For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
A cute guy I had met at the Consumer Electronics Show had asked me to California for the Fourth of July, and since I had no other invitations to picnics or barbeques, I accepted, hoping an all-American holiday with a regular guy would give my life some semblance of normal.
Gerry picked me up from the Orange County Airport, kissed me, and said, “It’s my day to see my daughter, okay?” A visit to a hitherto unmentioned daughter had not been part of my California dreaming. In the next five minutes I found out that Gerry had been married, had a baby, and had accidentally dropped that baby. Baby’s head hit the floor exactly on that scary soft spot, squashing her brain. When the doctor told Gerry and his wife that their daughter would never be able to feed herself or wipe her own butt, Mrs. Gerry took a powder.
I had hoped that Gerry’s plans included taking me to Malibu or the La Brea Tar Pits, but instead we drove out into the endless acreage of suburbia, finally pulling up in front of a big brick house, the kind that gets repurposed as a funeral parlor, nursing home, or rehabilitation center.
There was no waiting in the car for me. Gerry led me by the elbow inside, nodded at the white-capped receptionist, and pulled me down a blindingly bright hallway that looked sterile, but had an undertone of piss and puke and ammonia and bleach. We went through a door marked by a cut out picture of a grey kitten, and Gerry dropped my arm to swoop in and pick up his daughter.
You could say this two-year-old with her porcelain skin and Gerry’s starry blue eyes and golden brown curls was pretty, except other than the ability to hold her head up, she was as limp as a rag doll. Gerry cooed at her and kissed her and introduced me to her in baby talk.
“She’s always so happy when you come to see her, Gerry,” beamed the nurse who stood watch, I guess so that Gerry didn’t drop his daughter again. “And you’ve brought a nice new friend to meet her.”
The nice new friend smiled back at the nurse, wondering if she could spend the rest of the time in the ladies’ room and if it could possibly smell worse than the room she was currently in. I decided not to take the chance. I thought, “If this is his day with her, it must mean that the next two days are not.” I tried to reassure myself that I was still better off than if I were standing alone on the shore of Lake Michigan, straining my neck to catch a glimpse of the fireworks from Navy Pier, surrounded by decomposing fish.
Gerry finally handed his daughter back to her nurse, and chirped at me, “What do you feel like eating?” For the first time in my life I had no appetite, but I was badly in need of a drink. I had several while Gerry enjoyed a cheeseburger and gossiped about his co-workers at Sanyo, none of whom I remembered.
I also had no appetite for sex, but thought, “Let’s just get it the hell over with and see what happens in the morning.” Gerry held me and kissed me and said, “You were so wonderful with my little girl. I feel like I can really trust you.” I made as noncommittal a noise as possible.
“Would you to do something for me? Would you tie me up and hit me with a belt?”
At this point nothing shocked me. But this just sounded like too much work. “I’m so tired from my trip. Can we talk about this tomorrow?” I now had quite a number of things I did not want to think about. I wished I were back in Chicago, sweating and drinking cheap beer with Frank.
The next day, the glorious Fourth, Gerry and I did go to a backyard barbecue, hosted by a couple who seemed perfectly normal. That night we oohed and aahed at the showers of glittering fireworks, sitting on the bleachers at the local high school. Gerry bought sparklers, and the two of us twirled them about, making patterns in the air. Anyone looking at us would think, “What a nice young couple.” That night, Gerry’s request took on a plaintive quality, like a kid asking for a lollipop. “Maybe you could scratch me, like just enough to leave a mark? If I bought you some black boots and red nail polish…”
I said, “I can’t Gerry,” went to sleep on the couch, and took a cab the next morning to the airport.
All the way back I banged my head on the airplane window, as if I could physically dislodge the memories of the past two days, finally settling on the minor consolation that since it was the Fourth of July holiday, this bizarre excursion had not cost me any modeling bookings.
Not that there was any work. There are no trade shows or conventions booked in Chicago when the temperature is a constant, daylong 95 degrees and the humidity is like a wet towel in your face. Ad agencies emptied out, and everyone took off on vacation to the cool greenery of Mackinaw Island or Door County. It was too awful outside for me to make my rounds of photographers. Showing up lank-haired, with running mascara and dark stains under my armpits would not get me cast in catalogs or commercials. I sat in Ann Geddes’ air-conditioned office and wailed.
“It’s like this every summer,” shrugged Ann. “After Labor Day, you’ll see, it will pick up again. Oh, Silver and I are going to Lake Geneva for the next two weeks.”
But last summer I had been living with James, who paid for the rent and the utilities and our once-a-week meal.
“ I need to work,” I said. “Isn’t there anyone who’s open, who’s hiring models?”
“There’s always Playboy,” said Silver. Ann gave him one look and gave me another.
Playboy was the great colossus that loomed over every Chicago model. On the one hand, Playboy was made of money: if they even agreed to look at your topless photos you were paid $500. Make it all the way to Playmate of the Month and you got a check for $25,000, which was more money than I could imagine. On the other hand, according to every model I knew, if you appeared in Playboy, even as a fully dressed background blur gazing adoringly at The Kind Of Man Who Reads Playboy while he gazed adoringly at his martini, you would never, ever again work for Ogilvy or Marshall Fields or Spiegel or Sears or any other client that valued their reputation.
“’Cause there is something,” Silver went on. Playboy needed models for an orgy scene. A lot of models. “No one will be able to pick you out. They’ll pay $200 an hour, and with that many people it will take hours to shoot.”
Ann sighed and said, “It’s up to you, Gay.” I swallowed hard, thought of the tiny amount remaining in my checking account, and told Ann I would do it, I would risk my career, a long shot to begin with, and pose for the photo illustrating Dan Greenburg’s article, “My First Orgy,” a photo that also ended up on the cover of the September issue cut into the shape of a bunny head.
The Playboy building featured turbo-powered air conditioning, which felt delightful on the steaming hot day when I pushed the heavy brass revolving door into the lobby; the AC immediately whisked away the Chicago sweat. But it was arctic awful up in their huge photo studio where I stripped to down to nothing along with 29 other good-looking young people, at a five-to-one female to male ratio. I was grateful I didn’t recognize any of them, and no introductions were offered. We anonymous naked people were sent over to a vast stretch of black vinyl that had been pegged down on the floor. A funny bald man took over, running around us, arranging and re-arranging our nude bodies, while consulting a sheet of paper he held in his hand. “No, that won’t work,” he finally said. “Everybody stand up. We have to start over.”
I held my halter dress in front of my chest, wandered up to the bald guy in charge of the shoot, and peeked over his shoulder at a rough sketch of impossibly closely entwined bodies.
“You should arrange us so that we look like a bowl of fruit, a reverse Arcimboldo,” I said. He looked up at me. “I’m George, the art director. Do you smoke pot?”
“If I don’t have to do it naked,” I said, and slipped my dress over my head. George called a break and we snuck into a darkroom, along with the photographer and his assistant. It was very spacy pot, and made the rest of the day almost pleasant for me, as it took George hours to work our bodies into the right configuration. Silver was right: I ended the day $800 richer (minus Geddes’ ten percent).
George caught me as I was leaving. “Do you want to come to a party at my place tonight? You can wear clothes.” George scribbled his address on a piece of paper. It was 155 Burton Place. I lived at 40 Burton Place.
One-fifty-five Burton Place was hidden behind a pebbled wall studded with shards of multicolored tiles. An archway held an ornate black wrought iron gate, which was left ajar. I walked into yet another Wonderland, a Gaudi-inspired habitat, the two-story buildings stuccoed white and red-shingled, with ornate mosaics and stained glass windows. The apartments looked like mushrooms that had just sprung up around the cobblestone courtyard. There wasn’t a square edge in the place. Staircases curled around turrets and the dark wood doors were rounded at the top, with heavy medieval knockers. If Bilbo Baggins had owned a city pied-a-terre, it would have looked like a Burton Place apartment.
It was easy to find the door with the brass numeral 1. Boz Skaggs was blasting forth too loudly for a knock to be heard, so I let myself into a large living room, low-ceilinged with dark wooden beams, nubby orange sofas and ottomans, and dim lighting. Men and women were scattered about, no one over 35, everyone was drinking and smoking something.
George materialized. “It’s Gay, right?” I did have my stupid name necklace on as a reminder.
“Stick out your tongue.” George placed a small, gritty pill in my mouth and said, “It’s MDA — kind of like acid,” which was fine with me. Like Alice with her iced cake, I swallowed it.
Even with her clothes on, I recognized another model from that afternoon’s fake orgy and headed over to make modeling small talk. My way was blocked by a man with too much nose and not enough hair, wearing a pink bowling shirt with “Carl” stitched on the pocket, and the kind of black and metal eyeglasses the nerdy math boys in high school clung to after everyone else had moved on to wire rims. “I’m Michael Trossman, artist and resident wit. And you are…?”
Michael was an illustrator and lived in one of those Hobbit-like apartments. He backed me into a corner and held me captive there. He was cracking wise, keeping me amused, and then the drugs kicked in. “Wow,” I said. Michael grinned. “Don’t drink too much. I’ll get you a beer.”
Before my brain left the building, I made myself promise that I would not sleep with anyone at this party, despite the erotic feeling of oneness and love I suddenly had for all of them. It was Love Potion No. 9; I would have kissed a cop. A look around the room proved that everyone was feeling the same chemical bliss; couples were dancing, gazing into each other’s eyes, stroking faces and hair, preludes to a kiss and more. It was a real life version of the fake orgy I had been in that afternoon.
Michael, the guy closest to me — actually a little too close — was not my type: those glasses, that nose, his hairline in full retreat. But the psychic tendrils of MDA wove their way from him toward me, disturbing the air. Then through the fog of drugs and the buzz of sexual arousal, up popped the memory of Gerry begging me to hit him, and my libido shriveled up and ran away.
Michael picked up on this shutting of the bedroom door that the MDA had cracked open. He downed his beer and took a small step away from me.
“So you know George?” he asked. I nodded. I guess I knew George, having spent the day naked with him.
“He’s a great art director. The people who live here are artists and designers,” Michael said, and pointed out some of the other Burton Place residents: Ronny was a skinny French guy with long side-swept bangs, a photographer. There with his cute blonde girlfriend. Fred, a relocated California surfer, was an air-brush illustrator who had more work than he knew what to do with and a smiley, brown-haired wife who looked even more corn-fed Midwestern than I did. An older woman, the only person who was not out of her mind on drugs, was the architect’s daughter; she lived in the biggest, most Art Nouveau apartment. “It’s amazing,” said Michael. “She doesn’t invite too many people up, but if you like, I can get you in to see it. I did a charcoal drawing of her father; it’s hanging above the fireplace.”
I did not want to be alone someplace with Michael, nor did I want to commit to a future date. “Um, sure, yeah, that would be great,” I murmured, and changed the conversation.
Michael was 29, smart and funny, quick-witted, had read most of the books I had, had seen a whole bunch more movies, and could do dead-on impersonations. As the drug streamed through us, Michael fell into confessional mode. The folks of Burton Place had been throwing these MDA parties for months. Under the drug’s woozy influence, Michael had fallen in love and slept with Ronny’s girlfriend. When she broke it off, Michael fell in love and slept with Fred’s wife. He felt terrible about it — Fred and he were friends — and was trying to end the affair. “Look at her. Isn’t she beautiful?” Michael sighed, gazing at his beloved who was sitting on her husband’s lap. She had clear skin and shiny hair, I gave her that.
Now that I had gone from potential bedmate to good listener, Michael babbled on. His first and truest love was his ex-wife, an actress and comedian at Second City, whom he had knocked up while he was still a student at the Art Institute. Her ogre Irish parents demanded that Michael — even though he was that devil’s spawn, a Jew — make a daycent woman out of her and shot-gunned him to the altar. His son was born, and then another son (those crazy Catholics, I thought), who he loved more than anything on earth. “Then she divorced me,” sighed Michael, which threw the final wet blanket on any tiny glowing ash I may have felt for him.
Loose lips sink ships and they drive girls to put down their beer and stumble home alone on a night that was lit up by rainbows and stars and meteors, the drugs still coursing hot in my veins and clouding my mind. I might have been okay with the incestuous goings-on at Burton Place, but the divorce and the two kids were too much. The sidewalk wobbled beneath me as I walked the three blocks to my own front door, and a bed I shared only with my little dog Groucho, who seemed oblivious to the fact that the room was swirling about us.