I left her standing in the open doorway as I turned back to the window, looking down onto the busy street. The afternoon sun glared off the windshields of passing taxis.
“What are you doing?” she shut the door and sat on the edge of the bed.
“Nothing.” That was true.
She sat there waiting for something, for me, but I didn’t move. She straightened her dress. It looked like a doll’s dress or maybe a maternity dress from the sixties, covered with a dizzy paisley swirl of olive green and orange. It was the ugliest thing I’d seen her in yet. She batted her thick eyelashes in a sort of matter-of-fact rather than flirty way and said “I’m going to go out clubbing tonight. You wanna come?”
I shrugged like my arms were too dead to do anything else.
“You okay?” She stood up and touched my shoulders. I was too numb to throw her off. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said again. “I feel terrible.”
She tapped her chin. “It’s all the traveling. Jet lag. You want to get something to eat?” She made a vague toward-the-outside gesture with one hand. “I’ve got it covered. I’m sick of hotels. And they don’t need me for anything right now.”
“Yeah.” I turned away from the window and looked at her. She was being too nice, it ruined my bad mood. Maybe my disappearance in Madison had given her the hint, too. I could hope.
She took me out the back way from the hotel, through the alley where the tour bus was parked. I followed her into the subway. It was too noisy in the train to talk so it wasn’t until we came to a station and she stood up that I asked “Where are we going?”
“I dunno,” she answered, pulling me along, up the stairs and across the street by the hand. “Someplace that’ll cheer you up.” We stepped between street vendors’ blankets covered with used books and records on the sidewalk. We crossed another wide street and I began to recognize where we were: The East Village. Carynne stopped to examine the concert bootlegs sharing a table with sunglasses in front of a used clothing store. Two men with identically sheared hair and leather jackets that still smelled new brushed past me, pausing to embrace at the bottom of the next steps. One went into the building, the other continued up the street without looking back. A dog barked at me from the terrace of a cafe. The sun was behind the buildings now, and the day’s heat was beginning to rise up out of the streets, stewing up the evening. I watched two more men cross the street, hand in hand. I tied my denim jacket around my waist and waded through the heat, gripped by the feeling that if I stayed too still, I’d solidify where I was. You don’t belong on this ground, I thought to myself, get away while you still can.
Carynne was following me now, I could feel her eyes searching my back for clues. I kept my own eyes ahead, trying not to stare at the graffiti splashed across the steps (“Queer By Choice”) trying not to hear the conversation of the two men coming the other way, trying to shut it all out. My hands felt damp as they brushed against my jeans. Everything here was a signal, a secret handshake, a subliminal image, and I wondered how long it would take Carynne to see right through me. What would I do that would give myself away? Even I had no way of knowing.
“Hey, where are you going?” She plucked at my arm.
I forced a smile. “Italian place this way, good pasta, didn’t you say you wanted something to eat?”
“We can shop later.”
“Okay, but are you sure it’s this way?”
I let her catch up to me, I let her hold my damp fingers in hers. “I’ve been here a couple of times.” Maybe three, four times, on the train into Penn Station, underage, looking for trouble or something of that nature. Not that different now, I guess.
We ate and she talked, and sometimes I listened. Wherever Matthew was, I was sure he wasn’t playing this masquerade like me. A few hours later we were working our way west past NYU. Carynne went into a clothing shop on 8th Street and I told her I’d meet her in the record store, but I didn’t. I went back east and down where no one knew me.
I lost myself in the sea of people crisscrossing the park, stopping to listen to two guys busking with a guitar and a tambourine before I hurried on. I tossed a loose dollar into the open guitar case. They weren’t that good, but maybe someday that dollar would come back to me. I drifted back toward the East side, the night crowd flowing around me like I wasn’t even there. I walked until my feet were tired of doing it and started looking for a place to go. I followed three outlandishly dressed men up one street and down another. They disappeared through the darkened doorway of a club on Avenue A. Through the walls I could make out a pulsing beat. There was no sign indicating the club’s name on the door, nothing painted overhead. I pushed the heavy wooden door open and stepped into an even darker space, walled in by looming mannequins on one side and the door person’s station on the other. The door person, I couldn’t tell if it was male or female, nodded to me.
“What’s the cover?” I put one hand into my pocket.
A throaty male voice replied from under a Barbizon model’s face, “No cover tonight.”
I nodded and stepped forward toward the main room.
“Not so fast, sugarbuns.” An enameled fingernail snagged me. “ID?”
I smiled back. “You really don’t want to see it.”
Rosy lips returned the smile. “Why would that be, sweetmeat?”
My heart skipped a beat as I let my voice go soft. “Because I’m jailbait and I’m vain,” I said. I could not work up the nerve to toss my hair.
Painted lids half-closed as the perfect head shook slowly so as not to dislodge the curls piled high atop it. “Spare me the sob story, Miss Lonelyhearts. Let me stamp your hand.” I held it out. “Just don’t get into any trouble and promise me your daddy won’t come through here with a shotgun looking for you.”
I froze for just an instant as the unlikely but ugly image flashed through my mind. “Thanks.”
The place was just as small as it looked from the outside, a main room that was smaller than my hotel room with a bar along one side, and one dance floor room out of which wild lights and heavy beats spilled. I stood in the doorway between the two rooms, watching the tightly packed passel of half-naked dancers glisten with sweat and groove to the music. The song wasn’t anything I recognized. No one paid me any mind while I stood there watching. I picked out a few women from the drag queens, but most of the crowd were disco boys of one kind or another.
A handful of the dancers crowded onto a riser in the middle of the room, gyrating wildly, but not wildly enough that any of them were knocked off. The one nearest to me wore only combat boots and tight black short-shorts, his black hair shaking in sweaty spikes. His bare back undulated. The dancers in front of him shifted then and he turned to face me. A purple diagonal stripe crossed his face, enveloping one eye and his lips. He shook his chest at me, and winked before he turned back around. My heart caught in my throat.
I couldn’t dance over to him without looking like a fool. I rolled up the sleeves of my t-shirt and leaned back in the doorway, trying to keep an eye on him. He’d have to come up for air sometime.
I don’t know how long I stood there before the music faded and a voice announced a special performer. I hadn’t realized there was a small stage at the far end of the room until a tall, gaunt man wrapped in white cloth stepped onto it. He did some sort of lip-synch performance art — I wasn’t really watching as I realized my black-haired punk boy had slipped out of my view. I pressed forward into the crowd, trying to peer around shoulders, looking for him. I was in the midst of a knot of drag queens in spike heels when the room went dark and the music started again. I watched from the side for a long time, but he never reappeared. The next thing I remember is the lights came up and they started throwing people out.
As I passed by the door again, I asked for the time. The door person looked at one gilded wrist and proclaimed “Three AM, honey. Past your bedtime?”
Something like that. At this point I wasn’t sure what to do other than hang around in front of the building, trying to look casual. A bunch of the dancing crowd was out there, milling around in the still-hot night air, flagging down cabs and talking animatedly with one another. I was jailbait and I was vain, and none of these guys would have anything to do with me, it seemed.
I saw them coming before anyone, maybe because I was the only one in the crowd not engaged in conversation or at least some heavy eye contact: three men walking in that rangy-tough territory-marking way. My guess was they were Puerto Rican, or some flavor of hispanic, with bandannas tied around their heads and basketball shoes on their feet. I pressed back against the wall of the club and watched the trio of them spearhead through the crowd on the sidewalk, but not everyone noticed them, or cared. Two bare-chested club boys who were leaning on each other and laughing stepped back at the wrong moment and caught the leader’s foot. There were shouts: “Fuckin’ faggots!” “Don’t you touch me…!” and something in Spanish, and one of the two guys from the crowd went down with his hand on one side of his face, while the other took a swing at one of the guys in bandannas. Then the three of them were running away, not stupid enough to get caught in the middle of a hostile crowd, I guess.
I started walking the other way before I could find out if the guy who went down had been hit or knifed or what. Everyone else had clustered around him, and noises were made about the police being called, and I knew that wasn’t anywhere I wanted to be just then. My heart was up in my throat and swallowing wouldn’t make it go back down. I caught a taxi as soon as I thought I could give the name of the hotel.
Back in my room I lay awake for a long time. I watched a square of light on my ceiling from the street lamps below flicker as cabs went by and listened to the sound of old hotel plumbing occasionally whooshing.
I could not sleep. Jet lag. All the traveling, you know.