After graduating from college, Michael has a series of less than inspired relationships, involving women he doesn’t like much and, worse, that don’t much like him. Sex involves an opposition of angles and elbows and generally leaves him feeling bruised and aggrieved, as if he has been sparring rather than embracing. Outside, the world of communication is even worse. Michael has the recurring impression that he is yelling up from the bottom of a well, his words barely reaching the surface, never mind making an impression. The final insult is that all of the women (three) break up with him before he has the opportunity (or the courage) to do the same. For a long time, there is nothing, no one.
Michael meets Clara at Clyde’s ‘Equinox’ party, which happens this year to fall on the eve of not only the first day of Spring, but also Michael’s thirtieth birthday. Clyde is rich, at least rich compared to the majority of their college friends. After business school, he landed with a mid-town investment firm and for the last three years he’s managed his own tech-heavy mutual fund. With his year-end bonus as down payment, Clyde bought a renovated Classic Six on the Upper West Side. His parties are excessive and juvenile and can be relied upon to attract a crowd. This party is no exception. There is blue light, a haze of pot and cigar smoke, the floor shaking with the music and the dancing. There is counter diving, a Nerf football game in the hallway involving bare-chested, beer-slick guys wrestling with each other. There is a block of ice propped in one corner with channels carved along it for ice shots.
Michael enjoys all of it well enough, or makes sure to appear as if he’s enjoying it well enough for the benefit of anyone who might be watching. He scrums with the guys in the hallway (doesn’t take his shirt off), he poses for a lewd picture with a presidential cardboard cutout. If he inadvertently recalls his precarious position on the cusp of his fourth decade, or the fact that he has not much to show for his life thus far but a closet of cheap suits and a lackey’s job in waste management, all he has to do is stagger to the ice block, position his chin on the melted chin-pocket, and surely someone will pour a generous measure of vodka or tequila (by this time such details are incidental) to sluice down the ice channel and into his throat. And if that doesn’t do the trick, he can stagger to the counter, hoist himself up scattering empty cups and other rubbish, bellow something at the crowd below him, and then heave himself off. And surely somebody will catch him.
“Your friend thinks I’m a whore.” This is the first thing that Clara says to Michael. They’re both on the dance floor, dancing. At least, Clara is dancing. Michael is bobbing nearby, trying to orient his awkward contractions to the greater sway of the crowd. He had noticed Clara (who hasn’t?) but he hasn’t considered approaching her. Michael has pretty much despaired of ever meeting anyone tall and willowy and modelish such as herself. He’s so surprised, now, that she has chosen to swoop in close and yell at him over the music, that at first he thinks it must be a trick: an acoustical mirage appearing with no greater purpose than to torment his thirsty soul. He can’t so easily dismiss the fact that she pinches his upper arm and pulls him closer.
“Your friend thinks I’m a whore,” she says again, directly in his ear.
“A whore! A prostitute! Do you think I’m a whore?”
It’s a baffling introduction, the more so since it is conducted at top volume over the music. Michael pulls away and appraises Clara, unsure whether he is judging her profession or her sanity. “No,” he says.
“Are you sure?”
Michael studies her again. There is a lot of motion and hazy light contributing to his already inebriated perspective but all he can see is her long lithe body, her serpentine motion in front of him. She looks like a cobra summoned by the music. ‘Whore’ is not the definition that comes to mind. “No,” he bellows. “I mean, yes! I’m sure.”
Their departure works out better than Michael could have arranged, had he the power to arrange such things. Just as they’ve worked their way along the crowded hallway (Michael sweating profusely in his coat and scarf, and not just from the temperature), there appears Clyde, rising in front of them by the apartment door, as if he’s stationed himself for the very purpose of witnessing Michael’s triumphant departure.
“Mick!” he shouts. “Leaving so soon?”
He’s shirtless, like most of the guys in the hallway, and at the sight of him, Michael experiences a familiar surge of puzzlement and envy. The finance job has not demanded much from Clyde’s physique. Already, at thirty years old, his chest sags, his belly has acquired a soft vulnerable appearance, like something scooped out of a shell. In addition, Clyde wears round, tortoise-framed, Oliver People’s spectacles that under such humid conditions perpetually threaten to slide off his nose. With his protruding front teeth and unrestrained, horsy laughter, pushing up his glasses with his middle finger, Clyde often reminds Michael of an overgrown kid: the chubby four-eyed grade-school nerd never picked for kickball.
At the same time, Clyde makes more money in a month than Michael makes in a year, and with that wealth has come astonishing power. There are always people around Clyde now, and not only the people that he pays. He always seems surrounded by friends, pretty women. When they go out, to a club or to dinner, everyone defers to Clyde’s preference. Events radiate from him. Michael is surprised, now, to find Clyde by the door, on the fringe of his party, rather than in the dance room where he usually stations himself to control the lights and the music, and pretty much anything else that might be happening around him.
But for the first time in maybe ever, Michael feels he has the upper hand. Clara is the most beautiful woman at the party. Clyde had even pointed her out to Michael when Michael first arrived. And against all probability it is he, Michael, leaving with her! Validated by Clyde as witness, for the first time Michael fully recognizes the magnitude of this miracle and he ducks his head to hide his grin. “I’m just…,” he says, “…getting some air. I have another engagement, really.” This final part is a stroke of inspiration, suggesting not only a gentlemanly discretion, but also that he and Clara might have somewhere else to go — perhaps another, superior, party.
“I’m taking him home,” says Clara. “Do you have a problem with that?”
Michael is so surprised by this disclosure, that for a moment he can only stare back and forth between Clara and Clyde, amazed. Clyde seems less effected by the news. “Not at all,” he says, swinging open the apartment door and ushering them into the hallway with a sweep of one arm. “That’s what this city is all about: mergers and acquisitions.”
“Prick,” says Clara, as soon as the two of them are alone, descending in the new expectant hum of the elevator.
“He’s okay,” says Michael. “He just… has a lot of money.” It’s his customary defense of Clyde, produced to justify much of his friend’s behavior. As usual, the explanation comes tangled in envy.
“He’s a prick,” says Clara. “He thinks I’m a hooker. He thinks I’m going to sleep with you.”
“Clyde would never say that,” says Michael. “Besides,” he draws himself into what he hopes is an indignant posture, “what makes you think I would want to sleep with you, regardless.”
Clara glances at Michael and he feels fresh perspiration break out along his hairline. Standing in his corner of the elevator, with the illumination of the florescent lights overhead, he has really been able to study Clara for the first time, and as she turns to look at him he realizes that she is able to do the same to him. Later, Michael will recall that moment of mutual evaluation and try to revise her appearance into a more manageable configuration. Sure she was tall and striking, with a great body and wide-set sad gray eyes — no argument there. But maybe she was a bit too tall (certainly a good inch taller than Michael himself), and maybe her eyes were a bit too wide-set, perhaps predisposed to wander in separate directions. Her neck was long and slender, but maybe it was too long and slender, emaciated rather than elegant. Overall, she might have been just a bit too cool, with the choppy platinum hair, the pierced eyebrow, the tattoo of a scorpion he already noticed crawling out of the waistband of her jeans. Later, when Michael is doing his best to forget about Clara, he will decide finally that she looked more like an extraterrestrial in a science fiction film than anyone he would have wanted to spend time with — lanky and languid and semi-translucent, something that didn’t even belong in his universe, never mind his social life. In the elevator, however, when Clara turns fully toward Michael and returns a steady gaze, it takes all his concentration just to stand his ground.
At the bar where Clara takes Michael, she removes a cigarette from her purse, taps the filter lightly on the bar a few times with a quick practiced motion, then holds it, unlit, between her lips. Late on his cue, Michael grabs the matches from the ashtray, fumbling in his haste to light one. Clara watches his efforts, then gazes indifferently at the flame. “I’m quitting,” she says.
“Oh,” says Michael. Unsure what else to do, he continues to hold the cupped match toward her, as if perhaps she can use it for something else. He’s thrown off by her statement. It seems perfectly appropriate that she should smoke cigarettes. Michael never learned to smoke himself, nor does he take much pleasure in the smell of smoke in a bar or the way his clothes reek of the residue afterwards. But everything about Clara seems rightfully smokerly. Michael can picture her crossing her black-stockinged legs in a hip downtown jazz club, a lipstick-stained filter suspended by her cheek. But quitting is another story entirely. He’s not sure how old Clara is – in the light of the elevator he thought he had noticed a fine etching of crows feet around her eyes and upper lip (from sucking on more than cigarettes, Clyde would later suggest) – but even if she is old enough, she’s still far too beautiful to be considering mortality. The thought of her trying to quit smoking is like a hairline fracture across her otherwise perfect face, through which can be glimpsed, for a split-second, gray hair, tooth decay, breast exams, death.
“So who are they?” Michael shakes out the match as it heats his fingers, drops the charred stick into the ashtray. He motions across the room to a group of people that Clara had acknowledged on the way in. They had waved to Clara and one of them had called out, but she had mostly ignored them.
Now she doesn’t bother to follow his gesture. She draws on the cigarette as if she’s really smoking, habitually squinting at Michael through the imaginary smoke. “Posers and losers,” she says. “They’re the reason I’m leaving this place.”
“You’re leaving New York?”
“Why not?” says Clara. “You think there’s something for me here?”
“I don’t know,” says Michael. “You seem like you belong here.”
Clara laughs through her nose and reaches forward to tap her cigarette into the ashtray. “That’s what I used to think too,” she says.
The bartender brings two flutes of champagne, and Michael tries to pay but Clara beats him to it, peeling off a hundred dollar bill from a fold of similar bills that she slides from a slot in her purse. “My treat,” she says, holding up one hand to stop him. “Happy birthday.”
Michael looks at his watch. Sure enough, it’s just past twelve. He experiences another rush of euphoria. He can’t remember the last time he entered a birthday feeling good about himself. “That doesn’t mean I can’t pay,” he says.
“Forget it,” says Clara. “I’ve got all this money, right?” She pokes the substantial stack of bills returned as change by the bartender. “I might as well spend it.” Then she lifts her glass. “To you,” she says. They click rims, then drink. Michael watches Clara over the rim and watches her watch him in return. He feels himself expanding into this new extraordinary role, that might, against all probability, fit. They both place their glasses back on the bar. Clara runs her fingers up and down the stem.
“So,” says Michael to preempt any awkward silence. “I like your purse.”
“Really?” Clara sounds surprised. They both look at the purse by her elbow on the bar. It’s actually somewhat hideous, he sees now – shimmery and lightly green and covered with what look like fish scales. “You really like it?” she asks, glancing up to catch his reaction. There’s a vulnerability in her voice and her expression that takes Michael by surprise.
“Absolutely,” he says. “It’s unique.”
“It was my mother’s,” Clara says. “Well, my grandmother’s, first. Passed down through the generations.”
“I see,” says Michael. “That’s… amazing.”
“I think we should hold on to things like that, don’t you?” says Clara. “The things that connect us to our parents and our past.”
It sounds like a line out of a self-help book, but Michael nods enthusiastically. He just wants her to continue talking, to continue looking at him that way – it doesn’t matter what she says. For a moment Clara appears as if she might indeed expand on the philosophy. Then her expression hardens. She tugs on her lower lip with her teeth, as if suspicious that Michael might contradict her. Then she shrugs, shakes her head, reaches for her cigarettes. “That’s part of the reason I’m leaving,” she says.
“The purse?” says Michael.
“No,” says Clara. “What’s in it.” She looks back at Michael. “The cash,” she says.
“Oh!” he says. “I know what you mean, believe me. What people will do for money in this town is sickening.”
“I meant this particular cash,” says Clara.
“Oh,” says Michael. Then, since more seems expected of him, “Where did you get it?”
“Someone paid me for something I’m not going to do.” Clara pauses, still watching Michael significantly. “When they find out I didn’t do it they’ll want the money back, don’t you think? Or maybe they’ll pay someone to kill me.”
“Really?” says Michael. The story sounds ridiculous. At the same time, it seems there’s more to it – the way Clara continues to eye him, as if she expects him to participate in her fantasy. “So what was it?” he asks. “That they wanted you to do?”
“Have sex with someone.”
“Oh!” Michael hides his surprise in his champagne glass. Her statement explains a lot about her behavior – her earlier paranoia about being mistaken for a prostitute. At the same time, Michael doesn’t want to annoy Clara by claiming insights into her character. When he looks, he finds her still watching him.
“Do you think I should do it?” she asks.
“Sleep with the guy? Hell no. It’s like you said – you’re not like that, right?” Michael replaces his glass to the bar. “Besides,” He turns fully toward her. It’s risky gambit, but he knows it’s the correct one – it’s what Clyde would do: “Besides,” he says, “I would be jealous.”
Clara continues to watch him for a long excruciating moment. Then she laughs through her nose, and relaxes her posture. Michael too relaxes, and he too laughs, more from a giddy sense of relief and amazement than from anything to do with humor. He feels jubilant, victorious – as if together they have negotiated the first mysterious obstacle in a true relationship.
As soon as Michael turns on the overhead light in his apartment, he wants to turn it back off again. It’s not that his apartment is especially cramped or shabby. It’s a large one bedroom with respectable inherited furniture. But in the unforgiving wattage of the overhead bulbs and in the even less forgiving wattage of Clara’s presence beside him, Michael sees how ordinary it all is, how predictable. To disguise his misgivings, Michael sets about preparing a more suitable atmosphere. He substitutes the overhead light for a more merciful dimming lamp, he turns on a CD that someone once described as having ‘edge’, he gets two glasses from his cabinet and pours generous measures of Campari over ice. The Campari was Clyde’s contribution to the household. ‘Chick liquor,’ he called it, with ambiguous spelling and a suggestive wink. Nearly two years later, the seal is intact.
“This is perfect,” says Clara. She’s moved to his desk, picked up his high-school lacrosse trophy.
“Oh that.” Michael follows her, holding out the glass of Campari. Clara doesn’t take it, studying instead the small plastic statue, glancing back and forth between it and Michael, as if checking for resemblance.
“Most valuable player?” she asks.
“Most improved,” admits Michael.
Clara looks around the room. “This is where you sit?” she says, indicating his couch.
There’s a pressed spot in the cushions where his weight has made a permanent indentation, a darker spot where his head rests. The evidence seems incontrovertible, still Michael considers denying it.
“Like this?” says Clara, lowering herself into his traditional spot.
Michael hurries around to the other side of the couch, sits next to her, again offers the glass of Campari. “I don’t really sit here that much,” he says.
Clara slides down until her head rests in the darker depression. She lifts her feet, extends them carefully onto the coffee table. She sits there, staring straight at the blank television until Michael wonders whether he should turn it on, or at least offer her the remote. Before he can do either, Clara swings her feet back to the floor. “Is this your sister?” She gets up, crosses to the shelves, removes the photograph from its perch beside the stereo. Without looking, Michael can picture it all too well: his sister’s practiced camera grin, her thigh flexed as it is in all bathing suit photographs.
“No,” he says. “It’s my cousin. Do you want to watch television?”
Clara doesn’t answer. She puts back the photograph, continues along the shelf, running her fingers across the various small mementos and artifacts he has collected there.
“Do you think I could be your sister?”
Clara has progressed to Michael’s bathroom and is now sorting through his medicine cabinet. For his part, Michael leans in the doorway, still trying to appear nonchalant. The truth is, he has nothing to hide, and this is what bothers him. With rising dread, he watches Clara catalogue the contents of his medicine cabinet: razors, Tylenol, toothpaste, contact lenses, saline, antacid, cue-tips… The most intriguing item in there is a tube of Desiten. No Zoloft or Percodan or the arsenal of similar designer pharmaceuticals one would find cascading out of Clyde’s cabinet. The only prescription drug Michael has is a half used vial of Zovirax.
“Why are you laughing?” says Clara, swinging the cabinet closed and looking at Michael through the mirror.
If Michael was laughing, it is news to him. Still, he composes himself, tries to be serious. “Well,” he says. “For starters, you don’t look anything like her.”
“Come here,” says Clara. She grabs Michael’s sleeve and pulls him next to her so that they stand side by side, facing the mirror. Michael tilts his chin quickly to the most flattering angle – still, with his lank dark hair and complexion, his sloped shoulders and his droopy, ridiculous mustache, he can’t help but see himself for that moment as an ogre beside a supermodel. Clara doesn’t seem the least bit bothered by the disparity. “If my hair were longer, and black?” she says. “And combed to the side…” She releases his sleeve to swipe at her hair and Michael steps out of frame, relieved to return to just observing her. Clara holds her hair to the side and looks from the mirror to Michael, comparing. Then she sighs and runs her fingers rapidly back and forth along her scalp. “Let me see some more photographs of your family,” she says.
“No,” says Michael. “I mean, there aren’t any more.”
“Mick,” says Clara. “Show me the album.” There’s an edge of menace in her tone that makes Michael feel sick – it holds the unthinkable threat of her leaving, or, worse, of exposing the gulf between them.
They sit side by side on his bed, propped against the wall, and hold the album, open, on their laps between them. Michael can’t tell if the whole thing is a game for Clara, a way of making fun of him. There’s plenty of room for ridicule in the way she touches the photographs, naming and defining the images of his upbringing. At the same time, there’s something sincere about the attention she invests, leaning close over the book, sometimes raising and tilting it to study an image past the glare of the plastic. In the end, Michael decides he doesn’t care about her motivation. Just having her sitting there, beside him, is enough.
“What’s this?” says Clara, pointing to another photograph.
“Oh,” says Michael. The picture is of the inside of a Greyhound bus; an adolescent, sun-reddened Michael surrounded by similar kids, all of them wearing baseball caps, holding team pennants. “That was my fifteenth birthday,” he says. “My parents rented a bus, took us down to Yankee Stadium for opening day.”
“Baseball.” Clara tests the word. “Was it fun?”
With some hesitation Michael thinks back on the day. Unlike many of his friends’ parents, his parents had not had endless money. The bus and the tickets had been an extravagance they could not really afford, and Michael had resented this even as a teenager. Nonetheless, the day at the stadium had been cloudless and warm. They had an entire section of seats by third base just for Michael and his classmates. Thinking about it, he feels unaccountably like he might start to cry. “Actually,” he says. “I had a great time.”
Clara watches him soberly, and Michael stares back at her, unable to blink for fear a tear will pop out onto his cheek. Clara looks back at the photo. “I can see that,” she says.
“It was the day I knew I wanted to live here,” Michael says. He uses the moment to swipe at his nose with the back of his wrist. “In New York.”
“Really?” Clara looks up again suddenly, catching Michael off guard.
“Yes,” he says. “It’s true.”
Clara studies the photograph. “I had a birthday on a bus once too,” she says. Something about her tone makes Michael think that she is remarking on more than the coincidental setting. He takes a deep breath, tries to relieve the tension in his chest. “I was ten years old,” Clara continues. “We were on the bus, driving somewhere… god, I don’t know, probably Eugene. Or maybe just driving, I don’t know.” She’s still looking at the album, but Michael can tell that her mind is suspended in the in-between space of memory. “There was a woman on the bus,” she continues. “A girlfriend of my father’s. I had never met her before. I thought she might be my mother.” Clara laughs and looks up at Michael. “Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?”
“No,” says Michael.
“No, it does, I know that. I never knew my mother. I lied about the purse. I never knew them – my mother, my grandmother. I have nothing from either one.” She watches Michael, as if daring him to contradict her. “Anyway,” she says. “This wasn’t my mom. She was twenty-years old, maybe – just some random acid-eyed, flower-type my dad had inherited somewhere. But I remember her talking in the back of the bus, where we were sitting. It turned out that she had just come back from New York City. You know how she described it?”
Michael shakes his head.
“She said, ‘Too real, man. Too much reality.’”
Clara pauses, her face twisted into an odd grin.
“Ha ha,” says Michael.
“Yeah,” says Clara. “It was the ultimate insult, I could tell. Even in my ten-year-old brain, I knew it was the worst thing she could say about a place.” Clara takes a deep breath, releases it, turns her attention back to the book in her lap. Michael too lets out his breath. He has the feeling that they both just narrowly escaped something large and dangerous.
“Anyway,” Clara says. “That was when I knew I wanted to live here.” She laughs again, looks back up at Michael. “That’s a coincidence, isn’t it?” she says.
“I don’t know why I’m talking about this,” Clara says. “I never talk about this.”
Soon after this, at two-thirteen in the morning, as indicated by the digital clock beside the bed, Clara breaks her promise. She gets up, kneeling, facing Michael, and unfastens the copper button of her jeans and then just continues to kneel there, watching him, waiting. The suggestiveness of that small exposed triangle of skin beneath her belly button is mesmerizing and Michael finds himself twisting forward, crawling toward her until he is awkwardly hugging her hips, his lips and nose pressed into the soft curve of her abdomen. Clara grabs his hair with both her hands but she doesn’t pull his head away. Still, Michael doesn’t release his grip on her hips. He burrows his face deeper into her belly, trying to undo her zipper with his teeth. He can feel the elastic of her underwear against his cheek. When he opens his eyes, he sees a fold of the fabric of her jeans, he sees the fine white hairs of her skin, he sees a flash of unnatural color close to his eye: the tattooed scorpion looking back at him.
“So,” says Clyde. “How was it?”
It’s a week later, Michael is in the living room of Clyde’s apartment sipping a martini from one of the new bowl-sized lead crystal martini glasses that, according to Clyde, come from the same Italian manufacturer that supplies the Royalton and the Four Seasons. As usual, there are many people present in the apartment. In addition to the regular contingent of friends and groupies, there are also some workmen hanging a platform for Clyde’s new vibration-immune sound system; also the woman that walks Clyde’s pit-bull, supplies Clyde with marijuana, and periodically sleeps with him.
“How was what?” says Michael. He knows, of course, what Clyde is referring to. He hasn’t been back to Clyde’s apartment since the night of the Equinox party, nor has he returned Clyde’s phone calls, but in his own mind there has been no other topic. He isn’t sure why he hasn’t come back sooner. Part of him was at first hoping that Clara would call him again, that he would never have to go back at all, that he could spend all his time with her. She hasn’t called and now Michael knows that she never will.
“How was she?” says Clyde.
“Oh,” says Michael. “Her.” He takes a breath, tries to produce the sort of offhanded gesture that is expected of him. “Whatever,” he says. “Fine.”
“Fine,” echoes Clyde. He glances at one of his more faithful cohort who sits on a separate couch. The exchange distantly bothers Michael, but he doesn’t pursue it. He knows that regardless how much Clyde and his friend would like to think otherwise, they could never understand what happened between he and Clara, no more than he could ever explain it.
“How fine was she?” says the cohort.
“Let’s say,” says Clyde, “that you had to put a value on the experience. Let’s say—”
“Let’s say a dollar amount,” says his friend.
“Let’s say a dollar amount,” says Clyde. “How much would it be?”
“What are you talking about?” says Michael. He’s suddenly deeply irritated with Clyde and all his pals, with the money, the whole place. “You can’t put a price on…” Then he stops. Clyde and the friend are watching him, expectant. With great effort Michael restrains from looking stupefied. Of course you can. It’s another of Clyde’s maxims, one he claims to want carved into his tombstone: ‘Everything has a price’. “I know that,” Michael says slowly. “I knew all about that.”
“She told you?” says Clyde quickly.
“She didn’t have to tell me,” says Michael. “It was obvious, right? I mean, look at her. For god’s sake, look at me.”
“Good point,” says Clyde’s friend, but he looks away, as if suddenly embarrassed by the exchange.
“Anyway,” says Clyde. “Happy Birthday.”
They all sip their martinis. Behind the lead crystal horizon of his glass, Michael tries to organize his mind. “I wanted to ask you,” he says. “…How much was she?”
Clyde pauses and for a moment Michael sees him battling back and forth between the urge to feign modesty and the urge to brag. In the end, it’s no contest. “Two Large,” Clyde says. “Give or take.”
For awhile, Michael continues to go to parties at Clyde’s apartment, but he does so with decreasing frequency. Eventually, he does not go back at all. He doesn’t resent Clyde for the birthday gift, or the fundamental manipulation behind it. He knows that on some level it was a generous gesture and one for which under other circumstances he would have been grateful. In fact, in a way, he is still grateful to learn the truth of it all. Even though it doesn’t really work, it allows Michael a new way to try to forget about Clara: to think of her only as a hooker, who did what she did for money.
— Mathew Lebowitz received an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1999 where he was selected to be co-editor of the short fiction award. He is a recipient of the Elmira Nelson Jones Prize for Creative Writing. His stories have appeared in Press, Pequod, William and Mary Review, Madison Review, Confrontation, Literal Latte, The Baffler, and other literary magazines.