Stranger

It was after Christmas when my ex-lover told me he and his wife were going to try again. I felt as frigid as the icy blasts rushing down the alleys on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I lived in an apartment on 81st street with a friend from college and her sorrowful black lab, Padre. My grime-specked bedroom window faced an air shaft. My carpet was brown. After I heard Dylan’s song, Lay Lady Lay, I bought a brass bed. Next to my bed on the floor were bottles of Absinthe and an ashtray. I drank myself insensible. Cigarettes, burned down to the filter, lay in scorched rings on the carpet. There were various bottles of antidepressants, a handful of red devils. Dragging myself to work at Good Housekeeping Magazine felt as onerous as cleaning the Augean stables. I wore thigh high leather boots, short skirts, a brown suede maxi coat lined with shearling. When I strode the streets, construction workers hissed, “Beat me baby, eight to the bar.” Mail carts stacked with mountains of brown envelopes surrounded my desk like a fortress. Part of my job at the magazine was to read slush, pages of submissions from hopeful writers seeking an audience. If there was a misspelling or grammatical mistake in the first paragraph, or if they wrote the entry in pencil, I tossed it into the reject pile. I sat hidden from view as I read manuscript after manuscript. I poured scotch into my coffee mug. The boys in the art department had cocaine. I stopped eating.

After I got fired, I drifted around liquor stores just outside my neighborhood. I would walk in, casually wondering aloud about pairing wines with fine food. “Cabernet or a Bordeaux,” I would muse, finger to chin scanning the bottles, “with tenderloin. A Riesling, perhaps, with poached salmon?”

I wanted coma. I believed deliverance eluded me in those bottles, in the magic cocktails, the White Russians, the Aperol Spritzes, the Harvey Wallbangers, the martinis in goblets, over which lingered the merest miasma of Vermouth.

I lay most days on my brass bed on the brown carpet with scorch marks, with the square glass ashtray I had lifted from the Plaza Hotel, cigarette butts and roaches upended like broken spears. I read Haywire by Brooke Hayward, Loose Change: Three Women of the Sixties by Sara Davidson, Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. I saw Carlos Saura’s movie Cria Cuervos sixteen times. Sepia tones, slanted light, despair, and shadows. Geraldine Chaplin. A small girl, grieving her mother. The movie theatre was dank, deserted. I bought a 45 of the title track Porque te Vas, Why Are You Leaving? I played it obsessively, drinking hard.

One night, stumbling home from a liquor store on West End Avenue, a man fell into step with me. The street was empty. The streetlights were dim. The street people curled in doorways. Dirty steam rose from icy grates. I had the brown paper bag tucked under my arm.

The silent man matched my pace. I glanced sideways. His overcoat was black. He wore dark jeans and biker boots. A black watch cap. Hands in his pockets. He walked as close as if we were friends strolling home after dinner. I quickened my steps. He quickened his. I stopped to adjust my scarf. He stopped. I felt his eyes on me. He will rape me, I thought. I walked straight to my apartment building. The disinterested doorman in his dusty maroon jacket with brass buttons glanced up from his paper as I walked into the foyer, then down. I pushed the button for the elevator. The silent man followed me. As we rose toward my floor, I could smell the ethnic food of my neighbors. Anonymous suppers infused with garlic and unfamiliar spices. Sounds of chanting. Strands of long black hair poked from underneath his cap. His eyes fixated on my body. It was inevitable that this stranger and I would have sex. If I had sex with him, perhaps he wouldn’t kill me. Was this a manifestation of a recurrent nightmare? The incipient threat of violence, of slaughter, of being hurled off a bridge or knifed repeatedly in an alley averted, thwarted by an act of sex. My body was my currency.

He followed me into my dark bedroom, shrugged out of his coat, kicked it to the corner. His smell was rough, street, dive bar tough. I went to my knees as he unzipped his fly. Somewhere in the building, someone was playing Send in the Clowns.

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