We were introduced at a party that my friend Rosen had thrown at his apartment. I don’t usually go to parties, and definitely not dinner parties. I love the idea of civilized people sitting around a table sharing a meal and a wonderful conversation, but it doesn’t usually go down like that, so I avoid them. Rosen had convinced me that he was cooking vegetarian and I would have a good time. I nodded and had no intention of going. The idea of even taking a bite of Al Rosen’s portobello mushroom steak, or even having to sit in that tiny little front room of his with three or four people I didn’t know smelling his cooking, and listening to them all smacking and talking with their mouths full about their jobs, and other people I didn’t know sounded like torture to me. I say I like people, but I really don’t like people at all.
The morning of the party, which I had totally forgotten about, Rosen called me up and asked me to bring some ice cream with me to the dinner party. I agreed and said I’d see him later. I called him back a couple of hours later to ask about the flavor. He said he didn’t care, bring vanilla. Vanilla? Ok. I decided that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Most people seem to like those dreary (and prematurely) coagulated ice cream disaster flavors like Pinko-Stinko and Woopie-Doopie which are supposed to be fun and yummy but only end up tasting like couch, or the unsampled brainstorm of some art school reject’s loud mouthed daughter. I like vanilla, and saw it as a good sign.
She was sitting at the window when I walked into the front room. the house didn’t have a particular odor, I was relived. She leapt right up off the window seat and stepped over the four smoking people sitting indian style and leafing through a picture book about hot air balloons and slipped her soft hand into mine. She had a twinkling set of eyes and a genuinely professional smile that charmed me. We stepped back over the couples and took a seat in the window together. She said her name was Netta. She knew Rosen from another friend of hers whom I actually knew. We talked about her, and how in love she had always been with Rosen. Rosen was gay. We all knew it. But that never seemed to stop the nicest girls from coming around and longing for him. He had gone bald early in his twenties and exhibited the confidence of a man who knew what was what. No silly comb-overs, or funny hats, Rosen was bald, and he wore the soft blonde mitt of hair around the sides of his head like the executive producer of ABBA. He had no apparent self-consciousness, and was generally a really good person.
The food was terrible. Rosen served some sort of philo dough concoction which had been undercooked. The soggy vegetables stuck to the bottom of the dish, and the dough was stiff and stuck together. About half way through the meal he asked if maybe the pie shouldn’t have been cooked a little longer. Everyone laughed, and Rosen laughed too. Netta spit her first bite back into the napkin, and I never even tried it. I just looked at it and could smell the frozen deli takeaway counter a mile away and just smiled, thinking I’d have instant mashed potatoes and toast with orange juice and water when I got home later. It was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. Cooking accidents are one thing, but it’s another matter entirely when you are trapped in an apartment with people who are leaning their heads back with pleasure and slurping up appetizers which smell of illness and experimentation. The rest of the night is usually an exchange of recipes and repeated compliments which blend so horribly with the smell of under or over cooked adventure food that it’s eleven o’clock before people realize they’ve got some mild form of gastroenteritis and have to go to the hospital.
We talked about other parties we’d been to where the food was bad. Rosen told the story of the canned clams. I love that story, and Rosen tells it exactly the same way every time. I think everyone had heard it before, but it’s always a treat to watch Rosen demonstrate the heimlich maneuver and you can almost hear the wet little splat of the unswallowed clump of clams as the scattered across the dining room floor, and the desperate gasp for air as the hungry bra-less woman began to breathe again. Clams aren’t for everyone. I haven’t had one in years, but I still remember how to eat them, one at a time, and very quickly. Rosen cleared the dishes and then suggested ordering a pizza. Netta looked into my eyes and whispered “Let’s get out of here” through the clutter of people who were cheering at Rosen’s defeat. I agreed and we got up, collected our things and said goodnight.
Out on the sidewalk we talked about going to a diner, or maybe to a late movie. Netta rode a 50cc scooter and suggested that we take it. She unlocked the front wheel, and handed me the keys. “You drive” she said. My first instinct was to recoil at the thought of driving a Yamaha scooter. I’d been a mod, and Vespa or Lambretta was the only scooter I would ever dream of riding. Netta stood there in the golden hue of the high pressure sodium vapor street lamp, the curve of her hips, the pleat of her skirt, and the long smooth legs which reached out toward the ground. I looked up at her eyes, twinkling at me and snatched the keys out of her hands. She sat behind me, and wrapped her arms around me. One way to make me fall in love with you immediately is to wrap your legs around me, and then hold on for dear life. I hate to admit that I’m as shallow as all that, but I am. There’s nothing I can do about it.
We set out for the diner, but the scooter ended up being a lot of fun to ride, Netta’s laughter danced into the night from behind me, her arms softly reaching into my pockets, and her bare knees digging into my thighs. I went back up the hill and we circled the park until I felt comfortable enough to pull up onto the sidewalk and ride us along the walking paths. After about twenty minutes of laughter and dangerous 50cc scooter adventure the sprinklers came on. We laughed harder and drove through the sprinklers. I pulled off the sidewalk and back into the street and drove all the way down Oak street to Market, and then all the way down Market to the pier. By the time we got there we were freezing cold and our clothes were wet. Netta’s eyes twinkled at mine, and we kissed. She smelled delicately of soap and flower petals. Her hair was dark, and so were her eyes. She seemed to love everything I said, and could meet me in the middle with a story, or observation of her own. She was beautiful, she liked me, I was very happy for a moment.
Later at Netta’s apartment we lay there for a long time in her soft bed. We wore our underpants and caressed each other. She felt soft, and clean, and gentle. We twilighted and caressed like that until the sun came up when she looked me in the eye and said “Doesn’t this make you crazy?” I choked back the urge to ask what she meant, and removed her panties and we made love. Something about me you should know, something Rosen doesn’t even know, is that I’d rather spend the whole night kissing you, caressing you, loving you, and never enter you, or even come really. My sense of romance and intimacy are more rooted in the visceral experience of tenderness, or a non verbal dialog. I would rather feel you shiver in my arms over and over than get off on you. To me, if you mean it, and you surrender to it, then I am full, I am content, I am safe from any harm and love you back completely. I’ve been with women who only want to be pounded, or feel that they know what I want, but unless they know themselves very well, or are willing to find out about themselves, discover the fear, and pass through it elegantly, then there’s no point really. Not that straight sex isn’t nice, a quickie on the airplane, or up against a wall in the rain is very romantic, erotic because it’s dangerous and impulsive. But that isn’t my idea of lovemaking. Rosen says it’s because I’ve never liked sports and while I’m competitive, I am anticompetitive by nature and the idea of sport fucking is just not in my vocabulary. Rosen is proud of his sizable pouch and likes to use it. I have been known to admit that sometimes I wished that my penis would wither and drop off of my body. Regardless, Netta and I consummated our affection for one another and I evaporated for a week or so. She looked into my eyes and actually told me that she felt I was a wonderful lover, so I wasn’t responding to fear or doubt. I felt violated. I wanted to caress her, to share the hours between sundown and sunrise, the smell of sprinkler water still in our hair, and caress each curve of her, every soft curly hair, the tip of her clitoris as it retracted and swelled with arousal. I was not at all interested in spreading her legs and taking her. But after a few hours, it seems, Netta lost patience, and wanted something more traditional. So I responded, which I am certainly capable of. Being a people pleaser, I wanted her to be happy, and I wanted her to like me, so I gave in.
A week later Rosen called me up.
“Call Netta you idiot.”
“Just call her ok?”
I called her and she was hurt that I hadn’t spoken with her in a week. I apologized and tried to explain that I was embarrassed, but I don’t think I knew what was wrong, or why I hadn’t called her. I felt bad. I felt hurt. So did she. Netta suggested lunch. I agreed. We met in the basement of Macy’s on Union Square. A strange place to meet for a meal, but I assumed that she worked near there, and maybe she ate there all the time. We had salad, and talked. She explained that she liked me very much, and that she would like to see me. I explained that I liked her very much, and that I would like to see her. Her eyes twinkled back at me, and I felt myself being drawn into the bubble of her all over again. We didn’t talk after that for the rest of the meal. I know I’m not explaining this very well, but not much was said, so there’s really not much more to tell than this sort of summarial overview. It was after lunch, standing on the sidewalk by myself without the details of our second date, or next meeting that I began to question the whole thing. I wondered.
Later that night I got a telephone call and Netta wanted to come over to my apartment. I agreed, and in about three minutes the buzzer sounded. I looked out the window and there she was, with flowers. I made a little pasta with Sagra olive oil, and crushed garlic. We ate and we drank water and talked about the world. She told me about a man she had been seeing, a guy in advertising. I told my only story about advertising where I thought it might be creative and interesting, but it was dull and essentially an industry full of people who were always afraid of losing their jobs. Nothing like fear and lies to motivate an industry. While I was talking, and the whole story was rote, I’d told this tale of disillusion so many times I could think about my toes and the all the things I had to do tomorrow while I told it, I noticed that Netta’s hair was long and straight. The last time I’d seen her it was crunched up and wavy. I tried to remember if her hair had been straight at lunch. I couldn’t remember.
She moved in shortly after our fifth date. Her things were much nicer than my things. I liked the way her black leather chair looked with my rose print over stuffed couch. We made tea and admired the apartment. Netta was happy. She was so happy that her eyes changed from a reflective brown to a bright blue. Her hair curled and uncurled, lightened from almost black to almost blonde. The curve of her hip swayed from slight to heavy, and back again to almost boyish. We grocery shopped together in silence and made love every single night. She wanted to get pregnant, I didn’t figure that out right away, but the thrill of a woman looking into your eyes, her chest covered in beads of sweat, whispering “I want you to come inside of me” is just about the most arousing thing a woman can say, so for a few weeks we flirted with disaster, and eventually she just came out and said things like “Shoot your load” and “I want your sperm to fertilize me, enter me, harder, deeper, take me, give me a child.” She would curl her legs up into a ball and rock back and forth afterward. I think it was to allow my semen a better opportunity to reach their instinctual goal of her egg, but it was alienating. I wanted to caress, and softly touch, to talk. she was on a mission and as sad as it made me feel sometimes, it was kid of charming.
We had two children before we were married in the city hall offices of San Francisco. Our daughter, Helen, had green eyes and hair like mine. Our son, Albert, who we named after Rosen, had brown eyes and a kinky black afro. Netta’s eyes were beige and her hair was a flaming red bob. I thought the bob was a little much, but I never said anything about it. We were trying for a third child, she wanted another girl, when I realized that something was wrong. We were talking in bed one night and was, as I always did, softly caressing her thigh with my head on her abdomen, and I sensed that she was sleeping with someone else. It was acceptable that her ethnicity continued to change and shift, her hair was different from day to day, and sometimes she would say more about this man who was in advertising. Sometimes she would point out a billboard he had designed, or talk about the brand of shirt he liked best. She knew his sizes, and they spoke often on the telephone.
It was when she decided to introduce herself to one of my friends as Annette that I began to question my sanity. Netta had said that she hated her name because of the Mickey Mouse Club, and how with dark curly hair and dark eyes people invariably made reference to Annette Funicello. Annette Funicello had been a little disney sweetheart in the 60’s but had grown up to make Skippy Peanut Butter commercials, or was it Jif? I don’t remember, but the point is that this lady was a has-been, and Netta was embarrassed about her kindly nature, and easy smile and couldn’t stand being compared to some dweeby 60’s ex-star of the Mickey Mouse Club. I always thought that Bobby and Roy were really strange. They were these old guys who considered themselves kids and ran around with the rest of the gang singing songs and grinning like they were fifteen. I assumed, like my camp leaders and teachers, that they were creeps out for kicks with kids. But none of that mattered, and now that Netta had eyes the color of the sky and thick, sun bleached, blonde hair with sturdy swimmers shoulders and broad feet it was somehow acceptable for her to introduce herself as Annette.
I decided to leave her. I rented an apartment downtown, nothing nice, but something I could tolerate for a while. I just packed up a few things and moved one day. I left a note and included my new phone number asking Netta to call me if I was wrong, or if she wanted me back. I couldn’t go on living with her or these children whom were definitely not mine. Netta had never stopped seeing this man in advertising, and I suppose, as cruel as my departure was, there was just one too many sample products in the bathroom, and one too many Foot Cone and Belding 3M calendars in the kitchen for me to feel that there was any hope of ever being embraced in return, or caressed with the sort of delicate ambition and serious interest which my heart longed for. I was gone, and Netta never called.
I got a call from Rosen about two months after I moved.
“Buddy.” He said “I gotta talk to you.” Everyone called me Buddy. Did I introduce myself? It doesn’t matter. If you’ve gotten this far then you already know me. So let’s move on.
“I saw Annette and the kids.”
“They were downtown.”
“Buddy, they were downtown with one of those cardboard signs.”
I looked for them out of the taxi window. I thought about the man in advertising hammering away at Netta’s crotch. I remembered the sweet smell of her skin, and the nice things she would say. I remember when Albert began to speak. I wanted to find them, but I didn’t see them anywhere.
After meeting the face of a college student at the door of what had been our home, I sat alone at the lunch counter below Macy’s eating a salad and replaying our conversation in my head.
“Hi there, who are you?”
“Um…” She looked past me “Who are you?
“Is Netta here?” I asked, laughing.
She said she lived there for several years, and there had never been anyone there named Netta, or Annette. Nothing in the apartment seemed even familiar to me. There were a few less rooms, and the place needed a coat of paint. I searched the butter lettuce in my bowl with the plastic fork, and began to question if it had been Steiner or was it Fillmore? Where was that apartment? I decided I’d go and see Rosen. I wasn’t feeling too well, and I needed to see for myself with the grip of someone more well grounded than I was if everything was as I remembered it.
Rosen’s apartment building was no longer there. I stood there, at fifteenth and market in the parking lot of the gas station staring at the vacant lot across the street. “What the fuck?” I said aloud, running my fingers through my hair. I looked behind me and saw the Swedish American Hall, just like I’d expected to see. The Safeway sign loomed at the top of the hill, and everything was as it should be. Yet, impossible as it was to believe, Rosen’s building was simply not there. It was gone.
I dialed his number on the Call anywhere in the USA or Canada for 50¬¢ pay phone and he answered the phone.
“Rosen?” I said.
“I’m sorry you must have the wrong number.”
He hung up.
I didn’t have another fifty cents, so I walked to the gas station and bought a five pack of juicy fruit from the blank overweight man behind the glass. It was seventy nine cents. I still didn’t have enough to make the phone call, so I asked the man for four quarters and slipped a dollar bill through the slot in the glass. He plopped the quarters into the divot one at a time, and i collected them. The man smiled.
“How long ago did they tear that building down?” I asked.
“The building” I said pointing behind the gas station. “When did they tear it down?”
I smiled at the man and walked back to the phone. I dialed Rosen again and he answered. I knew it was him.
“Rosen, it’s Buddy.”
“I’m sorry.” Rosen almost sang into the phone. “You still have the wrong number.”
“Rosen! Cut the crap. Stop being such a…”
He hung up.
I went back to my apartment and just sat there for a while. I looked through the pictures in my wallet. My sister, my mother, a few maxed out credit cards. No pictures of my kids, no pictures of Netta. I’d left with almost nothing, but I did bring my wallet. Where were my pictures? I tore everything apart. I searched the box I’d brought, my book bag, my jackets, I re searched my wallet and in the end I found no evidence of ever having been married, or ever having fathered any children. I called my mother, the phone rang several times before I remembered that she was dead. She’d been dead almost ten years. I waited, listening to the telephone ringing, wondering who had her phone number now. When no one answered I placed the handset back into the charger and lay on the bed for a long time and wept.
The next time I saw Netta we were at a street corner downtown. I walked up behind her. I knew it was her because she was still wearing that pleated skirt, and soft black cardigan. Her hair was crunched up and shined in the afternoon sun. I stood there smelling her hair, my nose almost nuzzled into the black curls at the base of her neck. The soft aroma of soap, and flower petals rose up into my nostrils and I whispered “Netta.” She did not respond. So I said it softly, right into her ear,” Netta.” The light changed and she walked forward across the street. I stood there, on my corner, adjusted my sign and shouted “Bitch!” at the top of my lungs. The entire crowd of people turned as if something unexpected had happened. It was Netta all right. Her deep, root-beer colored eyes, and swollen red lips. It was unmistakable. “Annette Funicello!” I shouted after her. “Annette fucking Funicello!” The moment was gone. The crowd turned and continued on their way.
I adjusted my cup, and propped the sign up against the newspaper dispenser and zipped up my jacket. Someone tossed some change into the cup. I looked up and said “Bitch!” San Francisco sucked now. It was nothing like it used to be.