Manhattan Loverboy, page 1
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to real events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Published by Akashic Books
©2000 Arthur Nersesian
Design and layout by Fritz Michaud
Cover photo by Sasha Kahn
Chapter illustrations by Elizabeth Elliott
Title page illustration by Kim Kowalski
Author photo by Delphi Basilicato
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 99-96428
All rights reserved
PO Box 1456
New York, NY 10009
Portions of this book have appeared in the Portable Lower East Side and Big Wednesday
To Burke Nersesian
and Patricia Gough
“Did you make love with her?”
[Legal proofreading is the closest I’ve ever come to being submerged in a sensory-deprivation tank. Forty-one hours in a law-office cubicle, proofing a mark [the new document] against a master [the original, revised document], slugging line to line, is a task that, despite the technical terms, requires all the intelligence of a fast-food cashier; the less brainpower you have the better. It was in the throes of the final arch-seconds of the tip-top hours of a forty-one-hour shift—forty-one chain-smoked, coffee-bleached, fluorescently-blinded, street-noise-obliterated, air-conditioned, deli-sandwiched hours of proofreading in the Nietzschean heights of one of those thunderously towering office buildings [the shadow of which obscures us all] in the Wall Street section [an area so dense with skyscrapers that if you could open the window of one and reach out, you’d grab a fistful of steel and glass from another building [but since the whole hundred-plus stories of the fucking building is a single, never-ending metal window pane—one of those buildings alone could make you hunger for the nuclear annihilation of mankind and all its loathsome symbols—that you can’t open anyhow, let’s not even discuss it!]]—that I fell in love [a/k/a. a.p].]
LA VÍA DEL TREN
Long before love there was solitude. Solitude begat need. Need begat anguish, and anguish brought me to love. Before I was a proofreader, I was a solitary graduate student. Many years before I was a student, I was an orphan. A very tall and silent lady from the Bundles O’ Joy Adoption Agency escorted me to my new home. My adopted father thanked her, led me into his study, and carefully explained his motives for having me brought there.
“We’ll try to love you, Joey, but we should explain that you’re something of a substitute.”
“A substitute?” I uttered, barely able to pronounce the word.
“Mrs. Ngm.” That was what he called mother. “She’s not like other women.” At this point, my new-found mother emerged.
“She’s barren.” He pointed to her lower reaches.
“And Mr. Ngm,” Mrs. Ngm put in, “he’s…inadequate.”
“What does that mean?”
Mrs. Ngm went to the fruit bowl and tore open a tangerine.
“Do you see any seeds in this tangerine?”
“This tangerine is Mr. Ngm.”
Their sense of inadequacy was passed on to me. They treated me very well, but not like parents. And they never failed to explain that I was only someone picked at random to fill an irrational parenting urge. Yet even this parental urge was not very apparent. Mr. Ngm rarely came home after that day, and Mrs. Ngm kept dashing out of rooms as I entered them.
I’m not sure whether this is a syndrome for adopted children, or whether it was just my own reaction to adoptive non-parents, but as I grew older I became increasingly obsessed with the identity of my real parents. This obsession, unfulfilled, eventually manifested itself in an acute interest in histories.
Faulkner said that American Indians said that the spirits of their ancestors said something like, man can’t own the earth because the earth owns man. Man’s identity is suited to his parcel of earth. We are but a single cell in these long bloodlines of countries and cultures. People are the living earth, they are the terrain come alive: Arabs are the desert, unchanging yet turbulent; the English are the sea, humid and unfathomable; Russians, in a variety of ways, just go on and on; Americans are the youngest sons of the earth and act immature. But the American melting pot of integration isn’t even hot yet. The twentieth century was the century of immigrants; we can still see our torn roots elsewhere.
I clearly remember the day my preschool teacher asked what everyone’s heritage was. Young as they were, my classmates bleated out: “I’m Irish,” “I’m Afro-American,” “I’m Vietnamese,” etc.
But I, little Joseph, was left dumb. I was the rootless orphan. As I got older, I spent more and more time in dark, deserted libraries, searching through history books for my face, my race. Though I never found myself within the photos or descriptions of these worldly books, this compulsion eventually left me with a vast knowledge of history.
Ignorant of history, you think that the world starts when you’re born and ends when you kick. But me, I’m thousands of years old. I’ve survived wars, revolutions, intrigues, and catastrophes of all varieties. I can tell you intimate details of Pharaohs and Cataracts from both the Upper and Lower Nile, from Higher and Lower Civilization. I can give excruciating descriptions on how to get from one administrative building to another in early Byzantine Constantinople. I read, studied, became buddies with personalities on fire and confidantes of God. If I were to see William of Orange, or Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (who strangely resembled long-retired, New York TV community-chronicler Chauncey Howell), or any number of ancient potentates on the street, I’d be able to stop them and ask what they were doing alive in New York.
I arrived too late for the dorm-room lottery during that first semester at Columbia. But I was intent on not missing an academic year. When I informed Mr. Ngm of the situation, he sent a memo explaining that my scholastic budget was prefixed. Life beyond that would be a test of self-reliance.
I searched the ads in the papers and fliers in laundromats. With a limited amount of money, and not picky, I finally narrowed it down to a choice between a cozy studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (one hour away from school), or a wide stairway in an upper West Side loft (a mere ten minutes away).
The stairway was a discontinued passage in a large loft building. The landlord, I learned, would have demolished the conduit, but there was a possibility that the upper floors in the loft could be turned into commercial space. If this occurred, the owner would need the stairs to comply with building codes; so he left it intact.
The place was currently residential; so he renovated the stairway and advertised it as a “mini-triplex-studio.” It wasn’t as b
In life, we are born and we slip from day to day until we die. Although there are signifying days and stages of life, there is no clear moment when we might say that we had only practiced living until now, and henceforth we shall actually live. After three undergrad years in that stairway studio, I realized that it was time to reach a landing, a new start. I decided to circumcise my adopted-family name. I planned to give myself a name with a national heritage that more closely resembled where I believed I came from, though where exactly that was was still a riddle to me. Realizing that I might never be absolutely sure, I felt I might as well give my allegiance to a culture worthy of my respect.
But were there any? Of all the great cultures that had ever flourished, of all the imperial civilizations, not a single one had stood the test of time. Their glory had faded. All that remained were crass, consumer societies, mere islands for corporate empires to bridge and tunnel.
One night around this time, I was wandering around the exasperating East Village feeling depressed in the French tradition. I clearly remember a boy in his late teens hidden under a huge, floppy fedora and clad in a baggy, out-of-date suit, who rushed up and asked me if I were Jewish. I thought about it, and decided to play a hunch.
He hustled me off into an unwashed Winnebago and said it was time to reaffirm my faith. Together, we submerged into a Mitzvah tank. He asked my name. He asked again.
“Levi,” said I, thinking more of the jeans than the genes. Rolling up my sleeve, he wrapped a leather thong around my arm and led me through an ancient chant. I mumbled, faking the words. I wanted, needed the cleansing. His chanting beckoned Hollywood trailers of ancient epics: Charlton Heston in robes and beard, Peter O’Toole in Masada, Richard Gere in King David. I saw the diaspora pass before me, and looking upon those wandering and beleaguered people, my eyes filled with tears. I saw myself in that sandswept caravan, my people, my past. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a large-headed, red-haired, red-faced Hasid appeared, and with a single sniff he started shrieking.
“Dos is a goy, a goy! Out with him!”
Even after being thrown out of the van and screamed at in public, I didn’t give up the faith. There were little things, odd signs, that revealed to me my kinship with the thirteen great tribes. I craved gefilte fish, matzoh, and sickly sweet wines. Flatchki (tripe) and platski (potato pancakes) were delicious, and knishes were always a treat. Saturdays were a kind of natural sabbath. And I adored the tumbling sounds—scholum, yehuda, and menachem—like big drums rolling down a stairwell. Soon, I found myself wandering in this great Jewish mist, a hazy history that unfolded forever backward.
I knew a lot of baggage came with being a Jew, but I was good at carrying bags. I kept my Mitzvah name, Levi. I let my sideburns grow long and began to train myself. With most of my core courses complete, I switched my minor from philosophy to Hebrew and began studying the ancient laws and customs.
In the student dining room, there was a row of tables where Israeli exchange students sat. Without their permission, and although I didn’t live on campus, I joined my happy friends. I tried to speak about historical and political matters with them. They were polite, but they seemed a little bewildered by me. They seemed suspicious.
I got a job that January at a kosher pizza place. It was my last semester before graduation, and I wanted to make enough money to visit the Holy Land. I wrote the parents that the two hundred fifty-eight steps of the stairway studio was too much of a test. I couldn’t hack it. From New York, I made preparations to join a kibbutz. After getting my BA, but just before departing, I sent out applications to several elite and exciting graduate programs. No sooner were they mailed, though, then I realized that my life was on a new and different course—Israel.
As I stepped off the plane, I felt it. As sure as Little Joe was from the Ponderosa, I was a citizen here. The kibbutz was fun. I was brought into the fold. With my fellow man and woman, I planted seeds and harvested the crops. Afterwards, I sat around overly-laden tables until late at night, exchanging tales, folk dancing, or weeping to sad, quickly translated songs of the motherland. I was one of them, only perhaps I did behave a little differently, a little strangely. For some reason, as if I had an acute case of Tourette’s Syndrome, I couldn’t stop ending every sentence with verbal ejaculations like: “And may I die killing the vile invader of our blessed soil!” Perhaps I was a little over-zealous, trying to compensate for being a convert. (But I’m not sure that merited the nickname “Goy Boy.”)
Despite that, though, I was having a good time, really enjoying myself. The problem was that this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be—it wasn’t supposed to be fun. I was expecting a more spiritual thing.
I left the kibbutz after a month and moved to the Holy City, Jerusalem. There, I devoted myself to the reading of holy books and religious training. I got heavily into chanting and wailing. Whatever it was I was expecting, I was certain it was close at hand.
One day, while davening at the base of the Wailing Wall, I smote myself on the chest. It made a hollow sound. I did it again, and then again and again, harder each time, until everyone around me quit wailing and moved away. I didn’t pay attention to them—I was on to something.
What was that sound? It was something important, I knew that. But what? Then it all became clear. It was an absence of identity. It was the great gap in my soul that could never be filled.
I wrote a letter to the Bundles O’Joy adoption agency demanding the name of my true parents. A month later, I received three letters. One was from the adoption agency saying that it was protected information and referring me to the legal department of some large company. Another letter was from my adoptive parents. The last letter informed me that I had been accepted into a strange and wonderful graduate program. The fact that all of these letters arrived at once struck me as a divine sign.
The Ngms informed me that they were worried about my aberrant behavior and, if I chose to return immediately, I wouldn’t have to live in a stairwell. An uncle whom I had never even known had just died, and I was eligible to take over the title of his huge, inexpensive Manhattan apartment in the Silk Stocking district of the Upper East Side. It seemed as good a time to leave as any. So I returned to Gotham City. At a corner diner in Gramercy Park, I met Mrs. Ngm. Or at least she said she was Mrs. Ngm.
“Mrs. Ngm, you look quite different from how I remember you.”
“This is what a lifetime of housework does to a woman’s body.”
“But you look younger, better than I remember.”
“Housework is a good thing,” she replied. I was given a form to sign, a set of door keys, the address to the new place, and the blessings of Mr. Ngm. She informed me that some of his brother’s personal effects still littered the place. If I wanted to, I could throw them out.
“Where is Mr. Ngm?” I asked adoptive Mama.
“The business is going under,” she nodded sadly. Adoptive Dad, who was almost always at work, made a career of trying to save his dying Bonsai plant business.
“Say hi to him for me.”
She bowed low, smiled brightly, turned to go, but stopped suddenly and added, “Mr. Ngm asked me to inform you that you are the trustee of his heart.” If only I had an organ donor card.
I thanked her and headed to my new homeland. The apartment was a pin cushion to my needling spiritual disappointment. It was cheap, and I was assured it was spacious. But I expected little as I dragged my bags up the stairs of the large tenement. When I threw open the door I gasped a bit. It was the only time in my life that something had surpassed my expectations in a positive way.
The apartment was huge and wide-open like a great indoor meadow, an entire floor with a cathe
My dead uncle had lived in one quarter of the huge hall, away from the street. The other three-quarters of the place were empty and thick with dust. That lived-in quarter of the apartment was cluttered with old, broken furniture and strange, classical garbage that he had accumulated over the years. Statues, friezes, birdbaths, archways, and an apparent sarcophagus, among other things, cluttered the rear quarter of the place. There were also boxes of yellowing pop psychology books and science fiction novels.
While taking a dump one morning, I noticed that the toilet wasn’t fastened to the floor—it could be lifted up and swung sideways. With a little maneuvering, I discovered a hiding place had been created by my adoptive father’s furtive brother. Inside the lost lacunae was an old New York City Subway map.
Israel had been good to me, but it didn’t bring resolution. After returning to New York, I realized late one night what I had to do. I had my name legally changed to cold vowels. Not since Travolta donned a three-piece polyester had there been such a significant statement. It’s bad enough that most given names are silly clichés decided by giddy, post-adolescent parents flipping through baby-naming books, but a surname should be more than a bland, culturally assimilating moniker. A name should be a unique definition of the man himself. In New York, I found myself: I was a man without a consonant—Joey A-e-i-o-u.
The B. Whitlock Memorial Fellowship for Academic Achievement in History had a ring to it. Even though it was offered at Columbia, I’d never heard of it. In fact, I never found out how I got this covert, coveted Fellowship. I’d never recalled applying for it. In my registration packet, I was informed that it was automatically bestowed on the undergraduate who showed the highest distinction in history. The year before, the preceding Whitlock scholar had dropped out, and I could find out nothing about him. So I was the only student in the program. The prerequisites were equally mind-boggling. It required course work that jumped departments and even campuses. The best description I had of it was given to me by its director, Professor Flesh: “This program qualifies you to lead a once prosperous nation in economic decline back into its glorious, halcyon days.” It was better than working in an office.
ARTHUR NERSESIAN SERIES:
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