GHOSTWRITING: THE SAN FRANCISCO PROJECT
EDIE WAS SEVENTEEN and beautiful. She didn’t think she was beautiful. You wouldn’t think she was seventeen.
She could be thirty the way she sat with her legs crossed, her face calm, her body aloof and slightly annoyed. She wore her hair in a lopsided bowl-cut the color of mercury. One spit curl lounged near her left eye overdrawn with mascara. Her smile was dutiful and rare. She didn’t wear lipstick or rouge—she preferred her face like this, natural-like and pale. She took lemon baths to look not just white, but ghostly.
Across the table, the man saw this and averted his eyes. He focused on anything she wasn’t—the red leather menu, the brass sconces overhead, the hideous lawn jockeys flanking the door, the green banquettes scalloping their backs in the dark booth on East 49th Street. Edie’s eyes remained blank as he fidgeted, his breath close to his chest as if he didn’t want her to smell him.
Edie pointlessly readjusted her black and high-collared tunic around her stockings. They were ill-paired: a nervous, middle-aged Puerto Rican businessman and a wan teenager in a go-go dress. She knew this and liked it. He was clueless about her downtown life—like, for instance, the modeling she’d been doing for a handful of downtown magazines. She knew those zines would eventually disappear, moving from coffee tables to cardboard boxes to dumpsters and landfills, but she didn’t care. It felt good to be stared at, even if by just a lens. And the photos weren’t half-bad. She was learning to make her face look more like her—the old Edie, the dead Edie—and sometimes, she’d get compliments at their likeness. It’s why she tinted her hair silver. She nearly spray-painted it, but Exít put a stop to that. “It’s not 1964,” Exít had said in her matter-of-fact cadence. “We’ve come farther. We have the technology. Go to Manic Panic.”
Of course, the man across the table was also clueless about Exít, and Edie preferred it that way.
“So,” he finally said, menu still in hand, “I’m taking the boys to the Yankees game on Thursday. Box seats.” Silence. A small breath. “You should come.”
She remained unmoved. She’d heard this before, countless times. His entreaties were just as boring to her as six months—hell, three years—ago when she lived with him, took care of his kids, washed his clothes, and cooked his dinner.
“Well?” Ben asked. His face darkened, knowing his plea was pointless.
“I can’t,” she said, her voice tinny, like Minnie Mouse. “I’ve got plans.”
“Like what?” He chuckled. “What do you actually do with your time? Besides put on eye makeup and dress like… that.”
She looked at him for the first time, a short glance. She could see Ben was trying to stay calm, but the typical roar of manly honor seethed beneath his surface, the button-down shirt and knotted tie holding it all in like twine around a timed explosive. His edges tinged with the color of disgust. She’d seen this shade of face before—the night Eva had called and Ben had listened without a word except a cold “hmph” as he hung up, cheeks flush with that color, his eyes full of indignant doubt. She sighed.
“I’ve told you a thousand times. I’m making clothes. I have a few clients now. Bands.”
Ben said nothing while his face settled, smoothing from crimson to light pecan. “Well, you shouldn’t have left FIT.”
“Don’t start,” she whispered. It landed too soft across the table. She had wanted it to have grit.
“You’d be graduating right now with a degree. You’d be starting a real job.”
“I have a real job.”
“Making shirts like that in your room?” He bellowed, pointing his glass at her chest.
“It’s not a shirt, it’s a dress,” she replied, fingering a piece of loose thread along the hem. She pulled at it, but not too hard. I need to burn this off, she thought and began to figure how to reinforce the stitching better next time.
“Is working at that musty thrift store also a ‘real’ job?” He asked, buttering his dinner roll, the knife clanging against the dish.
“It’s not thrift,” she said. “It’s excellent quality vintage.” Annoyed, she stopped fingering her hem and looked in his eyes. As he chewed, his large jaw worked overtime. Such a drama queen, she thought. And here I thought that was my job. “Anyway, the shop is getting pretty famous. We get designer clothes from Europe and California now. A crate of Elois Jenssens just came in.”
“Eloise Whos?” Ben asked.
Edie’s face was stone. “It doesn’t matter.”
“All I know is that a shop called Antique Boutique sounds like a shack on the side of I-95 selling creepy old dolls.”
“It’s Antique BOW-tique,” she said.
She leaned slightly back at the approach of a waiter who slowed as he heard Ben’s rising tide. Ben noticed her shift and receded. The waiter offered his perfunctory spiel as Ben regulated his breath. This was a fancy restaurant, and he knew his co-workers from the Daily News could walk in at any time. Fancy-schmancy, she thought. She looked a bit smug, but he knew who was in charge. Who was paying for the meal, anyway? If he couldn’t control what came out of her mouth, at least he could decide what went in. Sitting back, his legs planted as wide as the table would allow, he ordered his favorites—steak and potatoes and beef tartare with a raw egg and creamed spinach. “Rare,” he added. “Oh, and another gin.”
“Very good, sir,” the waiter replied, turning to Edie. “Anything to drink for the lady?”
Ben’s fist slammed against the table.
“That is my son!” He screamed, his neck engorged and flashing red.
The waiter paled.
“Apologies, sir,” he said. “I’m terribly sorry.”
“A dirty martini,” Edie said, cool and content.
“Yes… sir,” the waiter replied, trotting off.
I told you, dad, Edie thought. Just let it happen.
Ben took a sip of his cocktail, but his glass was empty. He put it down, his ears spouting steam, his eyes big—like thyroid eyes—lost in a swirl of emotions she didn’t care to share. He thought I was a girl, and it’s fine. It can be fine.
They sat in silence until the food came—all at once. Ben didn’t like coursing out meals. He liked the look of a full spread.
“David,” Ben said.
Edie was delicately filling her plate and didn’t react.
“David,” he repeated.
“What,” Edie said. She glanced around the restaurant, hating the use of that name, hoping no one was around that she knew. All strangers. Her plate taunted her. She cut the smallest bit of steak and drowned it in horseradish before taking a slow bite.
He watched his son eat. He was so thin—lanky, even—like he hadn’t eaten in days. “Maybe he hasn’t,” Ben thought, and reached into his pocket to make sure the small wad of cash was still where he put it that afternoon. He couldn’t forget to give it to David when he dropped him off back home. “Home,” he thought. When Ben moved his son into that live-in hotel on East 31th Street a few years ago, he never thought David would stay there so long. It was just a temporary spot so he could be closer to his college classes. It was just a phase, he knew, till he got on his feet. Well, he hoped—David was always a weak boy. His brothers were, too. The oldest a Jehovah and the younger one dumb—as in, legally dumb. Ben used to say the word “retarded,” but Audrey would smack him before he got to the second “d.” “They’re special boys, you halfwit” she’d say. “It’s not like they have a good role model. They learn nothing from you.” He’d hurl insults at her then, and she’d volley them back until, jaw-exhausted, she’d shut up long enough for him to hold her shoulders and look at the sweat in her hair and smell her and kiss her and feel her body go limp against his, which was his favorite feeling in the whole entire world.
“What?” Edie repeated. She was on her third bite.
“Nothing,” Ben said, settling into his meal, content, at least, that his boy was eating. He took what he could get.
THE HEAVE OF HER DIAPHRAGM began to mellow as she stood back up and flushed the toilet. She didn’t like the throat-pain, like a tenement building on fire in her esophagus, but the clenched stomach was actually pleasant. It felt like the entire core of her was closing in, shrinking, until she’d blip and disappear. She always felt clean afterwards. If only I had a pocket in my chest, she thought, so I could bypass my stomach entirely.
She looked in the mirror and dabbed at her eye makeup. Her face was pale—glamorous—but she knew the blood would come back to her cheeks with a sip of booze. She ran her finger down her cheekbone to her lips, and pursed them, turning her head at a ¾ angle. “I’m a fucking alien,” she said to the empty room.
She scooped a handful of water and gargled the last bits of undigested food out of her teeth and walked back to the table and sat down without a smile. The plates were cleared. Ben was humming to himself, still eating. Stupid man, she thought as she sat back down, poor stupid man. You don’t know anything.
“So,” Ben began again, “have you talked to your mother?”
“No,” she replied. Not for years.
“Well,” he shifted his weight, “you should at least call her.”
“And talk about what?” Edie demanded.
Ben investigated his gin, swirled it twice.
“She made her decision,” Edie said. “And I made mine.”
He had nothing to say. It was all too confusing. Edie knew this and resented him for it. When she showed up three years ago on his doorstep, Ben had let her stay. The kindest thing he’d ever done is not ask her for an explanation. She was bouncing between friends’ houses, floating around the Bronx and Brooklyn until she could see the strain in their parents’ eyes and decided to move on. A fourteen-year-old runaway is too much to handle. She knew this, even then, and so she finally tracked down the father she had so happily ditched a decade earlier. He was on his third wife and fifth—or was it sixth?—child. He was always trying to have the perfect son. Not child, but son. Audrey had given him duds. I mean, look at David. Flaming queen. But Ben had tenacity, and nothing would stop him from trying again and again. Even when his latest wife had postpartum depression after their first child and, in a rage, doused David with hot plantain oil, Ben knocked her up again. Because that first child had been a girl. And none of his girls mattered.
Edie looked at him—she wished she could see something of her in him. His weak chin, his wideset, bushy eyebrows, his thick, dark hair that he wore neat in a wave above his forehead. Ben was never attractive to her—she was always turned on by men who looked more like her mother. Maybe if I could objectify him, I could stand him more. Instead, he was like a trick you had to fuck.
For some reason, Audrey was infatuated with Ben. She loved his darkness. Audrey was Anglo-Saxon with violet-pink skin that appeared in Edie’s complexion only after she puked. Edie inherited her mother’s cheekbones and aquiline nose—an eagle nose. The nose of a saint, she thought. Edie loved her nose, just as she loved other parts of her that defined her and that she was unwilling to give up. No matter what being Edie meant.
But Ben? She inherited nothing from him. Poor man, sitting there nursing another gin, had no idea—how her image and mind and body swirled within her like smoke and never settled. Did he ever feel this way? Her desire to be seen slanted sideways from her desire to be had and desire to be loved. But even with hip clothes and metallic hair and desultory eyes, she didn’t have many lovers. Well, there was Hank. He hung around Edie’s group of friends that summer but was so regular, he stayed on the fringes. Something attracted him to the madness in her. She paid no mind to the constant glances of this body-builder dude, this basic muscled hunk, but one night, he walked her home. Standing at her window, she turned to light another cigarette, and there he was in only a jockstrap. She wasn’t much attracted to him—he wasn’t her particular kind of guy—but he was beautiful and wanted to fuck. Edie still had her stockings on, her black flats and go-go outfit. She didn’t know what to do with him. He wasn’t a tranny-chaser or bi, as far as she could tell. He was merely enamored with the magic parts of her. Edie worried he might think her frigid, the way they made love that night, but she couldn’t help it. The dynamic was just off.
He isn’t at all like René, she had thought, pulling down her stockings as Hank got on all fours like a hairless pit bull.
Ben was talking, but she couldn’t hear his words. The martini burned the raw skin in her throat. She was lost in the backroom parts of her.
Or John, for that matter.
But no one was like John.