The Benefit

Summer, 2002 / No. 8
Art by Ian Phillips
Ian Phillips

Justin Grey was sexy. Justin Grey was rich. Justin Grey was a rock star. Hazel Peck was dumpy. Hazel Peck was poor. Hazel Peck was a bookkeeper. Hazel’s gallery, TankHaüs, was throwing a fund-raiser featuring Justin Grey. The papers were going crazy. The arts community was trying to snag one hundred dollar tickets while pretending it didn’t care. Back in the eighties, Sonja, TankHaüs’s general manager, played bass in a new wave band with Justin called the Telephones. They were still close. Justin had agreed to stay an extra day after his sold-out amphitheatre concert and do a short set at the gallery party. Hazel, as bookkeeper, was given the job of tracking ticket sales. She was not given a ticket. She was also supposed to sit in the reception area as a security measure during the show.

“Hazel, I’m so sorry,” said Sonja sincerely, hefting a bottle of water onto her hip. “Ooh, nice earrings! Look, even my boyfriend has to work the bar to get in, and we need someone at front desk. Have you lost weight? ”

Sonja was one of those bright, elegant, accomplished women who did not go on to become a model but remained in the lesser gene pool, walking around and functioning to make everyone else look bad. She had a degree in arts administration and even a bit of celebrity from her association with the Telephones, who had had a couple of hit singles. At thirty-six, she was still teen-slender and she dressed casually in things like tan hip huggers and silk scarves loosely tied as halters. She matched her bracelets with the shimmering iridescence of her eye shadow. Every outfit she owned was a delight, a wonder of design, and a panacea to the eye, riveting. Her eyeliner, specially bought in India, stayed in place when she pulled all-nighters with tired, greasy Hazel, composing budgets for grant deadlines. She was an arts advisor to the city. The weekly entertainment magazine profiled her home. Once, she had even been a lesbian, heading up the East Asian Lesbian Coalition and marching in the gay parade topless. She could often be seen on TV panels discussing censorship or cutbacks. It was rumoured that she would sell out and become an on-air personality on a new art-TV channel. Her current boyfriend, artist Conrad Levy, was this year’s golden boy and travelled around the world with his installations. Sonja was a pain in the ass.

Naturally, Hazel was in love with Conrad Levy. She knew she was unworthy and that even thinking of his arms around her as she fell asleep at night sullied him. He had black hair in delicate punky spikes, blue-grey eyes that looked brown, a big chin, and a narrow forehead. His nose was a little fat and pug, but one rarely noticed. The line of his back was breathtaking. Sometimes, when he came in to get Sonja for lunch. Hazel could make him laugh by playing the role of Gielgud the snide butler to Sonja’s Dudley Moore. “I’ll alert the media,” she’d say when Conrad would come in and Sonja would holler, “I just have to peeeee!” Sonja always announced when she had to pee. It was her idea of being funny. Sonja had no sense of humour. Beautiful women rarely have to develop one. Conrad would laugh nastily at Sonja’s expense, his only defence against her. As if he sort of hated her for her beauty. He had the look of a man who was trying to pretend he was with a woman for something other than her body. Guilty but lasciviously proud. Beautiful women have problems too. Lest you think this was a male-female dynamic, the gallery dykes also watched Sonja hatefully.

Conrad was not at lunch today, the day of the benefit. Justin was. Hazel saw Justin and Sonja together briefly in the bright terrifying lobby of the warehouse gallery. By his frequent nodding and compulsive arm touching, his head tilted to get eye contact, Hazel saw that Justin still loved Sonja. He had changed. Although he moved to Canada when he was six, he had always maintained a strong London accent, knowing this was hard currency in the music world. In 1987, he wore black leather and chains and dyed his hair blond-white. He had perfect Aryan Billy Idol features. “God,” thought Hazel, rustling through her receipts, “he must have had more groupies than Elvis.” The Telephones disbanded due to the heroin overdoses of the drummer and lead guitarist, and Justin went back to England to become a singer-songwriter. There, he lost a bit of his hair and gained some jowls, which was all to the good because it made him look more intelligent, and there’s no creature more pathetic than an aging pretty boy. They don’t seem to get more manly like normal guys, they just get papery and querulous, the flash of their once velvety eyes trapped in over-tanned flaccid skin. Like a homunculus, an experiment gone horribly wrong. Hazel had always preferred charisma to looks, like it made any difference. She was equally incapable of attracting either. Men usually only slept with her when they were very, very drunk, so she had started playfully charging on these occasions—a sort of emotional deprivation pay for their actual disinterest. It was working quite nicely for Hazel. The men actually seemed relieved with the straightforward transaction, and Hazel never felt hard done by afterward. She accepted cheques.

After about eight years of total obscurity, Justin released an album picked up by a major label and hit it big time when Hollywood bought a song for a famous doomed-lovers movie. Now, he hangs out with Courtney Love and Beck, does tribute albums to Bob Dylan with U2, and conducts highly publicized relationships with ex-supermodels. Everyone in the arts scene over thirty still claims to have slept with/been best friends with Justin Grey. At twenty-seven, Hazel was a bit young.

The night of the benefit, Hazel sat behind the reception desk, nursing her fifth beer and listening to the faded thump of music in the other room. It was 1 A.M. Justin’s performance had been two hours late. There was a beer keg by her desk. She decided to drink from it like in the cartoons. Kneeling, she tipped her head backward under the spout, mouth agape, and reached for the handle. She couldn’t reach it. The music changed to applause and Hazel scrambled to her feet just as the door to the main gallery room opened. Justin Grey streaked by and slammed out the front door. Sonja, wearing a black leather jumpsuit and wriggling her wrists in distress, followed more slowly, a vinyl bag over her shoulder.

“Oh, God, Hazel,” said Sonja. “Could you please, please, please go to the hotel and give Justin his satchel. We sort of had a fight and he forgot it and he flies out tomorrow morning. He doesn’t want to see me. Take some beer money for a cab.”

Conrad came up behind Sonja, put his arms around her sinewy waist, and nuzzled her neck.

Hazel took the money, although her bike was downstairs and she had already secretly pocketed a good thirty dollars from the beer sales. She went outside and mounted the old red coaster. She was way too drunk to ride her bike, her contact lenses were drying out, and she could barely see. She decided to ride on the sidewalk as a safety measure.

It took twenty minutes to get uptown to the hotel. She carefully locked her bike and walked into the lobby to call up. “Yeah,” he said. “All righ’, c’mon up.”

A deflated looking Justin opened the door to a blue and grey hotel room. He was alone.

“Come on in,” he said. He was drunk. “Er…Harriet right? Thanks. You want a drink, luv? ”

“O.K.,” said Hazel. “‘Luv,’” she thought. “Ha.”

There was nowhere left to sit in the cluttered double room, so each of them sat at the end of a bed and looked at the wall.

“Why a double room? ” asked Hazel.

“Oh, I always order a double room,” said Justin eagerly, as if he was imparting brilliant information. “I use one bed for sleeping and one bed for napping, yeah? It’s better sleep hygiene.”

Hazel was tired. She knew she wasn’t being very professional as she dumped the satchel on the floor, but not only was the memory of Conrad nuzzling Sonja like ashes in her mouth, but Justin Grey had never been her type.

Something about a man who wanted to prancy-prance on stage for attention just wasn’t very virile to her. When Hazel watched music videos she often muted the TV to highlight rock stars’ earnest, clumsy dancing. Bono was especially bad without music. He looked like somebody’s dad after a few too many. Hazel, either trapped in her tall, dark, and handsome conditioning or innocently fuelled by genetic disposition, had also never liked blond men. Justin was both, a singer and blond.

“Yeah, I’m knackered,” said Justin, getting up and pouring a scotch for them both. “‘Knackered,’” thought Hazel.

“Ha.” He was looking very mod in black pants and a bowler shirt. “Did Sonja say anything? ” he asked.

“No, she was really busy,” said Hazel, tugging on her leggings. She had worn a print baby-doll dress over leggings with combat boots, a look that she knew was ten years out of date, but the leggings were nice and tight, gripping her shivery white belly, and the dress was loose and comfortable. Her blond hair looked very good though. She had just dyed it that morning and it had a shiny chemical gleam.

“You probably know we were together,” he said, looking ahead.

“Yeah,” said Hazel. They both took sips of their scotch.

“She’s a right fuckin’ cunt,” he said.

“I know,” said Hazel in a small voice. After a pause, this struck her as very funny and she snorted into her scotch glass.

Justin looked at her blankly for a second, then reluctantly divulged a wobbly smile. Hazel snorted again, bent over, then lifted her head, giggling.

“What? What? ” asked Justin. He started to laugh.

“‘Right fuckin’ cunt!’” laughed Hazel. “Sonja is a…”

“A right dishrag. Yeah,” finished Justin, laughing.

“‘Dishrag!’” howled Hazel, and banged her palm on the bed. They laughed for about two minutes, affectionately, like giddy siblings after lights out. Blinking tears from her eyes, Hazel leaned to the side and saw a book on Justin’s bedside table.

“Oh, you’re reading The Great Gatsby,” she said.

“Fascinating book. Never paid much attention in school, y’know,” he said, getting up to refill her scotch. This time he sat next to her. “Catching up now on tour.”

“Yeah,” said Hazel. “I would guess you guys would concentrate on English literature.”

“In England we just call it ‘literature,’” he said. They laughed.

“Maybe you should write a song about Daisy? ” said Hazel. “Good muse.”

“Tragic female, yeah.”

“Mia Farrow played her in the movie.”

“There was movie? ”

“Yeah. I think Robert Redford was in it,” she said.

“Maybe I should write a song about Harriet,” he said.

He reached over her to the night table and pulled out another book. She felt a little jolt of attraction, pulling her out of her sleepy state. On a bed with a man reaching over her, her body started drooling like one of Pavlov’s dogs. Never mind that Pavlov gave the dogs electric shocks before they ate. They still wanted to eat.

Justin was enjoying the coolness of this plain, distracted creature, although he was quite certain he could have her if he wanted. Getting them to stay late was half the battle.

“You know, a fella can relax around you,” he said. “I like you. My girlfriend—”

“That model Olai? ” asked Hazel, remembering the latest tabloid.

“Yeah,” sighed Justin. “She may look good, but she’s got a mouth like a fucking trucker. A bloke gets sick of it, yeah.”

“But she’s gorgeous…”

“Yeah, yeah, she is, she is, but you know, she’s not real, like you are.” Hazel knew a line when she heard one. He was going to mention sex as much as possible now.

“She’s always into this fantasy bedroom shite, you know, whips and black rubber masks and stuff. Sometimes a guy just wants a straight fuck. I don’t even think she likes sex.”

He turned and met her eyes with his pale blue ones. Hazel tried not to snicker self-consciously.

“It’s great talking to you, you know? ” he said. “Olai’s got nothing to say. She’s either nodding off or else she thinks screaming and leg wrestling in bars is the same thing as being interesting, you know? ”

Hazel nodded sympathetically, thinking, uncharitably, of Sonja.

“She’s like Madonna that way,” he put his head down. “That’s why I miss Sonja so much, you know? She has it all. Brilliance, looks…”

Justin was, after all, the man who wrote “Sweetly In My Anger.” He had depth. An artiste has needs. He slid his hand around Hazel’s neck and pulled her mouth to his, planting a firm kiss on her lips.

“Your lips are so soft,” he said.

“I don’t do casual sex,” said Hazel.

“I can respect that,” he said. “You have a fellow? ”

“No,” she said. “‘Fellow.’ Ha.”

“What do you do then? ” he said

“I charge,” she said.

“What? ”

“I charge.”

“You’re a hooker but you work at the gallery? ” said Justin, standing back. “Sonja sent me a prostitute? ”

“I’m not a prostitute per se,” said Hazel. “Although I wouldn’t care if you labelled me as one. I promise not to call afterward, harbour fantasies of true love, and not to hope you’ll call again. The money is enough for me to feel that an even exchange has taken place. I also charge a bottle of tequila.”

Justin started getting that speculative glazed look that men get when they’re anticipating sex. Hazel hated that look. A look that could even make Sean Connery as James Bond look stupid, and Hazel loved Sean Connery. Hazel had never really been in love though. Her speech had depressed her. Charging was getting a little old. She was going to have to start charging more to make things even; those feelings of violation were starting to creep back.

Justin took out his wallet.

“I gotta go,” she said, as she walked to the door.

“Wait. Wait!” shouted Justin, dialing the phone. “Room service? I’d like to order a bottle of tequila. What do you mean illegal? Fucking bloody backwoods. O.K., how many shots in a bottle? O.K., send up twenty-six shots of tequila.”

He hung up and looked at Hazel, his hands outspread.

“O.K.? ” he asked.

She opened the door and walked out. He followed her down the hall.

“Listen, take my manager’s number,” he said. “I’d like to talk to you again. Call him if you’d like to see the Montreal show tomorrow.”

Had he noticed that jolt, she thought, flustered as she took the paper from him? She left, her heart skittering as she went down the hallway, then down the elevator, then into the night street. She was very tired, her body almost floating away on a combination of scotch and no sleep, but her sore eyes were screwing her to consciousness. She unlocked her battered old coaster and started taking the uphill side streets to her apartment. Three quarters of the way home, she felt the lack of a weight on her back. Oh no. She had forgotten her knapsack.

All these parcels of identity passed back and forth. Justin’s satchel, Hazel’s knapsack. It was like an elaborately courteous mating ritual.

She turned around and started coasting down the street again. A group of teen boys leaning against a warehouse looked at her. “Bitch!” one yelled. The street, lined by the old brick warehouse, had one weak lamp, and was dry but looked shiny. Hazel pedalled hard downhill. Afraid to see if the boys were after her, she pedalled toward the main street about six blocks down. She’d be safe among cars, few as they were, but when she turned onto the main street, her front wheel got caught in the streetcar track and wrenched her off the bike. She fell onto a parked car and, in shock, jumped up and quickly lifted the bike out of the track. The front wheel had a sharp bend in it, her hands were scraped, and her knee was drumming to her pulse. She limped the three blocks to the hotel, dragging the bike, crying a little. Damn. Now she’d have to spend the cab money. She dropped the useless bike against the hotel alley wall and it tumbled behind her to the pavement in a clatter of trembling spokes and abused fenders. Fuck it.

Shiny club-going hotel patrons swarm-ed around her as she went though the doors and trudged to the elevator. She got out on Justin’s floor, walked down the hallway, and stood in front of his door. She hated doing this. He was going to think she had a crush on him or that she was a groupie. She wasn’t good-looking enough to be a groupie. Well, she could be one of those fat Goth-chick groupies if she wore black lace with her leggings and black lipstick and had black hair. Stars liked to keep them around because they’d do anything to make up for their fatness. Hand jobs, blow jobs, golden showers, getting coffee, servicing a roadie. Cheered by her fatalism, Hazel knocked. He opened the door, grabbed her wrist and pulled her in.

“I forgot my knapsack,” she said. “And I trashed my bike on the way back.”