As I may have mentioned a time or two, I fell in love with a different gay man every year of college. My second year at Oberlin, I fell in love with Andrew. Tall and solid, with bright blue eyes, a heart for literature, and a speaking voice that mingled seduction and the edge of an easy laugh, he was perfect for me. (Well, except for being gay and all). I met him in Shakespeare 301, where we noticed each other making comments as self-referential and pithy as only the comments of an undergraduate can be. When it was time to pick a partner to prepare a scene from Much Ado About Nothing, we were each other’s Beatrice and Benedict as if it had been ordained by God, as if there was no one else in the classroom.
We fell into a pattern, Andrew and I, of meeting often for rehearsals, sitting together in Shakespeare class, and talking over coffee about everything from apartheid to heartbreak. Crunching over the fallen leaves, arm in arm, we walked together under the street lights to Professor Pierce’s house the night of the Shakespeare performances. We sat together in the warm, comfortable living room where Mrs. Pierce, who was legally blind, brought in coffee and cookies for us, and Professor Pierce raised the invisible curtain on our night of theater, acknowledging our nerves and reminding us that The Bard was best understood in flesh and blood and not from the printed page. When it was our turn, Andrew and I bantered, flirted and sparked the hell out of our scene, and walked back to campus flushed and galvanized by applause and relief. We stopped for coffee at The Campus Diner, and as he talked, I was distracted by the blueness of his eyes, and the way our knees kept touching under the table. Beatrice was in love with her Benedict, although Benedict was still pining over some guy named Evan who he’d met on a work trip over the summer.
Eventually, Andrew invited me to his apartment to study for finals. I knew that he lived up over The Tap House, a bar as dive-y as it could be in a town that permitted the sale of nothing more potent than “near beer.” A place where the most daring undergraduates mingled with the “townies,” who inexplicably chose not to drive to a real bar outside of town to drink real alcohol, but came into Oberlin to drink steins of weak, vile near beer and menace the Elvis Costello wannabes. Clear as I could be about the fact that Andrew was absolutely and irrevocable gay, I still wanted to be near him, and to see the place where he lived. Conversions happened, I had heard, and how would I ever know if I didn’t try?
I knew that he lived with a small colony of the people who most fascinated and terrified me at Oberlin, the heavily ironic, black-wearing chain smokers of unfiltered Camels who tended to major in Studio Art, Art History and English, and to originate from the Island of Manhattan. Although I had frequent contact with them in class, worked with them at the college radio station, and washed their plates of soft-boiled eggs garnished with cigarette butts in the dish room, they did not speak to me or in any way acknowledge my existence. No matter how hard I tried, with my used mens’ overcoat my pointy-toed black plastic boots from Trash & Vaudeville, and my asymmetrical 80s haircut, they could smell my fundamentally Midwestern, goody-two-shoes aroma. They could tell, from passing me on the stairs in the library, that I had a drawer filled with Fair Isle sweaters, that I listened to The Pointer Sisters instead of The Butthole Surfers, that I secretly preferred Louisa May Alcott to Camus. I was Doris Day among Patti Smiths. I was terrified by them, I wanted to be them, and I harbored a fantasy that if I could just get my foot in the door, literally and figuratively, they would admire my wit and intelligence and admit me to the inner circle. If Andrew could get in, I reasoned, so might I.
The afternoon I first pushed the buzzer next to the Taproom’s front doors, I was quickly admitted, and trudged up the long flight of malodorous stairs and into the kitchen. Like a scene from Twilight, I came upon a tableau of extraordinarily pale, beautiful people wearing black clothes, and surrounded by piles of books and half-filled coffee cups. (I do not know whether they got all sparkly when they were outside in the sun; I never saw one of them outside in daylight). Although Andrew, standing near the table, greeted me with a warm hug and announced me to his roommates, they barely acknowledged me; I think there was a bloodless, half-raised hand from one neurasthenic guy in a CBGBs T-shirt. Andrew offered me a cup of coffee, and as he poured it into a chipped mug, a girl burst into the room. Less beautiful than the others, but expensively clad in a pleated black schoolgirl skirt, vintage beaded cardigan and flat suede boots, she was clearly hysterical. “My mouton!” she said as she rubbed her hands in her black curls, “somebody stole my fucking mouton!”
This news was greeted with as much interest as my earlier arrival, which is to say, none. I stepped closer to Andrew, mild panic trumping my desire to mingle with the It-crowd, and he leaned down and whispered into my ear that they were all “speeding,” and had been awake and seated at the table for more than 36 hours. “We’ll help you look,” Andrew said to the frantic girl, “Amy, this is my friend Ann, Ann, this is Amy Rutledge.” Oh. I knew who she was, by reputation; her father was a famous writer, she had lots of money, and reportedly returned to Oberlin from Manhattan after every vacation with a suitcase full of drugs and hard liquor.
“Hi” I ventured. She looked at Andrew.
“I had it here last night, I went to a party and I had it – no, maybe I didn’t have it when I got home. Shit, if somebody took it at the party…” she started to cry. Not one person at the kitchen table raised so much as an eyebrow.
“Come on,” Andrew said, taking her under one elbow, “we’ll start in your room and look.” I followed them into her bedroom, which looked rather as if someone reading literature at Oxford had subleased from a Parisian prostitute. All light fixtures were draped with scarves in various colors, the bed was a mess of silk sheets and tassled throw pillows, and the dresser mirror reflected bottles of Chanel, Givenchy and Joy. The floor was nearly covered with black garments, and since some were inside-out, I could see that they were mostly designer. Among the discarded finery were books, notebooks, typed pages, a small, framed oil painting of a somewhat abstract nude who appeared to be Amy, packages of Camels, and, in a corner near the window, a Chanel lipstick and a jar of stubby eye pencils. “What’s a mouton? So we can help you look” asked Andrew as we stood near the doorway.
“It’s a coat, it’s lamb, it’s black, and curly,” Amy explained threading her way to the bed and sitting in tragic isolation. “It was my grandmother’s. My dad is going to fucking kill me if I lost it.” She pulled a beaded evening clutch from the space between her bed and the wall, and fished out a package of cigarettes and a lighter. “The label in it should say Bergdorf’s” she added, lighting the smoke.
“Let’s start to the right of the door and work around clockwise,” Andrew said to me, holding my gaze for longer than necessary, telling me tacitly that he knew this was bizarre, but that it was okay. I would, at that moment, have looked for the mouton in a rat-infested sewer if he had asked me to. He knelt in the pile of clothes, and I joined him on the floor where we systematically examined pieces of clothing, and I resisted the strong urge to fold them, and to sort the fallen objects into tidy piles of books, garments and “other.” I had a million questions. I wanted to know about the “speed,”how it worked, where they got it, why they liked it. I wanted to know if Amy was really their friend, and if she was, why didn’t they care about her mouton? I wanted to know how Andrew had come to live with these people, and if he actually liked them, and if they were always like this, or only when they were “speeding.” I worked in silence, wondering if this would be the only time I ever touched anything with a Stephen Sprouse label.
“Shit, I need an ashtray” Amy said from the bed, where she was still sitting. “Andrew?” she added, raising her voice at the end in a little-girl way at odds with the box of condoms I had just replaced beneath a copy of Atlas Shrugged.
“I’ll be right back” he said to me, putting a large, warm hand on my shoulder as he raised himself from the floor. He left me there, and I returned to the hunt. It seemed unlikely that I would suddenly become visible to Amy, and that we would blossom into confidantes as I picked through her things.
“You’re Andrew’s friend?” she asked. She was staring out the window, ash falling onto her black skirt.
“Uhm, yes. I know him from Pierce’s class.” I had reached the bed, and thought I saw the edge of something that looked like dog fur. I lay flat on my stomach and wiggled my head and shoulders under the foot of the bed. I saw Andrew’s large, work-booted feet moving towards the suede boots to my left, heard him say “here you go, sweetie,” and her say “thanks, baby. You take such good care of me.” Around my confined head were dust balls, lacy panties, an empty bowl with a spoon in it, and, beneath a pair of black jeans, the furry object. I eased my hand forward, grasped it, and pulled it towards me. It had a rounded collar, and a silk lining, and just beneath the collar an embroidered label, black on white, that read “Bergdorf’s” in a flowing script.
“I got it!” I called out, beginning my cautious retreat from under the bed. I emerged, covered with dust, hair askew, holding the heavy jacket and giving it a shake to remove the worst of the detritus. It was really a lovely thing, a boxy 50s style with three-quarter sleeves and large black buttons adorned with sparkling centers. I held it out to Amy, who dropped the stub of her cigarette in the ashtray Andrew had brought her, sprung up and took the jacket into her arms.
“Thank you!!” she said, reaching out to pull me into a hug, crushed against the mouton. She smelled like smoke and roses. “Thank you Andrew’s friend -” she cocked her head “what’s your name again?”
“Thank you, thank you, you are my FAVORITE, favorite friend of Andrew’s, thank you so much!” She let me go, and beamed at Andrew, looking prettier than she had thus far. “Thanks, doll,” she said, winking at him. “You should invite her to a party here, or something. Shit!” She looked at the Cartier travel alarm next to her bed. “Shit, shit, shit I have to be writing the fucking Don Juan paper. Shit.” She dropped the mouton on the bed and began rummaging through the books stored on the floor nearest the bed.
“You’re welcome,” I said as I followed Andrew out of the room, and into the relative calm and tidiness of his own.
I did not see Amy again, or any of the roommates, until the night of the “Come as Your Favorite Whore” party, but that is a story for another day.
Mouton Jacket: http://imagehost.vendio.com/a/35028292/aview/L655.jpg