Once upon a time there was a young girl. She wasn’t so young—about twenty—but her head was young and stupid. She lived in a little cell in the city, in New York. Like a nun’s cell: eight by eight feet. In the Baptist Residence for Women on Fifty-third and Third. Twenty-five dollars a week—plus breakfast.
She spent her time lolling on the floor of her cell, waiting for the next dance class, talking to herself, looking out the shaft window, eating breakfast with the sorry women shuffling in and out of the dining room at the back of the house. Lots of sorry women lived there.
This young, somewhat stupid girl was a dancer with green eyes, long blond hair, and legs that somebody told her kicked like a horse. There was a man who liked to watch the girl dance in her daily jazz class. He liked to dance too but mostly he photographed. He was big and he moved as well as he could for forty-two, but she thought he was awkward and strange. He was partly balding and dark. What was he doing there anyway?
Once, he came over to her while the other group was dancing the combination, and asked her if she would let him photograph her in his studio. She was scared—right in the middle of the dance class. So she asked her teacher . . . with whom she was in love . . . who was a homosexual . . . who had danced with Gene Kelly in An American in Paris . . . if Diego was OK.
“You can trust him.” Gregorio said. “Diego’s OK.”
So she went to his studio (really his boss’s) and stood for him. Many times she did this. He never touched her or bothered her in any way and soon she lost her fear of him. After hours of shooting her, he would take her back to the Baptist Residence by bus, or subway. Then, each night, he would cry on her doorway and tell her he cared for her. He would grit his teeth. Snot would run down his face with tears and she would be disgusted. She wanted to get rid of him. On the doorstep, drenched in regret, Diego would tell her stories of sad losses. She half-listened. She mostly saw his snot and tears.
He brought her gifts—books, records, pictures of herself—“Baleaga Photography” stamped on the back of each. He took her to Broadway shows. She waited for his gifts. That was the only bearable thing about him.
When he cried, sometimes he would say that he couldn’t see her anymore. Fine. Do it Diego. She wanted to go to bed and here he was crying on the doorstep. Anyway, so, finally he really did what he said and sent her tickets to a show he had planned to take her to and wrote that she should take someone else with her. Use the tickets. Take someone else.
She did. Someone she met in the park. Someone who had a Dalmatian with spots and a name like Hope. They went to the show and got into a cab afterwards to go to his apartment. Just when she climbed in and settled back, she lifted her eyes out the window to see Diego standing on the curb, his entire body a blazing furnace. The cab pulled away leaving him burning on the sidewalk.
She and Hope clanked together, and when he went to sleep, she quietly sneaked out. She took a cab back to the Baptist Residence.
A few days later, she was in her cell when a call came for her on the line in the hall. Someone was waiting for her in the lobby. She went down and saw Diego. What did he want?
“You know, you’ve got a hard heart.” He said that quietly, arching his upper lip to the right. She saw wet white teeth, red eel lips, black hair.
Then he slapped her. Hard. He was a big man. Then he left her. She was on her knees. She wasn’t sure what happened to her.
Then she realized he had slapped her. She was furious! She ran up the steps to a second floor window and leaned out. She watched him easing down the street in a long blue-jeaned stride . . . muscled back . . . balded head. She tried to scream something at him . . . but she couldn’t think of anything to say.