My Hawaiian Penthouse

my-hawaiian-penthouse-2

My Hawaiian Penthouse

Harold knew Hawaii before the jet age. That’s what he often said. He often said things often. “Sugar shacks, that’s all there was,” he’d say. “Nothing but sugar shacks on the beach. The Royal Hawaiian on one side and nothing else but sugar shacks. It was a different world, kid.” Harold made sure you knew how long he’d been coming to Hawaii, which in his case was ever since the thirties. Back in those days, it was a five-day cruise from San Francisco to Hawaii. Harold had traveled on all the great ocean liners: the Olympic, the Lurline, the Queen Mary, the Berengaria. The White Star and Cunard lines. “The Olym-pic,” he’d say, “sister ship to the Titanic. But not me; I’m a survivor.”

 

Hawaii must have seemed very exotic back then: that string of islands out in the middle of the Pacific, no mainland for thousands of miles. Harold’s mother had come upon Hawaii on one of her trips to China, and thereafter she brought Harold with her. There was a painting of Harold done around that time, him with the ocean in the background. Harold was very good-looking as a young man, as handsome as an Arrow shirt model. Or more accurately, Harold was a Fitzgerald hero come to life, complete with Princeton pedigree.

 

One time I asked Harold about his time at Princeton—he was there during the Depression—and he said to me, “Well, it wasn’t so bad. I used to have Mother’s chauffeur wait outside the front gates rather than come to my rooms. Some people had it rough. Not too bad for my friends. My roommate kept his polo horses on campus.” That was how he could be, my Mr. Armstrong. You couldn’t accuse Harold of having the common touch. He was so certain of his place. And it was that sense of entitlement to which I related.

 

Of course, unlike Harold with his many pots of gold, I had only my wits when I first saw Hawaii. I remember vividly that first drive in from the airport, Harold pointing out the sights: Diamond Head and the beaches, and where Doris Duke used to live. And then we turned onto the main drag with all those high-rise hotels and high-end merchandising and right then I knew: this was Park Avenue on the Pacific and, by hook or by crook, I was going to get me a piece.

 

For years, long before I’d entered his life, Harold had stayed at the Royal Hawaiian, taking the same suite of rooms for the month of February. There were others before me, escorts who had traveled with Harold, but as soon as I saw the deluxe four-room Kahanamoku Suite which overlooked both the gar-dens and the ocean, I was determined that from here on I would be Harold Armstrong’s only traveling companion.

 

And so I was for the next couple years—at least to Hawaii. The problem was, I didn’t live in New York, and Harold didn’t invite me to come live with him at River House. I wasn’t always in Harold’s line of vision—and there were other boys who were. A trust fund tart, for example, with whom Harold had traveled on the QE2. And also Harold’s masseur, a young Russian whom Harold had taken to Bermuda. Harold was good to me when we traveled together, no doubt about it. But these other boys made me nervous. I knew I had to secure my investment, as it were, and as luck would have it, my oppor-tunity arrived the third year we traveled together to Hawaii.

 

Due to a winter storm in New York, our flight had been delayed and we were quite late getting into Waikiki. Harold was peevish, as he often could be when Mother Nature interrupted his personal schedule. He had no tolerance for her whims, or for any conciliatory behavior by the purser in first class. And when, at the Royal Hawaiian, it was revealed that his suite had been offered—mistakenly, of course—to a honeymooning Japanese couple, Harold was nearly apoplectic. “Send them packing,” he said, with no interest in the fact that the newlyweds might be sleeping—or not. Nor did Harold have any interest whatsoever in the corresponding Diamond Head Suite on the hotel’s northern side. Suddenly, Harold wanted nothing more to do with the Royal Hawaiian. After a near-lifetime involvement with the hotel, Harold was closing them out.

 

He could be like that. And it helped not a whit that the newlyweds were Jap-anese: Pearl Harbor had kept Harold from ever eating sushi. The truth was, Harold could recall any and all who had ever maligned him. With mounting fury, he would recount how his headmaster had neglected to mention his name at graduation (more than sixty years before!) and how he had risen from his seat in the cathedral and said, “There’s one more, and that’s me.” And how another time, at the family Main Line manse outside Philadelphia, the gar-dener had refused Harold’s request to rake the leaves from atop the swimming pool—and as Harold made very clear, he’d given that gardener a thing or two to think about. It didn’t matter how insignificant the slight; in this area, Harold’s memory was faultless.

 

For the next couple days after the Royal Hawaiian’s boo-boo, Harold was not at his best. Even at the Halekulani, where we took a suite with a private ele-vator, two bedrooms, and a wraparound lanai, it took Harold about a pint of Stoli before he calmed down. And the next morning, when a gigantic fruit bas-ket arrived from the Royal Hawaiian, Harold was still fuming. “Who’s that from?” he asked, though the label, card, and ribbons were all stamped with the Royal Hawaiian’s logo. “Well, I won’t touch it,” he said. “They can all go to hell.”

 

Clearly it would take more than a fruit basket to appease Mr. Armstrong. And it was while sitting at the fruit-laden table on our private lanai overlook-ing the turquoise Pacific as the sun shone on another day in paradise that I had an epiphany: now was the time to clutter Harold’s brain with real estate offer-ings.

 

He had talked about it before, how his mother had always wanted a little estate on the island’s leeward side. But alas, before Mrs. Armstrong could buy so much as a pineapple, she’d caught pneumonia while walking the decks on a return voyage from Southampton. “I told her to put on a fur, but she wouldn’t listen,” Harold often said. It was his mother’s misfortune that kept Harold looking like an Alaskan fur trapper whenever it snowed in New York.

 

And so, knowing what I knew about Harold’s deep affection for his mother’s memory, along with his fear of icy New York sidewalks, I called a real estate broker we had met the year before and made an appointment. “We’ll just go have a look-see,” I told Harold.

 

It certainly didn’t hurt that the apartment atop Moana Towers looked down on the Royal Hawaiian in the distance, or that it belonged to a Japanese inves-tor with money problems. Harold read the situation right away and named a bottom-feeder’s price. “My revenge for Pearl Harbor,” he said, offering an all-cash deal with a list of stipulations. Not only was Mr. Watanabe’s apartment to be sold as it was, right down to the Baccarat crystal and the Frette linens, but also the Lexus in the parking spot—Harold wanted that too. Furthermore, the deal had to be completed within the month, or all bets were off.

 

It certainly didn’t hurt that the apartment atop Moana Towers looked down on the Royal Hawaiian in the distance, or that it belonged to a Japanese inves-tor with money problems. Harold read the situation right away and named a bottom-feeder’s price. “My revenge for Pearl Harbor,” he said, offering an all-cash deal with a list of stipulations. Not only was Mr. Watanabe’s apartment to be sold as it was, right down to the Baccarat crystal and the Frette linens, but also the Lexus in the parking spot—Harold wanted that too. Furthermore, the deal had to be completed within the month, or all bets were off. was a listing in a brochure, and the next, it was his vacation home. And a lovely one at that, twenty-seven floors above the yacht harbor, its double-length lanai facing the ocean, and the sort of view that realtors used in their listings: sunsets and fireworks and that line of luxury high-rises all the way to Diamond Head. Oh, and way down there? The pink palace? That would be the Royal Hawaiian.

 

It was March when we took occupancy. “Not too shabby,” Harold said, sink-ing into a chair in the long drawing room that ran nearly the length of the lanai. As for me, I never wanted to leave. Four bedrooms, four baths, and a large entry hall—it was the mansion in the sky I’d so long dreamed about. And right away, Harold decided he wasn’t returning to New York, not until the for-sythia were in bloom.

 

At this point, I’d known Harold for almost five years. He’d been good to me, treating me to Hawaiian trips and offering me tokens of Wasp affection such as crystal paperweights and Seiko wristwatches. But I had my future to think about. There was no money in the bank, so to speak. I was nearly thirty and, when not traveling with Harold, my life was nothing like the photograph from Town & Country.

 

Back in Michigan, there was a man named Clifford Turner. I’d met him at the gay bar one night after my shift at the Two Forks Dinner Theater. Cliff owned a house on a lake. Or rather, you could see a bit of the lake if you climbed atop the car he kept on cinder blocks in the backyard. It wasn’t my idea of paradise, not by a long shot, but facing thirty, my options were narrow-ing. Cliff was a diamond in the rough, as was his house, and while it wasn’t a project I was anticipating, I figured I could make it work—if I had to.

 

Until that point, however, all my chips were on Harold. He and I were tak-ing lunch out on the lanai atop Moana Towers. Harold could sit for hours out there, his gaze fixed on the Pacific, the yachts bobbing in the harbor. Already it was a view I wanted to call my own. I sipped from my tomato juice (with the merest splash of vodka). “Isn’t that yummy?” I asked.

 

Harold nodded without looking up from his plate. He always ate the same lunch: a lightly scalded and skinned tomato, scooped out and filled with tuna fish, and three saltine crackers. At River House, it was Gretchen who prepared his meals, but here at Moana Towers it was only the two of us as yet, and apart from a cleaning woman, I represented Harold’s entire household staff.

 

“Aren’t you eating?” Harold asked.

 

“Don’t worry about me,” I said. I had to watch what I ate. Which basically meant I was always hungry. Which was why I drank so much. Or so I coun-seled myself. Weight had been an issue for me. All through childhood, my mother used to yell across the department store floor, “Teddy, the hefty boys department is over here.”

 

Harold pushed away his plate, his signal that he was finished. At home in New York, he would have hit the foot bell and Gretchen would have come wobbling in from the kitchen. Gretchen was nearly as old as Harold, who was eighty that year—the year he bought his Hawaiian penthouse.

 

“Would you like another drink?” I asked. “Or just your papaya?”

 

“Are you having one?” he asked.

 

“Maybe a little one,” I said, whisking away his plate.

 

In the kitchen, I took a healthy swig from a glass I kept near the backsplash.

 

There were no calories in vodka, not according to the label. Then I sliced two papayas and carried them, with our drinks, back out to the lanai.

 

“Papaya, papaya,” Harold said, rubbing his hands together. Papaya was Mr. Armstrong’s favorite fruit—apart from me. And the others.

 

We ate in silence, and when Harold was finished, he looked at me from behind his sunglasses. Ever since someone had mistaken him and his snow-white hair for Cary Grant, Harold had taken to wearing large Ray-Bans. Never mind that Mr. Grant was long dead. Harold looked at me from behind those oversized sunglasses and asked, “When do you have to be back in Michigan, Teddy? Aren’t you moving in with that Ford fellow?”

 

That’s what I’d told Harold: that Cliff was a Ford heir. An old friend of the family’s, and therefore, no reason for Harold to be jealous. “Actually,” I said. “I thought I might stick around until we hire someone full-time. And besides, who else knows how to get you up in the morning?” I winked at him—and my reference to our little secret.

 

“You’re a good boy, Teddy. You take care of the old man,” Harold said. He placed his linen napkin on the table and folded his hands across his stom-ach—which was bigger than mine. “What about your job at the theater?”

 

And right then I knew for a fact there was no way I was returning to Two Forks Dinner Theater to direct their production of Medea. One little phone call would take care of that. And while I was at it, I might just as well phone Cliff and tell him I was working on my own waterfront view. “It’s more impor-tant that I make sure everything’s comfortable for you,” I said to Harold. “I can’t very well leave you all alone, now can I?”

 

“Florence is here,” Harold said. “I don’t ask for much, you know.”

 

“Florence comes in once a week,” I said. A lovely Filipino, Florence had come to us on the suggestion of the neighbors—and she was no threat to me. Unlike that sneaky little Russian masseur back in New York, Florence was never going to massage Harold into surrender. “You need someone here every day, Mr. A.”

 

“Yes, well, I thought you were leaving this weekend,” Harold said. “So I called David Findlay and he’s flying out here to keep me company. I want you two to meet. He’s a very nice boy.”

 

I nearly choked on my papaya. Of all the tarts in the world … David Findlay had haunted me before, back during my brief run in Manhattan. Granted, I’d known him more from a distance—given that David Findlay and I hadn’t trav-eled in the same circles. Teresa had called him a rentboy, but I’d recognized in David Findlay a different league altogether. David was well connected—and specifically to a gentleman who had died and left David a pile of money.

 

“Are you finished, Teddy?” Harold asked, ready to rise from his chair. “Because if you are, it’s time for this horse to giddyup.”

 

He needed me to assist him. He was a man of eighty who used a cane, and sometimes two. And sometimes a wheelchair, though that was more often a ruse to race him faster through an airport. I handed him his cane and helped him to his feet. “What would you do without me?” I asked, mostly to myself.

 

“What’s that?” Harold asked. He cocked his head like a canary hearing a cat in the vicinity.

 

“I’m sure we’ll have a swell time,” I said. “You, me—and David Findlay.” There was no way I was leaving the premises now, not with that gold digger in sight. Enough was never enough with that sort—and now he was coming after mine.

 

“David’s a very nice boy,” Harold said, as we lurched slowly across the lanai. Harold was always a bit unsteady after his noon cocktails. “He’s never been here before. I think he’s going to like this apartment.”

 

My mind filled with visions of David Findlay being feted through Hawaii, arm-in-arm with Harold, the two of them parting a crowd of wealthy guests who applauded their entrance.

 

“Slow down, Teddy,” Harold said. His cane slipped from his grasp and clat-tered onto the lanai. “Dammit, Teddy, that’s the second goof-up today.”

 

Suddenly I couldn’t take it anymore. “Why not call David Findlay?” I snapped, kneeling for Harold’s cane. My blood pressure rising, I nearly flung the cane over the balcony.

 

Admittedly, this was not my finest hour, but I was in a state. David was one of the others: David Findlay had accompanied Harold on the QE2. And also David Findlay sometimes escorted Harold to the opera and to the theater—because, unlike me, David Findlay still lived in Manhattan. And now David Findlay was coming to Hawaii to plunder—

 

I had to get a hold of myself. My hand on the small of his back, I escorted Harold to his bathroom. And when he was finished, I put him down for his nappie.

 

“Aren’t you joining me?” he asked, looking up at me, his hands crossed over his chest.

 

“I’ll be right outside,” I said, closing his bedroom door. “Someone’s got to clean up the lunch dishes, you know.”

 

But first, I filled one of Mr. Watanabe’s Baccarat tumblers with Stoli and tossed it back. It took off the edge. It gave me a shot of adrenaline. Now that I knew Harold’s—and David’s—plans, I had a very clear picture of what needed to be done. I couldn’t waste another minute.

 

From the study, I called Two Forks Dinner Theater and told my boss that I was unable to return as planned, given that I was in Hawaii directing South Pacific (a joke that probably went right over his head). Then I called Cliff. He was working at the garage. “Harold needs my assistance,” I said, hearing machinery in the background. There were no two ways about it: my Cliffie was a grease monkey. And there must have been something warped in my person-ality to find that oddly attractive, but this was no time for Freud. “I won’t be home for a couple more weeks,” I said.

 

“Aw, babe,” Cliff said. “I’m missing you bad.”

 

I felt a stirring in my loins, which I tried to squash. Cliff knew how to bang me, but there were some things more important than the headboard hitting the wall. “I’ll be home soon,” I said. “So you keep your pants on.”

 

Suddenly, I had no job and a little bit less of a boyfriend, but I felt oddly empowered. I made another cocktail and called Lenore. Lenore was Harold’s travel agent, a battle-axe who’d booked Harold’s every trip since WWII. She sounded exasperated when she picked up. “What does he want now, Teddy?” she asked.

 

I tried to remember what time it was in New York. Maybe she’d been sleep-ing. “Oh, nothing, Lenore. It’s just that—well, Harold wants to cancel that ticket for David Findlay. Seems there was some sort of confusion.”

 

“What are you talking about, Teddy? I was on the phone with Harold less than an hour ago. He told me to upgrade David’s ticket to first class. Maybe I should speak with him. Put him on, would you?”

 

First class? Harold was flying David to Hawaii first class?

 

“Teddy, are you there?” Lenore barked. “Get me Harold.”

 

“Hold on, Lenore. I think he just slipped in the shower. I’ll have to call you back,” I said, hanging up.

 

First class. As if David couldn’t pay his own way with his own pile of gold. I walked over to the wet bar and topped off my drink. One thing about this apartment, there was a wet bar in all the right places. Mr. Watanabe had done his share of entertaining—probably geishas at that. And now it was Harold’s turn. I caught my reflection in the mirror. “May the best boy win,” I said, toast-ing to myself.

 

From Harold’s bedroom door, I stared in at him sleeping. He slept atop the bedcovers, wrapped in a blue terrycloth robe. Afraid he wouldn’t sleep at night, Harold didn’t like to nap too long, and it was my job to wake him—usu-ally with a kiss. At the moment, however, I was more inclined to smack him with a ripe papaya. It was one thing to travel with David Findlay—and quite another to parade him around right under my nose.

 

I grabbed Harold’s little black leather agenda from his nightstand and flipped it open—right to the Friday where Harold had penciled in my depar-ture. And right next to my exit on Friday, there was David Findlay’s monogram on Saturday. Not even a whole day between the changing of the tarts.

 

“Teddy?” Harold murmured, rolling toward me. “What time is it?”

 

I slapped his agenda against the nightstand so that it cracked like a whip. “Time to get moving,” I snarled. “The sun’s going down.”

 

I helped him into the walk-in shower where I lowered him onto the marble shower bench. “It’s not good getting old,” Harold said.

 

“Yes, well, think of the alternative,” I said. That shut him up.

 

In his dressing room, his shower finished, Harold plopped into the arm-chair in front of the mirror. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, Teddy.”

 

“You might remember that,” I said, fingering the row of Hawaiian shirts that lined Harold’s closet. He bought them whenever we passed a souvenir shop, unable to resist the cheap prices. There was something in his Yankee blue blood repression that yearned for loud tropical prints. And with his deep tan and a navy blue linen blazer, his snow-white hair combed off his forehead, Harold could look quite dapper, even in a cheap shirt. “Very nice,” I said, fixing his collar. “You’ll wow the ladies tonight.”

 

“We don’t want that,” Harold said, as I knelt down to tie his shoes.

 

“Yes, I know, they’re all gold diggers,” I said, parroting a line of Harold’s—which tonight felt more like mine. “Every last one of them,” I said. “Now, let me take a look at you.”

 

“Give the old man a hug, you rascal,” Harold said, his arms opened wide enough to hug a refrigerator. He patted my back stiffly. Harold wasn’t a man comfortable with physical expression. From what I knew of his childhood, Harold’s parents hadn’t been around much and what affection he’d received had been doled out by nannies—affection as a reward for a job well done.

 

I nuzzled his neck, my hands on his shoulders. “You’d miss me if I was gone,” I said. Then I pushed him lightly away, propelling him toward the lanai. “Now, go on with you. There’s a sunset coming on, and maybe tonight you’ll see the green light. And you need to think about where you want to eat for din-ner.”

 

In the kitchen, I fluttered about, fixing a silver tray with two drinks and two cocktail napkins and a silver bowl of goldfish crackers, just the way Gretchen would have done at River House. Harold was a man of habits. He liked his sun-set cocktails. And he was particular about where he took his evening meals. Because as much as Harold Armstrong liked his privacy, he also appreciated a little fuss when he entered a restaurant.

 

“Yoo-hoo. Teddy,” Harold yelled from the lanai. “You’d better get out here.”

 

“Just a damn minute,” I muttered. He could be so impatient. I reached for the phone and dialed Lenore’s office. She’d be gone by now, but I wanted to leave her a message, tell her to cancel my return flight and leave the ticket open-ended. The way things were going, I might never leave Hawaii.

 

“Teddy,” Harold yelled again, banging his cane against the glass table.

 

“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” I said, slamming down the phone. I finished my drink and poured myself a fresh one. “I’m coming,” I shouted.

 

“You’re going to miss it,” Harold shouted right back.

 

I gripped the silver tray tightly. Dealing with Harold sometimes required the utmost in self-control. All too easily that tray could slip from my hands and clip him on the head. “Here we go,” I said, using my sweet-as-punch voice.

 

“I think there’s going to be a green light,” Harold said. Local legend had it that if you saw the green flash on the horizon, then you were destined to return to Hawaii. Of course, seeing this green flash was like finding a four-leaf clover, but that didn’t deter Harold. He expected that green light almost every sunset.

 

I followed his gaze out over the Pacific, to the ball of fire going down. “You know what, Mr. A?” I said, with newfound conviction and certain of my return. “You just might be right.”

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