Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 13: Cold Canyons

Chapter 13
Cold Canyons

The remainder of our journey passed quickly. As the sun sank behind skyscrapers, our limousine pulled to the curb and delivered us half-awake at the Hotel Elysee. Winter wind stiffened our spines as we hastened from the car to the door. By the time we had claimed the Sunset Suite, we were ready to eat dinner.
            Tennessee hung his clothes in the bedroom closet, and then called from his room, “Have we been to Rounds?”
“Rounds. The restaurant,” he said. “We’ll eat there.”
            I finished unpacking as he made a few calls.
When he got off the phone, we took the elevator down to street level. The doorman hailed us a cab, and soon we were bumping through the electrified canyons. Reds, greens, and golds  beckoned from every window, the promise that Christmas dreams come true.
Arriving in front of Rounds, we pulled our coats tight against the wind. We crossed the sidewalk and entered the long, narrow room. Businessmen in heavy overcoats crowded the bar to the left. On the right, men leaned against a rail just wide enough for drinks and ashtrays.
Above us, sprays of branches, flocked white and twinkling, spread out across the ceiling. Pine rope ran in scallops high on the walls; smoke and laughter filled the air. We navigated our way to the back, threading past clots of talking, jovial men.
In back, the aroma of herbs and seafood spilled from a doorway, suffusing the smoke-and-whiskey air. Tennessee led me into the dining room. Men, mostly in pairs, sat at tables along a black leather banquette, and dined so close together they could have been one huge family. Art Deco prints hung on the walls; Edith Piaf warbled from hidden speakers. Although the room was packed, the buzz was lower than in the bar.
A squat, middle-aged man approached us, a too-dark toupee above his florid face. His eyes lit up when he recognized Tennessee.
Tennessee!” He shook Tennessee’s hand, glanced up at me, and then back at Tennessee.
“Back in town—good!”
“Yes, and hungry.” Tennessee’s eyes swept the room. “Looks quite busy.”
“Yes, yes. This moment we are full—but two tables are leaving. I’ll set one for you and your companion. One minute,” he said, and then hurried away.
Two men rose from their seats and donned overcoats. A busboy hurried over, and waited impatiently.
“I would introduce you,” Tennessee said, as he nodded toward the host, “but I’ve forgotten his name. He owns the place. They call him The Wig.” 

The Shrimp fra Diavolo warmed me, and my eyes surveyed the room, taking in the many handsome men. This was a place to strike up a conversation—to find someone worth getting to know. New York bars could be cold and hardhearted. This was a find.
My last venture to a New York bar had been years before—a bar in the Village. I met a sculptor, and eventually went home with him, only to discover he lived in an abandoned warehouse. Anxious, but thrilled, I followed him into the building, treading carefully between the litter and discards, up to the second floor. In the distance, a metal door banged, the sound reverberating eerily down the hall. A waif dragged on a cigarette as we passed him in the near-dark.
Once behind his bolted door, I had been too frightened to leave before first light.
New Yorkers were either prosperous or broke. I had had the edgy experience. Now that I had responsibilities, I could risk no danger. The men in Rounds might invest in warehouses, but they surely did not live in them. I would return—later. 

“If any elephants parade out onto that stage,” Tennessee said, “she’ll stand up and salute.” It was late in the afternoon two days after dining at Rounds, and we were dressing for the evening. Tennessee grinned broadly. “Rose salutes elephants.” He had arranged for us to meet his sister for dinner near Broadway, and then take her and her companion to see Barnum.
The image of Rose rising to her feet to salute elephants brought back the day in Key West, a week before, when Tennessee was feeling expansive. He announced to Skye and me that he would bring his sister and a nurse to live in Key West. “We’ll throw a big party for her . . . have it catered.” He laughed. “She thinks she’s the Queen, you know—the Queen of England!” Skye’s face blossomed; I piped up and offered to play a recording of Handel’s Coronation Anthems, but Tennessee rebuked me sharply. “Never support anyone’s delusions. It’s the cruelest thing you could do.”
After a New York morning of business calls and a meeting with Luis, Tennessee’s agent, we had lunch with Vassilis. I spent the afternoon Christmas shopping while Tennessee went back to the hotel for a nap.
I had a vague idea what to expect of Rose. The brother and sister had been close in their youth. In their differentness from others, they had shared a special bond. However, Tennessee went off to college and, in spite of his shyness, found other kindred spirits. Between that and the geographic distance, he withdrew from the family. Back at home, Rose slipped further and further into her own world.
“Mother took her to be diagnosed,” he had told me. “Dementia praecox—a diagnosis that does not even exist today. I was away at college when mother demanded the doctor perform a lobotomy. I didn’t know until afterward.”
“Had I been home,” Tennessee lamented, “I could have prevented the operation.”
This was Tennessee’s story, but I had heard from others that Rose’s operation was performed in 1943, several years after Tennessee finished his studies, and about a year before the opening of The Glass Menagerie.
Regardless, both were now in their seventies. Over the years, Rose had figured in many of her brother’s plays. The Glass Menagerie, his first Broadway success, is the story of Tom, a fledgling writer who in frustration and guilt abandons his dependent family—a timid, invalid sister and an overbearing mother. In a later play, Suddenly Last Summer, he rewrote history, saving Cathy from a lobotomy when her wealthy Aunt Violet insists her niece have the operation. Rather than face the truth about herself and her poet son, Violet uses all the power she possessed to have the memory cut from Cathy’s brain, but she is foiled by a conscientious doctor.
On our way to Rose and Tatiana’s suite, Tennessee said, “You mustn’t let her have any cigarettes—she’ll beg for them.”
“I won’t smoke—not in front of her,”
“She’ll know you have them. Please, just don’t give her any. She begs—whether she has any or not. She shouldn’t smoke.”
An ancient woman answered Tennessee’s knock. Her tiny frame twisted and dressed in black from head to toe, Tatiana Schwezoff stepped back to let us in. She had often helped Tennessee with Rose over the years. Earlier in the day, she had ridden to Stony Lodge in Ossining, New York in the car Tennessee ordered to pick up Rose. She served as Rose’s companion in the city and would later take her back to the hospital.
“Tatiana was born to Russian privilege,” Tennessee had told me. “After the Bolsheviks took over, life became unbearable for artists. She escaped with her brother, Igor, a dancer in the ballet. They crossed the mountains on foot—into China. Imagine! Eventually they made it to France, and finally, America. Igor became known internationally as a dancer—later as a teacher and choreographer.”
I did not hear what Tatiana had done between her arrival in America and becoming the shriveled woman standing before me. I wondered what she could tell, had she the inclination.
Rose walked in from the bedroom. She kissed her brother formally, and then turned to me.
“Cigarette?” she said, pulling four packs of Marlboros from her pockets. She beamed as she offered her booty.
“Rose!” Tennessee said. “Where did you get those?”
“At the store,” she said. “I need money.”
He introduced us, and then the three of us conversed haltingly. Rose was childlike in her speech, but I felt comfortable with her. Tatiana loomed silent, a shrouded figure on the edge of the conversation.
“I found the room,” Rose said.
“What do you mean?” her brother said.
“We got lost,” said Tatiana, “after going to the store.”
“Rose, you found the way back?”
“I found the room.”
I watched thoughts play across Tennessee’s face. In this quieted woman, he saw the world of possibility that might have been hers. Tennessee was no stranger to mental illness. Most of his family had suffered from it acutely at one time or another. Both he and his mother had been committed to mental hospitals briefly. Nearly forty years had passed since Rose’s lobotomy. He must have wondered at the twist of fate that had so violently robbed his sister—yet spared him.
The four of us ate at a deli near Broadway, and then walked to the theater. At intermission, Tennessee turned and watched nervously when Rose and I went out for a smoke. I tried to make small talk, but Rose responded only occasionally and in monosyllables. She smoked two cigarettes in the time I smoked one. Before Lithium came into widespread use in the '60s, manic-depressives often ended up forgotten in institutions. Few led lives approaching normal. I wondered what my fate would have been, had I been born into Tennessee’s generation.
We returned to our seats. The play bored me, but I was glad to see Rose enjoying it, despite the lack of elephants. Afterward, we stepped out of the theater and into the frigid night. Every theater on the block let out at once. Crosscurrent rivers of people swarmed the sidewalks and overflowed into the street. Taking Rose’s hand, Tennessee stepped from the curb. I took hold of Tatiana.
Claustrophobic by nature, Tennessee lurched quickly toward the far side where the crowd was thinner. Following him, I stepped into a flooded pothole, nearly losing my balance. I looked down to check the damage to my flooded shoe as I whisked Tatiana across the crater. When I looked back up, Tennessee and Rose had disappeared.
“Don’t worry,” I reassured Tatiana. “My height—we’ll find them in no time.”
 I scanned the street. No success. I looked down at Tatiana. She glared at me as if I had kidnapped her. There was no time to concern myself with gaining her trust—I had to find Tennessee. I clasped her hand more firmly, and we searched the length of the block twice. I knew Tennessee could fend for himself far better than he admitted, but I also knew he would be furious. Finally, I gave up and we returned to where we had last seen them, beneath the marquee for Barnum. We waited there—a towering man holding the hand of a raisin.
Ten minutes passed. No sign of them. The crowds had thinned and I stepped into the street, hoping to hail a cab. A gypsy limousine stopped and I negotiated a price, knowing that whatever it was, taking Tatiana back in a limousine would help my “PR.”
Conversation with Tatiana was more difficult than it had been with Rose. She was no longer angry or scared. I could not tell if she was confused or simply too tired to talk. As if entertaining a child, I prattled on about how much I had enjoyed the play. Soon, we were back at the Elysee, and I took Tatiana to the Sunset Suite to wait for the other two. Fortunately, they arrived only a few minutes later.
“How could you abandon me on the street like that . . . with Rose!” Tennessee was livid, ready to explode.
I explained what had happened—or what I understood of it.
Tennessee said, “I’ll take them back to their rooms—on my own.”
He returned ten minutes later, in a much-improved mood. No harm had come to anyone. However, I was desperate to get away from them all, if only for a short time. Tennessee would soon go to bed, and then I could return to Rounds—alone.
After he closed his door and turned out the light, I waited ten minutes. I changed into slacks and a sweater, and then zipped my jacket tight before leaving to walk the long blocks to the bar. The wind had picked up, but my blood ran quick.
When I arrived, the room was mobbed. Men of every age—handsome, healthy, and prosperous—bunched against the bar and crowded the way to the back. The pulse of European dance music buoyed the room. Heaven.
Soon, I was talking with a man my age. Graham had grown up in New York, gotten his degree at Columbia, and now worked in advertising. He bought a second round of drinks. He looked up at my face—and I looked back into Montgomery Clift’s eyes. A few dark hairs curled out above his loosened collar, firing my imagination. I took a half step from the rail. He moved closer and put his arm around me. I relaxed into the warmth of his closeness, hoping he had a place.
As we talked between sips of scotch, his hand explored my back. He paused a moment, and then rising halfway on his toes, nestled his head high on my chest. As I looked down, he lifted his face, and our lips met. He pulled me tighter. Blood rushed through my veins.
I felt the warmth of his breath on my neck as he spoke in a low voice. “I could let you have it for fifty dollars.”
“Sure,” he said, “You’re too cute to ask full rate.”
I released his embrace, clinging to the hope that he was kidding. I hoped I showed a poker face, but felt the red rushing in my cheeks.
“Sorry,” I said, struggling. “I didn’t realize . . .”
“No, really,” he insisted, “just fifty dollars.”
My shock of realization matched his disbelief that I could refuse such a deal.
I surveyed the room. What else was an illusion?
“See all those older guys? They’re just hoping to pay for something as good as me. The rest . . .”
Now I saw that nearly every younger man was talking to an older one. As the heat receded from my face, anger began to well up. I had been deceived. In the cities that I knew, hustler bars were seedy places peopled by balding men and ratty-jeaned boys. At least that was what I imagined. I had never actually entered one.
 “Where’d you think you were?” Graham said, as he continued to smile.
I was too tall, too artless, too ungainly. I apologized and mumbled something about being new in the city. I was afraid that no matter what I said, it would sound like I looked down on him for his profession. When it came to other people, I had no problem with sex-for-pay. But the day I paid for it would mark the day I turned old. At thirty, old was unimaginable.
I left Rounds and wandered into the night, searching for the other bars nearby—information Graham had been happy to give. His had been a business disappointment, nothing more. But my mood had crashed. The bars were tacky. In every face, I saw a hustler or a john.
Giving up, I zipped my jacket tight and stuffed my hands into my pockets. I began the long walk back to the hotel, taking consolation that in the morning, we would return to the Keys—palm trees strung with fat, old-fashioned Christmas lights, The Monster awash in sun-kissed men.
I pulled my collar high against the wind. It smelled of bar smoke, and mingled with that, Graham’s lingering Lagerfeld. I breathed deeply and quickened my stride, flirting with the memory of warm inviting eyes.


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