One Night at Tatou’s
“It’s a helluva thing, these parties,” said John as he lit up a cigarette. “More fine Korean babes than you can imagine, all dressed in these little black dresses, all looking for husbands. It’s crazy. Just tell ’em that you’re an analyst with Goldman and boom, you’re in. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I guess,” said Ted, pulling at his shirt collar that was too tight. “But what if one of them is an analyst with Goldman?”
“Then you’re fucked,” said his friend and mentor.
John was twenty-three, a magna cum laude graduate of Yale’s highly esteemed economics department, and an analyst for Shearson and Lehman’s corporate finance division. The company worked him sixty-plus hours every week, but they were paying something close to $50,000 for a year of his young life.
Ted, on the other hand, was still in school, an English major with no money in his future. Yale worked him sixty-plus hours every week, but he was paying them close to $25,000 for the privilege of spending a year of his young life under the watchful gaze of gargoyles in the libraries.
But tonight he had dressed as if he were a vice president at Goldman Sachs: Ferragamo shoes, Piatelli shirt and a midnight blue Versace suit. John had told him that everyone wore suits at these parties by M Society, a group of New York area Korean yuppies whose sole function seemed to be throwing extravagant parties at extravagant nightclubs. Luckily for him, John’s clothes fit fairly well, and he had always had good shoes.
“So how much am I going to blow here, John?” Ted asked.
“Entrance is usually about fifteen, and drinks are about six,” said John.
“Drinks are how much?”
“Six, give or take a dollar or two, more for special cocktails, less for beer. Ted, dude, we’re going to Tatou’s here, you know? That’s about how much it usually costs. It’s not like a Yale dance that costs three bucks with free refreshments.”
“Yeah, I guess,” said Ted. “But John, no matter where we’re going, that’s still a flock of dollars, man.”
“I’ll tell you what,” said John. “Since this is your first M Society party, I’ll pay for your cover. I gotta take care of my dong-saeng, right?”
“Right, of course, hyung,” Ted agreed. “But why not go all the way and buy me drinks too?”
“Yo, man,” said John. “If I buy you drinks, then I’m gonna have to fuck you later, you know what I mean? Buying drinks is just fore-foreplay.”
“Nice, John,” said Ted. “Won’t you be a little more crude and objectifying of women.”
“Objectifying of women?” said John in mock indignation. “Nah, man, objectifying of bitches, man, bitches.”
Ted looked at his friend in disbelief for a while, trying to decide whether his comment was funny or not. It wasn’t, but he laughed anyway. Fifteen bucks for a laugh — not bad for five seconds worth of work.
They turned the corner at 46th street and saw a horde of people lined up outside the club doors. Tatou’s was a happening place of the moment, and a private party there was something of a social coup. As they walked through the side door reserved for M Society members, an unwelcome visitor popped into his head: would Sandy be there? He knew that she went to these parties once in a while. It might be interesting to see how his guts would react to her presence after all these months. Would he vomit blood and die, or maybe have an apoplectic seizure? Or the unthinkably probable: would they just say hi and pass by each other as if they were nothing more than acquaintances who say hi and pass by each other?
The short flight of stairs terminated in a smallish room with red velvet as the dominant decorative motif. The atmosphere of European decadence, wealth and comfort straight out of the 18th century clashed wildly with the techno-house music pumping out of the speakers hung over the tiny dance floor at one end. The noise was matched only by the smell of bored excitement, the sickly-sweet scent of perfume shot through with the pungent punch of alcohol, that accompanied conversations whose principal attraction was that they filled the space between the mouth and the ear. And then there were the people.
Ted had been to parties before. He always said that he sure as hell wasn’t some fucking Asian-stereotype-pre-med-nerd-geek whose idea of social interaction was doing problem sets with other Asian-stereotype-pre-med-nerd-geeks. And he had put in time to dispel that myth of the Asian male. He had been on the college party circuit, riding the caravan up to Smith and Wellesley, to Head of the Charles parties in Boston, to the parties at Columbia and NYU. He had had his share of walking into rooms knowing maybe two faces, and enduring a thousand pairs of eyes — half of them checking him out from head to toe and the other half sizing him up. (He had noticed that for some reason everyone always looked at the shoes first. He went out and bought really expensive shoes, with good results.)
But he felt out of place here. He shared nothing with these people except race. At school parties in Boston and New York, there was at least the loose community of being students. And he could usually find the people who were involved with Korean Student Associations and talk about the usual things that KSA people talked about. There was plenty of gaming going on, but there was also a shared meaning of existence.
Here, there was only the game. All the faces swam up and swam away, fading into the dark loudness leaving only their commercial scents behind. He recognized many of the fragrances, all classics of Korean-American subculture: Calyx, Beautiful, Eternity. The women were as John said, more or less. There were stunning women in clothes so tasteful he could have screamed, and there were the quiet wallhuggers who seemed to shrivel into the cigarette smoke behind their noncommittal glances. And the Armanied and Hugo Bossed brothers were chatting ’em up, playing the game as it was meant to be played. Drinks were bought, generosity displayed, feathers ruffled up to be seen. It was like a massive mating dance that took on the flavor of a commodity trader’s pit. It was interesting that almost everyone was dressed like a banker, which they in all likelihood were.
John broke off and went to work immediately, greeting first the men he knew and then meeting the women they were with. Ted made a beeline for the bar. He wasn’t in the mood for the market yet. He spotted the players, the brokers, trying to negotiate those mergers. And he saw the couples who evidently held exclusive contracts, locked away in their own worlds on the tiny dance floor or at their cramped tables. Men looked right through him as if he were cigarette smoke and every woman he passed gave him a cursory lookover. And yet no one knew him here. No one approached him. No one tried to talk to him. And in the crowded corners, people were making out, their drinks in one hand and their conquests in the other, kissing and touching with complete social invisibility. It was strange how anonymity and privacy was so easily achieved in the midst of a huge throng of uninterested people.
Suddenly, he saw Sandy. She was out on the dance floor with some of her girlfriends. These were the bitches who had all advised her to break up with him, to “live a little” and to “test the waters before settling down.” They were doing that funny wagon train dance with their shoes and handbags in the middle of the circle. She had not noticed him — thank God and no surprise considering that he looked like everyone else in the room. She was laughing. He turned away, a little too quickly, and went to the bar.
He ordered a kamikaze and was told it was seven dollars. He tried to look casual opening his wallet and put down a ten. He heard himself say, “Keep the change” as if it were the most natural thing in the world to say. Then he squirmed his way into the crowd where John was talking to some people, far away from Sandy.
“So this guy, right, he grabs my briefcase and he starts running, right?” said John, gesturing with a lit cigarette in his hand. Ted wondered if smokers somehow develop a sense for where the lit end is at all times. “Oh, hey, Ted. This is Lisa and her friend Jen, and… I’m sorry, what was your name again? Yeah, that’s right, Min-kyung. Ladies, this is Ted, he’s a classmate of mine from Yale who’s working at… where are you working at, man?”
“American Cyanamid,” said Ted, shaking all their hands politely. He couldn’t decide whether or not Min-kyung had squeezed his hand slightly or not. “Hi, how’re you doing. Hi, how are you. Hi.” Lisa and Jen were apparently entranced in John’s story, and Min-kyung was clearly chafing. Lisa was tall, lithe, and plain-faced, Jen was short, lithe, and plain-faced, and Min-kyung was just plain non-descript. They all wore something little and black: shorts, dresses, pants, suits, bras, pantyhose, whatever. He smiled and pretended to be interested in what John was saying.
“Yeah, that’s right, anyway, so this guy is running down the street. Now, I had the paperwork about the merger in there, and it took me like three months to get all that together. So I’m not about to let this guy go. So I run after him, and I kick his legs out, right? And he pulls a knife.”
John rarely missed an opportunity to inject somewhere into the conversation with women he had not met before the fact that he was a third degree black belt in Taekwondo. Eventually, his companions would coax out of him the fact that he had been the captain of the Yale Taekwondo Team and had been the Ivy League sparring champion for two years. Then would come the part about his piano playing, and if things were going especially well, perhaps he would reveal — over a very intimate drink in a dark corner somewhere — his penchant for writing sappy poetry to which she would usually beg for access at which point he would demur saying not tonight maybe next time after all they’re really private and i don’t really know you that well although i would really like to. Then he was in.
“So… Ted, right?” It was Min-kyung, declaring her independence from the tedium of John’s non-too-subtle self-apotheosis.
“Yeah, and you’re Min-kyung?”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s right,” she said. “Hey,were you at Nell’s a couple weekends ago?”
“Uh… no, no, this is my first time.”
“Oh, yeah? Wow. That’s strange. I thought I had seen you somewhere before.”
Oh, maybe,” he deadpanned, “I mean, how many Asians could there be in New York, you know?”
“Yeah… well…,” said Min-kyung obviously missing the joke and looking around for familiar faces. Not finding any, her eyes returned to him. “So John never dragged you to one of these before?”
“No, never. But I haven’t exactly been social, you know?”
“Really? Working all the time?”
“Yeah, you could say that,” he said. Working, that is, on my goddamn senior essay on T.S. Eliot which is just refusing to end.
“Huh… So tell me, whatisitthatyoudo?” she asked.
“Well, I’m a marketing specialist for American Cyanamid. I doubt you’ve every heard of us; we’re pretty specialized.”
“Yeah?” she said, as if it were a revelation of biblical proportions. “What do you guys do?”
“We manufacture chemical and biological weaponry,” he said.
“Oh, I see,” she said, smile frozen.
“Well, not the actual shells and missiles or any delivery system, but boring stuff, you know, the nerve gas or the biological agents themselves, those things we make in these huge laboratories, yeah. I think General Dynamics makes our missiles… But we don’t decide any of that. The customer chooses what kind of packaging he wants with the toxins.”
“Packaging, uh huh,” she said.
“Yeah, and some customers want them unpackaged, so they could put it into whatever system they want. Like Saddam Hussein, see, we’d sold him some stuff to him a few years back, way before I joined the firm of course, and he took it unpackaged.”
“Of course,” she said looking around.
“And then I hear about the Kurds, you know? So I’m thinking, whatever we make, it must be pretty potent, ’cause we didn’t sell him that much stuff, you know?” he said. “Anyway, so what do you do?”
“Me? I work at Goldman Sachs,” she said. “But excuse me, I see some friends I have to say hi to. I’ll see you around?”
“You bet,” he said, winking at her. It was one way to get rid of unwanted company — let them get rid of you.
“So anyway, you ladies should learn some self-defense. It’s not too late for you, really, and it’s so much safer than guns or mace or some crap like that.” John finished his monologue and took a drink, giving an opening for the more interested of the two to take. Lisa went for it full force.
“Wow, that’s really incredible!” she exclaimed. “I can’t believe that you could really break somebody’s wrist with a kick, I mean, I’m not saying you didn’t do it but just that it’s really impressive. You must have been doing this for a long time, right?”
“Yeah, I guess since I was about twelve,” John began again. Ted turned around and headed for a doorway. He guessed bathroom, and he was right. Once inside, his eyes had to adjust to the bright light and the absence of red. Two heavyset steroid-muscled Italian guys in front of him in line were complaining.
“Fifteen fucking bucks and all there is is fat old hoes or bitches with men twice their fucking age,” said one in a zebra print silk shirt and leather jeans, pulling his penis out of its tight full-grain prison. A gold chain glinted amidst the black curls on his chest.
“Yeah, but Joey, man, up here, man, that’s where the chicks are, you know? Some ’a these Chinese girls are fucking hot, you know?” His friend was only slightly better dressed in a black ribbed tank top with rayon pants, the shoulder length black curls glistening with gel almost hiding the fact that he was going bald.
“Korean,” Ted said.
“What? You say somethin’ pal?” Rayonpants turned towards him with a drunken glare.
“Yeah, I said they were Korean, not Chinese.”
“Yeah, Korean, whatevah,” he said. “As long as you know, me so horny, right? who the fuck cares, right?” His friend guffawed still holding his dick. Was he taking a piss or whacking off, Ted wondered, zipping up and getting out. He hated fucking guids. He had apocalyptic movie-like visions of himself reaching into his jacket, pulling out a blue-steel .357 Magnum and blowing their steroid brains out of their heads onto the white tiles of the piss-stained bathroom floor. But those visions usually went away quickly. He wandered downstairs.
The music downstairs was more top-forty, with Kriss Kross and En Vogue, and with less of the techno-acid house music that was booming upstairs. And here were men in their fifties with dates in their teens trying to shake something to beats that were designed more with their children than them in mind. And there were the plump white women in short short skirts and office jackets with their hair all teased up with hairspray and their faces painted more like a disguise than makeup. And there were the Wall Street types, youngish men standing around with Foster’s oilcans looking at the action on the floor, as if they were judging a talent show.
Ted squeezed his way to the front, where people were dancing on a little stage. If they weren’t in the middle of a circle, the front was usually where the serious dance freaks were. People stepped on his shoes and glowing cigarette ends swung towards his face alarmingly. But he got to the front. Some couples trying to impress each other with sexual dancing caught his eyes, mainly because they were completely offbeat. He laughed and kept scanning. Two huge fellas in suede loafers with no socks and silk shirts were doing hip thrusts into the air. They were enthusiastic and on-beat, but they pumped with such violence that it hurt to look at them, and besides, they moved with the grace and élan of arthritic gorillas. And then, towards one corner of the stage, he saw her. He couldn’t breathe.
She was tall; that was the first thing he noticed. And she was Asian, probably a refugee from upstairs. Her tight dancer’s body wasted no motion at all. Her steps were flawless, if a bit choppy, but with a graceful flow from one move to the next that moved him to adoration. So few people he knew had that grace. She didn’t dance sex, with all hip thrusts and grinds. It was pure, and her moves were imaginative. He felt a smile creep to his lips. She was dressed in short black shorts with a green flower-print top that showed off her small firm breasts and her curves. He was staring now, unable to take his eyes off of her. And she was alone. Her friend, dancing next to her, was beautiful-with-a-boyfriend but without the confidence and the purity of the dance she had. This woman was magnificent.
He felt a blush on his cheeks and a hole in his heart. He felt dirty, just staring at her like that. Every little twitch of his mind told him to go up there, introduce himself and start dancing with her. He looked around and noticed several men staring at her just as he was. Couple of them looked drunk off their ass and their eyes weren’t following her moves at all — only her butt. One guy had to be in his sixties, with a paunch; and yet, there he was, dressed in a blue silk suit and alligator boots, staring at this woman maybe a third his age. Beyond them, Ted saw the red velvet walls, looking black one moment and bloody the next as the colored lights of the dance floor flittered over it. And they all surrounded him like cement, all of their open lust all but yelling I WANNA FUCK YOU! His feet were planted to the parquet. He was one of them now, an unwilling brother in a fraternity of common lust, just another hardcock among the animals eyeing the prize.
He sat down at the table closest to her, but could not look at her. Some white women in their late thirties turned and looked him over once, then turned back to their bored conversation. He couldn’t raise his head. He studied the pattern on his wingtips. Then his eyes forced themselves up. And he stared and stared and stared, as if he could drink in her essence with his eyes. She was simply magnificent! Beautiful, absolutely beautiful!
“Wake up, you idiot,” he slapped himself, muttering. “What are you trying to accomplish? Fuck her? Yeah, right, where? And what about Sandy?” What about Sandy, he wondered. Why did that pop into his head like that? The bitch was history, long-gone long-dead past. So why was he scourging himself with thoughts of her?
It was the dance–it had to be. Sandy and he had met at a dance, similar in intent as this one. It was the spring of sophomore year, and she was a first-year at Columbia. He had gone to Columbia to perform in their Korean culture night. The party afterwards was lame, but he did meet Sandy. He wanted her at first sight. She was pretty in that cute way that Korean women have patented, not particularly tall, not particularly threatening, and she laughed at his dumb jokes and she was impressed by his mask-dance performance. He remembered their first conversation.
Where are you from? she had said.
Not here, he had replied.
For you to ask me out on a date?
And she was intelligent and bright and funny and kind and patient and gentle and everything he could have asked for. They talked about Korean culture and what it means, about growing up in America with yellow skin and black hair, about politics of race and gender, about sexist Korean men who wanted only docile housewives and the race-betraying Korean women who only fucked white boys. He offended her and she him and then they made love and it was sweet and it was good. She used to wear little white cotton panties with pink stripes, and he used to love them. Then, of course, love drove them apart.
Ted had never understood why she told him that night that they should see other people. There was no warning, no seismic tremor to indicate the plates shifting. And then, all of a sudden, she was talking about other people. Did she love him? Yes, she said she did, maybe even too much. He certainly loved her. And yet, that love was making her more and more distant every day. What do you want, he had finally screamed at her. I don’t know, she had answered, why don’t you give me a chance to find out. And that was it. In the space of three hurried weeks, he discovered vacancies in his soul he never knew existed. Tennyson said it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Ted hated Tennyson.
And so began a year in self-imposed hell, a sort of growing out of the pupae stage. Ted killed every bit of himself that had been Sandy’s boyfriend. He switched majors, from Chemistry to English, stopped being active in Korean community stuff, partied more with John and his friends, went to Smith and Wellesley more. He stopped going to church, even though he prayed every night as if it were the only thing that could fill his emptiness. And eventually, the emptiness too faded away. Or maybe it grew and filled him completely. But whatever had happened, the sensitive and caring boy romantic was no more. Now, he cared less about personality than taste, less about brains and more about legs, less about weeks and more about hours. He never lied to anybody, didn’t make promises he couldn’t keep, didn’t allow expectations to grow. But they fell in love with him anyway, trying to change him for the better, failing, then hating him bitterly. After the fourth girl who had screamed at him crying, accusing him of being a cold heartless sonofabitch, it stopped bothering him. He had dressed very carefully and slowly as she cursed him, making certain that his tie had a dimple in it. Then he turned and told the weeping girl that she was wonderful that night, and left, hearing her mirror shatter to pieces behind him. That was just the way of men and women.
He had finally heard from Sandy a month ago. She had sent him a brief postcard from France, with only the message: “Do you still hate me? I miss you.” It was dated six months ago, but the postmark was recent. He mailed her an index card with only the word ‘No’ on it. Then for some reason, he got her phone number from Columbia directory assistance and called her five times. She was never home, and she never returned his calls.
And tonight, this one night that he was in New York, when M Society happened to be having a party, she was upstairs with her girlfriends doing a stupid looking dance while he was down here enraptured of a fantastic dancer, a beautiful woman who made his blood warmer and entranced his eyes. And yet, she was upstairs. And all he could do was stare. All of his moves, all of his cold heartless confidence deserted him and left him mired in the lust of his brother voyeurs.
Suddenly, the dancer’s friend noticed him. Instead of turning away and pretending to be scanning the crowd, some perversity inside him forced his eyes to lock onto the dancer. The girlfriend whispered in her ear and she turned — expertly, as if she were just dancing — and caught his eyes squarely with hers.
The moment froze. It was like the scene in West Side Story, with the music fading away and the crowd disappearing one by one. It was epiphanic. It was fantastic. It was melodramatic to the max. Her eyes seemed puzzled yet questioning and dared him to answer. And he couldn’t.
He knew he had to make an answer. The rules were that he had to step right then and there and engage her. He only smiled and stood up. Then he applauded her. It was the worst possible thing he could have done. She turned around and started whispering to her friend. He had probably embarrassed her and made it almost impossible to meet her now on comfortable game-playing grounds. Then he turned around and squirmed his way out, his brain afire with confusion. He looked at his watch. He’d been staring at this one woman for nearly forty minutes.
“What a loser. What a fucking loser. What a fucking no-balls-having loser. What a goddamn fucking no-balls-having loser.” Muttering aloud made him feel just a little better, as if it were somebody else he was cursing. He headed for the bar, cursing. A few people turned their heads in his wake.
Six ounces of Chivas Regal disappeared in short order down his throat. He felt better, or at least oblivious. He had spent his weekly food budget on four drinks. His inchoate thoughts left words behind and turned pictorial. Images of Sandy floated throughout the red velvet walls of Tatou’s and the dancer’s look of contempt and embarrassment poured self-hatred into his mind. He saw John and his women and Min-kyung and the dancer’s girlfriend all swimming around his face, pale and disembodied, screaming loser! loser! loser! He couldn’t breathe. The air was thick with cigarette poison and the sweat of sexual games and the breath of alcohol. And he wasn’t a part of it, but he was in it up to his eyes.
“Fuck,” he breathed under his breath. The crowd surged back and forth to the beat of house music, and the couples who made up the crowd gyrated their hips and their breasts and their heads and hands to the music. Everybody was having the same silent conversation with their bodies: should we fuck, can you fuck me, no i don’t want to fuck you yet, i want to fuck, let’s fuck, let’s not fuck, do fuck me, please fuck me, please let me fuck you, yes, no, yes, no, yes, no. He imagined some slick brother like John upstairs with Sandy, striking a pose on the dance floor, silently saying, let me fuck you. She would smile and laugh with that same look of innocent concentration she had used on him, replying in that same silent cant, okay let’s fuck, and he would take her hand and they would dance like she had danced with a young romantic a long time ago, and then they would go outside and catch a cab up to 118th St. where she lived or down to whatever address his apartment was at, and then they would go upstairs and throw their clothes off and fuck like the end of the world was coming and when it came her eyes would open wide and her hips would hold the guy fast and outside somewhere in New York he would be walking along a city street that pulsated with anonymity, being noticed but unknown, just another speck of city debris being blown along in swirling coriolis patterns, and he would be saying with every step: fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.
A hand tapped him on the shoulder. He raised his head and the bartender looked in his eyes.
“You okay, guy?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said. “Well, physically, at least. I think I’m pretty fucked up emotionally, but hey, aren’t we all? I mean, isn’t this what it’s all about, huh? This game? You must see it every night, right? Isn’t this what it’s all about? To feel so much, to feel so goddamn much, it must be illegal.”
“You sure you’re all right, now?”
He got up and walked away, back onto the dance floor. The music assaulted him, cleansed him, unfocused his eyes. He worked his way to the stage and got on it. The crowd underneath him was anonymous, a surge of flesh and fantasy without names. To his left, he could see the dancer woman; she was looking at him, staring just as he had stared at her. And he stood there, letting his eyes unfocus, letting his hearing go away, letting the people, the smell, the taste of cigarette smoke, the weight of her stare all fade away. And in the end, all there was left was the beat of the bass drum in the center of his stomach. In the end, with Sandy upstairs, the dancer downstairs, John and all the other player brothers making the smooth moves and dropping the cool lines, there was simply nothing left for him. In the end there was only dancing to do.
And he danced. He danced purely, from his heart. His feet moved and stepped with their own minds. His hands went next, out into space, the matrix of sound, waving and playing like porpoises in the ocean. His head and his waist went next, and he was nothing but a disembodied thinking floating around. His eyes were closed now, the ecstatic look on his face, the sweat emerging on his forehead. And he begged forgiveness from the music, he demanded release from the rhythm, he asked for power and serenity from the blasting beat. And he danced all alone, a mote on a stream of anonymity. He danced on the stage at Tatou’s on 46th and Third in New York City on planet Earth on a warm fall night with quite a few eyes staring at him and a couple of minds thinking about him.
But finally, finally, he didn’t care.