Gay Haubner is taking a hiatus from her weekly series. Look for occasional updates in the future. For more about Gay’s life, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
1980 was the winter of my discontent. I had a dream of a life in Manhattan, barely working at Penthouse magazine, enjoying my own expense account plus our advertisers’ largesse, and going home at night to Michael, my artist boyfriend, to party in our own tiny apartment, or out at bars and clubs with a slew of musician, artist, and writer friends. But inside me there was a gnawing worm, a niggling “What if?” that had taken root when I turned down an offer to join the crew of a Mediterranean yacht as cook and bottle washer.
Where in the world would I be if I had dared to accept that job? What adventures, what interesting men had I missed out on? Who would that girl be if she had walked the gangplank onto the yacht with nothing but her passport and a handful of pesos, leaving her New York City life behind? I rode the subway to work, turned in my magazine copy, kissed Michael good night, and rued that sensible decision to stay in my enviable rut.
I was a latent dumpster fire in need of a thrown match. The spark that blazed my life to the ground was lit at a party at the apartment of the Penthouse production manager, in the midst of a mass of people who had collectively reached that level of inebriation where everyone is dancing. Rockpile’s “Girls Talk” was blasting at a volume of 11 and I was swirling in the arms and trampling on the feet of a wiry, bushy-haired, Brooklyn-tinged guy from work, one of those cute Canarsie kids who can pass for Italian.
I wasn’t sure what Jeff’s real job was; I knew him as the coach of our Penthouse Pet softball team, which had recruited me to pose as a fake Pet, barnstorming across New Jersey and Long Island. I played left field like Ferdinand the Bull, smelling the flowers while ground balls and popped flies passed me by. It didn’t matter. These were charity games against the Elks and VFW and Rotary Club, teams made up of civic-minded suburban dads, good clean Penthouse fun for good causes.
My softball coach’s hands wriggled down to find my ass, a move that might have been cause for a lawsuit 30 years later. We were both out of our minds, bordering on blackout unconscious, but I felt lips and hot breath on my ear and heard words that singed me: “I could really go for you Gay…if I didn’t like your boyfriend so much.”
It felt like another door closing, another option cut off…because I had a boyfriend.
The next weekend I rounded up a bunch of my Penthouse pals for a night out at the infamous, ridiculously popular Mudd Club. The Mudd Club was the last hurrah of NYC punk culture; it had its own obliging PR agent. “I’m calling from Penthouse magazine, we’re interested in doing an article on the Mudd Club,” I had fibbed on the phone. The PR guy assured me my name would be at the door and asked how many. “Oh, there’ll be a few other people from editorial,” I said.
We showed up at the Mudd Club at midnight: me, my boyfriend Michael, six people, not necessarily editors, from Penthouse, their dates, my softball coach and dance partner, Jeff, and random friends we had picked up earlier. I wormed my way through the crush of punk hopefuls to the Bluto in charge of admittance, who, mirabile dictu, found my name on the guest list. I waved to my friends, shouted, “Come on!” and was swept inside on a wave of shoving, thrusting bodies.
The door slammed shut behind me. It was as dark as a mine and I was at the center of a throbbing mob, unable to see if everyone had gotten in with me. The whole place was a filthy mosh pit, floors so sticky you could barely move your feet, everything, even the ceiling, painted black and covered with graffiti, ear-shattering music that made conversation a ludicrous idea, an atmosphere tinged with piss and sweat and spilt beer.
A strong hand grasped my arm and pulled me over to the wall. Jeff handed me a Rolling Rock and a Quaalude, never my favorite drug but an old pal from Mexico. I took them both. “Who else got in?” I yelled, and Jeff shrugged.
Then we leaned back against that grimy brick wall and we were kissing and hands were maneuvered inside clothing and Jeff and I were doing everything outside of actual sex, which at the moment seemed like the most appropriate thing one could do at the Mudd Club, like snorting coke at Studio 54.
The hour we spent in fervent frottage wasn’t enough. “What time do you have to be at work Monday?” I asked when Jeff let me up for air. He looked puzzled; were we going to do this for the next 36 hours?
“Ten?” he answered.
“I’ll be at your place at nine,” I said, extracted myself, and found my way outside, almost certain in my addled state that my boyfriend Michael would still be hanging around. He was at home, rightfully furious, and drinking straight from a bottle of Jack Daniels. I was tousled and plastered myself as I apologized and told untruths about how I had searched the Mudd Club for him, certain that he had been right behind me, and then couldn’t find a taxi.
The actual, real, illicitly thrilling sex happened Monday morning; then Jeff and I split a cab from his apartment uptown to the Penthouse office. We rode in silence. That was fun, I thought, it’s good to get it out of my system, once was certainly enough.
Once was not enough. I did not escape from my perfect life on a yacht or a plane, and certainly not on a train to glory. I climbed into a handbasket to hell. I plunged into a dirty affair, heated even hotter by our struggle to find somewhere to do it: Jeff’s roommate regarded Michael as his good friend, as did everyone I had ever introduced to Michael.
I imagined our affair as a stain on a shirt, I just had to keep putting it in the washer until the stain was gone and the shirt was wearable again. But there was no out for this damn spot.
As all successful cheaters do, I became an accomplished liar, especially to myself. But now I can see the awful truth. It was fun. It was a champagne fizz of feelings, a flip-flopping stomach, skin ready to burst into flame at a touch. Even my eyesight sharpened; it was like getting my childhood once-a-year glasses upgrade, the world in high-res.
And my hearing was dog-pitched; every bar and restaurant I went to, every car radio that passed was tuned to the Miscreants station: “Me and Mrs. Jones,” “Dark End of the Street,” and “If Loving You is Wrong” on repeat all over New York City.
Michael didn’t seem to notice that I was being invited to more nighttime press events, even when those events morphed into weekend affairs.
My job had always provided me access to test drive cars, a perk I had never taken advantage of, Michael being completely disinclined to leave the city for the wilds of upstate New York or Connecticut lest he be lost in the woods, eaten by a bear, or more than a block from a bar.
Jeff and I took stolen weekends in borrowed Datsuns and Subarus, headed for the homes of friends of his who had never met Michael, so Jeff could pass me off as his girlfriend.
A Sunday night, we headed back from Providence, Rhode Island, ostensibly visiting one of Jeff’s high school pals, but spending most of the weekend in the friend’s basement guest room. We were on an almost deserted highway that stretched ahead of us in the dark, a long way to New York City, a long time for me to ponder my sins.
I have to do something, I scolded myself. I love Michael, I can’t go on like this. Meanwhile the part of me that wasn’t lying knew I certainly could until something made me stop.
The single car in front of us accelerated and began to swerve from one lane to the next. I had been so quiet for so long that I couldn’t find my voice to cry “Watch out!” not that Jeff had a clue where to steer to not be in the path of this lunatic, who now sped across all four highway lanes and side-swiped a sixty-foot floodlight. In what seemed to be slow motion, the streetlight pitched towards our car like a felled redwood, hit ten feet in front of us, took a bounce, and landed inches in front of our loaner, a factory-fresh Nissan 280ZX. The flashing lights of the highway patrol appeared in the northbound lane, coming for the guilty parties; Jeff inched our borrowed car onto the shoulder and around our brush with a well-deserved death.
A believer in signs and portents, I almost saw the light. “We can’t do this anymore,” I said to Jeff after we dropped off the car at the dealership, even while we were in a clutch that made passersby either grin or avert their eyes.
My resolve lasted about a week, until I realized that I had an out-of-town trip in my future, a Penthouse expense account junket to the Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Mecca of the dirty weekend, a city made for cheating hearts. “This is really, really it,” I fooled myself, “three nights with Jeff in the Holiday Inn, clean sheets and towels, room service…it will be the perfect ending.”
Holiday Inn, Las Vegas.
Of course it wasn’t. But the champagne was losing its fizz, my guilty conscience turning vinegary.
A few weeks after Las Vegas, the Penthouse editorial staff was summoned by our boss, Jim Goode, to his office, always an evil omen. “Caligula,” intoned Jim. “It’s finally going to open.”
Caligula was the fabled, almost mythical motion picture that we had been hearing about forever, a cinematic epic featuring Bob Guccione’s penchant for fake Roman anything, large-breasted girls engaging in deviant sex, and out-of-work British actors, wooed by oversized checks. The magazine had already run dozens of articles hyping the film, as well as several pictorials of “The Girls of Caligula” taking off their togas to veni, vidi, vici. (Uncovered by Penthouse were the lawsuits from both screenwriter Gore Vidal and the original director desperately trying to extract their names from this pornographic debacle.) From the stories and movie stills, it seemed like it was as if it wasn’t enough for the Roman Empire to fall, Caligula had to kick it in the nuts on its way down.
“And…” here Jim looked utterly defeated, “we all have to go to see it.” Everyone in that room suddenly developed plans for their rest of their lives, but there was no escape. The staffs of Penthouse, Omni, Forum, and Variations (really, really deviant junk) were marched up Third Avenue like POWs on their way to Bataan, only more unhappy. At the door to the Trans Luxe Theatre, re-christened the Penthouse Theatre in honor of its round-the-clock showings of Caligula for the next six months, come hell or high water or the Catholic Legion of Decency, was a stern-faced woman taking names.
I managed to nap through the unsimulated sex scenes, but was woken by the sound of gagging. I caught a soul-scarring glimpse of an early Roman bulldozer shearing off the heads of vertically-buried slaves, before snapping my eyes shut again. My best pal Annie, seated next to me and in danger of having the gagger behind us puke on her, bravely stood and headed up the aisle towards freedom, tailed by the woman with a clipboard.
I found Annie outside on her tenth sanity-reviving Newport and we headed back down Third to P.J. Clarke’s and the relief of alcohol. I felt as soiled as I had back when I was editing Penthouse letters. I was worse than Caligula’s horny cousin, Messalina (a role played with the skill of a potted plant by Penthouse Pet Anneka di Lorenzo, who later became another litigant against Guccione, then drowned under suspicious circumstances); at least she was an honest whore. I cracked.
I put my arms and head down on the bar and wept. I bawled, “I’m a horrible person! I’ve been cheating on Michael for months.”
“I know,” said Annie, and patted my back. “With Jeff.” Wait, what? The tears were sucked back in and I straightened up.
Annie sighed, “Gay, everybody knows.” I started crying again.
“What do they think?”
“They all think you’re an idiot.” Annie answered. “I think you better move in with me.”
A coward to the end, I did not tell Michael why I was leaving. I called him from Annie’s that night. “I’ll come by tomorrow to pick up my stuff.”
My stuff was waiting for me, strewn about the courtyard, slowly being covered by a freak late October snowfall. It looked like the crime scene I knew it was. My clothes were heaped in a pile directly below our bedroom window. It was harder to find my jewelry, which had sunk into the snow; my silly “Gay” necklace from Mexico vanished forever. Michael had tossed the LPs he decided were mine like Frisbees from the second floor; some of them were intact in their soggy cardboard sleeves. He seemed to have aimed my cosmetics at the iced-over concrete fountain in the center of the courtyard, which was spattered with broken glass, creams, and lotions; there was still perfume in the air. I picked up a silvery canister that had survived with only a dent; it was the scent Jeff liked on me best, Eau de Charles of the Ritz.
Eventually one of Michael’s multitude of friends let the truth slip. I am thankful that Michael was not a Russian romantic in the Tolstoy tradition. There were no pistols at dawn, no one crushed under a subway train.
Annie’s apartment provided only a limited refuge for me. Breaking up with Michael was not enough; if I was going to be with Jeff, I needed a clean slate, a different life where I was not reminded thirty times a day of what a heel I was, how I had betrayed the dearest man alive, whose only faults were that he hated the outdoors and liked to take a drink.
Jeff had a vision quest. He was going to be a running back with the Falcons; he would train in Atlanta for a few months to get ready for the team’s walk-on tryouts. Jeff had played football in college, before leaving the program to follow vegetarianism, the Dead, and the Rainbow Family. He had seen Rocky too many times. Now he was starring in the role of the contender with heart who just needs one shot. All Jeff was missing were the turtles.
I had no idea what the actual chances for success this plan had. Could a guy who topped off at 5’9” and 145 pounds get into the NFL? It seemed no more unlikely than my own half-pint stab at modeling. I was besotted, desperate to make a getaway, and Atlanta started to sound romantic; like “Lolita” its three syllables tripped from my tongue like a kiss.
We bought a pick-up truck for $600. I loaded my surviving possessions on top of Jeff’s things and we headed south, looking for all the world like the Clampett family, especially after the gale-force gusts on the Pulaski Skyway ripped the tarp covering our worldly goods free from our amateurish knots. I turned around and through the small window in the back of the truck watched the square of blue plastic sail off into the sky, while the dreaming spires of Manhattan dissolved in the mist.
Gay Haubner is taking a hiatus from her weekly series. Look for occasional updates in the future.
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