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A Narcoleptic's Guide to Romance
By Vivian Darkbloom
The cab driver is named Musef Al-Falil. His license will expire in January 2002.
The streetlights burn salmon-shaded at predictable intervals as the taxi, finally hitting its stride after the downtown traffic thins outs, soars up East River Drive with its driver and passenger. The summer night is unseasonably cool; air slides in through a slit of window.
Musef smiles, relaxes, and offers a respite from Arabic cursing.
Danny relaxes too. The round of drinks are finally working their magic. She rolls down the window further and a sudden air blast slicks back her hair. Funny, she wonders, sinking a hand into her short gold hair, how soft it feels when the wind pummels it. As if beating out all the roughness. If only you could do that with real people, she thinks. Her stomach churns uneasily, and she chalks it up to the unbidden, sudden thought of her mother, rather than alcohol.
The cab swerves. Danny braces herself against the filthy plastic partition separating her and the driver, fingertips squishing into something soft and minty fresh. Thanks to vodka, she is more amused than digusted. Wasn't that in an Elvis Costello song? "Hey, Musef, what's up?"
"Sorry. This jeep, he was in my lane."
As he continues to complain about the driver now ahead of him, Danny tunes him out. "It's okay, Musef," she murmurs, and lets her head fall back on the seat. Musef. She starts to construct an imaginary relationship between them. They would watch soccer on TV over beers at Hennessey's, her neighborhood hangout, they might ride the subway together, either in the silent lethargy of the morning commute or the simmering surliness of rush hour, with the stations flipping by them like picture postcards, where he might confess his love for her and she, ever noble (or at least totally turned off), would reject his sad-eyed advances. And he is sad-eyed, she realizes, taking in his hangdog profile. And all of this rolls through her mind becausethese daysthe unreal world is ever so more interesting than the real one. Conjecture was a ladder out of her life.
"Park Avenue?" he asks.
"87th, just off Park. Between Park and Madison."
Nell, her mother's personal secretary for 25 years now, greets her at the door. Danny still remembers Nell as she was back then, the mellow, small-town girl from Maine, curvy and voluptuous in her peasant skirts, and almost as wide-eyed and eager to please as Danny, then 7, was. Now, however, after all these years of placating a high-strung woman, Nell wears anxiety like a Chanel suittight, neat, and as if she will never be rid of it. The pseudo-Laura Ashley wear has given away to dour suits (not exactly Chanel, but off-the-rack Macy's suits her nicely).
Danny sways for a moment in the doorway, signaling her drunkenness.
"Oh, Danielle," Nell sighs. "Not now."
The apartment is warm. She hears the shrill forced laughter, the loud banter, the clinking of glasses. Mother is having a party. "I need cash, she told me to come." She keeps swaying, tries to invest it with a kind of rhythm. You are getting sleepy, Nell. You will let me in, you will let me forge my mother's signature on a passel of blank checks .
"But surely she didn't say to come now!" Nell retorts petulantly, nervously crossing and uncrossing her pudgy arms.
"She wasn't, ah, specific, Nellie. Honestly, I didn't know she had a thing going on tonight." The small part of her that is quantifiably sober sits in the back seat of her brain, allowing the motor mouth to drive. "I know you think I do this just to piss her off, but I don't. I don't need the grief, okay? I just want some money. And she didn't say when I should stop by. Look, I just called her up today and said I was low on cash and she yelled at me a little but she did say I could come up later."
Nell stares down at her shiny, cheap flats, toes tapping. "I'm telling ya, kid. You know how to pick your times."
"I didn't do it on purpose." Not this time, anyway. "I just want some cash until she transfers more money into my account. I'll wait in the kitchen until she has a minute."
Nell relents and sighs yet again. "All right, all right." Eternally untrusting, she seizes Danny's palm and drags her across the threshold, down the hallway, past the living room. Danny winces at the older woman's clammy, hammy tight grip but allows herself to be pulled along. Some startled guestssurpassing the boundaries of the roomsmill about in the hallway and stare at her curiouslyher shaggy hair, old suede jacket and torn jeans marking her as either hired help or needing help. "Oh, that's the caterer," Danny hears a fey male voice whisper as she and Nell sail by.
The French doors leading into the living roomwhere most of the guests areare open; it's chilly and humid outside, but indoors the brownstone seethes with the hothouse mentality of a summer solstice gathering, a celebration. Danny's eyes flick over the crowd; her mother was nowhere to be seen in the teeming room.
Some of the guests she knew, of coursethey were old family friends, parents of kids she went to school with. There's Robert Fortescue, Belinda's dad, who tried to seduce me during a slumber party when I was 12. Every time I look at him I think of his sour mouth against my neck. And there's Anne's mother. I wonder if she ever found out that her daughter was the first girl I ever fucked. And Mr. Campbell, whose son is a heroin addict. Nobody knows where Gary is since he checked himself out of rehab a year ago. Probably dead. And here's
Danny almost stops moving for a moment, but the force of Nell pulling her is so strong she cannot resist itshe glides along as if in a car, witnessing an accident where she cannot help but stare.
old blue eyes herself. How fucking stupid, I should have guessed she'd be here.
For months Danny had been searching for those eyes everywhereuptown, downtown, in Brooklyn, in streets and cafes and subway stations (even though the party in question always detested and avoided the subway at every opportunity). And now, here they were, across the room, pretending to be absorbed in conversation, pretending not to see her.
"Stay here," Nell growls with uncharacteristic force. In fact, Danny believes that if she focuses her hearing just a bit more and ignores the distant murmur of the party, she can hear Nell's teeth grinding.
They are in Nell's office, just off the kitchen. Danny blinks in the semi-darkness of the room, her mind still grasping the new image (like a child clutching in a grubby, greedy fist a fresh photo from an instamatic camera) of Kate, arm draped over a mantelpiece, her restless gaze scanning everyone and everything except her.
"Nellie, what's going on? Why are you acting so crabby?"
"This is an important event, Danny," Nell hisses at her. The older woman's eyes flick around suspiciously. "If the slightest thing goes wrong, your mother will have my head."
"What's the big deal? It's just another fundraiser, right?"
"Yes, but not for just anyone. It's for James Waldorf's senate campaign. Very informal, you understand." Nell speaks in a rapid monotone. "The official reason is to celebrate his engagement."
"Oh." Suddenly the room feels like a tomb. "Who"
Nell is looking at her, surprised. "Your friend Kate, of course."
Danny feels fortunate that the chair is where she thought it was. The weight of her body plopping into the seat sends the wheeled chair squeaking and sliding across the floor. She hopes that Nell cannot see her facethe stocky form of her mother's assistant eclipses the hall light.
"Do you want me to tell Kate you're here?" Nell's hand brushes against her arm. "She might keep you company for a few minutes while I try to find Judith."
Danny allows silence to fill the room, stuffing its cotton-candy numbness into her.
Nell gently tugs at her jacket. "Danny?"
Jesus I need a drink. "No." Danny licks her lips. "No. Don't tell her. Just get my mother."
Danny has no idea how long she's waited. It's now officially evening, and the cloying black of night holds her, encases her like a pupa, so that she can't stir, can't turn on the light. The door of Nell's office is shut. She can't even hear the party.
But she does hearindeed, recognizesthe slow, deliberate clicking on the parquet floor outside the room. The door opens. And she closes her eyes, telling herself that it is only against the dark room's sudden, harsh confession of light.
The kitchen door flung open and a tall, elegant woman, with movie-star baby blues, walked in. This stranger had interrupted Danny's bullshitting session with Tanisha, the caterer. Both women looked at her, taking in her expression: lost, overwhelmed, and blindly frightened. Then those amazing eyes had rolled, sickeningly, back in their sockets, and the tall woman convulsed, went slack-jawed, and fell to the ground.
Tanisha, an old friend well acquainted with Danny's peccadilloes, had only snorted in amusement as Danny had stared, appalled, at this unconscious woman in her mother's kitchen. Well, I guess you weren't exaggeratin' when you said women fall at your feet.
I go to sleep. That's how Kate herself had described it. After they became "friends." The condition was narcolepsy and Danny only knew about it because of that movie with Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, where River played a narcoleptic.
The hall light is like an interrogation lamp. Danny wills herself to sleep, wishes desperately now that she shared Kate's illnessif nothing else in your life, dearbut she is acutely, painfully conscious.
Why is everything about you so unremittingly beautiful? Your voice, your thoughts, your words, your eyes, your face, your body, your laugh, your handsDanny opens her eyes. And sees a hand in front of her. She focuses on it as if her life depends on it, trying not to think of whose hand it is.
The hand holds a glass of Lillet. Kate's hand dwarfs the tumbler, her grip steady.
Danny wills her own hands to be just as rock solid as she takes the glass. Only the ice, tinkling like wind chimes, betrays her. "You would have to give this to me." She hopes her voice reflects airy disdain, as if she is a character in a Noel Coward play.
But she looks up into Kate's face. The lopsided smile pities. "You always liked it."
Bastille Day, last summer. Kate had never drunk Lillet before, and there they were, at the Bastille Day Celebration, where one could procure an overpriced plastic glass of the stuff by waiting in a long line until some surly Frenchwoman would hand you the glass of your choice. A choice? Kate had asked nervouslyher experience with liquor was sorely limited and ordering anything other than a white wine spritzer was seriously beyond her ken. Yes: Red or white? Danny replied. Kate picked white, served with a slice of orange. She sipped it carefully, prepared to dislike it. But she loved it. She loved it, she sucked the alcohol-engorged slice when she was done, then devoured it in one bite, teeth flashing like a knife.
Later, when they kissed, Danny could still taste the orange, a fullness round as the fruit itself, rolling through her mouth, the taste and sensations varying in frequency between thunder and whispers, like a radio station fading in and out.
Now, it is a hateful reminder of everything they shared; she thinks, petulantly, that she would rather drink a mud puddle. "You liked it too," Danny retorts weakly.
Kate is silent as she turns on the lamp near the desk and shuts the door. She wears a charcoal gray pantsuit, conservatively tasteful. It fails to have a deadening effect on her eyes. Danny still remembers the first time she saw heras opposed to actually meeting her that fateful first time in the kitchen: It was in The New York Times photo that Bart showed herKate with her politico boyfriend. Even in that grainy black and white photo, you knew those eyes crackled blue, you knew they were something special. They still are. Kate's hair is as it usually isloose over the shoulders, longish bangs tripping into her eyes. There is some small comfort in the fact that Kate is still successfully resisting James' invectives to "do something" with her hair.
She sits in soft, boxy chair facing Danny and the desk, leaning forward as she often does, propping her arms on her knees. Her stillness was sometimes frightening, like an opaque, black poolwhere you didn't know the deep end from the shallow. Still don't, actually, Danny thought. But I wanted to. God, how I wanted to figure you out. Kate's solid jaw spoke of her Midwestern toughness, her Gary Cooper stoicism, where the slightest ripple along the beautiful curving line could indicate the most profound emotion. But there was no twitch, nothing, just those eyes staring into space.
So it is all the more startling when she speaksstaring away from Danny, at the dark outside the window. "Never meant to hurt you, Danny."
"You're not very good at this."
"And you don't know how sincere that sounded." No running in house with sarcasm! You'll fall and hurt yourself! Saul was the one who came up with the line, and Bart, with his mercenary instincts, was the one who never failed to use it on her. Between the two of them, her best friends had perfected a Good Cop/Bad Cop kind of relationship so typical in couples together for any substantial length of time. Dysfunctional Daddies and their Surrogate Children, next on Sally Jessy Raphael.
God, Saul would love thata crying jag on daytime TV. Suddenly, Danny sees Kate staring at her. Her eyes possess the strange, glassy look that they get before one of her attacks.
"II'm serious, Danny. I didn't want to hurt you like that."
Oh shit, I almost believe you. Just go. Go away. "Fine, Kate. It's fine. I'm fine." Which is a stupid thing to say when tears are streaming down your face.
"You're not fine, stop pretending you are." Despite the declarative sternness, Kate's voice is still soft, almost pleading.
"Fuck you. What do you care?"
For most individuals, fuck you no longer possesses the same shocking power it once did. In fact, Danny says it on a regular basis to everyone, including bad drivers, tourists, construction workers, her mother, and Bart and Saul (especially Bart, with the sneer to launch a thousand fuck-yous). But Kate, of course, was different, had to be different, with her sheltered and strange childhood and her isolated existence at her tiny college. For Kate, the words are just as wounding as a slap across the face. Watching the wounded look (and hating herself for causing it) on Kate's face, Danny wonders if anyone has ever said "fuck you" to this woman. Well, she has lived in New York for almost a year now, Danny thinks. Clearing her throat instead of apologizing, Danny continues. "Speaking of pretending, why don't you tell me what you're pretending at?"
"I want a normal life."
"You can be normal"Danny drops in a sneering emphasis on the word"without marrying a jackass."
Kate takes a breath; the very act seems, to Danny, somehow suffused with condescension. "I made the decision to marry James."
"Do you think he...loves you or something? Someone like him?" Danny catches a breath, attempts to change her point of attack from mindlessly, jealously hostile to skeptically open-minded. "I want to understand this, Kate. I do."
"He's not as horrible as you perceive him to be. James wants to do good, he wants to represent this state. And I want to help him. I think I can."
"How? By being a trophy wife? Going to charity events? What?" Danny sits the glass on the desk and stands. "I thought you said you took marriage seriously."
"I do. It's something sacred. I" Kate frowns beautifully, there is nothing so utterly heartbreaking and lovable as the struggle visible on her face, as she fights to articulate those things she's not used to saying. "Marriage is not a culmination of sex and romancefor me. It's like a partnership, where you help each other. Itit has to be based in a practicalityshared interests and philosophies and ideas. It must possess a firm foundation." She purses her lips and looks down. God, did she recite that out of some Christian Sex Manual or something? wonders Danny. "There's nothing solid about us, Danny. It was based on sex, on curiosity, on a whimwe have nothing in common."
"I guess you still don't like to fuck him, then." The word flames on her tongue again, and she relishes both the burn and Kate's wince. "I guess if he doesn't want to do you either, that's one more wonderful thing you have in common."
"Put aside lust for five minuteswhat do we have in common?" Kate repeats angrily. "Nothing! You grew up here, you had new clothes every season, you went to Europe every summer, you went to an Ivy League school because it was expected of youyou didn't have to worry about tuition or even getting in. If you're lucky, you may never have to work or worry about money for the rest of your life."
"Are you going to give me the poor little girl speech again?" Even as she says it, Danny realizes how contemptuous she soundsthe quintessential spoiled bratbut doesn't care. Just like my mother. She buries alive the horrifying thought.
"Yes, because you're so stupid and selfish you think it means nothing!" Kate shouts. They both tense, awaiting a refereeeither Nell or Danny's motherto crash into the room, or for Kate to suddenly pass into a narcoleptic stupor.
Then she notices that Kate's nostrils are flaring. It's terribly erotic.
Even more exciting is Kate jumping up from the chair and pacing, literally throwing up her hands in an appeal to her higher power for an epiphany for Danny.
"I'm sorry," Danny mumbles.
Kate ignores her as she leans against the door. The quiet is rendered more awkward by the apologetic squeaks from the desk chair as Danny squirms.
"The silent treatment, huh? I guess I deserve it."
Kate is silent for almost a minute longer, and stares out the window as if the fire escape is actually interesting. Then she regards Danny. "When I was 16 I had a growth spurt: half a foot, Danny. I went from being five foot six to six feet tall. At first I had to wear my father's overalls. But by winter that year I was even taller than he was, by three whole inches. All his pants were short on me. So my mother took some scraps from her sewing kit and hemmed them to the bottom, to make them longer." She smiles ruefully. "These ugly little patches of fabric. All this because my parents couldn't afford to buy me new pants. Even the trailer trash made fun of me."
Danny says nothing at first, letting the story fill the void between them. "You never told me that before."
Kate sits down, this time in a hard wooden chair near the door. "Did you think I told you everything?" Her voice retains a remnant of anger, as ugly as the jeans she wore that year, as bitter as the memory it inscribed.
No, but your face did. I saw your wonderseeing the Chrysler Building in the distance, as we walked up Avenue A one night. That same look of wonder, again, when I told you I thought of you as a friend. And again, much later, when I kissed your hand and felt your fingers uncurl. I thought you were letting go of so much in that gesture alone, sloughing off your masks. But you weren't, were you?
"No," she finally says. Danny stands, and the weakness she feels, she knows, is no longer because of any alcohol, but of Kate's presence. "It just felt like you did." She reaches down, her fingertips barely brushing against Kate's, which are interlaced tightly in a ball, like some strange Oriental puzzle. She pauses at the doorway. "I suppose James understands you better?"
James, with his money, his right-wing politics, and his hair carefully styled in a manner to suggest his carefree, rugged nature, came from a family nearly as well off as Danny's. He exudes youth, but something in himnamely, his craven quest for poweris positively ancient. Danny still hopes that some morning he will wake up like Dorian Gray's portraitwith the runes of his solipsism and amorality etched deeply into his face.
"Yes, he does. He shares my beliefs."
Yes, there was Jamesa mere mortal of an obstacle. But then there was the whole God thing. Much trickier.
Danny blames the tiny North Dakota town where Kate was raised, where there was nothing to do but pray. There, among the backdrop of the stark prairie (and Kate had confirmed this, showing her a picture of the desolate, mean town) there was nothing but spacea vacuum in which to lose your mind and your confidence. There was so much land and sky it was no wonder people went crazy out therein Danny's mind it wasn't far from the tornadoes and the twisters to penance and speaking in tongues and rushed litanies while kneeling on dirty chipped linoleum. What else could you do when confronted with a force of nature that could literally rip your life apart? What indeed, she wonders, staring at Kate, watching carefully as her lips shift silently, her eyes closed. Prayer or anxiety? The narcolepsy made her anxious, always.
Last and possibly least in the Trinity of Obstacles (as Saul called them): the narcolepsy.
It happened usually when she would get angry or upsettoo emotional or violent. Kate had told her a story about something that happened just after James brought her to New York. Aloneshe had eluded the handler that James had assigned for her protectionKate walked through Central Park near dusk and was accosted by a small group of teenage boys. One of them had grabbed at her, and in her rage at being touched she drew back her arm to hit himbut before she could do so, she was stolen into sleep.
She woke up hours later, in darkness, purse gone, pockets emptied, barefoot. A homeless woman was sitting on a park bench, watching her. She stood up, brushing dirt off her clothes, her eyes meeting those of the old woman. There but for the grace of God...?
As she started to walk away she realized that the old woman was wearing her shoes. But she kept walking.
Kate always seemed rueful about this disease, this condition that short-circuited her emotionsher anger, her rage, her sadnesslike some sort of natural Prozac, forcing her to keep those things tamped down. She thought it a joke, her life, as if some vast irony were being played out, a private joke between her and her God. I have so much of thosekinds of feelings, she told Danny once, her head hanging down, ashamed, always ashamed, of the things she could not control.
A sheaf of dark hair obscures Kate's face. The desire to touch it, to tuck it behind an ear, is achingly persistent for Danny. Instead, she puts her hand on the doorknob. "I wish that...you believed in my love." She manages to stumble through the words, then the doorway.
Danny's departure creates a gust of wind from the swinging door. Only then does Kate allow her hands to unfurl. They shake. She awaits sleep, butto her astonishmentshe remains awake.
She had trembled so much in Danny's embrace the first time they kissed that she expected an attack. It was the first time in her life she wished for one, to be saved from committing this act that she wanted. Her lips were dry, her breath staggering through her mouth.
Danny had kissed her cheek, chin, eyelids, brows, forehead, anointing her with passion, knowing what Kate was thinking. Don't fall asleep, she whispered. Then her words came out in a rush: Let me show my kind of love, let me touch you, let me.
She allowed her clothes to be pulled off. It all seemed a blur, even as her pants were removed, and then suddenly Danny kissed the back of her left knee, her lips filling each dimple. In its unexpectedness, it was stunningly erotic and tender, a simple act that surpassed her experiences of both.
Don't fall asleep.
Her touch was gentle, and her mouth seemed to be everywhere. The arousal it elicited almost unendurable. The strangest penance. She was tense, passive, rigid, waiting for damnation or death or just for the plug to be pulled on her consciousness, but instead felt a sudden gush, a wetness between her legs as Danny lay against her. She gasped. I think I peed myself, she muttered, embarrassed. Danny only laughed, and continued pushing against her thigh. No, you didn't.
Kate saw, in her eyes that look of wild hope, of faith, similar to her mother in prayer. Fucking was her religion and her absolution.
When at last it happened and she came, she cried afterward, and hard, not because it was so good and intense and wonderful and beautiful, not because it was so emotionally draining, but because she knew that she could never go back to the person she was. The slickness between her thighs, the devouring tenderness of Danny's kisses before, during, and after, this particular smell of sexfull and surprisingly richit had changed her.
There is no rushing down the hallway; there are too many people. Danny slides and feints around the stationary little groups, like a running back playing against the world's most apathetic football team (many of who appear to be drinking cosmopolitans). The front door is her goal post. Suddenly nothing means so much to her as reaching that door and getting out. I don't need money right this moment, I can wait a day, or two, or three
She keeps moving. The monotonous buzz of the party has chipped away the identity of whoever calls for her. It's not Kate, even if it is I don't care anymore. I have to get out
"Danny." The voice is closer now, and definitely familiar.
Within six feet of the door, Danny stops and turns around.
It's her mother, tense and still, hand raised in an attempt to placate, a faux benediction, the stylized gesture probably copied off some religious painting she saw at the Met.
Kate is trailing behind her. Funny, but the crowd parts for her like the Red Sea. People watch her, wondering what she and their hostess have to do with the scruffy girl who is finally leaving.
Does her mother look complicit somehow, striving for indifference, for immunity to responsibility? Like Pilate? Shit, now everything is some big religious metaphor. I can't get away from it. "I stopped by like you said." Did you plan this? Did you think it wouldn't hurt me? Or did you think it would?
"I didn't think you'd come this evening, dear."
"Hey, it's okay." The fake brightness of her voice sounds harsh even to her own ears. She looks at Kate. "I thought maybe while I was here I would offer my congratulations to the bride."
It's Kate now who looks paralyzed by fearby fear of her, as if she knows precisely what Danny is going to do. They may have nothing in common, but what does exist between them, whatever it may be, is as finely, exquisitely tuned as a watch.
Whiplash fast, Danny cups the back of Kate's neck and pulls her face down. Their lips are barely apart. She hears her mother gasp, knows instinctively that she fears a scenemore specifically, a deep wet kiss. The temptation to deliver that self-fulfilling prophecy is strong. She remembers the kiss at Bastille Day, Kate pulling away from her slowly, a silvery thread of spit glowing and holding them together.
We have nothing in common.
Instead she merely brushes her lips against Kate's with a slight sway of her head.
Leaving is like a dream, easy and tinged with a faint sense of disbelief in her own powers. It's not until she's out there that she thinks that was your Judas kiss. A fitting line for a kiss-off. But like many such lines, it comes too late. Perhaps, she thinks, it's an unconscious mercy, for both Kate and herself. She stands balanced on the step, looking down for the abyss but seeing none. The breeze sifts her hair as she waits, poised for freefall.
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