The Food of Love III
Stevie was a mere few feet from the register when a toddler sporting a full-head werewolf mask wandered into his path, tempting him to reconsider his last-minute costume choice. The kid had the right idea. Werewolves were more Stevie’s style. The furred face, the torn clothes, the shameless, hair-raising howling at the moon. Werewolves didn’t put on airs. Werewolves didn’t let you use the phone, knowing full well the line was dead. Werewolves didn’t make polite chitchat over the turtle soup only to sink their incisors into the necks of their dinner guests the first chance they got. Still, if it was said of men with beards that they couldn’t be trusted, what to make of a moon-mad half-man covered head to foot in synthetic fur?
“Oh yeah,” said a lilting male voice behind him. “I totally see you in that.” Stevie turned away from the pint-sized Lycan and found himself face-to-face with a college-age sales-boy in sleeveless mesh T-shirt and pink feather boa, robustly confirming what he, Stevie, dimly suspected but up until this point had merely hoped was true: that at forty-two he’d finally make a convincing vampire. He was still a big-boned man, but he’d lost most of the weight that had plagued him for so long, like some inflatable pool float he couldn’t slip out of, forcing him to steer clear of clingy silk-cashmere sweaters and hieroglyphic-stitched low-riding jeans.
“Totally,” repeated the budding transvestite. He was a good-looking kid whose sharp, feline features were highlighted by a conspicuous sheen of meticulously applied make-up. But the boy’s face could’ve been magnetic, considering all the metal sticking out of it. Shrapnel, thought Stevie, a casualty of some invisibly hip, trans-campus war. “Besides, nothing says Halloween quite like the Prince of Darkness, n’est-ce pas?” He laughed aloud, revealing a tongue punctured by multiple balls of bright, saliva-slick silver. Used to be kids did anything to keep metal out of their mouths in the way of braces. Now they were all too eager to shove the stuff in. “Halloween without Count Dracula is like Christmas without Santa, or the Fourth without fireworks.” He shrugged a shoulder and yawned. “Can’t be done.” He laughed again, this time without much sound, and stuck out a hand notable for its disconcerting smoothness and black-shellacked fingernails. “I’m Frederick,” he said.
“I’m sold,” said Stevie.
“Good one,” Frederick said, withdrawing the hand. “You’re lucky to even get a vampire costume, with all the Robert Pattinson wannabes running rampant.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of True Blood.”
“True dat. By the way, toothpaste tubes of corn syrup are two-for-one. ”
“I’m good, thanks.”
“We’ve got buckets of rubber eyeballs—they look like the real thing. Let’s see, Styrofoam bones, talking tomb stones, cans of spray-on spider webs from the makers of Crazy String.”
“Just the costume, I think.”
“Suit yourself,” Frederick said, smiling at the pun. He took the costume from Stevie and led him to the checkout counter, where he was greeted by a sign that read NEXT CADAVER PLEASE. The buxom girl behind the register had a series of X’s and O’s and dotted lines scrawled across her face and down her neck and over her considerable cleavage, as though she were a page in a playbook. She was avidly clicking the buttons on her cell phone, sending an urgent text message, no doubt, about the abundance of creeper dads and their obsession with making sustained eye contact. She caught Stevie staring and rolled her own expertly painted eyes.
“Hey, Penny Pre-Op,” Frederick said. “Do me a solid and give Spike here the much-coveted friends and family discount.”
Penny snapped shut her phone and looked Stevie over doubtfully. “He a friend or a family?” she snorted.
“What’s it to you?”
“You can’t keep giving discounts to guys you want to blow, Freddy.”
Frederick showed her a mirthless smile. “Says who?”
“Whoa,” interjected Stevie, “back up a minute.”
“Unbelievable,” Penny said, shaking her garishly painted head. “Third time today.”
“Where’s your manager’s badge, Penny?” Frederick asked her. “Hm? Could it be you left your manager’s badge at home today? Or could it be that, unlike me—and despite your insistence on questioning my truly wicked retail acumen—you are not in fact a manager at this or any other Halloween Dreamz location?”
“You’re an assistant manager,” corrected Penny.
“Operative word being—read my lips—man-a-ger.”
“The discount isn’t necessary,” Stevie said, checking his watch. He wanted to be home in time to have dinner and apply his make-up before driving the twenty-odd miles over to Miranda’s. “I’m happy to pay full price.”
“I bet you are,” said Frederick, with more than a tinge of blue coloring his tone. He leaned in close and stage-whispered, “Penny’s famous for turning customers to stone even when she’s not on the rag, so do yourself a favor and forget to make eye contact. You’ll live longer.”
Having delivered this friendly advice, Frederick sauntered over to a manhandled display of select dismemberments. Stevie watched him listlessly fondle the huge rubber boobs and restack the gleaming plastic asses.
Even as a kid, Stevie had seemed to realize he lacked the dramatic bone structure and smoldering Old World charm necessary to pass himself off as a convincing Count Dracula. This despite the avid protestations of a mother who’d always seemed overly smitten with the svelte, suave, Vitalis-drenched undead. Every October without fail, Stevie’s mother happily supplied her only child with the fake teeth, peaked wig and high-collared cape of a shamelessly store-bought bloodsucker. He humored her, of course, silently suffering her ministrations before the bathroom mirror while she smeared a fragrant pallor—half water, half Johnson’s baby powder—onto his face with her fingers, or daubed burnt cork round his eyes. Her efforts invariably were in vain. Stevie would make it as far as the front door, perhaps, before loosening his retooled superhero cape and coughing his fanged dentures into his hand. He’d end up hitting the street hidden beneath a sheet or behind a rubber mask—any costume whose success didn’t depend so heavily on his ability to fool people into believing he was as exotic as Bela Lugosi, or creepy as Barnabas Collins, or cool as David Bowie.
But fooling people, according to Stevie’s failed-actress mother, was what Halloween was all about.
“Tell me, what’s the point of giving yourself a role to play if you’re only going to play it halfway?”
“Candy, Mom,” Stevie had said, stone-faced, as if informing her he hadn’t yet learned how to fly. “Candy is the point.”
She dismissed the idea with an impatient wave, as if directing a bad smell away from her overly sensitive nose.
“Nonsense. The point is transformation, the point is pure and instant change.”
But Stevie was just a kid, and didn’t see the rather adult benefits of a holiday devoted to the idea of reinvention. Change would come in droves whether he liked it or not, everybody said so. Where pillowcases of free candy were concerned, there were no such guarantees.
Not for the first time, Stevie wished he could smack the man hamming it up on the “Prince of Darkness” cardboard packaging. This wasn’t a costume so much as a flimsy disguise, one step up from a Lone Ranger mask or Groucho glasses. But Stevie needed more than a disguise, he needed to go incognito, deep undercover; for once he couldn’t afford to be recognized. He lamented the fact that nobody wore actual costumes anymore. And because nobody wore costumes, quality costume shops were hard to come by. Now these shoddy, fly-by-night seasonal warehouses were the norm, hastily assembled emporiums of mass-produced ghouls and gore. Stevie recognized convenience as the real killer. Like their banking and their medication and their meals, Americans craved conve-nience; they wanted to be in and out of the Halloween shop, wanted to get this holiday over and done with and on to the next one (and so on and so on, all through the year, on to their graves). What’s so great about originality anyway? Who had time to break out the spray paint or sewing machine and get creative?
One moment it was a discount furniture or cell phone store, the next—abracadabra, presto-change-o!—it was Halloween Dreamz, retailers specializing in plastic pitch-forks, pirate hooks and samurai swords; fright wigs and fishnet stockings; rubber rats and bats and spiders big as your fist. The location Stevie was currently driving away from had been a discount lingerie store in its former incarnation, something called Kiss-N-Tell or Hide-N-Seek or some such liberally hyphenated linguistic inanity heavy on the innuendo. As a testament to this sad fact, the racks were loaded with the sort of sheer, barely-there unmentionables that had less to do with a coven of lasci-vious witches than with a whole other breed of spell-inducing ladies of the evening.
But what Stevie objected to even more than the outlandish prices or desperate, dubious undergarments was the preponderance of gore. For him, there had always been a marked difference between spooky and scary. Severed heads and limbs, served up on a slab of Styrofoam and stuffed under Saran wrap meant to resemble supermarket meat, had Stevie pining for the days of implied violence, of the kind of horror that might be but never was. Subtlety had gone out the window. The stock was over-the-top, in your face, X-treme Halloween. As if a night dedicated to the risen dead weren’t extreme enough.
Stevie had met Miranda years ago on Halloween, working in a kind of catch-all costume shop in Bucks County. Bananafishbones was the kind of place that specialized in outlandish vintage apparel and overpriced pop culture collectibles, many of which Stevie was certain he had boxed up, still, in his mother’s cramped basement down in South Philly. It was as if a truck filled with the contents of a dozen quirky families’ attics had backed up to the stockroom and dumped its outdated, questionable cargo. The shop itself was a kind of microcosm for the entire town, which managed to be quaint and progressive, provincial and worldly, antiquated but undeniably hip all at the same time. Miranda had been thirty-five at the time, a college dropout, frustrated clothing designer and lapsed Wiccan. Stevie was a bit younger but teaching creative writing at a liberal arts college across the river, living with another adjunct professor in half of a rented Victorian. His first book of stories had just come out, to decidedly mixed reviews. He told himself that even a mediocre book was better than no book at all. He was all puffed up with his own importance, and looking to float away on it for a time while everyone down below pointed and waved and wagered on whether he’d ever again touch ground. Settling down in any sense was the furthest thing from his mind.
Entering the shop, he’d been struck by Miranda’s skewed beauty almost as much as by the sickly-sweet smell of marijuana that permeated the store as pervasively as skunk musk. She had a pert ski-jump nose and wildly expressive too-blue eyes. Her hair blazed with the color of the felled maple leaves coating the front stoop like decoupage. But her lips were thin as bobby pins, and her forehead two fingers too high, which gave her the wooden, slightly daft look of a marionette. Big brown freckles littered her skin like confetti in the wake of a parade.
“Can I help you?” Miranda asked when she caught him staring.
Cautiously, he approached the counter. “Can I get a hit?” he said, trying to be funny.
“The weed,” he said, all but waggling his eyebrows, “I can smell it.”
Miranda shifted on her stool but her expression didn’t change. “I don’t smell anything,” she said.
Stevie looked aghast; his mother had taught him how. “Really?” he said. “Then you paid way too much for that nose job.”
He regretted saying it as soon as the words left his mouth. But her nose really was a little too perfect to be believed. He wanted to tap on it like a table, just to prove it wasn’t drawn on.
“Seriously, is there something I can help you with?” she said, to her credit sounding more amused than annoyed. “Maybe something for sale, that you can’t actually smell?”
Stevie knew a parting stage direction when he heard one, but he wasn’t ready to leave just yet. He wasn’t sure he could leave, truth be told. He quickly scanned the shop and his eyes alighted on the replica of a wolfman doll beloved by a certain boy vampire in a sixties television show.
“How much is this?” he said, handing it over.
The girl examined the toy as if it were Stevie’s to sell. “Fifty bucks,” she said.
“I’m in the wrong business,” scoffed Stevie.
She shrugged and suavely stowed the plush wolfman beneath the counter. “What sort of business are you in?”
“I’m a writer,” he said, and for the first time since officially becoming one he felt slightly foolish.
“Hey, Miranda,” a scratchy male voice called from the back of the shop. “Okay if I cut out an hour early?”
“Hot date, Neal?” inquired Miranda.
“You know it,” Neal replied.
“What time does the shop close?” Stevie asked Miranda.
“That depends on what kind of writer you are.”
He could see she didn’t believe him; she thought this business about being a writer was just a line (it was and it wasn’t). “How about I come back tomorrow and drop off a copy of my book.”
“Honest,” he said, sounding all of ten years old.
“I doubt there’s an honest bone in your body,” Miranda said, making a show of looking him over. “But I’ll be here till nine tomorrow night, just in case you’re capable of surprising me.”
“I’d almost given up hope,” Miranda said when Stevie arrived the next night, middling story collection in hand.
“Do men typically stand you up?”
She shot him a look he’d never dream of dodging. “Men around here don’t typically do anything,” she said. “That’s part of the problem.”
“You’re a conventional girl, beneath the spiked dog collar and Barbarella boots.”
Miranda seemed to consider this assessment and find it not far from the truth. “Let’s just say I’ve dated three different guys over the last six months, and at some point every one of them asked to borrow my make-up.”
“I don’t wear much make-up,” admitted Stevie.
“That’s a plus.”
“I’d make a horrendous woman.”
Miranda laughed. “Music to my ears.”
She took the book from Stevie and scanned the blurbs, such as they were. “Wow,” she said finally, handing back his life’s work. “A real-live author. I’m impressed.”
“That makes two of us.”
“You impress yourself?” Miranda laughed again.
“No, I mean you. You impress me.”
She turned the color of strawberry preserves, but was brazen enough to ask Stevie what it was about her that impressed him so.
“Well, aside from the obvious, I’m impressed that you’re impressed by a writer. Nobody reads anymore.”
Miranda frowned, though whether in sympathy or in protest, Stevie couldn’t tell. “So, what’s this book of yours about?”
“You,” Stevie said without missing a beat. It wasn’t a complete lie. “It’s all about you.”
Miranda’s smile stretched her thin lips to obsolescence but her teeth were white and true. “You’re a smooth talker, Mr. Author Extraordinaire. How old are you, anyway?”
“Older than I look.” Apparently this was true. Everybody was always telling Stevie he could’ve passed for a younger man. Which he chose to believe gave him a certain amount of license to behave like one.
“I’m no kid,” Miranda said.
She rolled her translucent eyes at that. “Maybe you should save some of that snappy dialogue for your next book.”
“I’m already writing it,” he said. “This is the part where you agree to be my girlfriend.” He hadn’t expected to say this—the words had simply tumbled out of his mouth like a series of fanciful clowns from a car.
“Life imitates art, is that the idea?”
“Now there’s a scary thought.”
“I can think of a scarier one,” she said.
“Like what? You not falling head over heels in love with me?” More clowns, bigger and brighter and more reckless than the others. How did they all fit?
“Oh, I’m already falling for you,” Miranda said, gamely playing along. “What’s scary is what you end up doing to me in your fiction. Or some version of me.”
Stevie wisely decided to play dumb and let the matter drop.
“Okay,” Miranda said two weeks later, apropos of nothing. They’d paused midway across the steel truss bridge that separated their respective towns to marvel at a charcoal-sketch November sky that seemed inseparable from the stalled charcoal-sketch river below.
“Okay what?” asked Stevie, pulling her close. He buried his face in Miranda’s hair and inhaled her wood smoke perfume.
“I’ll be your girlfriend,” she said.
He searched her eyes for sarcasm and found none. “Well, it sure took you long enough,” he said, feeling elated and taken aback and slightly disappointed all at the same time. What Stevie had never admitted to anyone, least of all himself, was that he hadn’t been all that anxious for Miranda to give in to him where their romantic status was concerned. Wonderful as she was, he would’ve been happy to give her a bit more time to decide, had she needed it.
Six months later they were engaged. Six months after that, on the spooky anniversary of their meeting, they were married in the banquet room of a reputedly haunted, colonial-era inn a few blocks away from Bananafishbones. The bride wore black, of course. The groom, a loopy frozen smile.
“Here, Count Chocula,” Stevie’s mother had said to him the October he turned thirteen. “Put these on.” She handed him a pile of the latest in a long line of vampire paraphernalia and disappeared upstairs while he fiddled with his homework. She returned wearing a dowdy white nightgown her son had never seen before, though she rarely went to bed before midnight and it was barely eight p.m. Her normal mess of hair was piled high atop her head like some nesting water fowl, her striking green eyes raccooned with black.
“What are you waiting for?” she asked when she saw he hadn’t moved from the dining room table.
“Tomorrow’s Halloween,” Stevie said, squinting suspiciously at her outfit. “You’re a day early.”
“Close enough,” she said. “We’re going to put on a little pre-holiday play, you and me.”
This was nothing new. Stevie was well acquainted with his mother’s holiday “plays.” She’d had him dress as a leprechaun one St. Patty’s Day and skip about the house singing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” They’d put on their very own Christmas pageant for years, using an array of stuffed toys as stable animals and a swaddled sofa cushion as a stand-in for the Baby Jesus. Stevie was an official teenager now, and sick of his mother’s odd little dramas, if not more generally sick of the person who produced them. “I don’t want to put on a play,” he told her.
She rolled her kohled eyes and regarded her young son as she might a near-stranger on the street, someone she vaguely recognized from weekly run-ins at the dry cleaner’s or supermarket but had zero interest in befriending. Stevie couldn’t help noticing how pretty she looked, with her eyes darkened and her throat exposed. “Oh, don’t be such a party poop,” she said. “Put these on upstairs while I stay down here and set the scene. Come back down looking hungry for blood. But descend the stairs slowly and quietly. Vampires are famous for their stealth.”
Stevie took the stairs one at a time, which wasn’t his custom.
Upon his return to the living room, Stevie found the lights dimmed and the secondhand candelabra they’d bought at a flea market in Fairmount aglow with ghostly white tapers. Music was playing softly, but it was music that more closely resembled the death-rattle of dry leaves being scuttled down the street by a breeze. His mother was splayed across the couch as though she’d fainted, her pale arms thrown over her head and her eyes closed. Stevie’s instinct, as it so often was in response to his mother’s theatrics, was to call 9-1-1. Yet as he approached the couch in his ghoulish get-up and stood over her still-young, apparently slumbering form, Stevie was struck by how expertly she resembled something out of a fairy tale, simultaneously wanton and wan, and by how very different this apparition looked from the corporeal, world-weary woman who helped him with his homework and washed his clothes and cooked his meals. The skill and ease with which his mother could so utterly transform herself startled Stevie as it so often had, a boy known to suffer panic attacks at the prospect of having the living room furniture rearranged, or getting his bi-monthly haircut.
He’d been standing there for a good couple of minutes before his mother, wondering about the holdup, popped open a blackened eye and gently elbowed him in the stomach.
“What do I do now?” he muttered through painful plastic teeth.
“You know exactly what to do,” whispered his mother, reclosing her eye. “You do the only thing vampires know how to do, hon. You ply your trade. You bite me.”
“I’m not going to bite you,” Stevie said.
Stevie could hardly believe he was having this conversation. “You’re my mother.”
“Wrong,” she droned. “At the moment, I’m nothing more to you than a tasty gourmet meal. Think about it: bite me or die. Those are your options.”
“Vampires can’t die,” he said. “They’re already dead.”
“Call it whatever you want,” huffed his mother. “But if they don’t suck blood they cease to exist. End of story. And the more nubile the victim, the more nutritious the meal.”
“So you’re, like, the equivalent of a cheeseburger and fries?”
Now both eyes popped open, and the shaming look they leveled at Stevie was not one he enjoyed being the recipient of, not then, not ever. “Not nice,” she said.
“Apology accepted.” His mother rearranged her sacrificial posture and closed her eyes again. “C’mon,” she hissed, sounding petulant, teenager-ish, “you’re ruining the scene. Suspend your disbelief, for once. Sink your teeth in. Do it.”
In the end he lost his nerve. Stevie always lost his nerve. Whether it came to giving his mother a hickey or leaving the house on Halloween dressed as she intended, he could only be a disappointment. But better a disappointment than a fool, reasoned Stevie. If the badly accented line I vant to suck your blood sounded patently silly being delivered by boys who actually went on dates, how ridiculous would it sound coming from a husky blonde kid who had never so much as held a girl’s hand, let alone nibbled, rodent-like, on one’s creamy perfumed neck. No, the neighborhood was teeming with natural-born bloodsuckers, lanky, heavy-lidded Lotharios good girls in particular seemed to swoon over, even without plastic fangs protruding from their preternaturally profane mouths and their center-parted hair slicked back.
It was a grim joke, his decision to finally dress as a B-movie bloodsucker, but one that Miranda would certainly appreciate, had Stevie been able to let her in on it. It had been a running joke throughout their failed relationship that artists in general and writers in particular were more or less parasitic creatures that sustained their creative life by sucking the love and energy and, yes, the very soul out of ordinary mortals, especially the luckless few who were closest to them. After all, it was the parasite’s loved ones, far more than its peers or editors or creative writing students (and far, far more than one seemingly irresistible student, whose last named just happened to be Straw, though who knew, at the time of their awkward coupling that fateful spring day, that she represented the proverbial final one) that had to deal with the abandonment issues and the crippling insecurity and the writer’s block on a grueling daily basis.
Even Stevie recognized he’d crossed a line with Elizabeth Straw, a line that had begun as little more than a crack in the pavement and ended up a full-blown San Andreas-grade fault. It hadn’t been a question of if but of when. The funny part was, Stevie hadn’t recognized Elizabeth as having Big One potential on the first day of class (or for that matter, on the fortieth). He’d been too distracted by the more obvious beauties, the hair tossers and leg crossers, and the frequency with which they lingered after class, the fruitless way the tried to trip him up by brazenly staring him down. He didn’t mind the extra attention, of course, was far more flattered by it than he let on. But there’s nothing stealthy about raw beauty: it’s about as subtle as a thunderstorm. By contrast Elizabeth Straw had snuck up on Stevie. By the time he’d noticed her at all—really, truly noticed her—it was already too late. Her slightly crooked, caffeine-tinged teeth had long since torn Stevie free of his own life, her lightless gray eyes swallowed him up like a jagged crevasse in the earth’s crust.
Stevie hadn’t found out about Miranda’s pregnancy until it was too late. They’d made reservations at Opal’s to celebrate their third wedding anniversary, and he got it into his head to confess to her over dinner. Of course his timing had been terrible. Here he was, reluctant dumper in what was rapidly shaping up to be a dumping ceremony, while Miranda, he later learned, had spent the afternoon dreaming up potential baby names. His wife wasn’t by nature a forgiving person (she held a years-long grudge against her twin sister for wearing and ruining her favorite suede ankle boots back when they were fifteen). Still, if it had been a simple matter of clichéd student-teacher infidelity, Miranda might have found it in her un-pardoning heart to forgive him, now that she was pregnant. But the worst of it wasn’t what had transpired between Stevie and Lizzie Straw, though he knew Miranda well enough to know she would demand details; her loathing of duplicity smacked of evangelism, and bordered on the masochistic. The fact of the matter was he couldn’t help hurting her. Stevie hated to admit it, but he knew himself fully capable of committing the very same crime again, with Elizabeth, for sure, but also with a swelling host of nameless, faceless women he had yet to meet. A barrage of romantic intimations—a sample of female laughter at the start of a pop song; a waft of cinnamon perfume on the wind; a flash of golden hair in an open-topped car—accosted him on an almost hourly basis. At times he felt downright manhandled, surrounded and bullied by these fleeting sensations like an ornately bespectacled school kid during recess. Oddly, the realization that he should never have married Miranda didn’t dawn on Stevie slowly, like late-September sunlight saturating a room—it yanked him into an alley and hit him square on the jaw. Years later he was still seeing stars. He wished they’d go away.
Stevie had waited until after dessert to deliver the news. He saw no reason to ruin their meal, and the last thing he wanted to create, at least figuratively, was a scene. Besides, he was still half hoping he’d chicken out. A voice at one of Stevie’s shoulders told him he was doing the honorable thing by coming clean, even if it meant abandoning Miranda and cruelly breaking her heart; another voice at the opposite shoulder said he was a fool to confess, what his wife didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her, his first priority should be to spare her feelings, not selfishly keep his conscience clear. But which voice represented the angelic in Stevie and which the demonic was impossible to tell.
Miranda didn’t cause a scene. In fact there was little in her behavior to suggest that her marriage had just shattered as easily as the shell of her crème brulèe. She rose from the table and insisted on walking the mile and a half back home. But she never showed up at home, and refused to return to the apartment until Stevie moved out, which he did the very next day.
He called her a few weeks later, just to check in. The semester was winding down, and with it Stevie’s social calendar: soon his pre-fab audience of rapt undergraduates would be heading home for the holidays. Come the new year, everything could change. Miranda picked up the phone on the first ring, as if expecting his call.
“It’s me,” he said, sounding for all his forced intimacy like a complete stranger. “How are you?”
“Pregnant,” spat Miranda, “that’s how I am. Or was.”
Stevie was taken aback. He was prepared for unmitigated vitriol but not for emotional blackmail. Half convinced Miranda was bluffing, he asked her what she was talking about.
“I’m talking about how, up until very recently, I was having your baby.”
It wasn’t impossible. They’d never been overly cautious when it came to unprotected sex. In fact, once they were married, an almost subversive thrill accompanied the notion that sleeping together could result in the creation of a third person. “What do you mean, ‘until very recently’? What happened? You lost it?”
“Yeah, Stevie,” Miranda cackled, “I lost the baby. There’s this big old hole in my pocket I’ve been meaning to sew. The baby must’ve slipped on through. I tried retracing my steps, but no luck. Wanna help me post fliers on telephone poles around town?”
It took a minute for his brain to kick in. “You’re saying you had a…procedure.”
“I’m saying I was pregnant and now I’m not and it’s all your fault.”
“You should’ve told me,” he said evenly, convinced now that she was telling the truth. “You had no right.”
“Fuck you, Stevie. I had every right. My body, my rules. Besides, we’re not a couple anymore. I’m too old for you, remember? I’m a fucking relic next to the fresh-faced president of your teenage fan club.”
Stevie had nothing to say to that. Even if he could think of something legitimate to contribute to the conversation, once again he was reminded that words wouldn’t save their marriage, or reanimate their unborn baby, or banish the likes of lascivious Lizzie Straw. If anything, words were largely to blame for the pathetic mess Stevie had made of his life thus far, the pathetic mess he would continue to make of it. In the end, what good were they?
“Just do me one favor,” Miranda said, just before hanging up. “Don’t mythologize me. And don’t you dare put our unborn baby in a fucking book.”
In the end he’d done just that, turning their brief time together, their doomed marriage and the child that wasn’t, into an award-winning story. And then, as if to rub Miranda’s perfect little nose in it, promptly turned the story into his first novel. Doing so wasn’t solely about revenge. Stevie just happened to be one of those writers who wrote from experience; he’d always trafficked in thinly-veiled autobiography. Hadn’t his own mother served as the title character in his first published work? The character wasn’t what you’d call a flattering one. But then Stevie’s mother was a staunch believer in there being no such thing as bad press. Miranda, on the other hand, was an intensely private person with a broken heart and an aborted pregnancy. He should’ve exercised a little self-control.
“The Abortion Story” Miranda had retitled it the one and only time she called to castigate him for his callousness. That’s when all the vampire comparisons began in earnest. “You’ve become your mother’s son after all, Stevie, a monster only she could create. You’re a true vampire now, and not some pointy toothed Transylvanian out of an old horror flick. You’ve fed off me, off my love and my loyalty and my pain, just like you feed off everybody dumb or young enough to call you a friend. That’s all we are to you: sustenance, pure and simple. Grist for the fucking fiction mill. Trouble is, the more you feed, the more you crave. It never ends. The living dead, that’s you, Stevie. Nobody touches you. In ten years’ time you won’t have a friend in the world.”
And now Miranda’s melodramatic prophecy had come to pass. It was true Stevie didn’t have many friends, but he was a loner by nature. Losing Miranda had been the worst of it. He’d never quite recovered. Over the last decade Stevie had tried on various occasions to reconcile with her; he’d sent handmade cards at Christmas and her favorite flowers on her birthday and left cryptic messages on her machine on Halloween, their defacto anniversary. But Miranda Burns held grudges—held them longer and more tightly than most people hold their own children. The first few times she’d bothered to respond at all, she’d set Stevie’s flimsy olive branches ablaze. Then she stopped responding and Stevie stopped apologizing and, in the time it had taken him to fill two more mediocre books with unsavory characters culled from his own life, somehow they were strangers again.
A month ago, Stevie received a bizarre postcard in the mail. It featured a pen-and-ink drawing of a Victorian-era baby carriage, with a hood segmented like a seahorse and wheels as big as a bicycle’s. The flipside read Did you lose something? That’s it. No signature, no return address. Or rather, the return address was a bogus one: 0001 Cemetery Lane. Home, only a monster aficionado like Stevie would know, to Charles Addams’ creepy, eponymous family.
It wasn’t much, but it was enough. Stevie often received a smattering of fan mail after a book of his came out—some of it straightforward, some of it not so much—but something told him that wasn’t what this was about. It didn’t take long for him to track down Miranda. She had a Facebook page like everybody else. All the settings were private, so he couldn’t tell for sure whether it was his ex-wife. But the profile pic was promising: a famous black and white portrait of pouting, panda-eyed, shock-haired Siouxsie Sioux. He sent her a message asking point-blank whether she had a child and, if so, whether the kid was his. She could’ve just said, Sorry, buddy, wrong Miranda Burns. She didn’t have to respond at all. Instead she got back to Stevie within the hour:
PRESUMPTUOUS MUCH? SORRY, STEVIE, NO SONS, NO DAUGHTERS, NO PROGENY OF ANY STRIPE. I’M A BARREN WOMAN, BY ALL ACCOUNTS. BUT IT WAS SWEET OF YOU TO ASK. NOW FUCK OFF AND DIE.
He could’ve taken her word for it. Miranda had always prided herself on how inept she was at telling lies. But Stevie’s love life had been far from tantric. As a professional parasite, he’d feasted on his fair share of women in the aftermath of his marriage to Miranda, but nothing like the banquet of literary acolytes of which Elizabeth Straw had seemed but a tantalizing appetizer. Plus, post-Miranda he’d had unprotected sex exactly once, and that, despite or possibly because of the fact that he was now middle-aged, was a mere three years ago. Stevie was no expert on childhood development, but he was pretty sure that even the most precocious of toddlers would be hard-pressed to write a postcard at the tender age of two.
An online search of the White Pages revealed Miranda’s most current address. An incorrigible creature of habit, she was living in the very town where Stevie had left her.
The charming, leaf-littered streets were weirdly quiet, considering it was prime-time on Halloween. Stevie expected to be greeted by throngs of miniature monsters, a parade of pirates and princesses and pointy-hat wearing witches. But he hadn’t seen a single kid, costumed or not, since turning into Miranda’s somnolent, poorly-lit neighborhood. Maybe he was just missing them; maybe the trick-or-treaters zigged one way while Stevie zagged ano-ther. Or maybe the haul this year was so good—the lollipops big as 45’s and all the chocolate bars full-size and nary a doctor averting apple to be found—that they’d all quickly met their quota and turned in early, and were at this very moment comparing each other’s take at candy-strewn kitchen tables all across town.
Stevie coasted by Miranda’s house and parked his aging Volvo wagon around the corner, out of sight. His plan had been to insinuate himself among a group of pint-sized panhandlers and their parents, thereby giving the impression that he was an overzealous paterfamilias, one of the “fun” dads who would be dressed as Santa eight weeks hence and went all-out on Halloween. But since there were no kids, there were no dads. He was conspicuously alone, the supposed way he preferred it.
Other than the ceramic bat wind chime they’d bought on what they’d laughingly referred to as their honeymoon—two sleepless nights spent at the haunted inn, screwing and searching for ghosts—he found the house devoid of decoration. You wouldn’t have known it was Halloween. You could barely tell, looking at the pumpkin-less front porch, that it was October. He double-checked the address. What had become of Miranda, that she could play fast-and-loose with the change of the seasons, to say nothing of her favorite holiday, this way? What odd illness had infected the mischievous person who’d accompanied Stevie on a prankish Mischief Night raid, bombing the houses of his tweedy English Department colleagues with eggs and shaving cream and Crazy String? What of the flamboyant still-young woman partial to Barbarella boots and dog collars and underwear festooned with Emily the Strange?
Although it was well past eight, it didn’t look like any trick-or-treaters would be rallying to help Stevie. He was far from confident in his costume. But he had no choice but to ring the bell himself.
“Good evening,” he said in a passable Transylvanian accent to the oddly pretty red-haired girl who answered the door, his daughter.
“Good evening,” she repeated, smiling and shaking her head. She had Stevie’s nose, that much was clear. “Can I help you?” she asked, knitting her brow.
“Er, trick-or-treat,” Stevie said, suddenly realizing he’d neglected to bring a bag. Lamely, he stuck out his hands, a beggar now in every sense of the word.
The birdlike tween looked at him askance. Where was her costume? And why was the tidy, brightly-lit house behind her so quiet, so decidedly un-spooky, on this, the spookiest night of the year?
“I guess you didn’t get the memo,” she said, sounding just like Miranda.
“Memo?” Stevie said, genuinely confused but unable to abandon the role he was apparently born to play. “Vhat memo?”
The girl’s sleeves were rolled, her fingers and lower forearms veined with what looked to Stevie like nothing so much as yellow-orange snot. She clutched a tiny scalpel. Despite the dearth of trick-or-treaters, it heartened Stevie to find that he’d interrupted his daughter in the midst of performing cosmetic surgery on a pumpkin. All was not lost.
“Halloween was yesterday,” she said. “You missed it.”
“No, no, no,” he said, shaking his own head now. “Today, my darling young lady, is Hallo-veen.” He spread his black cape wide, as though its satiny underside displayed a calendar on which he could confirm the date. “Count Dracula should know.”
She shook her head more vigorously now, her coiled, coppery hair, a replica of her mother’s, catching and seeming to crystallize the light shed by the tiny foyer chandelier.
“You don’t get it. The township decided to celebrate Halloween last night, Saturday, instead of on a school night.”
The township? What township? Since when was Halloween in the hands of a township?
“You’re a day late,” she informed him, sympathetically adding, “That sucks.”
Stevie couldn’t resist. “No pun intended, eh?”
The girl’s expression changed from one of mild amusement to wary suspicion. She wasn’t so sure about him anymore. She fiddled dangerously with the scalpel.
“Do I know you?” she said. She squinted at Stevie, and the house behind her seemed to shrink.
“I live avound the corner,” he lied to his little girl. “I know your mother.” Another lie, of sorts. Had he ever known Miranda?
“Astrid, what’s going on down there?” called a female voice from deep inside the house. It was a familiar, oddly bloodless voice, like a song Stevie still knew all the words to though the tune somehow eluded him. “Who’s at the door?”
Astrid, thought Stevie. Perfect.
“A vampire,” their daughter called back, giggling. Then, under her breath: “An old vampire.”
“A confused trick-or-treater.”
“Tell them we’re fresh out,” Miranda said. “Halloween was last night.”
Astrid turned to him smiling. “My mom says to tell you Halloween was last night.”
“So I heard.” He was running out of options. He couldn’t very well stand here secretly chatting with his kid until Miranda came down, identified him despite the best efforts of Halloween Dreamz, and called the cops. As it was, he could hardly believe his luck. Here he was, having an exhilarating if fundamentally dishonest conversation with his kid. He felt truly transformed, as though a kindly old witch had taken pity on him and cast this wonderful spell. Kiss the frog and a prince just might materialize. But if Astrid were to lean forward and inexplicably kiss this phony vampire’s cheek, would Stevie have the courage to morph into her father? “Oh vell,” he sighed, deciding it was in everybody’s best interest for him not to break character. “There’s alvays next year.”
Mistaking the disappointed look on her father’s face, Astrid frowned Miranda’s lipless frown and said, “Wait here.” She put a finger up to her prominent nose and quietly closed the door.
Now was his chance for a clean getaway. Astrid was probably going to get her mother, who would instantly recognize Stevie even with the weight loss and shaved face, even beneath the shellacked hair and deathly pallor and masochist’s plastic teeth. But he couldn’t move. For the first time he truly felt like a parasite, sucking whatever familial life he could from the dull domestic scene unfolding on the other side of the door. He almost opened it and walked right inside, an ill-advised move that could very well result in jail time. Besides, vampires, he recalled, couldn’t enter a home unless they were invited. Even the undead, it seemed, had to abide by certain universal rules.
He was turning on his heel when Astrid reappeared at the door and handed him something.
“Vhat’s this?” Stevie said, before giving it a good look.
“Candy,” she laughed. “Isn’t that why you’re here?”
And it was candy: Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews, of all things. Stevie had been allergic for years.
“Astrid?” came Miranda’s voice again, an impatient octave higher than before. “Enough with the pumpkins. You have homework.”
“I gotta go,” Astrid whispered, glancing over her shoulder. She eyed him one last time. “Are you sure I don’t know you?”
Stevie held her gaze, attempting a kind of paternal telepathy. The message he imparted—I only just met you, but I love you more than life—was simplistic and earth-shattering, an everyday miracle in the making. Seeming to sense as much, Astrid squirmed under his scrutiny, for which her father was thankful. “No,” was all he said, meaning No, I’m not sure not No, you don’t know me.
“Sorry, I really gotta go.” She smiled goodbye and began to close the door on Stevie’s bloodless, barely familiar face.
That’s when it happened. She wasn’t being careful, and somehow the surgery-sharp carving implement—where had she secreted that damned scalpel?—must’ve bit into her finger. She lurched as though stung by a kamikaze killer bee, or worse. His little girl.
“Ow!” she yelped.
“Here,” Stevie said, instinctively taking hold of Astrid’s hand. He had his lips on her finger, was chastely kissing the split digit, before either of them could register what was happening. “There,” he said softly, like a real dad that had just dispelled all manner of monster from beneath her frilly, four-poster bed. “All better now.”
The shocked expression on Astrid’s face made Stevie second-guess the wisdom of planting even a fatherly kiss on this girl to whom he was nothing but a stranger. “Sorry,” he stammered, backing away from the door and the dumbstruck features that, suddenly, so closely resembled his own. He offered her what he hoped would be construed as an utterly paternal and unperverted thumbs-up. Then he beat a hasty retreat to his car.
Stevie was inches from the ancient Volvo when Astrid’s panicked call for her mother pierced him like a stake through the heart. It was all he could do not to turn round and rush to her aid. But it pleased him how his little girl had come to her senses, how, like her mother, eventually she could be relied upon to recognize a creep and deal with him accordingly. He slid behind the steering wheel feeling more content than he had cause to be, with poisonous candy in his pocket and his child’s blood on his tongue. He’d never tasted anything so sweet.
All work and no play...well, you know the rest. Here's a list of Labor Day inspired ditties to get your mind off the long work week(s) ahead.
1. "Finest Worksong" by R.E.M.
2. "Career Opportunities" by The Clash
3. "Let's Work" by Prince
4. "Working Day and Night" by Michael Jackson
5. "She Works Hard for the Money" by Donna Summer
6. "Frankly, Mr. Shankly" by The Smiths
7. "Working for the Man" by PJ Harvey
8. "Waitress" by Hopalong
9. "God Damn Job" by The Replacements
10. "It's Her Factory" by Gang of Four
11. "Manic Monday" by the Bangles
12. "Work is a Four-Letter Word" by The Smiths
13. "Red Hill Mining Town" by U2
14. "Working Class Hero" by John Lennon
15. "There is Power in a Union" by Billy Bragg
Renaissance man Marc Schuster and I formed a band. Then we made a record (with stunning cover art by Kristine DiGrigoli and lyrical nods to Joseph Conrad, Marcel Duchamp and the Olsen twins). It's called Doppelgangerous because, let's face it, two lives are better than one (or three or five or nine). It's available here: https://mrxquisite.bandcamp.com/releases.
1. "America" by Prince and the Revolution: A kind of cross between Jimi Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner" and Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.", what this anthemic, pseudo-protest song lacks in subtlety (subtlety was not His Purple Majesty's strong suit) it makes up for in imagery and sheer artistic bravado (who else but Prince would attempt to rewrite "America the Beautiful"?). A great opening track to any July 4th playlist.
2. "Ignoreland" by R.E.M.: Boasting a megaphone vocal and lyrics that reference Dubya's vomiting on the Japanese Prime Minister's shoes (according to Wikipedia, "the only documented occurrence of a U.S. President vomiting on a foreign dignitary"), this glorified rant is, as Michael Stipe has pointed out, exactly that, adding credence to the uniquely American claim that it's better to have ranted to no or little effect than to never have ranted at all.
3. "Fourth of July" by Galaxie 500: This song reminds me of the time I too decided to have a Bed-In but forgot to invite anybody. Quintessential G5, with Dean Wareham's sometimes surreal, always clever lyrics. And what's more American than a Ford Galaxie?
4. "My Hometown" by Bruce Springsteen: Aside from the woefully misunderstood mega-hit referenced above, this song seems the epitome of modern American folk music, circa Born in the U.S.A., the album. The imagery is so rich, it's like a 4-plus minute short story. Perfect little protest song about the economy, unemployment, family.
5. "Independence Day" by Ani DiFranco: Speaking of perfect protest songs, few in recent years have done them better than the self-proclaimed "Little Folksinger" and longstanding Righteous Babe. As usual, the lyrics are so sharp any red-blooded American could cut a finger on them. Some people believe it's wrong to be (constructively critical) of something (or someone) you love, when in fact the opposite is true. But hey, this here's a love song, or rather a break-up song (though she still wants to slip her "big hot cherry bomb" through the "mail slot of your front door." Yeah, it's that kind of break-up). Sometimes freedom is the last thing you want, or need.
6. "Cherry Bomb" by The Runaways: Ahem. This too is a song about a very specific kind of independence. It's the opposite of a break-up song. More like a breakaway song. Ah, youth.
7. "Boom" by Wild Flag: This song by "supergroup" Wild Flag (Carrie Brownstein, Mary Timony, Rebecca Cole, Janet Weiss) is focused on that moment when you meet someone and, at least metaphorically, "things go boom." What things? Fireworks, heartbeats, preconceived notions of lust and love? Listen and learn.
8. "Bored in the USA" by Father John Misty: The title says it all. Rewatching Madmen recently I was reminded of the adage, delivered by Betty Draper to her young daughter Sally, that only boring people get bored. I like to think it's true. And yet...
9. "Free" by Prince: Okay, so I'm biased. This patriotic, overblown ballad is far from my favorite Prince tune, but he wears his heart on his purple sleeve here, and I love him for it. Among the freedoms listed is the freedom to change one's mind, reminding me of Emerson's Self-Reliance and his claim that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" (maybe this is the "lonely monster" Prince refers to). American Transcendentalism via early-eighties pop music. More muffin pan than melting pot, perhaps, but still.
10. "Freedom '90" by George Michael: Sure, he's a Brit. But so were the founding fathers (and mothers) for a time. Besides, I'm a sucker for a song about personal and creative freedom. Plus, more Emerson via the "That's what you get for changing your mind" lyric! Sometimes the clothes do not in fact make the man.
Bonus Track: "America" by Allen Ginsberg: Not a song, but a poem. Aside from Whitman, maybe even the poem. America when will you be angelic indeed?
BRONCHO is my new-ish favorite band. (I'm a little bit late to the party, but once arrived I'm infamous for wearing out my welcome.) It sounds like music a guy like me might create, if I created music. (Stay tuned for more on my fledgling music career.) And as a frustrated graphic designer, I love their album art aesthetic. Double Vanity is their latest record--take that, Yoko!--but I've been playing Just Enough Hip to Be Woman pretty much nonstop. To my ears, it's a collection of near-perfect summertime tunes.
Nothing says summer like synthpop, a lesson Kristin Kontrol, formerly Dee Dee of Dum Dum Girls, seems to have learned recently. I came of age during the heyday of many of this record's more vital influences, so I guess that makes me a targeted member of her audience. But I'm a longtime fan of Dum Dum Girls ("Season in Hell" is in heavy rotation on my go-to playlist), and I'm thrilled to see Kristin reinvent herself this way. Sounds to me a lot like the American Dream by way of the Second British Invasion.
Bat for Lashes is one of those bands whose records I buy sight unseen (or ears unheard). But "Sunday Love" left little doubt in my mind that this one would live up to Natasha Khan's stellar reputation. (The fact that I recently penned the lyrics for a song titled "The Bride," which appears on the Lyrics page of this site, only reinforces my feeling of her as a kindred spirit.) Aren't summer weddings the best?!?
Not that Marilyn ever asked me. Happy Bloomsday! And remember: "Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past."
So this happened. Yesterday was Prince's birthday, so I figured it was a good time to express my longtime admiration for and nearly inexpressible thanks to the recently deceased music icon by getting inked, compliments of Christine Nelson (that's right, same surname as The Purple One!) at No Ka Oi Tiki Tattoo here in Philly. It's an old-school Love Symbol (black instead of purple, to indicate mourning) with a dove in the ring. (The Love Symbol is a symbol of unity, as it melds the traditional symbols of male and female to form a new, androgynous glyph.) This particular design is tweaked from the artwork of the original 45 sleeve of the "Take Me with U" single. I think of the dove--an incarnation of Prince--as escaping not only the confines of mortality but the social and creative confines this world repeatedly tried (and repeatedly failed) to impose on him. I hope u like it.
Come hear me read from my Prince-influenced novella The Beautiful One this Friday, June 3rd, 7 pm at Inkwood Books in lovely Haddonfield, NJ. Earplugs optional.
Still buzzing from having attended Don DeLillo's reading (along with another contemporary fave, Dana Spiotta) last night at the 92nd Street Y in NYC. Intelligent, charming, often funny exchange between the two writers, who happen to be longtime friends. Bummed I wasn't able to get an autographed copy of Zero K because the Y sold out of books, but the esteemed author kindly agreed to sign his previous novel, Point Omega. All of this and a run-in with novelist Jonathan Dee made for time well spent!
As a lifelong fan—a diehard fan, a grieving fan, a fan still in a state of semi-shock—I began a few heavily autobiographical tributes to Prince in the days following his death, but (to quote an old professor of mine) none of them quite sing. Below is an excerpt from a work of fiction I began years ago and may or may not one day complete. I’m not convinced it sings either, but I’m fairly confident it at least hums. The story or novella or novel is titled The Beautiful One, and it stands as my official tribute to the man as well as the musical genius. Rest in peace, Prince Rogers Nelson. I wish u heaven.
The Beautiful One (excerpt)
We turned a corner and there she was, careening around a schoolyard in white knee socks and blood-red shorts, a trio of bare-chested pre-pubescent boys in hot pursuit. No neighborhood girl in her right mind would be caught dead sporting retina-damaging Mickey Mouse pants, and it was far too warm for the textured stockings, milk white and pulled tight, like somebody from the Alps. Janine wasn’t from the Alps, of course, only from the other side of Teutonically dubbed Auerbach Avenue. But she could’ve been from Planet Claire, for all I knew or cared. Where she came from didn’t seem nearly as crucial to me as where she might be going.
I skidded to a stop and Brandon had to swerve at the last second in order to avoid a collision. I’d only have had myself to blame if Brandon had hit me: rarely did we spot something worth braking for, because braking his bicycle, for a motion-obsessed adolescent boy, is a sign of great respect, if not outright awe. As she would be the first to tell you, I was in awe of Janine Mikulski, aka Nina Mitchell, from the get-go.
“Her name’s Janine,” Brandon said, blinking. At times patterned nervous ticks gave his face the air of a minor appliance or hand-held casino game. He blinked in rapid succession—one long, two short, one long, two short—as though signaling me in Morse code. I sized him up, not for the first time. He was wearing mascara, I was sure of it. He sported a full-blown mustache. His flimsy neon sneakers made his feet look freakishly big, like the kid had flippers where ten human toes ought to be. “Janine the beauty queen,” he whisper-sang. “She lives around the corner from my Uncle Walt.”
“You know her,” I said evenly, trying to keep the envy out of my voice, half ashamed at how the sight of Janine had forced me to lunge for my Huffy’s foam-grip handlebars.
My fey buddy in the purple sweatpants shrugged. “Sort of.”
Brandon explained how he’d gone to school with Janine, briefly, before transferring to Mother of Sublime Grace. His family was Protestant, which was a strange and somewhat superfluous thing to be in a parish full of Roman Catholics, like a self-proclaimed teetotaler at a New Year’s Eve party. “I can introduce you, if you want. She’s Polish,” he added with a smirk, and mouthed the word Mikulski.
Integrated is not a word anyone would ever use to describe Richtown, an immigrant enclave that even today seems more muffin pan than melting pot. Brandon knew that Deanna Hayes would make a disapproving face when she found out about her elder son’s apparent predilection for Polish girls. He also knew that if I went ahead and actually scored with Janine Mikulski—the thought boggled my mind, though other parts of my anatomy didn’t appear to be nearly as confused—I would be the victim of merciless teasing and the butt of numerous off-color jokes. And this just from my parents.
“How about now?” I said, wondering how I could possibly wait that long.
Brandon’s face performed a hand-jive. “What about Queenie?”
What about her? was my first thought. My second thought was that Natalie “Queen” Cole and I had had a good two-year run. At fourteen, and as oversexed co-founder of The Erotic Citizens, a fledgling Prince fan club, I was looking to take our relationship to the next level. (Just what awaited us on the next level I wasn’t sure, but it was certainly set to the desperate pleading of “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” followed quickly by the bluesy bump-and-grind of “Darling Nikki.”) Although I didn’t go so far as to sport ruffled shirts and shoulder-padded, rhinestone-studded trench coats to school dances like Brandon, I did own a pair of dark purple jeans and did my best to sweep my longish, wavy brown hair to one side, throwing over the then-popular, center-parted “wings” hairstyle in favor of a semi-successful pompadour. Like His Purple Majesty, we wanted to be in the “new breed,” and touted sexuality as all we’d ever need. Never mind that, for us, the sex act tended to take place with much older TV stars—like visions of wanton sugarplum fairies—while we were fast asleep.
Queenie disagreed. Natalie had no desire to count herself as a member of Prince’s new breed, or even as an honorary member of The Erotic Citizens (she thought we should call ourselves The Little Red Corvettes). In fact she had very little desire to speak of. Which made her new, eye-hijacking body the erotic equivalent of false advertising.
“Natalie won’t mind,” I lied, and almost laughed at how silly I sounded. “It’s not like we’re engaged.”
Strictly speaking this wasn’t true. I’d proposed to Natalie a few nights before. Her one-lane road of a body had morphed into some unexpected curves a few weeks back, like an intriguing detour you don’t mind following for a few miles. So when she’d shown up at our special make-out spot looking like a top-heavy Pat Benatar, in a black and green-striped shirt and second skin Sassoons, I lost it. I went down on one knee, scooping up a soda tab on my way to the ground. Neither of us said a word as I worked the aluminum ring over her expectant finger, but neither of us had to. I took the tears ruining her mascara as a yes.
Janine continued to run effortless circles around her tireless, pint-sized admirers, prompting Brandon to slowly shake his head. I couldn’t tell whether his gesture was meant to express sympathy for their longing, kudos for her beauty or condemnation of my lax morals. “Damn it’s hot,” he said, his face blinking like a turn signal, seemingly settling the matter. “Let’s go get something to drink first.”
“I’m not thirsty,” I said.
“Let’s at least towel off, man. I’m soaking wet.”
He was stalling. That’s when it struck me that Brandon must’ve had romantic designs of his own on Janine. How could he not? But Brandon had known the girl for years. What in God’s name was he waiting for?
“You go,” I said, emboldened by the idea of being alone with Janine, even briefly. “I’ll catch up.”
Brandon knitted his considerable brows and, blinking frantically—I couldn’t help thinking Tilt!—reluctantly agreed. “Meet me at Walt’s,” he said, pedaling away. He was already too big for it, a Christmas gift from his parents, and the slight awkwardness, coupled with his hairy limbs and clown-like clothes, put me in mind of a trained chimp or panting circus poodle. “But don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” he called over his furred shoulder, the sort of advice I’d always hated.
Back then, Brandon’s Uncle Walt and his roommate Timothy seemed ancient to us, but they must’ve only been in their late-twenties. Apparently they were waiters at some restaurant or other—they routinely woke bleary-eyed around two in the afternoon after all-night binges and left the house in black slacks and tuxedo shirts, their heads wet, their skin the color of cream soda. Walt was rail-thin, with a throwback pencil mustache and sleepy eyes—John Waters minus the flair. Timothy was fleshier, clean-shaven, better looking. He had frosted, Make It Big George Michael hair. It had to have crossed our minds that, rather than the playboy image they knowingly fostered, they might be gay. Walt was nothing if not an effeminate man (the way he smoked his cigarettes, with an inverted hand on his hip, now seems glaringly girlish). But in 1984 androgyny was in. Brandon and I were oversexed fourteen-year-old working class kids; homosexuality should’ve been an issue, but it wasn’t.
Well, it certainly was an issue for Brandon’s mother, who often described her son’s flamboyant wardrobe as “faggy,” and for my dad, who pretended to ignore the lingerie-clad non-Caucasian women flashing him from my bedroom walls and focus instead on the seven paper doves hanging from my bedroom ceiling. “What are these supposed to be?” he’d asked me the day I hung them up. “Doves,” I answered matter-of-factly. “Take them down. I’ll get you a parakeet.” “I don’t want a parakeet,” I told him. The song’s called “When Doves Cry,” not “When Parakeets Cry.” My dad looked as though he’d just swallowed a bug. “You mean the creepy record by that spic he-she you play non-stop? Forget about him,” he said. “He’s queer as a three-dollar bill.” “No, he’s not,” I said. “He gets all these girls.” I gestured to the tawny-skinned whorish performers hovering like underworld seraphim around my bed. “It’s an act,” my dad pronounced, after he’d zoned out for a full minute staring at the well of Apollonia’s cleavage. “The guy wears lace pants, for Christ’s sake. You want me to buy you a pair? You want to show up on your first day of high school in go-go boots and mascara, like Brandon?” I pretended to think this over. “No,” I said. A smug look swam across my father’s face, but it quickly disappeared when he saw how upset I was getting. “I didn’t think so,” he said, and left the room.
I approached the schoolyard and introduced myself. Janine wasn’t at all surprised by my daring. No doubt she had countless neighborhood guys—grade school guys, high school guys, guys old enough to procure her “jungle juice” and buy her beer—angling for her, er, attention. I deftly steered the conversation toward her “career,” as Brandon had said she called it. He hadn’t been kidding about the beauty queen business. By age thirteen, Janine had won a number of small but increasingly significant pageants, most recently that of Miss Pre-Teen Pennsylvania. We agreed that she was very pretty—too pretty for me. I was not one of the half dozen swarthy Don Juans who routinely stole the hearts and fondled the burgeoning bodies of the neighborhood hotties. As a baby, my own mother had labeled me “interesting looking.” I had no business making a play for Janine. But I was a bright kid, and had procured a certain degree of street cred due to my dexterity with spray paint and colored Sharpies. I wasn’t a true bad boy, but I went to school with a few. Some of their casual arrogance and mindless bravery, if not their dark good looks, had rubbed off on me.
“Where’s your crown?” I asked, knowing full well it had a fancier name but damn, when faced point-blank with Janine’s undivided attention and flawless Slavic beauty, if I could remember it.
“Tiara,” she clarified. “In my room.”
“Can I see it?”
She laughed. “My room or my tiara?”
“Either,” I shrugged, playing it cool. “Both.”
“No,” she said, rather seriously. “No boys allowed.”
“So bring it down,” I suggested, hardly hiding my disappointment. Even if we had known each other for longer than five minutes, there wasn’t much we would dare to do upstairs in Janine’s room that couldn’t be done holed up in an alley or behind the odd oak tree. I had no sisters, but somehow I sensed that a girl’s bedroom was a bastion second only to her body. Seeing where Janine slept, touching her stuff, sitting on her bed would be akin to feeling her up.
“Not yet,” she said vaguely.
Janine shot me a look out of her amazing baby blues that said All hail the newly crowned Idiot-King. “I barely know you.”
Now it was my turn to laugh. Leeringly, I said, “Don’t worry, I won’t touch it.” I all but waggled my non-existent eyebrows.
“No,” Janine said evenly, “you won’t.” I felt her ebb away.
It seemed I’d offended her, so I added, “Just think, one day I’ll be able to say I knew Miss America when.”
“Yeah,” she said, visibly warming to the idea. Then, out of nowhere: “And if you’re really lucky, one day you might be able to say you held her hand.”
Ordinarily, handholding didn’t turn me on. Natalie, of course, had been a champion hand-holder. Still, I resolved then and there to put my time in and, as per Sister Margaret Mary’s advice—which, despite the constant threat of nuclear catastrophe and my soul’s soon-to-be eternal role as Satan’s quick-start charcoal, I normally felt no burning desire to heed—tried to count my blessings.
As luck would have it, I didn’t have to count very high. After pleading my case for a week, something along the lines of pretty girls like you never give un-pretty guys like me a chance, and don’t know what you’re missing, I’d all but bullied Janine into going on a date with me, “date” being shorthand for after-dinner tonsil tickling in a semi-private, predetermined alley. Never mind that she was out of my league. Never mind that I had a spanking-new fiancée. Prince Rogers Nelson wouldn’t let a little thing like being engaged stand in his way of a date with a future Miss America, would he? As co-founder and chair of the Erotic Citizens, I had a reputation to uphold.
Besides which, it was Saturday night, I guess that made it all right, and what did I have to lose? I knew this great make-out spot, a cluster of one-car garages, some of which stood open and empty, secluded from the street. Queenie and I had camped out there two or three times, holed up with Yoo-hoos and Tastykakes, taking shelter from the chilling spring rain as well as from our increasingly alienated families.
Our date was a bust. We never made it off Janine’s front porch. Somehow, someone, somewhere, must’ve heard something, because we were confronted by a dozen pre-scorned teenage girls, spearheaded by my very own cousin Ava—third-cousin, but still—and my blushing would-be bride. I suppose no one is ever really a stranger in such a provincial river ward, even those marginalized people who live on the other side of town, far from the water.
Janine had two much older sisters, women well into their twenties, one a very large, overbearing surrogate mom—I got the feeling she was living vicariously through her stunning younger sister—the other a Runaway reject, sexy in a yellow tape POLICE LINE—DO NOT CROSS sort of way, who looked like she could kick some serious ass if she was so inclined. Although scrappy Natalie appeared willing to fight for her man, Janine wasn’t sufficiently enamored of me to risk loss of hair or black eye. After all, she had her career to think about. Either that or she’d guessed I wasn’t the tonsil tennis pro I’d made myself out to be.
“You can have him,” she informed the angry mob, before anybody had a chance to say much of anything. “I didn’t even know he was taken.”
Natalie glared at me, huffing like she’d just fought hard for and won something she was no longer sure she even wanted. With Janine out of the way, she redirected what was left of her anger at me. “You’re an asshole, Sam,” she said under her breath. “You, like, totally don’t deserve me.” She fished in the pocket of her pink denim mini-skirt and threw something at me that landed with a light clink at my feet. “I did then but I don’t now,” she spoke through some rather undramatic tears, sounding like something out of Dr. Seuss. “And I won’t with you ever again.”
And that was how our year-long relationship ended, with Natalie stalking off with her posse of angry friends, friends I never even knew she had, and my letting her go. For some reason I pictured them marching back to “chez Cole” and trashing her dad’s bomb shelter, the shower curtains torn free of their rings, balled up and set aflame, the near-identical cans of soup tossed from their shelves and exploding like fireworks on the unfinished cement floor. But maybe this was just wishful thinking. For all I knew they went straight to Ernie’s and threw a pizza party.
“You’re trouble,” Janine said, once the disappointed, bloodthirsty villagers had extinguished their torches and gone home. She came down off her porch, sidling over to where ze monster was seated on the curb and put her arm around my shoulder. I remember thinking This is all there is. I can die happy now.
“I’m really not,” I protested, dissatisfied with the tag of delinquency, despite its obvious allure. This was me at fourteen: hide-and-seek aficionado, incorrigible shape-shifter, a boy desperate to set the record straight even as he longed to distort it. “I’m a straight-A student. I’ve never even had a detention.”
Janine eyed me suspiciously. “Yeah, well Debbie says to stay far away from you.” Debbie, I’d intuited, was the big sister.
I looked into Janine’s cerulean eyes, where I was greeted by tiny twin images of myself, whoever that might’ve been. “Do you always do what your sister tells you?”
Janine laughed, again sounding more like some lascivious witch than, say, Snow White in the company of her budding “Prince” Charming. “Nope,” she said, sounding way too pleased with herself for her own good. “Usually I just do the opposite.”
So where did it get me, my impromptu Prince impression? Well with Janine it got me to first and then second base. And whatever the baseball equivalent is to dry humping on the living room floor—sacrifice fly, maybe. It earned me the admiration of all my friends, and a few enemies I didn’t even know I had. And it got me an “Erotic City” birthday dance. Janine’s birthday, not mine.
Dig if you will the picture of Janine and I engaged in a lap dance. Well not a lap dance, per se (I’m not even sure lap dances were invented yet). Janine didn’t straddle me, although she came damn close. And we were in a rented hall, not the “private” back room of some strip club, surrounded by a roomful of guests, celebrating my new girlfriend’s fourteenth birthday. A chair was placed in the middle of the empty dance floor. I was instructed to sit on it. The lights were dimmed. Music sounded. I recognized the opening chord immediately. But before I could shoot a knowing glance Brandon’s way, Janine appeared, in one of his ruffled white shirts, purple leotards and a veiled fedora much like the one donned by His Royal Badness in the “When Doves Cry” video. She’d choreographed an original dance routine set to the tune of one of his more risqué B-sides (and for a man whose A-sides routinely included lines like I guess I must be dumb, ’cuz you had a pocket full of horses, Trojan and some of ’em used, this was saying something). My eighth-grade Salome was going to dance for me. Well, for me and forty of her closest friends and relatives.
Like Janine’s parents, most of the guests watching this performance were over fifty and spoke broken English. The chorus to “Erotic City” is We can funk until the dawn, making love till cherry’s gone, but it sure sounded like fuck, no more so than on that day. Still, the assembled were all smiles, nothing but encouraging oohs and ahhs as the birthday girl did her tawdry little dance, flailing her arms, mussing her heavily-sprayed hair, pushing her boobs in my face, shaking her ass in the air. I wondered how much of the lyrics these first-generation Poles understood, those who could hear well, that is. But then I suppose actually hearing the song was superfluous; Janine’s horny mime dance said it all. My face must’ve been as red as those goofy shorts I’d first spotted her in. To make matters worse, everyone clearly was getting a kick out of my discomfort; it must’ve been quite a hoot watching this self-styled Don Wannabe from the other side of Auerbach Avenue squirm. I don’t know what was worse, having all those eyes—some of which belonged to other boys my age—trained on my shapely, scantily-dressed girlfriend or having them trained on me. All I know is, if it had been a banquet hall full of my relatives, and my cousin Joanie, say, was writhing to a song like this in front of some guy, the looks on my uncles’ faces wouldn’t have been nearly as innocuous. And the DJ would’ve been a marked man. Gabe, did she just do what I think she did? Joe, did he just say what I think he said? And what’s this about a cherry? That fruit better be singing about a fruit…
Surreal doesn’t even begin to describe the scene. But then, what did I expect? Ever since making a play for Janine, I felt as though I were having a kind of out-of-body experience. At times—most notably when seated on Janine’s front step, my arm slung around her shoulders, her hand resting idly on my knee—I could see us as others must’ve seen us, as Debbie, my nemesis, must’ve seen us: the shifty, strangely-dressed Romeo and his sheltered, secretly rebellious Juliet. What was she doing with him? everybody and his mother wanted to know. I’ll tell you what she was doing: she was flipping her family the bird.
Not quite Beauty and the Beast. More like Beauty and the Interesting-Looking Oversexed Teen. I was a scrawny kid—“gaunt,” as a high school history teacher would later describe me—with my makeshift pompadour and a nose too big for my face. But I had two things going for me. One was timing. Unbeknownst to perhaps even herself, Janine was just itching to act out. She had a wild streak that infuriated her aging parents and frightened her controlling older sister, mostly because that wildness represented everything Debbie would and could not be. The other thing was this: largely thanks to my father, I correctly sensed that regret is a terrible, soul-devouring disease, a disease for which there is no known cure. I resolved then and there to have as few regrets as possible. If this meant alienating friends and family, so be it. If this meant scrawling a hybrid male-female symbol on my forearm, to mark myself as not merely a member of the New Breed, but as a capital-L Leader, well I’d do that too. And if it meant breaking what hearts I could break, and pretending to a beauty like Janine Mikulski that I wasn’t just worthy of her but possibly her equal and more, I was up to the challenge. I was broke and homely looking and not nearly as experienced with girls as I purported to be. But, as the song goes, I was rich on personality. You might not know it now, I thought to myself, whenever I found myself leaning in to kiss Janine and experiencing a sudden, mojo-murdering flash of doubt, as if I were getting away with something, as if I were duping not only my beautiful new girlfriend but also somehow myself. Baby but I are. I’m a star.
I finally got a chance to watch The Big Short over the weekend and was only marginally surprised to learn two things: 1) Human beings' capacity for greed knows no bounds and 2) The financial world makes so much more sense when explained by Margot Robbie in a bubble bath! Cheers!
Shame on you if you're not already familiar with the fiction of Dana Spiotta. Her new novel, Innocents and Others ("innocents"--a group which may be likened, according to their prevalence in the world, with leprechauns, unicorns, and unbiased Fox News commentators), is a remarkable, innovative, at times brutally honest book. Read it now. (I defy you to read it and then not systematically devour everything else the woman has written.) And for a slightly more personal experience--more personal than reading the artist's fiction?! Nonsense!--show up at the 92nd Street Y on May 2nd to hear the esteemed Ms. Spiotta read with (insert drumroll)...literary demigod Don DeLillo! You're welcome.
As in victory. As in vindication. As in valor. Although I'm a Temple alumnus and my brother began his high school career at the Prep, Rollie and Co. made a lasting impression on my impressionable fifteen-year-old self way back in 1985. So heartfelt congratulations go out to 'Nova Nation and the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball National Champs!
I grew up on the First Wave of rap music, the likes of Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash and UTFO, to name a few. By the time People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm debuted, I was chest-deep into what would soon be labeled alternative music (much of which was simply British postpunk) if still a rabid Prince fan (whose own halfhearted attempts at rapping were at best awkwardly endearing and at worst downright embarrassing). A black-light party at an ex-girlfriend's house on Poplar Street re-introduced me to positive-tip hip hop in a big way, and specifically to the above man's band, A Tribe Called Quest (along with De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, et al). That music will always be the soundtrack to a very specific and formative time in my life, and to this day it's hard for me to hear any of it without being instantly transported to the early nineties (I mean this as a high compliment) and the Philly hip hop culture of the time. But what's truly special about Tribe's music is that it's classic hip hop in the sense that even today it sounds lively and fresh (in every sense of the term) despite my unique personal associations and what Michael Chabon once called the "ruinous work of nostalgia." I'm forever thankful for this. Forever stay on point, Phife Dawg, and rest in peace.
For anyone interested in post-punk, art rock, ska or synthpop, Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again is essential reading. Fans of PiL, Joy Division, Gang of Four, Devo, the Human League, Depeche Mode, et al will glory in the myriad of inside info the author shares while deftly and impressively proving his thesis, which runs something like: Punk gets all the credit, but the real modern musical revolution took place between 1978 and 1984, a revolution vastly more exciting and experimental and subversive than punk could ever hope to be. Reader, he's right.
Chalk it up to the unseasonably warm weather, but I can't stop looking at the cover art for La Roux's Trouble in Paradise. Maybe it's the vivid eighties color scheme; maybe it's the cut-paper collage feel; maybe it's nothing more than singer Elly Jackson's stylish Bowie/Bryan Ferry vibe and amazing hair. Likely it's all of the above and more. Whatever the case, I'm ready to climb up on the hood of that car and have my picture taken with her, even--no, especially--if that androgynous provocative woman turns out to be nothing but trouble, as the album title suggests.
If you're somehow living your life without these (fairly) recent releases, you should probably stop.
I can't stop listening to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly. It's on right now, as I update this blog. But perhaps in another, more figurative sense, it's always on, if merely spinning on the Inception-like turntable in my head. "You can take the boy out the hood but you can't take the hood out the homie." A personal motto, of sorts. And pretty much the major theme of James Joyce's entire oeuvre.
Ian Curtis and Siouxsie Sioux had a secret lovechild. They hired Polly Jean Harvey as wet-nurse. The child's name is Savages. Adore is their second jaw-droppingly good record.
Speaking of PJ Harvey (the band) as opposed to Polly Jean Harvey (the musical genius), The Hope Six Demolition Project is, what, its ninth studio album? It won't even be released until April 15th. So how are you supposed to not live without a record you can't possibly buy yet? Such is the power of Peej.
This time of year I always get a hankering for a Benjamin Black novel, and this one's no exception. Set in Dublin circa the early nineteen-fifties, these books (actually written by Man Booker Prize winner John Banville, who uses Black as a pseudonym) are expertly paced and beautifully written. I'm happy to say that Even the Dead, number seven in the series, is as enthralling and entertaining as the ones that came before. (You don't have to have read the previous installments to get the gist of Quirke's grim, complex history, but it sure doesn't hurt.) So if your Tardis is on the fritz or Aer Lingus a bit out of your price range, I highly recommend reading this as a worthy substitute. Slainte!