Excerpts for Manhattan Nocturne : A Novel
By Colin Harrison
Copyright © 1996
All right reserved.
The minutes passed with a strange luxury to them. We said nothing. Caroline rolled three cigarettes, laid two of them on the glass coffee table, and sat back to smoke the third. I took myself into her kitchen for a little ice and felt suddenly aware of the white starkness of the counters and cabinets and appliances. I did not necessarily expect to see a picture of her dead husband, but there was nothing there, no phone numbers of family or friends on the refrigerator, no pencils in a jar or mail in a pile or battered cookbooks or seashells from last summer. When I returned to the living room, only then did I realize that the entire apartment was sterile. Like a hotel suite, though in much better taste, it had no character, no essence of its inhabitant. When people have lived in the city a long time, their dwellings become encrusted with their personal history; this is true not only of the poor but also of the rich, maybe even particularly of the rich, who tend to be interested in documenting their own accomplishments. I have been in many wealthy homes as a reporter; if the living rooms betray nothing but good taste and a disdain for clutter, then by compensation there is a green-trimmed den with a trophy from a club golf championship or pictures of the children on the sand in Nantucket or framed professional degrees or a photo of the occupant shaking hands with Bobby Kennedy thirty years ago. But Caroline's apartment revealed no such personality, only expensive surfaces. It occurred to me that the absence of historical detail was not because she had no history but because she had no history that she wanted to display.
"You're not from the city," I said when I returned.
She looked up at me, lost in her own thoughts. "No."
There was, in her absentminded confirmation, a revelation for me. I suppose it could be called intuition, or a lucky guess, but then again I have been banging around New York City for twenty years now, long enough to come to understand a few things, and in the case of Caroline Crowley, what I suddenly knew was that she had worked very hard for what she possessed, or rather, that what she possessed had cost her a great deal--and not just a husband. I have often thought that the most determined people in New York City are not young lawyers trying to make partner or Wall Street traders or young black men who might have the stuff to be pro basketball players or executives' wives competing viciously on the charity circuit. Nor are they the immigrants who arrive from desperate places--the Bangladeshi taxi driver working one hundred hours a week, the Chinese woman working in a sweatshop--such people are heroic in their grim endurance, but I think of them as survivalists. No, I would say that the most determined people are the young women who arrive in the city from America and around the world to sell, in one way or another, their bodies: the models and strippers and actresses and dancers who know that time is running against them, that they are temporarily credentialed by youth. I have lingered at night in the dark back rooms of the city's two or three best strip clubs--the rooms where in order to be caressed by young women, men buy bottle upon bottle of $300 champagne as if they are putting quarters into a parking meter--and I have talked with the women there and been astounded at the sums of money they intend to earn--$50,000, $100,000, $250,000 by such and such a time. They know precisely how long they will need to work, what their operating expenses are, and so on. They know what kind of physical condition they must be in and how to maintain it. (Consider, for instance, the stamina necessary to dance for one man after another, sexily, in heels, in a smoky club for eight hours straight, five days a week.) Like fashion models, they live in little apartments where no one remembers the name on the lease, the rooms being passed along like links in a chain as each woman makes her money and then moves back to Seattle or Montreal or Moscow. Likewise, the sufferings of fashion models, which are well known. Jazz and ballet dancers don't have it any better. (Once, visiting an orthopedist for a knee injury, I saw a lovely woman of about twenty-five hobble into the room on crutches. She was in tremendous pain and was waved into the doctor's office. The nurse accidentally left the reception-area door open, and I was just able to hear the woman's desperate request: "Please give me the shot." An indistinct male voice responded. "Please," the woman wept, "I have to dance tonight.") Caroline Crowley was not a stripper or a model or an actress, not so far as I knew, but I could only guess that she had once brought the same sense of purpose with her when she came to New York, that she had arrived in the city to have a dialogue with fate, and that she knew, as any genuinely beautiful woman knows, that the terms of the conversation would include her face and teeth and breasts and legs.
With these thoughts I drained off my drink and then indulged another. That made five or perhaps six or maybe even seven. I have been drunk many times in my life and enjoyed most of those times, but never has drunkenness revealed in me some hidden streak of self-destruction; I do not drive while drunk, I do not leap from windows or pick fights in bars. While drunk, I am incapable of the fatal gesture. This does not mean that I don't make mistakes, only that my most disastrous errors in judgment occur when I am not drunk, when, presumably, I am lucid. So, in that moment, when Caroline Crowley, the lonely, beautiful widow, stood before me, clutching her record of the violent destruction of her husband and seeming for all the world ready to be embraced and kissed and plunged into voluptuous copulation--the image of the homeless couple fucking feverishly outside in the cold returned to me--in that moment, I chose to remember my own sleeping wife, with her arm thrown across my empty pillow, and this gave me the further will to stand, quite unsteadily, and say, "I'm sorry your husband was killed or died or whatever happened to him, Caroline. I imagine it was a terrible shock, and it seems to me that you're still haunted by it. I know we've been joking around all evening, but let me say . . . let me just say that if it's possible to suddenly have a certain affection for someone in only one evening, only a few hours, then I feel that way toward you, Caroline, and I am saddened to think what it must have been like to lose your husband. Every week, just about, I talk to people who've just lost someone they love, and it always saddens me, Caroline, it always--it always reminds me that we, all of us, are--that it all--can be lost. You are beautiful and about twenty-eight years old and should have all good things come to you. If I were not married, I would--no, I will avoid--maybe better to . . . say that perhaps you sought me out tonight because you figured that, hack tabloid columnist that I am, that I've seen an unnatural amount of human destruction and might therefore offer you some useful words of solace or perspective. But I assure you"--and here I desired to touch her cheek with my fingers, just for a moment, by way of comfort, as I would comfort my own daughter--"that I'm unequal to the task. I'm as mystified and terrified by death as the next person, Caroline. I can't really say anything useful . . . in such--such a disabled state . . . except that I suggest that you embrace life, that you venture forth and marry your fiance, if he's a good guy, and have faith that some losses are recoverable, that life has, finally--excuse me, please, I am very drunk--that life actually has . . . has some kind of meaning."
She said nothing, and instead watched me with her lips pressed in amusement, and I wish now that I had understood it to be quite an unfunny sort of amusement. She saw me struggling against myself. I stood and moved toward the door, watching my shoes to make sure they went where I expected them to go. She followed me and silently helped me with my coat, then hung my scarf about my neck. She was spectacularly beautiful.
"Oh, Caroline Crowley . . ." I lurched sideways accidentally.
"All men are dogs, and I am one."
She smiled this away. Then she reached up with one hand, held my cheek with her warm fingers, and kissed my other cheek, slowly, with a breath. "I'm going to call you," she whispered. Then she kissed me again. "Okay?"
"Okay," I murmured, feeling that she had outsmarted me.
"Are you all right?"
"I am . . . I am mystified, Caroline. I'm just--" My lips had that buzzy drunken feeling about them, and I fell against the door frame. I was now suddenly so drunk that I'd have to get a cab home and retrieve my car later. I felt like a fool. "But then again," I slurred, "that may be your intention."
Twenty minutes later, my cab pulled up outside my brick wall downtown. I always get my keys out before opening the door, because once the cab pulls away, the street is dark and anybody could walk up to you. Even drunk, I had that New York paranoia. Only after I shut the gate behind me, pulling against the weight of it and turning the dead bolt, did I relax. The city, for now, remained on the other side of the wall. But gate or no, Caroline Crowley and the history of her doomed husband had now entered my life.
Excerpted from Manhattan Nocturne by Colin Harrison. Copyright (c) 1996 by Colin Harrison. Excerpted by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Manhattan Nocturne
by Colin Harrison
Copyright © 1996 by Colin Harrison.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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