You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already. The night has already turned on that imperceptible pivot where two A.M. changes to six A.M. You know this moment has come and gone, but you are not yet willing to concede that you have crossed the line beyond which all is gratuitous damage and the palsy of unraveled nerve endings. Somewhere back there you could have cut your losses, but you rode past that moment on a comet trail of white powder and now you are trying to hang on to the rush. Your brain at this moment is composed of brigades of tiny Bolivian soldiers. They are tired and muddy from their long march through the night. There are holes in their boots and they are hungry. They need to be fed. They need the Bolivian Marching Powder.
A vaguely tribal flavor to this scene – - pendulous jewelry, face paint, ceremonial headgear and hair styles. You feel that there is also a certain Latin theme – - something more than the piranhas cruising your bloodstream and the fading buzz of marimbas in your brain.
You are leaning-back against a post that may or may not be structural with regard to the building, but which feels essential to your own maintenance of an upright position. The bald girl is saying this used to be a good place to come before the assholes discovered it. You don’t want to be talking to this bald girl, or even listening to her, which is all you are doing, but just now you do not want to test the powers of speech or locomotion.
How did you get here? It was your friend, Tad Allagash, who powered you in here, and he has disappeared. Tad is the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. He is either your best self or your worst self, you’re not sure which. Earlier in the evening it seemed clear that he was your best self. You started on the Upper East Side with champagne and unlimited prospects, strictly observing the Allagash rule of perpetual motion: one drink per stop. Tad’s mission in life is to have more fun than anyone else in New York City, and this involves a lot of moving around, since there is always the likelihood that where you aren’t is more fun than where you are. You are awed by his strict refusal to acknowledge any goal higher than the pursuit of pleasure. You want to be like that. You also think he is shallow and dangerous. His friends are all rich and spoiled, like the cousin from Memphis you met earlier in the evening who would not accompany you below Fourteenth Street because, he said, he didn’t have a lowlife visa. This cousin had a girlfriend with cheekbones to break your heart, and you knew she was the real thing when she steadfastly refused to acknowledge your presence. She possessed secrets – about islands, about horses, about French pronunciation – that you would never know.
You have traveled in the course of the night from the meticulous to the slime. The girl with the shaved head has a scar tattooed on her scalp. It looks like a long, sutured gash. You tell her it is very realistic. She takes this as a compliment and thanks you. You meant as opposed to romantic.
"I could use one of those right over my heart," you say.
"You want I can give you the name of the guy that did it. You’d be surprised how cheap."
You don’t tell her that nothing would surprise you now. Her voice, for instance, which is like the New Jersey State Anthem played through an electric shaver.
The bald girl is emblematic of the problem. The problem is, for some reason you think you are going to meet the kind of girl who is not the kind of girl who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. When you meet her you are going to tell her that what you really want is a house in the country with a garden. New York, the club scene, bald women – you’re tired of all that. Your presence here is only a matter of conducting an experiment in limits, reminding yourself of what you aren’t. You see yourself as the kind of guy who wakes up early on Sunday morning and steps out to cop the Times and croissants. Who might take a cue from the Arts and Leisure section and decide to check out an exhibition – costumes of the Hapsburg Court at the Met, say, or Japanese lacquerware of the Muromachi period at the Asia Society. The kind of guy who calls up the woman he met at a publishing party Friday night, the party he did not get sloppy drunk at. See if she wants to check out the exhibition and maybe do an early dinner. A guy who would wait until eleven A.M. to call her, because she might not be an early riser, like he is. She may have been out late, perhaps at a nightclub. And maybe a couple of sets of tennis before the museum. He wonders if she plays, but of course she would.
When you meet the girl who wouldn’t et cetera you will tell her that you are slumming, visiting your own six A.M. Lower East Side of the soul on a lark, stepping nimbly between the piles of garbage to the gay marimba rhythms in your head. Well, no, not gay. But she will know exactly what you mean.
On the other hand, almost any girl, specifically one with a full head of hair, would help you stave off this creeping sense of mortality. You remember the Bolivian Marching Powder and realize you’re not down yet. No way, Jose. First you have to get rid of this bald girl.
In the bathroom there are no doors on the stalls, which makes it tough to be discreet. But clearly you are not the only person in here to take on fuel. Lots of sniffling going on in the stalls. The windows are blacked over, and for this you are profoundly grateful.
Hup, two, three, four. The soldiers are back on their feet. They are off and running in formation. Some of them are dancing, and you must follow their example.
Just outside the door you spot her: tall, dark and alone, half hidden behind a pillar at the edge of the dance floor. You approach laterally, moving your stuff like a Bad Spade through the slalom of a synthesized conga rhythm. She jumps when you touch her shoulder.
She looks at you as if you had just suggested instrumental rape. “I do not speak English,” she says, when you ask again.
She shakes her head. Why is she looking at you that way, as if tarantulas were nesting in your eye sockets?
"You are by any chance from Bolivia? Or Peru?"
She is looking around for help now. Remembering a recent encounter with a young heiress’s bodyguard at Danceteria – or was it the Red Parrot? – you back off, hands raised over your head.
The Bolivian Soldiers are still on their feet, but they have stopped singing their marching song. You realize that you are at a crucial juncture vis-à-vis morale. What you need is a good pep talk from Tad Allagash, but he is not to be found. You try to imagine what he would say. Back on the horse. Now we’re really going to have some fun. Something like that. You suddenly realize that he has already slipped out with some rich Hose Queen. He is back at her place on Fifth Ave., and they are doing some of her off-the-boat-quality drugs. They are scooping it out of tall Ming vases and snorting it off of each other’s naked bodies. You hate Tad Allagash.
Go home. Cut your losses.
Stay. Go for it.
You are a republic of voices tonight. Unfortunately, that republic is Italy. All these voices waving their arms and screaming at one another. There’s an ex cathedra riff coming down from the Vatican: Repent. Your body is the temple of the Lord and you have defiled it. It is, after all, Sunday morning, and as long as you have any brain cells left there will be a resonant patriarchal basso echoing down the marble vaults of your churchgoing childhood to remind you that this is the Lord’s Day. What you need is another overpriced drink to drown it out. But a search of pockets yields only a dollar bill and change. You paid twenty to get in here. Panic gains.
You spot a girl at the edge of the dance floor who looks like your last chance for earthly salvation. You know for a fact that if you go out into the morning alone, without even your sunglasses -which you have neglected to bring, because who, after all, plans on these travesties? -the harsh, angling light will turn you to flesh and bone. Mortality will pierce you through the retina. But there she is in her pegged pants, a kind of doo-wop Retro ponytail pulled off to the side, as eligible a candidate as you are likely to find this late in the game. The sexual equivalent of fast food.
She shrugs and nods when you ask her to dance. You like the way she moves, the oiled ellipses of her hips and shoulders. After the second song, she says she’s tired. She’s at the point of bolting when you ask her if she needs a little pick-me-up.
"You’ve got some blow?" she says.
"Is Stevie Wonder blind?" you say.
She takes your arm and leads you into the Ladies’. A couple of spoons and she seems to like you just fine, and you are feeling very likable yourself. A couple more. This woman is all nose.”I love drugs,” she says, as you march toward the bar.
"It’s something we have in common," you say.
"Have you ever noticed how all the good words start with D? D and L."
You try to think about this. You’re not quite sure what she’s driving at. The Bolivians are singing their marching song, but you can’t make out the words.
"You know. Drugs. Delight. Decadence."
"Debauchery," you say, catching the tune now.
"Delectable. Deranged. Debilitated."
"And L," she says. "Lush and luscious."
"What’s that?" she says.
"Oh," she says, casting a long, arching look over your shoulder. Her eyes glaze in a way that reminds you precisely of the closing of a sandblasted glass shower door. You can see that the game is over, although you’re not sure which rule you broke. Possibly she finds H words offensive. A purist. She is scanning the dance floor for a man with a compatible vocabulary. You have more: detumescence, for instance.Drowning and depressed; lost and lonesome. It’s not that you’re really going to miss this girl who thinks that decadence and Dexedrine are the high points of the language of Kings James and Lear. But the touch of flesh, the sound of another human voice… You know there is a special purgatory waiting for you out there in the dawn’s surly light, a desperate half sleep which is like a grease fire in the brainpan.
The girl waves as she disappears into the crowd. There is no sign of the other girl, the girl who would not be here. There is no sign of Tad Allagash. The Bolivians are mutinous. You can’t stop their treacherous voices.
It is worse even than you expected, stepping out into the morning. The glare is like a mother’s reproach. The sidewalk sparkles cruelly. Visibility unlimited. The downtown warehouses look serene and restful in this beveled light. An uptown cab passes and you start to wave, then realize you have no money. The cab stops.
You jog over and lean in the window. “I guess I’ll walk after all.”
"Asshole." He leaves rubber.
You start north, holding a hand over your eyes. Trucks rumble up Hudson Street, bearing provisions into the sleeping city. You turn east. On Seventh Avenue an old woman with a hive of rollers on her head walks a German shepherd. The dog is rooting in the cracks of the sidewalk, but as you approach he stiffens into a pose of terrible alertness. The woman looks at you as if you were something that had just crawled out of the ocean trailing ooze and slime. An eager, tentative growl ripples the shepherd’s throat. “Good Pooky,” she says. The, dog makes a move but she chokes it back. You give them a wide berth.
On Bleecker Street you catch the scent of the Italian bakery. You stand at the corner of Bleecker and Cornelia and gaze at the windows on the fourth floor of a tenement. Behind those windows is the apartment you shared with Amanda when you first came to New York. It was small and dark, but you liked the imperfectly patched pressed-tin ceiling, the claw-footed bath in the kitchen, the windows that didn’t quite fit the frames. You were just starting out. You had the rent covered, you had your favorite restaurant on MacDougal where the waitresses knew your names and you could bring your own bottle of wine. Every morning you woke to the smell of bread from the bakery downstairs. You would go out to buy the paper and maybe pick up a couple of croissants while Amanda made the coffee. This was two years ago, before you got married.
Down on the West Side Highway, a lone hooker totters on heels and tugs at her skirt as if no one had told her that the commuters won’t be coming through the tunnels from Jersey today. Coming closer, you see that she is a man in drag.
You cross under the rusting stanchions of the old elevated highway and walk out to the pier. The easterly light skims across the broad expanse of the Hudson. You step carefully as you approach the end of the rotting pier. You are none too steady and there are holes through which you can see the black, fetid water underneath.
You sit down on a piling and look out over the river. Downriver, the Statue of Liberty shimmers in the haze. Across the water, a huge Colgate sign welcomes you to New Jersey, the Garden State.
You watch the solemn progress of a garbage barge, wreathed in a cloud of screaming gulls, heading out to sea.
Here you are again. All messed up and no place to go.