1: The Club
CRASHING a sex lounge required a certain amount of planning.
Isaac would probably arrive earlier than he should, but he’d never been to a full-on flesh pot. His eczema had flared up, and his acne, and he wanted to be forty pounds lighter, but tonight was his. Instead of watching from the sidelines, he was sailing the uncharted waters of debauchery. Protocol be damned. Besides, this evening was a celebration.
Tonight was his twenty-second birthday, and after ten years of coloring inside the lines, this excursion was going to be his first real party, even if none of the loungers inside knew. He just wanted to watch.
He clutched the stiff card hard enough to cut his pudgy hand; the invitation was translucent plastic with a crimson pitchfork over the words “Pitt Street.” No address, no number. Hope, a coworker at the Division Street Library, had won it at a charity raffle and was too married and too staid to set foot in a “sex lounge.”
His feet led him downtown from the library, and the July streets were hot and empty at midnight under the waning moon. He turned down Ridge Street and crossed to Pitt.
Old shops and synagogues peppered the Lower East Side from a time when immigrants had lived eight to a room in muggy tenements. Now the neighborhood was a lively, expensive jumble of trendy boutiques and cool bars; all those pokey warehouses had gone co-op and the speakeasies and Masonic halls had become four-star restaurants and private clubs.
If Isaac hadn’t been looking, he would have missed the entry in a small dogleg alley. The only hint was the card’s red pitchfork painted on a waxy sphere glowing high over a gated chain-link fence. Lifting the rusty hasp, he wedged through. The clothes on his bulky frame were dark enough that no soot or rust would show. Another marked lamp lit the corner of the alley where it bent toward Delancey, but instead of turning that way, he headed right, parallel to Pitt, approaching a pale door.
Since it occupied an old Jewish slum, the lounge sported a biblical name for Satan’s basement: Gehenna. Technically it meant the Abyss, but as a naughty moniker for a hip place off Pitt, it worked fine. Hope hadn’t given the card to him exactly, but at the coffeepot, she’d announced she didn’t want it. All day, he’d sat imagining what he might miss and what he might see if he visited a club as decadent as Gehenna.
He’d worked late tonight, and as he left the building alone, the card’s unused, unwanted pitchfork had practically prodded him from across the room. Feeling a little guilty, he’d lifted it off her pile of book requests without telling her. Isaac knew the invite would have gone to waste, and as he’d pointed out to himself when he’d hesitated: today was his birthday. He’d confess the theft tomorrow, when he could apologize with a few salacious details of his adventures in this kinky Xanadu.
She wouldn’t mind. If anything, she’d feel embarrassed that the other librarians had forgotten his birthday completely and pretend she’d meant to give it to him. Maybe she had. As the young homo on staff, Isaac tended to land all of these items: souvenir masks and kinky bridal shower presents. The ladies in the restoration department would titter and tease him about all his catting around as a young bachelor.
Isaac saw another scarlet pitchfork on the lamp over the door, but no other sign to mark it. He wiped his hands on his thighs, feeling ridiculous and hoping he wasn’t underdressed or overdressed in the blazer and cords he’d worn to work. What did a first-timer wear to a sex lounge? Looking back over his shoulder, Isaac considered the alley snaking back, heaps of trash and a car coasting in the direction of Ridge Street forty yards off at the alley’s other opening. The entrance to the club was mottled ivory, dim under the little globe. Gehenna hid back here like a scorpion.
He raised his hand to knock, but the door groaned open so that his knuckles almost rapped a large bosom. “Sorry.” He stepped back, putting a couple of extra feet between him and the threshold. He hated being touched.
“We see you.” A curvy woman in a plain plum dress winked and pointed her manicure up at the camera over the door. Her mouth soured a little as she got a load of his bulk and bad skin. She held out her hand, took the plastic card. “Come to dream a little?”
He stepped inside. A narrow hall led back about twenty feet to a hum of voices and an entryway. A quote in gold leaf stretched the length of the left wall in letters three yards high: flesh is weak, and on the right spirit is willing.
Gehenna had been a speakeasy back in the 1920s, then a bordello until the publicity of a horrible triple murder had shut it down in the 1960s. In the cocainey eighties, it reopened as a swanky restaurant that wasn’t listed in the phonebook: three hundred dollars a plate and booked six months in advance. Now, a sex lounge. Not a club, mind you. The place was well lit. It showed up in Around Town pieces in Vogue and People because Gaga loved their martinis and Michael Fassbender often swung by to waggle his big unit.
Forty or fifty trendy young things didn’t even look up when Isaac entered the wide room. In its 21st century incarnation, the lounge featured low mod furniture in dark purples under a curved ceiling. No sexual congress out here in the public area. Pretty tame for a pleasure dome, it seemed. The magazines hinted at darker doings downstairs… maybe a bordello holdover.
Isaac gave a wide berth to the clusters of chatting hipsters. The idea of strangers brushing against him, even by accident, made him want to heave and leave, but he knew he had to start somewhere. He decided to grab a drink to give his twitchy hands something to hold. Again, he wished he had a flat stomach and clear complexion to face all these slickos.
At the bar, a gargantuan bodybuilder in a pair of loose silk overalls wiped his hands on a towel. His greased exaggerated muscles made him resemble an Atlas built out of baked hams. A short word had been written across his chest in fat magic marker, but Isaac couldn’t read it at this angle. He wore a ring through his nose and was completely shaved from his scalp, his eyebrows, his gargantuan torso, right down to his nearly exposed pubic bone. The trousers hung on the root of his cock, which seemed likely to appear at some point.
Isaac licked his lips and bellied his way up to the bar.
He raised his eyes to order and saw the word on the tan chest was “HOLE.” A name? Insult? Invitation? He wished he didn’t feel so hopeless in here and hoped the hooch would help.
The brawny bartender waited impassively. One pec twitched under the O. His lashes were lined with black pencil and his mouth tattooed with horizontal crisscrossed ribbons to seem laced shut unless he spoke.
Isaac decided not to risk it. “Gimlet, please.” He tried to name a pricey gin, but all he could think of was swill from subway posters. “Uhh, Gordon’s.”
Hole squinted as though Isaac had done something strange and nodded. “Sir.” He shrugged and turned. His ass was so huge that the meaty shelf of it didn’t vanish when he bent for ice. The silk traced the crack deeply and was thin enough to show the flex and bunch of muscle.
An ass made for eating, that was for damn sure. Poor guy, probably got treated like a cumrag in this place, though considering the caption on his chest, maybe that’s why he tended this particular bar.
Isaac fished out a couple of bucks for a tip, and when his drink appeared, he nudged them forward so he wouldn’t touch the bartender by accident.
Again, Hole looked at him oddly. The bodybuilder flicked his gaze across the domed space to look at something and then back at Isaac. He shook his head, quickly and tightly. “No, sir.” He looked down at the bills. A vein pulsed at his temple.
Oops. Lesson learned. No money in here. “Sorry. First timer.”
Hole licked his lips and peered across the lounge again.
On a small dais, an older man stood watching over the assembly like a grizzled hawk: handsome but stern as a preacher, forties or fifties and improbably dressed in a jacket and collar old enough to look like a pilgrim costume. His face bristled with old-fashioned muttonchops and a mustache like Captain Ahab. Maybe the manager? Definitely in charge, the way the staff kept whipping their eyes over like they felt his.
Isaac grimaced in apology. “Sorry. I don’t know the rules.”
Hole wiped the counter between them and muttered, “No one does.”
Had he made a mistake coming here? Isaac took a swallow of the gimlet. Expensive gin and fresh lime. The taste was resinous and smooth. Usually, he got too queasy to drink much or often, but the moment this liquor hit his stomach, he felt stupid for ordering a bottom shelf liquor in an upscale venue. He toasted himself and took another swallow. “Happy birthday.”
Time to open my present.
He scanned the room with greedy eyes. A few guys caught his attention and nodded blankly, but again, several glanced back at the dour scarecrow on the platform. Isaac had expected more nudity, maybe a little fetish, drills and spills… more of a circus, less of an expensive hotel bar. For a sex club, it seemed restrained. Granted, a couple of women were bare-breasted. A hairless twink in a booth masturbated halfheartedly, his thin cock appearing and disappearing to the shock of absolutely no one. Odd. And oddly unsexy.
Some birthday voyeurism had sounded fun at the library. He wanted to be able to tell Hope about the sordid adventure his present had turned out to be. Inside for five minutes and he was back in seventh grade playing the role of “fat friendless faggot” in a hallway full of pert majorettes and lacrosse gods torturing him for being Jewish. Every one of his blemishes felt magnified. Now he wished he’d never taken the little card or followed the pitchfork lamps to this place.
At the back, a staircase led down into a dim orange gap. Promising.
Isaac picked his way back through the tables and bodies. He could imagine the place as an old cathouse. Remembering the building’s red-light history, he had a brief moment of double vision, seeing as a phantom haunting the past. The old-timey johns had waited in the parlor while rented vamps turned tricks in the rooms below.
No. Something felt wrong in here. The bartender’s worry. That grim puritan glowering at the crowd like a cheated pimp. The sleek patrons didn’t seem to notice, but Isaac did. So much for vicarious depravity.
His eyes itched for a rude and spectacular memory to take home. A borrowed fantasy of the rich and shameless. He decided to give it another fifteen, just to get enough details that he could make up a story for his library ladies, and then he’d go home for a perfectly adequate nightcap of Häagen-Dazs and masturbation.
Isaac glanced back at Hole leaning over his bar, massive triceps bulging. The bartender was staring at the old goat on the dais again, telegraphing something.
The light hairs on Isaac’s neck lifted and his fingers twitched. Creepy. Maybe he should go before his kidneys got harvested or worse. He’d try downstairs first… just a peek at the forbidden fruit.
Lumpy and homely as he was, he was able to cut his way through the pockets of yattering people without even touching anyone. He didn’t have a phobia, exactly. But if he could avoid strangers pressing against him, he did. Which meant for meeting men, bars were out, clubs too. He’d liked the idea of a sex lounge because it sounded spacious.
Gehenna was palatial, in its way, and happily no one touched him at all. If anything, the crowd ignored him. Isaac suspected they all knew each other and sensed he was an impostor. I am. A pretty woman curtsied drunkenly and said hello as he passed. A trio of dapper executives in corporate drag laughed and joked at something in Portuguese and nodded at Isaac. Great. He pretended to ignore them.
He reached the unlit stairs that descended twenty or thirty feet into a sullen orange dimness. Was the basement annexed to the sewers? Each step dipped in the center, worn by the passage of a million feet. How old was this building?
The hum of conversation faded the farther he went, echoing strangely in the dark stairwell. He took each uneven tread slowly, certain he’d stumble into someone else’s NC-17 craziness. At the very least, he hoped for a celebrity erection he could report to the other librarians, praying it wouldn’t be attached to Newt Gingrich.
At the bottom, more pitchfork globes lit a low-ceilinged hallway paneled with steel, tiled in granite, and so silent his ears rang.
This must be under Pitt Street. “Duh.” Isaac nodded. Right: Gehenna. Bottomless pit. He took another sour swallow of gimlet, wondering where he’d put the glass when he’d drained it.
Six double-width doors punctuated the corridor at twelve-foot intervals, and then one small entry at the far end, unlit and narrow as a utility closet. Well, in a sex lounge someone had to mop up the jizz, right?
A muffled cry. “Oh. Aggggh-oh!” The terrified male moan came from the middle door on the left. Could have been pleasure or anguish. “Augghhh. I’m gonna go. Gonna— Ohhhhhh.” Pleasure? The vowel ended in a gasp, a gurgle, and then an uncanny silence that lifted the hair on his arms. None of the other doors offered even muffled smut. So much for voyeurism.
Without warning, the moaning middle door throbbed for a moment, and the metal walls vibrated in tandem. Subway. Old speakeasy, the tunnels must share a wall. Even so, he couldn’t shake the feeling of wrongness as he stood watching the doorframes judder and fall still. Too nervous to try the handles, he stood in the passage under the smoldering owl-light.
Isaac waited on unsteady feet, his options murky. The subterranean quiet made his skin hum. The cubes rattled as he finished his drink, but there was nothing to look at and, already, he’d heard a little and seen more than enough.
He turned and went back to the base of the stairs, where the lounge chatter above hummed like a wasp nest. Happy birthday, dipshit.
At the moment he put his foot on the lowest step, he realized no subway ran underground here. He shivered. Not subway. He grasped the rail to make for the exit.
“Kholem.” The hissed word filled the metal hall, amplified. Isaac flinched and squeezed his glass tighter than he should have. At first he misheard the word as “Hole,” but then he heard it again, echoing around him. “Kholem.”
He knew the word from his bar mitzvah reading on Joseph the seer: “Dreamer.” Hearing the word made him feel anxious and homesick. Isaac had suffered through Hebrew school for a couple of years and worked in a rare manuscript room, but hearing it aloud erased nine years of his life so that he was thirteen and miserable on the day he figured out why he liked to wrestle his best friend so much. Dreamer.
His feet wouldn’t move. Goose bumps swept his arms. He took a step into the passage and then back.
Hebrew in a sex lounge. Maybe some kind of bizarre Israeli role play? Hasidic sex games? Kinky kabbalah? Isaac had visions of doddering rabbis being spanked while strict blondes forced them to eat sausage. Ick. No thanks.
A low, dry cough and the guttural scratch of the opening syllable. “Khol—”
The pitchfork globes flickered for a moment. The cinnamon light wavered and returned.
Hair standing on end, Isaac pivoted. He leaned close to the nearest door. Silent. The next three were the same. Silent as a meat locker and nearly as cold. So much for his whorehouse reverie.
The voice deepened. “Kholem.” A man’s rough, plaintive cry called to him from the little closet at the hallway’s end.
Each step a sticky squeak, Isaac passed under the pitchfork sconces to the dark end and the narrow door. He pressed his palm against the dull metal. Even in mid-July the steel felt frigid… so bitter arctic cold that the surface felt weirdly dry in the humidity of a New York summer, freezing the air. The doorknob burned his hand and wasn’t locked when he turned it.
“Hello?” He stooped to enter a bare brick room the size of a restaurant freezer.
Isaac dropped his glass and forgot to flinch. He heard and felt the burst of shards from far away.
In one corner, glaring like a leopard, a naked angel shivered.
He had a warrior’s body worn by a prince, all buttery bronze. Light down gilded his pectorals and belly. His gunmetal gaze was sloe-eyed and wide with relief. The tawny brows swept over his eyes like wings, and his hair was a loose tousle the color of burnt sugar. Even his powerful hands seemed carved by Michelangelo… thick, gentle fingers to bless a sinner or pull a baby into the world.
Isaac shook. He covered his mouth and, when he touched his face, realized he was crying.
No one should be in this terrible frozen cage. Every inch of Isaac rang with the wrongness of it. He had trespassed on something inhuman. A protective rage licked his bones at the thought of rescuing someone this helpless. His righteous certainty drove him another step closer to the anguished body.
Isaac’s hair just missed scraping the ceiling. The entire concrete chamber looked like a perfect six-foot cube. Was this poor creature a prostitute or a junkie? What was this frigid box? Who had built it and why?
“Dreamer.” The angel turned fully to him, the proud profile of a Persian king becoming a terrible, tender gaze. He struggled to straighten, then wiped his swollen lip. “You came.” He slurred the words, as though someone had drugged him, his accent lightly Arabic.
Isaac opened his mouth, then shut it. “I heard you,” he panted, his entire body slicked with sweat even in this icebox. The delicate musk of the radiant flesh crowded the tiny room, stunning him into servitude. Nothing seemed adequate. He wanted to kneel. He wanted to shout or beg.
“I called you and you came.” A radiant calm stole across the angel’s face. Again he tried to stand, wobbly as a newborn colt. His half-hard cock rolled, succulent, against his inner thigh, and the petal-thin foreskin slid back. His corded legs strained to bear the weight of standing; the brawny shoulders bunched with sinew. His shivers pained Isaac, and yet his golden skin was pinked with impossible health. “Without the Horn Gate.”
There was something else strange about the crouched nude figure, but Isaac was too stunned to puzzle it out. Another scuff closer.
Isaac started as the door swung shut behind him, blocking out the orange glow from the passage so that the only light shone from the strong body shivering in the corner.
“I am in your debt, Dreamer….” He smiled.
Under the weight of the tender bend, Isaac forgot to breathe. Musky sweetness flooded his senses. His swollen cock jogged sideways in his briefs.
The angel lifted eyes impish as a fairytale bandit’s. “And I thank you for hearing me.” The hungry gaze raked over Isaac’s spotty face and saggy form.
Isaac smiled back, his idiot’s grin an ugly echo of the impossible curve shining at him, for him, with him. “Thank you for calling me.”
The angel tipped his head to the side and closed his lids. He breathed raggedly, filling his powerful torso with effort. “Few hear.”
Then again, maybe he meant “Few here” since the long corridor was still empty and the music upstairs a low hum like the tide.
“A true dreamer.” The muscular throat swallowed. “Yet you brought with you so much…” The blissful smile again and a sigh of relief. “Pain and fear.”
“No! Really. I’m fine.” Isaac stared, his mouth agape. “I just wanted to watch. It’s my birthday and—” He fell silent. Every word tasted stupid in his mouth. “This place was my… present.”
The shaking angel tried to stand again, his perfect shaft hardening and his nipples pebbling as if he could smell Isaac’s lust, as though answering it. Kholem.
Isaac tried to ignore the plump erection that rose from the crisp nest of curls. His own balls drew up against the root of his boner, and the stiffness jerked with his pulse. Even the friction of his boxers against his knob felt amplified. He panted and licked his lips, trying to restrain himself. Again, something about the impossible torso struck him as odd, but he couldn’t focus long enough to make sense of it.
The angel’s tongue swept the firm bow of his upper lip. “Help me.” His taut nipples were carved from the same honey stone as his pectorals.
Isaac extended a hand in the hope he could control himself. His fingers twitched and shook. His nutsack knotted and throbbed. He had never wanted to touch another person, and suddenly the thirty-six inches of air between them burned and tickled like head-to-toe poison ivy.
“The Horn Gate.” The angelic flesh radiated scalding warmth, flushed and feverish, even while he shook with cold. The wall behind him buckled, no longer cinder blocks but woven out of branches, forked and spiraling. The boughs gaped where the angel touched them, giving the impression that his glowing skin loosened and bent them. The braided limbs strained to open to slithering shadows.
No, not branches….
Saliva pooled in Isaac’s mouth and his breath nearly stilled. Black orchids bloomed behind his eyelids as if he was about to faint. His pulse slammed in his skull, his rod painfully rigid since he touched the wintry door. His frantic arousal wrapped itself around him from his fundament to the top of his head like a fiery snake.
The angel slid his back up the wall to brace himself, the hypnotic flex and flux of his Michelangelo muscles were the Adriatic sun on the ocean at night and then, and then, and then…
“I am called Scratch.”
There was no navel on the flawless abdomen.
He wasn’t born.
The angel took his hand.
With a strangled yelp, Isaac’s body arched and ejaculated, scorching his stomach with semen; lightning chased his limbs and cold blackness blossomed behind his lids like ink in water.
The weaving walls gaped and a spiky portal of interlocking horns and antlers seemed to orbit Isaac for a moment. Scratch’s pewter eyes were the last thing he saw before he hit the floor, unconscious.
He saw them for a long while after.