o James Branch had a new confidant: Otis the elevator. Every night, at midnight, James sneaked into the elevator, suspended himself between the sixth and seventh floors, opened his mouth, and testified. He talked about his sinus problems, about the New York Knicks, about how much he liked visiting the Cloisters, about the bone-crushing loneliness inside him.
"There was this woman on my train today, Otis," said James one night. "She wore a polka-dot dress. She was forty years old, at least. This dress she had on, it was like something out of a comic book. It was bright red with giant white circles on it, like a girl's dress, like Little Orphan Annie." James kept his eyes closed, remembering. "This woman was beautiful, Otis. I mean, everything else about her except the dress was very adult, her coat and her shoes, and there were wrinkles on her face, and she looked so sad. She had these dark, burnt-out-looking eyes, but she wasn't a whore or a junkie. I'm sure of it. The thing is, I don't think I would've noticed how beautiful she was if she hadn't been wearing that silly dress. In fact" -- James rocked back and forth -- "in fact, Otis, I don't even know if she would've been so beautiful and sad if she hadn't been wearing that dress. You know?" James paused.
"Isn't that weird?"
That's how it went. Sometimes James was on the elevator, with the brass key turned left, for just ten minutes. Other nights he was there a full hour. James talked to Otis about his parents, about his frustrations at Harrow East, about "Never Love Another," a song that Morality John sang on the trains, a song that seemed to have been written for him and Anamaria. James spoke candidly and soberly to Otis, the way women speak to diaries. Often, as he sat and spoke, he took from his pocket the pair of opal earrings that were always on his person. He rubbed these opals between his thumb and forefinger as if they were rabbit's feet or some other talisman of fortune. Whether all this was helping him or not didn't concern James. He simply obeyed the impulse to speak to Otis every night the way some people drink alcohol or seek out chocolate or slice sharp metal across their wrists.
James's habit took shape over the course of a year, from a November to a November. He guarded the fact and location of his nightly confessions the way a superhero guards his lair. Sender the doorman shot James curious glances, but he held his tongue and, without discussing it with James, told Preemption residents that the elevator was off-limits nightly between midnight and one a.m. Meanwhile, James's boss, Phillip, noticed a new, fierce introspection in the eyes of his already ascetic accountant. But Phillip found James a strange guy anyway and avoided conversation with him. Even Patrick Rigg knew as little about where James sneaked off to every night as James knew about what transpired between Patrick and the women who frequented his bedroom. All in all, nothing threatened James's ritual or the insular room of his thinking until December 21, 1999.
On that night Patrick Rigg was kicking off what he called the Millennial Solstice Debauchery Spree. This was to be a ten-night-long bacchanal celebration headquartered in Patrick and James's apartment. Patrick, who was uncommonly wealthy, had also rented out his favorite Manhattan haunts for certain nights of the Spree. For one hundred of Patrick's associates there would be a dinner served on the twenty-third at Duranigan's Restaurant on Madison Avenue, a cocktail and story-telling night on the twenty-sixth at Cherrywood's Lounge, an evening at the Lucas Theater on the twenty-ninth, and a New Year's Eve Rave at Minotaur's Nightclub. Every night that one of these functions wasn't under way, the door of the Preemption would be open to any of Patrick's thuggish chums or femmes fatales who wished to mingle in Patrick and James's apartment. Through whispers or perhaps telepathy Patrick had promised these men and women ten days of the finest company, champagnes, and carnal delights the city had to offer.
At eleven p.m. on the twenty-first, Patrick emerged from his bedroom and sat James down in their kitchen.
"You want a beer?" asked Patrick.
"Not really," said James.
"Have one anyway."
Patrick pulled a cool bottle from the fridge, gave it to his housemate. Patrick was drinking what he always drank, an old-fashioned with Old Grand-dad whiskey and two spoonfuls of sugar. He also wore a finely tailored black suit, and he grinned, James thought, the way a hyena might.
"Here's the deal, Branch," said Patrick. "There's going to be some serious festivities around here, starting tonight."
"Okay," said James.
Patrick scowled. He didn't like to be interrupted. "I want you to be part of the action."
James nodded noncommittally.
"I want you to stop brooding. I want you to talk to some chicks and drink some alcohol."
James sipped his beer.
Patrick handed James four tickets, each slightly larger than a business card. The tickets were identical to one another, pure black, with the letters Spree written on one side in silver sheen cursive.
"For Duranigan's, Cherrywood's, the Lucas, and Minotaur's, said Patrick.
"Hmm." James pocketed the tickets.
"Those things are hot property, my friend."
"Okay. Um, thanks."
Patrick patted James's shoulder like a guidance counselor.
"For the next fortnight you're in my corps. All right? You know how long a fortnight is, Branchman?"
"A fortnight is two weeks," sighed James.
Patrick laughed his tinny, eerie laugh. "That is correct," he said.
James heard a thump and a creak in Patrick's bedroom. The creak sounded like the boxspring of a bed.
"What's that?" asked James.
"That is nothing," said Patrick.
The guests arrived at midnight. It was only a Tuesday, and not even Christmas yet, but spirits were high. Like Patrick most of the men had packed themselves into suits, and they swept into the apartment bearing bottles of Old Grand-dad for their host. James sat on the couch, nursing the same beer he'd held for an hour, watching the cast of the next two weeks take shape.
There was Henry Shaker, who worked at FAO Schwarz and who had one giant, united eyebrow. Wrapped in a white scarf that he refused to remove was Tony DiPreschetto, the surprisingly down-to-earth cellist, and with him was Jeremy Jax, a crabby actor. Two Iranian gentlemen sat beside James on the couch. They ate Toblerone chocolate and wouldn't reveal their names.
James noticed that none of Patrick's male friends ever had dates, except for a man named Checkers, who was part of Checkers and Donna, a notorious couple. Loads of single women came, though. A young nanny from Munich named Eva came, and so did Crispin, a bartender with a sharp, beakish nose. Marcy Conner, a sloe-eyed, uncommonly tall Preemption resident, drank champagne straight from a bottle. A serene Jewish girl, Sarah Wolf, posted herself beside the fish tank, and the lovely Hannah Glorybrook dropped in. Just by standing still Hannah made all the other women jealous, except for Liza McMannus, who had splendidly black skin and who, at twenty-eight, had already sold three screenplays to Paramount Pictures.
Besides Checkers and Donna the only other couple in the room consisted of young Nicole Bonner -- a teenager who lived in the Preemption penthouse -- and the much older man on her arm. A locally known rock singer named Freida showed up smoking a clove cigarette. She wore a red-and-white-striped candy-cane tube-suit and black boots and she told the Iranian gentlemen, when they approached her, to kindly fuck off. The real hit of the night, however, was Walter Glorybrook. He was a burly hot-dog vendor who lived on the sixth floor, and he brought to the party his trained pet ferret, Eisenhower. Both Walter and Eisenhower were incurable show-offs, and Walter took great delight in letting the ferret lap eggnog from a shot glass and scamper around the rock singer's ankles.
"Call off your beast," shrieked Freida, but Walter wouldn't, and everyone laughed. Sinatra crooned from the stereo.
"Let's play something," said Nicole. "Charades."
"Or Mindfuck," said Hannah.
"Scrabble?" said Marcy Conner. Marcy wrote for Powergirl magazine and loved words dearly.
"Let's get plastered," said Henry.
"Let's get schnockered," said Tony.
Eva wrinkled her forehead. "Let's get what?"
Nicole snapped her fingers. "Twister," she suggested.
The Iranians raised their glasses, winked at Freida.
James Branch sat among the loud, bright-minded guests.
He didn't want to insult Patrick's wishes by leaving, but he felt distinctly out of place, especially when Crispin the bartender and Walter Glorybrook began arm-wrestling on the coffee table. James felt even more befuddled when Sarah Wolf, who'd appeared to be shy and pleasant, swallowed three of Patrick's goldfish on a dare. Not long after that Crispin and Walter switched from arm wrestling to a heated debate about cryogenics, and James stood to go. He squeezed between bodies in his kitchen. A drunk girl seized his biceps.
"Where's the Jacuzzi?" she yelled over the music.
James pointed at nowhere, got past the girl. He headed down the crowded hall toward the foyer, toward Otis. In his way, though, gathered around the door to Patrick's bedroom, were Hannah Glorybrook, Freida, and the German au pair.
They were grinning and cackling, and Hannah held the wriggling ferret, Eisenhower, in her hands. When Freida opened Patrick's door a crack, Hannah shoved the animal inside.
"Hey," said James.
The women whirled around. Freida clicked the door shut.
"What're you doing?" said James.
Hannah showed James her teeth. "Nothing," she said sweetly.
Something behind Patrick's door squealed.
"Patrick doesn't like people messing with his room," said James.
Freida folded her arms on her chest. She was tall, and her hair curled over one eye like a sickle.
"And who are you?" she demanded.
"Patrick's housemate," said James.
The women backed off at that. They melted away into the party, still cackling.
James bit his lip and studied the closed door. He could hear Patrick's laughter in the distance, but for all James knew, ferrets could chew a bedroom to pieces inside of sixty seconds.
So, for the first time ever, James slipped into Patrick's room and closed the door behind him.
"Eisenhower?" whispered James. There was no light on, no switch on the wall. "Eisenhower?"
James heard the ferret chirp.
"Come on, Eisenhower." James slapped his thigh. "Come here."
"Patrick?" said a voice. "Patrick, is that you?"
James froze. The voice was human, female. It was in the room with him.
"Hello?" The voice sounded nervous.
"I'm not Patrick," James told the darkness. "I'm James. James Branch. Patrick's housemate."
"Oh." The voice cleared its throat. "Well, then, Patrick's housemate, could you please get this rodent off my stomach?"
James took three steps further. His eyes adjusted to the darkness, and there was enough moonlight from the window for him to see what lay on Patrick's bed. It was a naked young woman. She was spread-eagled on her back on top of the covers, with her ankles and wrists bound tightly with black neck-ties to the four bedposts. She had honey-colored hair, cut razor short, like a cadet's. Her body had curves that pleased men and angered women, and flitting back and forth across her nude torso was Eisenhower the ferret.
"Whoa." James looked at the floor. His face burned. "Hello -- I'm sorry to -- um. I should go."
"Please don't," said the young woman. "I'm so bored."
James glanced up, unable to resist.
"It's okay. You can look at me, I don't care, I've been here like this for hours. Just get this freaking ferret off me."
James drew in a breath. He had virtually no experience with naked women. He'd only ever had one real girlfriend, a fellow Pratt student named Eleanor, with whom he'd slept a shy handful of times. Eleanor, however, never stood or lay naked before James. She always wore an elaborate, drapey night-gown during sex. The nightgown was purple and billowy, like the robe of a high priestess, and James somehow got it in his head that women, during their high-school years, were issued such gowns to be used in their future lovemakings.
"Come on, Eisenhower." James swallowed hard, moved to Patrick's bedside, reached down carefully. "Come on, Eisenhower, let's go." The ferret screeched, tried to scurry, but James grabbed it. His fingers grazed the edge of a naked rib cage, but otherwise he didn't touch the young woman. He held the ferret up for her to see, as if she'd given birth to it.
The young woman rolled her eyes. "Little bastard. Honestly, who names a ferret Eisenhower?"
"Walter Glorybrook," said James. "Apartment six-F."
"It was a rhetorical question."
"Oh." James tried not to fixate on the splendid thighs be-fore him. He was still blushing.
The young woman sighed. "Toss him outside. But come back and talk to me."
"All -- all right."
James got rid of Eisenhower. He made sure the door was closed, then turned back to the bed. He picked up a blue flannel blanket off the floor, spread it over the naked stranger. It covered her from her toes to her neck.
"You don't have to do that," she said. "I'm past being modest."
James started loosening the necktie on the girl's left wrist.
"You'd better not untie me. It might piss him off. My name's Rally."
James dropped his hands. He stood blinking down at the young woman. "You mean, it might piss Patrick off?"
Rally sighed again. "Why don't you pull up a chair?"
James scanned the darkness around him. He peered out the window at the moonlight on the Hudson, looked over his shoulder at the door. Then, calling on all the bravado he possessed, he did what Rally had suggested. He pulled up a chair. He sat down.
"This, um," said James. "This is very strange."
"Tell me about it."
"Are you Patrick's girlfriend?"
"I don't know what I am."
James surveyed Rally's wrists and ankles. "Are you sure I shouldn't untie you?"
"Are you being ... punished?"
Rally shrugged. Neither of them spoke for a few moments.
"I'm not very good at talking to women," explained James.
"Don't worry. Right now, you could recite the alphabet and I'd be fascinated."
James shook his head. He took in Patrick's room, which contained nothing spectacular except for the stripped, bound woman. On the floor near the bed lay a black brassiere and other lacy trappings.
"This is weird," said James.
"You sound Spanish." Rally smiled at James for the first time. "Are you Spanish?"
"No. I, um. ..." James rubbed his neck. "I was tutored by a Venezuelan woman in high school. She helped me get over a stutter, and I sort of picked up her accent."
"Really? How'd you used to sound? You know, when you stuttered?"
James blushed. The blanket was thin, and he could still make out Rally's hips and nipples.
"Come on, tell me."
"All right." James spoke a few lines as his old self.
"Wow. You had it bad, all right."
"But now you're totally cured, huh?"
"I guess so."
"And I'm totally naked." Rally glanced to her left and her right. "I thought Patrick's room was off-limits. What'd you come in here for, anyway, James Branch?"
"Eisenhower. Some girls set him free in here. I, um, thought he might ... chew stuff up."
"Hannah and Eva are two of them. And a girl dressed like a candy cane."
"Morons," sniffed Rally.
Another lull happened. James thought of Eleanor, who'd always wanted to get dressed and play gin rummy immediately after sex.
"So, what do you do, James?"
James didn't answer. His groin had already swelled and deflated once. He stared out the window, focused on the river.
"Listen," he said, "I think I should untie you. Aren't you ... uncomfortable?"
"No," snapped Rally. "And me being tied up is none of your business."
Rally had her head turned so it was resting on the mattress, facing James.
"That's all right," she said. "Apparently, it's none of my business either. He never tells me why he does it."
"This isn't the first time?"
James surprised himself by almost laughing. He caught the laugh in his throat.
"Do you want me to go away?" he asked.
"I want you to talk to me. Tell me what you do."
James looked at Rally. She had high, rounded cheekbones and a finely drawn chin. He couldn't make out the color of her eyes, but he sensed there was power in them, a hard focus that matched the cut of her cheeks. James also guessed, without knowing how, that the young woman wasn't accustomed to wearing her hair short. Her face, though pretty, looked startled, as if it were as naked as her body and unused to full exposure.
"Hello? Earth to James?"
James blinked. "Yes. Sorry. Um. I'm an accountant, for Harrow East."
"A numbers man." Rally nodded. "So you live and work with Patrick. You must know all about him."
"I know nothing about him."
"But you party with him. You're partying with him tonight."
"Sort of. I was actually ... on my way out." James wore a floppy flannel shirt and jeans. Inside them he flexed his forearm and calf muscles, imagining how it might feel to have these muscles constrained, bound with rope, like Rally's were.
His glance drifted again over the length of the shrouded woman.
Rally followed his eyes. "Don't I have a good body?"
James ducked his head. "Sorry."
"Don't I, though?"
James nodded, still looking down.
"Patrick makes me stare at it. He makes me stand stripped in front of his mirror there and stare at my body."
James kept very still. He'd never heard a woman speak like this. He couldn't understand why she hadn't dismissed him.
"He wants me to understand that I'm sexy, I guess. So fine, I'm sexy. Right?"
James inspected his cuticles. "I should probably get going."
"Wait a minute. So, if I'm sexy, and he keeps me all naked and helpless in here while he's out there flirting, is that like some mambo turn-on?"
"I don't-- "
"Is that a guy thing?"
James looked at the young woman's feet sticking out from under the blanket. They were slim, petite. "I don't know. I've never ... tied someone up."
"Could you imagine it, though?" Rally fidgeted her shoulders, propped her head on a pillow. She peered at James as if they were study mates, as if they had a paper due. "Could you imagine trying it and having it totally rock your libido? You know, your sex drive?"
"This is really very weird," said James softly.
"Oh, cut that out."
"But -- look, I don't even know you."
Rally rolled her eyes. "I'm Rally McWilliams, I'm thirty-one, I'm a travel writer, I hang out at Minotaur's. Okay?"
"A travel writer?" James sat up a little straighter. "Really?"
"Oh, brother," sighed Rally.
"I'm sorry, I just..." James trailed off. He thought of Venezuela, of foods he imagined Anamaria cooking for her husband. He looked fully into the young woman's eyes.
"That just sounds like a good life," he said.
Rally opened her mouth, as if to vent a grievance, but she stopped. She noticed, finally, the fact of the slender young man beside her, the lazy cropping of his hair, the slouch of his jeans. He was sitting very quietly, with his hands almost folded in his lap, and, in the moonlight, the expression on his face was one of a rare, charming distress. Rally tilted her head, took a closer look at her attendant.
"Have we met before?" said Rally.
"I don't think so."
"You're cute around the eyes. You look sort of drowsy. You know?"
"Well," said James. "Um. Thank you."
Rally laughed. "I'm freaking you right out, huh?"
"I'm just ... not very good at talking to women."
"You said that already."
They looked at each other, full on. Through Patrick's window, which was slightly open, came the sound of distant carolers or drunkards, singing of Christmastime in the city. A dusting of snow lay on Patrick's window eave.
"Hey," said Rally, "how old are you?"
"Why were you so interested in my writing? Are you a big traveler, James Branch?"
Under his jeans James felt sweat on his kneecaps. He didn't know why he was sweating, except that the young woman's haircut was stark and lovely against the pillow.
"I used to want to be," said James.
"Yeah? Where'd you want to go? Maybe I've been there."
"The Himalayas," said James.
Rally smiled. "The rooftop of the world."
James's lower jaw dropped a fraction of an inch. He was about to recover, to address Rally's smile, when the bedroom door opened.
"Whoa." James jumped to his feet.
A body staggered through the door. In a block of light from the hallway the interloper turned a groggy pirouette. It was Crispin the bartender.
"Wheresa toilet?" she demanded. "Thissit?"
She started unbuckling her belt. Rally giggled, and James hurried over, got Crispin by the armpits. He tugged her into the hall, closed Patrick's door behind him.
"Hey, fella." Crispin leaned heavily on James, still fiddling with her belt.
"Keep your pants on," suggested James.
"Wheresa toilet, fella?"
James dragged the girl down the hall to the bathroom door.
"What's this?" It was Patrick, suddenly at James's side.
Crispin stood up, wearing a dignified expression, her pants at her knees.
"I muss evacuate bladder," she told Patrick.
Crispin fell into the bathroom. Patrick sniggered.
"She was lost," panted James, "wandering around."
Patrick smiled thinly. "You having fun?"
James peeked over Patrick's shoulder, into the kitchen, where Henry Shaker laughed into a cell phone, and Checkers and Donna were mashed against each other. James also glanced at the left breast pocket of Patrick's coat, which -- James was pretty sure -- was where Patrick carried his gun.
"I--" said James. "Sure. Yes. I am." His face was flushed, pulsing.
Henry guffawed into the phone, waved Patrick over.
"Rigg. Come hear this."
Patrick gave James a queer look, then patted his cheek.
"Good man," he said.
Patrick moved toward Henry, but cast a glance back at James. With his housemate looking on, James didn't dare return to Rally. Instead, his breath still quickened, he quit the apartment, hurried into the hallway and then the elevator. He pulled the lever, turned the key, and arranged himself on the floor.
"Otis," he whispered, "you aren't going to believe this."
Excerpted from Kissing in Manhattan by David Schickler. Copyright © 2001 by David Schickler. 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.