The men sleep on her bed, and in the morning after they’ve made her coffee, shaved her legs, patted her dry after a long shower and laid out her clothes on the bed, they line up at the window. When she leaves for work, they watch after her until she disappears. They stay behind the glass, pale, like sick children left home.
During the day she sits at a desk. She answers the phone, signs for packages. She is tired of the phone. Her coworkers say hi, good night, or nothing at all. Sometimes someone will pass her and say, “You have good skin.” Good skin? She’ll wait until they go back down the hall, disappear. Then she’ll take out her compact and look in the mirror. Freckles, blemishes, this is what she sees.
The Xerox repair man, messengers, and FedEx man all think she is pretty. They talk to her more than hi, good night, and say things like how are you today or that outfit looks nice. She is grateful and smiles. Sometimes she is so touched she goes to the bathroom and cries.
She has a boyfriend. At 35, for now, it’s enough to have just a boyfriend. At night, sometimes she’ll hear her father’s voice: “Think of your future. You’re getting older. Where will you be ten years from now?”
Her boyfriend is not allowed inside the apartment. She’s been dating him for two months, and he stops by her office on his bicycle at exactly six o’clock. He is punctual and kind and brings her a little bag with two truffles inside. He wears black wrist guards. That she finds sexy. But he talks too much, stopping strangers in the street. He is a dog walker.
He looks like an egg—a small oval-shaped bald head. He is the palest of pale. His eyes are colorless. He is really skinny because he walks all day. She’s seen candy wrappers fall from his pockets when he goes for change or chapstick. He could never be someone long-term. Not a candy eater. Not a dog walker.
“I’m going to go into business,” her boyfriend says. “Plastic snow sleds. Shaped like mouths, wide open red mouths. And in the center will be the tongue.” They are on their way to Zen Palate and walk with his bicycle between them.
“There’s a future in sleds,” she says.
“I’ll need a factory.”
“I could answer phones for you.”
“Phones? There’s more you can do than answer phones.”
She wants things simple. Luxury at home, a ten-to-six job to pay the rent and buy food for herself and the men. Mostly she and the men order in: dumplings, scallion pancakes, tofu dishes. She wants her royal lace slippers with bows and bells attached to the pointy toes. Men, jewels, throne. She is queen. She stops walking. They are at 23rd street and it’s crowded. There is the subway, its darkness, the tunnel calling her to run.
It’s winter, a Sunday morning, and she has the Times spread out on her dining table.
A man stands at the paper’s edge and flips the pages for her. She reads bits and pieces of boring articles. She looks for the Styles section. That’s what queens read. There is a man under the table, busy rubbing lotion on her knees and heels. The pages flip. Then she sees it: Tallyho! The Fashion World is Off at Full Gallop. There is a picture: a headless mannequin and on its back, a saddle.
The next day she goes to work in her new riding boots from Bloomingdale’s. She knocks on her boss’s door. “I’ve got to leave for the day.” Queen’s duty. Tallyho. Queens ride horses. They ride and find handsome men in villages. Her boss looks up from his computer, both startled and worried. “Are you sick?” he asks.
“I am,” she tells him.
He doesn’t notice her boots, nor her demeanor—not fit for a midtown office.
“I’m off, then,” she says and heads for Big Apple Rent-A-Car. She is a little nervous about driving and wishes the men could come out and chauffeur her.
She drives uptown, then over the George Washington Bridge, north up the Thruway to the Kingston exit. She knows the way. She grew up in a white farmhouse in a valley, set among pine and deep forest.
The saddle shop is at a nearby ranch. She knows that in the mountains things don’t change. The shop would still be there some 20 years later.
“Beatrice,” a man says, coming out of the barn where the horses are saddled for day rides up the old Indian trails.
“Hello,” she says.
“Back for a visit?” The man asks.
She can’t remember his name. She smiles for him so he can see her perfect white teeth. “I need a saddle.”
“Tallyho!” she says.
“Okay, then, let’s have a look.” He leads her into the shop of many saddles and boots. He is flattered that she is here in the shop, a lovely girl, a perfect smile, leather-gloved hands touching saddles.
She drives back to the city, the saddle in the backseat of the rental car. She is anxious to get home.
Her telephone rings that evening. Men are rubbing oil on her back.
“It’s Buzz,” says the voice on the phone.
“From the ranch? This afternoon?”
“How’s that saddle?”
“How did you get my phone number?”
“On your check. You gave me a check for the saddle.”
“Oh, right. Well, I haven’t used the saddle yet.”
“Right. You’re in Manhattan.”
“The city,” she corrects him. What a hick, she thinks, slightly disgusted that he called her. She thinks he might have gone to her high school. Probably. Who says Manhattan?
“I’ve got to go,” she says.
“Riding off?” he asks, but she’s already hanging up.
At night, even though her apartment is filled with men, she is lonely. Lately, she is always lonely. She will hold her hand up to the light that comes into her bedroom from the street. She looks at the rings on each finger and thinks about her hand being old. Wrinkled, knobby, with liver spots. It would still be here, her hand, only it would be different, not really hers. Her heart pounds, hard and slow. She hears her father’s voice: “You work your whole life, then you die.”
She straps the saddle to her back. It hangs heavy and awkward as a bathroom sink. Her hope is that a handsome man, a rich businessman, will stop her and ask for a ride.
On the corner she runs into her boyfriend. He is holding leashes, a pack of dogs. Her boyfriend, egg head, is overjoyed to see her. “Hiya! What is that? A saddle?”
“What’s with it?”
“It’s for riders. Men.”
He laughs, but stops when he sees her staring at him, hard. Her eyes move to the dogs. People stop to look—the saddle, a couple, the bunch of dogs.
How can she explain her loneliness? Even though she is surrounded by men? She doesn’t care what he thinks. He is close to being an ex-boyfriend. How can he support a queen as a dog walker in the city? And he can’t live with the others in her apartment.
Later, in her apartment, after the men have removed the heavy saddle and as they massage her back and feed her French puff pastry, Queen B closes her eyes and imagines meeting an older man with solid shoes, argyle socks and suits from Barneys. He will comb her hair. Love her.
In Soho, while buying coffee in Gourmet Garage, she meets a man wearing Santa suit, hat and beard. They are both in the fruit and bread aisle, and she’s a little embarrassed by him. It’s her lunch hour, and the saddle is hard to wear in a place filled with shoppers.
“Is that a backpack?” Santa asks.
“No. It’s a saddle for riding.”
“It’s not for you, Mr. Santa.”
“I’m Santa for an office party.”
They walk across Broome together, not talking much, carrying their plastic bags with things inside.
“Do you work around here?” he asks.
“No, I work in midtown. But I come here for the men. And the coffee,” she holds up her bag.
“It’s an interesting concept. A saddle. Are you in advertising?”
That night she gets two phone calls. The first is her boyfriend. He says, “Hiya, B.”
“I can’t see you anymore,” she says.
He gets upset, taking little breaths as if to speak or cry.
“Don’t say anything, okay?” B says. She is thinking about Santa, about the date she made with him. She’s got someone else.
The second call she gets is the man at the saddle shop.
“Maybe we can go riding,” Buzz is saying. Her men are cleaning—running the vacuum, spraying polish on the wooden throne.
She sighs. She tries to remember his face but draws a blank. He frightens her. Country men often do. The cold, the isolation makes them anxious, hungry, dangerous.
She looks around her apartment: the family silver, Empire dining chairs, silk drapes, lamp with the ball-fringe shade. Buzz wouldn’t fit in. She stares at her hand, holding the phone with the other. She says nothing.
She has a hard time sleeping that night, but when she does, she dreams. Boyfriend’s egg head floats above a pack of dogs. It is the Arctic: desolate, snowy. Boyfriend’s neck is wrapped in a pink feather boa. It floats above snow and dogs, the feathers like a kite tail, the severed head gray as the winter sky. She is guilty. In the morning she oversleeps. She is late for work. She is never late. She calls her boss. It takes him a while to pick up the phone. “I was at the computer,” he says. “I’m not well,” she says.
The Saturday before Christmas, B runs errands, then spends the afternoon napping and picking out something to wear for her date with Santa. Santa’s name is Art. She’s only seen him in costume and wonders if he is really that fat. He is taking her to a restaurant downtown, near where he lives. “I’m divorced,” he’d told her.
She’s never dated a divorced man. She pulls on her riding boots and tucks her jeans into them. Her shirt is red, and over it she puts on her long tailored navy jacket with gold buttons. Her men tie back her hair with a black velvet ribbon, queen-style.
The men are quiet tonight, busy putting up little white Christmas lights on a tree. One man gets out pearl earrings, another brushes powder over her cheekbones and dabs shiny gloss on her lips. Two men hold up a mirror for her to see herself: a beautiful girl in the twinkling lights, diamond rings glittering, lips blood red.
At Village Ma, Art talks about painting. He paints landscapes. He shows her a photograph he is working from. B drinks red wine and laughs. She is a little drunk. “Art is an artist,” she says.
“You may want to move your saddle,” he says. “The waitress keeps tripping over it.” The saddle is between them on the floor. B had to take it off to sit down.
“I think I want you to ride me,” she says, leaning over the table, close to Art’s face.
“Where?” He whispers, smiling a little. He looks around.
“Central Park,” she says.
“It’s late,” he says.
“Please mount me. Ride me.”
He pulls back a little. He feels himself sweating even though the room is cold. He doesn’t know what to make of this. He’s afraid he is too fat. He’ll crush her with his weight.
“I’ll undress and put on the saddle,” she says, gazing at him with eyes that are not blue, not green. And Art? Since his divorce, he has spent his nights looking at his painting. A lake and a field of purple flowers.
They are in the stairwell of her building. She is undressing. “There’s an elevator,” she says. “No one uses the stairs. We’ll be alone.”
“Can’t we go to your apartment?” he asks.
“No, that’s not possible. There’s room here.”
“Right. We’ll pretend it’s a horse stall.”
“This is weird.”
“Love,” she says. “I’m lonely.” Then she takes off her panties and bra.
He hangs her clothes neatly on the stair railing. There, on the small landing between the first and second floors, she gets down on her hands and knees. Art swings the saddle over her back. The weight of it surprises him. The stirrups fall to the floor. This relieves him. Once he’s on her, he can just stand. He will not break her.
For an hour, the naked woman keeps going to her door, opening it, hoping a man is there. She looks down the empty hallway, the saddle at her feet. Behind her it is quiet, men all over her floor, curled up, sleeping.