I met him the only way New Yorkers really can meet - drunk, at a bar on a Friday night. Getting drunk on a Friday night in New York is important, because it allows everyone a moment of rest from the constant need to be hard and fast and mean. It gives people an outlet to release some of the hometown energy that they’d been suppressing the rest of the week - their Michigan smile, their Alabama Twang, their Ohio dance moves. Like some sort of reverse masquerade ball, Friday nights allow New Yorkers to take off their masks and see if anyone might be interested in whatever’s underneath.
I hadn’t planned to go out at all that night. I had worked a 60 hour week and was planning on working through the weekend as well. But Lia persuaded me, and I agreed to meet with her and April for one drink. Well, one drink turned into two drinks and two drinks turned into taking big sips from a water bottle filled with tequila - and before I knew it, we were at the next bar.
A lawyer and another very, very boring man were talking to my friends and I, so I just gave up and sat down. Rolling my buzz in my hands, I looked up and realized I had sat in someone else’s conversation. I asked for a cigarette because, well, a cigarette is one of a drunk girl’s most basic human rights, dammit.
The men I had sat down with we’re changing between English and Spanish and in my drunken mind, I was pretty sure that I was doing the same. This came as a hugely exciting breakthrough, as I have never spoken Spanish before. I thought briefly of the water bottle tequila I had gargled in the bathroom. This new tongue must be it’s gift to me. “Thank you, Tequila”, I whispered.
Time ran the way it does when you’re drinking - sloppily but quickly, with terrible form but alarming speed. I don’t know how and he doesn’t know how, so maybe nobody know’s how - but I found myself holding the hands of the man next to me, in two sets of interlocking pinky’s. The double pinky promise was intended to keep each other totally honest as we shared about the ways we saw the world and how scary New York is and how far away the people we love are.
“I’m just going to run to the grocery store and grab us some wine and cheese! There’s a store on the other side of the bridge.”
Lia looked up from her phone and paused - “Ok, just be safe.”
I returned her sincerity with a wink, and headed out on to the dimly lit Parisian streets. It was getting dark, but at least the full moon was already hanging above me.
As I headed onto the footbridge, a man approached the opposite side. Nothing about him was threatening at all - honestly, the first thing I noticed about him was how handsome he was.
But as I began to descend on to his end of the bridge, he opened his arms to block the exit of the bridge. His unassuming lips twisted and tore into a hungry grin and before I could understand what was happening, he had started towards me, swiping his ragged claws at my waist.
He missed me by an inch, and I ran the rest of the way to the store. All I could hear as I ran was his howling laughter. Manic and manged, he had found joy in my terror.
I found refuge in the fluorescent light of the grocery store. “Man can’t change to animal under megawatt lighting”, I assured myself. So I purchased my items, and with a deep breath, stepped back into the moonlight.
When I reached the bridge again, I took the steps two at a time, to match my racing heartbeat. Just as I was about to bound off the last step towards safety, I heard a male voice call after me.
I looked over my shoulder with horror. It was a different stranger now, handsome as well. “Just because he’s cute, doesn’t mean he’s not a carnivore”, I whispered to myself in a moment of inane whimsy.
He caught up to me and introduced himself as Adrien. He had noticed me in the grocery store and wanted to say hello.
I stared at this seemingly innocuous creature, trying so hard to see him as man instead of beast. My first encounter that night had painted all of the men predators, adding pounds of matted fur and snarled tooth to even the gentlest of strangers.
But as Adrien stepped into the street light, I watched him transform back into a man. More skin then hair, more opportunity than threat.
The street light smiled sincerely, and the full moon just winked.
He turned his empty beer bottle upside down, emptying the last drop . Holding the bottle neck to his eye, he peered at me through his makeshift spyglass. “Aye matey, fancy a bite to eat?”
I rolled my eyes and hopped off my peg-legged barstool. The sticky floor seemed to rock below me. I swayed along with the churning waves in my stomach.
He reached out and caught each of my arms in a hooked hand as I teetered dangerously close to the edge. “All hands on deck”, he chuckled. “Choppy waters”, I offered in apology, steadying myself against him.
The bartender returned with his receipt and he threw his debit card carelessly back into his pocket. I wanted to quip about how we might need a Visa for the journey, but thought better of it. Better sailors had had their tongues cut for much less, so I held mine.
We disembarked and crossed a cracked sidewalk plank to our next vessel.
Call it a fisherman’s tale, call it a siren’s trick - but I know what I saw. There on Second Ave: a yellow taxi cab floating in the salt water seas of the Lower East Side.
He held the porthole door and motioned for me to go first, a gentle reminder that pirates are gentlemen before they’re anything else.
I laid my hand in his, dark mark meeting dark mark. “Where are we going?”
He smirked and told the driver to row east.
I looked past the bow, through the window-shield and full mast. Our destination became clear as we turned off of the Second Ave Sea and onto the Silk Road: our sails were set for Chinatown.
I peaked around the corner before heading up the first flight of stairs. There she was, floating in a cloud of cigarette smoke and coffee stains.
At first she didn’t recognize me, which was fair, because I had been gone for a full month. But then all of her wrinkles reassembled into recognition and she grabbed my face with both hands, narrowly missing my cheek with her lit cigarette. “MY CLARE!”
I sat down cross-legged as my 84 year old land lady filled me in on all the gossip I had missed while I was gone. She asked me how I had liked “nasty old Florida”. I told her how much I had loved it, and in a moment of vulnerability, I told her how much it had meant to me to have Catholic community down there.
She took a drag and asked without a hint of malice: “Are the Catholics in New York mean to you because you’re a pole dancer?”
I couldn’t help but grin. Despite knowing that I run a religious education program for a living, Kathy believes that I earn some extra cash...another way.
She had first let me know that “she knew I danced for men” a few months back and in a moment of mischievousness, I hadn’t corrected her.
And truthfully, I’m glad I didn’t - and not just because Kathy is the only person in the world who thinks I can dance.
Kathy and I go to the same church. She even prays the rosary with me - but she’s never once questioned whether or not the “stripper” in Apartment 19 has a place in her Church. I’ve had people in the Church treat me so cruelly for a million much smaller offenses against modesty or purity, but my octogenarian landlady treats me kindly despite her suspicions.
I tell myself that I still haven’t corrected her because it would just be too confusing at this point, but truthfully, I think I haven’t told her because I crave her radical mercy and constant invitation. I needed someone to tell me that as long as there’s room on the stairs for coffee, cigarettes, and conversation, there’s room in the Church for broken people who love God. For strippers and their clients. Tax collectors and their debtors. Addicts and their suppliers.
For land ladies and their tenants, praying on creaking stairway pews - radical mercy extends to all.
The other day, Kathy asked me why I moved to New York.
The idea of explaining spoken word poetry to an 84 year old was a bit daunting, so I eased in.
“Well, I actually moved her to -“
She pressed one finger against my lips, drawing an exclamation mark against my pout.
“Sweetheart”, she whispered. “I’ve known since the day you moved in here. You never had to tell me.”
My mouth opened in shock and my teeth grazed against her finger. It tasted like cigarette ash and coffee grounds.
I pulled back, incredulous.
“Kathy, how’d you know?” I couldn’t believe that she had taken me for a poet from the moment she met me. I felt a giddiness coursing through my veins.
“Oh, Clare.” She smiled. “I’ve known you were a -“ she lowered her voice and looked both ways. “I’ve known you were a dancer, always.”
I felt the blood in my arms and legs start to flow in reverse. Less giddy, more confused.
“Oh yes, dear.” By the why she was whispering and smirking, it was clear she didn’t think I was a ballerina. “And I’m all for it, dear. I wanted to dance when I moved here. I was twenty-three and beautiful, but too short for the stage.”
I pressed the giggles back down into my stomach, not wanting to break the illusion. The wicked glimmer in her eyes told me that this was one of the most exciting things that had happened in her building in awhile. So, I went with it.
“Do your parents know?”
“Yes, they’re very supportive.”
“Good. It’s honest work - don’t let anyone tell you differently.”
“Do the men tip you well?”
“Ok well, if they are ever get fresh, you just call me and I’ll be over there to break some knees faster than you can say Brooklyn Bridge. I know how to - I used to date a Gambino cousin, you know.”
She asked lots of questions and I made up lots of answers. The customers are wealthy. The establishment, honorable. We agreed that it wasn’t one of those sleezy places - not a “strip club”, but a cabaret. It was clear that in this fantasy, I wasn’t just dancing - I was dancing in 1958, when Kathy wanted to dance. We sat there and gossiped like a couple showgirls for an hour or so, until I realized it was it was time to go to work.
“Be safe”, she whispered while squeezing my hand goodbye. And then she followed her warning with a wink - “but be young!!”