What color are my eyes?
April 2, 1987
The Club House Saloon as the name implies has a western flavor, a semi-stucco ceiling that is more slaps of plaster than real stucco. But it has a shingled roof edged over the bottles behind the bar and a small stage and large mirror around which the barmaids squeeze, an unnecessary bulge in an already bumpy world.
But it is this stage the draws me here, and keeps them drinking.
Unlike other go-go bars, the real business here comes at lunch time, not at night and there are tables against the wall that accommodate the workers and business men who come to get an eye full while filling their bellies mid-day.
Imitation Tiffany lamps hand over each times, and another over the bar, giving the whole place a multi-colored dimness typical of these sleazy bars. Two ceiling fans almost invisible in the dimness stir up the smoky air. The juke box, video games and pin ball machines are off to the side somewhat through two wide arches. This region is lighted by electric candle lights on the walls.
The stage is illuminated in soft pink by two lights to either side.
On the walls around the stage are the typical beer mirrors liquor companies generously give, and reflected in these, of course, is Peggy, who is no angle on the stage, but a grand and glittering she-devil cavorting with the men she thinks haven’t offended her too much.
I’ve been to this place a few times, but I can’t remember when or with whom, and certainly not when Peggy danced. None of it seems familiar, not the environment, the barmaid, only Peggy perpetually doing what she claims is not dancing, and she is right. What she does comes across as a parody of dance, a mimicking compete with half frozen motion, and hang gestures that are suggestive without being obscene, always stopping short of going to those places patron’s want them to go, and she gets taunted for it.
Last night or the night before that (they all run together these days) she said that she couldn’t hear most of what went on off stage, which was why she was always speaking so loudly.
This, of course, leaves me with even more questions – not an inquisition, just curiosity – is her primary mask one of innocence hiding experience or experience hiding innocence?
It is an important thing to know since each suggests a totally different personality.
She seems acutely aware of street talk language and falls into the lingo from time to time.
She mentions an ex-lover and his inability to strike out at her, claiming that he keeps trying to “push her buttons.”
She claims another man keeps “hitting on her.”
When she talks like this she comes off at a world savvy, even a manipulating trickster using innocence as bait or a cover.
I still don’t completely understand what she thinks she can gain by it.
Her trying to manipulate me makes no sense. I’m a baker, not Howard Hughes. I don’t have much money or power or position she can exploit.
It makes more sense the other way around, that behind this mask is a frightened, vulnerable child in the middle of an ugly, terrifying and violent world, needing a hard shell around her from being crushed, cuddling up to pictures of John Wayne and figurines of unicorns until another man, a kind man comes into her life.
Does she see that of me?
April 3, 1987
Too many things are happening at once.
The puzzle that is Peggy, however, seems to be unraveling a little as the nature of the woman emerges from out of the shadows.
She appears less manipulative than vulnerable, the more I learn about her.
As time goes on, and we see more of each other, she undoes some of the veil of mystery that surrounds her.
Last night, I finally learned the first name of her ex-lover, Robert, and discovered real good reasons for her reluctance to move into any kind of serious relationship after him.
She had only referred to him as a monstrous, dark figure who had caused havoc in her life, doing mean things to her in the name of love.
Robert apparently took her leaving him badly, and though it is not clear what kind of violence he inflicted on her, he clearly did something before and during their breakup, something that causes her fear even now.
She won’t say if he objected to her dancing or not or thought she had taken up with other men. But he appears to have been intensely jealous.
It is a strange game, love, and so misunderstood by the romantics of the world who see its uncontrolled aspect as something grand when it had all the elements of a disease.
The big mistake is to think of it as funny or that one sexual episode might provide a cure.
I don’t exactly have it bad yet. But I do have bouts of incoherent thought and I shy away from other people, and I’m hearing rumors that my boss may be contemplating the sale of the Willowbrook store, leaving me even more insure.
April 4, 1987
(from a letter)
I might as well throw logic out the window; I’m out of control here. Or at least, very nearly.
Most men I know like to pride themselves with the ability to think on their feet, to have a sense of control over every situation that they might get themselves in and thus have to get themselves out of again.
For me, it’s always been a matter of survival, having that voice in the back of my head whispering to the less objective part of me about what is currently going on in my life – a watcher, warning me about my falling into danger.
Well, that watcher is screaming at me now like it never has before in my life, warning me to beware.
And I don’t seem to be listening to the warning.
While my logical self still evaluates things I see and hear, I’m not always taking its advice where Peggy is concerned.
I keep gravitating towards one aspect of Peggy -- the innocent little girl in her who is looking for protection and that girl with unquestioning faith that somewhere in the mess there really are heroes like John Wayne and that fundamentally the world is a good place.
I ache with my whole soul to be John Wayne for her. But I’m not and the world is not a good place either.
Then there is the dancer, the alcoholic and the foul-language that hints of too many harsher experiences in her life, someone who is more than savvy and has done a lot already to survive in this foul pond.
I have watched her nod and smile as gross men launch gross sexual advances at her, and I am amazed at how hard her shell is.
Not that my motives are any better than those men’s are. Sexual attraction is sexual attraction. But I am also after something more. This woman loves things with a passion. She is opinionated, loud, threatening, physical, but tender, too, capable of loving things like the New York Giants, her cat, her car, even me. She loves passionate, and that is the most attractive part of her. To love and be loved with that level of passion is more addicting than any drug.
And it is driving me out of my freaking mine!
At first I feared she might be making plans for my life, that the woman behind those eyes of hers was sizing me up for some role like husband, and now I’m terrified that she isn’t, and find myself alternating between the two fears like one of the flickering electric candles, unable to figure out which I fear most.
My reasonable self picks out things she says, trying to place them in some logical continuity. But she is very sparse when it comes to providing information – probably because he was abused and refuses to reveal too much about herself until she knows what kind of man she is dealing with.
But damn it, she makes a game out of it, too, asking me with a laugh, why I need to know so much, telling me she is busy during the week, then scolding me for my asking for a date too many days in advance. I peeked at her calendar in which she normally writes important date, and old one underneath showing last December had every day filled. But these few months show only scatted bookings, and most of them are with me.
She keeps hinting that her birthday is coming – May 25, two weeks after mine, and a party she has arranged, telling me how she pitied the man she’ll be taking to that since all her relatives will be there.
When I ask her what man she intends to invite, she tells me she hasn’t made up her mind yet.
There are a thousand other little teasing games, half-truths that are like poison and honey to me.
My mind is always on her, puzzled, confused, attracted, afraid, curious – oh, always curious. I’m like a detective, wanting to know this and that, and she’s like an evasive suspect, cleverly flaunting evidence of a crime. I fall again and again into the same shy patterns of my youth, not only with her, but with everybody.
April 7, 1987
Things have a way of coming apart all at once.
I have been dating a single source of turbulence named Peggy, who has all the unfortunately characteristics of my past relationships with a number of additional twists.
Down deep, she is a beautiful person (are we all really?), while her surfaces rises and falls like an irregular tide, which hides much of her true self behind constant tricks and perpetual motion.
She is always busy with something, and with good reason. If she ever stopped
and thought too seriously about who she is and what she is doing, it would kill
But her motion is created by booze and cocaine. The coke keeps her charging head, and the booze slows her down when she needs rest.
All this creates an emotional turbulence and a sense of mistrust that scares the hell out of me. It also puts her into moods that can’t be trusted, inconsistent moods that will have her glad to see me one night and outraged at seeing me the next.
Last night was one of those “not welcome” times.
I could see it on her face when I walked in, that “what the hell are you doing here gain,” looks that made me want to retrace my steps back out the door.
“I tried to call you,” she said, obviously peeved that I wasn’t home to receive her call. I had finally lived up to my obligation to Pauly and delivered his pot, and stumbled into My Way Lounge on my way home, just on the off-chance she might be dancing.
She was peeved, but more than that, she was trying to balance mutual interests, trying to keep three of us on the line for drinks and talk, and a sense of self worth.
She was good at it, but as usual, it made me uncomfortable – not exactly jealous, but out of sync.
This was not a new feeling.
Since I am now dating Peggy, it seemed inappropriate for me to stare at the other dancer, when I couldn’t give a dam about the other dancer or her moves, and just wanted to talk with Peggy.
On the other hand, Peggy was here to work, which meant talking to other customers, yet kept coming back to me as if she felt she owed me something and was peeved at that fact, when in fact, she owed me nothing.
But the tension this created soon escalated into something bad, something I should have foreseen the moment I came in.
“Where’s your books tonight?” she asked me, then looked around the bar at the other men and said, “Do you know that Al does his homework here?”
Was she jealous of my notebooks?
Did she think I was using her for some other purpose, perhaps boosting my ego at her expense somehow?
My notebooks have caused trouble with other dancers in the past, women who did not like me writing when I should have been paying attention to them.
But this was the first time I sensed hostility in Peggy. As a matter of fact, I didn’t usually bring them when I knew Peggy was dancing, and only had them with me now because I had just come from Pauly’s place.
But this really wasn’t about the notebooks. It was about something else. This
was an intentional dig. Peggy knows how to stomp all over people’s
sensitivities when she has a mind to. Sometimes, I’m not sure she knows she’s
doing it, but this time she did.
So I went home, feeling hurt, and pissed at myself for allowing her to get at me. I had left myself open to attack and had no way to strike back.
I know a lot about her, but don’t trust myself to strike any of those weak points in her because the wounds would go deep and might even be fatal.
So I’m home wondering if I’m wasting my time. Maybe it is time to hit the road and look for love somewhere else.
I can’t play the games Peggy plays. It would leave a bad taste in my mouth.
April 8, 1987
So I’m sitting home on my bed thinking, “It’s all over,” and trying to sort out all out in my head.
What exactly did I do wrong in holding her, in wanting to mare sure everything was okay?
Maybe such sentiments are wasted on people like Peggy.
But the tiger I woke up with still scared me.
I was still thinking on this when the phone rang. It was Peggy.
“When are you picking me up?” she asked.
“Picking you up?” I asked, even more confused. “What are you talking about?”
“Today’s Thursday, stupid, we had a date.”
It was like being woken from one dream into another. I glanced around my apartment, at my typewriter, at the crumpled collection of paper beneath my desk, fain attempts at my writing about this woman. I wanted to say that I couldn’t make it, that I had made other place. But I couln’t get those words out.
“What did you have planned?” I asked instead.
“I was thinking about taking in a movie or something, you know, something where we don’t have to talk a lot.”
“Anything in particular?”
“We can decide that when you get over here. Hurry. The first show starts at 7:30.”
“Then you know which movie you want to…” I started to say, but she was already off the line.
I was going to call my close friend to talk to her about this, but she was out of state and my phone bill was already too high with the calls I’d already made. I would write to her later.
Meanwhile I had just enough available cash for a cheap date at the movies – and still afford gas for the week.
Tuesday’s disaster at the Club House had drained most of my resources and I knew I couldn’t keep going on like this. Yet it was not just the money. It was the feeling of impending doom, a dark cloud that seemed to hang over me every time I was around Peggy.
But what the hell, it’s just a movie.
Peggy is right, I figured, we wouldn’t have to talk much.
So I got dressed.
I pulled into the parking lot the way I had during my other visits, got out, looked up at Peggy’s window and the American flag on the fire escape. Her face showed briefly in the window, and then vanished.
She didn’t smile. She didn’t wave. All I saw as the face like a spirit wavering in and out of this reality.
With no way to communicate from that distance, I just shrugged and refolded the newspaper I had purchased and put it under my arm.
I stopped in the vestibule noticed that the junk mail from her mail box I had seen earlier now streamed over the floor. I kept going up the stairs. I could hear the music once more blasting from upstairs, loud three flights down. It was unbearable at her door. As I had other times, I knocked, knocking again, then turned the handle and went in.
She paced inside the apartment like tiger trapped in a cage, back and forth, back and forth.
“I’m unwinding,” she snarled.
Since I had seen this before in others I knew she was waiting for her chemical cure to take affect. I noticed the implements of destruction on top of her dresser: a straw, a razor and a mirror.
I turned away and sat on the wide window still to wait for the transformation, unable to remember which was the good character in the old book, Dr. Jeckel or Mr. Hyde.
The song ended. A sharp knock, came on the door.
Peggy stopped her pacing and stared at it, her painting brow rising as she looked at me.
Who could that be?” she asked, although it seemed more rhetorical than a question of me.
“Maybe you should answer it and find out,” I said.
She nodded, opened the door only half way, keeping the door between me and whoever the visitor was.
“Are you busy?” the male voice asked.
Peggy glanced at me.
“Yes,” she said. “I have company. You’ll have to come back later, all right?”
Then, she closed the door and went to put on another record.
I stare out the window at the scene below, at Lodi and the other towns which has spawned most of my family and as I later learned, most of hers, too, a small world despite its stretching out to the horizon and the jagged teeth of the New York skyline, blocks where immigrant kids had mingled, grown up, married and spawned kids of their own – mine rising out of Italian immigrants, hers out of Eastern Europe. It seemed so large when it was really very small, and seeing it like this, scared me a little, and I don’t know why.
Peggy came back out and sat on the ledge next to me, apparently sensing some of my thoughts.
“It’s business,” she said, referring to the man at the door. “It’s nothing for you to worry about.”
Ah, but what kind of business?
My out of state friend has hinted of some of this during our long phone conversations, and it scared me because I did not want to go back into the same scene I had been as a kid in LA, full of porn stars, motorcycle gangs and drug dealing.
I wondered, maybe I needed to get out of this thing with Peggy before it was too late.
“Stop frowning,” Peggy said, touching my arm. “You’re supposed to be having run, remember? Come, let’s go see that movie.”
I nodded, realizing that the drug had done its job on her. She was almost human again, and though the cheeriness was an illusion, I wallowed in it, letting it calm my fears.
Maybe things weren’t as bad as I imagined.
Maybe I could live with this.
Down stairs, she paused, kicking at the circulars and phony offers for land deals and other crap the US Postal office insisted on stuffing into her mail box.
“All that is yours?” I asked.
“I got sick of it sitting in my mail box, so I dumped it on the floor,” she said. “People are always sticking that junk in my box. I think I got the whole building’s shit.”
“Why don’t you throw it out.”
“Because I don’t want to.”
“What if you get a real letter?”
“Here? I never get real mail here. I get my mail at my mother’s. Which reminds me, we have to stop there on our way to the theater. It won’t be long. I’ll just run in an out.”
I drove to the area of Lanza Street – where Peggy’s family had lived for decades – but we did not go to her grandparents house, but instead stopped at an apartment building on Ray Street across from some church.
“Park the car,” she said, when I pulled the car to the curb.
“I thought you said you were only running in and out.”
“Don’t hold me to every goddamn thing I say. Just park the car. We might be longer than a minute and I wouldn’t want you getting angry at me again if you had to wait.”
“You mean I’m coming in?”
“That’s the idea. You have a problem with meeting my mother?”
“I never said that,” I said, actually secretly pleased that she was going to let me meet a member of her family.
“Then park the car, Alfred. I don’t want to be here all night.”
Her mother greeted us with one of those “not another boyfriend looks,” I had seen years ago when dating girls in high school, a pained, but patient look in which she studied me quickly, superficially before letting out a long sigh.
“So you’re the boy Peggy’s been telling me about,” she said, holding out her hand for me to shake.
She seemed to have trouble breaking, and the room had the lingering scene of nicotine and alcohol.
“My daughter calls me L,” she said. “That’s short for Eleanor.”
L was dressed in spandex pants, a button down shirt and wore silver rings on every finger. These clicked when she picked up a glass and shimmered with refledcted lights when she waved her hands. She had phony red finger nails and a cigarette ash at the end of her constantly smoldering cigarette. Her hair was artificially blonde framed by two saucer-sized ear-rings.
“Nice to meet you,” I said.
“My daughter has told me a lot about you,” she said. “You’re Alfred, right?”
“Mother, please!” Peggy growled and tugged at my sleeve for me to follow her deeper into the apartment.
“Peggy was very pleased about that package you gave her,” L said. “You know all those New York Giants things. That’s was very clever.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You know what I mean. None of her other boyfriends ever did anything like that.”
“Mom, stop!” Peggy pleaded. “Why do you have to do this with every man I bring to see you?”
“Because most of the men you bring here aren’t good enough for you. All they want is a quick fuck then dump you out on the street like you’re a cheap hooker, when we know you’re not.”
“Do you want me to leave now?” Peggy asked. “You tell me you want me to date, and then abuse them when I do. Why don’t I just go home and let Alfred fuck my brains out and let you imagine the details?”
“Now I really need a drink,” Peggy said, pausing at the small table full of bottles to fix herself a drink. “There’s beer in the refrigerator, Alfred.”
“No thanks,” I said.
“You don’t drink?” said L, who had followed along behind us. She looked shocked. “Don’t tell me you’re going out with a boy that doesn’t drink.”
“Of course, he drinks, Mom,” Peggy said. “I met him in a bar remember?”
Peggy poured herself a hefty drink.
“Am I allowed to ask your man what his plans are for you tonight?”
“We’re going to see a movie,” Peggy said.
“Yes, a movie,” Peggy said, “and if we don’t go now, we’ll be late for the first show.”
She put down her drink and rushed me back out the door. Then when we were in the car, she stayed very quiet for a long time, stiffening up when we approached a police car, then breathing loudly again when we passed, her fingers shaking as she pulled out a cigarette. She went to push the car’s cigarette lighter in and I shook my head.
“I wouldn’t do that,” I said.
“I don’t trust the electrical system.”
“Damn you and these Jap cars. Why can’t you buy American.”
“If I could afford to I would.”
Peggy found an lighter in her purse and lit her cigarette, sucking the smoke in hard.
“I’m curious about something,” I said.
“What else is new? About what this time?”
“Why do you bring men to see your mother if you know she’s going to abuse us?”
“To hurt her.”
“Hurt her, how?”
“I want to her to see what she’s driven me to.”
“Geeze, thanks a lot.”
“It has nothing to do with you, Alfred. She simply hates when I pick up men at the bar so I rub her nose in it.”
“You dislike your mother than much?”
“Sometimes I hate her.”
“Because she hates me. She’s hated me since I was a little girl.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“I don’t care if you believe it or not. It’s true. I was an unexpected intrusion into her otherwise perfect life, the child that came way too late to save her marriage, a child she got stuck with after that became clear. Then, of course, we had those dozen or so temporary reunions – the the child’s sake – that created more hate and caused more scenes, and managed to give them both more ammunition to shoot at each other in the future.”
“You have a sister. Does your mother hate her, too.”
“An older sister, who had the good fortune to be born when my parents still loved each other. My mother adores her. My mother wanted me to go with father when she got divorced. My father wouldn’t hear of it – he said a young girl needs her mother. But my mother didn’t want me around and she let me know. More than once across the breakfast table she said she wished I was dead, or that I had been born dead and saved her a lot of trouble. She said the only reason I was alive was because abortions weren’t legal then.”
“She could have put you up for adoption,” I said.
“And have to admit that she was a failure as a mother? No, she had something to prove with me. She used to beat me a lot. She once kicked me down a flight of stairs because I wasn’t moving fast enough. Her arms were full of laundry. And I cried. I didn’t break any bones, but it hurt. And the more I cried the more she beat me, trying to make me shut up, telling me she didn’t want the neighbors to hear.”
The pain was obvious in her eyes, open wounds that would never heal, which she would carry with her the rest of her life, feeling those blows night after night. She glanced back out the window.
“Another time, I slammed my hand in the car door. I couldn’t get it out and my mother hit me over and over, telling me to shut up, telling me that if I didn’t shut up she would slam my other hand in the door, too,” Peggy said. “But I didn’t make anything easy for her. I fought back. I ate only what I wanted to eat, I went to sleep only when I felt tired. I refused to dress up like a fairy princess for her, forcing her to keep beating me.”
“Didn’t your father try to stop any of this?”
“I didn’t tell him. I was too ashamed. After all, I was young and stupid, and deep down I guess I thought I deserved the punishment.”
“Didn’t anyone else notice.”
“No. Mother was clever. She always hit me where the marks wouldn’t show, hiding those few black and blue marks with a scarf or my hair. Sometimes in Summer, I had to wear high collars and long sleeves just so no one would see how bad I was.”
“When did all this stop?”
Peggy laughed. “On my 15 th birthday. We were having a party and my mother told me to cut the cake. I told her it was too pretty to cut. So she came around the table and yanked me up by the hair, her face flushed red and her eyes bulging with rate. She nearly bet through her lip beating me. She was so angry, she forgot herself and forgot all the other people there.”
“At first, everybody was too shocked to stop it, then finally father yanked her off, telling her to let go of my hair or he would kill her. Mother’s fingers slowly eased off, and then my father warned her never to do it again.”
“And she listened?”
"No way, not just then anyway. No sooner had the last guest gone than she was at me again, beating at my face with both hands, kicking my ankles and my legs. she managed to kick me down the front stairs when I ran out into the hall to call for father. Then, she came down the stairs after me and beat me for not getting up off the floor, kicking me again as I crawled toward the front door, kicking me harder when we got outside because she said I was making a scene and the neighbors would complain. Then, it occurred to her I might really be hurt. So she dragged me to her car, dumped me in the front seat and drove me to the hospital."
"What did she tell the doctors?"
"That I had been hit by a car."
"And they believed her?"
"It was convenient."
"Was that the end of it?"
"Oh yes," Peggy said. "I was in the hospital for two weeks and the whole time, El thought I would die -- even though the doctors told her I wouldn't, despite my broken neck. It was enough to put the fear of God in her. After that, she self me alone until I was too big for her to beat. By then, she had developed other, perhaps more cruel ways to torture me."
"Like nothing," Peggy said. "Don't you ever get tired of asking questions, Alfred?"
"That's how I learn things."
"You might learn more than what's good for you," Peggy said. "You'd better step on it or we'll miss our movie."
We rode in silence after that, a prolonged silence of remembered pain, wheels of my rusting Datzun rumbling over the potholed surface of the Outwater Lane Bridge into Clifton
Peggy broke the silence.
“Where exactly are you going?” she asked, twisting around in her seat to study the unfamiliar landscape.
“To the Alwood Theater.”
“I’ve been to the Alwood Theater a million times, Alfred, but I’ve never seen these streets.”
“It’s a back way I know.”
“Back way?” she said, one of her painted brows rising like a question mark.
“I grew up around here. I used to use these streets all the time.”
“And now you’re going to get us lost on them.”
“I wouldn’t do a thing like that.”
“If we’re late for that movie, Alfred, I’ll make you wait for the second show, and then you’ll be late for work.”
“And in the meantime we can fool around in the car, maybe?”
“Watch yourself, buddy,” Peggy said. “This is only our second date.”
“Our second date officially. We’ve seen each other a lot in-between.”
“Too much, I think, you’re starting to get cocky.”
“Me, never!” I said, feeling freer than I had in a long time, and comfortable with the idea that this woman liked being with me.
Sure, there were questions. But there were other things as well, tenderness lying just under the surface that I hoped to draw out.
Her passion for the NY Giants made me realize just how much she was capable of loving, given the chance, and I liked to think that I had a chance of being loved like that.
“Ut oh,” I said, pulling the car to a stop.
The street ended before us in a small circle of bi-level houses. “I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.”
“I knew the moment I let you take your own secret route that we were in trouble,” Peggy said.
“They changed the road,” I agued. “I knew there was something different back there by the factories.”
“Excuses, excuses. But one thing's for certain, we’ll never make the first show now.”
“I wouldn’t bet on that,” I said, backing up, then doing a quick three-point turn, to race back the way we’d come. “a silly mistake. That’s all. Easily corrected.”
“We’ll see. I wonder what you’re boss will say when you don’t get in on time?”
“Nothing. Because we’re going to be there in time for the first show.”
It had been years since I’d come this way, almost twenty years. The old stomping ground was fading away the way most of its kind did, developing into something modern, houses and condos replacing the old mills. Even the AMF plant where I’d tossed around boxes of bowling balls at my after school job had vanished.
“Here’s the road,” I said, finally discovering my mistake, a division in the road. I turned and raced down the broader avenue, catching every yellow light before it could turn red, turning finally onto the street where the theater was located. The old familiar marquee had changed as well, divided into four theaters where only one had been before.
“I told you I’d get us here on time,” I said.
“Just part the car and shut up,” Peggy said, staring away from me in her annoyed indignation.
I parked the car on the street and we jumped out.. I slipped my fingers through hers. She did not try to stop me, look up or object, but walked with me the way young lovers did, swaying slightly to some distant tune of natural. I glowed. I felt younger.
I was seventeen again, innocent, aching to retain the illusion of innocence around me, wanting to forget the bars where Peggy danced and the life style those places produced
We crossed over to the theater box office.
“Buy two tickets for Blind Date,” Peggy said.
I pushed the money through the small opening in the ticket booth window in exchange for the tickets, wondering if Peggy had selected this movie for a particular reason, if it meant anything, if she might be sending some kind of strange message.
Then I gave up on it, figuring I should not ruin a nearly perfect moment by analyzing it, but I could not stop the nagging in the back of my head – the movie less suspicious than the circumstances surrounding it and the pretense Peggy put on for me that she was somehow honest, an All American girl next door perfectly capable of being an ordinary man’s sweetheart.
I kept thinking about the visitor earlier and what business Peggy was engaged in that had such characters coming to her door. My friend in Oklahoma had cautioned me about the kind of women I might expect to pick up in a go-go bar, strongly suggesting Peggy might be a prostitute.
A large percentage of the women who danced were or ended up that way, I knew, using the strip clubs as a type of advertising.
I’d been hit up more than once, and had seen a few people close to me struggle to escape that world and go straight.
But Peggy seemed different to me, firmly rooted in some ways to the real world. She had a straight world job as an accountant. She did volunteer work for the Republican Party. She liked – no loved – the New York Giants.
If my friend was right, then Peggy would at some point want payment.
I hated the idea. I already liked Peggy too much for that kind of thing to ruin it.
The movie bothered me, partly because it featured a woman too much like Peggy in some ways, out of control on alcohol, with a straight man struggling to deal with many of the same issues that confronted me.
Play acting at survival. Wanting to be an artist.
Through the film, I kept looking over at Peggy, studying her face, trying to see from her expression if she might be seeing the same things that I was and if by selecting this film, she was sending me a particular message. Was she like the woman on the screen, a Dr. Jeckel and Mistress Hyde, living her whole like under the influence? I knew a man in Las Vegas years earlier, who never came down from LSD. He had taken it every day like medicine so that whenever he did come down by accident, reality shifted, and the real world looked to him like his world looked to the rest of us, one vast surreal landscape of illusion.
I wondered what the real Peggy was like without her cocaine, would I like her, would she even bother with a slug like me?
Eventually, I gave up thinking about it and let myself fall into the hero’s role, wishing I could be like the character Bruce Willis played and could some how help Peggy.
Once the credits rolled onto the screen, the nagging returned, and the illusion of me being Bruce Willis faded as we walked back up the aisle and out onto the street.
I was so quiet when we got into the car, Peggy even noticed.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said, glancing at her again, noticing the tightened muscles around her jaw and the lines around her eyes that indicated pain. “What’s the matter with you?”
“It’s my headache again,” she said.
“You get them a lot?”
“All the time. I have a constant headache. Sometimes it’s better than at other times. I usually carry aspirin with me, but right now I’m out.”
A prolonged silence followed. We had both saw the drug store open a few doors up the street from the theater. I was thinking about how much cash I had left, mentally calculating how much less gas I could buy later if I expended enough now to get her the medicine.
“You want me to buy you some?” I finally asked.
“It would help.”
I slipped out from behind the wheel, fingering the last of my money in my pocket. I would have to get another advance on my pay check.
I returned shortly with a bottle of aspirin and handed it to Peggy. She slid the bottle out of the bag, then savagely ripped off the plastic from around the lid, struggling for a moment with the cap that required a rocket scientist to figure out how to open. Then once the cap was off, she used her sharp red finger nail to remove the cotton. She dumped a bunch of them into the palm of her hand, and gulped them down.
“No wonder you have ulcers,” I said, then engaged the gears for the ride back to Lodi, the bottle of aspirin rattling on the dashboard where Peggy had abandoned it.
It took forever to get back, as if fate was getting even for my earlier trip, denying us easy passage through even one traffic light, each one halting us, emphasizing the silence that had grown between us. Finally, I pulled my car into the lot next to her house.
“Well,” I said with a sigh as she opened the door and started to get out. “It has been interesting.”
"You mean, you're not coming up?"
She looked honestly puzzled, as if she could not figure out why I would not want to. I glance up at her apartment window and the flag flapping from the fire escape. A low light glowed in her window like a wary eye.
"Are you sure you want me?" I asked.
But Peggy had already started away, leaving me to decide whether or not I was going to follow. I decided I wanted to know more about the man who had knocked on her door earlier, and I got out of the car, locked the door, and realized only then that she had left the bottle of aspirin on the dashboard. I did not collect them, but trailed her around to the front of the building, through the front door and up the stairs, feeling every bit like a lost puppy seeking love in the arms of a stranger.
Upstairs, inside the apartment, we again seemed locked into some fairy tale, kitchen full of carved hearts, living room filled with musical memories and images of John Wayne, and a bedroom so heavily laden with unicorns, even some unfamiliar would Freud would wince.
She went through the usual ritual of undressing and making herself a drink, then drew me into the bedroom where she once more expected me to tuck her in and wait for sleep to take her.
She cringed when I asked her about the man earlier.
“He’s nobody, Alfred,” she said. “He’s just business.”
“And what kind of business would that be?” I asked.
“Do you need to do this now?”
“I need to know.”
“All right, if you need to know, then I’ll tell you. I sell drugs. He’s one of my customers.”
“What kind of drugs?”
“Sometimes other things. I usually do big deals. It’s something you shouldn’t know too much about. People get hurt who know too much. Now will you quit talking so I can go to sleep.”
“All right,” said.
"Hold me," Peggy said, re-enacting the scene from several nights earlier, wearing the same, weary innocent face and the same skimpy clothing. "Just until I fall asleep."
I held her. She shuddered.
But I was thinking terrible things, about drug dealing, about her being a pusher, and yet for all those thoughts, she felt incredibly “right” in my arms, as if we belonged like this, as if we could spend an eternity right there like that, needing no heroes like Bruce Willis or John Wayne, needing nothing but each other.
Peggy stared at the TV set, and I managed to stare there, too, trying not to let that other voice inside me get loud enough for her to hear, the voice that said “Get out, stupid, before it’s too late.”
But I didn’t move -- but felt a shudder pass between us, uncertain as to which one of initiated it, feeling her consciousness slip away over the next few moments -- the combination of alcohol and the night sweeping her back into that region of dreams, out of which her cries again emerged.
"NO!" she screamed. "Don't hit me!"
I clung to her; she shoved me away, then clutched me back, her sharp red nails biting into my back as if we were making love -- with me still fully dressed.
Finally, real sleep back over both of us, and later, I woke to find Peggy coiled in a corner of the bed, whimpering. I rose, found my shoes, and carried them out, waiting until I was in the hall to put them out.
Outside, I found the dark street empty of anyone but the deep shadows of an aging Italian neighborhood, and I a wraith walking among them.
April 11, 1987
Peggy is messed up – bad.
But it is too early for me to tell whether I’m being manipulated or she really feels THAT much pain.
Yet it is very clear that her double existence his covering over some very turbulent water.
I can’t tell whether she has a serious personality disorder or this is merely a derivative of her cocaine habit.
She is paranoid and claims she’s been beaten by ex boyfriends and family members.
Robert is one. There are most likely others. She flinches if I touch her face unexpectedly.
Worse, she felt guilty about it, a self hatred, blaming herself for the things that happened to her. I’ve heard her condemning herself for things she didn’t do. She’s also has severe fits of depression – and sometimes, she stares off into space.
She also has extreme mood swings and the wrong word can send her into a fit of tears.
Being with her is like walking on a tight rope, I don’t know what is the right thing for me to do or say.
A night, she cries out in her sleep, saying “Please don’t hit me, please, please…”
I just sit there and listen, and try not to move.
She forgets things too, things she has said, stories she had told, and plays strange sexual games. Two nights ago, she invited me to rap her during a romantic encounter, saying “yes, do it,” in one voice, then suddenly pulls back and in another voice says, “I can’t, I can’t.”
She actually suggested to me that she might be a virgin, when I know definitely she is not.
I am terrified by these ploys – if that’s what they are, and begin to understand why other men in her life might have fled from her.
She hints that she has wandered from man to man, thought I know very little about that part of her life.
But something in her personality Robert used as an excuse for violence, something that set off his dark side. I’m not blaming the victim here, but there is usually some spark, and I wonder what it was. Did she cheat on him or taunt him, or did one of her mood swings tip him over the edge?
She also suffers from constant headaches, and sometimes goes through three bottles of Bufferin a week, the headache varying in intensity, but never goes away.
April 12, 1987
Life isn’t merely complex, it’s perverse, full of twists, turns and attractions that can be explained away by the need to survive.
Last night, watching some Hitchcock film, I came up with the answer just before it was revealed, prompting Peggy to say I lied about not having seen the film before.
It spoiled an otherwise good night together, and kept her looking oddly at me even when she escorted me into the bedroom where I dutifully sat at her side on the bed until she slipped off to sleep.
April 13, 1987
So where am I?
Involve? Dissolved? Petrified?
Peggy is sharper even than I ever imagined and can detail my every flaw.
It scares me. I haven’t written anything seriously in five days, caught up in this emotional whirlwind and events that I can’t simply explain away as love or manipulation.
Peggy dances around me with subtle deceits that are laced with just enough truth that I can’t disprove them.
She doesn’t want to chase me away. She hints again and again at some future life that we might have together.
But in all this, I’m guilty of a more serious crime. Even though I knew she was bright, I under estimated her – more than a little intellectual snobbery on my part, my thinking she couldn’t possibly be as smart as she is and still be a stripper, when in fact she is smarter than I thought, something she needs in order to survive in the world she lives in.
And at some point, I have to introduce her to my best friend, Pauly, and I’m scared to see the sparks that fly from that.
April 14, 1987
Without a doubt, the last six days will remain as some of the most important of my life, at least, among the most joyous, with me living in the residue of a dream, each day revealing a little bit more about Peggy.
I guess the most surprising is how little splash there was when I brought her to see Pauly at the lake. Thunder did not rumble and the world did not end as these two powerful forces came together into the same place at the same time. Yet it felt like a turning point.
This was in part driven by Peggy, who mumbled at me last Thursday about my being ashamed to introduce her to any of my friends.
“I’m just a light-hearted go-go dancer, eh?” she suggested.
“That’s not true and you know it,” I said, but I promised her I would. Then on Saturday night, having made that promise to her, I realized she was right, I was reluctant to introduce her to people with whom I’d been friends all of my life.
What would these people think of me?
What idiocy! Was I going to blow it with her by being as stupid as all the other men she had known before me? This is an intelligent person.
As I said, the meeting went well, but from it emerged a different person from the one I thought I was bringing up there, a wiser, much more self-aware person who asked me questions on the way back that went right to the core of me, touching upon all those secret things I thought I had kept well-hidden from everyone, even my closest friends.
For all my bullshit, it was clear Peggy had a better mind that I did, picking up on details that I would not suspect to look for, asking questions of me questions I should have known the answers to. Even a simple one about her and our relationship and how much attention I was truly paying to her.
“What color are my eyes, Alfred?” she asked, keeping her face turned away from me as I steered the car East on Route 80, passed signs for Paterson and New York, and the slow-moving cars of Sunday traffic.
“Green,” I said in a rush of panic, “or hazel.”
“They are blue, Alfred,” she said, sounding hurt.
There were other issues, too, such as the spelling of her last name: Yacyniak. Easter European. Ukrainian to be exact. Which might have explained her intense patriotism, since some of the Polish people in my neighborhood loved Ronald Reagan as much as she did, for his hard stand against Communism.
Then, last night, there was the issue of my daughter’s photographs, something I had not shown Peggy, and she felt hurt by that fact.
She claimed I was keeping secrets from here. I was not telling her important things about my life.
I told her it was all too soon, that I’ve only known her intimately for a few short weeks.
She nodded, and said we had moved very quickly from just joking with each other to something we both considered very serious, leaving us both very vulnerable.
“Don’t hurt me,” she said several times over the course of these last few days, meaning it in more than one way, telling me that I now have weapons with which I could do her great damage.
And this concept scares the crap out of me.
April 15, 1987
I’m full of double, insecurity, ineptness, pain, but strangely, goodness, too.
It is as if I am holding a very fragile flower between my fingers, something I ache to keep for the rest of my life, fearing that it will wither at any time before my eyes and turn into something dead or wrong.
It’s entire future seems to depend upon me, and my ability to keep it alive with by sheer will and love.
Peggy is even more fragile than any flower, and at the same time, much sturdier than I am, possessing levels of wisdom I have yet to attain.
Then, of course, I’ve learned that she has an even darker side than I first imagined.
I suspect that she deals drugs out of her Harrison Avenue apartment.
When the man knocked on her door – she tried to calm any potential jealousy I might have by telling me, “It’s only business.”
Then she told her client to come back later.
I’m drinking almost as much as she is, and we are constantly popping the cork on bottles of champagne, and the alcohol has put me into a different, self-questions reality, and I am more and more overcome with doubts.
The illusion of control over all this is rapidly evaporating. She seems to be the one in control instead of me.
And I don’t know how to wrestle it back from her.
Everything I say seems to be coming out a tin man’s mouth. But I have one disadvantage that man of metal did not, I have a heart, and it aches in an unbearable way, even when I presume I am happy.
I am always forgetting things, and I can’t believe the intensity of this thing going on between us, and how short of time it has been doing on.
I’m constantly trying to figure out what she thinks and I’m terrified I might find out. Each step with her is like walking a narrow rail of a train track, leaning too far one way then too far the other in compensation. First things are too blazing hot, and then utterly cold.
Is it ever possible to be “too kind?”
I’m trying to give her so much love that she’ll get use to it, so that she can’t walk away from this thing in a sudden shift of mood.
At the same time, I’m scared of smothering her, and spend my time waiting and watching for situations that will allow me to do for her what she needs done, being there, unquestioningly, offering good times, good feelings and trust – when I am racked with doubt and fear.
There has to be some sense to all this.
She claims she had divulged secrets to me that she has not told anyone else, little things that go well behind the idea of past furies.
I’m not sure she’s told anybody else about the beatings she’s suffered.
She is particularly proud of her tutoring, and in particularly, her favorite pupil Gideon, who she is teaching language to, and how much satisfaction she got when he finally learned the word “bitch.”
“He just kept saying it over and over,” she said. “He said it without stuttering once.”
Peggy blames the boy’s mother for his inability to speak properly.
“She mistreats him so much that he forgets what I’ve taught him,” Peggy said. “Everything time he comes into the room while I’m working with him, he loses it.”
And so seeing this, Peggy mumbled the word “bitch,” in front of the boy, and the boy immediately repeated it. Stunned by this, she told him to say it again, and he did.
“He said it perfectly,” Peggy said with pride.
With me sitting on the edge of her bed with her under the covers, Peggy seems shocked at herself for having told me this.
“You can’t repeat this to anyone,” she whispered. “And please, don’t use it against me. Don’t hurt me. Too many other people have used things against me. No, not these things. I won’t tell any of this to any body else”
She said she keeps this stuff locked up inside herself, never revealing it because these things, these small moments, are precious to her, real things, not like the things she has to do and say to survive.
The other day, she was sitting in front of the kitchen window which looks down on the street through her fire escape, flicking her cigarette ashes into an ashtray.
“You know sometimes if I’m too lazy to get up and get an ashtray, I just flick my ashes behind the refrigerator,” she said with a laugh. Then she stopped, and stared at me and frowned. “Why the hell am I telling you this?”
She stared straight into my eyes, her gaze showing nervous fear, as she wondered if I could or would somehow use this and other little secrets against her.
That night, in the bar, she told me more. She was drunk. She told me she had a hard time lying to anyone, that when she did lie, she couldn’t look anyone straight in the face, that she would blush and look down and refuse to meet the other person’s gaze.
Later – after she made me lay down in bed beside her until she could go to sleep with me holding her – I made a dreadful mistake. In the usual banter that went on between us, she claimed she never blushed.
“But you told me that you blush every time you try to lie to someone,” I said.
She looked stunned, jerking herself out of my arms.
“I told you that in confidence,” she said. “Now you’re using it against me.”
“I wasn’t, I mean, I hadn’t intended to…”
Out of this, I begin to understand the difficult if not impossible role I must play in order to keep things at peace between us.
It makes me feel a little like the court jester, and yet I ache to give her moments of quiet happiness, some relief from the monumental suffering I see inside of her, and perhaps if I can love her enough and make her feel safe, I might even be able to sweep her off her feet – some day.