NINE / TEN
by David Robbins
For six months, Arthur Kramer treated me like he was doing me a favor by planking me. I let it happen because you’re out in the ninth if you don’t know the rules of Social Darwinism it takes to survive in this town as a thirsty young working woman within the egos of men. Part of this is that sometimes to get a leg up (so to speak) a working girl has to resort to sleeping with her boss to pretend to fill in that something he feels he’s missing out of at home. But, in my case, I suppose Art’s sins eventually tweaked his guilt, because two weeks ago he went home and started to “rediscover” his wife, and this morning he had me fired. And he didn’t even have the balls to do it himself, the coward.
So, at 10:AM, my supervisor-in-name-only, Perky, Petite, Preppy Polly Parker prances into my cubicle as Art Kramer’s Babylonian Messenger. Polly Parker, Jeeeze! Even her name sounds like something out of comic book. What wicked mother would name her daughter Polly, anyway? I thought names like that died out before the Suffragettes marched down Wall Street into their quasi-emancipation. Polly breathes her peppermint-scented angst down upon my concentration along with her nervous, spasmodic arm gestures.
Normally I dish out my revenge from the ground up. It’s a little more time-consuming but more effective, because in the end the accuser often becomes the victim without knowing it. This gentle revenge requires research to gather up the right kind of ammunition. I spent the last two weeks while Kramer was brushing me off to brush up on him, and it didn’t take much more than a Kramer & VanderClount Publishing Company directory. I looked up the plain-sight information he’d guarded from me; his phone number and address up on West 95th and Amsterdam. There also, in a company newsletter, I found the name of his wife: Cynthia Evans Kramer—home-maker and child-rearer. I wrote all this down, copied it and carried the copy and the original around with me for a moment like this.
As soon as Perky Polly fires me through that ugly sneer of hers, I thank her as calmly as I dare, then walk two floors up into Kramer’s office. Without saying anything, I place the copy of my findings face up on his desk. I hold up my original for him to see and then slide it safely back into the tit pocket of my shirt. The stunned look on his face makes me feel better already.
“What is it you want, Melinda?” His voice has a quiver to it.
“Six month’s severance and a guaranteed freelance contract of three-thousand a month for the next year and a half.”
He looks back down at my note and concentrates on the hidden intent wrapped into its four lines. His expression falls into one of fright more than rage. I know him well enough to know that, to him, Company money is more disposable than his happy marriage. Being a Catholic—an every-morning-to-Mass kind of Catholic—his emotional well-being is controlled by his guilt and some sort of looming censure from The Holy Father. I could imagine him sensing his life flickering away before him.
”Four months severance and a nine-month contract at two-thousand.”
“Five months, a year contract, and I’m holding at thirty-five hundred, guaranteed,” I volley.
“You said three thousand.”
“Thirty-five hundred,” I repeat. “Firm. In writing.”
He sighs heftily at the note. “Done.”
“Okay, Art. If it makes you feel better, you can now rip up your copy.” I raise the original from my pocket. “But I guess I’ll just hold on to this. You know, good faith insurance.”
His lower lip begins to quiver. “Go, Melinda. You can leave now.”
I shoot him a proper professional smile and leave his office. Even though it might have been half what a middle management man might be offered without question, mine was not a bad compensation from a lousy lay such as him.
Arthur Kramer was never that big a thing for me, anyway. You see, here’s the deal: a horny straight guy with a power complex should never mess around with a lesbian. We bite back.
Thank you, daddy. My two-bedroom condo in TriBeCa is an absolute joy. He bought the place for me back in ‘92 when I first struck out from The Cincinnati School of Art toward the mean streets here in Gotham. Dad wanted me to be safe at his expense, and being that Ann Arbor’s idea of New York City is that it’s one big “West Side Story” populated with nothing but Sharks and Jets, he provided me this sanctuary.
Housekeeping has never been a strong suit for me. As nice as my place is, I live within a well-organized clutter. Though my apartment isn’t exactly a glamour-shot from a Macy’s catalog, it’s not a gangland crap-shoot mess like some of the other places I’ve passed out in in my time here, either. Aimee, my love-interest partner, is the opposite. She’s some sort of latter-day Donna Reed, and it sometimes makes me sick. I swear she wears a cute chintz apron to clean her stove. I try to temper my angst about this by imagining she’s wearing nothing but the cute chintz apron, with her short, dykie-bobbed blond hair all mussed up around her beautiful face. God was very kind to Aimee. Out of my pure love for her, I hate her for her good looks.
She’s got the body for wearing nothing from all that sweaty working-out she does in the gym, and often brings her left-over energy back here and into bed. I love her scent. She’s got the right firmness and softness in just the right places, and in the right proportions. Shaving her legs is a real turn-on for us both, but especially me. I feel the shiver of a warm thrill as I draw the razor down through the slimly fluff of the cream coating the quivering firm slopes of her calfs and thighs.
Standing next to her, dressed as nature made us, my unremarkable form looks like one of those anatomical drawings the forensic cops use to diagram where all the stabs and bullets entered. I never understood why guys like Art Kramer are so drawn to my body, even with the lights on. Come to think of it, all that squeezing, poking and prodding of makes me feel more like some sort of middle-school biology experiment.
With Aimee and me it’s not about physical form. Most of us women who love women love one another are in it for the substance; how the Yin and the Yang of our beings interact in a perfect emotional balance. Love seems more wholesome and irrevocable that way. On the awful day when it ends, it’s usually because our emotions get all busted up before our hearts do, and the hurt never dies, despite the denial. I’ve been there once before, and I never want to be there again.
Now, empowered by my lopsided bargain with Kramer, I stand gloating on the little balcony of my sanctuary while I sip a from a cup of cinnamon tea. Forearms on railing, I look down at West Street twenty-two stories below. Filling the right side of my vision loom the two immense monolithic towers defining New York as the financial stronghold of the world. As plain and unadorned as they appear, those two buildings seem to exude the kind of power that energizes a person as insignificant as me. Well, maybe not so insignificant anymore now that I’ve applied the screws to Art Kramer.
The phone’s ring is more like a blare, and I vow to adjust it down somehow. It’s probably the perky, preppy, prancing Polly Parker calling to prosecute me about something she perceives I’ve pilfered from her desk, or to push me to finish a layout I haven’t even started yet because she never gave me the fucking work order. The phone rings again. I don’t need this shit I tell myself as I consider lacing my tea with a couple of shots of Jim Beam.
It rings again. Fuck it. Let the machine pick it up. I make my way toward the kitchen where I keep the booze. On the fifth ring, the machine clicks on: “Hi, you’ve reached Melinda. You know the drill. Here comes the beep. Three—Two—One—Go!” Beep.
“Hey, Babe. I’m back in town. Let’s meet at Pandora’s for copious amounts of alcohol and then…well, you know.”
It’s Aimee! She’s back early! I rush to the phone and pick it up just as she finishes her message. “Hi! What time, hon?”
“How about at eight. I’ve gotta clean up a little from my San-Fran jet-lag.”
“Okay. Eight. I missed you, sweets.”
“Shut up. Me too, you. Order me a mimosa if you get there first, okay?”
“And order me a Jim Beam neat if you get there before me.”
Pandora’s Box is one of those darkly-lit Lezbo joints where unsuspecting straight guys go to hit up on the many women like me who hang out there. They must think they’re in heaven among a bar-full of mostly girls and some trannies who are more gorgeous than many of us plain-looking dykes. God! Do these guys act goofy around girls who find it fun to toy with them! They must be thinking we can be converted to hets, even if it’s just for one night—yeah, right.
Aimee is in one of her frivolous moods tonight when I come upon her at the bar. My double bourbon is already set in place next to her mimosa. “Listen, I’ve got connections,” a toothy, scrawny-looking guy in a too-big suit from Barney’s is saying to her. He’s loosened his tie for The Effect, and he’s more like gushing because Aimee’s looking particularly foxy tonight. “I’m a trader at Sachs.”
“Oooh!” Aimee purrs girlishly. “You work for Saks? Can you get me discounts on shoes?”
“Huh? No. Not there. Better than there. I work for Goldman Sachs, a big brokerage house. And I can get us pre-season Islanders hockey tickets.”
“Oh, Hockey. I kinda like basketball better, where those hunky tall guys run around in their cute baggy shorts bouncing the ball until they throw it through that little hoop.”
“Oh, no, doll,” he says all lit up and stupid-looking. “Hockey’s a lot more exciting. I let’s go to a game together. I have inside connections and I can get us center-ice tickets.”
She shoots him a coy, innocent glance.
I have to stifle a torrent of giggles, as Aimee plays the kid like a bassoon.
“Okay,” he tells her. “I can teach you about hockey.” He gulps the last of his beer and makes to order another. “With my connections, I can get us really good seats.”
“I know,” Aimee gushes.”I am so impressed that you have all these connections!”
He answers this with a gloating smile.
“Hi, girlfriend,” I whisper into Aimee’s ear. She furtively grasps my hand.
“I’ll call you,” the guy says as he reaches into a pocket for his card.
“‘S’cuse me,” Aimee says to him through a smile, then turns around and lays an impassioned kiss on my lips. I wasn’t prepared for this and I feel our teeth clack together. But even at the expense of a chipped tooth, it’s worth it to see the aghast look on the goon’s face. As we hold our kiss, I break into into a little spasm of girlish giggles, and Aimee starts giggling with me. As we pull apart, he backs away.
“Don’t forget to call me!” Aimee calls after him.
He raises his hand and then his middle finger as he turns back toward the entrance next to the floor-to-ceiling poster of Bette Davis dolled up in her droopy black cocktail dress for that bumpy evening in “All About Eve.”
We can hardly contain ourselves. I sip my drink, then nearly regurgitate it though another giggle attack. I think I need a cigarette to calm me down, until I remember I gave it up ten years ago. Sometimes these cigarette jones come out of nowhere, especially when I’m nervous. Finally I get a grip. “How’d you like San Francisco, babe?” I ask.
“I liked it plenty. You and I should go there.”
I lift my drink. “Here’s to free love.”
She raises her glass in return. “Free love.”
“Well, Aim, I’m glad you’re finally back. Oh, guess what? I got fired today.”
She lets this sink in through a long, thoughtful look. “Oh-kaay. That works for me. I just got a promotion and a twelve percent increase.”
“Congratulations, babe. You probably deserved twenty.“
“I know. I’m working on the boys in control up there at Klein’s. But twelve percent brings me up to two-hundred-fifty-K. Plenty enough to support us.”
This comment from right field hits me as weird. “To…support…us.”
“Uh, yeah.” She lights her arm over my shoulder. “Look, Lin. This is good, you losing your job. I can give up my apartment and what it costs and then move into your place while we’re here in New York until we can start spending more time in my place up in Pawling.”
“Pawling. That again? Jeee-zuzz, girl. Haven’t we talked that one to death, yet? And here you still think we should move in together up there into that dilapidated family mansion of yours way the fuck in the woods, where we’d have to take on some servants.”
“Yeah, that one. I know it needs work, but with the money I’ll save by moving in with you, I’ll be able to afford to fix it up. It can be like our own little pied de Terre.”
I feel the same flush of betrayal I did when we’d talked that plan over the last time. I could never leave the city for a life in Green Acres and Aimee knows this. “One hundred acres is not so little.”
Her soft expression darkens into the hardness that often precedes a rash of temper, and I find myself drawing back. Instead, she lays her hand upon mine and drills her stare into me. “You don’t want to? Lin, honey, listen. This could be what we’ve been waiting for. We could start a life together.”
“What about your twelve-percent higher pay job way up there at Klein’s Brokerage? Are you gonna give that up? Oh yeah, and there’s a little matter of me not even having a job.”
“I can commute. You’re a talented designer, hon. You could get a better job anywhere.”
“I don’t know, Aim. There aren’t a lot of publications art jobs up there in the hinterlands of Putnam County.”
“You can free-lance from there to here. I’ll get you one of those powerful twenty-eight DTM modems to send your work to the city.”
“It’s up to fifty-six -K now, and it’s BPM, not DTM. And that kind of telecommuting concept hasn’t been proven for the kind of stuff I do. I’d need some sort of direct network.”
“Good. Then I’ll get you one of those.”
What she doesn’t know about the kind of work I do could fill a set of encyclopedias. I show her a condescending look. “Oh, yeah, sure.”
Her saying: ‘I’ll get you one of those…’ sounds possessive to me. Maybe she thinks just because I’m temporarily jobless and she has a raise, she somehow owns me like some husbands try to own their wives. Not on my watch. “Aimee, I can’t leave New York. Not now, at least. It’s the only place I can relax and call home,” I glance sadly down at my glass of Jim Beam. “Not some over-sized drafty farmhouse up in Pawling. Not now.” I concentrate on the refraction of dim light flowing like oil through the deep richness of the bourbon.
She tightens her hand over mine. “Okay, Lin. I get it. I’ve been planning it all out, while this is all new to you. Will you think about it, at least?”
I look up at her and smile—anything to end this conversation. “Sure, Aim. I’ll think about it!” We now have to nearly shout over the Destiny’s Child stuff the bartender had just turned up. I swear, sometimes she just boosts up the sound system to see how deaf she can make us patrons.
“Good! Now let me take you to dinner up in Windows on The World to use up my raise!”
“Shit, girl!” The music’s so loud I can barely hear myself talk. “You know how I hate that place! It makes me queasy when every time there’s a breeze up and there the building sways! It makes meI feel seasick! And I don’t like the idea of hurling up a one-hundred dollar lobster Newberg all over the place! It’s so undignified, even for me!”
“The whole building’s on giant-sized shock-absorbers! It’s supposed to sway like that!”
I broaden my smile. “No, it isn’t!”
Aimee sighs for a dramatic effect. “Okay, Lin. We’ll eat the crappy bar food here, then go back to your place and do a couple of lines, okay?
I gaze over at the the other wall-sized poster next to the glass-enclosed smoking room where some of the dykes are puffing on cigars. This poster shows Marlena Dietrich—my favorite coquette— dolled up in her “Blue Angel” costume of a top hat and gartered bustier. I wish I had her legs. “I thought my place was gonna be our place,” I say to the poster. I’m pretty sure Aimee doesn’t hear that because she just smiles back at me over the noise.
Things go better with coke. The traffic noise from the street hurdle brightly up into the air from below. Up here on the roof, the sounds take on the ringing of little bells, like those of a horse-drawn sleigh through a soft new winter snow. The glittering city lights are so distinct. The stars appear brisk and bright, even through the actual, perpetual haze of city sky. Good coke lets you see through the smog and into the stars themselves, if you let it happen. The air is crisp and bracing, promising a nice late summer day for tomorrow. The Anisette tastes warm and beautiful as it journeys down my throat. This time of year at this time of night is perfect. Life is beautiful right now.
We are huddled together against an arm of one of the wicker couch-chaises set around the rooftop pool of my apartment building, where Aimee and I often play at camping out under the stars. The fence around the pool was locked up at ten, but the pool lights are still on and send their wavering aqua refractions across our faces. I see Aimee is smiling contentedly as she feigns sleep. I lean over and kiss her hair. It smells of hemp and Prell. She nestles closer to me and I draw the blanket further up around around our shoulders.
“You cold?” I ask her.
“Shut up. I’m sleeping.”
“Bullshit you are.”
“Then, yes. I’m cold.” She shivers and cuddles closer. I tighten the blanket around her. “Have I told you I love you since I got back?”
“I don’t recall. I guess not.”
Her hand finds mine. I feel the light touch of her fingertips. “I love you, Melinda.”
For some reason, I feel like crying. “I love you, too, Aimee.”
“Have you given any thought to my little plan for us?”
I’d hoped she’d be off this kick for now. “About moving to Pawling? No. Let’s wait until Friday then talk about it, okay?”
“Why Friday?” Her voice has grown hoarse through the chill.
“That’ll give us the weekend to argue about it.”
She sits up in little stages like the action pains her, then settles against the couch-back. “Well, that’s a convincing endorsement. You think this should turn into an argument?”
“No. I hope not. More like an agreement, maybe.”
“It’s not like we’re going to move seventy-five miles away, set up house and have kids, Lin.”
“Well, first of all. That would be impossible.”
“Really? Sue Brinman and Clarie what’s-her-name did it. They have a four-year-old.”
I have to chuckle at this. “Yeah. They got a glob of anonymous sperm from a bank or God knows where. The father was the fucking turkey-baster they used.”
Aimee lets out a giggle—it’s like her trademark. “Here’s to Daddy Butterball.”
I sip the remains of my Anisette and drape my arms around her. She picks up on my cue, tucks her legs beneath her and nestles back against my shoulder. “I love lying here with you, Aim,” I whisper to her.
“And I love lying anywhere with you, girlfriend. Listen, hon. The jet lag is really catching up to me now, and I need to be at work tomorrow at eight to start moving into my new office.”
I look out and up at the place where she works. “A corner office, right?”
“Two down. Now let’s just lie here like this, okay?”
‘Sure you don’t want to go in? It’s starting to chill a little.”
“No, hon. I’m fine right here. I really don’t mind the chill, and I love looking out at the lights. They help me to rest.” She huddles in closer; her signal for me to shut up and let her sleep. I draw the blanket up a little more and stare out at the city lights to regroup my day into a sensible chain of events. Of course, this involves thinking about Art Kramer.
My thing with Kramer is one of those few dark secrets I keep from Aimee. I’d started up with her maybe a year after I moved into Manhattan, and our relationship came with a caveat from her: “You can fuck as many women as you want, Babe. But you fuck a man and I am gone from you.” She wouldn’t understand about Kramer, and the fact that there was noting there. He was always like some sort of job maintenance for me, just about as enjoyable as going to get my teeth cleaned. He was nothing more than a means to an end.
I listen to the voice of the city —the incessant bleat and blare of car horns and sirens—and start to think about moving to her big house in Pawling. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe I’ve used up the excitement of this place. It is quiet up there, too quiet, but I can get used to that, I guess. There is a commuter spur to Manhattan which might mean getting up a five AM (ugh!) to go to work if I find something. And remodeling a place like that to make it habitable might take years. The big factor is that Aimee is right: we can start a real life together.
I look again toward the building where she works—the North World Trade Tower, with its muted office lights streaming like broken, narrow ribbons down the runnels of its massive flat face. I have mixed feelings about its architecture, but it seems to provide a sense of security on the outside. I just hate where Aimee works on the ninety-fourth floor. I then gaze up at the sky and guess it’s close to midnight on Monday, September tenth. I reconcile that a year from now we’ll probably be picking out drapes for our living room in Pawling.
Sade’s singing relaxes me and it’s how I usually wake into the day, as I sip my coffee. And it’s a really nice day, even for a cynic like me. It’s like one of those God-made, top ten kind of days. Not a cloud in the sky; none of that grimy New York City smog. Everything seems crisper, and I haven’t had any coke since last night. Summer will be gone soon and days like this must be taken in. Even at eight-thirty in the morning it’s warm enough to open my balcony doors. I’m thinking maybe later in the day I’ll take the B-train out to Brighten Beach to take in the sun with the Brooklyn Russians, and maybe get a flush of a tan.
The phone blares again. God I hate that thing. Probably it’s perky Polly calling to phuck up my beautiful day.
“Yeah, Hi. It’s Melinda. State your case.
“Hey, Babe, It’s me, sitting around in my naked new office with a bunch of boxes.”
“ That sounds nice. You kinda sound like you’re in a submarine.”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot to tell you. They’ll be sending me out on the road more, so I have one of those flip-phone thingeys. The service is pretty crappy up here. Let me walk closer to the window. Can you hear me any better?”
“A little. Listen, Aim. I’ve been thinking about your idea of moving up to Pawling into that big drafty house of yours.”
“Well, not mine really, but my eighty-nine year old grandfather’s. It’s all mine when he goes. Anyway, hon, you’ve been thinking?”
I feel myself choking up. “Yeah. Let’s go the fuck ahead and do it. You know, to solidify things for us.”
“Oh, Wow! You mean it?”
“Yeah, girl, I guess I do. But no kids from turkey basters, get that? That’s where I gotta draw the line.”
“No turkey-baster kids, right. Maybe we can adopt—”
“Or maybe we can just live our life together for a while.”
“Oh, God! I love you so much, Lin! It’s gonna be so great. Just you and me.”
I have to smile at this. “And Bambi, and Thumper, and Yogi Bear and all the other terrifying woodland creatures.”
“Even better! We can hunt for our food.”
Eeeewww! God no! “No. We can’t”
Something doesn’t sound right from outside. It’s like a hard, loud, rumble—screeching, almost pleading—almost like a jet landing down below on West Street. “Do you hear that?”
A crashing explosion sounding like lots of breaking glass rips through my ears along with a tight, numbing concussion. I feel it in my sinuses like a roundhouse punch to the nose. Whatever it is trembles my apartment and sends a coffee mug and some plates crashing to the kitchen floor. Plaster and wallboard dust puff out angrily though new cracks in the ceiling. And then the flash. A blinding flash which heats up the room by about twenty degrees. This is accompanied with another louder explosion. It rumbles through my apartment like it is gripping it, as I grasp the kitchen counter to stable myself . One of my easy chairs topples over, and my couch swivels backward. All of this has happened over about fifteen seconds, during which all I can do is stare stupidly at the broken crockery scattered over my kitchen floor, which has itself become cracked. Hearing myself say: “What the FUCK!” brings me into the moment.
As I rush to the balcony doors, I see one of them has become unhinged and is falling in slow motion to the floor. Every alarm in my building is going off. “Is this a fucking EARTHQUAKE?” I ask out loud as I step around the falling door to look out.
Then I see the result of whatever has just happened, and I feel like I’ve been momentarily stunned by a head-on crash. I’m still holding the handset, and I bring it to my ear. All I can hear from Aimee’s phone is a weird sort of loud crackling. “Aimee?” I say tenuously. It takes moment to register. Raging flames and black smoke are billowing from an open, searing gash in the upper floors of the tower. “Aimee? Hon?” I shout breathlessly as I feel my tears dampen my cheeks. “Aimee? AIMeeee! AIM-EEE!”
About the Author:
David (D.H.) Robbins has been actively writing fiction for nearly 30 years. The settings of his novels is the 1960s. His first published novel, “The Tu-tone DeSoto” (2014), introduces eight teenagers growing up in Iowa. The story focuses on the kids’ relationships with their parents and among themselves as they come of age during the veiled turbulence underlying the Kennedy Years (1960-63). His second published novel, “Chamelea” is a crime mystery centered around a serial killer-priest in New York City, 1963-4. He is a former publications art director/designer and interactive publications media strategist and designer. He’s the co-author of two design reference books: “Motion by Design” (Laurence King, 2006) and “Visual Effects Artistry” (Elsevier Press, 2009). He currently presents a lecture/discussion series on “The 1960s —Revisiting a Crucial Decade.” Robbins was born in Darien, Connecticut and currently lives in Simsbury, Connecticut where he continues to type away on his third novel, focusing on the counter-culture years (1965-68) and the Vietnam War.