David Steinhardt has written relentlessly for over 40 years while seldom publishing. As an editor he shaped The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos before being dumped by Brian Greene for the subsequent book for attempting to negotiate a fee. (That book was, in his absence, critically maligned.). As copy chief for American Cheerleader and several dance magazines, his proudest accomplishment was ensuring the word "fat" was always followed by the phrase "an essential nutrient." The current novella is a rewrite of Steinhardt's honors thesis novel from 1983.
Festival of Language events: 2014 Seattle AWP, a reading eXperiment
David L. Steinhardt
Some things I know, some things I got but-just-huge questions about. I know my parents love me (while both being nuts), that the Mets suck (but not ten years ago), and that Ronny Raygunz will never be president (since he's senile, while Camp David seals Carter's reelection anyway). And (of course) that V-C will never go out with me, no matter how much I try to will that through my dreams.
I don't know the mysterious stuff, like what really happened at Three Mile Island, if I'll get into a decent college, or if I'll ever have a girlfriend, a family, a career, or end up one of those guys who can't shave his neck right, works as a messenger in Midtown, and has to live somewhere with the john down the hall.
I worry a lot. Maybe everyone does. Another thing I don't know.
Jack's picking me up for a party tonight. He goes to Dalton, where the kids' parents are famous and if the girls aren't gorgeous, they spend a fortune trying. He's about five-four, and I'm only a few inches taller, but we've known each other since nursery school and more girls notice me than him, so I get to go. If I can keep from looking girls in the eyes so much, I might even be able to cultivate an air of mystery for once.
At the front door, Jack frowns and says, "You're not wearing that shirt." Strides across the foyer and down the hall to my room. When I get to my door he's already in my closet, tossing my purple button-down at me.
Jack's half black, which means he dresses better. I'm half French, half Jewish, which means I can keep three buttons open to show off silky curls on my pecs.
His plan as always is for me to draw 'em while he charms 'em. Fine with me. I hold my own. Kelly Knippler let me feel up her flat chest during a backrub at the last one, then kissed me on the lips after I walked her home.
Party's in a duplex penthouse on Park in the 70s. Oscars and Emmys line high shelves in the dining room behind a foyer ringed with Greek columns. "Daddy writes for the screen," the hostess tells a tall, geeky guy.
And Jack's gone. He'll reappear when I'm talking to a pretty girl. Another thing I know.
Hands over my eyes. "Guess who?"
I say, "The girl who never returns a phone message?" and turn around.
"My shoulders are ever so sore," Kelly says, doing Shirley Temple's voice and scowling like her too.
"Maybe later," I say, trying out the mystery thing but ready to regret if I don't get to tickle her yellow-pink dots again.
"Be that way!" She skips off to the spiral staircase and swings on it like she's six. My stomachache? What parties feel like.
In movies, guys just walk up to girls. A tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed beauty stares at the golden trophies. "Hi, I'm Paul," I say.
"Yeah?" She doesn't even look at me. I walk away. No one at the concert grand in the living room. I try out my slow, lounge-act Back in the USSR. The tall girl sits at the edge of the piano bench and says, "Are you really from Miami?" Then, "Did you write that? It's good." I walk away again.
Honestly, my dreams make more sense than this party and it's barely been ten minutes. Then V-C walks through the front door, in a floor-length Indian-print skirt and bone-colored blouse, with acres of curls bubbling from her head like somebody shook up a bottle of Hires.
Bridey Volk-Cohen doesn't go to Dalton. Or to my school, UNIS. She's sort of a legend. She understudied Annie in the first-ever production, she smokes pot in Sheep's Meadow after school, and on weekends she trains for the Moscow Olympics on horseback. She passes through a track-spot for art, lighting up maroon silver dollars in her sheer bra. It's Chaplin, showing you the leading lady like she's a Renoir, but rated R. I swallow and remind myself to breathe.
She walks toward me. "Polly's friend, right?" The British insistence in her voice is a from a family home in Wales, though she got the Depression-era American accent just right as Annie, before I got taken out at intermission. "Your name's Paul?"
"Like the deadest of the dead popes." Still can't tell if she really has one green eye, one violet one, like people say. Must not stare into girls' eyes at parties.
"I hate popes! They can all die. I live at Beekman Place."
"UN traffic must've been--"
"Unreal, yeah." The first quiet moment, and she's not moving on. "Polly told me to come, but now she's sick, and I never get to go to parties."
"I hope so! Rained so much in Connecticut we can't jump, so I gave myself a holiday. Want to dance or something? Is there a balcony? I've got grass if you've got a light."
It's not that we'd never spoken, but she's never used my name before. I say, "I think there's a grilling patio."
V-C curls her fingers into the crook of my arm and leads me, though I'm walking first, through the partying mob overloading the kitchen. Her wiggling thumb above my elbow feels even better than a licked earlobe, which means it's the best sensation of my life so far. As I get the terrace in view Jack blocks our way, a drained Heineken in one fist. "Got a light?" I ask him.
"Bridey?" he says.
"Do I know you?" she says, still slithering toward the smokers.
"We met at Goodspeed in '76," Jack shouts.
She wriggles ahead, now dragging me backwards, and calls out, "Sorry, don't remember!"
Seventeen storeys up, with views of water towers and a Con Ed smokestack, V-C tosses her joint, Bogart style, the final inch to her stonecarved, cupid's-bow lips. She raises an eyebrow to get someone's cigarette to light it off. She tokes and offers: "Care for some?"
"I would," Jack says, knocking partiers into one another to squeeze through.
Jack has gotten high exactly two embarrassing times in his life. I say to V-C, "This is my oldest friend Jack, who's pretending he smokes grass to talk to you."
She smiles and hands him the joint. He inhales, coughs quickly, and hands it back to her. "My dad introduced us," he tells her, dropping his name, a famous choreographer.
"I wish I could remember," she says.
I grin at Jack. He's playing his cards, but I'm winning. She passes me the herb and I take a tiny hit. The visions I get from smoking are way too powerful and confusing for tonight. "Shotgun?" I ask her.
She says, "Sure!" so I put the lit end in my mouth and brush my left nostril against hers as I blow. All the rehearsals with my mom's Parliaments for this moment were worth it. Then she says, "You want one?"
Problem: the girl's got lungs. No way I'm spelunking into my subconscious. "I'm good," I say, passing her the roach.
Jack lowers his voice a full register, his eyelids to half-mast. "I'd like one," he says. V-C draws in breath, puts the ember in her smile, and presses the tip of her nose against Jack's until he doubles over coughing.
Donna Summer's rocking out the stereo in the den. I say, "I wanna dance," as if I weren't just echoing Bridey's idea.
"Me too," she says. "Want the rest of this?" she asks Jack, who's teary-eyed and alternately coughing and retching but trying to stand upright. He can't hide his disgust at the fat little roach, but takes it between fingers still holding the empty Heineken, the other hand on his thigh for balance.
"Toodles!" I shout at him over the din as V-C takes my elbow again and pleasures me through the crowd.
New problem: how to dance. I have no idea how other people stay smooth moment to moment. The instant I notice I'm not awkward, I am. I have to pretend I'm someone else, which only lasts so long. I dance as the Pips, trying not to look at V-C much, but she seems happy. She tells me, "I like how you move." I imagine fainting from the compliment.
Sheik Yerbutti follows Hot Stuff. OK to dance with stiff irony to Zappa, right? At Take the Long Way Home, V-C takes both my hands while the harmonica wails, like, Cut the clowning and slowdance, but I'm not sure she wants to feel the bulge in my Lee's so I slo-mo jitterbug and spin her--en dansant le rock--still fresh from July's French and Myth Studies in Brittany even if I can't string together more than four measures at a time. I'm nearing panic by the end of the song, so I laugh, kiss her fingers, and take a step back, making the face that says we both must be so exhausted it's time to go make out.
She releases my hands, still smiling, and keeps dancing alone. I mime going to the kitchen for a drink. She closes her eyes.
Jack's still holding the roach and empty bottle in the kitchen throng that never thins. He asks, "What am I supposed to do with this?" like it's an existential question.
I take it and eat it, like a parkie stoner. "How high are you?"
"Not much," he says, "but the room's made of corduroy, right?"
"Really thick, vibrating, echoey corduroy?"
"Kelly Knippler wants a backrub," I say. "Upstairs, I think."
"I'll get her to give me one first," he says, "if I can make it through this fucking corduroy."
"It's people," I say.
"The corduroy in the air."
"Just push it away," I say. He shoves me aside and climbs the spiral staircase as if it's steeper than Mount McKinley.
I make it back to the party before one a.m. after the inevitable: Jack, as usual after more than one drink or toke, started screaming--thinking he was witty, charming, and persuasive--at Kelly Knippler, who did not want his attention. Keeping him in the shadows of East 72nd Street after he'd been thrown out was impossible, as he'd suddenly decided black people can hail a a taxi, while refusing to take the bus. A Ghanaian driver finally got us back to the Upper West Side as Jack sobered up, wept on my shoulders at his place, and finally let me go.
Kelly answers the door. "Did you tell Jack I wanted a backrub?"
"I took him home."
"Oh." She thinks about thanking me but doesn't. Not omniscient to her, but some faces say more than words.
Bridey's dancing alone in the den. She shouts, "Let's get out of here already."
She's got a '68 Mustang with the ragtop down
Parked on a city street
Tosses me the keys on a sequined gown
Still on the front seat
She touches one finger to her gemstone lips
So I pretend to know how to drive
And take us uptown and over the bridge
'Cause I'm itching to know I'm alive
Makes me ten feet tall when I'm one-foot-five
Cruisin' past the Hudson to the Jersey side
Waited all my life to be behind the wheel
Of a screamin' automotive machine
The moon's a guitarist playing on her hair
And no night's ever smelled so clean
I'm too young but it's been too long
I know that I know right from wrong
But this isn't a novel it's a rock-'n'-roll song
It's not a novel it's a rock-'n'-roll song
I'm doing eighty-plus on Route 23
Colored lights start flashing at V-C and me
She says, You better floor it or we'll end up in jail
I put my foot down, hear that cruiser wail
I gin it up past a hundred and ten
And never see or hear that Jersey trooper again
She's got a '68 Mustang and her top is down
Life is ragged and sweet
I been dreaming of her for four long years
But this is how we meet
This ain't a novel it's a rock-'n'-roll song
This ain't no novel, it's a rock-'n'-roll song
I skip the traffic at the jughandle to Oak Ridge and race past Jorgensen's to take the left onto Holland Mountain Road when Route 23 is empty and no one can see us.
The full moon is bright over Lake Hartung and the air is steamy as I pull into the gravel lot within sight of the country house we'd had until my parents' divorce cashed it out. The hood points to the site of maybe my most horrifying memory, where neighbor kinds bashed in the head of a giant, ancient tortoise after they'd caught its lip on a fish hook. I threw one of the rocks after other boys called me a sissy. My dad came by moments later, scolded all the kids, then finished the job. I was about six.
I can hardly think of people I care about as much as I do that dead tortoise.
The trees have barely started turning, so it still looks almost like summer. I brought V-C here to skinnydip, but she already flashed me while we outran the cops. The huge areolae, beacons through hippiewear at the party, were different at 115 miles per hour, flat against her ribcage, like on the rich girls who go to the hospital for malnutrition and never come back to school.
I wonder where she gets the energy for Olympic riding when she says, "Want some blow?" and powder's up her nose before I process the words.
"I've never--sure," I say. She passes me folded paper and half a red cocktail straw. A new but familiar flavor fills my palate and makes my eyes pop wide. I finally say, "You always leave your keys on the front seat?"
"Yeah, crazy, right? I wonder why they left this fancy dress too." She holds it to her neck. Two of her could fit in it. "I didn't think you'd actually drive it, Paul. Very rock and roll."
"We stole this car?"
"This isn't your car?"
"Why do you think I told you to lose the cops?"
"Drugs, and I'm too young for a license?"
"Then how do you know how to drive?"
"My dad used to let me drive his Volkswagen Squareback right here, in this lot, when I was a kid."
"Taught me when I was nine, but I haven't driven since they sold that red house there between the trees."
"I didn't know we were stealing a car!"
"I'm sorry," she says, making what Mommy calls bad-girl faces. She tosses the dress onto the back seat then walks two fingers toward me like I'm the Yellow Pages. "May I?" she asks at my zipper.
"Do you know I've been obsessed with you since junior high?"
"Really? How fetching." The insistent accent sounds less adorable, more mocking now.
"Do you remember the kid who got dragged out of the Goodspeed at intermission, the only night you went on as Annie?"
"Never told us about the creepy crazies. Too afraid our parents'd go Death Wish on them. Mine were off in" someplace pronounced like "the fuck lands."
"It was me. I asked permission to go, but when my mom said no, I went anyway. My dad called the cops after my mom checked to see if I was at his place."
"Wow, Paul." The eyes of many colors dance as she struggles with the denim folds of my fly. "I want you even more."
"Maybe a kiss?"
"Aw, so cute," she says and snakes into my lap, pushing me deep into the upholstery to lick my gums and teeth and throat. I choke and push her back. She looks confused. "So you don't want to kiss?"
The face I've dreamt of too often has an eye that drifts, a curl to the lip that might be more insincere than precocious. As she wipes coke snot on her sleeve yet again I understand how much I do not want to be here, do not want to be a car thief with a drug-addled risk taker. I strain to reach the lever and kick back the seat.
"So where'd you go, before? Did you have to mind little Jackie Faison?"
"You know his name?"
"Speaking of blow jobs." Her left eyebrow arches. The lip does not curl. "The night he came to Goodspeed I caught his dad sucking off a dresser in the backstage toilet."
"I'm pretty sure he doesn't know Lamar's gay."
"But you already did?"
"Not like now, but he always kisses his dancers on the mouth, and his name is really Walter, and he spent like four months in the hospital with hepatitis, so yeah, I've figured."
"But Jackie doesn't?"
I ponder that. "It's different if he knows and knows I know, if you know what I mean."
"I guess," she says, bouncing in my lap. "You said something about skinnydipping?"
There's a first for everything, and she's talked me into it.
Bridey says the Pill took the stuffing out of her bosoms--first scrip blew them up crazy big (as v.XII of my journal noted), then the new one emptied them out to how they are now. She says she's not like Anna Regzik, some chick I don't know but I nod anyway, my thoughts wishing we'd never left the party together, my story of assuming the car was hers so implausible, but at least we're on my turf now, where no one'd ever look. The water's warmer than I'd imagined, touching twenty toes, then her equestrian thighs wrap around my hips as the empty sacs float and crinkle. I scoop one up and nibble, and she reaches down to bring me in. Soon I'm soft in what feels like empty space, so I ask if she can squeeze from the inside. She wiggles in tight little circles.
"Can you get in deeper? I want to feel you."
"I just finished."
"Can you go again?"
"Probably need to warm up in the car."
"Carry me out?"
I do. Her boobs stay crinkled but change color and shape as I haul her up the beach and over the dam bridge, my chagrin and regret losing to voices screaming how I'm losing it to V-C so this isn't the time to overthink. I set her down on the cracked leather of the back seat. We turn the big gown inside out to dry off.
I learn "turned on" isn't a metaphor: electric buzzing in my fingers, toes, and teeth from her so often boasted of talents make me wonder why I've turned down the head other slutty girls have offered before.
"That's funny," I say, recovering.
"We've both got passports falling out our pockets."
She gets mine off the floor. "You weren't kidding about the pope name."
"Jonah Paul, not John Paul."
"What the hell? Jonah's a cool name."
"Too precious. People start cooing when you say it. Show me yours." Surprised she's the younger one. "Bridget? I thought you were a real Bridey."
"Enough of that," she says, taking hers back. "Where should we go?"
"With the car?"
"With the passports."
"I'm not rich."
"I am," she says. "I've got Master Charge, VISA, and AmEx."
"Jerusalem," I repeat. "Let's go to Jerusalem."
And so it was in the third year of the government of the farmer of peanuts that Bridget Anne, daughter of Volk of Cymru and Cohen of the County of Kings, and Johan Paul, son of Parenteau of Armorica and Providence and of Schwarz of the City of Jersey did set out from the Lake of Hartung for the New-Ark port of heavenly transits to be conveyed by multiple carriers to and from Eretz-Israel. But yea, though Bridey of Manahatta, Cos Cob, and Pontyclun did make good purchase of billeting and taxes for the soonest departure, and vestments and products for ablution as well as shoulder-worn sacs of common usage for both travelers, she was too a slave to hemp and coca, and so placed these within her sex, for she could not foresee four days' journey without serving those masters. And so it came to pass that the bitch of Paterson known martially as K9-47, and by her handlers as Smelly, did veer from luggage patrol to make barks of alarum at the odors of the intoxicants, which were contraband in this land, and so sanctionable under the laws of the governments of men. And thus it occurred that Jonah Paul of the Avenue of Christoffa Corombo and erstwhile of New Russia, New Jersey, who had been sent forward by his companion, did enter within and upon the bulkheads and carpets and seats of the first transport without knowledge of the detainment, interrogation, search, arrest, and imprisonment of Bridget Anne.
If you've never done cocaine, I don't suggest you do. Whatever exhilaration made losing my virginity to a promiscuous Olympian cokehead car thief feel like a good idea is, LORD YHWH TRVTH, way more than punished by a dark, dense cloud of smashed turtlehead proportions merely aggravated by the cigar smoker on the other side of Bridey's empty seat.
And did I forget to call her a con artist mindfucker sociopath?
She. Ditched. Me.
I am ticketed through three more airports in as many sovereign nations, having just stolen a raring-cool Blue Mustang convertible off Park Avenue with the intent to flee the country for a long-weekend spree on her parents' American Express Card, which is with her, and I am certain I am having a burning sensation like I have never felt before so I probably have the clap and every piss from now until a massive dose of penicillin will escalate into ferociously flaming agony on top of whatever raping I get in a Miami, London, or Tel Aviv prison.
Want some blow? she says. Yeah, sure, why not, and have I mentioned I've fantasized about you most times I've ever come but now realize you're a weirdly ugly, bony, big-assed nympho junkie? The only way I'd still do you'd be whacked outta my mind, so yeah, hand it over, if I wanna get laid before my seventeenth birthday so I don't fall behind even Jack on that score.
I am a fucking idiote bete schmuck cuntass putz-vatig.
Stewardess could be Bridey in a dark room if I'd never fallen for the Helen of Troy dazzle thing to begin with. "In first class this morning we're enjoying complimentary champagne cocktails. May I get you one or two?"
Best thing about chest hair? No one suggests I'm under eighteen.
The cigar's almost tasty: new friend across the aisle gets them from Havana, another law broken. He owns a brokerage house. His new yacht is a ship, not a boat--the distinction is seaworthiness. My headache couldn't be more crushing, so why not blame it on booze and Cubans rather than the depredations of V-C? Hard to blame her for fulfilling my longest-standing fantasies.
I mean, I hope she's OK. I don't know how they could have nabbed her and not me for the car. How would they have traced us? We wiped our prints off everything we could think of and left it in the long-term lot. And please, God, I hope she did dump the drugs when she sent me ahead and said she'd take care of it. Last words she whispered were, "And maybe get my back door ready for the mile-high club," but I didn't ask what that meant, since it sounded like code for getting high on a plane by putting drugs up her ass.
So many weird shibboleths--like what she called kissing is a sex act I can't imagine ever being into. (Am I supposed to be turned on by my tonsils being licked, when it literally made me want to throw up, or is she supposed to be turned on by licking them? More mysteries I'm still at 0% about.)
Since I am in fact alone--nice lamb salad brunch with a yummy Burgundy, pity it's still six weeks till the '79 Beaujolais Nouveaux--I better plan this trip. In my wallet are twenty-one dollars and a hundred French francs from grandmere's birthday card, plus Mommy's VISA in her name but my signature on the front--so I could probably get a cash advance at a Barclay's, if there's one at Heathrow, like she got once when it was still BankAmericard, but only if I'm ready for this trip to be on her radar. Traveler's Aid at each airport could be good for what, maybe fifteen bucks a pop? And, last resort, Ben-Gourion's Aliyah office would be obligated to help me out if I need it, right? No idea how much three nights in Israel will cost anyway.
A barely perceived template of dots and stripes--there for the nth time as matte for the opening credits of dream memories, fleeting as momentary sightings of Atlas and Pleione, but something like the concentric circles around the words Merrie Melodies--blasts its eyes-closed visual noise. Thoughts to dreams and back again amidst new worries and brain chemistry, against the ordered pinpricks in the veil of this internal universe.
Baby, baby, soak your head in gravy: trying to go back to the red house? Not yours anymore. No deposit, no return.
Lusting criminal impudent indolent ingrate--PAY ATTENTION: idiot druggy car thief scum taking the easiest path every moment? Psycho chick nightmare hell yes please end worthwhile life now no way back can't even kiss like a grownup, baby baby, bubblegum the Navy?
Bridey-faced one shaking my arm, tickling chin. "Welcome to Miami International. You're the last aboard."
"You were out so hard I let you snooze."
Headache still throbbing, compressed brain too tight in skull. Trudge to terminal through glue. Scowls, dread, smashed tortoises and Furies in every inner cranny. Traveler's Aid booth in view: wanted to change onboard but smelly purple shirt's more pathetic. Button to top, show passport, raise voice an octave, red baby-blues blinking scared. True story of separation from companion and intent to repay, with jibberjabber about no other options, unreachable parents.
Thirty-five dollars! Big money! Mommy's VISA may need never enter into this crime after all.
Does anyone wonder where I am? Last time I spent a week at Jack's without calling home, Mommy never said a word. UNIS doesn't call home. If I were in actual trouble, which I am, would anyone notice? I mean, I'm not Etan Patz, but as far as anyone in the US is concerned, I'll be missing till Wednesday night.
On to London if the ticket's still good.
"You were a bastard to me at the party."
"You left with her. Windy."
"Wendy?" Eyes trying, failing to focus in a Heathrow waiting area.
"To my parents. Windy to everyone else."
Making the association. "Like the song?"
"A sobriquet since it was a hit. Are you OK?"
Am I? "Stewardess gave me a tiny yellow pill for a headache and I keep nodding off." More sleep now, please?
Palm on my cheek, jostling. "Paul, are you OK? What happened?"
"Took British Airways here from Miami." Check tickets. Good thing she woke me! "I've got an El Al flight in fifteen minutes."
"Is that what your song's about?"
Tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed. "Windy?"
"From Shanley Goldman's?"
"You don't know that's a Beatles tune?" I sing at regular speed, "Flew--"
"We only have the early records."
"Why are we here together?"
"I'm here 'cause my mom's marrying some jackass she went to high school with a million years ago. You look like someone threw you here."
"Where is she?"
"Bought us tickets. Never boarded."
"OK," Windy says.
"OK," I repeat.
"Why'd you introduce yourself and walk away from me? You made me feel like shit."
Big, pretty, sad eyes. "First I thought you were ignoring me, then I thought you were teasing me."
"I was trying to make out the plaque on an Oscar. I've never been to Shanley's before. Then I was really nice to you at the piano."
She's right. "I didn't even wonder if you were nice."
"Listen, I'm already regretting this, but do you need a place to stay? My mom's fiancé has a huge place near Harrod's."
Even in a new MUSE T-shirt, I still smell V-C all over myself. "I think I just need Traveler's Aid."
"You don't have time." She reaches for her wallet. "I already changed my money, but would fifteen pounds help?" She hands me three fivers. "Can I write on the bag?"
She uncaps a fountain pen. "You owe me thirty bucks. This is my number, so you can pay me back." Purple ink runs into the weave of the Pan Am flight bag, so she writes each of the two letters and five numbers larger than the one before, then draws a flowery design around it. My stomach purrs, watching her draw.
If I lose this bag
Butterfield ate one
Windy looks up, waves at something behind me, and looks even sadder. She whispers, "My stupid mom." She presses her lips to mine. Our tongues say hello, gently. "You taste awful. You better call me."
She runs off, and I think I hear her tell her mom her boyfriend's on his way to Israel.