Bad Timing

Bad Timing

   My slow but steady demise had begun with an unlikely encounter one night a couple of months before.

We had met on an early spring night that was damp and raw, after a particularly grueling winter from which no one had quite recovered. My neighbor, who generally made appearances at every party in town, had told me about a party--a trashy magazine party at a trashy new bar--a hot trashy new bar, which made it even trashier and even less appealing. This wasn't exactly an invitation; my magnanimous neighbor said he would see to it that I'd get in, but not in his company. My neighbor is a slippery sort who prefers to move about town unencumbered so that he can adopt the appropriate persona for each occasion, and I am the kind of person who might inadvertently blow his cover. He also happens to be black, which means that his persona is a far more urgent matter, in some cases a matter of survival. Luckily, he is a master of disguise, and people of all colors are generally smitten with him. I am white, a white Jew to be precise, and smitten; he is an original, and he has no choice, really, but to be slippery. (My neighbor lives only a few blocks away, and he and I often pass the time by making enormous crass ethnic generalizations and congratulating ourselves on our brilliance.)

I felt it was my duty to go to the party in order to continue an ongoing, albeit desultory, mate search. I can simulate a suitably sociable facade as well as the next person, but an escort would make things easier. So I called Victor, who serves as my human oasis. He is something of a dandy who dresses in Victoriana and S&M jackets with exotic jewelry. On a summer day he is often decked out in a billowing skirt, or linen bloomers paired with a light cotton vest. His head is hairless except for several tiny, well-placed patches and some strategic swirly strands, and he sometimes sports Hasidic earlocks. But by now I no longer notice his appearance, nor do I question the purpose of his cane, even though he has no limp. Victor is not even remotely concerned with the mate search. He has his own ideas about the human condition. But he does love a party. And like me, he is an artist who is slowly losing the ability to do the fawning necessary to revive a faltering career. But neither of us had thrown in the towel yet, and there is really no place more conducive to fawning or searching than a party.

Outside the trashy new bar there was a groveling and expectant crowd. My neighbor had kept his word, and I breezed right through, and Victor--well, no conscientious doorman could refuse entrance to Victor. Inside it was cavelike. You couldn't see out and you couldn't see in. The walls were tinted the pale hazy ochre that is designed to flatter those who are getting on in years. It was almost embarrassing to be there when most people in our age group were home guarding their sleeping progeny, yawning and struggling through the last hour before they could respectably turn in, too.

I've never spotted an interesting stranger from across the room at occasions such as these--everyone tends to dissolve into a blur--and by now anyone who looked interesting turned out, on closer inspection, to be not a stranger but someone from my past whom I'd either forgotten or hoped had forgotten me. But tonight--perhaps thanks to the full trays of vodka being spirited past by insectlike waitresses, or the pot a wobbly art dealer had coaxed me into trying at the door--I wasn't bored. Victor and I stood in a corner and watched my neighbor hold various people in thrall. My neighbor looked a little weary. Holding crowds of people in thrall can be exhausting. He motioned us over, so we settled into the unsightly stuffed furniture that crowds new bars for those getting on in years. My neighbor and Victor are allies. When they enter a social gathering together, people look up. They communicate with each other by a flash of the eyes or a discreet nod, and they make an impenetrable and arresting pair. They launched into their own convoluted discourse, and I took the opportunity to gaze around.

Then this guy came along. I didn't know he was still around; I'd heard he'd slipped out of town--a New York "timely" disappearance. He was one of those big-wheel-behind-the-scenes guys you always heard vague rumors about. I still remembered hearing about him when he d just moved to town from Paris years ago and was causing some commotion. He was a kind of a renaissance man, a jazz whiz kid--a bass player--one day, then an impresario who owned a jazz club the next. He'd been something of an enfant terrible in jazz circles, and no one knew why he'd stopped playing. But mystery was always welcome in these circles, and he was mysterious with class.

I used to tag along with my brother to his club, before it became infested with tourists and businessmen, before it became what my brother, a jazz musician himself, referred to as a "softdick jazz club." This guy could play and he had a real presence--he looked like he'd been zipped too tight into his human suit. I was surprised to see him at a very stuffy exclusive art event a few years later. He looked trapped and I liked that. The friend I was with introduced us, and this guy looked right past me to the door. Later I asked my brother what his story was. He said this guy had been the real thing, a musician's musician, and then he passed on a few of the rumors--one or possibly two ex-wives, an uncertain number of kids, a very fashionable society-type current wife--and some "extracurricular activity" on the side. So I had some background.

He sat down with us and began riffing with my neighbor about an uptown multicultural arts festival they'd suffered through together. The guy referred to the festival as a "coon fest," and commented on some of the standard notables. "Oh, yeah, they rounded up every creative Negro in town," my neighbor said, and they both smirked. I smirked, too, but I couldn't really participate. They continued riffing on this creative Negro and that, my neighbor graciously playing the straight man.

Eventually I couldn't resist: I whispered to my neighbor, "Come on, there must have been at least a Jew or two."

The guy heard me and said, "Oh yeah, more than a few--this was a first-class coon fest--and you know a black man's really made it when he owns a Jew." I laughed outright and he tried not to. Soon he was ordering rounds of drinks for everyone--except himself. He nursed a glass of red wine forever, using it primarily as a prop.

Others joined us, among them an artist I'd known when he first landed in New York, Minnesota-sweet and earnest. Now he was semifamous with a fake English accent--and insufferable. We made room for the artist and somehow the guy ended up sitting across from me. I was wedged in next to Victor. He fumed to me casually and asked, "What do you do?"

I told him I was a painter and that I'd started writing recently to make money. He didn't blink at the ludicrous nature of that statement--most people did--and he moved in closer. He insisted I have another drink, but I demurred and sipped water cautiously.

"You don't drink?"

I told him that Jews were more likely to be drug addicts than drinkers.

"Not the ones I know--they're both," he said. Then I confessed I never drank too much because I was sure I'd end up in a heap in some forsaken comer. I'd never said that out loud before.

He asked about my work. "My ex-wife's a dealer," he explained. "I do some collecting." We discovered he knew a dealer I'd shown with recently, and he said curtly, "She's a crook. But she's a crook with an eye. You must be talented to show there."

I told him that my father used to ask me if my musician brother was "talented." Would he be "successful"? It had driven me nuts to have to explain over and over that, yes, he was talented, but talent had little to do with success.

"You're right," he said. "Forget I said that."

"Okay. Anyway, he never asked me again after the Times decided that my brother was talented."

"Who's your brother?" I told him and he said, "He's your brother? I know him. Yeah, I saw him play in Paris. He's good." My brother did not play soft-dick jazz, so I was surprised. "I used to play the bass. Well, sometimes I still do--"

I interrupted. "I know that. I've heard you play. I used to go to your club--oh, a long time ago, before it was, before it was . . ."

"Before it was jive? Is that what you're trying not to say?"

"Well, kind of."

His insidious charm was making me loose-lipped, and I was almost relieved when the creepy artist leaned in. He'd been watching us closely; he must have known this guy was a collector. "So you've gotten hitched," he said, addressing me but giving the guy a just-between-us-guys look. "How brilliant. I suppose you've moved to elegant uptown quarters."

"Oh, no, no, we just met," I began, but the guy took over.

"I live in the East Village--I wouldn't call that terribly elegant."

The artist had stopped listening; someone really famous appeared, and I said to the guy, "You liar, you don't live in the East Village."

"Was it that obvious?"

"To me it was. But you're not as bad as him; that guy was asking for it. I mean, his whole life is a lie."

"You're sure I'm not as bad as him?" He was trying not to laugh again. Then the artist turned back to us and went on and on until the guy got up abruptly and walked away. When he returned, he apologized to me.

"I'm not much of a group person. I have no tolerance, and I've got the kind of face where it shows--unfortunately." I assured him that I shared a similar affliction, but he refused to believe me. "Oh, no, you've got a pleasant face." He moved in even closer and gestured with the glass of wine. "Are you sure you don't want a drink?"

My neighbor, who'd been watching us with his third eye, reached behind Victor, nudged me, and hissed, "Be careful."

I laughed him off. "Don't worry. I'm not stupid." I rarely lived in the present, much less enjoyed living in the present, and I was determined not to let anything spoil it.

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Excerpted from Bad Timing by Betsy Berne. Copyright © 2001 by Betsy Berne. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.