Vee: Birdland (I)

Check out the first story of Vee in the FELT TIPS anthology, available from your favourite ebook retailer.

We haven’t been dating long, and already Vee and I are sticking too close to home. It’s too easy for me to pick her up after work when the bookstore closes, too easy for us to make dinner and drinks here, watching late night TV, or having sex. Not that I mind. But I’m already a bit of a shut-in.

“We should go out tonight,” I say to Vee when she comes over, having had the early shift at the bookstore. She flops into the cracked leather chair in front of the small fireplace, putting her feet up on the arm.

“Where to?” She sounds eager, and I’m glad. Maybe she too has been feeling the urge for change.

“Do you like jazz?” I come out from the kitchen with a glass of water, and Vee looks at me upside down, her head on the back of the chair. She wiggles her eyebrows.

“Don’t know much about it. Punk’s more my style. And indie rock.”

“That’s settled then. Put on a nice dress-” she’s in her work uniform still, and it just won’t do- “and we’ll go.”

“A nice dress?” Vee sits up straight. “Not opera gloves too, I hope.”

I come round to stand in front of her, and tweak her nose before giving her an affectionate kiss. She pulls me down onto her lap and I very nearly spill my water.

“What will you wear?” she asks, her breath tickling my neck. I’m in my usual dark skirt and top. It will do for what I have planned.

“I’m wearing it.”

“Change your shirt,” she says. “Something lower cut.” She waggles her eyebrows again. “For me.”

I slide off her lap and she follows me into the bedroom, darting around me to open the closet. She flicks through my dresses, and I wonder what she’s thinking of. Right near the end, tucked away, is a long, flowing black lacy dress, and she pulls it from its hanger. I’d worn it to a party or two back in the 80s, when Goths and Depeche Mode were in fashion. I’m sure I meant to wear it again, or get it altered, or something, but it’s sat in the back of the closet, waiting.

“This will be perfect.” Vee shucks her black trousers and shirt, showing off her bright blue boy-cut underwear and matching bra. She pulls the dress over her head and pokes her arms into the sleeves before tugging it down and into place. She twirls. “What do you think?”

It’s a bit too large, but it suits her. “I love it.”

She grins, then turns back to the closet, pulling out a clingy, burgundy top with deeper cleavage than I usually wear. I think that was from a Christmas party a few years ago. Why I keep these old things around, I just don’t know. She thrusts the shirt at me.

“Try it.”

I change shirts, and she looks at me critically, twirling a finger. I oblige her and turn.

“Perfect.”

 

Vee tugs on my hand as we weave through the crowd in Times Square, pulling me through a gap I hadn’t seen. Once out of the crush–there’s some sort of kids movie promo with bright characters and music–her pace slows. We hook arms as we stroll down 49th Street, past the church of St. Malachy’s, a beautiful artists’ church easily missed by most. It doesn’t have the same presence as St. Patrick’s, right on a corner. I pause by its open door. The scent of beeswax and incense, a staple of most Catholic churches, is one of my favourite smells in the world, even though I’m not religious.

“What are you stopping for, Alex?” Vee asks. She looks puzzled and I realize we’ve never gone into any churches together. There’s always too much else for us to do.

“It’s St. Malachy’s,” I reply. Vee steps into the doorway, letting go of my arm. She takes two steps up and peers into the narthex, and past it, into the sanctuary itself. I follow her.

The interior of the church is dim, the pews mostly empty. I don’t even want to whisper, for fear my voice will carry.

“Beautiful,” Vee says in a hushed tone. We stand there a few minutes more and I breathe deeply of the cool, scented air. I haven’t been here in years, choosing to stay out of the crush of Midtown, full of tourists gaping at the billboards of Times Square.

Vee takes one last look, then descends to the sidewalk. I motion for her to wait, and I drop a few dollars into the donation box. I retrace my steps and join her.

“Generous of you,” she remarks as we stroll toward our destination. I shrug.

“Only for that church,” I say. I’d gone there many times when I was younger, craving a break from the frenetic atmosphere of Broadway, needing a moment’s quiet. There were too few places in New York for that.

Vee nods and takes my hand. The toes of her combat boots peek out from underneath the lace hem of her dress, and I love that her blue-streaked hair is the only splash of colour. It suits her, feels dramatic, yet almost ethereal with her pale skin. I have a dark trench coat over my blouse and skirt, and my knee high boots are black as well. We’re a Gothic pair tonight.

“We there yet?” Vee asks, looking around as we cross 8th Avenue.

“Almost.”

“Where are we going? Are you going to tell me?”

“The Birdland, of course.” One of the most famous jazz bars in the world. I love its white linen-covered tables, the bar area with chrome and leather seats, and its low stage. I always feel like I’m stepping back in time, as if Louis Armstrong might appear on stage. The Birdland was a night out to be savoured.

We walk up to the club, understated with its black vertical sign and curtained windows. You might miss it if you didn’t know what you were looking for. Inside, I pay our cover and we give our jackets to the coat check girl. A waiter leads us to a table near the back. We’re a bit early, but I never want to miss a song. Plus it gives Vee and I a chance to chat before the performance. The club is strict about no talking during the performance; they even have little signs on all the tables and at the bar, asking for quiet. I wish more places did that.

Vee’s voice is hushed, even though the evening’s entertainment has yet to begin. A piano waits onstage, its black lacquer gleaming under the low lights.

“Who are we seeing?” she asks, leaning close, her warm breath ghosting over my cheek.

I can’t remember their names, not with Vee so close, distracting me. “A French pair,” I whisper back. “They have a repertoire of classic chanson.”

“Oh.” Vee doesn’t look overly enthused, but I hope that will change. I clasp her hand under the table and her thumb strokes my fingers. I press my thighs together. This morning, she’d stroked me just as gently, teasing me until I was desperate, and her touch now takes me back.

“You’ll like it–trust me.”

The waiter comes to take our order and I request a bottle of champagne. When he goes to fetch it, Vee asks, “What are we celebrating?”

“A night out. Spending time together. Listening to chanson deserves champagne, don’t you think?”

“I’m easy.” Vee grins and I want to kiss her right then, but the club is beginning to fill and I’ve never been one for excessive displays. So I squeeze her hand and her grin widens.

The waiter returns with our champagne and ceremoniously pops the cork, filling our glasses before placing the bottle into a pewter ice bucket.

Santé, mesdames,” he says, though the French sounds awkward in his Long Island accent. “Are you ready to order?”

We order our meals and he retreats. I lift my champagne flute. “To music.”

“And the French,” Vee adds, clinking her glass against mine.

The champagne fizzes on my tongue, dry and a bit tart. Vee’s lips pucker slightly, but she takes another sip. “I could get used to this.”

“If I have too much, it’ll give me a headache in the morning.”

“Should I make sure you’re tipsy?” Vee asks, her hand sliding over my thigh. “Then I can take you home?” There’s some sort of announcement on stage, but my attention has focused on the heat of her hand as it inches over my stocking-clad flesh, slipping under the hem of my skirt. She winks at me, squeezing my leg before her hand retreats.

A tinkle of piano keys cuts through the light chatter in the room, and I glance up at the stage. A young man–no, a pair of young men–have come onstage, both dressed in classic tuxedos. The pianist is dark-haired, with an easy grin. Très charmant. The singer isn’t smiling, but he looks out over the audience with confidence, and straightens his bow tie as he steps up to the mic. His blond hair is slicked back in an old-fashioned coif, different from the pianist, whose hair curls over his collar.

Bienvenue, mesdames et messieurs,” the singer says, his speaking voice a lovely deep tenor. I miss his next words, but then the pianist chides him, looking amused, and the singer grins at the crowd. “Pardon,” he says awkwardly. “I am too used to French crowds.”

“He’s kinda cute,” Vee whispers to me. “If I liked men.”

“Thank you for having us here,” he says in heavily accented English. “We hope to impressioner–impress you.” He glances back at the pianist, a wordless communication passing between them, and the pianist nods and begins.

It takes me a few bars to recognize the song, but it’s been a long time since I’d last heard À Paris, a song made famous by Yves Montand. Vee sits forward in her seat, and as the singer begins, I find myself entranced.

I barely notice my dinner being put down in front of me, not until Vee gently nudges me. We eat and listen, and the pair perform several classics–Montand, Aznavour, and Brel. After a fourth song, one that I don’t recognize, the singer steps back from the microphone, taking a sip from a glass of water. The pianist begins a familiar melody, and I smile. Vee claps her hands with delight, and the pianist shoots her a grin.

We’d only just watched Casablanca the other night. Vee had loved it just as much as I did the first time.

“Ingrid Bergman is gorgeous, isn’t she?” Vee had been snuggled up against me, her head on my shoulder.

“Absolutely.” We’d watched as Bergman listened to that classic, special song, and I’d held my breath when Bogart’s character stormed down to the piano and saw her for the first time.

Vee shifts her chair until she’s right next to me, and leans her head on my shoulder. My breath hitches.

“I’m glad we came,” she whispers to me, barely audible over the piano. I turn my head and press a gentle kiss on her blue hair. It could look almost maternal, given our age difference, but I’m feeling anything but maternal.

From the corner of my eye I see movement on the stage, and when I glance over, the singer has returned to the mic.

“This next song is one of my favourites,” he says, his English still halting, his gaze drifting over to the pianist, who gives him a soft smile. “Je ne regrette rien.”

I’ve only ever heard women sing this song, Édith Piaf’s masterpiece, and to hear a man sing it is strange, but it suits his voice, the haunting, sad quality of the music. He flashes another glance back to the pianist, and the tension between them, an awareness of need, solidifies my earlier hunch. There’s more to them than just music.

Vee’s hand settles on my thigh again and I can’t focus on anything else. The music becomes a backdrop to her touch, her fingers feathering over my stockings, along the hem of my skirt as she’d done before. Her breath dances on my skin, seeming to flow down over my collar bone to caress the top of my cleavage. She knows exactly what she’s doing to me.

I startle at the applause, and Vee sits up. We join in and I raise my gaze to the musicians taking their bows. They linger as long as the applause does, but finally retreat  backstage.

The waiter comes by, and I ask for the check. Vee chuckles.

“Feeling homesick?” she teases. I catch her hand, bringing it to my lips, kissing her fingers with their black lacquered nails.

“You know what you do to me,” I reply.

“Let’s go back to mine,” Vee suggests. “My roommate’s away, so we’ll have some privacy.”

I grin. I’ve wanted to see her place, had a curiosity about how she lives when we’re not together, and this is the first time she’s invited me over. Usually she’s reluctant to show me the apartment she shares, and I’ve wondered why. She’s shrugged it off as her roommate not liking to have anyone over, or by saying that she prefers my place, small though it is.

We head out and catch the subway to the Upper West Side–actually, more like Harlem. Vee’s apartment is a gloomy basement flat in a brownstone. The window in the tiny living room looks out onto the sidewalk. She flicks on the light and dispels some of the gloom, but it’s dark outside and the light is weak in comparison.

“Excuse the kitchen,” Vee says, closing the door on the tiny galley kitchen. I can just see the dishes piled in the sink. There are a few dishes on the coffee table too, and Vee sighs.

“Can’t live with her, can’t kill her,” she mutters. She takes my hand, leading me to one of two doors. “My room’s nicer.”

The first thing I notice is the wall of books. Stacked every which way in order to leave no space wasted, the wall opposite her low bed is filled with books.

Vee flops down on the dark coverlet. “I think I spend most of my wages at my job.” She laughs.

“I would too,” I admit. Instead of scanning the titles as I would usually do, I sit down next to her. The wall behind her bed is covered in posters, and there’s a dresser tucked into the space between the door and the closet. Every inch of space is utilized.

“Cosy, isn’t it?” Vee says.

“I like it.” And I do, even though it is small enough to almost be claustrophobic.

“I spend a lot of time in here,” she says. “My roomie likes to hog the TV, and I get so tired of reality shows.” She tugs at my arm and I sprawl next to her on the bed. On the ceiling is another poster–Debbie Harry. I grin.

“So this is your obsession with Heart of Glass?”

“Yup. But she’s not as pretty as you.” Vee rises on her elbow and leans over me. Some of her hair has come loose from its pins and a lock brushes my cheek. Her lips hover over mine and I lift my head, meeting her partway. This is what I’ve needed all night, more than the jazz, more than the good food. Vee.

Her hand trails over the buttons of my blouse and I suck in a breath as she begins to undo them, slowly, her fingers teasing my bared skin.

“Let’s go back to the Birdland this weekend,” she says between kisses, “but we need to take care of this before we go, not after.”

“We’ll concentrate better,” I agree.

“Friday then?” Her knee presses between my thighs and I forget everything but her.

Talk to me! Parlez-moi!