The following is among the 16 essays, personal reflections and short stories from the recent collection, Outer Voices Inner Lives.
By Dominic Ambrose
It was Reneya, I reminded myself, like the name René with a “Ya!” on the end. The subtle change that Reneya’s name had taken over the years seemed to be of considerable importance to her, so I reminded myself to go along. Then I dove back in and listened as Reneya went on and on. Reneya was still talking about those two people, her friend Lavinia and Lavinia’s beau, whom she kept calling Krauthammer, like I knew them. Now, Reneya has been an incorrigible dirty talker since the day I met her, soooo many years ago as a teenager, so I wasn’t too surprised when her chatter began taking on the forms of foreplay as we headed over to meet the male half of the couple. She had worked herself up to a frenzy by the time we approached the entrance to the promenade bar in Battery Park City.
“Now, let me see, what was it that Lavinia said to Krauthammer? He’s a philosopher, you know, besides being a scientist. So she says, ‘Explain Aristotle to me.’ Yeah right, Aristotle. And Galileo and Copernicus too, I suppose. The guy took it in his stride explaining away like she was really listening, as she sipped her drink. I know her, I know what was going on in Lavinia’s dirty mind. She was undressing that little East German with her eyes, and whatever her bloodshot eyes couldn’t focus on, she invented. I’m sure every time he shifted his weight she looked down to get a glimpse of the bulge in his pants. Am I being too gross? Sooorryyy. I could just hear her, when he was talking about the earth circling the sun she was imagining his wet tongue circling her labia majoris, yeah, that’s right, Krauthammer, just keep on circling that hot sun.”
“… Oh, she didn’t say that, did she?” I said, doubtful that this Lavinia person could talk half as dirty as my Reneya.
“No but that was definitely what she was thinking or maybe it’s just my own dirty mind you know me too well,” she said without punctuation, then paused to get another wind and a bit of inspiration. “But she did tell me later that she was going to douche the Sigmund Freud right out of her vagina and make room for Krauthammer.”
I mentally rolled my eyes. Knowing Reneya, I doubted that Lavinia said anything of the sort. Krauthammer! Is that really his name?
“No, I just call him that for fun. It’s really Heinz, or Franken or Stein.”
Her voice tripped on the last one. Stein was her own last name, her real one, before she changed it to Bliss. Reneya Bliss. I didn’t say anything but she knew I knew. We’d been friends from high school, when this dirty talk began, and apparently never stopped.
We got to the bar, and there he was. A bouncy little guy around fifty, and thus a full decade younger than us. He was overweight and balding and decidedly unpleasant looking. He jumped down from the stool and gushed excitedly as Reneya approached. “Oh, ma belle! Quelle surpreeeezuh!”
Yeah, what a surprise, indeed…. wasn’t this meeting at his own insistence? I wondered why he was called Krauthammer. I looked down at his fly and didn’t see the tracings of anything prodigious lurking there. Maybe it was because he was built like a solid sack of vegetables? Or a stalk of Chinese cabbage rotting in the sun? He wore an old, off-the-rack business suit, the way men wore business suits at all hours of the day and night back before our time. His looked like it hadn’t been cleaned or pressed since the turn of the century. The turn of which century was yet to be determined.
He fumbled and kissed her hand drunkenly. Reneya told him she was just enjoying the beautiful autumn day, with an old friend from “her youth.” He ignored me and said that she must have looked formidable (for-mee-DAH-bluh!) in the glistening afternoon sun. Yes, she admitted, because she was showing her old friend around her neighborhood. “Oh really?” he gazed around at his unattended drink.
“Yes.” I said simply trying to reel the little twerp in.
“This is my old friend, Dominic.”
“Oh, Doh-mineeek!” he gushed again as he turned to me. “I am Herr Doktor Gunther Heinz Hausbrenner! Enchanté! Are you from France?”
“No, I am from here. Pleased to meet you,” I replied.
Ah, the pleasure was all mine, until I just spit it right back out, like the bartender just served me a glass of piss on the rocks!
Well, no, he didn’t really say that. Now I’m getting as bad as Reneya. But for sure that is what he could have been saying, such was his body language and the expression on his face as the smile immediately dropped away and the disgust set in when I spoke. Jeesh, was it my New York accent? … not nearly as posh as the phony trash that Reneya was peddling. Or maybe my high voice, nothing the least bit alpha male about that. Or maybe I just had bad breath. In any case, he quickly shifted around to face Reneya and put his disappointment in me on the back burner for the rest of their conversation.
I must have missed some bon mot, because Reneya was already midsentence in conversation when I came back from my reverie.
“Oh, right!” Reneya was laughing. “I know all about that. They almost threw you in jail in East Germany for that protest! You’re so brave! Lavinia told me all about it.”
Krauthammer or Herr Doktor Hausbrenner or whatever took Reneya’s hand and pulled it close to him just as he awkwardly regained his perch on the barstool, in the process bringing her French tipped fingernails dangerously close to his threadbare crotch.
“Really, you know about me, my darling?” he gurgled.
“Oh yes, all kinds of things,” Reneya babbled.
“So tell me what you know about me. Is it really something or are you just saying?” (laugh laugh).
“Oh, yeah,” she assured with ostentatious mendacity. “You know girls talk. Take the measure of things, that sort of thing.” She withdrew her French tipped fingers from the environs of his nether area.
He didn’t catch the innuendo. “Tell me Reneya!” He demanded. He was drunk and pretty thick and so enamored with his own line that he kept hammering away at it, so to speak, without bothering to hear the answer.
She just laughed.
“What do you know about me? Reneya!” He again grabbed her right hand and stroked it.
She took up her drink with her left, and sipped it.
“Re- Nay- Ahhhhh!” (The little sack of onions was getting too loud.) “What a name! It is exotic! Something mysterious! Latin, Italian or something!”
“Or something.” she agreed.
Actually, it was Jewish from East New York. Her father had a clothing store on Pitkin Avenue and a cart at the street market on Sundays. Remember, I knew her from high school. She had been René in high school, but had insisted on being called Rene-uh, even by the teachers, who occasionally obliged. She told her friends it was her nickname, which was odd, since a nickname was supposed to be shorter, not longer, we were all totally sure. Eventually, it became general knowledge that she was Rene-uh because her mother had not been content to have her daughter called by the simple foreign name René, elegant but rather undernourished, so with her babuschka accent, she had added another syllable at the end, for good measure. Rene-uh, such a little bubala! But good lord, what was I thinking. Time to pull myself back in to the lah and the dee and the dah of this conversation. Hausbrenner took a breather from his hammy performance in order to guzzle the rest of his drink. Then he looked at me significantly as he danced the now empty glass in his upraised hand.
I ignored the opportunity to become his liquid benefactor and instead gave Reneya a tortured look of my own. “We have a few more stops to make,” I reminded her, and she immediately slithered out of Herr Doktor’s grip and we bid that drunken Houseburner adieu.
“He’s a horny little fuck,” I said once we were back on the street.
“Yes,” she laughed, giving every indication that she had thoroughly enjoyed the meeting with Hausbrenner AKA Krauthammer. Although it had been painfully obvious that Hausbrenner had spent the entire encounter putting the make on Reneya, she didn’t seem to care about the irony of it. It had been just another opportunity to chatter away this lazy autumn afternoon. In fact, when Reneya went back to her famous storytelling, it was all about Lavinia and her true love. Lavinia was so in love with him. Head over heels in love with this little East German.
“She was devastated when he didn’t win the Nobel Prize,” Reneya said, almost in a trance, as though she were channeling Jacqueline Susann as she penned Valley of the Dolls. “They announced the winners last week, with no mention of the famous Dr. Krauthammer!”
“Herr Doktor Hausbrenner.” I corrected. This was getting too confusing.
“Hausbrenner,” she conceded. “Lavinia wouldn’t talk to any of us for days. They met a month ago on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Krauthammer, or Dr. Hausbrenner, as I should really call him, was sitting on a bench by the river and he asked her in Spanish if he could buy a cigarette from her. She said he could have one, she had answered Sí! She was proud of her Spanish. She always goes to those places on vacation, you know, so she added the word, Gratis! to indicate that she did not require payment.”
(cobbling together an efficient, if somewhat artless utterance, I mused.)
“So he asked if she was more comfortable in English. ‘It is amazing how many people speak Spanish in this city,’ he had said.”
(and judging from the photo that Reneya had shown me, it would indeed have been amazing if this blonde and blue eyed Lavinia were one of them.)
“And he said, ‘It’s Spanish just like what you hear in Cuba. I studied there, you know.’”
“Oh, how interesting,” she must have said, I wasn’t there but she must have said.
“They do their best, with what they’ve got,” he must have said with a shrug.
(conceding this magnanimously, and thus shifting his impressiveness to how quickly he could dismiss the Cuban university system.)
He took her to breakfast, then to lunch, then to dinner. The next morning he went back to Boston where he was lecturing at BU, but he couldn’t stay, he couldn’t get that harbor siren out of his mind.
“He took the morning bus back to New York to stay with Lavinia. They went out to bars and clubs all night. At one bar we were all there sitting with the Italian couple, they live over there in that building behind mine, you see it? And we were sitting there in this crowded bar on Broadway, very elegant, and this lady passes by wearing this lacy bra with cutouts for her nipples. And when she squeezes past Lavinia, she must have squeezed pretty damn close because her nipple gets caught on one of Lavinia’s fine gold neck chains. She wears these super long, fine chains like a garland? They get caught on everything. So Lavinia jumps up like I have never seen her jump before and she trails up after the bra woman, like she’s about to kiss her butt. She’s saying Stop!, Stop!, and the woman turns around and looks at her, then turns back away like Lavinia is just another local crazy, and Lavinia’s still calling Stop! and the woman finally stops and listens. ‘Your knob! My chain is caught on your knob!’ ‘My what? Oh’.”
I tried to picture the scene. Is that even possible? I thought maybe Reneya was getting carried away a bit. I thought maybe we should carry ourselves away somewhere else.
“Let’s go to Occupy Wall Street!” I suggested.
So we went to Zuccotti Park. It was a grungy mess—sleeping bags, garbage, recycling, pots, pans and Tupperware, and used books for sale or gift. Lots of paper items. Besides the books there were leaflets, and small signs to label all kinds of things, even labeling the people artfully snuggled on the concrete who did not want their pictures taken. “No photos!” the sign said, and I regretfully put my camera halfway into my pocket as I passed them. Most of all, there were soggy piles of political signs made of cardboard.
More Green No More War
Tax the Rich
Imprison Wall Street
and the ubiquitous “We Are the 99 Percent!”
The park was a barrage of wordy slogans, musings, and other earnest talk. Never before had I seen such an articulate and verbose encampment of homelessness. There were long-worded posters propped up against the fences explaining every illegal economic phenomenon, from Ponzi schemes to Savings and Loan fraud to Collusion, Cartel and Monopoly. This was a Hooverville with a college degree. There was a man playing a large red conga drum and further along, an elderly man with long, fluffy, blond-grey hair strumming a guitar. There was a black man in sandals and pajama-striped pants on a ledge lecturing about imperialism and another in multi-colored stretch pants and roller blades holding up a Styrofoam peace sign with the legend, “Shitcan Teaparty – America’s Douchebags!” A young woman seated on the ground was selling wobbly canvases of bad art and an elderly lady with short snow-white hair moved as though sailing along the narrow lanes between the detritus. This last one was immediately noteworthy.
“She looks like an original—from the sixties!” Reneya said with surreptitious enthusiasm. The woman was indeed surreal in her striking gold lamé trench coat. She moved as though through a film that Fellini would have shot if he had been a New Yorker. She smiled distantly at the hippies squatted out below as she strode amidst her entourage, a group of four or five men a good deal shorter than her, and dressed down in jeans and open-collar shirts.
“Her coat is pure Carnaby Street,” Reneya said.
“Goldfingah!” I sang, like Shirley Bassey. “I used to love that song.”
“I did, too,” Reneya said. “Goldfinger!,” she repeated with Bassey’s intonation.
Someone said, “Megaphone!” in this loud, portentous voice. He said it just once, but that was enough for several people throughout the park to respond in raggedy unison, “Megaphone!” just as momentously.
Then there was a sudden lull in the hubbub.
“The cops are arresting people on the Brooklyn Bridge!”
“The cops are arresting people on the Brooklyn Bridge!” a much larger group of bystanders repeated loud, but in more perfect union.
“They have called upon us here in the park to join them!”
“They have called upon us here in the park to join them.”
The call from the megaphone guy and imitative response from the crowd reminded me of the bored unison mumblings of Sunday mass, the congregation stumbling through their early morning mea culpas just barely bothering to understand the words that are coming out of their own mouths. Now I was really in uncharted territory. Was this the labor solidarity of yore, in militant twenty-first century style, or was this the set of a movie about totalitarian nightmares?
“The NYPD has declared open season on Occupy Wall Street!”
“The NYPD had declared open season on Occupy Wall Street!”
“So now all of us who can, are going to join them!”
But then the chorus did not respond immediately, and the spell was broken.
“Why?” another voice said nearby.
The megaphone person shrugged his shoulders. “It was decided at the meeting. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t.”
That led to more deliberations and more commentary until the hubbub had been fully restored.
A few minutes later we saw the Goldfinger lady being interviewed for the New York One cameras. She was looking steadfast into the camera and articulating something rather longwinded into the mike as we approached. Her important looking entourage formed a semi-circle backdrop for the camera.
“It’s like deja vu all over again,” I said.
“I love it,” Reneya replied. “I did this! I did this years ago! Forty years ago!”
“So did I.” I lamely elbowed my way into the limelight. “But it does seem different now.”
Two white girls who looked not yet twenty were conspicuous in their miniskirts and revealing tops. They stood vaguely facing each other, shifting their weight from one skinny bare leg to the other. They held up signs, one of which said Wall Street, eat my twat! The other said Bankers: quit jerking us off! and featured a crude dick and balls illustration just to underscore the point. I stared at them, their lipstick, their miniskirts practically up to their crotches, wondering what their game was. Then I noticed a man like a plainclothes detective standing another distance away, watching me watching them. He smirked and gave me a wink.
“Oh, fuck!” Reneya said as she stepped in something gooey.
I tried another truism on for size. “The more things change the more they stay the same.”
“Been here, done this,” Reneya said as she inspected her shoe. “Now, let’s get lost.”
Back at Reneya’s apartment. Reneya stuffed a corncob pipe with tobacco from a little brass Buddha that opened at the belly as I watched the evening take hold over New Jersey and the harbor islands. The Statue of Liberty was right outside of her freaking window!
“I work for Macho Mayonnaise,” she said loudly, snapping me back to this world. “It’s just me and Lonnie. No, it’s not really mayonnaise! That’s just the name. Where have you been? It’s lube. I don’t have any personal expertise in this stuff at all, but as I understand it, when one of you guys has this big, meaty thing and you are trying to stuff it into one of those tight little bungholes, where it wasn’t supposed to go in the first place, you need some help, some lubricating help.”
“Oh, anal lubricant,” I said, “Sorry, Reneya, I am so out I am waiting for that to be in.”
“Well, then maybe you should use some Macho Mayonnaise. Goes in like a dream. It’s a wonderful product. I hope you guys appreciate it, it’s whipped with a mother’s loving care, even if the package has this bimbo Marlboro man doing the whipping.”
“I am sure they do appreciate it, Reneya. What could be a greater honor for a cream than to be smeared all over a juicy erect dick,” I asked her rhetorically, as I didn’t think she would have an answer. She had none, so I continued. “…as it glides snugly into that hole it was most definitely made for!”
But now she was thinking about Lonnie.
“He is wonderful, I love him like a son. And very unusual. He is tall, six feet and more and that is strange because he is Israeli and you don’t expect Israelis to be tall. He’s hairy and dark, like an Israeli, though, but not fat, he works out like a hamster. What do you call them when they’re hairy like that and thin, like a bear but not? A Teddy? A cub? It’s like a running joke with us because his partner is Harold, and he once showed me an old picture of himself as a Cub Scout. So after that in my mind they’re the Two Cubbies. I call them that and they laugh. Lonnie just has this one product and the company was floundering. I got it back on its feet and now we are making a profit. Oh, you like those lamps, you see? They’re all over the place, there, there and there. I made them myself. This one is all green marbles. That one I found all those banana shaped glass pieces.”
“Do you sell them?”
“No, not yet. They’re not perfect yet.”
The eighteen-year-old cat got up on the coffee table and started to sniff around the apple pastry that sat hardening there.
“Get away from there!” Reneya said, but the cat ignored her. Then she picked the cat up and deposited her with a throw somewhere a bit distant. A thump was heard as her paws hit the carpet. “She knows it’s her house,” Reneya explained.
“I’m eighteen years old and I’ll do whatever the hell I want” I said, doing my best impression of the feline queen, at the same time getting a mental image of Reneya herself at eighteen years old, who would have been perfectly capable of making that statement—at least once daily. A long life had gone by since then, as Reneya had told me, a life full of joys and disappointments, a man loved and lost, a foreclosed house in New Jersey, a son with legal issues, an older brother who no longer spoke to her after the death of his own son. And with all that, Reneya was still here, still unique and adventurous and bold as ever. I realized how little the superficial things mattered here, because she didn’t live in that superficial world, just skated through it, like the lady in gold lamé. She lived somewhere else, somewhere within, somewhere pure where she could burn bright underneath it all. I admired her for that and I basked in the warm glow.
“That’s right, it’s her house and she can do what she wants!” Reneya said, as she gazed at the cat, now engaged in sweet misbehavior elsewhere in the room. “And you know what? She’s right. I probably would have let her stay there nibbling if you weren’t here. She’s just like me, so we understand each other perfectly.”
Dominic Ambrose is the author of two gay-themed novels, Nickel Fare, set in Brooklyn in the 1970s, and The Shriek and the Rattle of Trains, set in Romania in the 1990s. He is a native New Yorker, inspired in equal parts by his travels to other places and by his own ever changing hometown. Presently, he lives on Staten Island, just above the harbor, where he dedicates his time to his writing and his photography. His latest projects are a photographic book about Uzbekistan and a memoir collaboration with Rain, a stylist/practitioner who assists clients with their trans-transformations. Memoirs are a special preoccupation for him, as he prepares his own real stories for eventual publication. “Battery City” is an example of the short portraits and scenarios that will someday become an autobiographical collection.