In the room I keep at the Gouverneur Hotel, at the bottom of the Lower East Side, in Straus Square, I've got dozens of handkerchiefs. The cotton ones have raised needlework, often in more than one color. Some have leaves in the corners, diamonds, or Hebrew words. One has elaborate curls, which I'm quite sure are sewn with golden thread. The silk ones are more elaborate, with patterns of orange flame, waves, quarter moons, or women's faces. I dry my tears with these handkerchiefs. I masturbate into them. I wipe the sweat from my forehead. And when my eyes grow red from heat or smoke, I press them lightly with a handkerchief to cool them.
I launder each handkerchief by hand. I won't let them fall further apart. I got them from my father years ago, when I was home for a holiday break from the University of Chicago and he happened to be moving out of the apartment he shared with my mother on the corner of Rutherford Place and Seventeenth Street, where I grew up. He didn't want these handkerchiefs because her parents gave them to him, a half dozen each year on his birthday, and some had grown frayed.
I need to use one now, because the warmth in here is making my eyes water, so it's become difficult for me to smile at strangers. I move quickly across this crowded living room and I feel lucky when I find enough space on a windowsill to first steady my hand and then set down my glass. I take a folded handkerchief from my back pocket and press it to my eyes. Soon I'll go and find my friend Bear, drink another scotch, and then I'll be bold and look about me, with the hope that there's someone else I might speak with here at Professor Weingarden's Welcome the Spring party.
This handkerchief is made of blue-and-gray checked silk. My father's initials, JGZ, are stitched in one corner. His name is Jefferson Gerard Zabusky. I'm Mike.
"Today must have been terrifying for you."
It's a woman speaking. My eyes are covered, and I can't imagine that she's addressing me. She's probably asking someone about the market, which slipped again. March is just ending and it looks like we're going to have a messy April. We've had a strong allergy season, studded with bouts of rain. The markets have done nothing but falter, and even people like me, with few or no investments, have begun to watch. But tonight, after a full day of storm clouds and thunder, amid consistent reports of our financial doom, at least the sky is clear.
"Come on, no two-day blip is going to hurt me," a man says. "We went through this in February. This happens all the time." He laughs impatiently, and the noise he makes is like a scoff. These people have taken over the rest of the window, to my right. I put my handkerchief away, blink, and look at the woman's back. The man bobs his head, as if he's trying to catch her eye. "So no, it wasn't terrifying," says the man, "and it won't kill me."
"I didn't say it would kill you," she says.
"The worst is over," he says. "We've maintained a substantial cash reserve. Too bad you couldn't stick around to see me do well again."
At an inch or so over six feet, he's my height, but he's at least ten years older than I am and he's wearing good clothes--a black blazer and a freshly pressed white shirt. Though I've got a strong memory for languages and names and ideas, I can't be counted on to remember to dress well for parties. I'm wearing navy blue pants and my favorite shirt, which is dark as a red rose forgotten for days in a vase.
She says, "Really, I only asked if you'd had a scary day. But you're tough. I'm sure you'll do fine."
Because I'm close to her, I can hear her sigh. I like the way she sounds. She's got rust in the lower registers of her voice and she does not speak quickly. But the man is cracking. He rolls his shoulders and splays out his fingers, as if he wants to grab hold of something, of her, but he must know that he can't touch her when they're talking this way. Her back is upright and calm.
Excerpted from Consent by Ben Schrank. Copyright 2002 by Ben Schrank. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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