Image Courtesy of Bruce Guenter. Shared via a Creative Commons license.
As a kid, I spent hours staring out the stained glass panel in our front door. When I return to our former house decades later and it’s been renovated, the schizophrenic view that nourished my inconsistencies won’t be there, and I’ll just be left with its syllabus: Amber is the sphere of the Antiguan elders whose colonial anachronisms dominate me. Red is the neon signs that wink as if they know but will keep my secrets. Blue is the realm where my father is knotting his tie in a cloud of cigarette smoke before a gig and since I will never be as at home among my mother’s cloisonné tea cups as inside the slosh and whisper of his cymbals and brushes, is my refuge. Green is the glow of the picture perfect life I’ll soon have in Westchester.
When my face wasn’t pressed to the glass, I would sit barefoot on the marble steps of our old vestibule bathed in Eurocentric iconography tied together by a black thread and see a portrait of my family splitting apart at the seams that not even my grandmother’s sewing machine could mend. There were times when its diluted colors were also a Marvel Comic, the Picasso reproduction on my aunt’s living room wall, a psychedelic poster or the windblown flag of our borough of racing fire engines and mambo trombones.
I was young but already wanted to write, so the window was an infinite blank page. It was also the perspective I was damned to as long as I was being raised by women who believed the world beyond our home was foreign. But windows would continue to preoccupy me even after most of them had passed away, though never more so than when I turned 21, and with a pair of scissors in hand, removed the police tape crisscrossing the door of my first apartment. It was 1982. The landlord didn’t intend on waiting the 30 years it would take for Harlem to become outdoor café friendly so agreed to give me a lease for it.
“You’ll be taking the next guy to court for repairs. Why not?” He had said.
The building was so architecturally dull and poorly maintained it sabotaged the elegant row houses around it. The cupboards in the kitchen had been torn from the walls and left them cracked and perforated. The frig was a stockpile of putrid food. The bathroom was the stall you couldn’t bring yourself to use at Port Authority, but I was a fugitive from upholstery and chandeliers, so it was perfect.
I scrubbed. I mopped. Killed roaches, all of which I preferred to pacing the long shadow between empty rooms when I was done.
“You’re a selfish bitch.” My mother liked to say, and having been led to believe I should emulate the misery of the life-size statue of Jesus with blood gushing stigmata wounds in the narthex of my childhood church, there was no worse anathema, so I stayed drunk on guilt and was only really sober when I was drinking, which is what I was doing the first time that Junior, the former occupant knocked or I probably wouldn’t have answered. Whenever he returned and announced that he came to get the gate on my fire escape window after then, I’d just study him through the depths of the peep hole, waiting for him to go away.
While squatting in a warehouse along the Hudson River without electricity or even a lock on the door, I once discovered a derelict at a window watching me get undressed, and realized that those dawns on deserted streets near bars where I had overindulged, and men I didn’t know helped me up from the ground, much worse could have happened, so I was convinced that not having a secure window was a bad idea. But I was shoving a tangle of tiny socks, patent leather women’s belts and costume jewelry into a garbage bag one day when it played better on my conscience to acknowledge that Junior and his family had been evicted and gave the gate back to them.
I was working at the New York Review of Books in the mailroom, a few rungs up at least from washing dishes at downtown hippie cafes, but still a job I believed was below me which made me the ideal candidate to take orders from a female editor whose life calling was to be mean. Yet there was a certain prestige in having been selected to patch through urgent phone calls from Noam Chomsky, Jack Henry Abbott and Susan Sontag. That’s why I was shocked when they hired Aries since he was not creatively tortured. Broad shouldered with a flame of feathery hot combed hair, he only looked at me full in the face when it was absolutely necessary, and then it would seem as if he were trying with all his might not to laugh. His velvety Johnny Cash resonance didn’t match the girly way he’d pivot on his toes when backtracking to do something he forgot – or that hair. My first impression of him was that he was an Uncle Tom set on doing such a good job, he was going to make me look even more obnoxious to the powers that be than I already did.
He turned out to be as bright as hell – in an effortless kind of way. Aries didn’t give a hoot about reading the New York Review of Books. Only when he was broke and needed fast cash did he flip through the unsolicited copies of new books piled high in the office we shared – and then it was to figure out which ones he could sell to the Strand. The truth is that the Saturday he stopped by, I would’ve greeted the Werewolf of London with the same enthusiasm if he too had owned an electric drill. But later there was an undeniable magic to Aries finessing open a pint of gin like a thief cracking the combination to the lock of a safe as the two of us sat on the floor of my living room in the light filtering through my newly installed window gate.
I was no longer in the frigid room in the West Midlands of England where I had spent a recent winter writing a suicide note I mistook for a manuscript. It was April and the time of year we most associate with being happy. Still, only men with easy hips and hands like smoke who blew me kisses as Aries paraded me around Christopher Street, saved me from myself. Whether we were provoking the doorman outside a club for no reason other than we were both peaking on mescaline or dozing in the breeze of a rolled down window on the road trip back from a random house party in Boston, we were the best buddy movie of all time. I’m thin skinned and combustible and always unsure if my friends are still speaking to me, but was never able to put Aries on edge, so was elated when he became my roommate and filled in some of my three bedroom apartment’s excess space.
His “nobody’s shit,” philosophy was beyond the scope of my nervous system, but it was clear he was onto something the night he stared down some lunatic in Hell’s Kitchen threatening to stick him with a knife. Convinced that if you threw a pint of his beloved “knotty head” into a tiger’s cage at the zoo, Aries would climb right in and get it while inviting the tigers to try and stop him – I had come to believe that he and I were life-size pieces in an easy board game where every square said “go” and wasn’t prepared for what happened when Country, a guy Aries had a brief fling with, moved in. A prude by comparison to us, Country meticulously outlined his beard, ironed his pants and draped them from hangers all facing the same way. Whenever he accused Aries and I of being lazy or called the random shower curtain I had bought “ugly”, it was never more obvious that he should buy the money orders and mail them to the landlord since he was so devoted to tedium. We hadn’t seen him in a few days when “He could be an axe murderer for all we know” I told Aries while passing a joint his way.
“Or unemployed and spending the money we give him.” Aries replied with the usual slyness after he inhaled. We took turns inventing funny plotlines and laughing, then, with an ambivalence that was rare, Aries confessed he had no idea where Country worked or used to live. I don’t know who got paranoid first, just that the unlit room across the hall became a threatening presence that sucked us in. It was obvious he wasn’t coming back. Photo ID cards under different aliases were the only evidence he had ever existed as for the first time, we weren’t laughing at Country. He was laughing at us.
Subway cars were the new homes for those too lazy to make better use of Ronald Reagan’s smile. Thankfully, my short attention span stopped me from thinking about all the bad things what would happen if I didn’t catch up with months of unpaid rent. I was picking out the right hat and earrings to wear to Dave Mancuso’s weekly party when Tasia appeared behind me in my mirror. Unlike Aries’s other friends, he wasn’t an eye-batting, breathy voiced Little Richard double from down South. Svelte with fast reflexes, he had a hardness that stood out, but I had grown used to him marching in swinging bags of designer clothes like a villain with nuclear bomb grade uranium and a scheme.
On occasion, Aries and I made fun of this but I preferred to believe Tasia’s superficiality was just a hoax. Doesn’t the sales clerk asking “Can I help you?” irritate everyone? When he insisted I take his advice on what to wear and how to do my makeup, and I told him to “fuck off,” I was shocked that he knocked me down and began to furiously ram a can of hair spray between my legs and was relieved that I had on pants even if it still hurt.
If I had considered my apartment really mine, I might have revoked its open door policy but I had been fired as soon as I had moved in and begun to depend on Aries to financially carry me through the weeks when I was looking for the next job and the next. And anyway, I often brought home guys who were sure I was a lesbian and lesbians sure I was really straight for naked encounters that were more fact-finding than sexual but could last for days or even longer if I let them, as hard as it was to admit that without the thump thump thump, and divas shrieking through echo, people I met in clubs were routine. sitting on my radiator in impatience was always a cue for me to rise from my makeshift bed of blankets on the floor. Walking beside him down the stairs and through the lobby, I’d remember that truth reveals itself piece by piece and isn’t something you can squeeze from solitude like water from a sponge.
“There’s Miss Honeycut,” he’d say as soon as we stepped outside, the more he called the Afghan in the window of the row house across the street by this make believe name, the more it really looked like a woman with a curly wave minding everybody’s business. And once we broke free of the scrutiny of busybodies puzzled by my second hand clothes and unevenly scissored hair and were climbing Sugar Hill, there were a host of things to comment on like the Adonis at the corner deli who claimed he was going to be in a Camel cigarette ad, but who Aries insisted was lying or the pig parts in bodega refrigerators that reminded me of Joseph Beuys art you could actually eat. He moved against the flow of crowds with an air of superiority, and found humor in the hysteria of traffic, so I didn’t understand how someone as shrewdly transcendent as Aries got addicted to a drug that imparted nothing but a compulsion to keep smoking it until you were its slave. I didn’t recognize him by the time our lives under the same roof ended is all I can say.
Maybe the rage with which my parents had dismantled our home and gotten divorced when I was 18 had predisposed me towards guitar smashing or I was destined to be the teenage squatter who boosted electricity off the sign of a Shell Station. After three and a half years, I was relieved to be evicted. My move, a kneejerk effort to avoid an armed sheriff, was reminiscent of an avant-garde dancer springing across a landscape of surreal props. As for the window gate that was supposed to have divided order from chaos, I left it, but it was already hanging unlocked from a loose hinge by then.
jennifer jazz is a New York based memoirist. Her work has recently appeared in publications that include Booth, Sukoon and Sensitive Skin.