Authors: Pete Hamill
But there she was at the end of the last class, waiting for me in the lobby. She was wearing a navy pea jacket, dungarees, a wool cap pulled over her hair, and sneakers. She looked much younger.
There’s a coffee shop over on Lexington, she said.
It had begun to snow. Big white flakes fell into Twenty-third Street, turning briefly black against the streetlamps, before melting on the roofs of cars.
she shouted, in an almost girlish voice. I
We sat in a window booth, facing each other and watching the snow falling steadily. She ordered an English muffin and black coffee; so did I (as in so many other things, I followed the lead of those who seemed to know what they were doing). Laura told me that she’d come to New York to be a dancer (and I wondered, When? Before the war?). But dancing hadn’t worked out. She married a photographer who took pictures of radios and refrigerators for catalogs; that didn’t work out either. But before it ended, the photographer introduced her to some painters, and after a while she started painting too.
The trouble is, there’s maybe twenty thousand painters in New York now, she said. Maybe more. That GI Bill, that made everybody think they could be painters. So it’s hard to make a living. That’s why I model. To make ends meet.
She smiled in a matter-of-fact way and sipped her coffee and lit another cigarette. I could see her nipples in my mind and her pubic hair and the thickness of her hips.
How do you feel, I said, with everyone looking at you up there?
Most of the time, I don’t feel anything. I think about the painting I’m working on. Or the book I’m reading. Or the landlord. Or the laundry.
She took a deep drag and then smiled, glancing at the snow.
But to tell the truth, Laura said, sometimes I get hot. I can feel all those eyes on me and I know some of the men must want to fuck me. Maybe some of the women too. And what happens is, I start thinking like them, some kind of transference, I
them, I’m them fucking me, kissing me, pressing against me, licking me; and I get hot. And then I’m afraid I’ll turn a certain way and you’ll see that I’m wet. Do you have a hard-on now?
Let’s go to my place.
Laura had a two-room apartment on Tenth Street, three buildings away from the Third Avenue El. The shades were drawn but I could hear the train rumble through the snowy night. One room was a kitchen with a table and two chairs beside a window that opened into an air shaft. The other room was studio and bedroom, cramped and messy. There were books packed on shelves, lying on the paint-spattered linoleum floor, used to hold open a door. There was a record player, a radio, stacks of records; a toolbox full of brushes and tubes of paint; a huge wooden easel; a long table covered with tomato cans full of paint, linseed oil, turpentine, and other cans holding big fat brushes; and dozens of canvases covered with shimmering abstract paintings, most of them in great splashy variations of a single color: blue.
My Billie Holiday paintings, she said. Want a drink?
She poured an inch of Canadian Club into each of two water glasses. I felt unreal, as if I’d walked into a novel.
Okay, Laura said, now it’s my turn.
She sipped her drink and said, Take off your clothes.
You’ve been drawing me, she said. Now I draw you.
I’m sure I must have blushed. I took a sip of the whiskey, which burned into my stomach, and then put the glass on a table. I took off my shirt and undershirt, then my boots and socks and trousers. The paint-spattered floor felt pebbly. So did my skin in the chilly room.
Everything, she said.
So I slipped off my shorts and tossed them onto a chair, trying to look casual. In the chill, I was sure my cock had shrunk to its tiniest size. I was afraid to look. She was placing a newsprint pad on the easel, an amused look on her face.
Now what? I said.
Just like Hogarth’s class, she said. Quick poses.
I tried to remember what she did, bending, twisting, holding the pose. All I could hear was the chalk moving on paper, sheets being torn off the pad, ice clunking in her glass. Then she asked me to hold a longer pose, seated on a chair, right leg extended, left leg curled along the side of the chair. She brought me my drink; I sipped it and she took it away and put Billie Holiday on the record player. The recording was a worn version of “Strange Fruit.” I worked at holding the pose, knowing she was looking straight at me, sensing her presence but not seeing her. Then I remembered what she’d said in the coffee shop, how she’d imagine us thinking about fucking her. I tried to see myself on this chair, tried to
her, looking at my body, at my shoulders and belly and legs and cock, and then I could feel my cock getting hard. I tried to stop it then, shifting my imaginings, trying to will it away; but I only got harder.
And then Laura was there, on her knees, gripping my cock in a chalk-blackened hand. Then she took it in her mouth, gripping it more tightly, her hand moving slowly, as I held to the edge of the chair, looking at the slow movement of her head. She looked up at me, her eyes wide, her mouth stuffed with my cock, and I started to come. Violently. My whole body erupting as my pelvis thrust up off the chair. Laura held on as an involuntary roar rose from my throat and I went back again and over the chair to the floor.
And then Laura began to laugh in a crazy way.
Jesus Christ, she squealed. Jesus H. Christ, that was
I got up slowly, my back aching. Laura sat there, sitting on her ankles, still fully clothed.
How old are you anyway? she said.
Almost seventeen, I said.
Jesus H. Christ.
I stood up, trying to look casual, and she went to the bathroom. I looked at her drawings. They were scribbled and loose, made up of hundreds of small lines that built up form and volume; later, I’d see a similar style in the drawings of Giacometti. I was shivering and sipped my drink and was warm again. Then Laura was back, wearing a thin robe, carrying a hot washcloth that gave off steam.
First things first, young man, she said, and began to wash the charcoal off my cock. She dropped the cloth on a table, switched off a lamp, then another, and then she came to me from behind and rubbed her hand on my stomach and began kissing and sucking on my neck.
Okay, she whispered. Now we can fuck.
, I felt as if some enormous ice jam had broken. I was alive again after a long dead time. The feelings of failure, impotence, loneliness, ruin: all were washed away. Art school made me feel that I could do something that was valuable, special, part of me. Laura made my body tremble with sensuality, and that went into my drawings. Through the long days at the Navy Yard, I could handle any drudgery, full of the luxuries of the evening.
Then at a Saturday-night birthday party in the Neighborhood, I met a girl named Maureen Crowley. She was tall, thin, dark-haired, with a slouching walk and bright dark eyes. For a long time, I was in love with her in that diffuse, ambiguous, and obsessive way that can never be explained to strangers. Laura was from the world outside the Neighborhood; Maureen was part of it. I knew that Laura wasn’t part of some limitless future; I wanted to believe that Maureen was. She was the middle daughter in a respectable family that lived in a private home near where I had my room. Her father owned a grocery store and later ran a bar. It was clear from the beginning that he didn’t want his daughter to be going out with the likes of me: a high school dropout from Seventh Avenue, and perhaps worse, a son of Billy Hamill.
Much of this disapproval was surely about class. The Irish from Seventh Avenue were “shanty”: low, common, often violent and alcoholic. The Crowleys were “lace curtain”; the father worked for himself, wore a necktie to his job, had moved at least one step past the immigrant generation. When I first came calling at the house, I wore my best clothes. Or the clothes then considered the style on Seventh Avenue. The clothes of the hoodlum: pegged pants, shirts with wide Mr. B collars, wraparound jackets. I couldn’t afford a suit, or a tweed jacket; most of my spare money was going to tuition and art supplies. Gradually I adopted the chinos and plaid shirts favored by the Big Guys, but it was too late. With Maureen’s parents, first impressions were everything. To them, even art school was a negative; what sort of foolish dreamer went to art school?
But the very obstacles charged this new love story with an aching romanticism. I wanted to prove my worthiness; that meant I had to live a lie. I never told Maureen about Laura. I saw Maureen on Wednesday nights, when there were no classes at C&I, and on weekends. On the other weekday nights, I almost ran to Laura’s place.
Laura was amused by me, I suppose; I was a kind of earnest, untrained pet. I never found out whether she had other lovers; I knew almost nothing about the way she lived outside school and the studio on Tenth Street. At school, she seldom talked to me in the hallway; she would see me in the hallway and nod Yes or shake her head No and that would tell me all I needed to know for the night. If it was No, I’d be stabbed by jealousy; I’d try to see if she left alone or if she was sitting in the coffee shop with another student. Once, I waited in the shadows near her house, to see if she came home with someone else. That night, she never came home at all.
But if she nodded Yes, Laura always had something new for me. She’d tie me to the bed with cord or pieces of clothesline and lick my body until, as I did one memorable midnight, I ejaculated without being touched by anything but her tongue. She’d paint my cock with watercolors or have me apply lipstick to the lips of her vagina. She had me fuck her on tables and the floor and against the kitchen sink, sometimes while I wore only my work boots. Once she asked me to tie her to the easel and fuck her from behind. On several nights, she took me into a hot soapy bath, the walls perspiring, and sat on my cock until she came. Meanwhile, I couldn’t get much beyond Maureen’s breasts. And then one night, while I was frantically fucking Laura, she whispered to me:
What’s her name?
The girl you’re thinking about while you’re fucking me.
She had me. My erection started dying. I must have smiled in some dumb way, because she looked at me, her eyes squinting. I rolled over on my side, feeling as if I’d been unfaithful to Laura.
Hey, young man, she said. Hey, don’t feel bad.
She began playing with my cock, and when it was hard again she whispered: Call me by her name.
I turned to her, seeing the outline of her face in the light from the street. I ran my fingers on her nipples and drew close to her.
Maureen, I whispered.
Yes, Laura murmured.
Say my name. Come in me, baby.
Maureen, Maureen, Maureen.
She started twisting and heaving in a ferocious orgasm, pulling my hair, biting my neck and shoulders, jamming her heels into my thighs, digging her fingers into my ass.
Laura, Maureen, Laura, Maureen, Laura, Laura, Laura …
Then I exploded into her.
We lay there, very still, for a long while. The El rumbled by. She lit a cigarette and sipped from a drink.
You’d better go home now, she said.
I want to stay here tonight.
That would be a mistake, she said.
Please, I said. I want to sleep with you. I want to wake up with you.
You do that once, she whispered, and you’ll never come back.
She got up and switched on a small lamp. She pulled on a robe and started fixing me a whiskey and soda.
Why? You’ll see me in the cold light of day, that’s why. You’ll see I’m old enough to be your mother. You’ll want your nice little virgin from Brooklyn. That’s why.
I see you in Hogarth’s class, I said. With all those goddamned fluorescent lights!
That’s different, she said. I could be three lemons in a bowl.
Come on, Laura. I love you.
She turned on me, snarling.
For Chrissakes, don’t say that! Don’t ever say that to me again!
You don’t even know what the word means! You’ll find out, one of these days, and you won’t say it so easy. Love gets everything all screwed up. It’s one of those lies that ruin the world.
I thought, in a thrilled way:
Jesus, that’s like a line from a movie.
I said: Then what do you feel about me?
I’m fucking you, kid, she said bitterly. But I don’t have to love you to fuck you.
That was not a movie line. She drained her glass, then poured another, staring at the floor. Her face was clenched. I started getting dressed. I noticed a new canvas against the far wall, leaning against the windowsill. She had sketched in a naked young man. His heart was outside the skin of his chest. Everything was blue, even the heart.
For a few weeks, she signaled me No. Twice, she modeled in Hogarth’s class, and I pulsed with jealousy. I stayed at an easel to the side, but was jealous of those who could see between her legs. I had been
there. I didn’t want her to be imagining them imagining entering her. On the second night, at the end of the second week, I tried to loathe her. Her gray pubic hair. The small breasts. The ridged white flesh around her hips.
But I couldn’t make the loathing work. I kept drawing her the way I knew her, remembered her, wanted her to be: in writhing Hogarthian movements. Hogarth himself took notice.
Pretty sexy, fella, he said. Now try it the other way. Not a pinup. Make her ugly. Make her a hundred years old.
I don’t know if I can, I said.
Invent it, he said, walking away. Use your imagination.
I didn’t know if Laura heard him, but I tried. I made her a wrinkled crone. I made her toothless. I made her immensely fat. Nothing worked. I still wanted her. My last drawing was made up of hundreds of small scribbles, like one of her own drawings. When the bell rang, she walked past my easel and glanced at the drawing. I started to say something but she kept moving.