The Gentleman by Eleanor Levine

Hand Over Water

Hand Over Water

Photo by Luca Calvani

 

‘The Gentleman’ by Eleanor Levine

 

It was not the New York he had left. It was a New York with unreasonable rents; people were scum; people were getting laid off; people were dying of AIDS—the new strains. The city transformed into a cosmopolitan version of Staten Island, except that it was multicultural and versatile and you could get Placido Domingo in the same store as heavy metal. Although there was still diversity in the city, it lingered in the corners like silverfish.

He was about five foot three inches and had static-ridden dyed red hair that made him resemble a WHO from the Grinch. He had a red goatee. His shoes were Bostonians and suits were black so he didn’t stain them with mustard, he said.

He came across my ad for roommates on the bulletin board at the Gay Community Alliance.

“I was staying at the Chelsea Hotel and am sooooooo grateful to have gotten this place. Really grateful.” He chirped at me in my brown leggings and hanging T-shirt. I was about 50 pounds overweight and not in very good physical shape. I think he liked me because I was an unkempt leftover 60s lesbian who was only 30. He was a million light years away from me in fashion and probably would have hated if I resembled Winona Ryder.

“Where in New York did you used to live?” I could see his fixed green eyes under French designer glasses—a 50-year-old man in a little boy’s body inspecting me through an Alain Mikli microscope. Or one of those creatures from Signs that peers at you in green from the corner of your eye.
“Soho, but for the last ten years I was a professor in France. I’m starting a new job with this very bitchy woman…she’ll be paying me a substantial amount.”

“Really?” I liked when roommates had jobs and were not relying on unemployment or welfare or nonexistent trust funds. I was also jealous, of course, when their income surpassed my own.

“Yes, no one really likes her, but the money’s great.”  I could tell that he was passive aggressive from the get go: I hate my boss, but I make lots of money, that’s what I love about my boss.

He also had these pristine habits of making believe he was in Rome eating on the terrace when in reality our apartment was one of those tenement apartments you read about in the immigration chapter in your high school social studies textbook.

Kevin dined on the terrace, which was really the fire escape, overlooking tourists who walked through Chinatown. He used English bone china and crystal glasses that he had acquired at a flea market on Grand Street at a “nominal price.” He nonetheless dined above the constant and unreflective Chinese screaming below him. He feigned indifference but you could always tell that they annoyed him.

Kevin liked to satisfy his palate with gourmet shops such as Balducci’s.  “The food is better than most restaurants and the same price.” His standard meal was chicken marsala with wine sauce and portobello mushrooms, a red wine from one of Italy’s best vineyards and an elaborate mixture of organic vegetables that he spent extra money on to ensure there were no chemicals to invade the piquancy.

He was fond of pot pies from the Gourmet Garage; cheeses from Dean and Deluca; beef that he grilled himself; and products that made him think he was still in France.

He had alphabetized piles of old porn magazines and numerous copies of his hometown Kansas newspaper, which was a potential fire hazard comprised of Hispanic boys and farmland real estate postings.

Kevin was charming, anal retentive, fastidious, self-involved, generous and even helped me cheat on an editing test. Indeed, he was a most accommodating roommate who served his needs like you would a good meal. But in my case it was always the frozen food, and even if I did make time for real food, he would have hogged the kitchen like it was his own personal sauna.

“A real gentleman,” my friend Gene liked to say. But Gene did not quite see gentlemanly manipulations that drove me to extinguish all conscious contact with what had formerly been my apartment.

Certain aspects of Kevin reminded me of a mouse, because he had little hands and touched his food meticulously. He grabbed things with his clear fingernail-polished fingers whenever he wanted to emphasize something.

“If you want to maintain a clean home, you need to put things back in their respective places.” He promptly rinsed his cutlery and put it back into the drawer.

Kevin was not fond of my dog Henry who slept on the bathroom floor. Henry was a huge Labrador/Golden Retriever who made a mess of the flat; although we had wooden floors, Henry gave us a daily rug of reddish-orange hair that I occasionally vacuumed until the vacuum broke. Henry also liked to enter the refrigerator by pawing it and taking out Kevin’s favorite foods.

“Can you please ask Hinry not to lie on the tiles?” Kevin had a spa supply of moisturizers, defoliators, facial gels, astringents, and numerous other products, including Aveda shampoo. He spent a lot of money on a new shower curtain with Picasso’s Gertrude Stein. I would have appreciated his asking what I THOUGHT of a curtain but like other roommates, he assumed that a fat lesbian with no clothing skills could not offer advice on shower curtains.

“That’s very kind of you to buy that shower curtain.”

“No problem.” He smiled effortlessly like a gerbil might after eating a delicious meal of cheese droppings.

The apartment, normally the grungy misfortune of failed bohemia that resembled something in the projects, was beginning to look nice. Kevin and his friend sanded the floors, polished the furniture, and washed the walls. They made every attempt to humanize what I was detached toward—you really only get passionate about apartments when micro-managers show up at your door as if they were G-men admonishing the Little Rascals for not going to school.

I wasn’t a housing disaster like Dorothy Parker who let her animals pee and shit all over the apartment. Henry was housetrained. My apartment smelled like “dog,” the mice were at home, and there were one or two cockroaches.

We lived in a railroad apartment with white walls and Kevin said “we’re minimalists.” I couldn’t afford costly Guggenheim framed posters, which was why I

accepted the title “minimalist” because it made poverty sound less tragic.

We each had a bed and a closet and the rest of the flat was an ocean of papers, books, clothes and shoes.

“Look,” he proudly displayed, “I have a new, mobile kitchen shelf. Would have cost a fortune, but someone gave it to me free.” My only complaint, which I uttered silently, was that this mobile shelf and its stocked goods took up 15% of the kitchen. Of course it wasn’t as bad as my Philippine roommate who had put all of his electronic equipment in my room in an effort to “share his goods.” Kevin, actually, didn’t offer to share anything with me.

Kevin became especially difficult when his friend from Brussels visited. He made the place look like a bed and breakfast, with white linens and curtains and even a tablecloth on my dented kitchen table.

“Please make your bed, Sandra,” he said.

Things were somewhat okay, apart from his domestic habits which reeled me in like a cantankerous fisherman would a flying fish.

He even came to one of my poetry readings and freaked out my friends.  They couldn’t understand, when we all got something to eat afterward, that his small body could consume a large Greek salad and a cheeseburger deluxe. Indeed, Kevin ate more than two of me, but never gained weight. He flowed near the rest of us to the diner, but was like an enzyme that doesn’t know what part of the digestive system it should enter.

Kevin continued to complain about Henry, who continued to break into the refrigerator.

“And Hinry keeps licking my fingers. It’s very unsanitary.”

One evening I found Kevin yelling at the dog.

“Your God-forsaken animal has eaten all the meat I brought back from Kansas!”

“I’m really sorry….”

“Sorry won’t get my meat back, Sandra…”

Kevin, who treasured his Kansas origins but did not necessarily embrace them on a day-to-day level, had methodically transported his hometown meat with a carryon refrigerator via airplane. He was planning a dinner party for some possible clients.

He had quit his job or was fired by the “bitchy boss” and was forming his own company.

“I can’t believe this.”  Kevin was in tears.

“What?”

“My dinner party is now on your floor.” He pointed at Henry’s diarrhea.

I gave Kevin a hundred dollars, which he quickly accepted. His red face turned a pale yellow.

Kevin was now home more often, making “great plans,” as they say in the South, for his company.

He drank cheaper wine, wasn’t shopping at Balducci’s and Gourmet Gourage and went to the Met or A&P. Also, his black suits, once the world’s remedy for spilled condiments, were deteriorating. There was no money in his budget for dry cleaning and he detested using the Chinese laundromat. “Those people can’t even wash a washcloth!” he yelled when they lost six or seven of his socks.

One day, while my brothers were visiting me, Henry dragged a pair of Kevin’s soiled underpants into the living room.

“Ohhhhhhhhhh…that’s disgusting!” they yelled. We were all a bit shocked, and decided it would be better to eat at a restaurant.

“You’re living with a freak, Sandra,” my youngest sibling Herman said.

Things were getting weirder since Kevin had been in the NYU hospital with diabetes. He was gone for a week. When he came back, he continued to drink wine. The room was getting smellier as were his clothes.

Kevin stayed more and more in his room, took insulin shots and had dinner on the “balcony.” Occasionally you could hear Beethoven emanating from his room, but he mostly spent his days watching a little black and white TV.

“I’m trying to sleep Kevin, could you please turn off the TV?”

“I’m keeping the TV to a minimum. It’s not that loud.” He slammed the door.

The TV would get slowly louder. The room would gradually burst forth with smells of dirty clothes. It was an opera that started meekly and reached Wagnerian proportions.

One night I nearly fainted. It smelled like a septic tank in our apartment. Henry

was moping because it was hard to breathe, so I opened the windows.
“Kevin, are you in there?” I yelled.

“What?”

“Are you in there?”
“I’m sleeping.”

“Kevin,” I said nervously, “you have to come out now.”

Kevin was in a toga and covered with feces. The odor was in his room, where there were huge brown stains on the walls.

“Excuse me, but this is really fucked up…you can’t live…”
“Excuse me? What are you talking about?” he maintained his gentlemanly sophistication despite his not-too-exquisite exteriors.

“You have to move out. I am not letting someone live….”
“What are you talking about…I’m in the middle of a diabetic coma…”

“What?”

“This is my diabetic coma. I can barely walk.”

He looked up at me, little brown face and body and odor invading my nostrils. The odor was more than suffocating.

“I’m open-minded—but not that open-minded.”

“Look, Sandra, as Hinry is my witness, I am having a diabetic coma.” He threw up his arms, went to the bathroom, and returned to his room. He abruptly shut the door.

I took Henry for a walk, went to the curb and vomited.

A few months later, I asked a friend who ran a moving company to move Kevin and give him the invoice. His room required multitudinous scrubbings with ammonia.

I didn’t see Kevin for a while but mail I thought was coming never came.

“Kevin,” I left a message on his new voice mail, “did you accidentally take my mail? I’m missing some. Do you still have your key?”

He was incensed and replied, “Sandra, I thought we were friends. I can’t believe you would accuse me of stealing your mail. I am deeply hurt and never want to speak with you again.”

Occasionally I have dreams where Kevin has moved in or lives across the hall. He opens the door and walks in.

“You can’t come in,” I say.

“I live here,” he insists.

“Go away,” I reply.

I can’t kick him out, however, because he either lives with someone else or has rented my apartment.

He looks disdainfully at me.

“It’s your fault, Sandra.”

My friend Gene, who called Kevin a gentleman, thinks he’s probably dead. Gene says that with a twinkle in his eye, and doubts that Kevin, who bathed in such refined oils, could have made those beige stains on my wall. But Gene has always lived by himself—he has never smelled sewage so unrefined that you feel as if you have been dipped into a cesspool, though it is your New York City apartment.

 

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Eleanor Levine

Bio:

Eleanor Levine’s work has appeared in Dos Passos Review, Fiction, Knee Jerk Magazine, Pank, Hobart, Barely South Review, IthacaLit, Intima, and other publications. She lives with her dog MORGAN, a mild-tempered Labradoodle, in Philadelphia.
 

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