The compensation of growing old…was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained-at last!-the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.
The View Out Any Window
More than twenty years ago, I was living in an extra small studio apartment in downtown Manhattan. My life up until then had been dizzy with part-time work and acting projects and brief, doomed relationships. A few months before, I’d stopped auditioning and started an MFA in fiction writing at Columbia. While this new route may not have been exactly practical, I was trying to grow up and get to work. During the time I wasn’t uptown in class, I planted myself downtown in my studio, at my butcher’s block table, one side of which was pressed up against my studio window, as if the energy from the streets below might somehow make its way into my prose. And I wrote. Or I thought about writing. Or I watched the people and the cars. Or the buildings across the street. The streetlights. The construction scaffolding.
I was having a little trouble focusing.
To be fair, I was in my mid-twenties and distractions abounded. Should I take an acting job in Massachusetts that I’d just been offered at a theater I loved even though it was a terrible play and I’d just started my writing program? Should I go on a third date with a guy who claimed he was a producer even though I couldn’t figure out what he actually produced? Should I go out with the wedding guest I’d recently met who, early in the evening, toasted the bride and groom with a wit so dry it left the crowd slightly confused, and later sang Elvis tunes (very well!) with the band? I’d been flattered when he asked me to dance. Then we’d drunk too much champagne and made out like two people unlikely to ever see each other again.
The next morning, he’d looked me in the eye and told me to write down my number. We should see each other, he said, while he was visiting his parents in Brooklyn. Had he mentioned he was living in Mexico? In the July-wedding-brunch sunlight, his eyes were ridiculously, disarmingly blue. The wedding guest was a very good time, but it hadn’t occurred to me that a very good time who lived in Mexico could be anything more than that. I wrote down my number anyway. What did I have to lose?
But when he called the following week, I didn’t call him back. In the interim, I’d had a change of heart. Our fun at the wedding seemed like a long time ago, and where, I reasoned, could it possibly go? Wasn’t I trying to forge a more serious path? He called again, and after the second phone call, I agreed to a drink. By the end of the night, all of my assumptions were turned upside down, and by the time he returned to Mexico a few months later, I was hooked. My new boyfriend was an accomplished painter. He didn’t have a phone, or a computer (this was 1997 in rural Mexico, so this was not an eccentric choice) and our communication consisted of faxes, which he’d send and I’d return to a mysterious-sounding “Centro de Mensajes.” Though I thought of myself as a game traveler, my fantasies ran more along the lines of island hopping in Greece, maybe trekking the moors of Scotland. This town, as far as I could gather, was both a desert and a fishing village, a few days south of California for those who were on the run. I suppose it sounded cool—in maybe a slightly David Lynch kind of way? —and, whether I liked it or not, I knew I was more of an Anthony Minghella kind of girl. But I really wanted to see him, so when he asked me to come visit over my winter break, I did.
I was immediately seduced by the white-hot light and the Pacific Ocean, sunsets so pretty that sometimes you just had to laugh, they were so absurdly pink. And though the town was crawling with stray dogs and littered with garbage, there were also the ruins of an old sugar mill—sad, but somehow picturesque—plus a deco-era theater and yellow church overlooking a lantern-lined plaza. There were tacos de pescado from Victor—handsome and reliably unfriendly—who never changed his fish-frying pace, no matter how many people stood in line. I said a daily buenos dias to our neighbor Chuy, who was usually planted on his cement porch, playing an out-of-tune guitar. Afternoons brought us to a beach where fishermen in brightly painted panga boats timed their return with the tides. We brought home tuna and tilapia. I picked basil growing in Derek’s backyard—an overgrown fusion of cacti, palm and mango trees with a view of the sea in the distance—and cooked dinners in the Talavera-tiled kitchen while his scruffy white dog fetched a mango instead of a ball. For breakfast, we slathered our toast with locally made honey sold in Coke bottles. Here was one town. And one person. Together they were pinning me down. But instead of feeling restless, this was what I wondered: how was I going to recover from this happiness?
And something else happened. Even though I was supposed to be taking a break from my writing, I began to write anyway. Derek went off to paint (his easy-going lifestyle belied workaholic tendencies) and I’d sit at the heavy wood table and approach a pivotal chapter without doing much hand-wringing. I was once again alone at a table with my writing, but when I looked out the window, there was nothing but sky. I was suddenly, shockingly motivated; I simply got down to it.
Maybe it was his off-hand manner. There seemed to be little pressure to do much of anything, and yet we were both putting in full workdays; Derek never seemed to worry if I was having fun, and yet I couldn’t remember ever having had such a consistently good time. I’d gone to college in the heyday of feminism, and while I certainly knew that I was an independent being and that not even this level of budding romantic possibility could make me into a writer, it was possible that my recent productivity and sense of balance had something to do with love. By the end of the month, both he and his life seemed inextricable from my own. And as it turned out, he too was ready for a change of scene. We decided to move back to New York together—where I’d finish my MFA and he’d search for gallery representation—but we’d spend a couple months in Mexico each year; maybe more, maybe less.
Over the past fifteen years, I’ve written the better part of four novels at that heavy wood table in that small beloved town, looking up now and then at the blue sky beyond. We’ve turned a tool shed into a guesthouse (with barely more than many coats of bright paint), and added a much-needed outdoor shower. We gave our twin boys the house’s only bedroom and we began to sleep in the loft, which had previously been used for storage. I like it better this way. I like sleeping so close to the palapa roof, lying in bed and looking up at the intricate system of palm fronds stitched with leather cords. I imagine each cord as a strand of memory, a braided series of choices.
How, after we’d met at that wedding, could I not have called him back? This thought sometimes haunts me, even now. How could such a choice have been possible?
Would I have found my writing groove without meeting my husband, without an invitation to fly to a small town in Mexico, a place I’d never been or thought to go? I certainly think so. But every choice precedes the following one. As I lie in our bed, looking up at those fronds and cords, as I hear the crashing waves in the distance that have become as familiar as honking horns, I’ve often thought that the sudden clarity I found when I was twenty-five had less to do with the shedding of city distractions or even what we were or weren’t doing during those heady months. I logged so many hours looking out my New York City window, at the crush of people, at my reflected expectations, that when I found myself looking out a different window that revealed nothing but blue sky—gorgeous, yes, but also to be honest a bit monotonous—it was my own internal landscape that had changed. I had slowed down; I had connected. And this was far more radical and, as it turns out enduring, than the view out any window.
“I got a job!” I try to sound upbeat when I say this into the payphone receiver. I turn my back to the hot street full of people and early summer evening traffic. I whisper into the phone, “It’s not a very nice place.”
My boyfriend Neil groans and asks, “Not that place on 28th and 8th Ave?”
I nod, even though he can’t see me. I am standing on the sidewalk in a one-piece bathing suit and high heels. “Yes,” I admit finally.
“Call me when you get home tonight,” he says. Then he hangs up.
I shrug. After a week of no work and a day and a half with no food, I can’t afford to pass on this position. Yesterday I spent my last subway token to see Neil. I was hoping he would feed me. My communist roommates were out of food to filch. But Neil didn’t seem hungry last night and his cupboard was bare.
At Neil’s, I wake up hungry and with a raging yeast infection. I’m so depleted from stress and malnutrition that some health issue was inevitable. Fortunately, a free clinic is only nine blocks away at St. Vincent’s Hospital on Broadway and Eleventh. A visit to any free clinic will be an all-day affair.
After Neil leaves for a voice lesson, I rifle through his closet and find a five-dollar bill tucked into the front pocket of a black velvet smoking jacket. I wager he’s forgotten he put it there.
I get myself dressed, grab a paperback from Neil’s tiny collection of books. It’s the life story of Judy Garland and looks interesting enough for a day’s wait on a plastic chair.
I put off looking for a bus. Now that I have five bucks in my pocket, I intend to get a grilled bran muffin and a coffee. There is a favorite coffee shop of mine across the street from the hospital. The muffin and coffee will set me back $1.50 plus another fifty cents for a tip. This leaves me three dollars for lunch. If I get a hot dog, I will have enough left for carfare to go home. My rent is still paid up for a week and a half. Something’ll turn up.
The prospect of a buttery fried bran muffin encourages me and I pick up speed. I am inside the steamy coffee shop in no time. Gus, the short Greek waiter behind the counter, is sweet on me. He smiles when I tell him to grill the muffin. “Extra Butter?” I nod and he looks me over with appreciation. I smile to myself. He would not admire me if he were to learn of my malady.
Seated on a plastic bench inside the hospital, I balance my breakfast, clipboard, and pen. This is for me to answer a series of useless questions. I don’t even know my social security number and if they didn’t provide the required number of spaces to fill in, I would have written too many or too few numbers.
Butter drips on my intake form and it smears my answers. But my breakfast is at least as important as the information this hospital seeks. Because if I don’t raise my blood sugar, we will have a whole new set of problems.
She takes a seat beside me. Tall, tan and blond, she has high breasts and a waist as tiny as a Barbie doll. “What number have you got?” She asks. I show her my numbered ticket and her face falls. She is one number ahead of me. “I was hoping to trade,” she confesses. “I gotta get outta here.”
“Sorry.” I offer my hand to her. I introduce myself and inform her that we will be together here for a long time today.
“I know. I had an abortion here three weeks ago. There’s something wrong down there. I might even be pregnant again,” she admits.
“So soon?” I ask.
She lowers her voice. “If they find me pregnant again, I’ll just lie and tell them they missed some of it or something. “I’m Brandi.” She flashes a dazzling smile and shakes my hand.
By lunchtime, when they close the clinic for an hour, Brandi and I are confidants. We are back at my favorite diner. Brandi knows my story and promises to help. She offers to buy me lunch.
Gus winks at us when we take a booth. I am holding the giant menu in front of me, looking for the highest quantity of calories for the lowest cost. I have almost settled on a grilled cheese and tuna sandwich when Brandi advises me that cantaloupe is only 85 calories per serving. She says this as if that is the goal. To consume the lowest calorie count we can, and still subsist. My muffin must have grossed her out this morning.
“If I’m going to help you,” Brandi advises, “You’re going to have to watch your figure.”
I order the melon but add a side of cottage cheese. I still have my three dollars to get a hot dog later. Gus brings me a chocolate egg cream and pretends that it is by accident. “No charge.” He winks again.
Brandi tells me about the job she intends to help me get. She works there herself. “It’s kind of sleazy, but the tips are really high.”
“Do I have to take my clothes off?”
“Only if you want to, but I don’t. You can make plenty of cash with a leotard.” Brandi promises.
“Yes. I can loan you one for tonight. But you will have to get your own pantyhose.” She must have seen me wince because she said, “Don’t worry, you’ll have a hundred bucks by the end of the night.”
After a few more hours in the clinic, Brandi and I hit the streets. We stop at a drugstore for my pantyhose. I make the mistake of buying the cheapest pair. They are not sheer to the waist and the thighs are reinforced. They look like I am wearing tan shorts under my leotard, which is really a flimsy one-piece bathing suit manufactured by Danskin. Brandi says not to worry. She tells me that the pervs won’t even notice.
I am trying on a pair of slip-on pumps when Brandi’s boyfriend arrives home. He is a handsome actor-type who leases his own cab with another guy. This couple seems to be making money and progress. As she passes him, he grabs an imaginary handful of her ass. “You’re starting to pack it on darling,” he warns.
Brandi spins out of his reach. “Baby weight,” she retorts. “It will be gone in two more weeks.”
Brandi introduces us and tells him she is getting me a job.
“Yeah?” He raises his eyebrows at me. “Can you jerk a guy off with your rap and empty his pockets at the same time?” I’m not sure what he means so I just nod silently and he seems satisfied.
He gets up and calls her into the next room. When she returns, she is sniffing a little but seems very cheery. “Come on” she tells me. “Let’s go.”
Even though it’s fourteen blocks away, we walk instead of having her boyfriend give us a ride there in his cab. “I have to lose some of this baby weight,” she grumbles. I have never seen a more perfect example of a Goddess. She is exquisite in every way. But I keep my mouth shut. I am a fat little pony beside her.
Inside the dark, smoky bar is a center stage. A slender redhead with floppy breasts and bad teeth sways listlessly to the music. She is clad in only a G-string. She walks to the front of a table and gazes soulfully into a gentleman’s eyes. She lifts a swinging mammary to her mouth and begins to lick it.
Brandi directs me to a table in the back of the room. A blond woman with jet-black roots and a masculine face nods for me to have a seat. She unwraps a cream cheese and jelly sandwich. She offers me half. Even though I want it more than anything, I shake my head no. After a few minutes of chewing, she asks, “Why not dance instead? You’ll make a lot more money.”
I shake my head again. “I have an inverted nipple,” I tell her.
All she hears is ‘No’ and nods to Brandi. She tells me I will earn tips and one dollar for every champagne cocktail I sell and five dollars for each champagne split. Brandi will show me what to do. A split of champagne is about the size of a bottle of beer. As a matter of fact, what this establishment pushes as champagne is nothing more than malt liquor from New Jersey. “Every time a guy buys you a drink,” Brandi instructs me, “You order champagne. You’ll get a kickback for everything they buy you.
“But I can’t drink that stuff all night,” I object. “I’ll get sick.”
“No, you don’t drink it, you spit it.” Brandi produces a tall frosted glass. She fills it with ice and half seltzer. “When you order champagne, I’ll give you a seltzer chaser. You pretend to drink the champagne, but don’t swallow it. Spit it into the seltzer.”
Brandi demonstrates this for me. She lifts a glass of champagne by the stem and seemingly takes a sip. I see her throat move as she swallows. She flashes a blinding smile as she picks up the frosted glass and takes a dainty gulp. But in truth, she is spitting the poisoned carbonate into the tall vessel of soda. “You try it.”
After practicing for a few minutes, Brandi declares me ready, and we step into the changing room in the back, to shed our pants and blouse. We are already dressed for work underneath our street clothes. We ball up our possessions and Brandi stows them behind the bar. Later in the evening, I will discover that this changing room also doubles as a private setting for some of the more enterprising dancers to turn tricks. Brandi cautions me to stay out of that closet for the rest of the night.
My new job, in theory, is to be a cocktail waitress. But the real goal is to be invited to sit down to have champagne with a customer. “The guys will get their own drinks if you are sitting with someone,” assures Brandi.
Brandi urges me to try and seat myself at a table of men. She guarantees that many bottles will be purchased on my behalf if I do. She warns me not to join them though if a dancer is already working it. When I ask her why, she shakes her head.
After I make a few drink deliveries, Brandi waves me down to the end of the bar where a clump of men sits. They look like brothers, with the same olive skin and dark hair and eyes. On closer inspection, I can see that coloring is their only real similarity. But their suits look like they might come from the same tailor.
I take a seat and Brandi introduces me around. Even though the men try to stare down my chest and ogle my reinforced thighs, they never lay a hand on me. They purchase five bottles of champagne and two cocktails. One of the gentlemen suggests sending out for food. Soon a boy with a big brown bag delivers it to the bar. But what these men ordered looks ghastly to me. I pick up something greasy and dark green. I am told it is a stuffed grape leaf. It’s so mushy and strange tasting. Even though I am half starved, I can barely bring myself to swallow it. I head down to the other end of the bar for a private chat with Brandi.
“I’m starving and I can’t eat that crap they ordered without throwing up. Is there any way I could get a bite from somewhere?” Brandi tells me to meet her in the bathroom. She goes and gets her purse. I doubt she has food stashed in her bag and I am right. She draws out a thin line of white powder on a compact mirror. I am not unfamiliar with cocaine.
I’m a little disappointed at the stingy line she cuts for me. But it’s better than nothing. I take the straw out of her hand and sniff the line through it. The burn is almost unbearable. “This isn’t coke!”
She smiles proudly and says, “It’s meth. Coke will only keep you going for a half hour or so. This stuff will last you all night.”
Brandi’s not wrong. The line improves my mood tremendously and I become playful and vivacious. The men buy me thirty-seven bottles of champagne and eight cocktails. Along with the tips they pay me to sit with them, I take home over three hundred dollars. By cab of course. The bouncer makes sure every girl gets into one when her shift ends.
I don’t sleep very well that night until daylight breaks. I rest until noon then go out to purchase the proper get-up for another night of spitting champagne.
I wait outside of work until I see Brandi arrive. I am hoping for another bump of meth and she obliges me right away. When I offer to pay for it, we make arrangements to get more together, the next day, before work.
We have a new dancer that night. She is a spicy looking little thing with cappuccino skin and nipples the color of cinnamon. Her enthusiasm as she cavorts on the stage is so entertaining that when she takes her break, I tell her so. She smiles and points to a table of men. “See that fat guy over there? I know for a fact we can get five hundred from him alone.”
I try not to act shocked as I shake my head no. I retreat to the bar and sit with a cheapskate that grudgingly buys me a cocktail. “I wouldn’t mind buying you this,” he grouses, “If I thought you could actually drink it.”
I look over at the table where the dancer pointed. She is sitting topless on the fat guy’s lap, kissing his ear. That night is less eventful. I only sell twenty-one bottles and six cocktails. But the crowd is smaller and the cafe coffee-colored dancer siphons most of the resources from the bar.
I meet Brandi early the next day for lunch. She has already ordered black coffee and cantaloupe for us both. I can barely touch the melon. I gulp my coffee and silently shake my head at Gus when he picks up an egg cream glass and holds it in my direction. I give Brandi money for the meth as I settle the check for lunch. Her dealer is just a short walk a couple blocks west.
The two men greet Brandi enthusiastically when we enter the loft apartment. After introductions, Brandi disappears around the corner with man number one. Man number two looks like a young, bronze, Al Pacino. Everyone in my new circle seems to have a tan. I promise myself a trip to the beach, on my next day off.
Al is kind of jumpy as he paces back and forth. I wonder aloud where Brandi has gone. “He’s fixing her up,” Al informs me. “Do you like needles?” I assume fixing her up, means they are weighing the meth and sorting out money. “I love needles,” Al says dreamily.
I look over his sinewy arms. His veins protrude impressively. “You certainly have the arteries for it,” I tell him.
From the other room, I hear Brandi shriek, “Don’t! Please! Stop stop stop! Please! God help me!”
I stand up frantically. But Al restrains me. “What’s happening?” I ask fearfully. It occurs to me, for the first time, that this might not be a safe situation.
“It just really burns the first time,” Al assures me. I realize by fixing up, Al means that Brandi is being injected with meth. “Wanna try it?” But I shake my head. I am terrified of injections.
He says again, “I just love needles.”
Brandi is grinning when she steps out into the living room. “You should totally try that,” she says. But I am on my feet, pulling on the door, thanking the men with a bright smile. In the hallway, I don’t wait for an elevator. I take the stairs instead. I wait several minutes for Brandi on the muggy street. When she finally steps outside, she is annoyed with me. “That was very rude.”
“I’m afraid of needles,” I tell her.
That night, being friendly takes more of an effort, despite several bumps of meth. I only sell twenty bottles of champagne and eleven cocktails. This is a cheap crowd. Brandi hangs more to herself tonight and seems less sisterly. When my boss pays me, she instructs me to take a few days off and get some rest. “You’re looking tired,” she complains.
After another restless night, I call Neil and invite him to a picnic on the beach. Then I do something that I’ve read wealthy people enjoy: I call Zabar’s and order a gourmet picnic lunch. The cost is half a month’s rent, but I am flush.
Neil is delighted with the picnic, but I can only pick at it. I guzzle the Mimosa though.
After a swim, we sneak under the boardwalk and make love. I lay against him as he makes plans for our future. He invites me to move in with him.
We agree that instead of getting a bigger place, we should redo his studio with a loft bed. This way the stipend from his rich parents will stretch even further. Neil had seen a gray messenger envelope tied with a bright red string recently and he couldn’t forget the combination of colors. We decide to paint the whole place gray with red accents.
We ride the train back to Manhattan. Neil falls asleep on my lap. Everything is finally coming together for me. When Neil wakes, he’s cranky. I don’t feel so good myself. I am sunburned and covered in gummy sweat. My hair feels greasy and I can smell BO wafting from my pits. We walk back to my place in silence.
Neil sprawls on the twin bed in my minuscule rented room. I reach under it and pull out a suitcase. I begin to pack it with a few of my belongings. Neil sits up. “What are you doing?”
“I’m paid up for six more days,” I say. “I figure I can take a load down every day.” I don’t have many possessions.
“Down to where?” Neil stands.
“To your place. I thought I would move in at the beginning of the month.”
“I think you ought to straighten out your life before we think about moving in together.” Neil frowns. “How would I ever explain a stripper roommate to my father?
“I’m not a stripper, and I’ve already decided not to go back.”
“Even better, an out-of-work stripper. Take a shower and go to bed,” Neil says wearily. “You look like shit and smell terrible. Call me tomorrow.” He slams the door as I begin to sob.
But I am not crying for Neil; I am grieving because I want to go home. But I am all the home I have.
I am only eighteen.