The opium-eater loses none of his moral sensibilities or aspirations. He wishes and longs as earnestly as ever to realize what he believes possible, and feels to be exacted by duty; but his intellectual apprehension of what is possible infinitely outruns his power, not of execution only, but even of power to attempt.
—Thomas de Quincey, from Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
One should consume Baileys in a crystal tumbler while watching Spice Hot. At jazz clubs, red wine and queen-sized, white-filtered Nat Shermans. At Hamptons polo games, a Pimm’s Cup for style and a line off the dash of a police-auctioned Ferrari for effect. Crème de menthe before going down on someone who deserves it. Super Bowl Sunday, Bud cans (shotgunned) and Ritalin (crushed and snorted). A boxing match on a hotel room TV, Maker’s Mark Manhattans (up, three cherries) and petite ham sandwiches on a silver tray. White Castle and Remy Red for a dogfight. While wrapping Christmas presents, Pabst Blue Ribbon and pizza. For suicidal depression on a weekday morning, pink champagne. Before a job interview, Irish coffee and Xanax. Straight tequila on your birthday. And on that night that rolls out of the blue unknown future into the lap of the present, when a lady realizes the game is over, that kind of evening calls for martinis: stock gin, filthy, up, no olives.
I found this list scrawled on a series of cocktail napkins, stuffed into a gold clutch. Belinda and I must have written it one night a couple years ago. This was our religion. Actually, it was more important; it was art. But one day, the things that make you free start to keep you down.
The beginning of the end began with a vision.
I’d twisted all night to Brazilian records at Black Betty. A strawberry-blond cornrowed kid in a Lakers jersey cut lines for me in the men’s room. At home, I drank warm milk with brandy. I leaned back in my orange butterfly chair and calculated the money I owed. It was uncountable.
Outside, the night sky turned turquoise at the horizon, highlighting a clutter of buildings close by, while the World Trade Towers glittered in the distance, across Brooklyn, on the other side of the East River. I fell asleep sometime before the sun came up.
I dreamed I was lying in a bathtub full of oatmeal, like the soak my mother made when I had chicken pox. Around my neck, dropping to my sternum like a necklace, lay a ring of blisters. I understood them in the dream to be “fever pearls.” From above, I looked down on my body, on my bloated white form, and knew the pulsing marks to be pockets of toxins locked under my skin.
I woke to sunlight, clutching a teddy bear that hadn’t existed in many years.
I’d waited half an hour and was late for work. Anthony leaned against his Escalade, beefy arms crossed, talking to someone hidden under the keyboard awning. I owed him three months of rent, and soon, September. I bit my nails and watched through my cheap lace curtain.
I paced. Checked the time on my phone every thirty seconds. Opened the fridge once more: a few Rheingolds and a pink gel eye mask. Eggs and orange juice hadn’t materialized. Stopped in front of the mirror to curse my baby face again. The dimple in my chin, the pucker under my eyes that made me look sleepy even when I was wired, my pout, my long, dark-red hair and Bettie Page bangs: these features conspired against me. I looked exactly like a girl who wouldn’t pay rent.
Finally he left, and I ran down the stairs.
Everyone still wore leather, even though it was a hundred degrees, squinting as they emerged from steamy buildings with bulldogs. Cars cruised, windows open, bass thumping. Girls walked to summer school pushing strollers. Boys strutted down the sidewalk, earphones around necks, diamonds in both ears. A hydrant exploded, crystal in the haze.
Air conditioners leaked down from windows. Plastic bags floated across empty basketball courts. A fat white kid, shirt hung around neck like scarf, walked in the middle of the street with an ice cream melting off the cone faster than he could lick it.
Anthony was sitting at an outdoor table. We fought in low, restrained voices. Then he offered me two weeks to pay up. Otherwise, he warned, eviction.
“I’ll do it legal, Lee, but I’ll put your stuff on the street. You know I will.”
“You’re some friend,” I said.
He laughed, looked at the sky, shaking his head. “I’m not your friend.”
Old Polish ladies sat on stoops and appraised me. I straightened my shoulders, sauntered past them without smiling.
I was at least fifty-five K in the hole. Spread around on credit cards, personal loans (i.e., friends who wouldn’t return my calls anymore), back taxes, medical and utility bills.
I was a wild card at spending money. I shopped like a Dadaist. When Belinda found out she had herpes, I sent eight dozen white roses to her apartment. Sometimes, if I felt low, I copied Warhol and bought myself a birthday cake. One Saturday night, Sherry and I rented a white limousine to drive us through the city, over bridges, through tunnels, and eventually to a McDonald’s drive-through in Brooklyn.
A couple years ago, Belinda and I met for lunch, which turned into afternoon martinis. It accelerated, and then we were in the back of a Town Car choosing pills from the bento box of drugs in the console.
Next I remember snow and making some sort of scene at Bergdorf’s.
I’d woken up the following morning with that feeling I wasn’t alone. Like when you open your eyes, and without turning around, without hearing breathing, without feeling warmth, you know there’s a man in your bed. Dragged myself from the sheets and tripped into the kitchen. On the floor, a half-eaten piece of Wonder bread and a hot-pink cocktail umbrella. And there it was, lying across the table.
A white knee-length fur. Square black buttons with the Fendi logo. Gold and black Fs on the silk lining. Pleased to meet you, I thought.
Belinda used to be my partner in crime. My fellow outsider. I’d known the girl since she was a ninety-pound catalog model cracked out at System, her Australian accent rugged, her language X-rated. We used to sunbathe topless on her East Village roof, wearing white jeans and rainbow-mirrored sunglasses we’d bought on the street. After long nights, we parted ways at eight in the morning, stepping gingerly through ice in stilettos, lipstick smeared from making out with strangers in the red-lighted downstairs of clubs.
We used to stumble down Avenue A, sipping tallboys in paper bags, with no destination. I picked her up from the hospital after she fainted at a rave. She picked me up after a girl clubbed my head with a cell phone on the F train.
She could have had anyone back then. Monstrous cheekbones. Blond bob. Wicked eyes, the whites as hard as china, lashes curled back to the lid. A wide frame she used to starve to stay in business. Legs that lasted for miles. Her voice was so raspy, she’d ask for butter to be passed and men would feel she’d promised them something. She made both good and very bad choices. She’d call me from anonymous apartments. The guy’s pimpled back, the dusty mirror, and no condom wrapper in sight.
Eventually I did notice a shadow, a dark thing that was chased around her face. Like a black moth behind a curtain, trying to find the way out.
A year and a half ago, she got pregnant. She freaked out, decided on abortion, but all she could do was cry in her bedroom. Matt coaxed her from the edge the way a parent beckons a toddler off thin ice in the middle of the lake—you can’t go get him, you cannot frighten him, and the only way you’ll save his life is to act contrary to how you feel.
Brunch shift. The Tribeca restaurant I’d managed for years, a chic converted diner, slanted like the original establishment. Mirrors framed in mother-of-pearl chips covered walls. The mosaic floor was primitive, its pieces beige, white, turquoise. The stools, whose gold sparkles reminded me of banana seats on bicycles, were pulled to a white Formica counter decorated with gold spirals and stars. We’d been written up again in Time Out, so all of uptown was downtown today.
The woman sent back her soup. I apologized and explained that it was meant to be rich. She was the kind of woman who made me feel like an orphan. Her highlights had been painted strand by strand, and she wore a white Marc Jacobs sundress and an aquamarine cube on her finger.
When she beckoned for the second time, I pretended not to notice.
“Miss,” she said firmly. “Hello?”
“How can I help you?”
“This white you recommended, I’m afraid it’s turned.” Her lips pursed as though she could barely restrain a smile.
“Do you want me to taste it?” I offered.
“Um, not necessary. I mean, be my guest, if you really want to. But I know wine.”
I held up one finger to indicate I’d return and walked to the bar for a new bottle. I dallied for a moment, fussing with nothing, to slow my heart rate. Then I marched back to her table and uncorked it.
“You’re a doll,” she said, taking a sip and winking.
Walking away, I wiped sweat from my upper lip. I’d experienced much worse than this, every day, but here I was: trembling, hot. I suddenly knew I would quit.
Yves opened the office door and looked me over with ice-gray eyes. I’d been pounding a snifter of B&B and crying. He had a way of smiling without saying anything that made me feel like a child.
Not missing a beat, he said he’d just stopped by to see me. The bartender had told him I was down here.
“I’m quitting,” I said, my voice yolky. “I’m telling Brendan tonight. I’m going to call him at home.”
With slender, suntanned hands, he struck a match and held it to two Dunhills. After shaking out the fire, he gave one to me.
“Quitting,” I repeated. He’d seen me fall apart a hundred times, but a new note of desperation in my voice surprised us both.
He squinted at me through the smoke he’d exhaled. His eyes moved from my right eye to my left. His cuffs, undone, exposed handsome wrists.
His face was icy, Nordic, even though that wasn’t his heritage. Arched eyebrows and pointed eyeteeth, plus a slant of skin over cold blue cat eyes, made for a beautiful and frightening face. His chin wasn’t too small, or too delicate, but there was a fineness to its sculpted shape that lent the head a feminine dimension.
Yves was old enough to be my father. In some ways—table manners, yellow-white hair like the inside of banana skin—he seemed older, and in other ways—lithe golden body, nightlife stamina—younger.
He wore high-waisted slacks like Fred Astaire. Walked like a gentleman, as if he could break out tap-dancing. His voice rumbled in his Adam’s apple: a jaguar purring, licking blood from its own teeth.
“Do you know what that bitch said to me?” I asked, and then put my hand on the phone. “I’m calling Brendan now.”
“I have an idea,” he said in that European murmur.
I looked at him scornfully. “What.”
“Take tonight to think about it and then call him tomorrow.”
This flooded my eyes again, but the tears lodged in lashes like beads. He stepped toward me, brushed one hand through my hair. He held my hand so I could go nowhere, and ordered me home.