Larry and I had gone to Times Square, despite the sixteen-degree temperature, to welcome in the New Year, because the furnace in our building was broken, and the inside of the apartment was forty-something, and the landlord was unavailable in Florida, and Larry said that being in a crowd of people had to be better than freezing our asses off at home.
We merged into the crowd at 42nd Street and stared up at the ball that would announce the arrival of 1963. My breath steamed the air, and the blackness of the sky above intensified the cold. I snuggled between Larry and the stranger on my right to absorb their warmth. At the countdown, we all leaned forward to watch the ball. When it reached bottom, Larry yelled, Happy New Year, took me in his arms and kissed me—a kiss that made me forget the cold. As he pulled away, I tried to hold onto him, but he was kissing the girl next to him. The guy next to me grabbed me and planted one on my mouth. I backed away from him into Larry, who was kissing the girls around him. Happy New Year, I yelled in his ear.
He hugged me, took my arm, and led me out of the crowd into the dark streets for the bleak walk back to East 28th Street. We left behind the comfort of Times Square, where the night had sparkled with the promise of what the New Year would bring. Larry believed absolutely in that promise. Believed that 1963 was the year he’d make it big as an actor, meaning Broadway. His acting teacher said he had the talent; all he needed was the luck. Larry believed in making his own luck, which was why, the day he arrived in New York City from Springfield, Illinois, he’d changed his name from Sammy Joe Odom to Lawrence Wolf. That name has star power, he said.
By the time we reached our corner, the sparkling promise of the New Year had turned bitterly cold, and that last block home looked endless. I stamped my feet and clapped my hands to keep the circulation going.
Come on, slowpoke, Larry called as he took a couple of running steps and slid like a skater on the frozen sidewalk, the ice left over from a snowfall earlier in the week.
I walked toward him with short, mincing steps. Larry, sure-footed and nimble, laughed at the way I waved my arms for balance. The only way to walk on ice, he had told me, is to plant your feet firmly, keep your knees bent, and glide across the surface. He’d learned how to keep his balance and how to fall, he said, during summer vacations from college when he traveled the Midwest with a small circus as a tightrope walker and trapeze artist. The trapeze was now in the closet of our apartment.
He exaggerated the glides, waved his arms, saying, Oh-oh, like he was going to fall. As if to show me how, he let his feet go up in the air and landed in a perfect pratfall. I burst out laughing. His exaggerated struggles to get up made me laugh even harder, until I was afraid I would fall.
It’s not funny, he said. Help me up.
I thought you did that on purpose, I said, still thinking it was a joke.
Hurry up, dammit. It’s cold.
Somehow I got Larry up, slipping and sliding as I did, almost landing beside him. He leaned so heavily on me as we walked the short distance to our building that I thought he’d take us both down. I got him inside and handed him over to the banister so he could lean on that instead of my shoulder.
Our building was really a tenement, our apartment a tub-in-the-kitchen sixth-floor walk-up. Winters, we froze because the boiler always broke, and the landlord was always in Florida. Summers, we sweltered because the sun baked the tarred roof with furnace-like heat that came down through the ceiling and out the soles of our feet. We stayed because the rent was only forty dollars a month, all we could afford on my eighty-one-dollars-a-week salary.
Larry refused my help on the stairs, so I said I’d go on ahead and left him clutching the banister, about to take the first step up the first flight. I hurried to get to the apartment to light the oven and open the sofa bed, but also to spend as little time as possible on the second floor where the ancient Mr. Wang lived. Mr. Wang picked up newspapers and discarded food from the street, and brought everything home in a shopping cart. The stomach-turning smell coming from behind his door permeated the hall. His was a rear apartment in the same line as ours, and I was sure that the roaches running around our kitchen came from his.
I unlocked our door, reached in, turned on the light, and waited a few seconds to give the roaches a chance to hide. I didn’t look toward the sink and tub, but went to the stove and lit the oven, turning the temperature to four hundred degrees. It was an old-fashioned stove, enameled in pale yellow with light-green trim, standing on four legs. The oven was on the left side, the same height as the burners, which was nice because I didn’t have to bend over to put things in and take them out.
I got my pj’s from the closet in the small back room. It was supposed to be a bedroom, but Larry used it as an office. Back in the kitchen, I opened the oven door and draped the pj’s over it. By the time he got to the apartment, it felt almost warm. With the sofa bed ready to receive him, all he had to do was undress. He couldn’t bend to untie his shoes so I knelt down to help. I can do it, he said, moving the foot away. But he couldn’t, so I did. I also removed his jeans, pulled layers of sweaters over his head, one at a time, held the blankets as he got into bed, uttering loud groans, and covered him.
I got in next to him, to mingle the heat of my body with his. He moved to the far side of the mattress and turned his back to me.
That spring, the smell from Mr. Wang’s apartment became so bad that Mrs. Leary—third floor, front—called the Department of Health. The inspectors broke in and found Mr. Wang’s decomposing body. It was the same day Larry got the male ingénue part in the touring company of a Broadway show.
I told you ’63 would be my year, he said. He’d be on the road a year-and-a-half, but the time would fly by. And with the money he’d be making, we could afford a nice apartment—in Greenwich Village with two bedrooms and a full bath, he said, like placing an order with a waitress. He left the beginning of May.
In June, I found an apartment on Waverly Place to Larry’s specifications. I moved us the beginning of July, the same day Mrs. Leary left to live with her daughter on Long Island because Mr. Leary’s heart condition had finally caught up with him on the stairs coming home from work.
Larry’s show was in San Francisco at the time. I included the news in my weekly letter, adding, as always, that I missed him and loved him; he sent postcards back saying ditto. I wrote I could take two weeks off in January when the show would be in Chicago for a month. He wrote he was counting the days.
I landed at O’Hare late afternoon expecting to be met by Larry. Instead, the PA system called me to the Travelers Aid desk with a message from Larry: Take a cab to the hotel. I looked on the other side for something more. An explanation? An apology? Blank.
I got to his room expecting the usual bed and bath, but found a living room/kitchenette and bedroom, and another note: Sorry. I’ll be there soon as I can. Love you.
I hung a few things in the closet and noticed he had some new clothes, including a suit. He had refused to own a suit in the three years we had lived together. The rest of my belongings I put in an empty dresser drawer. I saw a stack of books by the bed: mysteries. The road trip had made him a reader. I sat in the living room and dozed as I waited.
Larry rushed in at six o’clock. Sorry, sorry, sorry, he said. The show has a new cast member, and the director called an extra rehearsal. He stripped off a dirty white shirt and a sweat-drenched t-shirt. God, you look good enough to eat, he said. So do you, I said, moving toward him. He held up a hand. I wish I could, he said, but I have to get back to the theater. He finished changing. Come backstage after the show.
Dinner? I asked.
After the show. There’s ham and stuff in the fridge if you’re hungry. There’ll be a ticket for you at the box office. He paused at the door, grabbed his crotch and repeated: After the show. He blew me a kiss and was gone.
I picked up the white shirt, put it on a hanger, hung it and the t-shirt on the shower rod in the bathroom, and waited for show time.
Dinner after the show was pizza and beer with the cast and crew in the room of the stage manager, Don, and his wife, Brenda, an older, Mom-and-Pop-type couple. Although everyone was pleasant to me, I felt like a girl whose boyfriend has brought her home to meet the family.
A game of Monopoly followed dinner. The younger members of the group got down on the floor to play. Larry said it had been a tiring day and we were going to bed. Among the distracted murmurs of good night, Cheryl, an intense blonde who played the female ingénue, said in a snide voice, Get a good night’s sleep. Her moist blue eyes, which some people would call dewy, looked at me with wide innocence.
Be nice, Cheryl, Mama Brenda said.
Back in Larry’s room, I asked about Cheryl’s hostility.
What do you mean? he said.
Come on, Larry, she made it plain she doesn’t like me. Why?
Oh that, he said. She’s got a crush on me and is jealous of you. Ignore her. It’s you I love, he said as he unbuttoned my blouse and kissed the exposed skin.
Of course. Girls always took Larry’s flirtations seriously. I surrendered to the kisses as he continued to undress me. Besides, given Cheryl’s stringy hair, damp eyes and doughy skin, I had nothing to worry about. She wasn’t his type.
In June, the show played Boston. Again I went. This time, Cheryl was relaxed and friendly, but the new wardrobe mistress—tall and thin with dark hair and blue eyes, a description that fit me—gave me looks as cold as that Chicago winter. I watched how she was with Larry, how her hand lingered on his arm, and saw the intimacy in the look she gave him. And then I knew: Larry had been screwing these women while I was in New York waiting for him.
I skipped that night’s performance and went to his dressing room after the show. He sat before the mirror tissuing off makeup, the jar of remover open on the table. His face still had that fresh Midwestern look, and his smile still radiated boyish charm—a charm he used to win people over, especially girls. I never took his flirting seriously because he told me over and over I was the only one he loved, which may have been true. But I wasn’t the only one he wanted to have sex with.
I looked at his reflection in the mirror and asked how many women he’d been fucking. His eyes dropped to the jar on the table. He picked up the lid and carefully screwed it on.
Who told you? he asked.
I shook my head, said I was going back to New York, and that he’d have to find someplace else to live when the tour was over. I walked out on his protestations of how much he loved me.
When I got home I threw out the trapeze.