Hope’s House Warming
New York, circa 1993
“I don’t need a man. A man needs me.” Nothing, not even an abrupt end to a six-year relationship was going to find me caving and changing my stance.
Hope simply agreed with a “I hear that” then hung up the telephone. Her main satisfaction seemed to be that I would definitely come to her party. She gave no indication she recalled those words as the ones we heard Bliss speak the last time we saw her alive. Hope had also become part of this revisionist history of who Bliss was – not that I really knew her.
I only met that Bliss chick twice, back-to-back weekends at that. Her aura screamed of a duplicitous chick playing all sides of a closed circle. She played it well by mainly saying good things about people then quickly placed herself on a higher plane. Chick was as fake as they came. She irked me, for various reasons, but mostly for trying to play the role of an experienced, worldly woman when the word on the grapevine stated otherwise.
October 1991, the year of abrupt endings is how I now refer to it. It was the eighteenth, only a week after attending an event I tried my hardest to back out of. I saw Bliss for the second time, after having heard her name a few times over the years. Campus lore had suddenly morphed her into a mythic figure, the young woman credited with breathing life into the MAX boys. MAX boys were dangerous because they operated sans structure, where any man could crown himself king and be that, as long as he stayed within the barely visible territorial lines he drew for himself.
Dusk falling over Manhattan always felt like the evacuation scene of a movie where giant killer ants chased humans out of their domicile. I drove into Chelsea via the LIE and Midtown Tunnel because Hope said we should arrive together. She only had to ask once for me to tag along and attend Attitude’s first major gallery showing. Gym and treadmill could wait. I left Queens at 3:30 p.m. but after fighting through rush hour traffic, by the time I reached her office, the city looked grayer than normal, almost comic bookish, like a web had been spun. A soft hug with a gentle spine rub as we reached across the gear shift.
Hope had not told me this was a society event! High society at that!
I should have known this, put the pieces together even before she gave me a glimpse of the invitation card that came to her job. There had to have been a reason why Attitude had not personally invited me. Two clicks of my brain to the left side would have told me that a MAX boy would not exhibit unless it was done to the maximum. That was how they lived life, even the negative sides.
Hope only found out about the event because her job received an invitation. She volunteered for the exhibit and they agreed because of the years she had known him. We were the same age but she chose to stay and do grad school at our alma mater, while I decided to push career and pursue my masters on a part-time basis.
Though the exhibit had been at the gallery for nearly a month, tonight’s event was invitation only, sent out to major publications, competing galleries and art critics. Très chic meshed with overly-crowded; polished floors, bright teeth, low-cut expensive dresses and club ties. My first thought was that Attitude had sold out.
Hope, ever his defender, explained the basic story of how he lost a bet to Bliss, and had to agree on no longer being an “underground” artist. Bliss did not think he could pull it off, but every gallery she contacted wanted him, so she went with the Bienvenue Gallery. Known for only showing works by established artists who catered to the wealthiest of folks but not necessarily in need of patronage, pieces at Bienvenue rarely sold for under five-thousand dollars. Failure here was worse than doing so on the street level, simply because the published reviews would be harsh. And the artist’s ceiling would have been set. Most artists dared not approach, crutching artistic integrity, claiming their art was pure all the while breaking bread and dawn with strung out junkies.
She guided me through his work, contrasting it with his first collection, calling it a major departure from his other works and previous collection. Voices from the Margin exhibited a dark sobriety, a bare canvas sliced and splashed in measured tones and compartments. The clarity lied in its boldness, wherein the brushstrokes baited the viewer to prejudge. The benefit of having chosen Bienvenue Gallery was that these patrons and critics had seen the worst and the best. Voices from the Margin claimed to be neither. The thirty-nine pieces that formed the collection built a wall around the past, the truth and showed an artist willing to take the money and run.
The attendees gushed over the pieces, and I absorbed the exchanges. And, there was Bliss, with the audacity to wear a sheer white dress with no bra nor panties, taking credit for having made him.
She proceeded to tell us how she had Attitude on a string and that he’d do anything for her. Of course her face cracked when he walked in, not disheveled but clearly not dressed for the occasion: T-shirt with a slogan, with some next chick, white girl wearing a matching t-shirt with an inversion of the same slogan – Be Me; and Who’s Me. Bliss looked as if she’d had her period run down her leg when Attitude introduced the girl as his future wife. He held court with a champagne flute raised by a slightly bent elbow; interlocked fingers – caramel brown and canary yellow. His speech was short, gracious yet bellowed a distinct self-assured note, clearly meant for Bliss.
When they walked away to meet and greet, I simply told her, “Don’t ever be fooled, ‘cause there’s never a time to play a skank.” With the media there, all kind of bulbs flashed in the air; prominent people being quoted. True, I’m sure when Attitude gave that little spiel thanking Bliss for helping him craft the collection over red wine and good times – it made her feel special. But I made sure I took a picture of her, since no one else cared. I wanted to be sure if she ever tried to play dumb, I would show her what the flash captured, what people with real clear vision could see: erect nipples and bush- nun bush, at that, because I asked around when I met her last week; that Bliss chick had no reputation to speak of, yet confiding in me she was a sexual freak, who goes hard.
Bliss did not utter another word to us or anyone else, until the end of the night. She had retreated to the only empty wall in the space and observed the party, much like I had done after Hope gave me the tour when we first walked in. I knew to pick a place and keep my mingling to a minimum. After doing my best, these past two years, to slowly wean myself out of Society parties, I found no reason to get deeper as Attitude himself maneuvered a way to walk away. Then, as if a jolt of energy coursed through her, Bliss approached me as I waited for Hope to say her goodbyes. She got real close to me and shouted, “Barbara, I don’t need a man. A man needs me.” and then repeated the two short sentences two more times; these times adding my last, “Barbara Wilson…”. She then walked back to the other side of the room, staring at me as if to say, ‘your move’.
Bliss’s last words had not registered or meant anything special to me, even after I saw how it turned Hope’s right shoulder and spun her to where we stood and then immobilized her like a little kid playing freeze tag. She barely excused herself when she came out of her stupor. She rushed outside. I followed quickly but mindful I had spiked heels and a knee high skirt. She could run that fast because she wore charcoal gray slacks and flats. She responded to my call with rushed words that matched her pace. “I have to make a phone call.”
I got to her as she dropped the coin. The phone booth on the corner did not have a door, only a back panel with perpendicular sides. She adjusted her body with a slight movement, indicating she needed privacy. I moved a few steps away but close enough to hear her only words when the person at the other end picked up. “The King is under attack!” Her voice flared, “no.” She repeated her words, hinting that the person on the other line asked for clarification. The call took about thirty seconds from her depositing the quarter to hanging up the phone.
Manhattan, edge of Soho, now under the complete darkness, it felt smaller, the kind of place with short streets lined with garbage cans; alleyways where directors filmed movie rape scenes. Hope’s eyes betrayed her words, “It’s nothing. I’m glad you came. I liked how you came at Bliss. It gave me a different point of view.” I smiled and we walked toward the parking garage to retrieve my car but my worries bubbled. When we got inside the car, I asked again. Hope’s demeanor, a forced innocence as she played into her new haircut, a bob with a short bang split down the middle. She said something I thought no one had picked up on. “You have to decide whether you are in this Society or out of it.”
“I just need to know if Ken is in any trouble.”
She laughed and said, “This was a MAX event. It has nothing to do with the brothers.” Traffic moved, with us catching a red light at every other intersection. Relieved that my first worry had been cleared, I made the worst mistake I could at the moment. I let my guards down. Hope’s words came direct yet she maintained the supportive tone. “Why do you act like this was something given to you? You earned this. You have a right to tell anyone you meet who you are and how you came to be here. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I never said I was ashamed but it doesn’t mean I have to claim something I am not, like Bliss is doing.”
She laughed. “Is that what you think Bliss was doing?” When I didn’t answer, she continued, “I thought you understood that she was standing there forcing them to look at her, letting them know she would support a man, no matter the situation.”
I pulled in front of her building, a few feet behind the “No Standing Anytime” sign. “Would you do that?”
“I have. We have. Not under the bright lights like she just did but we have.” Then her tone changed. A sadness ran across her face; it seemed to hold back the high pitch sounds because the bass came out of Hope’s mouth. “You know what, you and I, we’ll forever be friends and it is what I want. But, you don’t have to be a part of this for us to be close. I hope that’s not what you think.”
“Sometimes I don’t know what to think…”
She cut me off. “It’s simple. It has always been and will always be this simple: you know enough to keep your mouth shut. You do know that, right?”
A small fear, beads of sweat fizzed on my brow, behind my ears and down my spine. I nodded unable to say the words because my mouth locked. Hope hugged me and promised to call for lunch.
She did. We did lunch, shopping, concerts and over the next two years we truly became girlfriends, best friends.
Two years of just enjoying life and the plush style that came with having a great income backed by two degrees on the wall. All I had to do was keep my mouth shut when it came to talking about the Society. That had become easy and then my world caved in one week.
My man of six years left me, and four days later, Bliss died.
Forty degrees during the second week of October was not my idea of a nice night for a party, especially since it served no true purpose – not a birthday nor a holiday. Hope even warned guests not to bring gifts. My life had splintered less than three months ago, yet I felt so relieved. I had managed to hold my ground while everyone seemed to be running away, finding alternate routes to reshape their lives, even Hope.
I never pictured Hope as someone who would need to move to New Jersey, gentrified Jersey at that. Her move from Murray Hill, Manhattan now put two tunnels between us. She went from high rise to a community with a security gate, manicured lawns and assigned parking for detached condos in red brick-faced colonial style buildings. In some ways this could be seen as moving closer to how she grew up in the suburbs but Hope was city-slick and tough as any girl I ever met.
Until her phone call a few hours earlier, I had an iron-clad yet trifling excuse to bail out, knowing this party to be an attempt to mend rifts. People would smile but none would discuss why several tight friends went from seeing or talking weekly to needing a party just so they could say hello again.
We no longer had Bliss yet everyone pretended she continued to be or had been a big part of their lives.
I arrived early to help Hope with last minute details, and be there enough time in case I wanted to leave early without her feeling slighted. Plus, I needed to clear the air with her. Bliss’s death brought back the uncertainty I felt two years ago when Hope made that phone call. I came early to ask her point blank whether something had been in the works to forever silence Bliss, the way Hope had silenced me. Hope’s words served caution while taking away a core part of my personal history, rendering me only able to talk about the marginal stuff, for fear I would end up a suicide.
I was not early enough as nearly a dozen people beat me there. Unlike me, they brought gifts. Blenders, wine glasses and stuff I knew Hope possessed. They knew this, yet they seemed excited, at peace that Hope no longer lived in the past, like she had been reborn. This became my cue to observe, listen and forget quickly.
Her new apartment, an alcove studio, half the size of her previous place in Manhattan explained why she donated most of her furniture to charity. Miniature lithograph prints lined the exposed brick wall from the window at the opposite end, past the kitchen, up to across the bathroom’s door. Instead of her straight-laced nature, Hope aligned the prints with top edge of one frame next to the center of the other, and no two frames on the same plane. Her aesthetics had expanded. Back in the days, she would have featured only the likes of Bearden and Gordon Parks. She now included Dali and Rodin; mounted glass shelves with very few books and a couple of statues she purchased over the years. Skylights throughout the apartment enhanced the artistic feel.
The layout managed to detract from the smallness, leaving me fascinated that she fit a futon, sofa, bed and could still entertain dozens of people. Many more showed than I expected. Of the seventy or so who came and went, thirty arrived within the first two hours. More than half left early, saying they came only to pay their respects…letting the word and thought hang like an unfinished sentence, as if Hope and Bliss were family.
Nearing eleven o’clock, even in a crowded tight space I felt alone. Just a pitch above boring, the party had served its purpose of retying alliances. I pondered the best way to excuse myself and call it a night, until Ernest and Devon walked into the party.