made the dying-or-laughing sound again, and took the picture away. “So you will understand if I ask you to please tell me, honestly, what you are wishing to drink.”
“It’s a drink from my past,” I said. “From long ago.”
Wladyslawa nodded. “Okay, tell me.”
I described the cocktail, expecting Wladyslawa to answer me with some exile’s koan, but instead she said, “I will try,” and disappeared into the nooklike kitchen. “Eat, eat, okay?” she called, clinking things. “It’s chicken adobo.”
The meat was meltingly tender, the rice plumped in the broth, each tiny savory grain a pillow of flavor. I ate and ate. Half the chicken was gone before Wladyslawa appeared with a golden drink in a tall glass printed with a city skyline motif. “I have done my best with vodka, honey, basil,” she told me, and then surprised us both by tousling my hair.
If I squinted, Wladyslawa was young, younger than her mother in the photograph, her face beautiful as a promise.
Her hand was still on my scalp when I took a sip. “Thank you, Wladyslawa. It’s very good.” The drink tasted nothing like my long-ago cocktail, but I swallowed anyway, hoping it might knock me into the next day. Wladyslawa sat across from me silently as I bolted the rest of the chicken. When I stood to leave, she retrieved a honey-coated ice cube from my glass and sucked it against her teeth. “Shoo, shoo,” she said. “Go sleep.”
I lost another twelve hours in the green and white sheets, waking once at a moment when the room was filled with fiery sunlight. I sat up in a panic, certain I was late for the job I had left behind in Scotland, and banged my head on the ceiling. The blow knocked me back to the bed, and I fell asleep almost immediately. I remember worrying, in the moment before I lost consciousness, that I might have given myself a concussion.
That was the day, or, rather, the night when I saw the woman on the train. I boarded the L just after five, in time to slip into the packed mass of commuters rushing in and out of Manhattan. Their faces were smudged, vague, lazy collections of features. I felt dizzy. I told myself it was jetlag.
When I saw her, the pain on my forehead boomed once and disappeared. She didn’t notice me at all. Her green gaze was on the middle distance.
Her umbrella was like a vein. My heart went to it. I wanted to give her my blood. But she left.
Tonight I try Heaven. The people here seem so young. It is past three in the morning, but their energy does not flag. Even the white-lipped man does not lose faith in me. Just before four, the music changes and dreamy tremolo guitar suffuses the club’s back depths. The bartender turns off all the lights. Alone in the dark, I close my eyes, relieved.
Then I feel the hand on my wrist. I know better than to hope that it is she. There is still mystery: the way he leans into me, the smell of licorice, his ridge of hair bristling my ear. I do not pull back from the kiss, but I do not open myself to it either. I wait, caught. He knows when to go: the moment before the lights come back on, the song’s last heaving sigh.
I stay until closing. Outside it is almost my seventh day, the sky filled with a choking white light that stalks me to the subway’s mouth. I join the other sleepers and wait for the hissing sound of the closing doors.
Back home, back home. Here they are, winding sidewalks of Greenpoint, Polish grandmothers, Black teenagers, Latino dishwashers smoking behind the Japanese restaurant, women walking with resolve, men wiping their hands across exhausted faces. When I was thirteen I dreamed about living in New York, where nothing would hurt me. I don’t regret my prediction. I was right. Nothing can hurt me. I am spectral, moving in the streets, dreaming a stranger’s breath against my mouth. And cold. How is it so cold here?
I hope that Wladyslawa will be there for me again, with a hot meal and another photograph. But a tiny gold batik curtain is drawn across her little window. I walk as slowly and heavily as I can past her room, but I do not raise her.
The sun bleaches everything in my room. I can barely see. I almost miss what Wladyslawa has left for me under the door: a battered old menu from a Manila restaurant named Aristocrat. She had affixed a post-it note: The card from my father’s restaurant. I will make you another dish, if you like, okay? The card begins with an incomprehensible category:
Pospas de Gallina, 92.00.
Fried Lumbiang Ubod, 90.00.
Fresh Lumpiang Ubod, 85.00.
Once, I believed my landlady was an aristocrat. I saw her parents, young and optimistic, holding hands in a tropical place, or maybe not tropical, but there were palm trees. I always think of palm trees and happiness. But Wladyslawa belongs here, in her soot-edged building with shrines to the Holy Virgin across the street. The place her parents dreamed her is gone, floating away from us under a stone bridge.
We are colors on the wall now, sealed in the cavern. Wladyslawa is so young, her hair glinting brown and red in the no-light. The rosary around her neck promises me transfiguration. “Shoo, shoo,” she says, like doves.
Lisa Locascio’s writing appears in n+1, The Believer, Santa Monica Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and elsewhere. She lives in Los Angeles and has recently completed a novel, Jutland Gothic. See more at www.lisalocascio.com.