My Signature Moves
posted Apr 15, 2008
Over his sink, Benji nudged the cork from a bottle of Belgian beer. “Let’s put some lead in our pencils,” he said, and poured me a glass. Years ago, Benji was my ex-boyfriend’s best friend’s little brother. Now he is my own little brother, my own best friend. It was his housewarming.
We sat on the couch—a second-hand velvet sectional, gold—and drank the beer while we waited for the guests to arrive. One story beneath us, we could hear the howls of cats having sex on the street.
“Did you know male cats have barbed penises?” I said.
“No way!” said Benji.
“It’s so the females can’t escape,” I told him.
The dusk was beige over Bushwick Avenue. We talked about getting older.
It was a spacious apartment, endearing in the Brooklyn way—linoleum in unlikely places; access to a fire escape through the living room window; a strange half-room that radiated off the kitchen at the top of two steps. At twenty-five, Benji was happy to be in his first comfortable home. “See this corner?” he yelled, waving at a space in the corridor between his bedroom and Chad’s. “I could fill this entire corner with pillows with tassels on them. I’d be like a pasha!”
“It’s stunning,” I agreed. I was twenty-nine. “Just bloody stunning. I’m so proud of you.”
When the buzzer sounded Benji leaped to answer it, his cupped hand connecting the intercom to his ear. “Whaddaya got?” he said into the intercom grill.
The voice that came through was Joe’s—I knew it from the throaty vowels. “I’ve got six Bud tallboys,” he said. “That good enough?”
“Eh,” Benji whined, “she told you this was a sophisticated party, right?”
“Okay,” said Joe. “I also have seven million dollars.”
“Okay.” He pressed the key button to let Joe in.
Joe came in smiling, but looking sad—he looks sad even when he is happy. I plucked the six-pack of cans from his hand and passed them over my shoulder to Benji, then I kissed Joe on the mouth. Sweaty after his walk from the subway, he smelled like clean laundry and deodorant. I didn’t want to let go of him.
“You okay, baby?” he said in my temple. “Why are you clinging?”
“It’s nothing,” I told him. “It’s nothing. We’ve been talking about getting older, that’s all.”
Joe stepped back and looked at Benji and me, narrowing his eyes, satisfied. “Getting older,” he said. “I don’t recommend it. Who wants a beer?”
“Me,” said Benji.
“Me,” I said.
One of the apartment’s “sophisticated” features was an honest liquor cabinet, mahogany, with tiny locks. Chad knelt to open it, took out a bottle of cream-colored liquid, and stood up briskly. “I’m so glad I remembered I had this!” he said, and shook the bottle. He closed the cabinet with his foot.
“I bet you love living here with Benji,” I said. Chad pumped the bottle back and forth and made its insides an opaque froth. “I’m sure he’s the ideal roommate.”
“Yeah, he’s the best,” said Chad. “He’s got a halo around him, like the Dalai Lama.”
I nodded. “He has an earnestness,” I said.
Chad said, “He’s a prince of a man.”
I said, “He has a serenity.”
Chad said, “He’s like Mother Teresa.” He poured all the creamy liquid out of the bottle into a blender. “You want some of this, right?”
“Sure.” I shrugged. “What is it?”
The blender’s whir was loud, so everyone started talking louder. In the crowd I counted three of my ex-boyfriends and one of their current girlfriends, a woman named Dora with a screechy laugh. When the blender cut off I heard Dora say It’s so surreal that we’re HERE at all, right?
There were no more plastic cups on the kitchen counter, so I opened the closet to look for a real glass. Inside the closet, in the space between the shelves where wallpaper might be, were a hundred or so credit cards pasted to the wall. They were glossy and bright as traffic signs—the iconic colors of MasterCard, Visa, Amex, Bank One, Citgo, Rodger & Tess Intimates, Cirrus, Seven-Eleven, Duane Reade, Blockbuster, Verizon, and more. I swung the closet door open and shut, watching the light slide over them. “What the fuck?” I said.
“Oh yeah, isn’t that sweet?” Chad said, stepping up behind me with the blender pitcher. I chose a glass and he poured the pitcher out into it—the piña colada was thick and yellow. “Those were there when we moved in. I guess the last tenants thought they could leave the debt behind.”
“Whoa,” I marveled. “Have you tried to use any of them? Do they work?”
“I’m sure they don’t work,” said Chad. “And that’s probably unethical anyway, right?”
“Oh, Chaddy, yes,” I said, to cover my embarrassment. “It is unethical.” I sipped the piña colada, which was so strong it made me grimace. I sighed, “Oh, ethics.”
“Maybe we’ll try it later on,” Chad shrugged, and patted me on the shoulder.
“Hey,” said Joe as he came in from the bathroom. “You having fun talking to this guy?”
We sat on the fire escape, on the black slatted steps that left Venetian-blind lines on our jeans. Below us, cats yowled in the mating frenzy. We could see the lights on the Williamsburg Bridge, the mosaic of narrow houses, slanted columns of pavement, shadows on aluminum siding and front stoops. “I don’t mind getting older, I promise I don’t mind it,” I murmured. I held Joe’s hand still to keep his arm around my waist.
“It’s just hard to stop worrying about it when you’ve been worrying about it all your life,” he said. He kissed my cheek, then pressed the lime wedge against the inside of the neck of his Corona and sipped it.
Benji was leaning against the rail. He said, “Worry is a great poison. I read recently that all worry is is a signal that you’re making choices against your personal life path. All you have to do is trust yourself in any choice you make, and then you won’t worry about anything.”
“That sounds too much like religion to me,” said Joe.
“You know he’s right, though,” I said, raising my Corona to Benji and loving him.
“You didn’t go and find Christ, did you baby?” Joe asked.
“No,” I said. “But I think he’s right about trusting yourself. Going with your gut.”
“But what happens if you trust yourself to make a choice and then you find out later that it was the worst choice you possibly could have made?” said Joe. “Like when you have to go to prison?”
“That just means you didn’t trust yourself when you made the choice in the first place,” said Benji. “Or maybe it was the best choice, but later the best choice changes to become the exact opposite.” He put his hands on his hips. “I mean, probably not in the prison scenario—I guess I’m talking about decisions that are within the bounds of the law.”
“Are you a Buddhist?” Joe asked.
“No, I’m a Jew,” said Benji.
Down on the sidewalk, two girls in flowing crepe skirts stopped walking. “Hey can I ask you a question?” one of them said. The other didn’t answer.
“I say this not having read Four Noble Truths or anything,” I said, “and not having studied the tenets of Zen closely, but of all the forms of organized thought—I don’t want to say religion—it seems the most appealing to me. Buddhism too; I like the idea that people can achieve oneness with a divine source, that everyone can do it, because everyone contains that spark. Of the divine.” I took a hard swig at my beer; the lime wedge bumped against my teeth.
“Hey!” said the girl on the sidewalk. “Hey? Hello?”
I said, “I mean most religions believe that, about God being connected to humans, but in Zen Buddhism, Zen and Buddhism, it just seems more cut-and-dry, you know? Less bells and whistles about sinning, morality, guilt. It’s less heavy-handed.”
Benji nodded and looked serious.
The girls on the sidewalk jumped up and down, their high heels clattering on the cement. “Hey guys!” said the first.
The second said, “Hey! Balcony!”
We all turned around.
They wanted directions to the subway. Benji waved into the distance and said, “Two blocks up!”
The first girl mimicked his wave and said, “Really? Two blocks that way?”
Joe broke away from me, got to his feet and leaned over the rail. “I know,” he called down, “I get confused about that too. What you want to do is stay on the west side of the street, that’s the left side, and go just past the gas station here. Got it?”
“Got it,” she said. Her friend elbowed her in the ribs.
“Okay, then at that next block hang a left, and the entrance is there, it’s just a little ways up the block.” Joe crossed his feet behind him. Light from the streetlamp shone through the hair on his arms. I still wonder now if Joe was the handsomest man in history, just that night, just at that exact moment. “Just look to your left when you get past the gas station; you’ll see it,” he said. “All right?”
The first girl said, “Thanks so much!”
The second said, “Thank you so much!” and wiggled her fingers above her head.
With a White Russian beside my arm on the desk, I sat at the computer in Chad’s bedroom. “It’s letting me buy this,” I said. “The card is good! It’s letting me buy underwear!” My knees bounced in the ergonomic chair.
I had chosen three hundred dollars’ worth of lingerie from the website of Rodger & Tess Intimates. A browser window enumerated the items: Alison bra, Riviera Collection panty, Stefanie camisole, Thong Angelique, and so on. “This stuff is like five bucks per boner,” I said.
“You think I’m only getting sixty boners out of that, total?” asked Joe over my shoulder.
I said, “How many do you have now?” The almost-naked girls in the online catalogue were so different from me—they were little molded pieces of sugar, delicate, brittle.
“This is making me nervous,” said Chad over my other shoulder. He bent the Rodger & Tess card with his thumb and middle finger.
“This is so great,” I told him, “because I don’t have money for underwear in my budget right now. Your predecessors have left me this unbelievable gift. It really is important, more for the self-esteem than for anything else really, but it is important, to buy fancy underwear now and then.”
“Glad to help,” Chad muttered.
When I saw his creased forehead I got out of the chair. “Oh no! You don’t want me to do it!” I said. “I’m sorry. I can cancel it. Let me cancel it.”
“No, it’s fine!” said Chad, drumming his fingers on the desk.
Dora walked in with her boyfriend, my ex-boyfriend, Arthur Alston. “We heard a rumor about pot,” she said. “Is this where it is?” She peeked over my shoulder at the computer screen. “Whoa, why are you buying unmentionables?”
“I’m not!” I shouted. “I mean I was going to with one of the wallpaper cards but I changed my mind.”
Joe said, “She’s having a crisis of conscience.” He stood behind me and put his arms around my waist.
“Oh, that’s too bad for you two,” giggled Dora.
“Yeah,” laughed Arthur Alston. “I’m sorry to hear that, kids.”
I said, “I wish everyone in the world would leave me alone.”
Dora turned to Chad. “If you’re not going to use that card, can I have it?” she asked.
“No!” I said. “No one can have it!” I took the card out of Chad’s hand and transferred it to the breast pocket of his shirt. “No one except him.”
Chad backed away slowly, like he didn’t want to, and looked over his shoulder down the corridor. Arthur and Dora followed him. “So is there pot?” he asked them.
“I’m sorry, Chaddy,” I said.
“Nah, no worries.” He winked and closed the door, leaving Joe and me alone.
Chad’s room was giant and white, newly painted, with a four-post bed under a Radiohead poster. On his dresser a fiber-optic plant glowed under a glass dome. I brought my White Russian to the bed and sat down. “Do you want to make out in here?” I asked.
“No, not really,” said Joe.
“Do you not love me anymore?” I asked, and drank until the White Russian was gone.
“No,” Joe smiled. “I don’t not love you anymore.”
“Well that’s too bad,” I said, “because I do not love you anymore.” I put the empty glass on the floor, lay on the bed, and waited until he lay next to me with his forehead up against mine. I thought I could fall asleep.
“How come you don’t love me anymore?” he asked.
“Because you won’t make out with me in here,” I said.
I made myself another White Russian in the kitchen. On my way back to the living room, I spilled all of it on Vidya Nedal, a girl who went to college with Benji in Boston.
Arthur Alston and Joe don’t like each other. I sipped a whiskey rocks as I watched them talk to Dora, who was sitting on the coffee table. She took a coil of her brown hair, moist with sweat, and placed it behind her ear over and over. Arthur stood over her while Joe stood at a little distance, glancing back at me with every few words. They were both stealing looks down Dora’s dress but Joe was better at it, subtler.
Dora said, “I think every man in this room would make an amazing father.” Arthur laughed and blushed. Joe didn’t register a reaction.
“Yep yep yep,” said Dora. “People here would be great parents, but none of them are going to have kids, like, ever.”
Arthur cleared his throat and croaked, “You mean you don’t think you want to have kids either, sweetie pie?”
“No, I do want kids,” said Dora. “I’m saying I think probably I’m the only one in this room who does.” She gave Arthur an accusatory look.
Joe said, “That reminds me, I’m getting that vasectomy tomorrow.”
Dora pointed at Joe, still looking at Arthur. “See? See?”
Joe said, “But before I leave here I’m going to jerk off into an aspirin bottle.”
Arthur and Dora glared at him.
“Well I need to keep some, in case I meet the right girl after all.”
From the corner, I erupted in laughter. Joe shot me a grin. I looked away from him into my highball glass, pretending to frown.
In the dark, music jangled out of the stereo and everyone twisted around to its rhythm. When I came out of the kitchen with a third White Russian, I found Joe leaning on the windowsill looking at the moon.
“Help me get to the bottom of this,” I said, and put the glass under his nose.
“No,” he said. “It’ll make me throw up.”
“That’s too bad,” I said, and sipped it. “That’s too bad, because it tastes like the kiss of an angel.”
“That good, huh?” Joe said.
“It tastes,” I said, “like sainthood.”
Benji gathered a group of people into a circle. He yelled, “Now everyone has to do their signature moves!” One at a time the people jumped into the circle, each doing his or her signature moves. The moves included arm-jerking, hip-swinging in a pendulum motion, toe-touches, and lying supine on the floor with the paddling limbs of an upended turtle. I saw Benji’s face get red when he laughed. When laughing, Benji says the individual “ha”s—Ha-ha-ha-ha!—like he is reading them from a cue card.
Joe told me, “I’ve never been a fan of ironic dancing. Is there any non-ironic dancing going on?”
When I am offended I feel it in my throat. It feels like a dangerous moth is in there, some terrible moth with razors for wings, struggling to emerge. I said, “What do you mean? There’s very little irony in this dancing. I mean this is the only kind of dancing they know how to do.”
Joe said, “It wouldn’t be so hard for them to learn how to dance.”
I waved my drink in Joe’s face. “Do you want some of this?”
“No thanks,” he sighed.
“That’s too bad,” I said, sipping it, “because it tastes truly sublime.”
Joe said, “I hear it’s a transcendent experience, this drink.”
“It tastes like Jesus’ love,” I said.
We were quiet for a minute, watching the dance floor. I don’t know how to dance either. I thought of how deft Joe is, how straight he stands up, the deliberate way he arranges his feet in front of each other when walking, the natural luminosity of his eyes, the pleasing coat-hanger look of his shoulders, the feverish warmth of his skin betraying his clean circulatory system, his big strong heart.
“You’re crying, baby,” Joe said, coming up behind me.
“I’m not,” I said.
“Do you want to go home?”
“I’m clumsy and stupid and you hate me,” I said. “I think it would be a very good idea for us to break up. I mean look at me—even if I did know how to dance, what am I, a draft horse? I’m like a Percheron, Clydesdale, Fjord pony draft horse. There are tiny ballerinas in the world.”
“Baby,” said Joe, “You’re past that magic threshold. You’re not having fun anymore. Let me take you home.”
“I don’t want to go home!” I said. “I want to go over there and do my signature moves!”
Arthur Alston watched us from the opposite corner. He said something in Dora’s ear, possibly about what it was like to have me as a girlfriend.
I leaned back on the gold sectional couch, talking with Vidya Nedal. We held the last two beers we’d been able to find, bottles of Miller Genuine Draft. Benji sat by the door, showing people his new MP3 player as they were leaving. He fluttered his hand over the buttons like a magician and I could tell he was proud of it.
Joe was talking to Chad through the window while Chad smoked a cigarette on the fire escape. After every few words Joe glanced back at me.
“Here’s another thing that gets me about him,” I said to Vidya. “I know it shouldn’t, but I can’t help it. His SAT scores.”
“Ohh, I know what you mean,” said Vidya. “I think I’d rather know how many people someone slept with, even if it was like fifty, than know their SAT scores.”
“He scored over two hundred points higher than me on the SAT,” I said. “Two hundred points! But why is that anything? What is that, anyway? I’m twenty-nine goddamn years old. That’s almost thirty. SAT scores? We are almost thirty!”
“Oh man,” Vidya said, “I’m only twenty-four. You mean it doesn’t get easier?”
I laughed and laughed. When I recovered I said, “I know there are certain asinine things that I cared about when I was really young, like legitimately young, that I’ll never stop caring about.”
“Other things come in, though,” said Vidya, swirling the beer in the bottle, “to replace what you cared about before.” She hiked her feet up onto the couch and rested her chin on her knees. “Like me, I used to have a lot of fear about not doing well socially, about not having friends, and when I started grad school all I cared about was having a four-point-oh.”
“You’re right,” I said. “All I need is something new to focus on.” I looked at Joe, the way his knee was bent and one foot crossed over the other, his hand on the window frame.
“And then,” Vidya continued, “last year when my sister got sick, everything else—like everything else I’d ever worried about in the world—became trivial and petty.” She finished her beer and put it on the armrest. My stomach twisted.
I paid attention to certain things in the room: a Russian album cover on the wall, spider plants hanging on hooks over the TV, Benji waving his arm in the direction of the subway. Vidya’s knee was pressed against the pouch of her cheek.
“Is your sister all right?” I asked.
Vidya said, “She needs a kidney transplant. She’s still waiting for a donor.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She smiled, her cheek still collapsed against her nose. “Don’t worry,” she said, “we can change the subject now.”
“Okay,” I said. “Do you know why those cats cried so much when they were having sex?”
“Because the males have barbs on their penises.”
I threw up into Benji’s sink. The vomit was liquid; water sprang to my eyes after it was over. Joe stood back guarding the door to the kitchen, though everyone else had left. I raised my head from the sink guiltily, and I saw Joe look disgusted, apologetic, and very, very sad. It amazed me that he could look all those different ways at once.
We got back to the living room, where Benji poured me something he’d invented—Triple Sec, vodka, and seltzer, served in a wine glass with an orange slice on the rim. When I tasted it I made my face into a mask of fear. “It’s awful,” I said.
“Do you think it would be better if I set it on fire first?” asked Benji.
“Maybe. Is there enough liquor in it for it to catch fire?”
“I don’t even know ‘er enough for it to catch fire.”
Benji began to roam the place picking up discarded cups. He had made five trips through his apartment before I realized he was stacking them up in a tower in the middle of the living room floor. When he was finished, the tower was eight feet tall—Benji had to get on a chair to add the final few cups to the top.
“Jenga,” I said.
Benji said, “Get up.” He grabbed my hands so I could get to my feet; like the cup tower, I listed a little. “Okay, stay there.” I blinked and he had disappeared, blinked again and he was back with an expensive-looking digital camera. “Say ‘tits’,” he said, then clicked the shutter.
In the photo I looked like I was plotting something scandalous, something I didn’t dare talk about yet. Since the cup tower was behind me, though, the viewer might assume all I wanted to do was kick the tower over, scatter the cups across the rug. “Ha, I look so naughty,” I told Benji. “I look like I’m about to wreck it.”
“I know,” said Benji. “It’s genius. I’m a genius.”
“Can that be my signature move?” I asked.
Benji smirked. He folded one arm across his torso and bowed to me, as if inviting me to topple his tower of cups. But he knew that I wouldn’t, that I’d only think about it.
“It’s time to go downstairs,” said Joe. He took out his cell phone to confirm the time. “The car’s going to be there in two minutes.”
We said goodbye—I gave Benji a military salute and hugged Chad around the neck. In the hallway I saw a couple of rusty bicycles, lit with stuttering green neon.
Halfway down the steps I was seized with panic. I sat on the middle step and began to cry.
“Baby, what is it?”
“Leave me here,” I said. “Don’t take me home. I don’t want to go.” Even as I hid my face in Joe’s jacket, locking together the fingers of all four of our hands, I couldn’t stop envisioning the choice that kept me at Benji’s party, moving from the kitchen to the gold couch and back again forever. Could I have explained to Joe how much I wanted to push through the tower of plastic cups? I closed my eyes and saw myself destroying it, laughing as the cups clattered all over, spattering my face and arms with sticky liquor dregs. I could see the shocked expressions on Joe and Chad, and see myself wait just a beat to dart my eyes back to Benji, who took a picture of me triumphant in the wreckage. Maybe Joe understood all this, maybe he didn’t.
He told me the right things: that we couldn’t stay, that I’d feel differently when I was home in bed. Joe pulled me up, closed his arm around me, let me fall into lockstep with him the rest of the way down the stairs and out the particle-board door to the street.
“I’m sorry I did all that, baby,” I said to our synchronized shoes.
“All what?” said Joe. He lifted his head toward the black Lincoln town car that waited at the curb. Over the light poles and streetlamps, the sky was fading.
© 2008 Amanda Nazario