7

IF YOU’RE ANYTHING LIKE ME, THE IDEA OF being surrounded by supermodels might be something you’ve dreamed about. If you’re the kind of person who likes your dreams intact—i.e., free of puncture holes—you probably don’t want to read what’s next: The experience is overrated.

I’m not saying the models are overrated. Anything but. You might wonder if up close they’re just regular gals with decent bone structure and expert hair and makeup artists. They aren’t. They’re perfect, or close enough.

And it’s not that they’re stupid, or insecure, or vain, even though some of them are. Maybe most of them. But beauty forgives intellectual shortcomings.

No, what’s overrated is the experience of meeting a supermodel. Because deep down, you’re hoping that you and she will fall in love. Or lust. Or just find something to talk about for more than thirty seconds. But you won’t. Supermodels are like professional athletes or violin prodigies: brilliant but limited in worldview. Maybe you’re the kind of guy who knows a lot about strappy shoes or applying foundation. But if you’re dreaming about bedding supermodels, you’re probably not that guy.

You tell yourself that you can overlook this lack of connection. And you’re right. You can. But she can’t. Women are all about connection. Or connections. And unless you can bring at least one of those to the table, you might as well be speaking Martian.

At least that’s been my experience tonight. Every conversation has petered out once it’s been established that I’m not famous, I don’t work for an agency, and I don’t know anything about strappy shoes.

I can’t say the same for my wingman, Ray. He is a black belt in the art of the flirtatious insult, which seems to be exactly the right jujitsu to snare these lovelies. As in three telephone numbers so far. His real talent lies in his ability to identify the microscopic flaw, invisible to most, which causes the poor supermodel to spend anguished hours in front of the mirror. The spot where a wrinkle will one day appear. A millimeter of sag in the ass. A calf muscle slightly out of proportion to the thigh.

“I can’t believe they let you go out in that,” I hear him tell a seemingly flawless specimen. A few minutes later, she’s writing her phone number on his hand.

He rubs the ink off as soon as she leaves. “The game gets old, doesn’t it?” He yawns, holding up three fingers. “Three yawns. I only give a place ten. Nothing good ever happens after ten yawns.”

I met Ray the day I moved into the Chelsea, when he introduced himself to Tana.

Even with the extra cash from my arrangement with Danny Carr, it still takes me three weeks to save enough for the room. Tana, home again after taking her winter finals, offers to help me move. Which turns out to be code for bitching about her latest problems with Glenn and gifting me with a tiny cactus from the Duane Reade around the corner. It’s on me to wrestle my overstuffed duffel bag (everything worthwhile from my closet) and milk crate (an IBM Selectric II and a few books from Freshman Lit I hoped might sell me as a poet) up the stairs and down the narrow hallway to Room 242.

Somewhere along the way two things happen: Tana turns into a man with a rapid-fire Southern accent that effectively ends any Yankee stereotypes about drawls; and my bag gets wedged in the hallway, rendering me unable to move. I tug with a level of force that’s quickly becoming embarrassing. I wonder which is going to break first, the strap or my shoulder. Then, suddenly, the weight of the duffel is gone.

I slide out from underneath the bag. My savior turns out to be a muscled gym rat with a long black ponytail and a wispy attempt at a goatee. He strikes a pose like Atlas, my bag as his globe, and extends his free hand. “Ray Mondavi,” he says.

He’s the same Ray Mondavi who took K.’s photos and jump-started her career. The Southern accent is a residue from his native Richmond, Virginia, the expresstrain delivery a by-product of the five years he’d spent in Miami, lugging equipment for a fashion photographer whose name Tana recognizes. While I hang my wardrobe from an exposed pipe—Room 242 turns out to be sans closet (or bathroom)—Ray keeps Tana in stitches with a “models are as dumb as you think they are” story from a recent shoot in Turks and Caicos. His eyes drill into hers except when he’s checking out her body, seeming not so much sleazy as professionally detached, like a tailor eyeing a guy for a suit. He breaks concentration from his internal calculus only twice: the first time to look at me to let me know that he knows that I know he’s checking her out, the second to see if it’s bothering me. I give Ray my blessing with the slightest of nods. Despite our reputation for insensitivity and emotional retardation, we men have a surprisingly rich nonverbal vocabulary. Especially when there’s a lady present.

“You should let me take your picture,” Ray tells Tana.

“Yeah, right,” she says, giggling.

“I’m serious. Not for the runway—you don’t have the stilts for that—but print…. You’re a classic Ellen von Unwerth girl. Sensual, like Claudia or Carr?.”

Tana is blushing. “I’ll think about it,” she says.

“I hope you will,” Ray replies, backing out of the room. “Welcome to the Chelsea.”

I’m grateful to see him leave, not because I don’t like listening to his game—it’s already clear that this man might be able to teach my inner dog a few tricks—but because the room isn’t big enough for three people. The double bed takes up most of the space; the sink beneath a cracked mirror accounts for the rest—anything requiring more elaborate plumbing will have to take place in the communal bathroom down the hall. I’d hoped for a balcony, like in Sid and Nancy, but will have to settle for a fire escape with a view of the neighboring brick wall.

“At least you’ve got a patio,” Tana says as she climbs back inside through the window, having placed the cactus in a cold, sunless corner where a week later it will die. She sits on the edge of the bed, testing its bounce. “So when are you going to break this bad boy in?” she asks.

This turns out to be an Excellent Question.

During my first week at the Chelsea, I’m a ghost, invisible to the other residents, whom I glimpse occasionally behind closing doors. I walk by Nate and K.’s suite often enough to seem like a stalker, and a few more times after that. I press my ear against the door, failing each time to hear any hint of the promised nonstop party.

A coy smile from an Amazonian stunner in the fabled elevator briefly arouses my hopes. Until “she” responds to my overeager introduction: Mika has a voice three octaves lower than mine and, by my best guess, a functioning penis. The only predictable human interaction comes from Herman, a more or less permanent presence at the front desk, who asks after my poetry every time he sees me. Given his skills as a bullshit detector, I do my best to keep these conversations short.

For the first time in forever, I am lonely. I ring Tana almost every night from the pay phone in the Mexican restaurant. She welcomes my calls, having finally broken things off with Glenn, but the steady background marimba and the charges exacted by New York Telephone keep us from rambling. I even call my mother once, but her maternal curiosity about my job forces me into increasingly elaborate lies, and her questions about my social life leave me even more depressed.

In a couple of weeks I might have enough saved up for a social life. But for now it’s hot dogs and slices and nights spent alone. The drafty old hotel turns out to have a tough time holding on to heat, with the notable exception of my miniature room and its exposed hot-water plumbing. Nighttime temperatures often reach the nineties. I learn to use my window like a tub faucet in reverse, replenishing the room as needed with below-freezing air. It gives me something to do while I lie awake at night trying to remember why I thought living in this place would be better than home.

During the day, I mine my interactions with the customers for whatever fleeting nuggets of warmth I can find. The Upper East Side jogger gives up her name (“Liz”) after I compliment her eyes, then tears off like a woman with more important things to do. Charlie, a kid about my age who works nights sweeping up an underground card game, is usually good for fifteen minutes of conversation before he dozes off into stoned slumber on whichever park bench in Union Square promises the most sun.

And Danny Carr.

Most people smoke pot to mellow out. Danny is not one of those people. The man is what my parents might call a “dynamo,” and the weed only stokes those fires. I’m more inclined to use the word “asshole,” but he’s more than doubling my take-home pay each week for the equivalent of a few prank phone calls, so I go along to get along.

Each workday I make two calls to the Pontiff’s toll-free customer line. At first, I use a different accent each time: Park Avenue, Puerto Rico, Staten Island, and one that starts Haitian but rapidly deteriorates into Diff’rent Strokes: “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Mister D.?” Luckily, Billy’s years of taking calls from the highly stoned means that it’s pretty much impossible to sound too weird. But I’m no Rich Little: Impersonations have never been my thing. I max out at six, maybe seven voices that sound remotely convincing. So I transform them into regular customers, requiring the purchase of a small black notebook at Duane Reade to keep track of my polyethnic cast of characters and their imaginary smoking habits. I don’t want to fuck up. While I’m not exactly scamming the Pontiff—if anything, I’m generating more business—delivering two pounds to Danny each week certainly exposes me to risks outside the operation’s comfort zone, something Rico, during my audition, impressed upon me never to do.

Friday night, my third week of moonlighting for Danny, I return to my room at the hotel after making my last legitimate delivery. I load my shirt with the bags. “That’s quite a potbelly,” I say to the cracked mirror. I open the door before the mirror can reply, jogging down the stairs toward the subway and Danny’s office. Only this time I nearly steamroll K. as she’s walking into the elevator.

“Hey, you,” she says. She’s freshly showered, hasn’t bothered with makeup, and isn’t suffering for it in the slightest. My heart’s beating like a jackhammer, but I’ve never been more lucid. I finally have an honest answer to the question of why I chose to live at the Chelsea.

“I’ve been looking for you,” I say. “About that second date.”

She smiles. “It’s going to have to be a quickie. I’ve got to get back to Nate. They’re flying to Chicago tonight and they’ll never make it to the airport without me.”

“I can work fast when I have to.”

“A fast worker, huh?”

“Don’t get me wrong. I prefer to take my time.”

“You know, I’m not that easy.”

“Me neither,” I fire back. “But I’m open to rehabilitation.”

She smiles again. Could my rap actually be working? Her eyes dart back and forth, signaling an internal debate. “I’ve got a show tomorrow night,” she finally says. “Versace.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thank you, thank you,” she says with a curtsy. “But would you believe that I still get nervous up there? Lame, I know, but I could really use a rooting section and with Nate out of town…”

“I’m there!” I say, grinning a little too much.

“Don’t get any ideas: I’m a good girl. But I can’t say the same for all of my friends. A roomful of beautiful, insecure women of questionable character. A guy like you might do all right.”

“‘A guy like me’? I believe I’ve just been insulted.”

She gently slaps my cheek. “Poor baby. There’ll be a pass for you at the door, if you can get over the hurt. Ray’s going too. Maybe you guys can share a cab.” She struts past me into the elevator. She’s smiling as the doors close shut.

“You shud write a pome abut hah,” Herman chimes in, having caught the scene from his perch behind the desk.

“I just might,” I reply, scurrying out into the street to avoid further interrogation. I let my momentum carry me to Seventh Avenue, where I catch the train downtown.

DESPITE K.’S SUGGESTION, WE DON’T need a cab—it’s only a ten-block walk to the show, a former slaughterhouse in the Meatpacking District that’s been reclaimed as an “art space.” Like a true Dixie gentleman, Ray brings along a flask of Southern Comfort to warm us along the way, leaving us nicely lacquered by the time we take our seats. We hoot and holler when K. struts out for the first time, decked in a fluorescent green smock I couldn’t imagine ever seeing on a civilian. Like the true professional she is, she ignores us completely.

A half hour later—about twenty-five minutes after the novelty of seeing so many imperious beauties march in, spin, and march out again has run its course—I wake to the sound of applause. The fashion designer rides a supermodel stampede to the stage.

“Lucky dude,” I say.

“Tell that to his boyfriend,” Ray replies. “Now let’s have some fun.”

Which is when I begin striking out, and Ray starts yawning. He’s all the way up to seven before K. appears, having completed her circuit of the industry types Ray calls Big Swinging Dicks: “Especially the women!” She’s still made up but dressed for downtown, having shed the Day-Glo smock in favor of a one-piece black velvet minidress and her 18-eye Docs.

“Yow!” Ray howls at her, pulling his hand back as if he’s been scorched. “You owned it, lady!” K. accepts the compliment with a curtsy and a smile. “But I don’t know what they were thinking putting you in that rig with the Mork from Ork suspenders,” he continues. “You need tits for that one.”

“You’re an asshole,” K. says, but she’s laughing. She looks to me for my reaction, which right now is to smile like a moron. When I fail to reply within a socially acceptable time frame, she throws me a lifeline. “A few of us are headed down to the Western.”

“The Western Diner,” Ray says. “Most ironically named restaurant in the world.”

It doesn’t take long to figure out what he means. I’d noticed the Western Diner during my transactions with Union Square Charlie and, having seen the place only in daylight, been fooled by the name. Nobody’s dining; in fact, most of the patrons—models, club kids, and a smattering of minor celebrities with rapidly swiveling heads—are poster children for eating disorders. We skip through the velvet ropes, our entrance blazed by K. and two femmes with the faces of angels but names too important to share with me, landing us in a coveted corner booth. The ladies order something called mojitos and excuse themselves to go to the bathroom. “Riding the rails,” Ray says as they leave. “At least they’ll be horny. Which one do you want?”

“I guess K.’s out of bounds,” I venture.

“Waste of time. Nate doesn’t deserve her, but he’s got the whole rock star thing working for him.” Ray wiggles his fingers in the air. “Chick voodoo. He’s got his teeth in her like fucking Dracula.”

“I must have missed the fang marks.”

“They’re everywhere. Blood, heart, soul, and pussy. Whatever it is you want, you ain’t getting it from her.”

“In that case,” I suggest, “I’ll let you choose first.”

Ray shrugs. “I don’t even like white women. I need a little T’ang in my ’tang,” he says, stretching his eyes into slants to make his point. “But I don’t like going to bed hungry, either. Let’s just lay ’em as they play.”

Twenty minutes later, I’m locked into conversation with one of K.’s friends, a brunette who finally introduces herself as Stella. She’s locked into whatever’s going on behind me. After a few more swings and misses, I scan the crowd for Ray. He’s on the dance floor, taking advantage of the current disco revival to spin K.’s other friend around his shoulders like he’s John Travolta. Stella uses the brief distraction to slink over to a guy I recognize from the local news.

“So,” says K., returning from a buzz-maintenance session in the bathroom. “Looks like you and Stella are hitting it off.”

“A little too well. We’ve moved right through the passion and the hot sex into the long, awkward silences.”

“You said you worked fast.”

“Touch?,” I say, lifting a glass to toast her.

“Speaking of work… you don’t happen to be holding, do you?”

“Oh, I see,” I reply, my insult half-feigned. “I’m like your drug Sherpa.”

“It’s not like that. I just need something to take the edge off the blow. I can’t stand cocaine.”

“That hasn’t stopped you from Hoovering the stuff,” I say. My goal is to approximate one of Ray’s playful insults. What comes out, judging by K.’s reaction, is more like a slap in the face.

I backpedal as fast as my feet will take me. “Hell, no, lady. I’m just trying to alienate as many people as I can tonight with my piss-poor conversational skills. Congratulations. You’re my thousandth customer.”

Her smile returns. “You’re way too cute to be a drug dealer.”

“I really wish you’d stop calling me that.”

“Drug dealer?”

“Cute. ‘Cute’ is the kiss of death.”

Her eyes are suddenly full of what I hope I’m reading correctly as mischief. “My kisses haven’t killed anybody yet,” she says, sipping her mojito through a straw.

Are we flirting? My heart seems to think so, working double time to keep the blood flowing to my brain. “I guess I’ll have to take your word for it. Though to be honest, I’d like a little bit more to go on.”

Ray sweeps back into the scene, K.’s other friend still in tow. “Tenth yawn,” he says. “I’ve got to get this lady home before I turn into a pumpkin.”

The two women exchange air kisses and K. slides the rest of the blow into the pocket of her friend’s jeans. Ray pulls me close with a smooth combination of handshake and man-hug. “Yeah, boy!” he whispers—loud enough, I’m sure, for K. to hear. But she doesn’t show it.

“So,” she says when they’re gone. “Where were we?”

“I might have been misreading the tea leaves,” I reply, “but it seemed to me like we were negotiating.”

“Negotiating? What were we negotiating?”

“What else? Our first kiss.”

And then it happens—resting one hand against my cheek, she touches her lips to mine. Softly, gently swiping her tongue over mine. ‘See?” she says. “You’re still alive.”

“Could be a fluke. We’re going to have to try that again.” This time I pull her toward me. Our lips lock, then part, tentative tongue-swipes giving way to more enthusiastic exploration. I feel a deep stirring in my loins—the Motorola.

“I think you’re vibrating,” she says.

I pull the pager out of my pocket and put it on the table. Tana’s phone number glows from the alphanumeric display.

“Work?” asks K.

“Not tonight.” I move back in for another kiss.

The table rumbles as the pager vibrates again, startling K. Then she smiles.

“Girlfriend,” she says.

“Not that, either,” I insist, staring at the “911” Tana’s added to the display this time around. “Family. This will only take a minute.”

I sprint toward the bathrooms and find an available pay phone. I hadn’t bothered to equip myself with enough loose change to dial the Island, so I call collect.

“I hope somebody just died,” I say after Tana’s accepted the charges. “Because otherwise this is a cock block of epic proportions.”

“I’m not sure,” Tana says. “Your parents’ house almost burned down. Is that important enough for you?”

“What?!”

“Don’t worry. They’re okay.”

“Well, like I said, if they aren’t dead. What happened? Did Dad pass out with a lit cigarette? One of his whores knock over a lantern?”

“The police think it’s arson.”

“Arson?” I ask, my voice somewhere between anger and disbelief. “My parents tried to burn their own house down?”

“Not your parents. Daphne. That crazy bitch tried to torch your house.”

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