A female fox
A sexually attractive woman
A quarrelsome, angry woman
-MIRIAM WEBSTER DICTIONARY
Moving into the Parkside Residence for Women during my second year of law school made me the butt of many jokes. The woefully handsome and increasingly detached guy I was seeing then, said he expected a copy of the coveted key to Gramercy Park that was offered to residents. Over dinner, he teased that I’d need a straight jacket for my pending “lock down,” while stroking my bare calf with his hand under the table. (Apparently aroused by “institutionalized” me). It was no joke, My mother had never married or partnered; with my current love life unstable, I feared I could become a “Parkside woman” for life.
In truth, Parkside’s facility was pleasant enough despite being run by the Salvation Army. The tan bricked building sat on a quiet, scenic corner of Gramercy Park South with its orderly mansions and the trimmed shrubs and trees of the private park across the street. For $900 a month, I got two hot meals a day in a full service cafeteria and a sliver of a room with a sink and a shared bathroom. In the lobby, a stooped guard sat at a desk by the door; a long frayed line of silver packing tape on the wood floor was the barbed wire men were not allowed to cross. Guys I dated over the two years I lived there, with some variety, delighted in dancing a toe over the tape when the guard was distracted. I was such forbidden fodder! The stakes were high for trespass; residents caught upstairs with a man would be evicted promptly. On cold winter nights, my dates were less enthused about the lobby’s waiting room to the right of the security desk. What indignity to sit amongst candles, doilies and God affirming signs with other expectant men. Total immasculation! The congregants were always oddly still and quiet as they waited. I imagine them seated–hand clasped together on their laps. (Notably these men would shed all reserve at night inside the shadows of the Gramercy Park, which became a croaking communal bedroom at night. Loud as fuck!). How I recall the blush of running downstairs to greet some guy, while a ring of other male eyes lifted at my voice–inevitably judging my merits. (One fun recollection: the place was run by a Major Cox and sometime during my last year there, he chanced to be replaced by a Major Kuntz (pronounced the way that made this worthy of revisiting at parties/group outings)).
Friends who visited me at Parkside encouraged me to write a novel set there. As a tremulous law student whose head tucked into my chest every time a professor inflicted the Socratic method on me, I had no time for creative writing. I was the only law student at the time, the other women were an abject mix of older women and young, aspiring models and actresses-some of them perplexingly beautiful, some of them less. The beautiful ones were the most sullen. My neighbor my first year, Erin was a model with a black pixie cut and a pearl of a face (though she seemed around my height so I worried for her success). She could often be heard on the lobby payphone whining along the lines of “I was not the “next thing” or the “it” girl, I was beyond, stratospheres beyond and now where the fuck am I?” She looked older than the other models—in her early twenties like me. She seemed to snarl at me as we passed the narrow hallway, her dark blue eyes clouded by Kohl. Though, occasionally she bound me in small talk as we waited for the elevator. When I told her, I was a law student, she nodded and said “I heard that….cool.” There was no indication she was being sarcastic, which surprised me. “I’m thinking of doing that.”
I sized her up, in disbelief for why would anyone who had a world of other choices, settle on the law?
Once in the elevator, she pulled a cigarette out of a drape of her cape-like top and lit it. “Lawyers are my favorite people. They just give it to you straight.”
I considered this, again amused. It seemed the Freaky Friday reversal of the popular conception of lawyers. I nodded, smiled politely and scurried away, relieved. I liked our two worlds in separate circles, rarely intersecting. Though I did love fashion back then. my limited coffers meant I had to save for months to buy a pair of form fitting $90 light gray pleather pants from the Antique Boutique that flared flamenco-style at the base of one leg only. (When I wore these to law school, strangers I did not know would introduce themselves after lecture classes, confused). Most days at school, I wore morose gray sweatpants that would almost be acceptable now, the kind with the elastic ankles, but back then, they caused a homeless man on the street to follow me and yell “get some real pants!”
Eagerly escaping Parkside and law school, I found myself at the beautiful man’s elegant brownstone he rented with his roommates. He carried himself like someone born lucky—bringing me a post-coital glass of water like he was handing me a golden chalice, walking naked in his backyard to turn off the outdoor lights, feeding me pre-prepared Balducci’s food as if he had slaved weeks over his meal. But all I cared about was that he read to me in bed, strident poetry from beaten volumes and things I brought him like the Stories of Raymond Carver that weren’t so sexy (our favorite one about a man with fat fingers) but gave me such hope. I was young.
The contrast between my Parkside life and my time with him was maddening. In my most downtrodden moments, like the summer I lived without an air conditioner during a heat wave (forcing me to bring my pillow to the cool, dark cafeteria and sleep with my head on a long table), I’d remind myself over and over, my days there were finite. The cafeteria was not normally a place of solace. I disliked meal time at Parkside as I was relegated an outsider–models at one table, actresses at another and then the undefined, pinballing from one spot to another searching for a friendly face. I never found my people at Parkside. There was Grace, the very Christian Korean girl with a violent acne all over her face and a helium inhaled voice so rattling, I sometimes snuck my food upstairs to avoid sitting with her. Other times, the teenage Brazilian girl I shared my bathroom with, a model of course, waved me over if she could not find better. We mostly ate in silence with punctuated spurts of Q and A’s. I sometimes thought of the Mohican Sun casino commercial I’d seen her in on the second floor communal lounge t.v.; she’d looked so effortlessly happy in a strapless Grecian gown and a sunset behind her, compared to her present gloom.
There was one table that all of us younger residents knew to avoid and avoidance was key to accepting our residence at Parkside without falling into a sorry stupor. That was the table where May and her friends sat by the front windows that faced the sidewalk. In my memories, these older ladies sat in the cafeteria lit like a Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec cafe scene—their green faces in fixed merriment. May was in her sixties, with a brittle, black bob that to this day haunts me and prevents me from dying my hair plain black. She had been at Parkside for over fifteen years, What we knew is she had the small, pulled back eyes and fish lips of someone who’d had plastic surgery. She mostly scowled at the young residents. I’d heard she was an extra on All My Children, who knows how long ago. Rumor had it she had burned another resident’s face in the basement with a ordinary iron. She usually sat at a table with Ellen, a woman who was inexplicably, winter or summer, bare legged in a flouncy tennis skirt, (To her credit, she was in great shape). Every morning, when I went down for breakfast, I’d hear her cooing in an undoubtedly exaggerated Southern accent, to the line of male cafeteria workers who loved to flirt with us—neglecting no one. She was extra loud in her greetings causing me raise my head out of a book or what not and the flavor of what she’d say would be along the lines of “Honey, give me extra ham today. Spare me nothing. I have something next to a hankering for some bacon too but my waist don’t bind itself does it? No, good Lord.”
Looking back now, I see how I judged these women unkindly. I felt a terror that I would die alone, low income and forgotten, in this sunken ship. I did my best to avoid much interaction with them as if their condition was contagious. But, one afternoon, I sat with my head in my dreaded Contracts text book, feeling sorry for myself for having to suffer law school–the competitive single mindedness of my classmates and the pointless memorization of laws as education. I mostly fretted that law school was innately contrary to my entire reserved, meek being. Under this mindset, I looked up a to see May at the adjoining table, staring at me intently. I nodded, lips pressed together in a smile and hoping it would satisfy her. Instead, she picked up her tray and stood behind me. “Mind if i warm that seat?” Her voice was strained like a smoker.
Trapped, I consented and she went back to her table to retrieve a wealth of shopping bags and park them under our table. Seconds after settling into her seat “How’s the boy I’ve seen you with. the incredibly tall one?”
“He’s good,” I said. Puzzled that she’d noticed me and that she’d ever seen him, because he rarely came my way, making me come to his place. I thought of him now, so tall a friend had named him the “Lurch.” I thought of his high cheekbones and way of looking at me intently–a sweep of dark hair covering half his face; his admiration for me, a girl who’d not believed she was attractive until college, a victory. We’d enjoyed a long drawn-out mutual crush at my mid western college and years later we were merrily but inconsistently fucking each other in downtown New York City.
“That bad?,” she said, resting a hand on my shoulder. “You look spent.” Her breath surprisingly fresh like the free Christmas mints at the front desk.
I turned and stared at her, disturbed. How May had discerned the bumps in my love life was beyond me. I had a generally cheerful countenance. But she wasn’t wrong. This beautiful man I’d liked for so long, increasingly called me to come over unappealingly drunk. Through slurred words, his friends gathered for dinner on his outdoor patio, he’d say things like “Christie and this one overlap,” nodding in my direction. (Christie being an ex-girlfriend of his).
To my horror, May put her palm on top of my head and pat me-full chien mode. And to my further horror, on open display, I looked at her round, old face and started sobbing quietly. I had no napkin so the back of my hand sufficed. She had the grace to let me cry a minute and say no more. I always remembered that.
Occasionally, my interactions with other long time residents of Parkside, enforced my fears. One middle aged resident with choppy orange hair, a tank of a wheelchair she often seemed unable to navigate and a stroke victim’s droopy face and I found ourselves in the elevator headed down. When we reached the lobby, she could not move her wide wheelchair out the door. I bent down to try to prod her wheels, which must have alarmed her and caused her to yell in alarming high pitched, staggered manner and rock her torso jerkily back and forth. Standing away from her and telling her she’d be okay did little to quiet her so I returned to wiggling her wheels, noting to myself that this scenario was my Huis Clos. When the laissez-faire guard finally got his act together to help me maneuver the wheelchair through, I wiggled free late for a final exam–winded and shaken. I had at least escaped.
One night, the Lurch called me late at night as I sat miserably assessing the squalor of my dusty room–his voice strangely professional. I hadn’t spoken to him in a week or so and I’d acknowledged to myself that our dalliance was over. He asked me what job I decided to take for the upcoming summer and I told him. He may have been drinking. Then he hung up. I knew we’d never speak again.
I went out into the hall in my pajamas to throw away my small plastic bin that was overflowing. After dumping the contents into the communal trash near the elevator, I noticed four large brown paper bags filled with clothing, neatly folded. I stopped and bent down to poke around. Alexander McQueen leather pants with a label still on, Comme des Garçons shirts, a Chanel blouse, my size! A treasure trove under my nose. I carried those bags to my room, so buoyant, I forgot to shut my door.
The act of unloading these bags was one of these vivid moments of joy that I will always remember. I lifted each item out, felt their details against my cheek, breathlessly unfolded them. Overwhelmed by the magnitude of this gift, each garment in perfect condition I lost my head. Did I throw said garments into the air, one after the other and do a little side jig? (no jig, just throwing the clothes upwards). Did I close my eyes under a rain of runway clothing i could never afford as they fell on me? Did holding these things make me feel protected, included and valuable? Yes. Did i hear footsteps and see the shadowy figure watching me celebrate my bounty? Not until she cleared her throat. The model. The one who aspired to lawyerdom. Arms crossed. Studying me for who knows how long.
“Those are mine,” she said, boldly shoving my door fully open and staring, with open disdain at my rampage.
I looked at her, confused. May have squinted like she was a mirage.
“Yeah. I was going to donate them but seeing your reaction to them, i’ll take them back.” She stepped inside and brushed past me as I searched for my next words, no doubt shellshocked.
I watched her bend to her knees and carefully fold each item with great fanfare, running one palm down each folded item, never meeting my eyes. Once all four bags were filled high, she rose, then looked at me and said “but here, you can have this.” She bent down to one bag and handed me a suede Ralph Lauren shirt with a gaggle of fringes in places, a silly Western number. The only worn looking item in her collection.
The pity in her eyes.
Before I could respond, holding the folded shirt as she’d left it in my hands–a supplicant grateful for the gift of a deity, the model had gone, slamming the door behind her. I had nothing, again.
Vixen, three.. Stay tuned for Vixen four. P.s. this was a fictionalized version of my experience— I never even spoke to May for example and most names are hazy, made up concoctions!)
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