The Code

Christmas, 2000 / No. 4
Art by Ian Phillips
Ian Phillips

I was sitting beside an actor. We were talking to each other’s reflections in the mirror behind the bar.

“I had an audition today,” he said. “It was for Kurt Russell’s body double. They’re going to pay me ten thousand dollars to be in one scene in his new movie.” He shook his head like he was disappointed.

“What is it, some kind of stunt? ” I asked.

“No, it’s for this sex scene. With Jennifer Lopez, of all people.” He sipped his drink, some sort of martini, and made a face.

“Why would he want a double for that? ”

“It’s the studio that wants it,” he said. “His ass is starting to sag. The studio figured it would cost them millions if people saw what he really looked like.”

“What about her? ” I asked. “Does she need a body double too? ”

He turned to look at me directly. “You really think they’d cast her if she did? ” he asked.

The bar was empty except for us and the one waitress working. It was two in the afternoon. He’d walked in and sat on the stool beside me; started talking like he was a friend of mine. He’d even bought me a beer. For that, I had to listen to him.

“You should have seen the audition,” he went on. “I thought it would be something personal, you know? Maybe me and the director in some locked room somewhere. A lot of talking about motivation and that kind of thing.”

“Something intimate,” I said.

“Exactly. Only it was 9-fucking-A.M. in this bright office and there were two other people in there with him—the director of photography and some woman lawyer.”

“Why’d they have a lawyer there? ”

“I don’t know. Something to do with lawsuits. Anyway, the audition consisted of me having to act the scene out. Only they made me do it with this blow-up doll instead of with a real person.”

“You fucked a doll? With other people in the room? ”

“No, no, I didn’t fuck it. I acted like I was making love to Jennifer Lopez. It was an audition, remember? ”

“I don’t know,” I said, “I don’t think I could have done that.”

“Oh, it wasn’t so bad.”

“And you don’t even look like Kurt Russell,” I told him.

“They’re going to use wigs and all that,” he said. “And it’s only for the one shot of my ass anyway.”

“But why wouldn’t they at least get someone who looks like Kurt Russell? ” I asked.

“You’re missing the point here,” he said.

I spent most of my time at the Code. It was one of those underground bars, the kind that, no matter when you leave, you’re always walking up into the light. The walls were covered in old movie posters. Bogart. Dean. Hepburn. It was always filled with beautiful people. There was some sort of modeling studio in the building upstairs, and a Club Monaco across the street. The actor told me that Liam Neeson drank there when he was in town, and Aerosmith had once booked the entire place for a private party. It was like I was living in L.A. or someplace like that.

Sometimes I would sit and drink all day. The waitresses got to know me by name. They never charged me for more than six or seven drinks. One of them—she was Indian or Asian, I couldn’t really tell—wanted to be a model, but she had a lazy eye, so she was never going to get any work. She called herself Mercedes, but I didn’t think that was her real name. I was in love with her even though she was going out with the actor.

One evening she sat with me at the bar after her shift was done. There was a man in a leather bodysuit a few stools down, drinking a scotch. We all watched one of those medical shows on television. A team of surgeons was operating on a baby still in the womb. They cut open the mother and then cut open the baby inside her. They were playing Vivaldi in the operating room to keep the patients calm. There was something wrong with the baby’s spine, but the announcer said it would be O.K. after the surgery.

“Imagine that,” Mercedes said. “If someone fixed all your problems before you were born.”

“Why wouldn’t she just abort it and try again? ” I asked.

She lit a cigarette and looked at me through the smoke. “Why is it that you never go home? ” she asked.

“What would I do there? ”

“What do you do here? ”

At some point in the night—I don’t remember if it was before or after the surgery show—the man in the leather suit came over to us. “Would you like to come into the back with me? ” he asked her.

“I don’t think so,” she said.

“You don’t have to do anything,” he said. “You can just watch.”

“Hey,” I said, but neither one looked at me.

“I have a boyfriend,” she said.

“Bring him along.”

“Does your wife know you do this? ”

“Married? I’m not married.”

“I can see the ring mark on your finger.” It was true—there was a thin band of scar tissue around his ring finger, like he’d been married for years.

“Divorced,” he said. “I can’t even remember her name.”

“That’s what they all say,” she said.

“How about if I pay you? ” he asked. “Just to watch, like I said.”

“You couldn’t afford me.”

“What about you? ” he said, looking at me for the first time. “Could I afford you? ”

The Code had a room in the back that was only for special events. The walls were painted black and all the furniture was covered in white sheets. There were no windows. When there wasn’t an event taking place you could only get in with a key that was kept behind the bar. Sometimes the lights inside were red.

Every Monday there was a fetish party in the room. All night long people would walk in wearing leather or latex or even plastic. Sometimes men would show up in heels or fishnet stockings; women with safety pins in their cheeks and arms. Once I saw a man leading a woman by a chain tied around her neck.

But mainly it was normal people, people in suits or dressed like you and me. They came in and had a drink or two at the counter and then changed in the washroom. When they came out they’d be wearing handcuffs or corsets or sometimes just leather underwear.

I wanted to look inside, to see what they did in there, but you had to pay ten dollars at the door. The man who’d asked Mercedes to go back there ran the parties and he stood outside the door most of the night with a little cash box. And the people inside all laughed and shouted at each other like they belonged there.

Once, though, no one at all showed up. It was raining so hard a storm sewer outside had overflowed and water was trickling down the stairs into the Code. Mercedes was out with the actor. He’d picked her up after work and the two of them had gone up into the storm, leaving me alone at the bar.

Now the man who ran the fetish nights—he later told me his name was Graham or Grant or something like that—was sitting beside me, drinking a scotch again. This time he wore leather pants with a mesh shirt that had no back. I could see his pierced nipples through the shirt.

“How come you haven’t come to any of the parties yet? ” he wanted to know.

“It’s not really my scene,” I told him.

“I’ve seen you checking them out.”

“I don’t think so.”

We were watching a basketball game on the television but then the screen went dead as the power went out. There was only the light of the candles to see by. I waited for the power to come back up, but it didn’t.

“Someone must have hit a line somewhere,” Graham said. “We’ll probably be this way for a while.”

I thought about going home and looked out the front door. It was raining harder than before. I didn’t even own an umbrella.

“We could go back there now,” he said. “While we’re waiting.”

I pulled a couple of candles closer and didn’t say anything, just looked up at the dead television.

“I won’t even charge you.”

The air in the back room smelled like it had been in there for years. All the couches and chairs had been pulled up against the walls, and the fetish gear filled the center of the room. There were large wooden crosses you tied people to, and benches for kneeling on, and padded handcuffs hanging from the ceiling beams.

“Try anything you want,” Graham said. He leaned against one of the crosses and watched me.

“I’m just looking,” I said.

“There’s more in the corner,” he said, pointing at a stack of boxes.

There was everything inside them—crumpled leather gloves, plastic balls with straps attached, wooden paddles. I put on a zippered face mask with no mouth hole, only openings for the nose and eyes. It tasted of salt.

“It’s you,” he said.

Another box held a collection of whips. I pulled up the mask so I could speak. “What are these for? ” I asked.

“What do you think they’re for? ”

I took out a short whip with a dozen leather straps the length of my forearm and snapped it through the air a couple of times. “You don’t actually hit each other with these things, do you? ”

“Why don’t you give it a try? ” he asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m not that way.”

“Just once,” he said. “You might like it.” He turned around and spread himself against the rack. The bare skin of his back looked golden in the candlelight. I walked up behind him but didn’t do anything. “I can’t,” I said.

“I don’t mind.”

I hit him with the whip as hard as I could. It made the same kind of noise as punches do in movies. I was surprised to see blood on his skin right away.

“Jesus Christ!” He jumped away from me, stumbled over one of the benches, and fell to the floor. “You fucking maniac!”

“What? ” I asked. “You said I could.”

“Not that fucking hard,” he shouted. He felt around behind his back and then showed me his bloody fingertips. “Look at that! I’m going to need a doctor now!”

“Maybe they have a first aid kit here,” I said.

“What the fuck is wrong with you? ”

The only waitress working came to the door and stopped.

“Do you know where the first aid kit is? ” I asked.

She looked at me standing there with the whip and the mask, looked at Graham, or whatever his name was, writhing on the floor, and then she closed the door.

Sometimes the people from the modeling studio upstairs used the room for shoots. It would always be one man—the photographer—and a group of women. They’d come in and get the key from whatever waitress was working and lock themselves in there. Sometimes they wouldn’t come out for hours. I imagined them having sex in there on the couches, or maybe on piles of the clothes they brought in with them, like a scene out of Antonioni’s Blowup.

One night I helped with a shoot. A photographer came in with three models from upstairs. None of the women looked over eighteen, but one of them paid for a round of drinks with a gold card. They sat at the booth underneath the Hepburn poster and smoked cigars all night long. They were sitting in the “No Smoking” section but the waitress working that night—a new woman I didn’t know, and who charged me full price for the drinks—never said anything to them.

Around midnight the photographer came over to the bar, where I’d been sitting all night. “You work here? ” he asked. I looked around for the waitress but she was nowhere in sight.

“Yeah,” I said. “I work here.”

“We’re ready for the backroom now,” he said.

I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant, but I went around the counter and got the key anyway. When I opened the door the models all wandered into the room and sat down on the furniture there. Each of them carried a couple of garment bags that they simply dropped to the floor once they were inside. “I could use a glass of water,” one of them said. She held her foot up to look at her toenails. I went back to the bar and poured some water into a glass, threw a lemon slice from a bowl into it, and brought it to her. She took it without saying thanks or even looking at me.

The photographer had taken the sheets off the fetish equipment and was looking at it all. “We need this stuff brought out and, um, arranged,” he said.

“All right.” I dragged the wooden crosses out to where he pointed and turned them around under the lights until he told me to stop. The models watched in silence. One of them fell asleep for a while.

“That’s enough,” the photographer eventually said to me. I let go of the aluminum cage I’d pushed out of one of the corners and stood next to him, like I was his assistant or something. “Why don’t we start with that black vest thing? ” he said to one of the women. She nodded and stood up; started to take off her shirt. She had on a Hilfiger bra.

“Is this a Tommy shoot? ” I asked him. I imagined seeing this room and these models on subway ads, or maybe even billboards.

“No, no, it’s nothing like that,” he said. “These are just, ah, audition photos.”

The model opened up one of the garment bags, took out a sleeveless leather vest, and put it on. It zipped up to her throat. The photographer pushed her against one of the crosses. “Could you hold her hands? ” he asked. I thought he meant me and I started to step forward, but he was talking to one of the other models. She walked around behind the cross and held the first one’s wrists. The third one took a cell phone out of her pocket and started talking on it. “I won’t be making class tomorrow,” she said. “Can you take notes for me? ”

“Maybe one of those balls in her mouth,” the photographer said, and this time he looked at me.

I went over to the boxes and searched through them until I found what he wanted—a red plastic ball with a leather head strap attached. “You want me to put it on her? ” I asked.

Just then the waitress came in. “What are you doing in here? ” she asked.

“We’re working,” I said.

“What are you talking about? ” she asked. “You don’t work here.”

Everyone looked at me.

“It’s just for tonight,” I said.

“No,” she said, “you don’t work here.”

The photographer took the mouthpiece from my hands. “Maybe you should lock the door,” he said to the waitress.

“Oh, come on,” I said.

Now it was the day after and I was sitting alone at the bar again, watching television. Someone drove a Volvo off a cliff. A group of men and women in white lab coats watched. The sky was a shade of blue I’d never seen before. There was a quick close-up of the driver of the car, screaming as it fell down toward the ground.

“Isn’t that your boyfriend? ” I asked Mercedes.

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” she said.

The camera cut to the wrecked car at the bottom of the cliff. It looked like it had been run through a crusher. Then the door opened and the driver stepped out; waved at the men and women in lab coats. The Volvo logo appeared on the screen.

“Yeah, that’s your boyfriend,” I said.

She looked at the television. “I don’t know who that is,” she said.

But he came in that very afternoon. He stood beside me and leaned against the bar. He was wearing a silver Rolex that looked new. Mercedes was sitting at the end of the bar, smoking a cigarette and reading a Vogue. “What do you want? ” she asked him.

“I want my videos back,” he said.

“Not the ones I’m in,” she said. “No way.”

“I don’t want those,” he said. “I want the movies. The Woody Allen tapes.”

“Fine. You can have those.”

“I know I can have them. They’re mine.”

“I’ll drop them off on the weekend.”

“All right.” He sat down beside me and tossed a gold card on the counter. “In the meantime, I want a latte.”

“I’m not serving you.”

He looked at his reflection in the mirror. “I want a latte. With cinnamon.”

“You hear that? ” Mercedes said to me. “He wants a latte.”

“I don’t hear anything,” I said.

He turned to look at me. “Who the fuck are you,” he asked, “to talk about me? ”

I looked at Mercedes but she just kept on reading the Vogue. I reached behind the counter, grabbed the key, and went to the back room. I emptied the boxes onto the floor until I found one of the whips. Then I went back into the main room.

Mercedes and the actor both laughed when they saw me. “What do you think you’re going to do with that? ” he asked.

I stopped behind him. “The lady asked you to leave,” I said, meeting his gaze in the mirror.

“All right,” Mercedes said. “I think this has gone far enough.”

“Is this what you’ve been reduced to? ” he asked, looking at her. “The lady? You sorry cunt.”

I hit him with the whip. I was careful not to hit him hard, but the leather straps still made a sound like a slap.

“Hey,” he said. He covered his head with his hands, even though I hit him on the back. “Hey, hey, hey—HEY!”

I kept hitting him. He got off the stool and ran toward the door and I followed him. Mercedes was laughing even harder now, and I started laughing myself. “Who’s the cunt now? ” I asked. “Huh? Who’s the cunt now? ”

The rain had stopped and now I was sitting beside a table of three women who looked like secretaries. One of them was wearing a red silk blindfold, even though it wasn’t a fetish night. A sign made of red construction paper hung from a string around her neck. It said, “KISS ME, I’M GETTING MARRIED.” The others already wore wedding bands. There was no one else in the place.

Mercedes had stopped coming to work. I went to the Code every day for a week, sometimes staying ten or twelve hours, but she never showed up again. None of the other waitresses knew what had happened to her. That’s what they told me, anyway.

When are you getting married? ” I asked the blindfolded woman.

“Next month,” one of the other women said. She had blond hair that was black at the roots.

“Well, you’ve got plenty of time to live a little then.”

“That’s what we’re doing,” the blond-haired woman said. They were all smiling and pushing their gold bracelets up and down their arms.

“You know what I mean,” I said.

“No, we don’t,” she said, but she was laughing when she said it.

I went over to the bar and ordered a round of martinis from the waitress, the one who charged me full price for everything. “Put it on my tab,” I told her.

“You don’t have a tab,” she said. “But I can put it on your bill.”

“That’ll be fine,” I said.

“How are you going to pay for all this? ” she asked me.

“I have three credit cards,” I told her.

“Maybe you should give me one now. Just to make sure.”

Back at the table I asked the blindfolded woman what her husband did.

“We’re not married yet,” she said. It was the first time I’d heard her speak. She sounded like she’d been drinking for some time before they came in here.

“What’s your boyfriend do then? ” I asked.

“He’s a lawyer,” she said.

“A corporate lawyer,” the blond-haired woman put in.

“A lawyer? ” I said. “That the best you can do? ”

“What about you? ” the third woman asked. She had a huge purple blemish on her cheek, like she’d been burned or punched hard. “What do you do? ”

“Me? I’m a doctor.”

“A doctor.”

“That’s right.”

“What’s your specialty, doc? ”

“I fix kids.”

When the martinis came the two women who could see just stared at them. “We didn’t order these,” the blond-haired woman said.

“What are they? ” the blindfolded woman asked.

“They’re from him,” the waitress said, nodding in my direction. The secretaries all turned their heads my way for a moment.

“To marriage,” I said.

They sipped the martinis and started talking about something to do with the wedding—the colour of the dresses or the flowers or something like that. I got up and went to the washroom.

When I came out, only the blindfolded woman was sitting at the table, alone with the half-finished martinis. The others were at the bar, ordering more drinks. I stopped and stood beside their table for a moment.

The blindfolded woman turned her head in my direction, like she sensed me there. I bent down beside her. She licked her lips, flattened her hands on the table. For a moment I just looked at her, watching the way she strained against the silk covering her eyes. Then I kissed her gently, just brushing my lips against hers. I could taste mint on her breath. She put her hand on my chest. We only went on that way for a second or two, but it was like we had been lovers for years.