In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I am nineteen, standing behind the Coach
counter at Macy’s Herald Square.
This feels like my first real job: I take
a bus to the city; I wear a suit;
I ask strangers if I can help them,
even though I actually can’t help them,
since I know so little about leather goods.
But I want to help. I am cleanshaven,
virginal, terrified, thrilled, alternately
self-conscious and dazzled into out-
of-body experience. I float above
the Coach counter and look down to see
myself, tie knotted several days ago
by my father, then carefully removed
each night by me to preserve the knot.
Around me is Men’s, around me
is Macy’s, around me is Thirty-Fourth,
and Manhattan, and I lean forward
over the glass, breath held, because
I have an inchoate sense that this is life,
and that New Jersey, where I’m from,
is just the starting gate where life waits —
a racehorse, spurred and whipped
at the pistol, who just won’t run.
And yet nothing happened that summer.
I was initiated into nothing.
I knew enough to understand there were
other experiences, places nearby
I could legally walk into where all
manner of consumption was possible:
there were hours after hours, rooms
to spend the night in that didn’t involve
taking the bus back to New Jersey.
Let’s be clear: I’m talking about
men, multiple men, and drugs,
nighttime as a method of operation,
a range of textures that, twenty years later,
I have still admired only behind glass:
the price tag, the softness of the leather,
the “grain,” as we called it, as if it were
a kind of wood, the once-living skin
that, if cared for, lasts decades.
Truth is, I waited behind that counter
for life to walk up and extend its long finger —
maybe the jointed bones of a skeletal hand
or something simian, the dark, knuckly
digit of an ape — and tap down hard
on the glass, then turn swiftly, drawing me
Pied Piper–like after it. My supervisor,
a portly fifty-year-old with a lisp and a gap
between his front teeth, did ask me to dinner,
but I refused with a silent, emphatic
shake of the head. Aside from that,
summer wore on, showing me nothing.
Except once. The day he walks in —
his face like light, so much so that I wonder
if he’s an albino or has vitiligo.
But he has freckles, and his hair
is pale red and his eyes pale blue.
He doesn’t look at me, just down at the glass,
his long red lashes lowering over his eyes.
Blue? Just barely, like watercolor diluted
to the point where it runs down the page.
A man is with him. Both seem impossibly
tall, with wide chests and small waists.
As the redhead looks down through the glass,
the second man leans against him and smiles.
Do I desire them? At first glance you might
assume we were different species:
fleshy and awkward as I am, with my bloated
tie knot and bar mitzvah suit, trundling thing
smearing the counter glass with his palms;
and them like palm trees — cool, tropical,
a sure sign you are somewhere you can’t
really afford to stay. I do speak to them.
I ask if they want to see something.
I ask if they are shopping for an occasion.
Then I try to think of something else, but
the red-haired one shakes his head slightly
and turns away without ever making
eye contact. His companion follows,
and they stroll off together, in love, I imagine,
visitors from some country where men
are all built on a different scale, where
skin is always clear and lashes always auburn,
a mountaintop place where humans grow
longer and more graceful in the thinner air.
It seems as if they have come down just
to meet me over this glass barrier,
to show me something of life, since I have,
in fact, taken a bus all the way up from
Morganville and walked eight crowded blocks
from Port Authority. You can get this
close, they seem to say. The copper fringe
of the redhead’s lashes sweep down as he looks
past me to the glass. You can get just this close.
Benjamin S. Grossberg