Of course it could have been some other job during those first months in New York. It could have been spraying perfume at Bloomingdales or dancing in a Bugs Bunny costume at a Queens Target opening. But Bloomingdales came later, and by the time the Target gig was offered, I knew enough to say no. As it happened, my first job out of college was as a dancer in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes at a dinner theater forty-five minutes outside the city. It doesn’t sound so bad now; I wasn’t turning tricks or swinging from a pole, though many of my Michigan classmates may have whispered that whoring and working in dinner theater were essentially the same thing. But I had my own ideas about the person I was going to be in New York, and none of them included being the kind of dancer who had to take a job at a dinner theater in Westchester. Still, I told anyone who would listen that the gig was only four months of my life, and the paycheck would cover the rent for my shared East Village apartment. But as it turned out, I had to find myself a second job so I could eat and pay rent at the same time, and the dinner theater job ended after two months, not four.
A friend put me in touch with a writer we’ll call Greg Greene who was looking for a personal assistant. I lost no time in writing Greg an email proclaiming myself perfectly suited for the job. Sure, I was organized, selfless, and patient—or at least I could learn to be for the twenty bucks an hour he was offering to pay under the table.
I went to meet Greg at his ritzy midtown high-rise and, still sweating from the early September heat, knocked at the apartment to which I’d been directed by the downstairs doorman.
The door opened, and there stood Greg. His long, narrow torso was bare, his lower half covered only by a pair of mesh gym shorts. He shook his floppy, sandy-blond hair, and revealed a pair of mocking, heavy-lidded green eyes. I immediately began imagining my easy transition from personal assistant to live-in boyfriend. I saw myself moving into that ritzy high-rise; I pictured our beach house in Bridgehampton; I could see his conversion to Judaism (no Jew had hair that flopped with such un-neurotic ease).
“Hey,” he said, absently rubbing his torso, presumably just for the pleasure of feeling the ridges and valleys of his abs. “Come on in.”
I walked in and started decorating the airy apartment in my mind.
“So, what do I owe you?” Greg asked over the Journey song bleating from his open laptop.
“Oh,” I said. “Well, in the email, you said twenty an hour, but you know, whatever works for you…”
Greg had been rubbing his torso in that same distracted way, but stopped to look at me, confused. I stuttered that we had emailed about the personal assistant job as he said, “You’re here with the coke, right?”
I said I wasn’t, and he said, “Oh.” I asked if he was Greg Greene, he said he was Greg, but with a different last name, and I said, “Oh.” He then sat down on his couch, ran his hands through that goyisha hair, smiled and said, “Well, you wanna hang for a while anyway?”
Had the circumstances been different and had I been different, I might have decided that hanging with a gorgeous, half-naked cokehead in a $4,000 a month apartment was something to stick around for, at least for an hour or two. But I wasn’t different. I couldn’t imagine staying to fool around unless I was in love. So I started telling myself that I could be in love; I could try coke, I could listen to Journey, I could stop wearing product in my hair, I could sit around shirtless without incessantly thinking love handles love handles love handles. And if things went well, I could soon move in to that midtown skyscraper and become someone really interesting; someone I’d really like to know.
But I must have hesitated a moment too long because Greg was up off the couch, ushering me out the door, saying he was sorry for the mix-up. I headed for the elevator, wondering if I had just missed my one chance at true happiness.
I found the real Greg Greene downstairs, standing by the revolving glass door in the high-ceilinged lobby. He turned around at the sound of my sneakers on the marble floor. He had kind, hooded eyes, a wild bramble of curly hair, and looked like he could use a hug.
“Brian?” he said, extending his hand and smiling.
Over Pad Thai and Massaman curry down the block, Greg asked where I was from and what I had come to New York to do, then told me his boyfriend of several years had recently moved out.
“I need an assistant who’s gonna, you know, fill the holes my ex kind of left open in my life. You know?”
Though that sounded vaguely exhausting, I decided I could be the kind of person who was good at making someone forget someone else. I confessed that I’d recently broken up with my college boyfriend of three years, and that I, too, was having to reconfigure my life to see what my days meant without someone else’s needs to put before my own. That was when I realized Greg would be paying me to put his needs before mine, at least for a few hours a day. But I looked across the table at Greg, at his sad, smiling eyes, and decided that, if he hired me, I could make this work.
He did hire me, and from then on, I would arrive at Greg’s apartment around noon with a large coffee and an egg sandwich for him and a grilled chicken salad from Pax for me. I’d gently shake him awake each afternoon and he’d blurrily look up at me with the kind of smile I had previously associated with the term post-coital. Judging by that smile, I felt I was doing my job well, already succeeding at making him forget that ex-boyfriend. I’d then file his receipts, write checks for his ConEd and Time Warner bills, and deposit his weekly royalty payments while we chatted about his breakup or mine, about his big Jewish family or mine, about his potential writing projects, and about the ways success hadn’t really changed him. He’d encourage me to audition as much as I could, and he’d say that if I wanted to dance on Broadway, I should find a way to dance on Broadway. Then, around five or five-thirty, we’d hug, and I’d think back over the day, assessing whether or not I’d come across as adorable, intelligent, and winning. I was doing my best to present qualities I hoped, in certain lights, might amount to a loveable personality and lead to something significant, like a relationship or a raise.
For a while, I really liked working for Greg. There was something satisfying about thinking I could fix this man’s life; me, with my young person’s optimism; me, with my indeterminate dreams of stardom; me, with my conviction that there were indeed relationships that would never end. But I soon discovered I was a terrible personal assistant. I begrudged doing things like picking up Greg’s dry cleaning and shopping for his toothpaste; things I thought a grown man should be doing himself, despite the fact that he was paying me to do them.
“Oh, uh, hey, buddy,” Greg would say through a sheepish, apologetic grin. “The ConEd bill is fifty-six this month, but you wrote the check for one-hundred and twelve.” I’d turn pink and start sweating, apologizing as if I’d just kicked him in the balls. He’d assure me it was no big deal. I’d void the check, write a new one, then fume and pout for the rest of the day, silently furious at Greg for criticizing me; me, who wasn’t in love with him, but wanted to be, and thought that should be more than enough.
One day I shredded a tax document when I’d meant to photocopy it. The next day I failed to tell Greg his agent had called about a lucrative commission. As it became apparent that I was neither selfless nor organized nor patient, I began wearing form fitting T-shirts and tank tops to work everyday. I adopted the mindset of the fifty-something Bulgarian stripper I’d once gotten a lap dance from at friend’s bachelor party. That stripper had done her best to keep her bare limbs and wrinkled breasts in constant motion, flashing them like the talismans used for hypnotic induction. No one at the strip club had been hypnotized or even remotely distracted from the stripper’s age or her depressing scent of Jolly Ranchers and halitosis. I had become that stripper, prancing around Greg’s apartment, showing skin in hopes that he’d fall in love with me—or at least want to sleep with me—so it wouldn’t matter that I was working in dinner theater and couldn’t operate a fax machine.
After leaving Greg’s apartment each evening, I’d walk to 57th Street and board a van that would take me out of the city to perform for busloads of senior citizens in Westchester. By the first performance of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I was fairly certain that the sea of blue-haired patrons eating salmon fillets and Chicken à la King in the audience foretold something ominous about my future. There were several times during the run of the show when I nearly fell off the narrow thrust stage because I was so disoriented by the theater’s slushy signature cocktails flashing with blue, orange, and pink fiber optic lights at every table. I was sure that one night I’d take a tumble, crash onto overcooked poultry, and break my neck. Dying at a dinner theater, I knew, was worse than dying on the toilet.
I began drinking excessively with my castmates after each show, and, a month after I began working for Greg, arrived at his apartment with a debilitating hangover. I wasn’t ordinarily a coffee drinker, but I had bought myself a large latte that day, hoping the caffeine would allow me to focus on filing receipts. I sat down on Greg’s couch and the room began to spin as I filed and tried to eat my grilled chicken salad.
Taxi receipt for $15.73, tomato and feta tiered on the plastic fork; Pongsri Thai receipt, $36 (including tip), cucumber and artichoke heart. Bigger bites for bigger purchases: avocado, spinach, feta, hearts of palm, airline tickets, desktop computer. Just lettuce and celery for a receipt from Green Grocery coffee; a piece of grilled chicken for a single-ride subway card. Between each bite, a huge slurp of coffee. It was going pretty well, I thought.
“Brian, come here, I gotta show you this,” Greg called from his bedroom.
I went into his room to watch a video of Chita Rivera twirling on the Ed Sullivan show. The smell of the egg and cheese sandwich I had brought Greg that morning made my eyes cross.
As I watched the YouTube clip, slow, thick, guilty thoughts began insinuating themselves into my brain. I suddenly couldn’t bear that I was such a horrendous personal assistant. I was a fraud; I didn’t care what Greg needed, I had nothing but selfish motives for so diligently filing those receipts. And if I was honest with myself, it was too late in the season to be wearing tank tops, I was freezing, and I looked ridiculous. I thought I might throw myself out Greg’s seventeenth-story window if I had to consider his needs for one more day or dance while waiters refilled baskets of bread for one more night. Panic swelled in my brain, then seeped down my throat to my stomach.
Suddenly sweating, I found myself performing an odd sideways grapevine to the bathroom.
“Are you ok?” Greg asked.
“Yeah, oh yeah,” I said.
But before I could reach the bathroom, my bowels turned to liquid and began to gush. Tomato, feta, avocado, spinach, and a large latte ran in torrents down the backs of my legs. Slamming the door to the bathroom, I realized I was wearing underwear and a pair of $150 jeans that belonged not to me, but to a guy I had been dating.
After cleaning myself up and scrubbing those jeans as best I could, I managed to sneak to the hallway trash chute without Greg asking any questions. I threw away the balled up pair of underwear that wasn’t mine, then resumed sorting receipts in the living room, doing everything I could to stay out of Greg’s sniffing range for the next few hours.
But something had already shifted. What had been a warm, quiet smile between Greg and me was now an awkward grimace. Where he had once laughed easily at my inability to operate his scanner, there was now frustration and even disgust. I felt I had lost the advantage my relative youth and bare skin had given me over him, and now, when he gave me a look that conveyed what a lazy and selfish personal assistant I was, I could no longer pretend that look also might mean he felt the only solution was to marry me.
A few months went by. I should have offered to buy the guy I was dating a new pair of jeans but instead just washed the ones I’d sullied. The dinner theater production closed and I was cast as a dancing fork in a Houston production of Beauty and the Beast. I told Greg about the Houston gig, he sighed, told me he was proud of me, then said that while I was away he’d begin looking for a new assistant to permanently replace me.
When I arrived in Texas, there was a very cute forty-year old vegetarian yoga instructor playing the role of the Carpet. I decided I could get into yoga. The Carpet and I started to meditate and eat lentils together. We sautéed tofu and talked Buddhism between shows; I lent him my copy of The Secret, he lent me Siddhartha and Thomas Pynchon.
I returned to New York six weeks later, started collecting unemployment, lost touch with the Carpet, and decided tofu had no flavor. I continued living in a string of other people’s apartments, moving every year or two, subletting here, shacking up with a boyfriend there. Each time I moved, I’d leave things in those other people’s apartments, thinking that the version of myself that was going to live in the next place wouldn’t need that bookshelf or that Miles Davis poster or that halogen lamp or that painted coffee mug. As I moved from one job to the next and from one relationship to the next, I kept thinking I should go back to collect all the posters and bookshelves and mugs I had left scattered around the city, wondering if following their trail might lead me back to some other, better Brian I had discarded along the way.