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Lulu in the Year of Gatsby

 Gary Percesepe
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 Gary Percesepe
Lulu in the Year of Gatsby
by Gary Percesepe  FollowFollow
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Gary Percesepe's dog died a few months back. He was a white standard poodle named Dylan, RIP. And while that sux, he wants you to know that...read more he is otherwise OK. Well, except for that girl in SOHO that got away from him the next month. And well, OK, last week. He teaches at the University of Dayton. His work has appeared in lots of places, if you want to know, and like that-- Gary Percesepe is Associate Editor at New World Writing (formerly Mississippi Review) and a Contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. Author of four books in phi¬los¬o¬phy, Percesepe’s fic-tion, poetry, essays, and inter¬views have appeared in Story Quarterly, N + 1, Salon, Mississippi Review, The Millions, Brevity, PANK, The Brooklyner, and other places. His collection of short stories, WHY I DID THE GROCERY GIRL, is forthcoming from Aqueous Books.
Lulu in the Year of Gatsby
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AT FIFTEEN I loved a girl.

There was no one to talk to. My older brother was dead before he turned ten. My sister Joan had moved out of the house. She fought with my father over the latest American war raging overseas. There were pitched battles during the CBS news with Walter Cronkite. For her troubles he beat her senseless. I agreed with Joan about Vietnam but didn’t know how I could stop it when I couldn’t stop the war in our living room.

But this girl. Her name was Lulu. I hadn’t looked for her, but she found me.

We met at a ninth grade dance on the freshly waxed floor of our high school gymnasium. I was hanging out with my basketball buddies. Lulu came up and asked me to dance.

It happened like this: I had held hands with Lulu’s best friend and next door neighbor, Melanie King. I knew Melanie from Chorus. On the night of our big concert she was on crutches with a broken leg. We stood next to each other, soprano and tenor. She asked if she could hold onto my hand during the performance. For support. Sure, I said.

This was new. I couldn’t remember the words to any of the songs. We exchanged glances throughout the performance, between bursts of applause from the audience. Her touch as we interlaced fingers made me sweat, then shiver, but Melanie already had a boyfriend, my basketball teammate Danny (whose brother would die in Vietnam six months later). Melanie turned me over to her neighbor after that evening of hand holding, in some kind of womanly transaction (I never got the details), and the next thing I knew, Lulu was in my arms on the floor of the gym., and at fifteen, I was plunged into the mystery of girlhood.

My father and Joan fought constantly, terrible rows that would begin at dinner and last long into the night, ending only when he would try to stop her screams by grabbing her and holding on. He was not a violent man, though he had crawled up Omaha Beach in June, 1944, watching his mates cut to ribbons by machine gun fire. The suburbs of Westchester must have seemed like his leafy reward when he came home from the war and fathered his first two children. But now his first born was dead and his only daughter was calling him a murderer. His third child was me, watching.

When Joan resisted his hugs he shook her. Then hit her with an open hand, and finally pounded her into a puddle of submission on the living room carpet. I got to watch all this.

Things would be quiet for an hour or so, and then she would start up again (she was fearless), going into new territory, from Vietnam to the Nixon bombing of Cambodia, with accusations that bundled Kissinger, the CIA, the State Department, and the local New York State police—how was it that my brother died, father? Enraged, he would resume beating her while our mother cringed in the corner, waving the New Testament.

One night he went out to the garage and came back with a length of rope. He lashed her to the banister for the night. Not long after that she moved out and went to live with her history teacher. This was the same high school where Lulu approached me that night, in ninth grade, in the gymnasium. The same high school where T.C. Boyle (now an acclaimed novelist) would try to teach his English students to write, the place where I read The Great Gatsby for the first time, and mourned poor Jay Gatsby, who deserved better. The same gymnasium where my parents would go to watch Joan graduate, and where, two years later, Lulu and I would both get our diplomas, though by then we barely knew one another.

Breaking up had not been my idea. It happened in the breezeway of Lulu’s house, seated on the chintz sofa. I had parked my parents’ station wagon in the long blacktopped driveway. We had talked earlier that evening. I called her every day  (I was a good boyfriend).

There was something in her voice. I asked, was she OK? She thought a minute, then said maybe you better come over?

The breezeway was the same room where she often spoken to me on the telephone while watching TV or painting her nails. She had hair the color of Catherine Deneuve’s, shoulder length, parted in the middle. I had seen Deneuve for the first time that year, in a movie called April’s Fool. The film starred Jack Lemmon as a hard working stock broker whose wife is so busy as a an interior decorator that they barely see each other. Enter Deneuve, the boss’s stunning wife. They meet at a party of Beautiful People and fall madly in love. Will Jack Lemmon throw it all over and follow Deneuve to Paris? Sitting next to her in the spacious Paramount Theatre in Peekskill, I looked at Deneuve on the giant screen and then back to Lulu’s hair, and then back to the screen. Lulu caught me looking and frowned. She rested her hands in her lap. Her skin was fresh and clean. She smelled like Ivory soap I thought Lemmon a fool if he didn’t go to Paris.
     
Lulu’s parents greeted me in the breezeway, then excused themselves. Lulu patted the sofa where she intended for  me to sit. I took my time getting there. The TV was off. Her chemistry book lay open on the coffee table. The cat fled the room.

Lulu said it’d been a good year and a half. A good run, she called it. She said she’d cheer for me when I made varsity. She said some other stuff about what a good boyfriend I’d been, how I was always there for her, how I was reliable, steady. She’d learned a lot about herself by being with me, she said. I used to steal other girls’ boyfriends, just to be mean, she said. Just because I could. You didn’t know that, did you? (Actually, I had heard that, had heard too that she was a good kisser, and more; Lulu had not been a subtle person.)  But you, she said. You never thought the worst of me, even though you could have, and you didn’t bother to track down rumors. And because you believed in me, I worked to make myself into a better person. She dabbed at her eyes. She didn’t deserve me, she said. I cannot give you all that you want,  and you deserve the world. She hoped I got what I wanted out of this life. She’d always be my personal cheerleader. I still can’t remember the best things she said.

That night. She was saying we shouldn’t see each other anymore. I asked her why.

Lulu sighed. She sat on her hands and bit her lower lip. She wasn’t wearing makeup. A faint line of freckles bridged her nose. Her pink fingernails were bitten to the quick.

Joe, you’re just too serious for me, she said, finally. I’m not a serious person, OK? Listen to me! Don’t turn away! She pulled me by the shoulders and made me look at her. You might not like this but you need to hear it. I can’t stay this good, Joey. And you’re going off to college to some fancy school. We’re kids, for chrissake. Did you think we’d stay together forever? It would never work. You’ve got to let me go.

We sat there a while in the breezeway. I asked if there was someone else and she said there wasn’t. I believed her. I said what was I going to do without her, and she said I’d go on, we both would. She said that was a lousy thing to say at this time, maybe, but it was still true. Then I got up to leave. She tried to pull me into a hug but I jerked away from her and fingered my keys. I walked quickly to my car.

That was the year we studied The Great Gatsby. I wasn’t a reader. But Mr. Boyle (he later asked us to call him Tom) made Fitzgerald’s life sound magical. He had the girls in the class from the start, with his long reddish hair and Irish good  looks, tall and lean. But he made a special effort to lure the guys in the class into the story. He was a seductive teacher. We learned about Zelda and her illness, about Gerald and Sara Murphy, the models for Tender is the Night. A born performer, Boyle would read passages of Gatsby to us out loud, doing all the characters. He made Daisy breathy and sexy and impossible to resist (though a bit whiney). Her voice was the voice of money. Tom Buchanan he made sound like a Chicago asshole. Nick Carroway sounded mysterious to me, and indirect, like someone I wouldn’t trust. As for Jay Gatsby, I was immediately drawn to him. I could see the soldier in his handsome uniform, holding himself erect, dancing with Daisy. The roomful of collarless shirts in his crazy mansion, shirts of every hue! Tom Boyle closed his eyes and danced an imaginary Daisy around the classroom, using a chair as a prop and stroking it tenderly. We all laughed. I knew that Gatsby was doomed.

But it was Jordan Baker who captivated me. Mr. Boyle called her a minor character, but she fascinated me. She was from Louisville. I had never been to Kentucky, in fact had never left metropolitan New York except for brief trips through New Jersey to Philadelphia. And Jordan was an athlete, a professional golfer. This appealed to me. A woman who made her own way in the world, who didn’t need a man. There was a lot to like in that. I saw her as slim, athletic, youthful. A Gibson Girl, Mr. Boyle said, and then he brought to class flapper dresses from the era. Some of the girls in the class tried the dresses on in the girls room, walking back into the classroom to much oohing and ahhing. Mr. Boyle spun a record on a turntable. Some of the students got up and did a fox trot.

Lulu was one of the girls who wore a flapper dress that day. As she danced, her short dress shimmered green and gold. The dress had low slung waist, its shapeless silhouette emphasizing the angularity and verticality of her proportions. She was sleek as a skyscraper, free, and dangerous. She was Jordan Baker, a bad girl who cheated at golf and took what she wanted, because she was pretty, and because she could. She was reckless and careless, and I wanted her. She had been my girlfriend. Her dance was intoxicating.

As Lulu danced around the room my eyes were drawn to her slippered feet. I allowed myself the sweeping look up the line of her figure (no one was watching me). I didn’t understand how women could be so beautiful. I wanted to know: How did that they do that? How girls moved was a kind of prayer, a different kind of power from anything I’d known. I was learning to resent it. Just the way she moved could bring me to tears. Lulu finished the fox trot and ran back to the girls room to change back into her cheerleader outfit, and as she left she looked at one of the other boys in the class, whom I wouldn’t have suspected, and then she caught me looking. She lowered her eyes, releasing my gaze. She bit her lower lip and ran out the door in Mr. Boyle’s flapper dress.

I steered the car home and laid down on my bed. The room had been my sister’s, but she was in Wisconsin for her first year of college. I hadn’t moved any of Joan’s stuff out of the room. We hadn’t been close for a long time, but I missed her. I began to suspect that missing was something essential to life, and that because Joan and I had lost a brother to an early death (there were missing pieces to the story, and neither of our parents were talking), things would always be this way.

I missed Lulu and I missed Joan. I missed my brother. There in my room, I began to weep for all the things I didn’t have and for all the things I could not fix. Two years after the Summer of Love, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were dead. I wasn’t eighteen and already I had seen so much violence and destruction; the war in southeast Asia had claimed my own family, though we didn’t appear on any statistics sheet. In class Mr. Boyle said that before he was thirty years old he had already glimpsed the most compassionate leaders our nation could produce, and they had all been assassinated. And from this time forward, he told us, things would only get worse: our best political leaders were part of memory now, not hope. They could only be satirized, or sanitized, not saved. The world was in ruins and I was seventeen.

Lying on that bed I thought about old LBJ, sitting in the White House selecting bombing targets, pulling on his long Texas chin. And now Nixon, the new president, whose hero was George S. Patton, a man who had slapped a soldier silly in a VA hospital for crying. I thought of Danny Amato’s brother, whose funeral we all attended,  and then I thought of Melanie, and then I thought of Lulu, and then the pain started over again.

Tom Boyle was writing his way out of our high school. He was going to find a way to make a career as a novelist. I wondered if that were possible.

I pulled Gatsby from my sister’s bookshelf and thumbed the pages until I found Jordan Baker. It was Jordan who had introduced Nick Carroway to Gatsby, Jordan who had been the liaison between Daisy and Gatsby and Tom and Nick. She was a bad driver. More than ever, it seemed, Jordan Baker was essential to the story.

Weeks passed into months. I swore off love,  pledging that I would not fall in love in college or after, that I would love no woman after Lulu, and thus only Lulu. She was my first love, and she would remain my first and only love. If I couldn’t have her, then I didn’t want anyone else.

I had some money saved up from working summer construction, and worked part time with the campus maintenance crew. In a New York City phone book, in the Yellow Pages, I found the number of an escort service. A woman answered the phone. I described what I wanted. She gave me an address on the west side and told me to be there in sixty minutes.

The girl was tall, with boyish hips and a tight smile. She looked as young as me. I handed her a beaded flapper dress and told her to strip. She took it from me as if she accepted dresses in hotel rooms every day of her life. Stepping out of her clothes, leaving them piled on the ugly shag carpet, she entered the bathroom, pulling the door closed behind her. The cheap lock clicked. I checked the labels of her clothes, wondering who had bought them, then folded them and laid them on a chair. Taking off my own clothes, I laid on the bed and waited. I had never done this before with anyone but Lulu.

The girl came out of the bathroom and I handed her the money. She modeled the dress. I described how to do the fox trot. She frowned and looked around the room, looking like a bored teenager.

Her name was Sonya. I asked her not to talk. Then I removed the dress and positioned her on the bed. She knelt with her ass in the air, supported by her arms and knees. I told her to touch herself while I watched. She didn’t look all that much like Lulu and I decided that was OK. I told her to lick her fingers and she did. Then I told her to make her red fingernails disappear inside herself. She did, taking her time with it, rocking her small hips. She looked up at me, twisting her head around to find my eyes, then she placed her fingers in her mouth and licked them one at a time, which is what I told her to do.

Later, I asked her to spend the night. She phoned and got permission, quoting me the rate. Again, I asked for her name. This time she said her name was Ingrid.

She was from Minnesota. I said that’s a long way from home and she nodded. She asked, “What’s your name?” I told her again my name was Joe and that I hadn’t lied to her yet. Joey, I said. It’s OK for you to call me that, if you’re going to spend the night.

She had high shoulders and they were so white. Some light freckles clustered together, there on her shoulders, but she was white as the sheets.

I was thinking about how slowly time moved, how the hours of the night had Latin names that the monks had assigned but no one remembered. I wanted Ingrid to hold me long into the night and I would teach her the right way to hold me, the way Lulu had showed me in the breezeway on the couch when her parents were away, till the long hands of the clock had spun over and the night terror had deadened and I could sleep.

Then she wanted to know how old I was, and I told her I was almost eighteen. She asked how I had managed to get fake ID, and I explained that I was tall for my age and knew the right people.
Ingrid said, So Joey, it’s your nickel, what do you want to do now? I reached into my book bag and said, Have you ever read The Great Gatsby?

She shook her head no. Her shoulders were bare but she had the sheet pulled around her, bunched at the waist. She said, what is it about? I told her it was about impossible love and she laughed and said that’s the only kind.

She didn’t look eighteen. I asked what did she know about love, and she said she didn’t know anything and neither did I. Sure I do, I said. Then I told her about Lulu.

I’m not dumb, Ingrid said.

What? Her eyes were dark and hooded and her mascara was bleeding.

You look at me like you think I’m dumb, she said.

What if I do?

I held the book in my hands but I didn’t want to read it. It had a stupid cover. I wondered why I hated things that Lulu and I had shared, how even the memory of them now made me feel hateful and small. She had given me a gold cross for my birthday. After we broke up I had taken it off and placed it with my sister’s jewelry. A polo shirt she gave me lay soiled on the bottom of my closet.

I don’t think you’re dumb, I said.     .

Lulu isn’t dumb either, you know.

Shut up. You don’t know her. You don’t know anything, do you? I never said she was.

I know she gave you up like a bad habit. And she was right to do it.

What do you know about it? I screamed. I yanked the covers off her and she pulled them back. I wanted to see her bare legs again, but figured that could wait.

Well, you’re here with me, right? You think you’re still all in love with her, but you’re here with me. Maybe she knew something.

I’m here with you because I can’t be with her. You have no right to talk about her, anyway. Who asked you?

She looked at me, unblinking. Then she lit a cigarette and ashed it in the tray on the nightstand beside the cheap bed. Her nails were chipped and her hands looked defeated.

The telephone rang. Someone was asking for Edward. I said there was no Edward and slammed the phone down. The girl looked at me hard. I sat on the bed and cradled my head.

What, she said.

My sister thinks my father killed our older brother, I said.

So, did he?

My sister is full of shit, I said. And so are you.

She said, I’ll tell you what’s bullshit. Your teary Lulu story. You’re here with me because you chose it. You’re here with me for one reason, to fuck.

What if I am?

So you don't love her.

So what,  she said, it’s OK.

I lifted my arm to my scalp, then dropped it. She flinched when I did that.

I didn’t say that. Don’t put words in my mouth. I told you not to talk.

I took the cigarette from her hand. She let me. I took a long draw, then coughed. Her eyes followed my hand but I didn’t like that. I didn’t like her looking at me when she didn’t know me. But I needed her to spend the night.

Then why are you here?

Because Lulu turned me loose, I said.

That stopped her.

Outside, it was raining, and the cheap curtains were gray sails lifting and we could hear the splash of the rain in the courtyard and the sound of a motorcycle winding out its gears.

I wiped at my eyes. I tried again to speak. And if I can’t have her, I said,  then I don’t want anyone. Not in that way.

She laughed, a dry hard laugh. A man among men, she said. I wanted very much to hit her.

And you plan to live like this? she said. To wait for her?

I do.

And to pay for it? For the other?

Yes.

She laughed again, less bitterly this time, and I felt her laughter as if it were mine. For how long, she asked?

I saw how my life had led only to this moment but after led to nothing at all. A puff of wind blew at the covers and the girl was chilled. But she only sat on her hands in the bed and didn’t move, waiting for an answer. I saw the dry pity in her eyes then, and it angered me and I grabbed at her hands and brought them up from her pretty ass. She shook her head and turned her face away from me, and I let her. For that one time, I let her.

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