My Hawaiian Penthouse

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My Hawaiian Penthouse

Let’s get one thing clear, right from the start: I never liked the word boytoy;I much preferred heir. As in heir to the incalculable millions of Sir So-and-So or sole heir to the vast McCormack fortune. That kind of heir.

 

Even as a child, that’s how it was with me. I knew what I wanted. As my mother used to say (and here’s to her), I had a flair for the dramatic. But then, she should know. She used to flick her cigarette in my direction and snarl, “Keep that up, buster, and you’ll be out on the street faster than I can finish this drink.” Which would’ve been pretty quick, given how the woman loved her liquor. She could’ve been a star, provided she’d stayed off the sauce—and never married my father and not lived her whole life in Holly Hills, Michigan. In other words, another life. But she didn’t. Instead, my mother invested her dreams in my sister, leaving me to make my own mistakes.

 

I’m not saying she was wrong. That’s just how she was. My mother couldn’t figure out how to fit me into her life. Sometimes there’s not enough room for more than one person. I wasn’t like the boys my mother remembered from when she was young. I never worked in a gas station. The only part of a car I ever liked was the backseat, where I could pretend my father was the chauffeur. “To the mall, James,” I’d command—not that he paid me any attention, and not only because his name was Tom.

 

This was back in the seventies in a place called Holly Hills, Michigan where the mall was about the only sign of civilization—and even that was ten miles from my parents’ one-story ranch with the sad little birch tree out in front. Every Saturday morning, the chauffeur dropped my mother and me off at one of the local strip malls where my mother got her hair done. And it was there, sitting like a twelve-year-old lord-in-waiting at Addison’s Beauty Salon, that I discovered a magazine called Town & Country.

 

For years, I’d had this suspicion that my life in Holly Hills was a tragic acci-dent. But it was not until flipping through Town & Country’s glossy photo-graphs of tuxedoed men and socialites happily wandering the grounds of their sumptuous estates that I realized my true birthplace. There was this one pho-tograph that drove me to distraction, and as soon as I saw it, I knew I was going to steal the magazine. My mother, meanwhile, was busy with her stylist, Arlene, gossiping about the latest teen suicide in town. There’d been a rash of them that year, which was incontrovertible proof that I wasn’t the only one wishing to leave Dodge. And so, as nonchalant as Fagin, I slipped that issue of Town & Country under my red sweatshirt and pretended to read Motor Trend instead.

 

Of course my mother noticed something as soon as she came over to fetch her coat. She yanked that magazine out from under my sweatshirt and asked, “What do you think you’re doing?” The pages of my Town & Country fluttered in the air. “Did you see that, Arlene?” she asked. “Teddy’s mooching your mag-azine.”

 

Arlene Addison was a decent sort. Her daughter Vicki had got pregnant at fifteen, so she knew about life’s little accidents. She took pity on me and said, “That one ain’t even mine. I think Joyce Watson left it last week.”

 

This was not the reaction my mother was anticipating, and perhaps not one that she desired. She was temporarily flummoxed, and she looked again at the magazine, silently taking in its cover of a nubile brunette in full equestrian gear, a white-columned mansion in the distance. “What you want with this, anyway?” my mother asked.

 

I shrugged, not wanting to tell her I was living in the wrong house. “Art,” I said in a low voice. “We need pictures for art.”

 

Arlene Addison looked up from her sweeping. “You want that magazine?” she asked. “It’s yours, Teddy.”

 

And now my mother had no recourse. She jabbed me in the chest with my Town & Country and said, “Next time you ask.”

 

The photo for which I risked my mother’s wrath was of a massive drawing room with floor-to-ceiling windows swathed in deep burgundy curtains. Leather chairs flanked a console while a crystal chandelier glowed from above, and to the left, in a somewhat shadowed foreground, sat a distinguished-look-ing gentlemen. With a drink and a cigarette, the man in the velvet smoking jacket gazed across the room at a silk-gowned woman. Her back bare, her hair swept in a chignon, the woman faced the window, looking out—at what I could not tell.

 

This was a kind of life I knew solely from old movies. Some mornings I would litter my bed with wadded-up tissue and wait for my mother to wake me for school. Then, coughing, I’d point to the tissue. Upon witnessing my Camille, my mother would, most often, jam a thermometer down my throat, but there were other mornings when she didn’t feel like fighting. Instead, she’d tell me, “Fine, stay home. But you are not to leave the house while I’m at work. You hear me? You leave this house and I’ll hunt you down. And don’t answer the door, neither. And don’t bother your sister when she gets home from dance. She’s got to rehearse. And no cookies and no ice cream. Do some exer-cise. You get hungry, there’s carrot sticks in the fridge.”

 

As soon as I had the house to myself, with my parents at work and my charming sister at charm school, I parked myself—with ice cream and cook-ies—in front of the TV. And for the next five hours, I went where Hollywood took me, where men wore black tie and women glided across crowded ball-rooms, laughter trilling behind them. But then, all too quickly, it was four o’clock and my mother was home from the school where she was secretary to the principal. I could hear her car crunching over the gravel drive and I hurried back to my room, collapsing on my bed in a melodramatic heap.

 

Every day, as soon as my mother walked in the door, she had two drinks. One while standing in the kitchen, her purse still swinging from her forearm, and the second with a cigarette as she sat in the living room, slipping off her shoes and jewelry. This was her decompress time, and both my sister and I knew not to disturb her. Instead, I lay still in my bed, my eyes closed tight, dreaming of a mansion with marble floors and a butler to answer the door and champagne bubbling from fountains …

 

And when finally I awoke (from a long, deep sleep), that’s exactly what had happened. There I was, little old Teddy Sears from Holly Hills, Michigan, living in a twelve-room apartment at the top of River House in the middle of Man-hattan. I had to pinch myself. Me, sleeping in a Regency bed, complete with an ornately carved headboard. And Flemish tapestries on the walls, and a water-color by Gainsborough. It was all too much. There was fresh coffee on a break-fast tray, and a vase of pink hydrangea in a celadon jade vase. I could hardly believe my own reflection in the George III gilt wood mirror. The sun so bright, it dazzled the oriental carpet. I rose and stood by the window, gazing out onto the East River. Marveling that I was here. Here where I belonged, here at home, at long last.

 

Of course, this transformation had not happened overnight. It wasn’t as if I’d awoken in Oz wearing ruby red slippers. Rather it had been a journey, a years-long journey, with a great deal of clawing and climbing. It had taken nearly everything I had to get this river view. And looking out onto the choppy water, I couldn’t help but think of those who had tried to scale Manhattan’s heights—only to wind up at river’s bottom, their feet shod in concrete. Harold had always said it was a deceptive river, deeper than you’d expect, with deadly rip currents. “Treacherous,” he used to say, “just like Manhattan. You’re not careful, it’ll chew you up. But not me; I’m a survivor.” Well, not actually, he wasn’t—not any longer. Now it was I living at River House. Not that the apart-ment had changed much—save for a few less pink quartz Ming trees sold to Christies. Amazing what you got for a couple Chinese artifacts these days.

 

And to think that once upon a time, I’d never heard of River House. Harold always said it was the preeminent Manhattan address. But there was much I hadn’t known back then, and much that Harold had taught me. Harold Arm-strong was a Wasp, one of those old school, blue blood Wasps. As he liked to say, it didn’t much matter who came over on the Mayflower when it was your family who built the ships.

 

In those last years before commercial aviation, Harold had traveled the world on yachts and ocean liners. He had albums filled with photographs that reminded me of the movies I adored. Back then, back in the thirties, Harold had been a fresh-faced youth, his thatch of flaxen hair combed off his forehead. Which was how Harold always wore his hair, right to the end: combed back and cut tight, with a razor-sharp part. Only the color had changed, from flaxen to snow-white.

 

And dogs, he liked dogs, especially French standard poodles—always in black, and every one named Zippy. After Zippy I, there was Zippy II and Zippy III, because, the thing was, Harold’s poodles were prone to seizures. One minute yapping for food, the next dead on their backs. Poor Harold had as much luck with dogs as he did with boys. But it was all going to be different with me; that’s what he thought, and so did I.

 

I was twenty-five when I met Harold Armstrong and lured him into my web—except it wasn’t all that. I wasn’t quite so clever back then, coming from Holly Hills and not so long out of school. My BFA in Theatre hadn’t exactly taken Manhattan by storm; in fact, the only lines I’d been paid to recite were the daily specials. So I’d headed back to Michigan—or rather I’d been chased back by MasterCard. Fortunately, Teresa hadn’t forgotten me. Teresa Lom-bardi, my old roommate from Hell’s Kitchen. It was thanks to Teresa that I met Harold Armstrong. Teresa was getting her MFA in Directing and she’d called, saying she had a gig for me. Without even hearing the details, I said yes. Turned out she was directing a production of Godspell—at a church theater, no less. My dressing room doubled as the men’s bathroom and half the cast couldn’t hold a tune, but it didn’t bother me. Nothing mattered except that I was doing a show in New York—and no one back in Holly Hills had to know any more than that.

 

We did six performances. One week of rehearsals and six performances between Thursday and Sunday. The audiences were mostly Christian youth groups bussed in from Pennsylvania, but they could’ve been seals for all I cared. I was high on applause. And then just before the curtain on Saturday night, Teresa told me the producer was out in front. She said Mr. Harold Arm-strong had piles of family money and that he lived at River House near Beek-man Place. I think my eyes glazed over then. She told me to look for the geezer with the snow-white hair. “You can’t miss him,” she said. “He always brings a boytoy.”

 

Second row, center—I spotted him right away. Mr. Harold Armstrong with his boychick beside him. I gave him the eye. This was my make or break oppor-tunity, so I figured why the hell not. And furthermore, I looked hot in my low-slung bell-bottoms with a tight little tee, my hair all blond and curly. I proba-bly looked the best I’d ever looked. And when it came time for my solo, I sang “Day by Day” like I was Marilyn singing “Happy Birthday” to the president.

 

And wouldn’t you know, Harold returned for the final two perfor-mances—alone. And he showed up at the cast party too, because basically he was the only reason there was any production at all. We were at a midtown hotel, in one of the lounges off the ballroom. There must have been fifty or sixty guests, and when all of us in the cast made our entrance, everyone applauded. I was so overwhelmed, I got misty-eyed. This was the life I deserved: fame and celebrity, autographs and paparazzi. And over there, sitting in a big leather armchair like some kind of pasha, was Mr. Harold Armstrong. He didn’t use a walking stick then and he looked younger than I knew he was. So I grabbed a glass of champagne from one of the waiters and I went right up to him and said, “I’m Teddy Sears and I want to thank—”

 

“I know who you are,” he said, interrupting me. “You were very good, Mr. Sears. Pleasure to watch you onstage. Won’t you sit with me, keep me company?”

 

He had the strangest voice, like Katharine Hepburn gargling with marbles. At first, I thought he said, “Sit on my knee,” which I nearly did. Then I trans-lated his gurglings and realized what he meant. “Thank you,” I said, sitting next to him on what looked to be an overturned drum. “I’m so glad—”

 

But Mr. Armstrong interrupted me again, asking, “Why don’t you come back to my apartment for a nightcap?”

 

His directness took me aback. I might have hesitated a moment and swilled from my champagne, because the truth was, in spite of my bravado, I’d never been with a man old enough to be my grandfather. I flashed on an image of me frolicking naked through River House—with Mr. Harold Armstrong resolutely on my tail.

 

“There’s something I’d like to show you,” he said.

 

I nearly laughed; his lines were as crusty as week-old bread.

 

“You’ve a nice singing voice,” he continued. “And I’ve a Steinway you might

 

“No. Not the piano, I don’t,” I said.

 

“Another instrument perhaps?” he asked, his eyes fixing on mine. He had eyes like an eagle, or maybe it was the nose. His words hung in the air as we both parsed their meaning. And then breaking his gaze from mine, he said, “Well, it’s up to you.”

 

Yes, wasn’t it always?

 

He had taken me to River House the night of my Broadway debut—which was how I liked to think of it, because actually the church theater did have a Broadway address. From the cast party, Harold Armstrong had whisked me off to River House, on the far east side of town. And I was impressed. The ten-foot stone columns with a manned gate and the circular cobblestone drive. There were so many flunkies in gold-braided uniforms that I might have mistaken the building for an embassy. And Harold nodding left and right as we marched across the marble floor through the vast lobby with its porcelain urns and vases filled with fussy floral arrangements and a Louis XIV reception desk where an attendant stood at attention. The elevator had a chandelier. And it opened right onto the vestibule of Harold Armstrong’s fourteenth-floor apart-ment. It was his own private elevator. Harold Armstrong owned the entire floor.

 

The receiving room was dimly lit, and stepping into it, I immediately felt like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight. There was a kind of mustiness in the air and all these oil portraits of Harold Armstrong’s relatives on the walls illuminated by dark-shaded alabaster lamps and nearly threadbare carpets covering the black-and-white tessellated marble floor. Immediately, a large black standard poodle started barking and jumping all over me, and I was wise enough to make like I adored dogs. This was Zippy II, and Gretchen was attempting to restrain him but she was this tiny German woman, her hair a helmet of curls just released from the hairdresser (which I recognized instantly from the many Saturday mornings spent with my mother). And I said, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” even as that canine monster knocked me back onto a silk damask settee.

 

There were rooms, an endless series of rooms, or so it seemed to me in my flabbergasted state. I followed Harold through the library and past a dining room that was the size of the apartment Teresa and I had shared years before. And then I asked if I might use the bathroom and Harold directed me back toward the reception room, but I might have taken a wrong turn, perhaps even deliberately, so as to see what more there was to see. I found myself peering into bedrooms with private bathrooms the size of garages, one of which I did use, where I opened a closet door to see a stack of plush green bath towels reaching nearly to the ceiling.

 

When I found my way back to Harold, he was seated in the main drawing room on one of two sofas that flanked one of the room’s two fireplaces. He was sitting there expectantly, leaning forward almost, and as I entered the room he started to rise and said, “Oh, there you are.” And while it seemed he was addressing me, perhaps his words were directed to Gretchen who, bearing a sil-ver tray, was also entering the room, albeit from another doorway. Gretchen walked with a limp, and something about her posture reminded me of Boris Karloff, and I worried that at any minute the tray might slip from her hands, sending the glasses and decanter shattering into a million tiny pieces. That did not happen. Instead, she placed the silver tray on the lacquered table between us, whereupon Harold said, “That’ll be all, Gretchen,” whereupon I knew that she’d been dismissed to her own small suite of rooms with her own small toilet in some distant realm of the vast apartment and no more would she appear for the remainder of the night.

 

There was no fire in the fireplace. But then, between the cognac and Harold’s anticipation, there was no real need for extra heat. I could sense his excitement, now that he had me in his lair. He could hardly pour the cognac into the snifters, his hand was shaking so. I stared at the linen napkins embroi-dered with small blue roosters—cock-tail napkins, as it were. And even before we’d sipped from our glasses, Harold Armstrong had leaned forward a little and said, “So you’re a gay, aren’t you?”

 

A gay, he’d said. As if he had never before used the word gay. I had to smile as I nodded. “Yes, I’m gay,” I said.

 

“Good then,” he said. “We should get together.” He toasted in my direction before downing his cognac.

 

Meanwhile I waited for some kind of signal. I had no idea how we were going to “get together” from our current positions. He was seated on one sofa and I opposite him on the other, and I had the sense there were eyes watching us, if not Gretchen’s, then those of a houseman or a security guard—as well as his mother gazing down on us from a portrait above the mantel.

 

He said to me, “Would you like to play the piano or shall we go to my rooms?”

 

I noticed then the Steinway at the room’s far end. There really was a piano. “I … I don’t play … the piano,” I said.

 

“Good, then shall we?” he asked, his arm motioning in a gesture that made me feel I should rise and follow his lead.

 

His bedroom was not one I had peered into. In fact, it appeared to be smaller than the other bedrooms I had glimpsed. His bed was narrow, with a headboard ornately carved and almost higher than the bed was long. And somehow I knew then that this was Harold Armstrong’s childhood bed. This old-moneyed gentleman still slept in the bed he’d slept in as a child.

 

Undressing me, unbuttoning my clothes with shaking fingers, he said, “Bingo. There we go.” And then Mr. Harold Armstrong looked up at me and said, “My, but you have a nice one.”

 

It wasn’t much, but it was enough. And later, between the sheets, he clung to me so tight, as if I might slip away. He said, “We have to get together again, kid.” And right then I had the feeling I might have hooked myself a keeper.

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