Butterfly Man/Chapter XIV
LATE in the afternoon Ken rode in Central Park, Howard at his side. Their horses were eager, the early March day was sharp. Jogging thus through the dun bridle path, passing trimly tailored women seated astride their mounts, meeting a cavalcade of youths from the riding academy of a private school, gazing up at the newly rising towers of apartment buildings, Ken was roundly, solidly contented. This confidence he felt, this rock-firmness of his flesh, this sharpness of sight and keenness of hearing was youth. All of him was resurgently alive.
"Come on, Howard!" he cried. They began to race. The horses carried them easily, assimilating the good spirits of the young men who rode on their backs.
A new discovery, this strength of youth. A new discovery, this self-satisfaction. Its cause was so remote that no inkling of it lay on the surface of Ken's mind. He knew only that a world of edges and corners was past; a world of smooth curves, the luxury of not being hurt, was at hand.
Still later in the day, while Howard was working or when he was conferring with his business manager or talking on the telephone to Leon Shaw; or at home, ordering dinner, asking: "Ken, will you dine with me?"—when they sat opposite each other, tasting the turtle soup, recalling the brisk happy mood of the day, Ken felt the new happiness grow within him.
As he entered the theatre that night, Howard greeted him. Together they climbed the stairs to Ken's dressing-room. The make-believe world of the theatre surrounded them. Rosemary, white and tiny in her careless undress, the trim perfection of a chorus girl, leg bent high against the backstage wall, the rippling chatter of the chorus dressing-room.
It had been a full, happy day for Ken. He had been alive, young. Now, Howard at his side, the mood of the night was returning. Fresh air had blown it away like a smoke ring, whirled about and dissipated by a sudden gust of wind. Here, in the theatre the still air, the smell of flesh and young sex recalled a nearly forgotten emotion.
"Howard," Ken said, "let's go out after the theatre, shall we? Are you free?"
"I feel like talking, hearing some music—not on Broadway—some little out-of-the-way spot."
They visited Paul's, on a side street, climbing stairs to the place Frankie Regan had recommended to Ken. "It's in the Village," Frankie had told him. "You'll like it, I'm sure."
As they sat down, Howard said: "This place always reminds me of Paris. Where did you hear about it?" "One of the boys …"
"Frankie Regan, I'll bet."
"He may be here later. Nice kid," Ken commented. Ken had planned a long, intimate chat with Howard. The room was shadowy, with dim corners, part of what had once been a second floor front tenement flat. Paul, a vast, shapeless and somewhat frowsy blonde woman, sang "blue" songs replete with not entirely symbolic sex imagery. Ken ordered a highball. A slender blond boy with the manner of a shy school girl came to their table.
"This is Ken Gracey," Howard said. "Meet Jean Darling."
"I'm so glad to see you," Jean Darling said. "It's been a long time since you'd paid us the honor of a visit, Howard."
"I've been terribly busy," Howard replied.
"I didn't know you'd been here before," Ken remarked.
"He hasn't been here for nearly a year," said the entertainer. He was handsome, his hair platinum, his eyes the amused, contemptuous eyes of the world-weary youth. For you, Howard, he said, "I'll do all your new songs. I've learned every one, every one. They're perfection. May I sing them?"
'Most certainly, Jean," Howard said.
Jean began to sing in a low, husky voice. He had visited "Sweeter Than Sweet." His imitation of Rosemary Rose was recognizably good.
"He's really a great mimic," Howard remarked. "He can do women better than most, although he's quite a man. Played football at Erasmus and won an amateur boxing tournament last year."
As Jean sang and Paul busied herself with her guests, Ken grew restless. He wanted to be alone with Howard, away from this nondescript room, the weak-mouthed Jean Darling, the repulsively fat Paul. Ken's memory returned to Hollywood, the Rendezvous and his chat with Buddy Nolan. Little round tables, quiet groups, men with men, women with women.
"I thought this would be a quiet place. I wanted to talk to you; of course, that's impossible here. Shall we leave?"
Howard nodded. They rose. Jean fluttered toward them, asking anxiously if Howard was displeased with his singing. A ten dollar bill reassured him and he escorted them to the door.
As they drove uptown, Ken was apprehensive. "Fm moody tonight," he said. "I'm not my usual self. It's as if I had left myself at the theatre—the happy me—" He hesitated.
"I don't understand. You were so cheerful all day. What is it? Dyspepsia?"
"That business of getting drunk last night. I should not have done it."
"A spot of liquor is always good for you."
"I used to drink in Tia Juana because I was unhappy and wanted to forget."
"Some day I'll tell you, when … when I feel we understand each other completely." They were nearing Broadway. Ken was oblivious of the lights and the cacophony of noise. "If I'm vague, it's because I can't express exactly what is in my mind," he finally said.
"I think I understand," Howard told him. "You require fulfillment."
Fulfillment? Perhaps. Perhaps something still more important. Comradeship, perhaps—perhaps calmness, peace. I thought all that was just around the corner. Last night—and I can't tell you why—I felt something go snap, something let go. I was painfully aware of the need for more than I could ever hope to have—if you get what I mean."
"It wouldn't be so bad if I knew what I wanted. Perhaps you can tell me."
"I've felt that way too," Howard said. "My work, I think, saves me. Makes me typically an extrovert. I submerge self in a sort of bogus self-expression. Logically your dancing should do the same for you."
"It did—until I knew that I was making good. The struggle is over. The fun's gone."
"I see—you have passed the incubator stage—you are sprouting wings—"
"Horns, rather—" Ken smiled. "It's a relief to get close to myself—to see what I am becoming—that's why I wanted to talk. But I'm through spoiling your evening. What shall we do?"
They were nearing Fiftieth Street. "Let's drop in at Lido," Howard suggested.
The Lido was discreetly sophisticated, its music gently soothing, its service perfection. They sat in a corner and watched the dancers.
"This is better," Howard said. "This is a little of the old world, London, Paris, New York, everywhere where men and women are free. No ostentation. No curiosity. The mob does not come here. Hoboes are not admitted. Part of what we are is here. Artificiality. Veneer. You're gay at Lido, carefree. At Lido or any place like Lido, I'm me. Ken, I'm no longer a solid rock. No longer selfish about fame or success, or money. Here no one asks me for anything. Here I'm—me."
Ken was annoyed. "You're never solid rock. You are always considerate—and kind—and sweet. You are thoughtful in the real sense."
"To you perhaps, but to others, I'm hard," Howard replied. He looked at Ken, at his puzzled eyes and the lips which quivered in a half-framed question. "Let's drop this self-analysis. Let's drink some champagne."
Nothing in the champagne to upset a baby. No bitter taste, as of tequila or old-fashioneds, concocted at Frank and Jack's bar. It was silly to be bound up like a mummy in the past. Why not drink? Why exert self-control? The blinding sweep of strings in a tango vibrated through the room. The wine jiggled in his eyes. He watched Howard cross to a distant table.
"Day dreaming?" he heard a voice ask. "Or should I have said mooning?"
He looked up.
"Where's your belle?"
The round pink cheeks of Frankie.
Ken blinked. "Where's Howard?" Frankie asked.
"Over there … talking to Louis Sobol. How did you find us?"
"I followed you up here."
"How did you know we were here?"
"Jean Darling recalled that Howard likes Lido. He said to try it first. I did. Aren't you glad?"
Ken looked at the boy. "I'm always glad to see you, Frankie."
"Be careful, Ken; or people will be hearing you and saying that—
"That all is vanity?"
"That we are—like this and that."
"We aren't, though."
"We should be, Kennie. Why not? I'm lush. I'm gay. I'm wicked. I'm everything that flames." He smiled that vapid, silly smile. Then, becoming serious: "Oh, tush, I'm a plain idiot, if I only knew it … but I don't. Though you could like me a little—"
Through the mulled over, warmed over embers of his consciousness, Ken spoke. "I can't, Frankie," he said.
Ken did not reply.
Frankie was gone. Howard's progress through the room was that of a triumphant monarch. Everyone knew him; everyone was eager to touch his hand, to ask for news of his plans, to discuss theatre.
Ken's glorious happiness of the afternoon fled. In its place came horrible fear.
He could not trust himself. His passion, slow to rise, now threatened to overpower him. The vague forebodings of the preceding night had given way to dead certainty. Frankie's easy acceptance of the idea that Howard was Ken's all-important alter ego, proved that all the world knew his secret thoughts. Why conceal the truth? To find happiness again must he not proclaim the truth?
And yet …
Rather than face truth, Ken chose to flee from it. He went downstairs to the men's room.
He whispered something to the black boy, who disappeared for a moment and then returned with a pint of bootleg rye. Ken opened the bottle and drank. As he reentered the room of shifting gold and black, he became dizzy. Painted faces whirled. Women in evening dress clung tightly to their men. The orchestra sobbed an African dirge. He found a path to a table where Howard sat. "C'me'ere," he said.
A moment later he was holding Howard's arm. "Get me out of here, Howie," he was saying. "Get me out of here before I make a fool of myself—quick."
Howard laughed. "You're drunk again. That's all. Where'd you get it?"
"For God's sake, Howard, I'm not—I'm not kidding. I know myself. I'm a fool, I tell you, a fool."
"Ssh …" Howard placed a hand on his mouth. The dance had ended. Sallow faces, sharp eyes watched them. Myles Hollinger, the columnist, tall, dark, good looking, was entering the room. Someone called "Psst!" Hollinger crossed the floor to the table where Howard had been sitting.
"I gotta go home, Howie," Ken pleaded. "Don't ask me why. If I don't get home, I'll do something I shouldn't. I must go."
Howard laughed. "I'll take you." He turned and caught Hollinger's eye. He rose, crossed to the table where Hollinger sat. "If you make a sob story out of this for your dirty column of imitation O. Henry, I'll black both your eyes and knock a few of your teeth out."
Hollinger said nothing. Howard suddenly realized he had made a grave mistake. The whole incident would be in the week-end newspaper. "I'm sorry," he said apologetically. "The boy is drunk."
Ken moved to the Algonquin the following afternoon. His belongings were relatively few and as Rutgers was enjoying a day off it was easy to escape.
He carefully phrased a note to Howard. "Forgive me for the sudden run-out," he wrote. "I have been upset during the past few days. I would rather die than bother you. Until I get over this funny feeling, I would rather live alone. Thank you for everything. And forgive me for what may seem like a crazy idea—walking out without even saying anything to you. But it is all for the best. I'll be at the Algonquin. K."
A taxi driver bore his two trunks downstairs. The Barrington, the Mercedes, the perfect meals, the dreamless bed, all vanished into a past irrevocably gone.
Cool in a simple hotel room, Ken waited for Howard's call. At five o'clock it came.
"I just read your reasonless note. What does it mean? I don't care if you get drunk every night in the week."
"Old dear, you got me wrong," Ken protested with false nonchalance. "I'm a blubbering fool. Don't trust me."
Howard, at the end of a telephone circuit, laughed. "I don't. I love untrustable friends. Makes life varied."
"Then put it this way: I want to be no man's. I'm free."
"But let's talk about it. Have dinner with me … at … at L'Aiglon."
"Tomorrow night. Tonight, I'm vicious, hangoverish."
Howard regretfully said: "Then I'll see you at the theatre tonight?"
He disconnected. Ken faced the silent phone. He shrugged his shoulders. This was the easiest course out of difficult seas. He would slowly, gently guide Howard to an understanding of what an association with him might mean.