Elliot,The Piano Bar Queen, or A Big Baloon
Ft Lauderdale, Florida, Saturday, June 7th, 2008:
I was setting up the patio at The Ramrod before the bartender arrived, as is my custom. I had already stocked the beer and water, checked the bottles of alcohol to make sure we’d have enough for the shift, and was lugging a bucket of ice when I heard the following exchange from a corner or the bar:
“Oh, my dear” I heard a voice say.” Do you remember?”
A hush fell.
“What was the name of that musical…on a train?”
Another ventured “The 20th Century Limited?”
“it starred…it starred…”
“Imogene Coca” I croaked, my voice hampered by a cold and 'Ramrod Lung'.
I looked up. Three guys somewhere beyond fifty were clustered around the bar: a bald guy, a bearded guy and an immensely fat guy.
Bald guy: looked up at me and mused, “How did you know that?”
“I was there”
Curious glances were passed between the three.
Bald guy continued: “There was a number where the chorus sang in eight-part harmony”
“That’s extreme, baby…. Who knew that shit?”
I looked up from what I was doing and looked at bald guy.
“88s or The Duplex?”
A strange smile crossed his face, mixed equally with curiosity and a sudden interest. “You’re from New York?”
Knowing the only place New Yorkers respect more than Europe, I smiled, opened my pack of cigarettes (despite my terrible laryngitis) withdrew a Parliament, and replied, “No.” I accepted a light from the fat one, “I’m from Boston. I lived there in 1988.”
Bald guy replied, “The 88s: I’m hardcore.”
We discussed piano bars and NYC, and the unlikelihood of there ever being a “leather piano bar”.
“I was always pretty vanilla to the piano bar scene in New York.” I smiled a wistful smile and said “I never got further than Suddenly Seymour and West End Avenue.”
We all had a good laugh, and I returned to my duties as a barback at the Ramrod.
During my year in NYC I made scads of friends, and stayed in touch with a few when I eventually returned to Boston.
One, in particular, was this marvelous, larger-than-life New York type named Elliot. I remember being entranced by the biggest brown eyes I'd ever seen. He lit up the darkened bar with fierce, July sunshine on a hot afternoon at Boots & Saddles on Christopher Street, where I was enjoying a beer after work. He was enormously tall (maybe 6'6, maybe taller) and big around (maybe 250). He had the most beautiful, mellifluous speaking voice and was fiercely bright and clever. I introduced myself almost as soon as he walked in, pausing just long enough for him to make his official entrance and be properly greeted by the many guys who knew him, before offering to buy him a beer.
We bantered the way intelligent people do in seedy leather bars: alternating brilliant and pointed cultural remarks with smutty asides. I was unable to stump him on any of my references, which is both extremely rare and extremely attractive.
One beer turned to several, and eventually one of us must have gotten hungry or run out of cigarettes (or both). I remember it having turned twilight, not yet dark but no longer daytime, as he unlocked the bicycle he'd arrived with and followed me to dinner for burgers at The Riviera on Seventh Avenue, a local hotspot.
Food, beer, conversation in no particular order continued for several more hours, I was still in my workday suit (that wrinkly Valentino linen number that Carlos bought for me at Saks), clutching the leather, hard-sided attache that was my manpurse at that time, Elliot with his bike. We worked our way down Christopher Street from Ty’s down to One Potato, Two Potato. We laughed and flirted and, occasionally got around to more serious discussions, mostly architecture or politics.
It must have been after midnight when he suggested we go to the 88s, a sing-along piano bar that wasn't exactly my scene. But showtunes will be showtunes and in we went.
The piano player knew Elliot very well (as did everyone else, everywhere it seemed), we were greeted warmly and the next number was Elliot's, as I quickly discovered. It was something equally appropriate and typical (Some Enchanted Evening, maybe, or Someone to Watch Over Me?): whatever it was, his singing voice excelled his speaking voice in excellence, but very much in that brassy, Broadwayish kind of way everyone in NYC who can sing sings.
As I recall, we were both too drunk and too tired for him to come home with me. The bike was also a major obstacle, as it was unwelcome on the subway as much as in a cab. So we exchanged numbers and went home separately alone.
Elliot called me the next day at work and arranged a rendez-vous and we became fast friends.
The next time we met, after a dinner somewhere in the West Village, was a stop at The Duplex., More than even at the 88s, Elliot's star shone there most brilliantly. His repertoire included all the standards, but his best number was, without a doubt, Remember Me, about which no mere description can possibly do justice. It was provocatively brilliant. Elliot was truly special in a city where virtually everyone is exceptional. He would nod to the pianist (who looked precisely like Nina Simone) and would begin singing the opening bars to Suddenly Seymour. A waitress, from out of the shadows, would drop her tray and belt Audrey’s part better than any touring company’s production.
Elliot and I struggled to find ways of expressing our mutual admiration more physically, but it was neither comfortable nor natural, in any sense. When we eventually did have sex, it was overly polite and stilted and totally dry in the way sex in NYC in 1988 could only have been, excluding suicidal madness. In on of our endless philosophical discussions, he'd disclosed his poz status, and it terrified me.
I was still, technically, partnered with Carlos, my beautiful, impossible Venezuelan lover, despite our separation. After the sudden demise of one of our mutual friends in 1986, we’d sworn a mutual-suicide pact: should we prove sick, we’d not end up a walking skeleton, neither he nor I. We swore that, before ending up pathetic and hideous, we’d off each other. And we meant it. There were no proven treatments, only proven suffering and a certain death. Although neither Carlos nor I had ever taken any kind of precaution with each other, I’d otherwise spent the 80s jerking off, sucking and being (mostly) safe, as had he. We hoped that the plague had spared us. It hadn't, but neither he nor I understood that for several more years, by which time our pact had become a grim, private joke.
I know that it always comes back to HIV/AIDS, but it does.
I remember having dinner at some pizza/pasta joint having a rather violent discussion regarding my feelings: Elliot's being much more intense and immediate than mine. His physicality and his enormous, cut penis assured that, no matter how brilliant or talented, I wouldn't find him sexually attractive (my "type" being short, swarthy Latins with small uncut cocks). But, at least in my universe, I have always had sex with those who stimulated me on many different levels, and I was as stimulated as much as repelled by Elliot. It wasn't pleasurable for either one of us, not that we hadn’t tried to make it otherwise.
He tried to get me to open up, but I so very much didn't want to hurt him with an idle, unkind phrase any more than I wanted to lead him on, knowing he cared for me so much more than I could return.
At the most heated point, I threw down my fork and snapped.
"Stop it,...just stop it."
Seeing that he'd struck a nerve, he asked me what he should stop doing.
"Stop trying to define me or my feelings."
"I have every right to know where you stand."
I looked away, then returned his glare. "I'm not standing right now. I'm sitting and having what should be a pleasant dinner with you."
"But it's not."
"No", I shook my head, put my fork back in my mouth and started to chew. "You're making this all..." (swallow) "...needlessly complicated."
He batted those big brown eyes with long, black lashes and lit a cigarette. "I", he pronounced carefully, exhaling smoke through his nose and waving a hand in the air, "am not the one complicating things."
I paused for just a second, keeping eye contact, curled my lip and said "Ambivalent”, then began eating again..
He stopped and thought for a second. "That's not a good thing."
"It's not a bad thing." I took a sip of beer from my bottle.
"How is it not a bad thing?"
I had a moment of crystal clarity, and without thinking it through just blurted out: "Ambivalence is the root of passion."
We shared several seconds of heated eyelock.
Elliot smiled slowly. "I love it when you speak in riddles with big words."
I put down my fork and lit a cigarette, myself.
"Do you understand what I just said?"
"You understand the meaning of the word ambivalence, right?"
"It's mixed feelings."
"It's the simultaneous push and pull of emotion."
"People whom I find merely attractive bore me quickly."
Elliot looked lost. "OK"
"If there's nothing else there, then actually there’s nothing at all, it’s that unexpected something...that vague sense of unease that is the root of passion. That itch that nothing can sctrtch…”
"It's that feeling of being pulled by something you'd rather push away."
"So you're not attracted to me?"
"I find you repellent."
"But", I continued, exhaling smoke, "I am passionate about you."
"Passionately intrigued. I am in awe of your talent and deeply attracted to your mind."
Elliot’s disappointment was highly obvious as he waved his hands up and down his sides. "This ain't chopped liver, baby."
"Never said it was."
"So what do you want?"
I thought for a spell, tamping down the long ember on the end of my cigarette into the ashtray, then replied, "I want us to feel comfortable and I want to spend time with you."
"Despite your ambivalence?"
"No, because of my ambivalence."
Having reached a coda, we each took a deep breath and started talking about something else.
I saw much of Elliot for the next few months, frequently spending the night either at his Lower East Side walk-up or my apartment in Tribeca, but it was rarely sexual. Our one attempt at buttfucking (protected, of course) went so poorly that he swore to never attempt it again with me. It humiliated us both deeply.
My life in NYC imploded in the space of one week. After months of putting it off, Carlos (from whom I’d been separated for months) finally told me, over the phone that, despite having co-signed the lease on our apartment in Tribeca, wouldn't be moving to New York after all. Days later I got a confidential call from one of my sources at the corporate offices of Scandinavian Gallery that they were closing stores in the Washington region in the middle of the night. My staff got wind of that and fled in less than a week, leaving me alone in the store with just a security guard.
The AC broke, but I couldn't pay cash from the drawer to fix it and SG's credit was too lousy to have it billed. So for three months (August, September and October) I worked frenzied, 10-hour days in a sweltering store at Madison and 41st, five days a week (corporate agreed to let me close the store on weekends). It was so insanely hot in the store that I gave up wearing anything but lycra bike shorts and tank tops (it was 1988, after all). The bronze trim on the grey-washed mahogany was literally hot to the touch.
I took to filching things and cash, feeling justified somehow. This made everything tolerable, but just barely, and added to the overall madness that had become my existence. My life was a swirl of sweaty work, taxis downtown to fabulous Tribeca dinners, then clubs and parties. I was drinking heavily, but avoided drugs, getting my energy from caffeine and nervous tension. Elliot was part of it, but certainly not its focus. In the final days of all the crazy, I gave him a titanium Porsche watch, which he treasured.
SG moved me back to Boston on the last interstore truck to leave New York, and installed me as the manager of the Brookline store, swearing that they had closed all the stores they’d intended The staff was enthusiastic to have a veteran of so many battles with corporate as their team leader. But when they started closing stores in Maine and NH, the writing was on the wall and, predictably, they all left.
My last days were spent processing deposit refunds on the credit card machine alone in yet another store. One morning I called corporate and the owner's private secretary answered the phone. She couldn't help me, she explained, because the entire accounting department had just walked out, along with most of the remaining corporate staff. I found out later that, from hundreds, I was one of the remaining twenty employees.
I shut off the lights, locked the door and took a streetcar downtown, handing my keys to a disoriented clerk at the Boston store in Park Square. That ended five years with a company that I thought of as home and helped grow from 18 stores to over 80. It was also the last corporate job (excluding a disastrous few months at Ethan Allen in 1999) that I would ever hold. Thereafter I only worked for entrepreneurs.
Once I'd come back, Carlos approached me right away, anxious to be forgiven. But I was wary and pretty bitter. As was typical for the relationship, we started our "reunion" with a terrific fight...ah, ambivalence…oh passion!
We hobbled along, but with limits I’d placed on everything: he was not to move into my new South End apartment, for instance. There were no expectations of exclusivity, and separate financial arrangements were to be maintained. When I begged off plans on Valentine's Day, 1989, after a hellish day, he finally felt justified in dumping me. It was such a relief.
Elliot and I stayed in touch by telephone, and that summer called me all excited about a play he'd written. He'd found a producer who would finance a short run of several performances in about a month and wanted me there. Without even thinking, I agreed.
Arranging for that specific weekend off, I took a late morning train down with an enormous bag (I'd overpacked, as usual). Elliot met me at Penn Station, thrilled to see me again and wild with excitement over having his play produced.
I was feeling a strange sense of numbness, as if I was watching a movie of myself, curiously detached. We took a cab to his place near Delancey St and dropped off my enormous suitcase. He needed to get back to the theater, so we arranged to meet up later.
I walked uptown slowly and with no purpose or sense of direction, totally encased in this weird fog of detachment. I retraced many adventures and scenes, but in broad daylight, not the night-time darkness when they’d actually taken place I eventually made my way to Uncle Charlie's in the West Village and ordered a cocktail, followed shortly by another and another. The drinking didn't help my sense of detachment, it rather enhanced it.
At one point I remember looking up at a gigantic video screen and seeing Liza Minelli singing I'm Losing My Mind.
It was at that specific moment, that the fog began to pass, only to be replaced by a melancholy that I can only describe as chemical. I shook my head, lit a cigarette and stared at the screen in a trance of intense sadness. The further the video progressed, the clearer and more immediate everything became. I had no idea what was happening to me, but I knew that I was about to cry with the intensity of a projectile vomit. I made it out to the sidewalk just in time for wave after wave of choking sobs. The harder I tried to control myself the more I heaved with sadness and tears.
I found a payphone and fished for the number Elliot had given me from my pocket. A voice answered and, through racks of sobbing I asked for him to be brought to the phone. Moments later, I heard his voice, sounding wary:
His voice took on an edge of concern. "What's wrong?"
"I...I...don't know. But I can't..." deep breath "...stop crying."
"Where are you?"
"On Greenwich...near Uncle Charlie's." The words came out in punches. "At...a...pay...phone."
I'll take a cab and be right there."
Nodding, I stammered an "OK", followed by a very weak "thank you" before another wave knocked the wind out of me.
I hung up the receiver and leaned against the phone barely able to breathe and completely out of control on a sidewalk in Greenwich Village in the middle of a summer afternoon.
I remember seeing Elliot running along the sidewalk toward me with a look of sheer panic. I tried to walk toward him but couldn't get far, so I rested my hands on my knees and waited for him. His concerned face had prompted a fresh wave of tears and I could hardly move. He grabbed me and held me against his enormous body, stroking my head.
"Baby, what's wrong?"
I shook my head and mouthed the words "I don't know" but couldn't speak.
"How much have you had to drink?"
"Not...much...not...enough I...guess." I tried to laugh at my weak joke, which only made me cry harder.
I honestly don't remember much else of that day. I know that, somehow, Elliot helped me to stop crying, and we must have eaten something. I remember going back to his place to clean up and change for the show which was opening that night with Elliot directing.
The theater was a small, upstairs space somewhere in some seedy section of the Lower East Side or East Village. I remember rows of folding chairs, probably about 200 in total, arranged in concentric rows of semi-circles in the auditorium, which was separated from the foyer at the top of the stairs by double doors. The stage was about 8" off the floor and was obscured by a black curtain. The lights were simple but professional enough. Elliot sat me in the back row where he could keep an eye on me, and sat me between friends, just in case.
I have no recollection of the play itself. I'd love to say it was fabulous, but I don't recall being impressed. I do remember having several glasses of that standard white wine one always drinks at gallery openings and such, both before the show and during intermission.
But toward the end of the show, that familiar feeling returned, and before I could get out of my chair a fresh wave of hysterical sobbing seized me.
I was horrified. I had essentially stopped the show as people around me tried to figure out what the hell was happening. I remember someone next to me and Elliot himself lifting me out of the chair and bringing me to the stairs outside the auditorium, where I could sit down. I lit a cigarette and attempted to focus, but was basically a basket case for the next fifteen or twenty minutes. Elliot left me with his friend on the stairs and went back into the auditorium, the play having recommenced.
I regained something of my composure eventually and the friend brought me yet another glass of wine, then I remember hearing applause, whistles and cheers and thinking that the play must have ended. As the audience was comprised of nothing but friends and family of the cast and crew, everyone was highly complimentary, especially to Elliot. That was one of the biggest nights of his life and I was having a nervous breakdown.
I sat on the stairs, trembling and chain-smoking as the audience slowly exited the theater, some looking at me with concern, others with contempt, but most chose to just ignore me. That suited me fine, as I've never considered anyone's misery to be a good spectator sport, most especially my own.
When we left the theater, Elliot asked me if I wanted to go back to his place and crash, which I really should have done. Instead I insisted that we do what he'd planned on doing, which involved going back to the piano bar he'd always loved so much, The Duplex.
By this time, I was physically exhausted from all the sobbing, but I'll never forget sitting at that front table, seeing Elliot surrounded by all his friends and fans, the Nina Simone look-alike at the piano, my face wet with tears as he sang Remember Me.