By the time I get to Brentano’s I have had so many sexual misadventures that honestly I am ready for love. And love is waiting for me. What I notice first about Peter is how sensitive looking and handsome he is with melancholy eyes, dressed in expensive tweeds and drifting like Byron among the stacks of books at the store. At the time, I’m going out with a different clerk, a boy named Robert from Iowa but I’d rather be with Peter, I think. He writes poetry and comes from a rich family on Long Island and he has potential. All the salesmen at Brentano’s have literary aspirations, like starlets auditioning as waitresses, but I have no aspirations except in the love department.
So Peter and I acknowledge that we are kindred souls and run away together. Eventually I will despise Peter, but now and for a few more years I love him relentlessly and am willing to be penniless and destitute in New York to be with him without a roof over our head. We have no money until payday at the end of the week and nothing to eat but a canned ham Peter swipes out of the cupboard at his ritzy home when he leaves and bundles up in a shirt. We ride the chill subway together, we look at our reflections in store windows and smile, we are hipsters and amoral trash, stealing from the bourgeoisie and with nothing to lose.
A friend tells us about an abandoned studio on Mott Street where we can spend the night. The electricity is turned off and we are exhausted so we lay down on a mattress in the dark center of the room, sleeping together in a place of our own for the very first time. Soon though I wake up all startled because something has fallen on me, and I brush it away, but then more things fall on me. I shake Peter and we jump up like crackerjacks and light matches and scream as a million cockroaches scuttle away on the floor, and then look up craning our necks, fingertips burning as we hold matches high, and see that more cockroaches are walking on the ceiling and dropping onto us. In a frenzy we stomp around and clear the floor and finally fall asleep again with our clothes piled on top of our heads for protection.
Next morning we’re gone as soon as it gets light and walk holding hands uptown to 47th street to a Hasidic jeweler. I sell my rings for rent money. Whenever you try to sell something it’s just now gone out of fashion and is worth next to nothing, I discover. We pay for an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and move in, just us and the canned ham. It’s in a tiny building wedged between the air-shafts of taller houses, you can see that the landlord wanted to take advantage of every inch of courtyard to pack tenants in like sardines lying tail to fishy eye. Our place is on the top floor with a fire escape, kitchen in the living room, a toilet, not much else. In summer the heat vibrates, you can only lie on the bed and pant and imagine yourself in Cannes with Belmondo.
Peter spends his free time submerged in the bathtub, writing poetry and reading Horatio Hornblower books dreaming he is going to sea. We eat the ham even when it starts to turn green. Every morning we walk across town to our jobs at Brentano’s, and at night we listen to jazz through the open doorways of uptown clubs.