Saturday, January 1, 2000

Ennui Streets

His mom stocked up on bottled water, in case; we waited years for tonight, for our big escape from big brother, from friends back home, from inexperience. Now, a ticket—a new beginning—we’ll see life, art in the big city; we’ll dance. Most importantly, we’ll party like rock stars. His ex-boyfriend lives there, a place to stay; the rest, we could manage. You know, that saying: the world, our oyster; all that. It’s true—no telling whether we’ll find a pearl or get sick in the search. We just wanted something different. No, we wanted something better than anyone else had. And we could only do it together.

The plane lands in New York City; our smiles start to hurt our faces: now, time to play it cool. It happens so fast. We drink every minute of the ride to his front door; I’m wishing it would slow down just a little, so I can grasp the scene and hold on to it. Sometimes, I have to tell myself, “You are here “—an X on a map—just to remember. Jules opens the door with a button, a button!, and leads us up the narrow stairway past huge oiled canvases leaned against the walls. Xmas lights hum red around the banisters, up the corners, the way Xmas lights throw a glow of lounge on night. And these paintings: beautiful. The hands that splashed these colors together must belong to genius, yet here—in a small NYC apartment building on top of a cab station—not at all the galleries we had yet seen. In museums—we’ve visited museums before, maybe we just don’t understand the difference—those canonical masterpieces grace long, tall walls, and here, this work swallows me, engulfs me.

That’s why you’re here in the city—to make it big—to break your whole life out of the bubble that suffocates you and make a name in flashy lights—to finally be able to say, “Dad, I did something. I can support myself “ and tell those kids you went to school with “it’s not about the money. “ But you prove your talent if people give you loads of it just to look at what you can do with those two brilliant hands. You can finally tell yourself after all this time that it is worth your while—there is a point to your existence; somebody actually cares whether you’re alive. And these paintings mean something to us as we climb that narrow staircase. We enter the world that we could only imagine before. They invited us into it, encouraged us to fully experience their expressions—they are artists in a way that we, as writers, are not artists. There’s that other saying—the picture and thousand words saying—that makes me wonder, no, tells me exactly which is valued more.

We are grateful. We walk into the dull afternoon of their loft and study the magazine page surrounding us. An austere sofa and mismatched armchair, a small TV set against the gauzy veiled blinds, many small and colorful lamps. It was nice, like ice—we set our bags down repressing the gush that would give away our admiration, our youth. We feel accepted into this idolatrous world: we belong here. We always had. On to dinner—a swanky buffet—with this tres chic entourage, we’re seated at the best table: they know us here. A pineapple curry, naan bread, shrimp in white sauce circles the table, jumps onto our plates. This food—foreign like us: we are so Texas, so foreign in our own way—southern charm somehow meshes with the big city. You allow us to believe we aren’t Texas; we’re big city, too—at least for tonight—but it isn’t true. We’re different. We mustn’t forget: we’re different. Tonight, we sit at table in a restaurant with kitsch Xmas lights snaked over the walls and dripping from the ceiling—and what the hell are we eating?

I can’t even taste it, and this, this is the part of the night—strangers—this is the part I wasn’t looking forward to (but hadn’t realized)—I’m on display like one of these dishes. Am I worthy of spending this, the most important party night of the year with you? Will I add or detract from your level of fun? Will I be the reason my companion won’t be able to sleep in his ex-lover’s bed for one more night? I lose interest in presenting myself as nice-as-ice and instead, fall silent, ponder our place here: why they should accept us to celebrate a new beginning—we are not a part of the future. They only see a couple of the same kids they were fleeing from merely months ago—what they’d always wanted to escape. Here we are, imposing our Texas dress and Texas talk on their exotic supper beneath hundreds of cheeky Xmas lights. They’re asking me questions about what I do—what I will do—how long we’re here for—the future, and it becomes obvious that I have nothing to offer but a biting reminder that they were once on their way to New York city from Texas not too long ago.

I excuse myself, leave Conrad to witness his ex-lover—his only love—squeeze the knee of someone new: he’s someone named Ridley who gets paid to work with art. Conrad—he’s raging inside—he’s forgotten (or did he ever realize at all) that he is here with me on a crusade for a good time, not to respark that dead flame. This wine—I shouldn’t drink, but it’s New Year’s Eve. Don’t forget: you are here and you must drink everything. I’m glad dinner’s over—I can stop pretending to eat, stop answering ice-breakers asking me to fill the spaces—I look nothing like you, your sleek dark monochrome, your smooth, thick gait drawing the rules of what this city is all about. I may not be one of you, but maybe I don’t need to fit your spaces—trying to entertain you—painting stories about what I do all day and with whom.

And maybe—if I could just say one thing, one thing that would make you say something about what you do and with whom—maybe—Conrad, please stop making a fool of yourself. He’s playing with you; you don’t mean anything to him anymore: he cares more about how much these people care about who he sleeps with than you can hope him to care about you. He thinks he can hand you a small token—a crumpled piece of paper, something else?—and wish you a merry “Have fun! “ and just, and just. . . And just as I thought, they’re whirling off to their party—one that it would be tactless to bring us kids to. I should have known; we should have warned each other: we should have looked before we leapt and listened to all those things they say. And they’re hopping into that cab on their way to some fabulous God-knows-where to have the kind of fun we can only dream.

We’re stuck descending urine-painted staircases to the train, clutching the scribbled address—a meeting spot—which, after traversing miles kilometers mere feet, getting rejected at each door because they don’t believe our line—we’re Canadians without valid I.D.—gets pulled out and examined. So, we think, maybe they’ll let us into this place carefully cramped in otherwise empty pockets—and I’m starting to think, goodness, it gets a lot colder here up north, and my coat sure is cute but it sure isn’t providing me the kind of protection I need against these not-so-nice-but-definitely-icy winds slapping our faces, asking us to please leave: we are not welcome.
But here’s hope again at this place, this joint a few quick steps underground. It looks the right kind of dirty where the people have the right kind of grease in their hair, and all the sudden I’m back in the film—I’m a starlet again—this isn’t really happening, but yes. I am here: X marks the spot. It’s almost midnight, but not quite and, of course, we’re turned away again. That line—the Canadian claim—only worked on one doorman who reasoned we could afford the $150 cover. Well, we only had maybe twenty dollars between the two of us: that supply was getting dangerously low considering how inconsiderate the taxi drivers (we love that movie) can be or are, who can tell which?

After Conrad finished all our cigarettes, we meet a guy at the liquor store a few quick steps next to the spot. This guy tells us he can get us in easy because his girlfriend—she dances there—they’re in love—she’s having his baby: we’re so pleased to meet him that we ignore his gravitational handicaps, his need to lean on the wall and roll his eyes while he talks. We’re laughing with his good humor but realize, he isn’t cracking any jokes—he’s determined to get us into that club. He’ll smash the front glass door in with his own paper-bagged bottle. We exchange glances and smile, shrug, because now we’re getting to the adventure part of tonight; it wasn’t a loss after all: at least we met this guy, our hero, who will rescue our dull New Years Eve and really drop the ball on us.

And he did. Turns out: the girl in the club doesn’t want him in the club. She looks about thirteen; she’s wearing wings and cotton underwear. The bouncer—he’s getting really tired of looking at us—checks his watch and I check mine, and sure enough, there’s no way that Jules is on his way to rescue Conrad from this embarrassment. So, we wave good-bye to the still-lingering, well-intentioned knock-her-upper, stand on the street and wait again for salvation.

Here they come—new knights in tuxedos, not shining armor—they just got off a helicopter, and they mean just. And we, well, we’re just so pleased to meet them. They say, “Happy-New-Year! “ (although it isn’t yet it isn’t quite the New Year yet, and we aren’t quite that happy). They say, and here’s the clincher: “come with us. “ And we walk the way they walk down the big city streets: we learn all about them—how they are our new best friends, not only because they were there for us when we needed them, but also because we love the spot as much as they are willing to provide it.
We’re on our way to a party, we’re on our way to a party: we finally arrive, and it seems the party’s waiting for us to get there; we’re the stars of the party. We get introduced to everybody—I mean every body—and they are so pleased to meet us. They invite us in, we’re welcome—thank God—we are welcome. So we climb brightly lit steps to the top floor: now that we’re here the party may begin. We go out on the balcony-back patio-roof—whatever you want to name it—and swallow the spot. We drink deeply, absorbing the moment, the spot. We arrived together, intact, except for one exception: we had different spots—one for him from his ex and one for me from our new best friend.

Suddenly, things slow all the way down to motionless: here we are—on the spot—the TV’s on, the count’s on four, smiles are shaping into kissy faces and I can’t see the ball drop—I’ve never seen the ball drop. Prince (his name is still Prince)—he’s been singing that same line for years just for tonight—stops singing, and its no longer 1999. My fake eyelashes—the kind of Xmas tinsel, blue like my ballroom skirt (that people in New York don’t expect a kid like me to wear)—and the room frozen for ten seconds. I know: I counted.

Then, an explosion of glitter and screams; Conrad grabs me and I bite his lip and behind us, a couple has taken it too far—good thing she was already in a skirt and all he needed was to unzip his fly. Am I really watching this? Am I staring? Is he kissing her stomach, her inner thighs, and holy shit, did he just extract her tampon between clenched teeth? We have to go: I can’t handle this with these people, and who’s that? Oh, yes, that is my new best friend. Did I tell him how much I love him and how grateful I am? He wants to tell me how cute I am, but Conrad, he wants to go, too; he can’t wait in that bathroom line: someone’s giving him the fisheye, and off we spin into the night, the strange night, hand-in-hand and laughing too hard.

Oh no—our friend from the nightclub—what was his name? His name was Collin: he’s leaning against a police car; Conrad doesn’t think it wise we ask how that happened and pulls me into a different street lined with buildings—my, how this street looks exactly like the last one—and we turn another corner; I think, this is a nice spot, and I think: I sure am glad I don’t have to know where we’re going. I just let him pull me this way and that and I can’t feel my feet anymore: I’m floating with him down these lovely dark streets, but he looks frightened. I wish I could take his fear away; I wish I could flap my arms and lift him out of this city. We could go somewhere tropical, where it’s warm and we know everything’s all right: the sun always shines on the beach, even at night—the beach shines. But, he’s still frightened and he says, “I’m going to be sick, “ and I think: if you know you are then you must already be. It makes me laugh, and then it dawns on me that he doesn’t know how to get where we need to go. All I know is that we’re here, on X.

So, I suggest we get a ride—my feet hurt, anyway (that’s a lie, everything feels wonderful, remember I’m floating). He looks grateful; it takes mere moments, probably near half an hour, to find an appropriate place to hail a taxi. We jump in, I lean back and—I’ve already begun to writhe into the leather seat—I can’t smell the driver’s musk, his unshowered fur, but I know it stinks. I know Conrad’s leaned up between the front seats explaining the turns, and I let him since I can’t form words anymore. We finally get to the right street corner and Conrad gives the man way too much money, I’m sure; he fumbles the key into the lock and says it again, “I’m going to be sick. “ But it doesn’t happen yet: we still have to climb that narrow staircase with the Xmas lights and the paintings that look very different—suddenly don’t look the thousand words anymore—more like millions—they’re scenes, moving and breathing and pleased to meet us, and if they weren’t beautiful before (which they were, remember), then they are now. I want to touch them but somehow fear I’ll knock them down, or my fingers—who knows where my fingers have been—will ruin the beauty—not because I’m dirty, but because I am not beautiful. But that’s all right. We’re all right.

Except Conrad: he’s sick.

He’s making terrible noises in the bathroom, and I wonder if we’ll survive our minds. I’ve already dropped the clothing. I’m down to my long johns and I can’t hear the sickness anymore—I call out, “Conrad, “ but he doesn’t answer and I say it again, “Conrad? “ Still, I can’t worry: this chemical raging through my body won’t let me get up, check on him, see if he’s there or if somehow I left him wherever it was from which we came—and suddenly, a brilliant, exciting idea strikes me like the entire lit city: “Flush the toilet! “ He does, and I never thought I could be this purely happy or if anything possibly could be funnier than the Morse code we’ve established. I ask him to do it again and every few minutes until he can come out here to laugh with me. But hours tick by with him in there, flushing the toilet occasionally to appease me.
Something’s winding down. It’s the good feeling—I suddenly feel lonely and I need him to come out. Come out right now. Come into the living room. The girl in the painting, she’s staring at me, she’s demented, distorted, she hates me, she wants me gone, I need him out here to protect me—I need my new best friend. No. He’s what started this mess, but without him. . . I can’t decide. I just need Conrad to come out of the bathroom. We’re not we: it’s just me right now; I’m not ready to be completely alone in this beast of a city. I feel eaten. Chewed. Gnawed on by this girl staring at me. Conrad, come out of the bathroom. Please come out and rescue me. We must escape again.

Finally, he stumbles into the living room where he’s left me writhing on the couch—he doesn’t look good, and I don’t think I’m writhing from pleasure anymore. I can’t stop moving. There’s no music. My blood is only flowing out to the ends of my fingers, not circulating back to my heart, and Conrad keeps pacing from the armchair to the painting to the gauzy blinds. He’s making me nervous. No. I can’t focus on him. I’m glad he’s here: I wouldn’t be able to survive my mind if I were here alone. He has his hand to his head and all he tells me is that we’re gonna die—that this is it—Y2K—this is what his mom had stocked up on water for—this is the end of the world for us, just us. Did we think we were going to die with the whole world? Is that why we came here? We were in search of the end to go out with a bang: if it were to happen it would be now, the new millennium in New York City. We had to know that—at least subconsciously—we had to have wanted to die tonight. “Shut up!”

“Keep talking!” I don’t know what I want. I don’t think I want to die, but now I wonder if I did all along—if that’s why we came here—if that’s why we took candy from strangers and didn’t listen to what all those sayings say—So, Conrad, Conrad, Conrad keeps pacing and I’m doing the same thing, only horizontally and we might already be dead, but we’re glad that we did it right, because God, this is fun.

The night wears on like that until, for the first time, events slow down to where I can process them, and then, of course, as punishment, it slows to an agonizing pace: we can’t sleep, and when the sun finally rises—peaking out over the sleeping streets, over the train station—we pull on what we wore yesterday morning and go through the town like rock stars, in sunglasses. Food is out of the question (although we hadn’t eaten since brunch yesterday), so we stand amid the cement, the high-rises, the shoppers, spit into the street, thinking: we conquered the place. It’s not half as intimidating in the daylight—maybe twice as much.

We scuttle to the airport; the flight isn’t for another hour, so we sit in the bar to smoke cigarettes—because we don’t have to be Canadian to smoke at the airport. We face a dingy tropical sunset, listen to The Sound of Silence, and everything, everything is all right.