Sex With Andre
Hanging neck, colourless lips, grey hair.
See: he is attractive, compared to other men his age, isn’t he?
When he wakes on Saturday morning, it takes Andre a moment to remember that the year is 1989, and that he is parked on 62nd Street in Manhattan. He looks into the rearview mirror and sees a bedraggled elderly person doing the things that he should have done when he was young, if he should ever have done them at all.
He walks through the glass facade of Lemieux on 58th and Lexington. Inside, the place is shabby, and in spite of the vintage gas lamps in a row by the check-out desks, emanates an overwhelming fluorescence. Andre walks over the patch of original floor tiles, harlequin, and onto hideous carpet, through a wall-coloured door in the back of the lobby.
Marcus yells his name before Andre shuts the wall behind him. Andre puts his bag in his locker and meets his manager behind register three. Marcus says, “That cashier-woman is late. I’m not supposed to be doing this. I have to deal with customers. You can train your new co-salesman.”
Andre nods curtly. A kid stands there, blond-haired and blankly handsome enough that Andre did not notice him at first. “Brad,” Andre says while he shakes his hand. Brad makes eye contact for a moment before he looks away.
In a photograph he keeps in the front slot of his wallet, Andre wears short pants. On the back, “1930” in yellowed black ink. His boyishly confident smile faces the camera, while his older sister, lost in her own head, gazes at something off-frame.
Andre never made it back to New Jersey last night. If he were capable of surprise, he would be surprised by this fact.
Brad processes silently up the escalator. Andre unfolds his hands from behind his back and holds the banister. He looks closely at the skids and marks on the surface. He looks at the places where Brad’s suit pants cling to the contours of his legs.
Unlike Andre’s slouch, Brad’s slouch is voluntary.
“When we arrive at the floor, you’ll wait while I wash my hands.”
“Don’t rest or look lazy on the job. No one should know there is a reason for our dishevelledness.”
“When I was your age. 20. 21.”
“Lemieux was a very fine purveyor of formal wear.”
“You shopped here when you were my age?”
“Well, no,” Andre looks at Brad out of the corner of his eye, “it was outside of my family’s budget.”
“I think it has good markdowns. The Astoria location rented me a tux for my buddy’s wedding.”
“There were no discounts then. Lemieux was not that kind of store. There was no Astoria location, either,” Andre laughs as he steps onto the second floor, “and Lemieux would never have rented anything.”
In the centre of Andre’s department, a revolving tie rack. In the corners, little grottos of mannequins and mirrors. Andre walks past a grotto, through a wall-coloured door, out again, to the tie rack, where Brad stands with his hands in his pockets. Andre removes Brad’s hands from his pockets and rests them on his sides.
“Bad comportment,” Andre says.
The appropriate way to approach a customer:
Hands meekly behind one’s back, or folded, as to be non-threatening.
“This is stitched the same way today that it was stitched in 1857, in 1945.”
Hands behind one’s back serve purposes other than to help posture and alleviate back pain.
Brad’s hands fidget.
A joke, Andre-style:
“Children of tourists tend to run around because their parents sugar them up with ice cream. Food is not allowed inside. People that plan to spend money have a look of get-in-get-out, while people who plan to spend a lot of money look like they want to stay. Children rarely plan to spend money unless they’re accompanied by a parent.”
Because Brad is a child himself, Andre reasons, he does not laugh.
In the photograph he keeps in the front slot of his wallet, a stretch of white wall behind his sister. In the right corner, the edge of the bed in which they both slept. In the left corner, the edge of his mother’s sewing table. All components of the living room that moonlit as their bedroom. Although he does not remember the moment of the photograph, he remembers its components from other moments in his childhood.
He decamps to the top floor and looks out from the gown department while Brad walks the formal-wear aisles. Brad—probably the son of someone in corporate.
Andre swoops around the top floor, looking out from the baby section. Two men enter the store. They argue in whispers that carry from the sales rack by the door. They pass the men’s department. Andre folds his hands behind his back and turns to watch Brad. When Brad makes eye contact with Andre, Andre turns to watch the couple again. They ascend to the top floor, to women and children.
One component is the slightly demented expression on his sister’s face, which reminds him of the way he conceptualized polio when he first heard the word, and when he thinks of his sister’s infection when she was 14, he remembers a time after she recovered. He lay on the floor and read a movie magazine while her fiancé sat at the sewing table, and when Andre looked down from the fiancé to the magazine, his legs extended on the ground behind him, he realized that his erection was raising his behind into the air.
Brad leads him through the wall-coloured door. There are lockers lined against the wall, and Andre opens Brad’s, turning the combination several times before he turns to see Brad’s face in the better light.
His goatee is sparse, formed of down that spirals from the follicles like pus from a pore. He looks young enough that Andre wonders whether he lied about his age.
“Do you know how to sew, mend, and make alterations?” Andre asks, and Brad nods. If Andre were capable of surprise: he arches his brow and lets his gaze linger.
“Do me a favor. Shave before you come to work. It’s more professional to be clean-shaven.”
Watching while the boy touches his face for a moment in surprise, Andre looks at his own aged self, as though from above. He leads the boy out of the locker room and poses a difficult question.
If he is attracted to Brad, and he is attracted to Brad, then what is it about him? Why?
There should be a Greek or Roman myth about the old man in love, the sin, the doom and the boy inevitably surpassing the older lover, in the middle of life, when the rungs of evolution meet the rungs of history-making. Or maybe there is a myth, he remembers a movie he saw with Ralph, when he was young but not as young as Brad.
28 is too immature to ever really interest Andre, Andre tells himself, but if Brad flailed and floundered for several years, or experienced chronic back pain like Andre experienced chronic back pain, he might have a strong enough sense of humour to make Andre laugh.
He takes a cigarette break on the corner of 58th and Lexington, unscrews a bottle of ibuprofen, and swallows three extra-strength pills. The pain in his knee feels worse. Andre folds his hands behind his back. This pose, Dr. Longamino said, would help.
Yesterday, while he sat in the waiting room, an elderly bald man stood from his chair like a cautious animal, ears bent back in trepidation.
“Andre Pavlenko,” he said. He unfurled his spotted body before he crossed the room and extended his hand, “Wow. It’s been so long. Silvio D’Antonio, from Mott Street. How is your sister doing?”
Before Andre could answer, a nurse said his name. He wrung Silvio’s hand in apology and walked out of the waiting room.
He sat naked beneath a hospital gown. If he stood, his rear end would hang out through the cleft of the gown tails. He looked down at his hairless legs and vein-ridged feet. He saw the etching in his hands. Dr. Longamino was a cryptic man of 30 in a white coat who never told Andre that the cause of his pain was osteoarthritis instead of something more serious. The male nurse that followed wore sea green scrubs that exposed an unflattering section of his chest.
He gave Andre a prescription and told him to drive to an X-ray facility 45 minutes away.
Andre entered another room, put a metal bib on his chest, and sat in a leather chair before the lights went out.
He listened to Mahler’s Ninth on the radio while he drove into the city. Entering a diner on 58th and 3rd, he waited silently by the server’s podium. Ingrid held a picture menu in the air and mouthed “Eat?” He shook his head, followed her down the aisle, and kissed her cheek before he sat in the booth.
On the far end of the diner was a bar, a set of swinging doors, and a Lucky Strike clock above the liquor wall. “I’m going to do my usual,” Andre said, “but I’ll try not to chat you up too much.” Ingrid shook her head, walked to the bar, and placed his order. She walked back across the floor and sat down.
“Make me laugh.”
“You’re the funniest person I know. You know that.”
“You’re a flatterer. Something happen?”
“My toilet leaks small amounts of water from below when I flush. My landlord is not contactable. I went to the doctor.”
“My knee this time. I’m still waiting for some results. There’s a slip in my duffel bag with a number for me to call.”
“Who is your landlord?”
“He was related to me as lazy when I signed the lease, but I think he’s an alcoholic. His first name is Millar.”
“It must mean something.”
“With an ‘a.’”
“I didn’t think your pronunciation was that bad.”
Andre sipped his gin and tonic. “New York City, the most superficial city in the world. You know, Ingrid, maybe I’ve gone nuts, but after a year at that store, I really think the lines in my face look like the cracks in the tile, the blemishes in my skin look like the stripped anchor holes where the chandelier hung, and my growing nose looks like that glass monstrosity they built in lieu of the old facade.”
“Some people resemble their cats.”
“I’m a statue. That’s the truth. I’ve turned to bronze or stone. It’s sad to know when one’s life will become a series of small changes in appearance that lead to a large change in appearance. Death. Have I ever told you about the glamorous life Ralph and I led before he got ill, or what happened in the years between his death and my starting work again?”
“You haven’t,” Ingrid said.
Andre shook his head.
“I won’t depress you then.”
I’m a statue. That’s the truth. I’ve turned to bronze or stone. It’s sad to know when one’s life will become a series of small changes in appearance that lead to a large change in appearance.
Two people entered, a black man with dreadlocks and an overweight white woman. The couple were the only customers in the diner besides Andre. They stank of cigarettes and urine-soaked newspaper. They had hands that were ashy in the creases, they had nails that were caked with dirt. They carried garbage bags full of cans: blue, transparent, apparently for recyclables. Ingrid excused herself. The woman’s gaze lingered momentarily on Andre, and Andre turned to the window to watch the people in their suits walk from work.
Ingrid sat down again.
“I can smell the germs from here,” he said.
“You’re never in on Fridays.”
“I’m covering for someone at work tomorrow. An unhappy situation.”
“They collect on the East Side in the afternoons, Fridays, Saturdays, occasionally Tuesdays. Their names are Fred and Rita.”
“They’re good people.”
“They look like it.”
He finished his gin and tonic and asked her for another.
Ingrid went to the bar, returned, set his drink on the table too loudly, and wiped down the booth behind him. He put his chin on top of the wood panel that divided the cushioned back of his booth from the cushioned back of the booth behind him and told her that Lemieux fired another salesman in his department.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Don’t apologize. You know I’m a germaphobe.”
She nodded, without making eye contact and said, “I know that.” When Fred and Rita closed their menus, she walked over to their table and took their order.
Ingrid returned and said, “Broken windows” as though out-of-the-blue, and Andre shook his head and ran his hand through his hair, thinking of a funny joke. “Any romance in your life?” Ingrid asked, and for a moment he felt distant enough from Ingrid that he wondered whether she was teasing him. He said, “None for me,” picked several crumbs absentmindedly from the table-top, whisked them onto the floor, and took a sip of his drink.
“You know, Ingrid, I appreciate the way you put up with me. I really do. I’m distracted by a lot of things, and of course one of the things that distracts me is my lack of money. In fact,” Andre laughed, “I don’t really believe my other qualities, if I’m being honest with myself, have any meaning, because I don’t have money.”
“Money,” she said, in a voice that mocked.
“Money is important.”
“Oh please. You’re not half as cynical as think you are. You can apologize, and that’s unique. Most men never learn how to apologize.”
“You’re not half as carved in stone as you think you are.”
Andre laughed with a vocal dance, a performance, something learned and imitated. He said, “You didn’t have a doctor’s appointment earlier today. Let me tell you, you see yourself under that fluorescence, in those sorts of gowns, and the best thing you can do is ask to have your pupils removed and your body cast in plaster.”
“You’re very charming and handsome, but then again you know exactly what you have and have not. You aren’t a Greek statue.”
“Just wait until I get drunk and I get gay. See how you feel about me when I get gay.”
Ingrid put her hand to her chest. “I love you when you get gay.”
“I’ll get very,” he affected a British accent. “Proper.”
“I love when you get proper. Andre, why does no one want to keep you? I would keep you. Where is your line of land-owning suitors?”
“You really care about me, don’t you?”
“I would if you were straight.”
“I would care about you if you had land.”
“If only you were straight. I even told Ralph that when he was alive.”
“Oh, Ralph could get jealous.” Andre batted his hand at her and turned a deep shade of red. He knew how he seemed, like an old man. He took it on himself to change the subject. He thought of something to talk about. “So the new hire at Lemieux is hot.”
“Just my type.”
“Well. Maybe you’ll just have to fall in love.”
“Maybe you’ll share all the same interests, like clothing, and prophylactics.”
“Does he look gay?”
“Of course…I think.”
“Of course you do,” Ingrid said, and attended to something in the kitchen. Returning, she said, “Did I tell you about the guy I broke up with recently?”
He shook his head.
“He was 61.”
Andre looked as though he did not know whether he was supposed to be surprised.
“He is 61, you mean, unless you broke up with him and he died.”
I know that what he said was true, that he felt strongly about me, but the way he expressed it seemed dishonest, not the way you seem dishonest, when you pretend to be cynical, but dishonest in a sentimental, Hallmark way.
“He is 61,” Ingrid laughed, “I liked him for a while, but he had the habit, which charmed me at first, of making gestures that were obviously larger than his feelings. I know that he did not like me as much as he said he did, but I also know that he operated in constant fear of losing me. I know that what he said was true, that he felt strongly about me, but the way he expressed it seemed dishonest, not the way you seem dishonest, when you pretend to be cynical, but dishonest in a sentimental, Hallmark way.”
“So he was desperate. Who is he?”
“His name is Kenny. He fixes cars in Bushwick.”
Andre did not say anything for several seconds.
“Is that in Queens?”
“And what were the kinds of things he said?”
“Oh, he bought me things he couldn’t afford and said he loved me before he did. He made many a cringe-worthy statement or suggestion that ultimately only accentuated the age difference.”
“61 isn’t old. Someone older would not be such a fool.”
“It made me feel guilty, and guilt isn’t sexy. But you also have to remember that Kenny is a different kind of man than you are.”
“Does he like you as much as I do?”
Andre nodded and finished his gin. A milkshake appeared in the kitchen hole and Ingrid brought it to Fred and Rita’s table. She refreshed Andre’s drink. When Ingrid sat down again, Andre began to speak immediately. “You’re an unusually attractive woman, Ingrid, you know that. Even though I don’t consider Kenny old, I can’t help but think that you aren’t interested in handsomeness and attractiveness and sexiness if you dated someone who was 61.”
Andre sipped his gin and looked down. “You heard me. I know why you’re interested in men who are older than you are.”
“Because I find them attractive.”
“Is that why?” Andre smiled at the table.
“Do you think,” she added, “I would date him if he wasn’t?”
“I don’t know.”
“What are you saying?”
“I dated Ralph when he was in his sixties and I was in my forties. This is years before we met you. We still had a good sex life then. But Ralph was in his seventies when we started to come to the diner.”
“So how old is the boy you’re training?”
“I think his file said he was born in 1961.”
“He’s 28. That’s not young.”
“His name is Brad and you should see the picture he submitted with his application file. He looks like a high schooler, honestly. He’s blond, and in the photograph he stands in front of the blue backdrop professional photographers sometimes use when they shoot children. You know, on the news, when a kid dies in a drunk-driving accident and they show his picture? At least he looks nice, smiling, in a collar, with no graphic images on his shirt. It’s a standard of the formal wear business, of course, to ask for a photograph of the applicant, but I don’t understand why anyone would submit a photograph with a job application and not present the most normal, warm, ordinary self they have. The thought that must pass through the head of a kid who does that.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know better. Maybe he doesn’t want the job very much.”
“There are a trillion reasons for people to judge you, Ingrid, and you never, ever give them any more reasons than they already have.” Andre, suddenly emphatic, drunk, pounded the table with the side of his hand, “If you’re going to send a photo at all, which means you know something about the way things work, you send a nice photo, I mean really. You send one where you’re dressed up nicely. You don’t look like a slob. You don’t wear shorts. You don’t have facial hair. You don’t look high.”
“But this boy did nothing wrong. He sent a nice photo.”
Ingrid began to laugh. “Then what’s the problem?”
“When Ralph and I lived on 5th Avenue. You know that Ralph and I lived on 73rd, before we met you, in the ’60s and ’70s? The neighbours acted snooty with me, and let me tell you, they did not care that I was queer. I have never been flamboyant and they would not know a gay man if they found one in their pussies, they cared that Ralph was an eligible and successful bachelor and I was his unworthy friend.”
Ingrid made a performative noise of sympathy.
“Let me tell you about Mrs. Fitzsimmons. Have I told you about Mrs. Fitzsimmons? It took a full year before she would even acknowledge me in the hallway.”
“Did she try to put the moves on your Ralph before you came around?”
Andre took a sip of his drink.
“You know, Ingrid, I know you judge me for judging your friends,” he dropped to a whisper, “Fred and Rita, but I have fears that are serious, and judgments that are purely superficial in kind, like everyone else in this city. You have to know that when I judge people for superficial reasons, I am being dry. Not facetious, not dry in my alcohol habits, but dry. I would never, ever actively judge a man for the amount of money he had, not like Mrs. Fitzsimmons, because nowhere in the world is money a superficial matter, and anyone who believes that money is a superficial matter has never been judged like I’ve been judged, nor have they encountered the sort of problems I have now.”
Andre took a sip of his drink.
“I need money.”
“That I know, lover.”
“But right now, I plan to spend my money on another drink.”
Ingrid laughed the same way she always did, a reedy and musical note followed by a snort. She stood and walked to the bar. Andre was now drunk. He only needed to drink a little to be silly, but a lot to be drunk. It might be a predicament of his age. He wondered whether he had a higher alcohol tolerance when he was a kid.
Ingrid sat down again and said, “All Matt talks about is money. I used to think it was because he was a crude young person. Now I worry that it’s because I worried about money in front of him when he was a child. I try not to do that anymore. My car needs a new steering column, which I can’t afford. But I don’t talk about it. Who can stand people who talk about money? Even people who talk about love are less boring than people who talk about money.”
Ingrid opened her mouth to laugh, and Andre stared at her as though he heard nothing she said.
“Have I ever told you about Marshall?” he asked.
“The boy Marshall. The one Matthew’s age.”
“My son Matt?”
“No, I’m sorry, I was talking about Matthew, you know that Matthew, the one I’m talking about, the Juilliard student who comes in here and studies scores at the counter while he eats.”
“You have a better memory for customers than I do.”
“Of course you thought I was talking about your boy,” Andre paused. “Matt. I won’t bore you anymore. I won’t go on.”
“You must go on. I’m interested in what you have to say.”
“Well, I met Marshall, when was it, 1981? ’82? It was after Ralph died. Had I sold the house in Connecticut? I believe I was in the process of selling the house in Connecticut. Marshall was a kid, 23, 24, like I said. I met him at The Toolbox on 94th, which hadn’t closed yet. When did The Toolbox close?”
“I don’t know. ’85?”
“1985. Good girl, Ingrid. If The Toolbox closed in ’85, I’m going to place him in ’81. Matthew. What an oddity. Matthew.”
“You mean Marshall.”
“Sorry, I mean Marshall. He was an extraordinarily handsome young man from a nice family. His father was a professor—at Princeton, I think—his mother a homemaker. He wanted to be a painter and most of his friends were straight. A very gentle and unusually mature kid. As I remember it, he began to speak to me, one night at the bar, he told me a joke. He must have been drunk at the time. He was often drunk, or on drugs. He usually came in around three in the morning, told wild stories. He was a very good storyteller, and his stories always took turns that were unexpected, and revealed that he knew more about life than I would have ever expected. I had not wanted anyone since Ralph. I thought I would never develop a crush again. I was worried, in pursuing such a young kid, of rejection and all its indignities, and also of the idea that he might be trying to use me in some way—for money, I guess. Once, when I was drunk, I mustered up some courage and invited Marshall to Connecticut. I really thought he might come with me, but Marshall said he was busy. I brooded for a few days before I got over it. What choice did I have? Marshall was free, and some people’s freedom will not be abraded. I thought that maybe I could give him something else, if he would not go for a weekend out of the city, maybe he would take some fatherly advice. And so I tried to be friendly to him, a good listener, but listening to him only made me tired and angry. I did not want to make friends with a kid. I’m sorry to say that I treated him more and more coldly until he no longer spoke to me at all.
And then one day Marshall stopped coming to the bar. I searched him in the phone book, but I didn’t know his last name, you understand. I brooded. I looked and I looked, Ingrid, I was so mad at myself and mad at him, just to leave like that. One late night at The Toolbox, maybe half a year after I last saw him, I got very drunk and leaned in toward Mathias, who was a bartender, and I said, ‘Do you remember that kid Marshall who used to come in here? Could you tell me what happened to him?’ Mathias looked at me for a moment, opened his mouth, and looked back at the liquor wall, which he was wrapping in cellophane. When his manager took the register into the cellar, he motioned toward the door, took me outside and said, ‘Cigarette?’ I shook my head. ‘When was the last time you spoke to Marshall?’ Mathias asked. I said that it’d been the last time he came to The Toolbox, three or four months ago. He put a hand on my shoulder and told me that Marshall was dead, and when I asked how he died, Mathias told me what I already knew, if I was being honest with myself, which is that Marshall had died of AIDS.”
Andre watched the emotions mingle in Ingrid’s face, until something approximate settled.
“Oh, Andre,” she leaned across the table and put a hand on his.
“Please. None of this, I didn’t think you would feel, it was a long time ago.”
“I don’t know what to say, I’m sorry, Jesus.”
“So now I know why he was so willing to talk to everyone, what accounted for his intelligence, his charm, why he seemed to be older than he was. He was going to die. He had that lifelike-ness, that vividness. I didn’t visit David Gordon when he was dying, and I knew David Gordon for 25 years. Then again, David hid the fact that he was sick from everyone. I didn’t visit Bill Meskowitz when he was dying, even though Bill visited Ralph and asked after Ralph when Ralph was sick. But David had moved out to California, after all. Everyone wants to keep their distance from people with disease. That’s the way it has always been, and the way it will be.”
“Andre, that’s terrible. Not what you did, but how you must have felt.”
“Oh, Ingrid, stop this nonsense right now. I don’t want to speak about this.”
“I’m just happy I didn’t sleep with him, of course.”
“I mean, of course.”
He smiled and took her hand firmly in his own. “Ingrid, let’s drop it, I’m sorry for bringing it up,” he said, trying his best to be condescending, and turned to look at Fred and Rita, both of whom were engrossed in their own conversation. He turned back to Ingrid and cocked his head. His smile became wider and sadder.
“Besides, I think I’ve told you that story before.”
She wriggled out of his grasp. “I would remember a story you told me about a dead boy the age of my son.”
“I have,” he laughed. “You are ly-ing. Admit it, Ingrid, I have.”
“Andre, this is serious. I don’t remember you telling me.”
“You’re just being nice.”
“I can be mean, too.”
“Oh dear,” he sing-songed. “I’m growing old and repeating the same stories. I’m growing boring. You’ll have to put me in diapers. My memory is shot.”
“The only person I’ve ever put in diapers is Matt. You aren’t growing boring. You aren’t old. You’re only morbid. And you pretend not to care about things that you in fact care about very much.”
He smiled at her.
“You may understand me, my dear.”
Andre turned and looked around the empty booths. The room expanded to give him perspective on himself, but he was sober enough that it never collapsed inward. He watched Fred drink his milkshake with a straw and Rita eat the excess from a metal cup with a spoon. Fred turned to look at Andre, who looked back until Fred looked away. Andre was drunk enough not to feel self-conscious, on account of the things he was saying. He felt fine, almost ebullient. Even the pain in his knee had been muffled by the alcohol, his back a dull and barely noticeable tinge. He turned to Ingrid again.
“I know I’m not boring,” he said, orienting his head toward the wall, his chin positioned slightly skyward as though to show a beatific profile. “Have I told you the story of the glamorous life Ralph and I led before he got ill?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, I don’t want to bore you.”
“Haven’t I told you stories about men I’ve dated, from Matt’s-dad-who-wouldn’t-pay-alimony to Short Raymond to Tall Ian to Old Kenny?”
Andre rubbed his chin. “True.”
“It’s 15 minutes or so before the yuppies start coming in from the bars and work gets hellish.”
“So you want to hear the ramblings of Nostalgic Andre until then?”
“I’d rather talk to you than the other waitress.”
“Unfortunately, I don’t have any nifty adjectives to put before Ralph’s name.”
Ingrid laughed. “You told me he was jealous. And insecure.”
“He was both of those things, as well as kind. It was complicated, you understand, what we had together. As well as unlikely.”
“A successful relationship is always complicated and unlikely.”
Seize the day, Ingrid, is all I can say. I never gave myself any time to think about desire, and whenever I did, I felt as though I would die from anxiety.
“It was very unlikely back then. We met in 1960 and he was 15 years older than me. I was a loner, emotionally immature. Every time I developed a cold, I got scared. It was irrational, the way I acted, and I had limited interaction with culture. Ralph taught me much of what I know now. I was extraordinarily stunted and my experience with men,” he dropped to a whisper, “was drastically limited. Sexual encounters. Hah. Seize the day, Ingrid, is all I can say. I never gave myself any time to think about desire, and whenever I did, I felt as though I would die from anxiety.”
He sipped his gin.
“For a while I lived on 83rd and Broadway, which was an absolute slum full of blacks and Puerto Ricans and single white people who no longer lived with their mothers and their fathers. My apartment was a hovel with heavy pre-war walls and high ceilings, the maid’s room of a classic six. My two roommates, who lived in the larger rooms, bothered me for different reasons. One played the organ at a church on West End and came from a prosperous family and lived off the money he received from them. The other bartended downtown and returned home at five-thirty in the morning with his co-workers and the booze and the loud records they liked to play. I never drank back then. Me and the organist, Dennis, were always annoyed at the bartender. Loud. Inconsiderate. But Dennis and I were both big sissies and we never said anything. Dennis died in ’85 or ’86.”
Andre laughed. “At the time we lived together, I was 36 years old, he was 24, and we acted like we were 16.”
“I guess the fact that I was more or less a virgin at the time—there had been encounters, but only a few of them—well, I had a lot of phobias when I was a kid and clearly,” Andre laughed again, “given the plague, my phobias were based in fact, or at least some intelligent prognostication. You know—I realize this is a bit of a tangent, but bear with me—my sister had polio when she was a teenager, and when the health inspector quarantined our tenement, I was convinced she would die, and that I would be infected. Not only did my sister and I share a bedroom, which moonlit as the living room, I always liked to say, we shared a bed. I sometimes thought that my parents knew nothing about contagion. I believe there was an incident—I’m not sure, since my father was not an open man—in which my mother and father were physically threatened into silence by another immigrant with a sick child while they were on the boat to America, and I can only assume that incidents like these contributed to the fact that they never took my sister to a doctor. Oh my God, the stupidity, the ignorance. My well-meaning parents. They allowed me to continue sleeping in her bed. I was prized, coddled, male—Andryusha. When I try hard enough, I can remember an instance in which I threw a tantrum when they asked me to sleep with them in their room instead of sharing the living room with my sister. Can you imagine? How ill-equipped they were to deal with a situation like this? We had literally no idea my sister was developing paralysis until a neighbour found her collapsed on the landing outside.
I’m not sure how long passed between that and what happened next. Two health inspectors pounded on the door. In my mind, they wore masks with large beaks, but I sometimes think that I mixed this memory up with the memory of a replica of a 14th-century medieval tapestry Ralph purchased to hang on the wall in Connecticut. They said our neighbours called in about someone sick. I sat in the corner silently. ‘A sick person,’ they repeated, in German, and gestured toward the bed, where my sister lay. They asked something in Italian. ‘Poliomyelitis,’ they said, ‘Infantile paralysis.’ My parents, seated around the sewing and dinner table, said nothing. I was seven years old and the strangers turned to address me.
‘Sick person,’ they said in English.
I said, ‘Yes.’
They took me into the hallway, down the stairs. My mother and father pleaded and screamed and grasped for me. A police officer guarded the apartment door. The neighbours, Italian and German and Jewish, a few Russians like us, watched through keyholes as their children streamed outside and stood against the walls and pointed. I was very frightened but I also half-believed these bird-like creatures had freed me. I wanted them to free my sister, but all they could maybe do was save her from polio. I got in the back of their van and they covered me in some sort of plastic material and put something on my face.
When they removed it, I was crying. I sat on a leather bench in a hospital ward. ‘We would like to ask you a few questions,’ said a man, attaching a beak as he stepped toward me. He spent three hours interrogating me about every place that I had been, and every place my sister had been, and every place that my mother and father had been, for the past several weeks. My parents’ names were published in the newspaper. We were quarantined in our apartment during the time it took my sister to become non-contagious. I remember the two meals they served us each day, the powdered milk and the cardboard ham and the rubber chicken. I remember stubbing my toe on my sister’s leg brace in bed and slapping her face in anger. The other residents of the tenement would not speak to us for a year or so. Some still believed we would get them sick. Others, I imagine, believed we faked the illness for the free food.
My father had opened a tailors and dry cleaners several years before my sister became ill, but the bank foreclosed soon after she recovered. He not only taught me how to sew, mend and make alterations, he also taught me how to crochet and knit, so I could take the train up to Central Park and sell the little quilts and designs and blankets we made in our home. I missed two grades and graduated high school when I was 16. My sister’s husband got me a job. God, were my parents happy when she married. She used a cane since she was a teenager, and they thought that no one would ever marry a cripple. Then again, it turned out that my brother-in-law wanted someone he could control, scream at, belittle. But so he found me work at Mr. Lang’s formal outfitters on 85th and 2nd, a small boutique. I worked as a fitter. For years, tailoring was my whole existence. I liked to walk the several avenues from Mr. Lang’s store and eat my lunch in Central Park, and while I ate my lunch, I fantasized about designing my own men’s clothing, and I spent time drawing, suit cuts and tie prints, sometimes dresses, during my lunch break and the rest of the day. I was working there when I met Ralph.”
“You told me about Mr. Lang before,” said Ingrid.
“I probably did. He died and was incinerated by the city. No relatives to lay claim to his body, things sold at auction.” Andre brushed at his cheeks, taking a long drink of his gin. “How sad is it that this is what makes me blubber in public, the death of a boss? One I never liked very much when he was alive.”
“You aren’t blubbering.”
“I am blubbering, like a fool.”
“You’re certainly not a fool, Andre, please continue.”
“I’m a blub,” Andre said, because he enjoyed the way it sounded.
“At Mr. Lang’s store, I fit Ralph in a blazer and hemmed his khakis. He was delighted with the fitting I did for him, I thought at the time, when he asked me to come look at some suits he inherited from his father, ones he might want to mend. He already lived in the Windermere, then. I have an image of Ralph lying on the couch, head hung over the back of the armrest as he spoke to me, while I sat on a chair and repositioned my hands. He mentioned Berlin, where he served as a military police officer in ’46 and ’47. It must not have been then that he first told me about his life in Berlin, in detail. Whenever it was, I listened closely. I didn’t realize that his story was a seduction. I don’t know if you heard him talk about how much freedom he had there, his lifestyle—how he could never carry on the way that he did when he was in the army in America. Frankly, he also liked that he had some distance from his mother, who was very domineering and from Syosset and had pressured him into volunteering in the first place. His mother was a piece of work, let me tell you, but she always liked me. Ralph told me that he met a Berliner teenager one day who charmed and befriended him. They romped around and went to all the bars and cafes where the soldiers went. There was apparently another student he fondled while he was in boarding school, but otherwise Ralph had never been with a man before.
Anyway, Ralph met the teenager’s family, who lived in a bombed-out building that had no pipes, no wiring. Ralph tried to help them out financially. At least, he made promises. He told the boy that he knew the man who controlled utilities in the American zone, that he could ask this man to restore electricity to the boy’s building. He was handy, even then. He could help the boy repair the sagging walls and ceiling. He could help the boy paint over the water damage.
But confusingly, the boy drugged and robbed him one night. Ralph was still woozy with sedatives, taking his motorcycle to his young lover’s building the next morning. The bomb-wrecked apartment had been boarded up. The walls had been stripped of their paint and the wires had been stripped of their brass and bronze parts. The next time he went into the saloon, a soldier called him a beard and Ralph broke his nose. He was sent to military court, and his uncle, who was a general, saved him from being dishonourably discharged. He went to law school back in the states. By the time we met, Ralph was 51. I was 36, and I was just beginning my youth.
Like I said before, I always felt insecure about my intelligence and my worldliness in front of Ralph. My friends were few and far between. In front of Ralph’s friends, I felt like a dolt, tongue-tied and phony. Whenever we went out to dinner or to parties, I was afraid of appearing stupid. It seemed like Ralph’s friends—lawyers, businessmen, philanthropists, dilettantes, spouses—quietly wondered why Ralph kept me around.
I moved away from my drawings of clothing and toward other interests. Social life. Ralph’s work. Buying furniture. Ralph was the sort to become less comfortable in his skin the more comfortable I became in my own skin, assailing my taste when we were alone, correcting me when we were with company. He always kept me abreast of any physical changes I incurred—weight I gained, shirts I wore that he did not like, pimples. If I had no insecurities at all, I guess he must have thought, I’d leave him for someone younger.
Every once in a while, I took Ralph to eat at my sister’s house. He endured her husband, who dangled the job at Mr. Lang’s over my head, and asked me when I was going to get married, but treated my sister less cruelly in front of Ralph, who had a patrician way of intimidating petty people.
We moved in together after Mr. Lang died and I could no longer afford my rent. Ralph suggested I apply for a job at Bergdorf, at Bloomingdale’s, but working as a fitter did not interest me anymore. He was punched in the gut one morning while he jogged in Central Park and we began to spend more and more time in Connecticut and less time in the city. I think you remember Ralph telling you about a fellow named Tom, our neighbour in New Canaan. He and Tom were very close. Maybe closer than Ralph and I were. Tom raided the beach at Normandy. Or so he said. I never liked Tom and he never liked me. But of course Ralph thought more and more about the past as he got older, about the war, and Tom could supposedly relate in a way that I could not. I took a job at Brooks Brothers, mostly to give myself reason to be in the city. One day I got a call from Ralph, ‘I want to sell the apartment in the Windermere,’ he said. He wanted to invest in some lumber company Tom, that snake, started. Ralph’s doctor told me once that his brain might have been addled by the cancer already then.”
Andre looked at Ingrid for several seconds. He looked away. He took a sip of his gin, to fill the space, while she glanced at a crop of young people walking into the restaurant and patted his hand in the way of someone who wants to end a conversation.
“I still believe Tom to be a crook.”
“You told me that before, honey.”
Andre wiped his eyes. “I actually questioned whether Ralph would leave the Connecticut house to me. In the end, he had become such a different person. He did love me, you know. I made an idiotic sale. That place had too much human residue. From the shade of the paint to the smell. It was a terrible time. A buyer’s market. A factory built in Scotts Corners gave off fumes that blew over. I was too embarrassed to come in here, for years, since Ralph liked this place, when he was going to Mount Sinai at the end, and he felt good enough to eat.”
Ingrid tied her apron behind her back. “You have to stop feeling bad and apologizing for not coming in.”
“Do I do that? I don’t feel bad about anything.” He shook his head, took his wallet from his pocket and pulled a photograph from the front slot. “Well, I mean, I’m not apologizing. I know you have to go, but one more thing. I have a picture of my sister, may she rest in peace.” He set the photograph on the table, turned it around, pressed his finger to the date, and turned it around again. “This is the place I lived in the beginning of the Depression. It’s a bad picture of my sister, and one doesn’t see many bad pictures of people at that time. I asked her about it before she died, and she said the photographer was a young artist doing WPA work. He wanted to document tenement scenes. He was probably a socialist. He gave my sister and me a copy, I guess, because he thought we were cute. I think my sister and I look slightly insane, unhinged, like actual kids, with no idea that anyone is watching us. I like this photo because it’s so vivid and real. It isn’t composed like most of the photos of the time.
It isn’t a statue, but something about it speaks to a time and place, if not particularly the people involved.
“Sometimes, I look at it and feel like my family was rich, and other times, I feel like they were exactly what they were. We each wore the same shirt, pants, socks and underwear every day that year. I look at my sister and remember that she was subject to the same passing moments and emotions as everyone else, even though I would never call her a particularly introspective or strange child. It isn’t a statue, but something about it speaks to a time and place, if not particularly the people involved.”
Before she hurried off, Ingrid spent a moment looking at the picture, and Andre could tell that she was not as moved as she said she was.
At the Gristedes on Lexington, he bought an apple and a Snickers Bar, because Snickers Bars were two for 50 cents. Checking out, he told the clerk, “I found Rice Pilaf on the shelf with the potato chips. This place is horribly disorganized.”
The clerk had tattoos and maintained a dour silence.
“I just thought you should know,” Andre said.
He woke in the morning on the corner of 62nd and 3rd. He heard the police lead a homeless man down the curb and into a paddywagon. Andre was stretched across the backseat of his car. Looking at his watch, he realized that it was time to move the car for street cleaning, but then he remembered that there was no street cleaning on Saturdays.
He went back to Gristedes, having sworn only the previous night that he would never go someplace so poorly managed again, and bought a roll for breakfast. Looking in his wallet, he opened his mouth in surprise to see that he spent 45 dollars last night. What had he told Ingrid, anyway? And how long must he have taken in the telling to spend this kind of cash?
After Brad makes his first sale, Andre says, “In the ’60s and ’70s, when I had money and lived on 5th Avenue and 73rd, in the Windermere, I used to come to Lemieux all of the time. Obviously, it was an unsustainable life, but it was fun while it lasted. Then, there was a big, grand chandelier that hung from the ceiling, but the floor tiles they used were the same, all original. And if you look at the top of the walls, you can see the nice trim.” Brad nods and smiles, appearing pleased with himself.
Andre leads him up four flights of escalator steps, through the women’s department and then another wall-coloured door. In a small and unfinished room with cement floors, several sewing tables are lined in three rows. On the far side of the room, a plastic bin holds excess fabric. Andre walks to the bin, sorts through the fabric, takes a piece of red cloth, and sits down at a sewing table. He switches the machine on. He wants to see if Brad was telling the truth about his skills.
Andre folds back the edge of the fabric, folds it back the other way, and pushes it through the needle, navigating the material with his hands resting on its surface.
“I forgot how much I enjoy doing this,” he says. He hums an energetic tune to himself, a piano sonata by Mozart, and sways while he follows the zigzag of the stitch, before he remembers to stand and let Brad try his hand.
Andre shuts the lights out. Marcus pulls down the shutter, locks the padlock, flashes a peace sign to the others, and heads north toward the train. “You sew so well,” Andre says, while he and Brad walk east from the store on 58th.
“Who taught you? Your mother? … Your grandmother?”
“So there’s still a weekend to be had. What’s up with you tonight?”
“This particular night?”
“This very one.”
“I have to go home to my wife. She wants me there to help her make dinner.”
Andre raises an eyebrow and stops at the corner. “You’re married?”
Brad nods and peers down the street for a downtown bus.
“What can one say about that. How long have you been married?”
“Since I was 24.”
Andre steps into a phone booth on 58th near 3rd Avenue and puts 25 cents in the slot. He presses four numbers on the keypad and hears the sound of his own voice. Beep.
“Hi, Mr. Pavlenko, this is Tricia, from Dr. Longamino’s office. I’m calling because the facility sent us the X-ray results. They do show some loss of the articular cartilage between the bone spur and the meniscus of the left knee. The images are not enough to make a diagnosis, but there are some tests and procedures we typically schedule when an image reveals cartilage loss. Give us a call on Monday morning and we’ll schedule your next appointment. Thanks so much and have a good rest of the weekend.”
He walks to 3rd Avenue, enters the crowded diner, and beckons Ingrid over when she emerges from the swinging kitchen doors.
“I’m in love with the new boy in my department.”
She stares at him blankly.
“Also, I got my results,” he says.
“You’re busy today.”
“Kenny came in here earlier and left flowers with his check.”
“Kenny,” ponders Andre, “Is he your friend?”
“No,” Ingrid turns around, “Now he’s my customer, apparently.”
She takes some picture menus from the bar and greets a couple who sits down with the expectant look of two people about to begin a long conversation. Andre glances at the Lucky Strike clock above the most gleaming and expensive bottle of gin.
The bathhouse down the block closed last year, followed closely by his favourite theater on 42nd Street. Now Dylan hangs out at Rounds on 53rd, where he smokes a cigarette while he leans on the wall outside.
Andre leaves the diner and walks south on 3rd Avenue, past the yuppies and the homeless. He walks with a limp, his bowtie still tight around his neck and his duffel bag slung over his shoulder. The people he passes on the street wear Paul Stuart shirts, round glasses, busy tie prints if they worked on Saturdays. They love the colour salmon, their loafers, and the names of the places where they went to school. They are the same people that make him feel uncomfortable sitting in a diner booth on a night like tonight. He bends his back slightly and puts a hand on his thigh while he walks.
On 53rd, Andre takes a left. Outside of the bar, gays stand around in their little jean cut-offs, their frou-frou and frilly shirts, their sweatpants and sneakers, their pouty faces. A paddywagon rolls past. Andre sees himself the way they see him, the sort of old man they know because he walks the streets outside, never venturing into Rounds. He doesn’t need to get scorned by bargoers, disappointed, or drunk, to come out and speak to the working boys. After all, most days, Andre prefers sleeping with working boys to people who are not.
He finds the way they speak to him humiliating.
Hear them as he hears them.
“Where’s your car, daddy?” says one.
Another says, “You have to come speak to me, baby, I can’t come speak to you, but if you come initiate conversation, we can chat.”
Andre likes the boy on their fringes in a graphic T-shirt and jeans, because he makes eye contact and says nothing, because he puts on something masculine but simultaneously seems like a submissive kid.
“My name is Andre.”
“That’s a very modern name, Dylan. I met someone today named Brad. How’s that for a modern name?”
“It’s probably short for Bradley or Bradford.”
Andre laughs. “You’re cute.”
“You are too.”
“I’m not as cute as you are, let me tell you.”
“We have a different appeal.”
“What an eloquent boy I’ve found myself,” Andre takes his hand. “You have dimples and I don’t. You have very soft palms.”
“Your hair is full, I can tell from looking at it.”
“Do you know how old I am?”
Dylan shakes his head and takes a drag on his cigarette.
“How old are you?”
“I’ll be 23 in a week.”
“Well I’m not telling you then.”
He leads the boy on 53rd and up 3rd Avenue. Most want him to take the car around and pick them up, and when Andre suggests he take the car around, the boy suggests they walk. Does he charge for walks? Andre has been fleeced before, and why hasn’t Dylan raised the subject of money? When they step onto 62nd Street, the boy puts a hand beneath his tuxedo shirt and feels his back.
Andre opens the car, pushes the passenger seat down, and throws his duffle bag in the back. He rights the passenger seat for the boy. He walks around the parking space and opens the driver’s side door.
“Where are we going?” the boy asks.
“We’re here,” Andre slides into his seat. He puts a hand on the side of the boy’s head, his hair very soft. “We’ve arrived.”
“Where do you live?”
“In New Jersey. I can’t go back there, too far to drive.”
“What town in New Jersey?”
“Where are you from?”
“Manhattan. Born and raised.”
The boy nods.
“They say regional accents are disappearing.”
“I can have a New York accent, if I want. I can have a gay accent, if I want. I can have a straight accent. Don’t forget, Dylan, you and I are queers, which makes us smarter, more creative, more witty, and tougher than anyone on the planet.”
Dylan nods blankly—or thoughtfully.
Andre says, “Have you ever been tested for HIV, Dylan?”
Andre has already pulled his pants down to his knees. His erection softens halfway up its pale, veined length. He masturbates himself.
“Give me head then,” he says.
Andre moves Dylan’s mouth where he wants his mouth, pushing him down and then pushing him away in order to jerk off. When he feels Andre getting close, Dylan looks up to see his free hand curl in concentration, his fingers splayed and bending. Semen forms in a bead on the tip of his penis. The bead gets larger and larger until it loses its integrity and begins to trickle.
“How much do I owe you?” Andre asks, buckling himself.
“Is 20 enough?”
Andre slips his wallet from his pocket and procures a bill he hides behind a sepia-toned photograph of two children.
“I’m not a prostitute.”
“Then why did you sleep with me?” He searches the boy’s features, really seeing them for the first time. “You’re handsome,” he says, motioning with the cash again.
“I slept with you because you’re handsome.”
“I already fell in love once today,” Andre marvels at something, “and spent all of my money.”
He pulls the boy’s face towards his own. With his tongue in the boy’s mouth, he takes his hand and leaves his last 20-dollar bill in his palm.
He does not notice the photograph of his sister flutter out of his wallet and land on the floor of the car. Dylan bends over and picks it up. He spends a moment looking at the two children before he hands the photograph to Andre and gets out of his car.
See Andre as Dylan sees him.
There is a dignity to the things he does, although the things he does are not dignified in nature. There is a towel on the backseat. He is a complete mystery. When he drives from New York to New Jersey, does he take the bridge, or the tunnel? Dylan imagines the street Andre takes through the park, the street that he takes west to the highway.
To him, they are one and the same. Regeneration and death have no meaningful distinctions.
He does not like what has happened to this city. He does not like what will happen. To him, they are one and the same. Regeneration and death have no meaningful distinctions.
He is driving past the cliff-side condominiums of an unflattened Manhattan and merging onto the George Washington Bridge. He is saluting the lack of traffic. He is focusing on the road. He is thinking of nothing else, certainly not his worries. He is not having a past. He is not having a history at present.
But who can say how it will feel when he walks into his building, up the stairs, opens the door of his apartment, takes off his clothing, and gets into bed, alone?
Certainly not Dylan.
They are each about to find out.