I noticed them as soon as I pushed open the door to his Brooklyn loft. In a sea of hipsters—an accurate term for 2003 in Fort Greene—there they were. She, a pretty and decidedly young brunette. He, the Playboy. My Playboy. The two of them huddled together by the mid-century console functioning as the party’s bar. I stood framed by the doorway, holding the straps to my wet leather satchel in one hand and, in the other, a folded umbrella, water dripping from its tip and pooling on the floor. I watched as he poured vodka over ice and she leaned in to whisper some shrewd punch line. It landed. He threw back his head and laughed through open mouth. The Brunette smiled. I gave my umbrella a quick shake, then tossed it into the corner with the others.
When I tapped the Playboy’s shoulder, he turned, lit up, and wrapped his arms around me. The Brunette held her ground. After all, what kind of threat was I? I lacked both her youth and sex appeal.
“You came!” he said.
“You begged,” I said.
“I did beg!”
So, the Brunette learned, I was significant. She stepped back and faded into the crowd.
“And you brought your stuff, great,” the Playboy continued. “You can’t possibly go back to the Upper West Side in this rain.”
“It’s a torrential downpour,” I said.
“Did you walk here from the subway?” he asked. “Why aren’t you soaking wet?”
“I’m very careful,” I replied. “I’m going to put my stuff down in your room.”
“Hurry back,” the Playboy said.
I knew the way to his room well, but this time I had to weave through a throng of people I didn’t know and didn’t care to meet. The Playboy had a new roommate, and this was her Labor Day party. The Playboy had insisted I come because he swore he wouldn’t know anyone.
“Who else will keep me company?” he had whimpered over the phone. “Bring a bag. Spend the night. I’ll even drive you to work in the morning.”
Didn’t he know that the promise of the ride was unnecessary? That all he had to do was ask? Despite any pretense of deliberation, I always showed up.
I slid between hanging Indian tapestries into his room and sat heavily on his low bed. My bag sagged by my feet. I would always show up, I knew, and I would always hate myself when I did.
Three years before, through mutual friends and a shared theater company in Los Angeles, the Playboy and I stumbled upon each other at a time in our lives when neither of us wanted to be with anyone, but both of us couldn’t bear to be alone. His mother had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. I had just left the nice, funny boy everyone thought I was going to marry—an act that hardly compared to a cancer diagnosis. I was still relatively young—well, 28, so not terribly young—but unsophisticated enough that I could exploit the devastation of a break-up but could not comprehend real loss. A dying mother, relatively young herself, existed to me only as a theoretical tragedy. In my mind, the Playboy and I were coping with similar difficulties. There was still more time before I would learn that not all tragedies were created equal.
In the beginning, there was much the Playboy and I agreed upon. I thought he was beautiful. So did he. I wanted to have sex with him. He wanted to have sex. Our decision to keep our affair secret was also mutual, although for different reasons. I was ashamed to be sleeping with a man of his reputation because I wasn’t that kind of girl. He never talked about his dalliances. Too many to keep track, perhaps? This was how our fling began, with secretive sex, so that we could feel less alone. It could have stayed that way until the sex fizzled out—and it should have—but our affair became something else.
Even in Hollywood, the Playboy turned heads. A modern-day Montgomery Clift, he was smoldering, but vulnerable. He was hyperintelligent and a romantic, a real Renaissance man. Because he was an infrequently working actor—because of course he was an actor—he had time on his hands. On any given night he might whip up a mean beef bourguignon, strap it to the back of his Triumph, along with a few ripe tomatoes from his garden, and speed across town to my apartment. On arrival, he’d pull two stout candles from the pockets of his jacket—curiously not leather but cloth or tweed; he always stepped slightly to the side of completely fulfilling his stereotype—and we’d dine in flickering light while he recited Neruda poems in Spanish.
The world in which the Playboy lived had an air of fanciful make-believe that enticed me. It ignored the daily grind and shunned conventional desires, such insipid dreams as marriage and kids and stability. Yes, I wanted those things, but one day, in the hazy and distant future. Because I had just dumped the boy who was ready to provide those things for me, I felt very far from them then. When I was with the Playboy, these traditional wants of mine slipped into the shadows where I didn’t have to concern myself with them, not just yet.
I was happy to accept the Playboy’s invitation to frolic with him in his Bohemian lifestyle, but our bond formed because we moved through the world in perfect synchronicity. I wasn’t his match intellectually, but together, we flowed. Any time I wanted to hand him something—a set of keys, a loaf of bread—I would turn to discover his hand already extended to accept it. Later, when we both moved to New York from LA, not together but around the same time, we maneuvered about Manhattan as one, crossing streets, hailing cabs, and sliding between closing subway doors. With no debate or discussion, we moved through the world like two ballet dancers, graceful and connected.
But the Playboy was impossible. Shortly after his mother’s death, he was diagnosed as manic. I was convinced he also had ADD. His brilliant thoughts bounced around his head like a superball shot through a canon onto a racquetball court. He was also a pathological liar. He lied about the big things: the multiple other women, his excessive drinking, botched auditions, the occasional drugs, and bar fights. He lied about the smaller things too: forgotten bills, broken glass, and unreturned phone calls. He concocted excuses that he stuck to no matter how many holes I drilled into them. I yelled at him for the truth and pounded my fists against couches or my own thighs. I pleaded with him to admit his lies as I pulled at my hair and collapsed at his feet. The more I crumbled, the more dismissive he grew toward me—because on top of being a liar, he lacked empathy. Whether or not he was a sociopath was hot for debate.
When my energy wore out, I gave up the fights by lying to myself. The benefits of our relationship, I told myself, were worth it. After one Saturday night fight, late into our affair, when I accused him of being with another woman, we spent the next lazy, rainy Sunday morning reading the New York Times in my prewar, Upper West Side studio. The Playboy turned to me, clearly amused, and said, “I think I’ve slept with you more than any other woman I’ve ever been with.”
I crinkled my face and said, “I feel like I just won the Stupidest Woman on Earth Award.”
He chuckled and refilled my coffee while I passed him the “Arts and Leisure” section.
I wasn’t in the mood for a party, so I stalled by looking around his room. Scattered everywhere—on the windowsill, tacked to his wall—were photographs of women I didn’t know. Sexy, stylish women, all laughing effortlessly while also peering seductively into the lens. Had they managed to end their affair with him after three weeks as I should have? Had they tried to wrest the truth from him as I did, or did they understand that he was good for a good time only? Did they walk away from him intact? If so, how?
Was the Brunette one of them?
I slipped back through the Indian tapestries and into a haze of cigarette smoke and the din of the party. Manu Chao played on the stereo. I tugged at the Playboy’s elbow.
“Hey! There’s my girl!” he said, loudly to be heard over the music. “Have you eaten yet?”
“I need to ask you something,” I yelled back.
“What?” he asked. “Come on, I’ll make you something.”
“No, I need to ask you something,” I said.
“Is there anything going on between you and that girl?”
“What?” he said with a laugh.
I pressed my lips against his ear. “If there’s something going on with you and that brunette, you gotta let me know. Because if there is, I don’t want to be here.”
“No!” he said with a big smile. “She’s just a friend. She’s Gillian. I’ve told you about her before.”
“No,” I said.
“Yes!” he insisted. “She was dating the bartender at the Alibi around the corner. I invited them both, but apparently they just broke up, so only she came.”
“I thought you weren’t going to know anyone here,” I said.
“Last minute type of thing. Come on. Let me cook for you.”
The Playboy took my hand and led me though the crowd toward the kitchen.
“Holy shit!” he exclaimed, turning back abruptly. “I think you and she went to the same high school!”
“Impossible,” I said. “I went to a hick school in the sticks of Pennsylvania. No one from there gets to here.”
“Yes! She went to your high school! I swear. Ask her!”
He pulled me again toward the kitchen. I saw her across the room. The Brunette. Gillian. She was draped on a tattered Eames chair, long legs crossed, bumming a cigarette, wearing her scowl comfortably. She did not look like anyone I went to high school with.
The Playboy propped me on a stool at the butcher-block island in the kitchen. He tossed his American Spirits on the counter and went to work fixing me something to eat. His new roommate, a fierce-looking Asian woman, came into the kitchen to meet me. She was distinctly not his type: confident, edgy, a little asexual. I liked her immediately.
“He talks about you all the time,” she said.
“Really, he thinks the world of you,” she said before she was pulled into another conversation.
I was not at all clear about what the Playboy was to me, but even murkier in my mind was what I was to him. Simply the woman who always showed up? Loyal like his Girl Friday? Was I his mother, now that she was gone? Why couldn’t I be like those women in those photographs who simply walked away? What was so special about being special to a potential sociopath?
Gillian suddenly appeared before me. She looked aloof and bored.
“Hey!” I blurted out. “Did you go to Appleton Valley High?”
“Yeah,” said Gillian, drearily.
“So did I!” I said surprised by my enthusiasm. ‘What year did you graduate?”
Shit, I thought. Ten years after I did. We had nothing more in common than a mascot, but I continued anyway. Perhaps some maternal instinct had kicked in.
“How did you like it?” I asked.
“What?” she said.
“High school,” I said.
“I fucking hated it,” Gillian said. “I tried to drop out a bunch of times.”
In high school, I was a straight-A student, Vice President of the National Honor Society, Secretary of Student Council, feature editor of the school newspaper, and girlfriend to the star basketball player. I decided to keep all of this to myself.
“Hard to like high school in Central Pennsylvania,” I offered with a nod.
Gillian asked to bum a cigarette. I gave her one of the Playboy’s American Spirits. She took it and wandered off. A minute later, the Playboy presented me with a martini—Stoli, up with a twist—and plate of sausage and lentils. Then he kissed me on top of the head.
The evening wound down and all the guests left, except for me, who had already received an invitation to stay, and, curiously, Gillian. She and the Playboy giggled in the living room while I helped the Fierce Asian clean up in the kitchen.
“It’s none of my business,” the Fierce Asian said handing me a cocktail shaker to dry, “but what is she still doing here?”
The question shouldn’t have been asked about Gillian, of course, but about me.
A few months earlier, the Playboy and I had gone to New Orleans for a long and disastrous weekend. He spent our days there drunk and vulgar and I spent mine pissed off. When we returned to New York, we parted ways for the night. Unable to sleep, sometime in that interminable 3 a.m. hour, I broke into his email using his cat’s name as the password, and there it was: Truth. I found his recent email exchange with a 19-year-old British girl, a family friend, who had visited the States a few weeks earlier and was considering coming back for college.
“Of course we can be together,” he had written to her. “Providence isn’t that far.”
“Frankly, I’m concerned about our age difference,” she wrote back.
Yes, twelve years was not insignificant, I thought, as a pit grew in my gut.
“Besides, don’t you have a girlfriend?” she wrote.
Fuck me, I thought. Here it comes.
“She’s only a good friend,” he wrote. “She wants something more, but it’s not reciprocal.”
I left him of course. Right away and without explanation. I wish I could say I felt liberated, but over the next few weeks, thinking about the deceit, I spontaneously and often dry-heaved on street corners and buses, in Laundromats and Korean delis.
Two months passed. Then on the anniversary of his mother’s death, he called. He didn’t want to be alone. Couldn’t we meet for lunch?
We met at Balthazar in SoHo. It was packed.
“If we don’t have reservations,” I told him, “we’ll never get in.”
I watched him pop on his fake Elvis Costello glasses and sidle up to the hostess. He flirted with her using a phony British accent. We had a table within minutes.
“You’re nothing but a big lie,” I said to him as I opened my menu.
“Not today,” he said. “Besides, I got what I wanted, didn’t I?”
I always showed up.
“I’m never going to sleep with you again,” I said, equivocating.
He shrugged. Our waitress appeared at our table.
“Two Bloody Marys, please,” he said in his best British accent. “Extra spicy.”
The Playboy left Gillian in the living room and came into the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator to grab two beers. Then he caught my eye.
“What?” he said, playing the fool.
I shot him the look of a disappointed and weary wife.
“Fine. I’ll take care of it,” he said and trudged beerless back into the living room.
Moments later, Gillian, sulking, trod past the kitchen to the front door.
“Nice meeting you!” I called. I had no shame.
“Yeah,” she said and headed into the night.
Wait, I thought, as I heard the door thud, did she take an umbrella? Did the Playboy call her a car service? Will she be safe? I didn’t stop her, and I didn’t share my concerns with the Playboy. After all, she wasn’t my problem now, now that she was gone.
That night the Playboy and I didn’t have sex, but we slept, as we always did, with our feet intertwined. During the night, his cell phone rang twice but he ignored it both times and told me to do the same.
Two days later, in the late afternoon, the phone rang in my cubicle. I worked as a freelance copyeditor for a large children’s book publishing company, and I sat, quintessentially, in a hive of cubicles with fluorescent lights buzzing above. I spent my days hunched over, scouring proofs to find other people’s mistakes. The AC blasted. I pulled my gray cardigan, the one I wore every day and kept on the back of my chair at night, more tightly around me.
I picked up the ringing phone. It was the Playboy.
“I’m freezing,” I said.
“I’ve been calling your cell!” He sounded agitated and hurried.
“Oh, sorry,” I said and ducked below my cubicle to dig through my bag, hunting for my cell phone so I could turn up the ringer.
“I have to go to the Greenwich Village Police Station,” he said.
“What? Why?” Where was my phone?
“Gillian was found dead in her apartment yesterday.”
I stopped digging through my bag. I stopped doing anything. I froze.
“Who?” I asked.
“Gillian! My friend you met at the party!” He was angry with me for not remembering.
I didn’t understand. What did he mean by dead?
The Playboy rattled on: “I got this call from this guy who said he was a cop and that Gillian was dead and I had to come to the police station. So I think it’s this prank so I hung up and called the police station back myself and they told me I had to come in. So I have to go, right? I mean, then it must be true, right?”
I still didn’t understand.
“Are you there? God! You’re no help!” he snapped. “I’ll call you when I’m done.” He hung up.
I sat there shivering. Why was the fucking AC so fucking cold?
I started to replay the party over and over in my mind. The Brunette was flirting with him. The Brunette was newly single. The Brunette and I went to the same high school. The Brunette assumed she would be the last woman standing at the night’s end. The Brunette called twice while the Playboy and I slept. Now the Brunette was dead and the police wanted to talk to the Playboy.
During all the years he had lied to me, I insisted I merely wanted to know the truth. Now, as I put these fragmented pieces together, the truth, some truth, rushed at me, and all I wanted to do was slam the door on it. They had dated of course. The Playboy and the Brunette. At some time. They had a history. Apparently she couldn’t simply walk away from him either.
For two hours, I waited for him to call me back. When he did, he said he didn’t have time to talk. He was late for rehearsal. He was understudying a Broadway play.
“But what happened?” I asked.
“She was found dead in her apartment early this morning,” he said. “On the floor by her coffee table, in sweatpants with a comforter wrapped around her shoulders. There were bruises on her face.”
“So, she…?” I started.
“I have to go,” he said. “I want to put flowers on her stoop before I go to the theater.”
He knew where she lived. Of course. They had dated.
“But what did the police want?” I asked.
“Just to talk,” he said. “I have to go.”
I sat at work losing track of time until a co-worker passed and asked me if I was working late.
“No,” I said. “No.”
I stumbled from the office building onto Broadway and Prince in SoHo. It was a balmy evening in early fall. The rain from two nights ago had washed away any residual summer stickiness. The streets were packed. Rather than fight the tide, as I normally did, I let the mass carry me along, until I ducked into a Duane Reade, remembering I had to pick up my birth control pill.
I called my sister. As I wandered the aisles of scuffed linoleum under eerie blue and flickering light, I told her everything I knew. I had to tell her several times. She kept saying she didn’t understand.
“But how did she die?” she asked.
“I don’t know!” I said beside a wall of Halloween candy. “It’s too fucking early for Halloween candy,” I murmured.
There was a pause.
“Are you there?” I asked, panicked that even her disconnected voice had left me alone in this sea of pharmaceuticals and conveniences.
“We don’t know these kinds of people,” she said, her voice sounding far off.
“What?” I asked.
“We just don’t know these kinds of people,” she said again, stupefied.
“Look, I gotta go. I’ll call you later.” I hung up.
What kinds of people? I thought as I stepped back onto the crowded sidewalk.
I began to walk up Broadway, towards home, 100 blocks away. When I reached 42nd Street, the place the Playboy was, or had just been, I scampered below to the subway, driven by the uneasiness that I might run into him. How many other lives did he lead? I thought as I stood in the sullied orange light of the subway platform. How many more lies were there? I felt the wind that preceded the train rush at me from the tunnel and watched the blinding headlights barrel toward me.
When I opened the door to my studio, I saw him in the shadows, sitting on my couch. The only light in the apartment came from my desk lamp, its bendable arm pushed low. His shoulders were slouched, his head in his hands. On the coffee table was a half-empty bottle of Dewar’s.
“Don’t worry,” he barked. “It’s not your bottle. I brought my own.”
I flicked on the overhead light. The Playboy squinted. His face was puffy. His eyes were red. He looked like shit.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, and if I could have meant it somewhere at sometime, it wasn’t there or then. I wanted answers. I wanted truth.
He mumbled the basics. This wasn’t his first interrogation of the day. He met Gillian when he moved to New York and they started to date. When I arrived from Los Angeles a few months later, he broke it off with her so he could be with me. I didn’t buy that for a second, but I let him go on. When I ended things with him a few months ago—courtesy of the 19-year-old British girl—he started up again with Gillian. He said it was casual. He said he knew she was also sleeping with a married professor of hers at some Long Island college she was attending. He said he and Gillian were attracted to each other because they were equally fucked up.
We don’t know these kinds of people, I thought.
Between the time Gillian left the party and was found dead, she called and emailed him a number of times.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“That’s none of your fucking business,” he said, clear and cold.
I looked down at the floor and then back up at him.
“Did you use protection when you slept with her?” I asked. I had no shame.
He stared at me. His eyes filled with disgust.
“Because you and I didn’t and so I think I have the right to know,” I said.
Now his eyes showed rage. He raised his hand to hit me but froze, and after a moment, lowered it slowly. The rage drained from his eyes and left them dark and hollow.
He stood to go, but I wasn’t done with him yet. I lunged at him. He pushed me away. I lunged at him again. He pushed me away.
“Just get out!” I screamed.
“I’m trying to!” he yelled back.
I clung to him. There had to be more truth to this story and I was determined to pry it out of him. But he wrenched himself free of me and held me at arm’s length.
“My friend just died,” he said quietly.
“I don’t give a shit,” I said.
An abrupt, audible sigh escaped him. He had come to me for the love of a mother, the support of a wife, and the loyalty of a best friend, but I was none of those things then. He slammed the door behind him.
For the next week or so, I spent my nights at my computer, drinking scotch from the bottle he left and scouring the Internet for information about Gillian’s death. My frustration grew as I found no answers, along with my paranoia that her death had been my fault. My sister reminded me that this tragedy wasn’t about me.
“Clearly this girl had problems,” she said on the phone. “Maybe if you hadn’t gone to the party, she would have lived a few more days, but she was going to wind up this way eventually.”
Gillian was just one of those kinds of people.
Six weeks passed and then one morning in late October, the Playboy called.
“It’s my birthday,” he said. “Drinks?”
For the next two months, I lived a dual life. I had told everyone the story about Gillian, and it spread like wildfire through our groups of friends in New York and Los Angeles. It became cocktail-party fodder, a bit of an urban legend. Sometimes I bumped into people who asked me to retell my version, thinking it was as close as they could get to the truth, and I led them to believe that the Playboy may have indeed killed her. That was my public life. Privately, I started to sleep again with the Playboy.
New Year’s Eve rolled around. My birthday. I hosted a party in a loft downtown. The Playboy came. I warned him beforehand.
“It’s my birthday and my New Year’s Eve party,” I told him. “Don’t fuck it up for me.”
Toward the end of the party, well past midnight, after my sister told me there was a “situation” in the bathroom and she was sure the Playboy was responsible, I found myself staring into a sink full of vomit. For some reason, the plug was closed and the bright yellow, chunky spew lay thick and still in the sink. Drunk myself, I held my breath and dunked my hand through the puke and pulled the plug so that the yellow mess would drain away.
The next morning, January 1, a new year, bright and cold, the chill clinging to the floor-to-ceiling windows in my studio, the Playboy and I, still in bed, argued soon after we woke up.
“Just admit it!” I said. “You were the one who puked in the sink!”
“It wasn’t me,” he insisted.
“But I know it was you so just say it,” I pleaded.
“No,” he said. “I wouldn’t do something like that.”
“But you did!”
I couldn’t let it go.
“It means nothing!” I screamed. “So just say, ‘I take responsibility for throwing up in the sink!’”
“Why does this bother you so much?” he asked.
“Just get your fucking life together!” I yelled, leaning into him, my pointed finger inches from his face.
He smiled at me, wryly.
“My life is together,” he said.
I pulled back. My pointed finger fell.
I didn’t know exactly who those kinds of people were, but I now saw that not only was he one of them, but so was I. No longer a visitor in his world, I lived there now, in this place where social consciousness slipped into a void, deceit twisted into its own demented reality, and nothing of value survived. I knew this now—because a young woman’s death meant the same thing to me as a sink full of vomit.
“It’s over,” I said, but I’d said it before. I’d kicked him out a hundred times. This time I had to be the one to leave. I crossed to the door and threw my winter coat over my pajamas and shoved my bare feet into my running shoes. “I’m going for a walk. Don’t be here when I get back. Leave the keys.”
Outside the late morning sun glared and the frigid wind cut across my face. I walked around the corner and sat shivering on someone else’s stoop. I pulled a cigarette from my coat pocket and smoked it without satisfaction because I couldn’t tell the smoke I exhaled from my breath hitting the cold. Then I walked home. I didn’t know for sure that I would never see the Playboy again because back then I lacked any sort of conviction or faith in myself, but I did know the story was no longer about him, or even Gillian. It was about me, and it always had been. That was the only truth I was going to uncover; it would have to be enough. I opened the door to my studio and first noticed the emptiness. Then I saw, on the coffee table, two loose keys, sitting in a ray of a new year’s sun.
Jacqueline Heinze’s personal essays have also appeared or are forthcoming in The Tishman Review, Watershed Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Annotation Nation, and others. Jackie holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Also a scriptwriter, she has penned more than a dozen original productions for Allenberry Resort and Playhouse in Pennsylvania and has written for Oxygen and Lifetime networks. She lives in Los Angeles with her low-maintenance husband, young son, and dog, and her high-maintenance cat. Please visit her at www.jacquelineheinze.com.