stood at the window, staring at the late night streets. All too soon there would be those first tentative walkers, anonymously muffled against the chilled morning air. They would be joined by others, growing bolder and more confident in their destinations. I thought myself thankful I would not have to join them.
I turned and surveyed the room. The remains of the work of the last month lay strewn around the suite: discarded papers and sketches, emptied wine bottles and brimming ashtrays. “God, what a wreck,” I said aloud. The echo of my voice, in a room that had been so long silent, startled me. For the past month, I had lived on room service, solitude and my work.
The final results of this feverish month were neatly stacked and labeled for my secretary Gwen to pick up in the morning. Gwen was anxious to see the new summer line; her enthusiasm was almost overwhelming. It was her wide-eyed approach to life that caused me to hire her. All city people must have seemed odd to her then. In our initial contact I must have appeared as one of them; powerful, polished and no less eccentric or inapproachable. If after ten years she realized my life style was more bizarre than most, she let no condemnation of it affect our friendship.
The answering machine light beckoned me, but I decided that the phone messages could wait until after I showered and slept. It was far too long since I had attended to personal needs, so immersed was I in my designs. I laughed to myself about how I would appear to the fashion world at this moment. Disheveled and unkempt, I couldn't be that same person known for her elegant and romantic fashions, her fastidious attention to details. “You're old enough to know better,” I addressed my mirrored image and appraised the damage done as I removed my jeans and shirt. I distrusted mirrors; one of my greatest fears, especially after one of my extended work periods, was that I would fade away to nothing. I was pleased to find that I was not as insubstantial as I felt; I was perhaps thinner and paler than usual, but still very much alive. I turned out the light, removed my contact lenses and stepped into the shower.
Some light filtered into the room from the hall, just enough so that I could see small tufts of steam rising. A hot shower had always been an almost religious experience for me; I enjoyed the feel of the water flowing over my body, relaxing, caressing and renewing. A new twist, in these later years, was the almost pitch blackness of the bathroom, a condition once made necessary by my extremely light-sensitive eyes. Now with new and improved contacts, I could shower in the light, but I had found the combination of darkness and water so intimate and sensuous that I could not bear to violate their union.
Afterwards, I wrapped myself in a towel and prepared the suite for my sleep. The outer rooms would need to be left single locked only, so that the hotel staff could get in. Whoever has tomorrow's shift will have quite a job, I thought to myself, remembering the condition of the room, but shrugged the guilt away knowing that sleep was what I needed most.
Picking up my lenses from the bathroom, I entered the bedroom and triple locked the door behind me. Only I had a complete set of three keys in my possession; the hotel had one of them, Gwen had a second and Max had the third. Privacy in sleep is essential to me. I closed the blinds, pulled the heavy drapes shut and crawled into bed. It was almost sunrise.
“Please, God, no dreams,” I prayed. I felt my body relax, and I slept.
My slumber was burdened by interruptions that day; I felt, rather than heard, the sounds of life all around me. The cursing of the maid cleaning the outer rooms, Gwen's tentative knock and entry, the rustling of pages and her call of “sleep well,” as she left, the traffic from outside and the elevator bell further down the hall, even the insistent whirr of the telephone answering machine; all these noises filtered into my sleeping consciousness. I wondered if people in a coma felt this way, semi-aware of life continuing around them, but powerless to make a response. I envisioned myself, lying on my back on the bed, eyes wide open yet seeing nothing, seemingly dead. A moment of panic ensued; if I should die, how long would it take to be discovered? Almost as soon as the thought entered my head, I dismissed it. I was not dead, and although there was a time when I desired death, it would not come now.
Eventually the sounds ceased and sleep came, magically deep. When I finally awoke, I perceived that the sun had already set. The noise from outside seemed sharper and more distinct; the smell of the air crisp and cold. The alarm clock read 6:30
I stretched, yawned, and listened to the wind buffeting the windows. As I listened, I became aware of my growing hunger. Once recognized, it threatened to overwhelm me, an engulfing need that must be met soon. It had been too long, I knew. I needed music and talk, a drink, a man. I would find all these things at Max's.
Unlocking the bedroom door, I went into the bathroom. In the medicine cabinet, I found another pair of lenses, dark amber, as close to my original eye color as could be found. They would be fine for tonight, enough to shield my eyes from headlights and barlights. My needs urgently prodded me as I washed, brushed my teeth and applied my makeup. My hair, snarled from the day's sleep, took longer to comb than I wished. The blood in my veins pounded the count of each endless second. It took no time to choose my clothes; I knew what it would be. “Black leather,” I smiled to myself. “For Max.”
Before I called the doorman to arrange for a cab I checked the mirror. The black leather jeans were supple and tight, like a second skin, but the lace blouse softened the effect. I wore high heels to enhance my height of 5'3”âI liked to look people in the eyes. My hair, a deep auburn, almost mahogany, curled around my face and fell below my shoulders. My skin was pale, almost translucent, but the makeup helped to disguise this pallor. One final critical glance in the mirror told me that I looked good, even better than I should. I removed my coat from the closet, the one I called my wolf coat; the fur was shaggy and coarse and the color was a shadowy gray. It was a huge fashion success for me last season. I put it on and went for the phone.
I was surprised that when I picked it up there was someone already on the other end. “Yes?” I said, my voice rough and my manner abrupt.
“Deirdre, where have you been? I've been trying to reach you for weeks. What's the use of that damn answering machine if you never listen to the tape?”
“Sorry, Max,” I said indulgently. “I've been working.”
“Your obsession with your work will kill you one day. I know you haven't been taking care of youself. Get over here now and I'll fix you up. But hurry, we close early tonight. It's Thanksgiving, you know.”
I didn't know. “I'm calling the cab now,” I said, hanging up and then dialing the doorman.
He greeted me as I got off the elevator. “Miss Griffin, the cab will be here in a few minutes. I'd advise you to wait in the lobby as it's a very cold night.”
I didn't mind the cold, but I smiled my acceptance at his suggestion. The smile was all the encouragement he needed. “You've not been out for a while. Are you well?” He had perfected the obsequious manner, courteous yet subservient, and the hotel patrons tipped him well.
I was no exception. In fact, I had become even more generous with the staff since I began hearing the whispers about me. Innuendos and speculative comments about aspects of my life had begun to filter through partially closed doors. This always made me nervous, almost paranoid, so I tipped well. I discovered that people would be unlikely to ask questions or turn on you if you did. “Never bite the hand that feeds you,” I murmured to myself.
“Miss Griffin?” he questioned. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, I'm sorry, Frank, I was thinking of something else. I'm fine. I've just been working too hard.”
The cab pulled up to the front door; he ushered me outside and into the backseat. I thanked Frank and instructed the driver, “The Ballroom, please.”
Over ten years ago, Max had purchased a small nightclub in midtown. He had christened it the “Ballroom of Romance” and had retained me to provide the decor. Thrilled at the prospect of leaving a bad situation, I jumped at the chance. We decided on a Victorian approach; lace and hearts, black and white silk wallpaper, heavy fringe on the small lamps adorning the walls. The dance floor was surrounded by the bar and individual heart-shaped tables. It became one of the most popular clubs in town, an instant success for Max and for me. My services were suddenly very much in demand and after several years of interior design work, I was able to move into my first love, clothing. I could never quite believe my good luck, and always suspected that Max was much more involved in my initial jobs than he would admit. Over the years we had become the best of friends; he became my sole confidant and knew everything about me. His understanding of my needs and desires and his sympathy for my problems were boundless. I would have married him, but he never asked.
“Hey, lady, there's a crowd. Want to go somewhere else?” I came out of my reverie at the sound of the cabdriver's voice.
“No thank you,” I said with confidence, consulting the meter. “They're expecting me.”
“Suit yourself,” he said after I paid him.
There was a crowd, even on Thanksgiving. My stomach tightened with an anxious anticipation; I hoped Max told them I was coming. I should not have worried though, for Larry was there to greet me at the door.
“Miss Griffin, so nice to see you.” He smiled, and as his handsome face lit up with that smile, I regretted my promise to Max not to fraternize with his employees.
“Thank you, Larry. It's nice to see you, too.”
“We have your regular table reserved. Just follow me.” He parted the crowd and I watched the way his body moved as he walked in front of me. The smell of his cologne floated back to me and I inhaled it appreciatively. Of course, Max was right; I came here too often to get involved with the help. So, although tempting, Larry was off limits.
“What a shame.” I sighed as I sat at the table. Then, loudly enough to be heard over the music, I ordered my usualâa special burgundy Max kept reserved for me. I lit a cigarette while I waited, and began to watch the dancers. The dance floor was crowded with the usual types: mostly rich and bored young people anxious to show off their latest fashions and their latest lovers. Some, however, were people who had saved for months to be here this evening. I could tell who they were by their clothes and by their obvious delight of finally being here. They were continually glancing around, to find any celebrity they could. They must be disappointed, I thought as I looked around the club myself. Since it was Thanksgiving, the most famous and glamorous had better things to do. Still there were a few, who like me had no family or friends with which to celebrate the occasion. God, I thought bitterly, how I hate holidays.
The band changed to a slow plaintive love song. One of Max's rules was that out of every musical set only two songs could be fast. The rest had to fit the club's themeâromance. “People come here to grope and grab,” he told me in one of his cynical moods. “They will do things on the dance floor they would never do anywhere else but in the privacy of their own homes.” He was right, of course. You could almost feel the heat exuding from the dancers. Some couples barely moved, so engrossed were they in the fit and feel of each other's bodies. Other nights this exhibitionist behavior offended me; tonight it merely intensified my mood. Max would come through for me, and provide a vibrant young body I could grasp and caress, while anticipating the final moment of rapture and release. I could, for a short time, be like one of the people on the dance floor.
I jumped, startled by the hand suddenly placed on my shoulder. I spun around in my seat to find Max standing there, an apologetic look on his face and my wine in his hand. He set the wine on the table, and brushed the hair from my neck to deposit a light, teasing kiss on the nape of my neck. I shuddered and he moved away. “Please don't,” I said, smiling to remove some of the sting of the words and the shudder, “you know how ticklish I am.”
“Sorry, love. I was just thinking how lovely your neck is. You should wear your hair up.” He sat in the chair next to mine, a challenge in his eyes. I didn't want to rehash the same old arguments tonight, didn't want to get involved in the discussions of how Max thought I should dress or style my hair, or even live my life. I looked away and ground out my cigarette. He received no response; my silence was answer enough.
“I know,” he said, sounding chastened, “you like it that way. Let's just drop it, shall we?” I looked up from my study of the wine. He was dressed in a black tuxedo impeccably tailored and correct, accentuating the lean but muscular body underneath. His teeth were white and even, and his hands, resting on the table, were strong. His dark hair, I knew, was becoming streaked with grey at the temples, although his face showed no sign of aging. It saddened me to think of Max growing old; how could I survive without him?
“You've been away too long, Deirdre.” His teasing manner was gone and his concern for me showed on his face. “You should stop doing this to yourself. You look ghastly. I know your work is important, but you've got to live a little, too. If you're not careful, you'll lose your touch. I don't think you can exist very long as a hermit.”