I remember the most beautiful party I have ever attended. It was held in a loft up-town. It was night-time, when the streets are brighter than the buildings and the eye is drawn slowly down, and I could see the Columbia University Observatory, a golf ball lit from below by the street-lights and reverberating with the sound of pedestrian traffic. The park is appealing when seen from large loft windows, but in the twilight it looks like so much blue, with islands of green under the yellow of lamps. I remember that the party was in celebration of a film’s completion, but I cannot recall any actors or a director. The producer was undoubtedly my Uncle Steven or one of his friends.
My early introduction to parties was the fault of my Uncle Steven and his companions. My sister and I became the attractive adopted children of a swanky homosexual elite. At every party we wore matching outfits and explained, in very measured and slow sentences, how much fun we were having. And we were having a ball, in truth.
My sister is singularly beautiful. She is an example of manner and grace. She has a practiced etiquette that borders on anti-social, and her poise and carriage is nothing short of superb. She is, to quote our mutual friend Topher, a work-of-art even while sleeping. Yet only I have seen her sleeping, and I can attest to the fact that she is roguish and clever to a fault, and has been since we were young gay apprentices. Her name is Lily, and I am eleven months her senior. I am the only one who will remember her smile as she put on her first pair of red stockings, a smile both wild and respectful and gorgeous, so absolutely gorgeous.
At this most beautiful party we wore gold. I wore a shimmering, prodigal vest over a burgundy shirt while Lily wore a matching gold dress with a red necklace. Our siblinghood preceded us, as it does to this day, wherever we went, informing each room of our presence before we entered. Prance lightly, our Uncle would always whisper, for it is the only way to prance.
Towards the end of this most beautiful evening, when the murmur of laughter rises in conclusive delight, I see her, my Lily, leaning against the glass of the window, a seven year old smoking a cigarette. I see her right now as if she were here, I see her leaning into me, a bit tipsy, smelling like smoke and sand and trees and taking my hand. I’m ready to take my leave, she says, looking at her stocking feet, and I want to take you with me. Then quickly she looks at me and kisses me with dry lips, holding onto my neck. Needless to say I took her home, as was my charge.
“And is there a mans involved?” Herb says with flair. His legs are crossed and his sunglasses hide half of his face.
“Nope, no mans. It’s…It’s a new leaf, and there is a possible job offer. Though she is being overly optimistic about it, in my opinion.” I blow into my coffee. Today I am full of opinions. I woke up this morning with a clear and crisp plan for my day. I was to take my dirties to the dry cleaner, where I would pick up my suit if the tailor was done. The tailor was Eastern European and entirely unreliable. Then I was to call up Jemima for a sporadic and half-romantic walk to lunch in this café on the park. She’s a friend, Jemima, and the romance would be quiet and subdued and, with luck, self-evident. She would be forced to consider her options, and possibly wish she had made different choices in the past. The dry cleaning and suit pick-up went smoothly enough to inspire mild optimism, but Jemima was regrettably booked all afternoon. I was forced to call Herb and have been brooding, sullen and full of opinions since noon.
“Ooh, a job offer. Doing what? Oh, let me guess. A social attaché? An internship with a designer?” Herb smiles into the sun and pushes his huge sunglasses up on his nose.
“Nothing so glamorous. She might be able to TA at a university there. Small. Not one of the main universities. Art History, I assume, though I haven’t asked her about it. She has an interview set up, but nothing is, you know, guaranteed.”
“Nothing’s ever guaranteed, sugar.” He uncrosses his legs and lays his hands, palms down, in his lap.
“But she’ll be fine. I’m not worried.”
“Of course you’re not, she’s so smart, she’ll be fine fine fine. Besides, it’s not like we’re sending her off without a party.”
“Don’t remind me.” This is an empty statement, I was already thinking about the party. I throw tremendous parties, parties that reflect the effort I put into them. I make the guest lists, I call the friends, I deal with the florists, the caterers, everything. I am a beacon of hip culture and my get-togethers define the industry of chic. I am a golden boy and have been famous, in the correct circles, since I was six years old. But I am half of an act. The other half, my complement, my straight man, my heart, is leaving. And now I have to plan her goodbye party alone.
“Do you need help?” Herb asks, and without pausing for an answer he squeals at a passing dog, making baby faces as the beast looks away.
“No, but thank you. It’s basically all planned and ready. I just picked up my suit. Gucci. Hasn’t even been on the runway.” The dog, half a block down by now, is barking and refusing to move. Herb looks on, talking distractedly while he waggles a finger at the immobile dog.
“Cute. I’m not a Gucci boy myself. I’m sure it’ll look great on you, though.” He turns to me and smiles. “You have those fabulous shoulders.”
And this is funny and queer. I feel like crying. Not tears across the cheek, quiet sobs type of crying. No. I feel like stage crying, tremendous cries of pain to prove to the entire café, nay to the entire block how horrible this is. I want the dog to hear it; I want the dog to break free of its owner, charge frantically to my feet and start howling at the sky. I want Herb to take his sunglasses off, to pull a suede handkerchief from one of his pockets and offer it to me. I want to embarrass him horribly. I want Herb to feel awkward right now, to make up an excuse to leave.
Herb was born into money, as if the doctor had sewn together an impromptu blanket of dollar bills with which to clean the blood and placenta from the mewling infant Herb’s face. His great uncle, while in the belly of a plane in the Great War, had taken careful notes on the metals used in plane construction and had, upon returning (sans one leg) to the states, set up a huge metal importing corporation. This uncle gained a respectful notoriety as a result of some fortunate court cases, and soon became known as THE importer of high quality metals. His vast amount of money roared down the bloodline until it reached Herb, who hopped the globe until he discovered that no city compared to New York. No city, he says with experienced ennui, can even compare.
I take a long drink of coffee. Herb clearly has other thoughts on his mind as he shifts slightly in his tight nylon shirt.
“It sounds very nice, honey, I can’t wait to see it.”
“What are you getting her?” I ask. I have bought her no gift. The party is my gift. The party is going to be my last gift, the one she will remember while she promenades on the left bank, missing me.
“Earrings, very pretty, very expensive. This fabulous umbrella with this Monet on it. Oh, and this book about Paris by Adam Gopnick. Do you know him?” Herb smiles.
“Sure. He’s on NPR a lot.”
“Oh NPR, how good of you. How informative.”
“Shut up.” I say, perhaps too quickly. Lunch is officially over, and parties of elderly tourists and theater-goers are sitting for an early dinner. Herb signals to the waiter, smiling wide and addressing him as Garcon.
“Garcon,” he says, “a check, s’il-vous plait.” I throw two twenty dollar bills on the table and put them back in my wallet when Herb frowns and shakes his head. The clouds are tinted in a light maroon, like speckled blood across the sky. I’m still hungry.
“Is Marlo going to be at the party?” Herb asks, pausing as he gets out of his seat.
“Maybe. She’s been a bit flaky recently. But Sydney will, with Topher and Andrew and Sir Patrick Marsdale. All of them and the Spanish kids they run around with.”
“Oh God.” Herb moans.
“It will be fine. All the Lincoln Center people will be there too, with Scott and Tobias and the short one, with the name like the day.”
“Tuesday?” Herb posits.
“Tuesday. I’m sure Tuesday will be there. Stop worrying. You will have a great time.”
I’m ready to leave. I want to walk to the West Side and run my hand along the buildings and scrape my feet. I want to walk very slowly.
“Of course I will,” he says. “I’m looking forward to it tremendously.”
There are three men who work for my favorite catering company. Their names are Milosh, Pieter and Egon. They met in Zurich on leave from the Red Army, and tried unsuccessfully to run a brothel. They have told me horrible stories of Zurich prostitutes and the Cabarets that played for a limited audience of Japanese business men. Milosh, whose English was the best, talks while Pieter imitates the characters, pulling back on his eyes for the Japanese men and dancing like a stripper when necessary. Egon just laughs and mutters, “Yes yes, was all very silly.” The primary-colored silliness of Zurich and the failed brothel is evident in their every move, and their dedication to social ease and loud parties is extraordinary. These men, whose thick fingers and thick moustaches and round, wet voices protrude oafishly in front of them, are the only ones whom I trust with tremendous get-togethers. They call themselves the Brothers Buchlotzki.
Tonight, Egon and Milosh are lifting crates of ginger ale from the freight elevator to my apartment door. Pieter stops and places his hand on my shoulder. His red face is beaded with sweat and his breath smells of cars and old, deep wood.
“Is not nice, this time I think. There is something different about…about the room. Is you, I think, is your face.” He smiles weakly.
“Yes,” I put my hand on his, “it’s a going-away party. Very sad.”
“But no! This party for the leaving can be very fun, indeed. Is best party, sometimes. If you think about…about the person who is leaving very hard for a very long time at this party, then you will not miss her.”
“I am thinking about her all the time.” I grasp his hand very hard.
“Yes but if you think about this girl for a very long time, by the time party is over, you will be sick of her.” He laughs very hard, so hard that Milosh in the next room barks something in Russian. Pieter continues, “You will want her to leave, you will kick her…kick her out the door without saying goodbye.”
I laugh a little bit as Pieter bends over and picks up two bottles of Grand Marnier. He is still laughing as he walks into the kitchen. Milosh and Egon walk by and Egon winks at me and smiles. I walk into the living room and sit on the couch with my hands on my knees. Eventually Milosh sits down next to me and hands me a drink which is pungent and sour and awfully strong.
“You tell me about this girl. I tell you story about my girl who left afterwards. First you. And where is your sister? I have a present for her, I think she will like.” Milosh motions at the drink and I lift it up and swallow a great deal of it. My head feels large and hot, and then slowly deflates comfortably.
“She’ll be here. She is out shopping for extra food. I told her not to, but she is anyway. She never listens.” I finish the drink.
“No she never listens. I tell her, Lily, I say, you must not to pour the drinks too high, or your guests will be all throwing up all the day and you’re party will be ruined and I will have to do with the cleaning up. But she never listens and you remember how that ended.” I did. Topher still refers to that party as “Vomitorium Redux.” Lily’s strong beverages had sent many young and beautiful socialites to the toilets and sinks, and those who could not make it simply used the flower pots or the carpets. It was quite funny in retrospect, yet Lily felt awful. The next day she would not come out of her room, despite my pleas and entreaties. I finally put on lipstick and kissed her door, and when she finally came out that night the sight of my lip imprints lifted her spirits.
“You tell me about your girl first. The one who left, then I’ll tell you about mine who is leaving tonight.” I say a bit flirtatiously. I turn into a liquid, a collection of cool thoughts and gestures the minute I get tipsy.
“Oh alright. Is not very funny story, but will maybe lift your spirits. Is nice story, I tell it many times, and every time with the telling it changes. But I remember the real story, and will tell you that one, is rare privilege.”
“I feel blessed, Milosh, really I do.”
“Well,” said Milosh, “when I was very young man, about seventeen years, I received in the mail a letter of recruitment. To the army. And I was not a brave man back then, was very scared. All the time I was with the trembling and even with the crying. I am not afraid to say it, about the crying, for that is what I did. All night I would ask of God not to go. To take away this letter. And so late one night, about one week after receiving the letter, I ran into the countryside, into the forest by my farm. I ran for many hours, until slowly I could see the sun over my shoulder. By and by, I came across a woman who was very small, no taller than my chest, and very thin. She was beautiful too, with brown hair and great, big eyes and a small amount of fat left under her chin. Was very very beautiful. And she asked of me one question, she said, ‘Hunter, are you going to chop down more trees?’ I knew that she had confused me for a hunter, so I told her who I was and began to walk along, looking for nothing but to escape the Red Army. But this small woman, who was maybe even a child, still held my arm and asked me again about the trees. When I told her that I had no plan to cut down trees, but only to live in the woods where no man could find me, she told me that she was no woman, not even a child, but a creature we call Drepsotske, a spirit of tree. I was very scared. A Drepsotske is very bad luck when she catches your arm, for she will not let you go until you fulfill three of her requests. That is what the old in my village said.”
“That’s a tight spot,” I said, standing and refilling my glass with Campari and soda. I sat back down. “Please go on. The wood lady has got your arm and she’s not letting go. Please continue.”
“Well I thought that I was done for,” Milosh said, leaning back into the couch, “I was running from the army, a little boy running from the army, and here I was caught by a Drepsotske, surely doomed to a life of servitude. But then the creature just sat down, holding my arm and looking still more beautiful, talking to me for days upon days about the trees, the rivers, the sky, everything. And it was very wonderful, to sit and to talk, was all very nice and soft and…less serious than everything else. And so first, when she asked me to clear a field of the debris from an invasion long since forgotten, I did so slowly, so that I might listen to her talk and feel her hand right here on my arm. And when she asked me to nurse a small bird back to feeling better I did it with heavy heart, knowing that soon her time with me would be over. Finally, the Drepsotske asked of me to give her a kiss, which is what I most wanted in the world. But I knew that doing so would cause her to let go of my arm, and she would disappear into the forest from where she had come. So for a long time I did not kiss her, but I thought of nothing else. I wanted so badly to do it, you see, to give her this one kiss, it was all of importance to me. So finally, as the sun rose on my twentieth day in the forest, I lay her down and kissed her very gentle on her lips. And it was wonderful, was most wonderful kiss in the history. You see the movie where Bogart is kissing with Bacall, that was nothing to my kiss with the Drepsotske, was that good. And when was over, she let go of my arm and walked away. I did not try to follow, I knew that to try was to doom myself to a life of following. So that very day I walked to a nearby village and joined the Red Army. There I killed no men, and fired but two bullets. And the whole time, and every minute since, I am thinking about my forest girl. My little one who walked away with me not even following.”
I kick lightly at his foot. He smiles at me with heavy red eyes and stands up with a loud exhalation of breath.
“You know,” I said, smiling, “I would’ve let her get away too. I mean what can you do, if she’s made up her mind. You did your best for her, right? She made up her mind.” I watch him walk into the hall and shrug before taking up three folding chairs and laying them by the door of my apartment.
“And your girl? Is she as beautiful as mine?” He asked, unfolding a chair.
“It’s my sis, Milosh, its Lily. She’s leaving for good. To Paris. It’s her going-away party.”
“Oh. She is even more beautiful. That is very good news for her. I have had many adventures in Paris. We all have, adventures in the river, in boats. Very many stories. But now I must be with the setting up. Is almost time.” He pats my shoulder, and I pat his hand, which is appropriate, given the circumstances. He smiles and is smiling, smiling, smiling while he pours drinks into molds for ice cubes. It seems to take forever.