Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Lady Who Gives Permission

Today I’m going to see The Lady Who Gives Permission. Her apartment is on the Lower East Side, near Orchard Street, where vendors hawk shoddy clothes from their stalls. It’s a five story walk-up. The Lady Who Gives Permission lives on the fifth floor. It’s out of the way. But then The Lady Who Gives Permission is not a convenience. She doesn’t make house calls, either. You go to her; she doesn’t come to you.

Okay, maybe you don’t go to her.

But I do.

Every week, once a week. Sometimes I need to see her more often, in which case she does her best to squeeze me in. The Lady Who Gives Permission is on a tight schedule. Her dance card, as they say, is pretty full.

So I climb up the five flights. On each landing more light bulbs are blown so ap-proaching the top is like swimming upstairs into deep water, until there’s no light left at all and I start imagining secret black fish with tentacles. The stairwell smells of dead tuna fish, dust, mold, boiled cat urine. Why The Lady Who Gives Permission lives in such a dump is beyond me.

I wipe the sweat from my brow, knock. It takes The Lady Who Gives Permission five minutes to unbolt her six locks plus police bar. She opens the door a crack and peeks through, and out floats a stiff whiff of her perfume, a blend of roses and funeral lilies. She lets me in without a word.

There are two chairs, both rattan. The Lady Who Gives Permission has a thing for straw. No other furniture. Just a bean bag in the corner next to a guttering candle, and the large wicker chair that’s hers alone. The candle flame is repli-cated in the hundreds of beads of a curtain that divides the room, her “parlor” she calls it, from the rest of her apartment.

The Lady Who Gives Permission doesn’t ask me how I am, doesn’t offer me a drink, doesn’t hand me a tissue to wipe the sweat from my brow in summer or the snot from my nose in winter. She sits on her big round peacock-like wicker chair, lights a thin black cigarillo and looks at me, exhaling, the faintest of smiles cross-ing her dark lips.

“Well, now,” she says.

Those lips, by the way, are thin. The Lady Who Gives Permission has Hennaed hair tied in a rutabaga-sized bun behind her head. Her eyes are also thin, her cheeks rouged and flat, her earlobes droopy, her forehead shiny, her skull dandruffy, her fingers nicotene-stained, her teeth as golden as corn, her breath a heady blend of garlic and wine. Needless to say I am not physically attracted to The Lady Who Gives Permission. She does not interest me that way. Nor am I drawn to her mind, or her soul. From The Lady Who Gives Permission I want but one thing, and that is. . .permission.

“So, Julius, what’s on your mind today?” she asks, relighting her Tiparillo, or whatever it is, with a silver lighter in the shape of a grenade.

“I’ve been thinking,” I say hesitantly, “of going to Turkey.”

“Turkey?” she says, lifting a heavily made-up eyebrow. “You’ve been thinking of going to Turkey, have you?”

“Yes,” I say. “I’ve been thinking of going to Turkey.”

“Would you like permission to think of going to Turkey, Julius?” she asks with a tight little smile.

“No,” I say anxiously. “I want permission to go to Turkey.”

“Oh!” She takes a sip of mineral water. She always keeps a bottle of mineral water handy next to her wicker chair, but never, ever offers me any. For all I know there’s vodka inside. Or paint thinner.

“Turkey,” she says, bombing her Oriental rug with ash.

“Yes,” I say. “Turkey.”

“Why Turkey?” she shrugs. “Why not Greece? Or Rome? Or Timbuktu?”

“Because,” I say standing my ground. “It’s Turkey.”

She looks up at me, annoyed. “So, go to Turkey then. What do you want from me?”

Now it starts: the squirming. There’s no point fighting it. It happens every time. It’s part of the ritual.

“Just tell me it’s okay, okay?”

“Okay,” says TLWGP. “It’s okay. There. Satisfied?”

“You didn’t mean it,” I say, trying to keep my cool. “You have to mean it!”

“Of course I didn’t mean it, you fool! You expect me to mean it? You expect it to be that easy, big boy?”

“I just want your permission,” I say, my voice turning whiny already. “And don’t call me big boy. I hate it when you call me big boy.”

“What should I call you then, little boy? Would you prefer that?”

“Don’t call me big boy or little boy,” I say.

“What should I call you?”

“Don’t call me anything.”

“Are you being rude to me?”

“No! No, I wasn’t—I mean, I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“But you were, weren’t you? You say you didn’t mean to be, but you were mean to me just now, Julius, weren’t you? You came here to ask me for something. Wouldn’t you say it behooves you, under the circumstances, to be nice to me?”

“Yeah, sure, but--”

“Yeah? Sure? But? Is there some reason why you shouldn’t be nice to me?”

“No, but--”


I look around helplessly, my knees knocking together. I wonder why I’m here. I always wonder. Why this woman? Who is she to me? And why doesn’t she do something about the air in here, like open a window?

“Very well, Julius,” says The Lady Who Gives Permission. “You may go to Turkey.”

“I may?” I say.

“Yes, you may.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you!”

“Please stop thanking me, let go of my hand and get up off the floor.”

“Sorry.” I get up and sit back on one of bean bag chair.

“And please don’t apologize. How many times do I have to tell you not to ever apologize to me?”

“Sorry. I mean—”

“For God’s sake. Never mind. What else?” She clips a fingernail.

“I’d--I’d like to have. . .an affair,” I blurt.

“Oh, so now you’d like to have an affair?”

“Is that asking too much?” I wonder.

“I don’t know, is it? What sort of an affair?”

“You know,” I shrug. “With a woman.”

“A married woman?”

“No! Well, yes. Could be. I don’t know.”

“You mean you haven’t made up your mind?”

“How can I make up my mind when I haven’t met her? Yet.”

“Oh, you haven’t met her yet. Why would you want to have an affair with some-one you haven’t met?”

“I thought if I had permission ahead of time it would. . .you know. . . simplify things a little.”

“Oh, you want things simplified,” says TLWGP. “That’s understandable. We all want things simplified. Very well: you may have your affair, once you find whoever. Just try not to get caught and don’t get any diseases.”

“Oh, I won’t, believe me, I won’t!” I say enthusiastically.

“Will that be all?”

“I’d like to stop swimming.”

“You’d like to stop swimming?”

“I swim a mile a day.”

“You’ve said so.”

“Well I’d like to at least, you know, cut down.”

“Which is it, then, stop or cut down?”

“I’d like to cut down first, then, eventually, stop,” I decide.

“I see: you’d like to cut down first then eventually stop. Hmm. Well, I’ll have to think about that, won’t I.” TLWGP thought. “Very well, you’ll cut down first, and then, eventually, stop. And what else can I do for you today, my dear?”

“My mother,” I said sheepishly. “Do I have to call her once a week?”

“When will you learn not to ask me such questions?”

“I’m sorry. I mean. . . I meant. . .Can I--”

“May you what?”

“May I call her every two weeks?”

“Done. Will that be all?”

I stand up and give her the money. Cash only. I’m about to go when something occurs to me. “Beggars,” I turn around and say.


“Panhandlers? Do I have to keep giving them money?”

“I don’t know: do you?”

“It’s just that. . .well, there’s at least one every block between the subway station and where I live. That’s six blocks, six panhandlers, a quarter per panhandler--that’s a buck twenty-five each way, coming and going. That’s two fifty a day. It adds up,” I say reasonably.

“And you would like to. . .” She cocks her head.

“If I could just give to every other panhandler.”

“Why don’t you give them all dimes instead?”

“Dimes. . .dimes!” The idea hadn’t even occurred to me. You have to admit she can be brilliant. “You’re right!” I said. “Jesus, you’re right!”

“We really have to stop now,” she says.

But I can’t resist; I’m on a roll. “Masturbation. I do it . . .like. . .three times a month. In the shower. While my wife reads in bed. Can I keep doing it?”

“Can you?”

“May I?”

“Of course you may,” she says wearily. “Really, Julius, must you waste your permissions that way? I’m sorry, but I’ll have to charge you for that.” She holds out her hand; I pay.

I’m at the door when something else occurs to me. “I pick my nose.”

“Ditto,” she says, and I hand her more money.

“And I don’t always wash my hands after--”

“I believe we are through for the day,” says TLWGP.

She opens the door for me. I hesitate.

“Wait. There’s—one more thing.”

“What is it?” she asks, blowing a sigh, tapping her foot.

“I’d like a hundred million dollars!”

“See you next week,” says The Lady Who Gives Permission, shutting the door behind me.

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