It starts that night Lenny sees her perform—as Mrs. Maisel, officially, in that hell of a dress—at the Gaslight.
Well, it actually started the day he saw her at the foot of the stairs in that grimy police station, and it only continued after that. But that night at the club—that’s the first night he actively realizes what’s going on. How he feels about her.
The guilt gnaws at him all the same. He makes his jokes about marriage and sex and the ol’ ball and chain when he’s on the stage, but he and Honey have been doing their best to figure this all out. He knows she’s trying to make it work. They have a kid, and Honey doesn’t want a disjointed life for their daughter like she did growing up. Lenny gets it, but fuck, is he tired.
He twists and twists his wedding ring as he watches Midge bring the audience to tears of mirth, and doesn’t even realize he’s doing it until his finger starts hurting, the skin around his knuckle protesting. She’s captivating, enthralling, absolutely stunning to watch, to listen to, and the fact that he’s supposed to go on after her when she has the audience on fucking tenterhooks, hanging on to her every word, is almost intimidating.
She’s got him on tenterhooks, too. Next to him, Susie is the liveliest he’s ever seen her, clapping along with the audience, but Lenny barely notices her, too focused.
And when Midge jumps off the stage and straight into his arms, nose in his neck, he hears in his head, clear as day: fuck.
The doctor guy—Benjamin—is all right. A bit stuffy, a bit rigid, but he’s got a look in his eye when he glances at Midge like he knows he’s got a good one, a bit of a wondrous reverence, so Lenny supposes he’s not bad. And Midge says it isn’t too serious, just one date, so maybe—
No, fuck that. Lenny isn’t even letting himself go there. He knows the basics of what happened with Midge and her asshole husband: he got the wandering eye and left her. Midge needs someone stable, someone she can show off to what Lenny can only imagine are extremely uptight Jewish parents. Not a hot mess who left his own wife.
He just doesn’t expect it, is all, to see her—or him—at the Upstairs at the Downstairs. Her asking how he’s doing, all earnest concern. He doesn’t expect how handsome and upstanding the doctor is either. He jokes about it all the same, watches how Midge chuckles when he mouths at her from behind the guy’s back, but it still doesn’t quite sit right with him, not for the rest of the evening.
That’s who girls like her are meant to be with, for fucking sure. People who have their shit together. Bonus points if they have a fucking medical degree. And hell, he doesn’t know what Midge’s type is. He doesn’t even know what her husband looks like, acts like. All he knows is that he was a failed comic and a failed husband, which is enough to put an image together in Lenny’s head. But this guy, the well-off doctor from up in the Catskills, that’s a different story.
The doctor will do well for her, then.
He goes home late, wasting most of the evening away spending his drink tickets at the bar before he goes home to crack open another bottle. He doesn’t mean to dwell on it, but he thinks about how Midge’s night with the doctor is going anyway. Where’d they go after the club. If Lenny came up in conversation at all. If they went back to some cottage up in the Borscht Belt.
Midge was insistent—one date, she kept saying, just one date—but Lenny has no fucking clue what Midge does on a first date.
Lenny almost thinks she won’t show the night he performs on the Steve Allen Show. Which is fine; he was pretty pissed the night he asked her to go, and he’s starting to doubt if he asked her at all, but then she comes bustling up in gloves and a hat and swatting off that annoying assistant and Lenny feels the reassurance of her presence like the fucking president’s given him a thumbs up.
She’s still there when he gets off the stage, skin still vibrating from the adrenaline of performing. At least that bit—the nerves—never gets old.
He extends his arms. “And?” he asks.
“You were great. As always,” she says, reaching out to smooth down his tie. Like a mother. Like a wife? Lenny isn’t going to look into it. “And that was quite some singing, mister.”
“Eh, I try,” he says. He looks at her, feeling out the temperature between them. Warm to the touch, from what he can tell. “Let me take you for a drink. A thank you for coming.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that. I was happy to do it.”
“C’mon. Unless…” He stops, raises an eye, tilts his head. A few weeks have passed since that night at the club. Things change. “...your doctor friend would mind?”
Midge’s expression shuts down a little, like shutters closing on windows. He hasn’t seen her like that before—except that recent night at the bar when they were both down on their luck, maybe, if he could only remember the specifics. She’s a gal who likes to smile, from what Lenny’s picked up on. It’s an extra bit of sunshine the world desperately needs.
He ducks his head closer, craning his neck to try and catch her downturned eyes. “You okay?”
She snaps out of it with a quick shake of the head. “Yeah,” she says, but her fingers are fidgeting for her purse, feet shifting. “I just…” She looks up at him, searching. Whatever she finds in his eyes seems to be the thing she’s looking for. “Let’s go get that drink.”
Lenny picks the nearest bar he knows that isn’t a total dump, although he’s pretty sure Midge wouldn’t mind either way. She tells him while they walk about some of the places she’s been touring at, the disasters she and Susie have encountered. They’re all amusing anecdotes, one that remind Lenny of just how upper-class Midge is, or at least, is used to being. Then again, she’s also the kind of woman who gets thrown in the slammer for profanity. The fact that such a woman exists—one who can work velvet hats and pointed heels while simultaneously shouting the f-word at a crowd of drunks in a seedy club—is as terrifying as it is arousing.
They sit down at the bar after Lenny takes care of Midge’s coat. Soft fabric, good quality. Quality woman, quality clothes. When he gets back, Midge is already tracing the rim of a cocktail glass the bartender’s handed her.
“So,” he says as he gets settled on the stool. “Wanna tell me about your doctor?”
Midge looks like she wants to, but is holding back. “We’re supposed to be celebrating you, aren’t we?” she points out. She scrapes up a dry smile. “Don’t worry, I can keep my personal issues for the stage.”
“Then consider it as workshopping material,” he tells her. “I’m all ears.”
Maybe he shouldn’t press so hard, he thinks. Maybe it’s still a raw wound. And Lenny’s certainly no therapist.
She doesn’t seem to mind, though. She takes a sip, a small one, and a deep breath in after that. “I got a six-month touring deal with Shy Baldwin.”
“Shit, now that’s something. But it’s good, isn’t it?”
She nods. “It is. Except… I just don’t think Benjamin will see it the same way.” Another sip, a bigger one this time. “He knows I do comedy. And he’s fine with it. But I don’t think he’d be all right with the life I’d be offering him.” She purses her lips, as if to keep another sigh at bay. “Six months there, six months here.”
“I coulda told you that. Jelly shots, remember?”
“I do remember,” Midge says, and there’s that dry smile again. “That sketch you did today, I think it’s true. Of both of us.”
“You’ve been wearing the same dumb suit for ten years too?”
There we go—the smile turns up a little at the edges, becoming truer. “No,” she says. “I think that this life, there’s only one way to go. Being alone.”
Her eyes go a bit glassy. Well, shit. Maybe his set was a little self-deprecating today—when isn’t it?—but the whole point of his comedy is to make people laugh, not weep into their martinis. Lenny watches her finger the stem of her drink, probably imagining herself as an old maid and trying not to cry.
“Aw, now that just ain’t true,” he says. He reaches forward, touching the small of her back in an attempt to soothe. “Midge, look at you. Anybody who leaves you is a dope, hands down. If I was that doctor, I’d drop my fucking practice if it meant staying by your side and watching you tour the country.”
Her head snaps up to look at him, the surprise poorly hidden in her eyes. Maybe that was a bit much. He tries to reel himself in, keep the conversation as light as possible when the subject at hand is dying alone in a closet.
“And besides, you got your parents, right? And those little ankle-biters of yours?” He nods along as he talks in an attempt to inspire her to agree with him. “You’re gonna be just fine. Me, on the other hand…”
He grins at her, wolf-like, to let her know he’s not moaning about it. It works: she laughs, a watery little chuckle, but the light is back in her face.
“You know, I almost considered going back to my husband tonight.”
“Because of my set? Man, oh man, I’ve gotta put a warning on that thing.” He doesn’t know what kind of man the illustrious Mr. Maisel is, but Lenny imagines a greasy, weasel-faced schmuck who’s going to spend the rest of his days masturbating in his parent’s attic. If anyone’s going to end up all alone, it’s him. He refrains from pointing it out to Midge, just in case it’d do more harm than good. “You can do better than a moron like him, Midge. And you know it, don’t you?”
Midge looks at her drink, as if waiting for its opinion. “That’s what Susie always says.”
“Susie’s right. Who’s Susie again?”
“Runs the Gaslight?”
“Right, right.” He really ought to know her name by now, probably. “Smart lady.” He takes a second to pay attention to his own liquor, amber-colored in the low lighting. “Did you order for me?”
Midge shrugs. “I took a guess.”
“There’s that emasculation again,” he says through a grin.
“Getting used to it?”
“You better be cutting up my meat for me after this.”
He gets her to laugh. It’s a nice sound, an even better sight, and Lenny makes sure to get an eyeful. He swallows down a gulp from the glass. Bourbon. Good bourbon, too. It burns on the way down like a sizzling match.
In the wake of it, some of his inhibitions have gone fuzzy around the edges. He stands up from his stool, holding out a hand.
“Dance to make it all better?” he asks. He knows the smile on his face is crooked, a little dopey, but something about it must convince her, because after a good, hard look, she sets her purse down and gets to her feet.
“This better be some dance,” she says, slotting her hand in his.
He leads her out to the dance floor, where a guy in a suit is playing Al Bowlly songs on the piano, saddening them up a bit. The other couples around them are swaying, barely moving at all, too busy wrapped up in the emotions of being held, or purposefully trying to make every single moron in the bar hate themselves. Lenny slides his hand around Midge’s waist and draws her close enough to get a whiff of her perfume. Fruity, soft, subtle.
He ducks his head enough to murmur near her ear. “Nothing like seeing people in love to make you wanna hire an assassin, right?”
“Tell me about it,” she mutters. “Whaddya say we pretend they were paid to do this?”
“Fine by me.”
The song changes: The Very Thought of You, Lenny thinks. A classic. He remembers hearing this one in the war on old radios some of the other guys used to listen in on the news. The memories he’s associated with it are being completely rewritten now, made new by tonight, by the smoky haze of the club, by the stunning woman in his arms.
“So the fancy doctor,” he says, not because he wants to know, but because he can’t keep himself from asking, “he wanna get hitched?”
Midge waits a beat before responding. “Yes, he does.”
“So he proposed?”
“Not yet. He’s been waiting for my father’s permission.”
“Tough nut to crack, your old man?”
Midge’s mouth crooks upward. “He’s complicated,” she amends. “Doesn’t want me to make any more mistakes.”
Lenny nods. Boy, does he know about mistakes. His life is riddled by them, targeted by them. He can’t help but wonder if Midge agrees with her father, if she sees everything up to now as a massive screw-up. Maybe not. Without her ex, she never would’ve ended up here, with Lenny, with comedy and all the glory therein.
He lets his eyes shut. It’s nice, when he lets himself pretend like this—that this could be real. That by the end of the night, it won’t have to end, and Midge’ll go home with him, and he’ll wake up tomorrow in a bed that isn’t so cold and empty as it has been for a while now.
He tips his cheek against her temple, feeling her exhale on his neck. He’s never been much of a dancer, but he gets it now—the warmth, the closeness, the intimacy of being pressed chest to chest.
The song winds to an end, curving into what sounds like Coffee in the Morning. Midge moves to pull away, and Lenny lets her.
“Better?” he asks. “All your troubles gone?”
“All of them. Even the ones about that rash.”
“I thought that might be the case.”
Lenny’s bourbon is calling his name. He heads back over to the bar, downing the rest of it in one fell swoop, glass cool in his fingertips. He doesn’t have more than a few crumpled bills in his pocket right now, but if he was better stacked, he’d order about three more. Although, to be fair, being around Midge is intoxicating enough right now.
“So when’s the big tour begin?” he asks.
“Two weeks,” she says. “And then it’s three months in the states, and three more in Europe.”
“The real deal,” Lenny murmurs, impressed. “You’ve got it made in the shade.”
She nods, but she doesn’t seem all that convinced about it herself. Lenny gets it. Touring can get tedious. Grimy beds, moody crowds, lonely nights. No wonder she was thinking about her ex tonight—Lenny was probably just the hammer hitting the nail on the head in that graceless way he’s known for.
He wants to suggest, to offer—but he knows she’s too vulnerable right now, and he’d come off as a dick in the morning. He doesn’t want to be just another dick to Midge. She seems to like him, to trust him, and after all the shitballs in her life, Lenny should be careful to not prove her wrong.
“Hey, listen,” he says, grabbing a napkin from the counter. He slides a pen out of his breast pocket. “Here, take my number. Just in case you want some tips before you go on your big world tour. We can get a bite to eat.”
He scribbles his number on the side not dirtied by the circular stain of a wine glass, then slides it over to her. She picks it up, smoothing the wrinkles out with her thumb.
She smiles. “I know a great place.”
“Great. And, uh. Do me a favor.” He leans in close enough to only be audible to her. “Don’t go back to your husband tonight. Leave that guy in your fucking rearview mirror.”
Her smile tugs just a tiny bit wider. “I’ll try.”
Midge takes him up on his offer a week later. He was expecting another late-night rendezvous in a bar, but instead, she asks him if he’s up to accompany her for lunch.
“The Stage Deli,” she tells him on the phone. “You know it?”
“Yeah, I know it. I’ll be there.”
It occurs to him as he’s gussying up in the mirror that this is one of the few times the two of them are actually meeting up on purpose—most of the other times, it was always sheer coincidence, which is saying something, considering how big the club circuit in New York is. If this is the universe trying to send him a message, he’s getting it loud and clear, but also has the unsettling feeling that the universe is hollering at him alone. Midge has her plate full of enough that he seriously doubts there’d be room left over for him.
He finds her sitting in a booth in the middle of the restaurant when he arrives, in a pink dress with a matching purse on the table by the napkin dispenser. Seeing her—even seeing her doing something as banal as reading a menu—bruises his insides a little.
Her face lights up when she looks up and sees Lenny standing there. “You made it!” she says, handing him a menu. “You look good. And here I thought you only did in low light.”
He chuckles, cracking the menu open. He’s had a sandwich here before, he thinks, and liked it well enough, but the french fries—they’re to die for. He had almost forgotten about that.
“I’m amazed you had time for this,” he says. “I thought you’d be up to your ears in packing.”
“Oh, I am. You should see the size of my hat closet.” She shifts in her seat, putting down the menu. “But I needed a break. It’s still a bit much, knowing that this is all happening.” Her hand flutters upward in her lap, grasping for words. “You know, best of times, worst of times, all that. Pretty sure my kids are going to forget what I look like while I’m gone.”
“Then you better not waste this opportunity to run off and change your name and never come back.”
“I’ve considered it.”
The waitress bustles over a moment later, pen and pad at the ready. Midge has her order memorized, down to how she wants her malt prepared, and makes sure to compliment the waitress on her new haircut before she can hurry off to the kitchen with her and Lenny’s orders. Afterwards, she turns her attention to the cup of coffee on the table, adding sugar and stirring it in with neatly lacquered nails. She’s like a fucking magazine cover, this woman. How the fuck some putz could walk out on her is still a mystery to Lenny, if not a source of unbridled anger, anger he can’t quite source.
“My whole family knows by now,” she tells him as they wait for the food. “Actually, my father found out when he ended up coming to one of my acts. I didn’t know he was there.” It must be a hell of a memory, because an embarrassed pink takes hostage of her cheeks. She’s suddenly fascinated with the napkin on her lap. “It was a blue night.”
“Yeah. It went about as well as you expect.”
“So how is the disowning process going?”
She laughs. “It’s okay. I did want them to know eventually. Not like that, but hey, you win some, you lose some, right?”
“I suppose I’m lucky in that regard,” Lenny says. At Midge’s raised eyebrows, he continues. “My mother’s a comic. And she knows all about my potty mouth.”
“Yeah, lucky me.” He leans forward. “Speaking of luck. How’d it happen that you got booked with Shy Baldwin anyway? Not that you don’t deserve it, but…”
“No, I get it. It’s absurd. He heard me on a telethon.”
“Telethon?” Lenny tries to imagine it. The baton twirlers, the jugglers, quacks, and then, in between all that fluff, Midge. If that face can’t get people behind their televisions to pay into some bleeding heart medical cause, he doesn’t know what will. “You’ve been a busy gal, haven’t you? But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that you’re the type of lady who gets stuff done.”
Midge sits in the compliment for a moment. Then she smirks. “You’re not intimidated, are you?”
“Oh, quite the contrary. I’m just trying to keep up.”
This feels like flirting. Good flirting, at that, fun flirting. Then again, Lenny’s always flirted with Midge, just a touch too much sometimes. Maybe she’s just starting to return the favor.
The waitress slides over with a leaning tray of food, laying plates in front of them. Lenny’s sandwich looks hot off the grill as it gets set down on the table, as do the fries flanking it, a greasy heaven he hasn’t even realized he’s been craving. Across from him, Midge is getting ready to break into a hamburger. Another sizzle of a forbidden emotion climbs up Lenny’s throat at the sight. He tries to cough it out.
“You tell your doctor pal yet?” he asks. “About your big trek around the world.”
Midge straightens up. “I have,” she says, not looking at Lenny.
“How’d that go?”
“I was right,” she says. She tucks her hair behind her ears; in the process, Lenny makes out the distinct lack of glinting jewelry. She’s stopped wearing her wedding ring. Overdue, Lenny thinks without meaning to. “He was nice about it. But he didn’t expect, well. Six months.”
Lenny shrugs. “Not the end of the world.”
“Maybe it’s not the last time,” Midge says, fiddling with a fry. “Maybe the next time it’ll be longer.” Hastily, she adds, “Provided there’ll be a next time, of course.”
Midge stops. “You think?”
“What happened to the girl bragging about how good she was that night at the Gaslight?” Lenny asks. “She would’ve agreed with me. Said fuck yeah, there’s gonna be a next time.”
“I can’t be her all the time.
“Only in the dress, huh?”
Midge purses her lips together. “Yes, the dress is very important.”
“It’s nice, I’ll give you that. But not as nice as the girl wearing it.”
The words come easily. It’s harmless, he thinks, flirting like this with Midge—it’s his life’s duty to make jokes, so if she takes a few cheesy come-ons as one, it’ll certainly be better than a flat-out rejection. This time, though, she’s giving him a funny look, eyes bright. He takes a bite out of his sandwich, wiping his mouth on his napkin, but afterwards, she’s still watching.
“You’re not making a pass at me, are you?” she asks.
Lenny lets himself chew, buying himself time. He catalogues her expression: no revulsion, no blatant disgust. Certainly no horror. All major pluses.
“Figured it was overdue,” he says. “Feel free to tell me to get in line.”
Her laughter comes out in a huff. “There’s no line,” she says.
He holds his hands up in surrender. “If you say so.”
She falls silent after, concentrating on her food, eyes focused elsewhere, her thoughts obviously far away. Lenny can take a hint. He’s not one to push, not when he knows it isn’t wanted attention. Hell, if he was an Upper West Side spitfire, he’d certainly pick the well-off, handsome doctor over the mess of a man comedian drowning in his own legal debts.
He’s halfway through his plate when Midge speaks up again.
“He said he’d wait,” she says. At Lenny’s squint, she adds, “Benjamin. The doctor. He said if we both still wanted the same things in six months’ time, we could try it all again.”
Ah. Well, at least he’s not as much of a moron as her husband, which is definitely a few points in his direction. Still, Lenny would really rather not be having this conversation about Midge and all her eligible suitors. His body goes stiff with the craving for a cigarette.
“And do you want that?” he asks.
She’s quiet for another unnervingly long time. Finally, she sighs. Her food’s getting cold, but Lenny’s starting to get the idea that her appetite is waning the longer this conversation goes on.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I think he’d rather have a wife who’s home the majority of the year. Which is a perfectly reasonable thing to want, by the way. I’m not blaming him.”
“I just don’t see a way for this to work without me quitting.”
She nods. Lenny was entirely wrong about her appetite too, because a moment later, she grabs her burger with renewed determination and rips into it. Maybe laying her heart on her sleeve leaves a gal hungry.
Her conundrum makes sense. It’s a shit life, being a comedian. Too many unsure paychecks and policemen sniffing around looking for the mere suggestion of a swear word. Still, Lenny can’t help but think—she’s just with the wrong fucking guy. Lenny gets it, gets it better than any other guy in the country could. And he gets her, has seen her in ways he bets her hoity toity glitterati friends never have—up on a stage cursing out the audience or crawling out of jail after a bad night.
He tries to stay as impartial as he can. “It’s not a bad idea,” he says, helplessly honest. “This gig is the pits. But I will say this—you’re too good to go back. Besides, nothing’ll compare anymore.”
“To being behind the microphone. And the split-second validation of complete strangers laughing at your rehearsed wit, of course.”
She laughs, but barely. This is weighing on her a lot, it seems. Lenny can only guess. Life was hard for him too after the divorce, to say nothing of how long he fought to keep the right to see his little girl every now and then, but he didn’t have an overbearing family and a lingering excuse of an ex-husband and an expectation to fix it all as soon as possible pressing on his shoulders. Now is when he’d take her hand if he was a hand-holding kind of fellow.
Under the table, their knees briefly knock together. It probably doesn’t have the same effect.
“Come dancing with me tonight,” he offers. “You sound like you got a lot you need to think about. You know what the best solution to that is?”
“Not think about it.”
Midge seems to consider it, until one of a million errands pops back up in her mind. “I’m supposed to go shopping with Susie. I’m still really worried she doesn’t have enough underwear for six months.”
He waves a dismissive hand. “Okay, after that, then. Hell, take her along. She’s a good time.”
“Really?” She tries to wave him off before he can respond. “I’m sure you have your own problems to deal with.”
“As a matter of fact, I do. So a night of dancing at some hip little jazz club would do me good too.”
“Is that so?” She waits for his shrug. Like it doesn’t matter—of course it matters. “Then it’s settled. I’ll go.”
“Good. Consider it one last romp around New York before you become a world traveler and forget my name.”
Midge smiles. “You say that like I haven’t already, Larry.”
Lenny knows one of the bands performing at the club he picks that night, a doo-wop group that opened for him a few months back. He chats with them beside the stage for a bit in between songs, and it isn’t until he realizes that the first drink in his hands has gone dry that he notices Midge already by the bar, sitting with Susie. One glimpse of long legs and Lenny’s gone dry in the mouth.
“Hey fellas,” Lenny says to the band. “Play a coupla slow ones tonight, would you?”
The bassist, the smarmy little shit, grins. “We your musical wingmen?”
“Something like that.”
“All right, all right, but first we gotta get the party going with some fast numbers.”
“Do what you gotta do,” Lenny says.
The frontman winks. Lenny will have to buy the guys a round for that later to show his appreciation. For now, though, he has something else on his mind.
He smooths down his collar, checks his blazer’s button, and heads for the bar once he’s satisfied. Midge is laughing at the tail end of a joke Susie’s made—funny girl, that Susie—and has reworked her outfit since lunch, now in a dark blue evening dress. Too good for this club, that’s for sure.
He sidles up next to them. “Ladies,” he says. He’s feeling bold—and maybe a little tipsy—and lets himself drop a hand gently to the middle of Midge’s back. “You made it in one piece.”
“Two, actually,” Midge corrects, smile especially satisfied. “Since there’s two of us.”
“Lenny Bruce,” Susie interrupts, enthusiastic as always. She sticks out a hand to shake, which Lenny takes. He likes Susie. She acts like a bumbling sycophant sometimes, but she’s one of the good ones. Loud. You gotta be loud in this business. “Nice to see you again. Are you doing a set here tonight?”
“Oh, no. Tonight I’m here for just pleasure, not business.”
“Just pleasure, huh?” Susie repeats. She shares a look with Midge that holds an entire conversation in it, one that stops only when the thump of Midge kicking her heel into Susie's shin sounds.
“Lenny thought I could use a night of dancing,” Midge explains. “Get my mind off of things.”
“Get your mind off of things? Sister, your mind should be on things. We leave in one fucking week.”
“Exactly,” Lenny interrupts. “I wanted a little goodbye before the big voyage.”
There comes another one of those silent conversations again. For someone who sure doesn’t have a problem mincing words, Lenny’s starting to get real curious what it is Susie’s not saying aloud. Before he can ask, though, Midge is sliding off the stool to her feet.
“Come on.” She seizes Lenny’s hand. “We didn’t come here to gab all night, did we? Let’s dance.”
“Sounds good to me.” He nods at Susie, which she barely has time to return before Midge is pulling him out into the dance floor.
It’s a better dance floor than last time, better club. Less couples sharing poems to each other with their gooey eyes and more laughter, more genuine music. The band is playing a faster song, one meant for quick turns, and it’s a dance Midge is obviously familiar with given how she grabs hold of him and starts stepping, shimmying. Her hand in his is free of a cool wedding ring, enjoyably so.
Lenny hasn’t danced like this in a while—frankly, he’s not much of a dancer, period—but Midge’s fast-paced energy and bright eyes are an inspiration to him, urging him to grab hold of her and spin, move, heedless of anyone nearby. It’s an energy he didn’t know he still possessed, but she must just… bring it out in him.
That’s a little worrying. Lenny shelves that particular thought for now.
“Look at that, you have some moves,” Midge observes, impressed. Her curls bounce with every step, sleek under the colored lamps. “Not too bad.”
“You’re not gonna grade me, are you?”
“Oh, absolutely. You’ll get a rubric at the end of each song.”
A rubric. Lenny can’t keep the grin pulled back, not when it’s been a while since he’s had the chance to repartee with anyone like this. With the audience, it’s a one-sided thing, basically just yelling out jokes at a brick wall with a floodlight that occasionally throws out a laugh, but with Midge, it’s a constant flow of wit, of banter, of perfectly delivered sarcasm.
The song cuts to an end with an overzealous trumpet. Everyone claps at the delivery, the applause bleeding over into the start of the next song. It’s another fast one, more about the upside of love than the inevitable fall back to earth, but slow enough that Lenny doesn’t feel like he’s in danger of throwing his back out. He should’ve picked a jazz club, or even a blues club. It’s easier to dance to blues.
It’s when Midge starts laughing at some of his moves, not quite as smooth as they once were, that Lenny makes eye contact with the band frontman, who’s grinning at him like a Cheshire cat. He cues for the band to wrap up the song, then grabs the mic and says, “Folks, next one is gonna be a slow one, so grab those sweethearts and get close.”
He winks at Lenny. If Midge notices, she’s kind enough to not point it out. Instead, she holds Lenny’s gaze as he tilts his head at her—you up for it? She nods, smile warm like sitting by the fireplace in the winter, and wraps an arm around his shoulder. Far enough away to still be respectable. Man, does Lenny hate being respectable.
The song starts up, slow and tender, and the singer croons into the microphone, blanketing the whole club in sugar. The eye contact Midge is keeping with him feels more and more like staring right at the moon—hypnotizing, maybe even a bit too stunning for Lenny to besmirch with his leering. It’s driving him crazy trying to figure out what’s going on behind those intense eyes of hers.
“You know we met more than a year ago?” Midge points out. “In that police car. I thought you were some kinda murderer at first.”
Lenny does recall that, vaguely. He remembers the actual jail cell more than he does the car he rode in to get there. There was a girl, though, scantily clad enough that he had made a few inferences about her profession too.
“How funny, I thought you were a hooker,” he says. “Weren’t you in a nightgown?”
Her ears go red. “Ah—well. Joel left me that night.”
“And you... needed a quick way to make some cash?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what happened.”
The song goes a little more soft and sweet; the change in tempo gives him the excuse to pull her just a little bit closer. He certainly remembers the morning after too—specifically the perky brunette who bailed him out of jail just to get a chance to talk to him. At the time, he wrote it off as stranger things having happened in New York, but by now, he wonders if it wasn’t meant to happen. Just thinking it makes his gut curdle—what kinda fucking hopelessly romantic yutz does he think he is?—but it still feels like it has a grain of truth to it.
He thinks about the night they smoked that joint out on the curb. How he had caught the barest whiff of her perfume when he had leaned in closely enough to slide another one in her purse later. How she had turned around to smile at him as her cab rolled away.
“You wanna know what else I remember?” Midge says, voice deceptively light. “You were wearing a ring that night.”
“You’ve got a perceptive eye for jewelry.”
“Well, that’s true,” she admits. For a few seconds, nothing but the music sways between them. He can feel her eyes, inquiring—not unkindly—up at him. “You don’t want to talk about it.”
“No, no, I mean—sure I don’t wanna, but I will if you wanna know so damn bad,” he says. He has a feeling he’d tell her anything if she asked, and that isn’t even the liquor talking. “It didn’t work out. We tried, we cried, we decided it wasn’t making sense. You know how it goes.”
“I do,” Midge says slowly.
“It’s all right. She still lets me see my kid, so it could be worse.”
The look Midge is giving him is rueful, like she’s sorry on his behalf for his pathetic excuse of a life. That, or maybe she sees herself in him, the pain and woe of being an unplanned divorcee trying to muddle through the lonely nights.
“Shit,” he mutters. “Don’t give me that look. Wasn’t tonight supposed to be about having fun, taking it easy?”
The look doesn’t wane, not until Lenny realizes it's morphed into something else, something softer, something fonder.
“You’re right,” she says suddenly. She readjusts her hand in his, stretching out her arm, as if shaking off the melancholy mood. “Then give me a little spin. Let’s have that fun.”
“Your wish is my command,” he says, twirling her a few times, her skirt a blur of flying blue, before he pulls her back to him. It’s nice, having her this close, pressed against him just right.
They dance a few more songs—upbeat again, because those musical friends of his are about as good at setting a mood as they would be pulling teeth—before Midge excuses herself to go to the bathroom, leaving Lenny to occupy his hands with a cigarette. Susie finds him quickly enough, asking to bum one. He hands one over, and for a few moments, they pretend to be doing nothing but watch the musicians charm the crowd.
“Uh,” she starts, sliding a thumb underneath a suspender. “Far be it from me to criticize Lenny Bruce, but…” She leans in, conspiratorial. “You know she’s leaving for six months, right?”
Oh, this is fucking rich. “I do,” Lenny says around his cigarette. “You must be fucking ecstatic.”
“Listen, don’t get me wrong. You’re miles better than that shit husband of hers,” Susie says. “And I’m pretty sure less of a stick in the mud than Benjamin, not that I really know the guy.” She waves her cigarette around as if to illustrate a point. “So is something going on here that I should know about?”
“I don’t know. Is there?” he asks.
“You’re supposed to be telling me.”
“Well, I know as much as you.” He takes another long drag, letting the smoke linger.
Susie shifts around before answering. Her thumb flicks at the cigarette’s filter. “I’ve put two and two together,” she says. “All those sticky eyes you keep shooting her way.”
“I can keep myself in check, if that’s what you’re after,” he says. He has no interest in pissing off a battle-ax of a manager with one hell of a protective streak, not that he imagines she’d manage to make life difficult for him in any conceivable way. He does all that just fine on his own.
Susie doesn’t say anything for a while. Long enough that Lenny starts wondering exactly how long anyone can possibly spend in a bathroom. Then, finally, she says, “She likes you.”
Lenny makes a noise, something noncommittal. He flicks towering ash off the edge of his cigarette into the ashtray behind him.
“But she’s been through a lot,” Susie adds. “Which I’m sure you know.”
“I do know.”
“So… I’m not sure she’s looking to take any leaps, is what I’m saying.”
Lenny isn’t sure if that was a compliment or an insult. A slow smile creeps up his mouth. “You saying I’m a leap?”
“Pal, you’re a fucking pole vault.”
He chuckles, nodding. Makes sense. He’s no good girl’s boy, that’s for sure. As a matter of fact, he’d probably burst into flames if he ever so much as took one step into whatever Upper West Side mansion Midge is set up in. God forbid he ever met her father. He doesn’t have the money to pay for the medical bills that’ll come with guy’s the heart attack.
The band finally switches tunes again: uptempo and peppy goes slow and syrupy, the kind of music you could both fuck and fall asleep to. Susie gives him an edgy look from the corner of her eyes.
“You’re not gonna ask me to dance, are you?” she mutters.
Lenny shakes his head. “I’ll spare you the horror.”
Midge comes out of the bathroom just as he’s stubbing out his cigarette. She looks the same, except her lipstick is just a tad stronger, a slightly sharper red than before.
“Hi there,” she says. “You two bonding?”
“We might be,” Lenny says. “Or maybe I’m just poaching your manager out from under you.”
“Uh huh. Hands off, pal,” Midge says. She puts her hands on her hips, eyes on Lenny. There’s a stronger waft of perfume coming off of her, like she gave herself an extra spritz in the bathroom. Vaguely, Lenny wonders if all this grooming is on his account. “You up for another dance?”
They share a few more dances, a few more drinks, before Susie nudges Midge in the ribs and she agrees to call it a night. Gotta get well rested before the tour, Susie says, which is bullshit, but endearing bullshit all the same. He has to commend Susie for how hard she’s trying. Half of the comics out there can’t scrape two fucks together to give, while Susie has somehow hit a gold mine of fucks. Midge, too.
They smoke a couple more cigarettes together outside before saying goodnight. Susie’s already zipped up her jacket, ready to go, casting wary looks between the two of them. She must really think Lenny’s in danger of being a horrible influence. That, or she’s worried that too much time alone, and Midge will succumb to his crooked charms and call the whole tour off to spend six months in a sex haze with Lenny in his apartment instead. It’s ridiculous, but also a nice thought.
“Well, I’m going home,” Susie loudly announces. She shakes Lenny’s hand, then gives Midge a look akin to a mother wordlessly reminding her daughter not to stay out too late. She clears her throat, then takes off.
“That’s a very nice babysitter you’ve got there,” Lenny comments.
Midge laughs. “She is very nice,” she says. “And takes managing very seriously.”
“Then I’m sure you’re in for a hell of a tour.”
Midge nods. She still seems a bit nervous about the whole ordeal, but the more time passes—and more hats she packs, Lenny suspects—the more he sees that anxiety fade into excitement. She’ll get her sealegs, that one. One year ago she was still a nobody, and now she’s doing telethon gigs and dethroning Sophie Lennon off her high horse, to say nothing of the six-month deal with Shy fucking Baldwin.
Lenny sucks in a cool breath, the briskness of the night air settling into the fabric of his coat. Six months.
“Not to sound like a sap,” he says, “but I’m gonna miss you, Midge.”
“Aw,” Midge says, turning to him as if in surprise. She steps closer to give him a playful nudge with her elbow. “Of course you will. I’ll make sure to send a few postcards.”
“Call here and there. When you’re not across the pond, that is. Those rates are fucking highway robbery.”
“I will do that,” she promises.
Lenny puffs the last good drag of his cigarette out of his mouth. He wishes it were longer, the cigarette. It would let him stand out here for a bit more, taking in the sight of Midge under the moonlight, glowing, smiling up at him, almost shyly. He flicks the butt onto the street, watching the arc of it before it’s swallowed up by a glossy puddle.
“So the other night,” he says, because he can’t not ask. Her eyebrows go up, inquiring. “After my show. Did you…” He twirls a finger in the air, gesticulating. “...go back to your ex as planned?”
She doesn’t seem to expect the question. Her pale fingers slip along the base of her cigarette. The filter of it has a pink lipstick ring around it, a distracting sight. “I did not,” she says.
It’s not the answer Lenny expects. But it’s the right one.
He nods, letting his head bob. His shoes scrape against the sidewalk underfoot as he scoots a step closer, big enough to send a message she can easily back away from. When he chances a look at her, her eyes are blown wide, dilated like dark moons, watching him carefully.
“Glad to hear it,” he says, whittling the space between them to nothing.
He ducks his head, tilting it to slant toward hers, and kisses her, slowly enough to let her run off and change her mind. But she doesn’t. Her lips, soft and waxy with lipstick, move under his, inviting him nearer, even if only for the briefest of moments.
The first kiss ends fast. It’s barely begun before Lenny’s steeling himself and leaning back again, trying to read Midge’s expression in the darkness, nothing but a dim streetlight as an aid. The second kiss, though, spurred on by the fact that she stares right back, eyes challenging, locked with his, goes on a bit longer, at least until Lenny’s neck starts to hurt from the tilt. It’s not passionate, but it’s soft, gingerly prodding something deep in his chest. This is how he would’ve kissed her that night outside the Vanguard, he thinks, if he would’ve worked up the nerve, maybe not been so distractingly high.
He takes a step back, putting air between them again, air that feels much too cold. Midge clears her throat. The cigarette in her hand is still burning, forgotten, curls of smoke wafting into the air. She can think of that as nothing more than a kiss for luck, if she wants to.
“Night, Midge,” he says, in a surprisingly sturdy voice. “And good luck with the Europeans.”
She clears another discreet rumble from her throat. “Night, Lenny.”
The gigs pick up a bit again after the Steve Allen Show, despite the disaster in Chicago. If controversial and perverse is his thing, fuck it. Some people spend their whole lives looking for their thing, and Lenny’s thing found him without even trying all that hard.
It’s easier, but it’s still hard. Lenny thinks it all goes down to legal fees and standing around in courtrooms only to come home to an empty apartment, no happy face to be seen. It’s getting annoying, having to preach the First Amendment to cops all the time like a goddamn politician.
He’s just getting home from a night at the Copa when he walks in on the phone ringing in the corner. He barely has enough time to sling off his shoes before making a grab for the receiver.
“It’s Midge,” says a familiar voice. It’s a voice Lenny didn’t even realize he was missing until he feels the day’s stiffness leak out of his shoulders a little at the sound. “This a bad time?”
“Now’s a great time,” Lenny says. “For me, anyway. Aren’t you supposed to be on a stage right about now?”
“Just finished,” Midge says. “Thought I’d check in. New York still in one piece?”
“Hate to break it to you, but we’ve dissolved into guerrilla warfare in your absence.”
“Aw, nuts. You’re just gonna have to wait until I can get back to fix it.”
Lenny grabs the phone, leading it over to the couch. He stretches his legs out, laying the phone in his lap, tilting his head back on the cushions. Shuts his eyes and listens to the background noises of the call: the chatter of patrons, the clinking of glasses. Lenny imagines the scene well enough: Midge and Susie, out for an after-show drink. Midge in that black dress, that pink lipstick. That exposed triangle of skin on her back.
He clears his throat. “Where’s this call comin’ from anyway?”
“New Jersey,” Midge says.
“Boy. Long distance. Is Shy Baldwin footing the telephone bill here?”
“Yes, he is. And it’s only getting longer from here on out, mister.”
“Philadelphia. This weekend.”
“The good ol’ Cradle of Liberty,” Lenny says. “I’ve had good shows in Philly. Good crowds. You’ll do great.” How long has it been now, a week? Two? Time’s just been floating since that kiss under the streetlamp. Lenny’s fingertips tingle just remembering it now. “How’s it been goin’ so far?”
“A little bit overwhelming,” she admits. Her voice speeds up with palpable nerves. “Has it ever been like that for you? Probably not anymore, right? You probably run up there and just imagine everybody naked.”
“I don’t, but I’ll give that a try next time.”
“The crowds are just bigger. Bigger than what I’m used to.”
“Good thing you’re fucking hilarious no matter the size of the room.”
“You think I’m fucking hilarious?” Midge repeats, momentarily stunned, then immediately recovers before Lenny can chime in. “Of course you do. Who am I kidding.”
“No one,” Lenny says. He sucks in a slow, soothing breath, letting out tension that had been balling up in his stomach like stretched rubber bands. “It’s nice to hear from you.”
“It’s nice to hear from you too. I’m glad you’re doing okay. Are you?”
“I am. Except for the fact that I’m becoming a courthouse regular. Don’t even need a map of the place anymore to find my way around.”
“My sentiments exactly.”
His mind wanders back to that kiss. He could kick himself now for not making it longer, for not grabbing her by the waist and kissing her breathless, boneless, until all thoughts of doctors and exes were erased from her memory. His fucking mistake.
Her mind must’ve traveled to the same place, because she says, “I’ve wanted to ask, by the way. About that night we went dancing.”
“Specifically, the end of the night.”
He listens carefully for regret, for remorse. It doesn’t come.
“How drunk were you, exactly?” she asks.
“Only drunk enough to grow the balls to do what I wanted to sober.”
“Grow balls, huh?” Midge says. “Alcohol is more powerful than I thought.”
Lenny’s quiet for a moment. It’s easier to read the mood in person, a lot harder over the impersonal crackle of the telephone. Susie’s hopelessly honest face comes to mind. Her confession on Midge’s behalf.
“You think you’d ever be interested in an encore?” he asks, tentative.
“Depends. How many extra balls do you think you’d need to grow for one?”
“Just the two should do.”
“Hm. Then yes, I would be interested.”
Electricity hums through Lenny’s muscles. He licks his lips, but before he can reply, express his delight, his arousal, his reflexive humor, whatever it is that would be appropriate for the situation while over the phone, he makes out the sound of Susie calling out in the background over the call. Something about the after party.
“Hold on,” Midge says. The phone rustles, like she’s pressed the receiver against the fabric of her dress. Twenty seconds later, she says, “Sorry, Lenny. Still on the clock.”
On the plus side, she sounds mildly frustrated about it. “No problem,” he says. “We’ll talk more some other time.”
“I’d like that,” she says. “Night, Lenny.”
The line drones as the call ends. Lenny listens for a few more seconds, Midge’s voice echoing in his head, wondering when he got so fucking deep. Knee-deep. Neck-deep. It’s been a long time since he’s felt like this, long enough that he’s forgotten just how disorienting it is. He feels like he’s been skydiving through a swamp of his own emotions, emotions that are flaring up like bullets to the chest. He’s not sure if he’s particularly fond of the sensation or not.
Philadelphia, huh? The journey’s not too long from here. The envelope of cash, the spoils of his night behind the microphone at the Copa, tempts him.
It’s been a while since he’s been on the train.
It doesn’t take a lot of sniffing around to find out where Shy Baldwin is performing once Lenny gets to Philly. Every hole-in-the-wall coffeehouse and honest-to-goodness fork and knife restaurant is raving about the guy and those snazzy little shoes he wears. The show’s sold out, but Lenny knows the owner of the place from a gig from a few years back and might be able to schmooze his way in.
The place is swarming when Lenny shows up, seemingly too fashionably late to even consider sneaking in through the back, which every adolescent girl from here to Kansas has apparently been trying to do all night long in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Shy in his velvet dressing gown. Lenny works his way around to the side entrance, a spot the groupies haven’t found yet.
“Guy who owns the place, Weinberg? We’re old pals,” Lenny tells the bouncer by the door.
The bouncer gives him a once-over. “Weinberg don’t own the place no more.”
Lenny isn’t one to name drop, especially not nowadays when his name is associated with things like lurking police and arrests, both of which bring with them iffy press. Still, that icy stare the bouncer’s giving him is rubbing him the wrong way. He folds his arms over his chest.
“Oh yeah? When’d he leave?”
The bouncer doesn’t answer.
“Really taking a chomp out of crime this time around, buddy,” Lenny says.
The door abruptly swings open, creaking on its hinges. Susie pops out in a newsboy hat and oversized blazer. Her eyes widen when she sees who’s skulking around in the shadows.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” she asks.
Lenny lifts his shoulders in something that could be construed as a shrug. “I came to see the talent.”
“Uh huh. You mean Midge.”
The bouncer turns to Susie. “You know this guy?”
“What do you mean, do I know him? You don’t?” Susie yowls. If nothing else, Lenny can appreciate her indignance on his behalf. “That’s Lenny fucking Bruce, one of the best comedians in this sorry country.”
Who needs to name drop when you have other people to do it for you? The bouncer turns back to Lenny with eyes made new with the information he’s just learned, appraising him. Lenny grins at him, chuffed by this serendipitous turn of events.
Susie shoulders past him before Lenny can pass his security detail. “Come on, get inside before all those lunatics out front realize there’s a door open over here. C’mon, c’mon!”
Lenny hustles inside, but not before shooting the bouncer one last shark-like smirk.
One thing’s for sure: this place is cushy. Certainly not some smoke-filled parlor with mustard stains on the stage and one flickering lightbulb overhead. Lenny follows Susie down a hall, bedecked in golden moulding and framed black-and-white photographs of big-name stars who’ve performed here. Is that fucking Harry Houdini?
Perks of working with someone like Shy Baldwin who carries around a harem of fans everywhere, Lenny guesses. Lenny’s just glad he ironed his suit beforehand or the velvet carpet might’ve just swallowed him up whole for not being quite classy enough.
“The Queen in one of these rooms?” Lenny asks, rubbing over his jaw.
The look Susie gives him over her shoulder is a complete preen, teeming with pride that’s spilling over like an overfull mug. “Hey, this is a high-class operation,” she says. “No one’s performing for peanuts here anymore.”
Midge’s dressing room is at the end of the hall, labeled Mrs. Maisel. Susie lets herself in after two perfunctory knocks.
Inside, Midge is fumbling to grab the zipper on the back of her dress. A hint of a nude-colored lace girdle is visible, spiking Lenny’s blood pressure.
“Lenny,” she says, stunned, hopping to turn around and hide the unfinished product of her outfit from view. Behind her back, she grabs a fistful of fabric to act in the stead of her zipper.
“Surprise,” Susie says. “I found him creeping around outside.”
“Creeping?” Midge repeats.
“Let’s say loitering,” Lenny suggests. When Midge doesn’t look any less perplexed, he says by way of explanation: “It had been a while since I’d come to Philly.”
It’s not enough an explanation to clear things up, because Midge doesn’t look any less bemused. “So you decided to come and see the sights?”
“Actually,” Lenny says. All or nothing, he thinks. “I came to see you.”
The surprise on Midge’s face makes way for surprise plus appreciation. She looks almost honored, flattered that he’s here, that he dragged himself into a train and listened to babies banshee screaming a few seats down the entire ride. She opens her mouth to say something, but before she can, a sweat-browed man in an overly large suit sticks his head through the doorway.
“Ten minutes. You ready?”
“I am,” Midge tells him. She shoots Susie a panicked look. “Help me with the zipper, will you?”
Susie does it, although she grumbles about Midge and her dresses and their thousands of buttons and clasps and hooks all the while, and how they’re the reason she’s always late.
“I’m not always late,” Midge says, but turns to Lenny before the argument can escalate. “You’ll stay until after, won’t you?”
“Sure I will.”
“Good,” she says. She takes a moment to appreciate the sight of her. Her hair hasn’t changed. Her make-up hasn’t either. The dress, though, might’ve gotten an upgrade. Another perk, in all likelihood.
The ill-fitted suit sticks his head in again. “Five minutes,” he says.
“For fuck’s sake, that wasn’t five minutes,” Susie complains. “Stop trying to sneak a peek and get the fuck outta here!” She throws a ball of measuring tape at the door right before it slams shut again. Lenny slides his hands into his pockets.
“Looks like you need a bodyguard,” he says.
“Why, you applying?” Midge asks.
“Depends. How much would I be getting paid?”
“In smiles,” Susie cuts in. She finishes up with the back of Midge’s dress, heaving a sigh like she’s just succeeded in climbing Mount Everest. “Okay, okay, get out there.”
“Tits up?” Lenny says. He’s still not entirely sure he gets that, but it works on Midge nonetheless.
Lenny stands back in the wings, watching the show from behind the curtains alongside Susie. Midge is as captivating now as she was that night at the Gaslight when he introduced her, if not even better. She’s found her stride, molded her craft. She’s funnier than him, he’d say, and doesn’t even have to bring up the pope in some unsavory position to achieve that.
It’s a more family-friendly crowd, the Shy Baldwin fanclub, including a dizzying selection of both underage squealing girls and middle-aged women in danger of needing fainting couches, so Midge plays it safer on the debauchery for tonight. Lenny likes it all the same. He laughs out loud plenty of times until it hits him that he’s a total goner.
When she finishes her set this time, waving goodnight to a roaring audience all buttered up for Shy, she doesn’t jump into Lenny’s arms this time. Actually, she stutters to a stop in front of him, arms a little stiff, as if unsure how she’s supposed to greet him now after that kiss on the curb. It occurs to Lenny that she might not know what she want.
Or what he wants. But that, he can easily clear up for her.
“Fantastic job,” Susie’s saying, clapping Midge on the back. “You had ‘em all rolling. Slapping their knees.”
“I know,” Midge says, cheeky smile so wide it’s threatening to break through her face. “Good crowd out there. Big, but good.”
“You were good,” Lenny pipes in. “Worth the train ride.”
Something about what he says glints in Midge’s eyes. She goes still, smile hesitant on her face.
“Oh yeah?” she asks. It sounds, strangely, like a challenge. Like: anything to be done to make it better?
Susie seems to notice the suspended string of charge between them well enough. She looks between them, back and forth, like she’s watching a ping-pong match, before she clears her throat and jabs a thumb at the exit.
“Uh. I’m gonna… go check with the tour manager about something. Yeah.”
Subtle, Lenny thinks. He holds the snort of amusement back, focusing instead on Midge and her sleek black dress and the smooth pale skin of her arms.
“So,” Midge says, breaking the staring competition. “What hotel are you staying in?”
“Some dump behind the bar two blocks over. The kinda place that’s still waiting for Thomas Edison to come by and install the electricity.”
“Oh.” Midge pauses, tilting slightly to the left. “Everyone working on Shy’s team gets to stay in a luxury hotel.”
“I appreciate the bragging very much,” Lenny tells her. “I’ll think of it tonight while my pajamas are being eaten by bed bugs.”
“I meant,” Midge says, “that you could come stay in my room.”
Lenny knows what she meant. He holds her gaze, looking for signs of desperation, of anxiety, of madness created by illusions of loneliness. He sees clear, calm clarity look back at him.
“You sure?” he asks.
“Wouldn’t have asked otherwise.”
Her head is held exceptionally high, chin out, mind made up. Lenny feels something hassle him, tug at his gut, telling him that before he follows her up any extravagant elevators in marble-caked hotels, she better know that he’s not looking for a quick and dirty fuck here. All too often, signals get lost in between the lines. Best she knows his intentions from the get-go.
“Midge.” He speaks with care, letting the comedy leave his voice: an inclination that he’s serious here. “If I’m coming up, I’m not skipping out before breakfast.”
“Good, because you’d miss out on some pretty amazing room service.”
He smiles, scooting closer. “What I mean is—”
“I know,” Midge says. The jokes slide off of her face too, leaving something raw and scary as fuck. Vulnerable. She grabs his wrist. “Now come on. If Susie sees us yapping back here any longer she’ll try to cart me off to bed.”
“She’s a strict minder, that Susie.”
“You’re telling me. Now get moving!”
The hotel is, as expected, extraordinarily opulent—precious metal sconces, intricate Parisian rugs, bellhops wearing fucking penguin suits, the works. A few crew members from Shy’s tour are lingering in the lobby when Lenny and Midge arrive, but Midge hastily dismisses any of their attempts to get the two of them to join in on their late night card game.
“Sorry, guys,” Midge apologizes, already hurrying to the elevators, dragging Lenny along with her. “Raincheck!”
Once inside, the doors binging shut, she lets go of his wrist.
“You got quite a lobster claw of a grip, there.”
“Sorry,” Midge says. “I just didn’t want to hang around and have anyone to come up and start chatting with us.” She narrows her eyes with inward-facing beratement, as if chastising herself for her own enthusiasm. “Sorry,” she says again, hands fluttering. “I haven’t really—not since my husband. I mean, there was Benjamin, but it took me a while to—it’s just a bit weird for me.” Her eyes tilt up, meeting his hesitantly.
Fuck, she’s nervous. Without meaning to, Lenny cracks up.
The look in Midge’s eye flashes from apprehensive to indignant in a second. “What?”
“Nothing,” Lenny says. “You’re lovely.”
“You’ve said that to me before.”
“I have. And I meant it then, too.” He takes a step closer, feeling it may be allowed. “Would you like me to pick a different adjective?”
“Lovely’s fine,” Midge says, like someone picking out the right cut of meat at the deli. She straightens out, pleased. With herself, or Lenny too, or possibly that the two of them are in this elevator together right now.
The elevator reaches the fifth floor—Midge’s floor. She grabs the room key from her purse, leading the way down the hall.
“And Susie is—”
“In a different room,” Midge finishes. “Far away. Don’t worry.”
She opens the door to a surprisingly modest-sized room with minimal gold embellishments. Good, because the shine was starting to hurt Lenny’s eyes. Midge’s luggage sits in the corner, all matching turquoise, and a few glamorous dresses hang from a rack by the bathroom door. The Pennsylvania skyline sits right outside the window. Not too shabby.
“Do you want a drink?” Midge asks. “I could ask the front desk if—”
She goes quiet when he comes closer, close enough to see where her lipstick’s started smudging at the corner of her mouth. Now that she’s here, now that they’re enclosed in the private quiet of the hotel room, now that there isn’t anything to focus on but Midge warm in his arms, Lenny isn’t sure he can wait any longer. He’s waited ages, it feels like, and from the way Midge licks her lips when Lenny cups her cheek, she’s probably just as ready for that encore.
“Not thirsty, then?” she asks.
He shrugs. “Maybe after?”
Her smile is one that she can’t seem to stifle. “You’re a smug little bastard, aren’t you?”
She loops her arms around his neck, removing the last few inches between them. His grip moves to her back as she kisses him, pulling her those last crucial centimeters closer until their fronts are flush together, holding her frame with an ardor he hasn’t quite tapped into just yet. She’s soft, and sweet-smelling, and pushy all at once, pushing up on her toes to kiss him like it’s a demand, a woman going after treasure.
“You really are going to love the room-service breakfast,” she says when she pulls back a moment later. Lenny makes a noise, something frustrated because they’ve stopped kissing for some inconceivable reason, and draws her back in.
He loses himself in it for a bit. Without meaning to, he’s assigned himself on a mission to touch as much of her as he can—the silky tresses of perfectly coiffed hair, the impossibly delicate waist, the dip of her lower back. So much fabric is in the way much too quickly. Black satin impedes him everywhere, it seems, and Lenny’s hand fumbles for the zipper as he descends down the line of her neck, head tipped to the side to give him room. A breathy little sigh escapes her, an almost moan, the sound of which brands itself gladly onto Lenny’s brain.
“Stunning,” Lenny mutters into her neck. It’s like he’s drunk, completely steamed up on her scent, touch, feel, and only getting more dazed. “You’re stunning, a complete fucking knock out.”
“You’re not so bad yourself,” Midge says, hands pushing at his jacket.
Lenny shrugs it off quickly enough, throwing it on the floor without a care. His tie goes next, one Midge undoes with expert precision—did this for her husband many a time, did she? Lenny feels a surge of conceit at knowing she won’t again, not anymore—before working on the buttons of his shirt just as Lenny tugs her zipper down her back.
Midge steps out of her dress, satin crinkling as it falls around her shins. It’s a nice dress, Lenny will admit, but the package underneath is better. Midge is a vision in creamy lace, garters hanging from her ivory girdle, all of it tucked around a body Lenny is fucking bewitched by. He has her back in his arms with a hungry groan in seconds, whispering worshipful praise for her body, her skin, her tits, before capturing her mouth again, filthier this time. Midge kisses back with just as much fervor, a fervor amped up when one of her legs hitches around his waist, nudging him closer until his hard-on is pressing into her thigh.
“Fuck, Midge,” Lenny moans. Sense and reason are flying out of the window, bit by bit, every time Midge presses herself up against him. “You’re killin’ me here.”
“At least it’s a good way to go, right?”
He can’t help it, not anymore. He grabs her under her thighs, lifting her until he can drop her on the mattress. If he thought she looked good standing there in her underwear, it’s a whole different deal to see her laying on wrinkled bed sheets, inviting and coy and lips swollen pink from kissing Lenny a bit too hard. He crawls on top of her, returning to her neck, to sucking a trail down to where her pearl necklace is still sitting.
She squeezes his arms. “Oh, careful,” she warns him. “There’s only so much makeup can cover.”
“You saying you don’t want me to leave hickeys?” Lenny asks, really fucking tempted to do just that.
“Well, no,” Midge says. “Just not where anyone can see. Fair enough?”
“Fair enough.” Super fucking fair, actually. “I have a spot in mind, actually.”
His fingers slip under her bra straps, sliding them off her shoulders. Midge aids in the disrobing process, sitting up so he can unhook the back and fling the thing aside. The breasts that await him are fucking perfect, begging to be worshipped, and Lenny doesn’t let himself wait. This is Christmas morning, and he’s unwrapping the fucking present.
He leans down to press open-mouthed kisses down the line of her jugular, feeling her swallow with his tongue. She sinks down into the pillows, muscles melting, when Lenny cups her breast and suckles a bruise to the surface of it before moving to her hardened nipple. He could set up camp here forever, he thinks, laying claim to the soft skin of Midge’s chest while she pants underneath him, becoming steadily undone. He shares the attention with her other breast, hands squeezing, tongue laving.
He doesn’t move his way down until he’s fully satisfied, and even then, it’s a task. Lenny rolls her girdle down just enough to run his hands over the creamy expanse of her stomach, her muscles fluttering under his teasing touch.
“So,” Lenny asks as he kisses his way down her stomach, “is Susie going to steal my kneecaps for this?”
Midge’s hands find his hair, gently tangling. “I doubt it, considering you’re the one guy I’ve shown interest in she actually likes.”
He props himself up for a moment, distracted. “That verbatim or what?”
“She told me as much,” Midge says. As confusing as that is, Lenny has to admit, he’s flattered. “She hates Joel. Every time she sees him, she gets this look in her eye like she’s trying to figure out the best place to hide his body.” Lenny muffles his chuckle in the soft skin next to her navel and the grip she has on his hair tightens, voice cutting off. She’s ticklish, then. “And Benjamin—I thought she’d be okay with him, but you should’ve seen the way she talked to him one night he came to see me at the Gaslight. Was basically telling him not to laugh at my jokes. Imagine a weirdly protective crazy aunt and that’s Susie.”
“Actually, I’d rather not imagine Susie right now.” Still, he can’t quite let this go just yet. “Why’s she so okay with me?”
“Probably because you’re brilliant,” Midge says. “And you know all my secrets.”
“All of them?”
Midge’s grin goes a little wicked. “Well, not all of them. You don’t know the color of my favorite underwear.”
That shoots down Lenny’s spine like lightning. He grips her hips, thumbs rubbing into pale skin slowly going rosy, and grins back. “Yet,” he says.
He slips his fingers under the waistband of Midge’s girdle, the thing tight enough that it puts up a fight as he tugs it down, Midge’s hips lifting to ease the process. With everything off, Lenny’s half-buttoned shirt and tightening pants the only outliers, the heat in his gut spreads anew, seizing him like a vice. His hands spread over Midge’s bare thighs, relishing in the quiver of anticipation he draws out of her.
He’s just barely nudging them apart when Midge’s nails dig urgently into his shoulders. “Wait,” she says. “You sure you want to—”
She gesticulates with her hands. Lenny raises an eyebrow. “Would I be down here if I didn’t?”
“I know, I know, it’s just—typically it’s the other way around with me,” she explains. “I’m really good at giving head. Based on what I’ve been told, anyway.”
“I’m just saying, you’d be impressed. You’d have a good time.”
“I’m sure I would.” Lenny taps a finger against Midge’s thigh. “Why do I get feeling you were an A-student?”
“Oh, I absolutely was. I wouldn’t have settled for anything less.” She shifts her hips. “So whaddya say?”
“I say, can I go back to going down on you now?”
She regards him critically for a moment, as if looking for a lie. She gives in when Lenny starts planting wet kisses up the inside of her thigh, kisses that trail upward until he licks, tongue flat and hungry, over her swollen clit.
Midge doesn’t seem to be in the mood for persuasive blowjob peddling after that anymore. She makes hooks of her fingers, clawing them into his hair, disturbing his gelled hair out of its style. Lenny doesn’t care—she could yank his hair out and he’d just take it as a smug sign that he’s doing well. He’s always been good at this—liked doing it too—but it’s particularly intoxicating to do it for Midge, who keeps stuttering her hips up into his mouth and letting out these sweet little noises of approval.
How anyone could give this up, Lenny really doesn’t get it. He already knew her husband was a loser, and this just cinches it. This, her, in bed every night, all creamy legs and pink lips and tiny little waist—Lenny will never have a waking moment in his life again that won’t include thinking about this moment, this sight.
She starts pushes back against Lenny’s mouth, wanting more, wanting what Lenny is more than happy to give her. His hands dig into the shaking meat of her thighs, licking into her, tasting her, sucking her clit into his mouth until she gasps. He doesn’t mind getting messy, not here. The quivering way she shakes into him is already one thing, but when she starts moaning Lenny’s name, it’s game over.
“Oh—Lenny, come on—oh—” Her hands go stiff in his hair, tight and tense. “Just like that.”
He waits until she’s trembling to slide his index finger into her. She’s wet, throbbing around his knuckle with a need that makes Lenny’s pants even tighter, and immediately grabs him by the hair.
“No,” she says, panting.
“I want—I want you in me.” She struggles to grab her breath, along with some lucidity. “I want you to fuck me.”
Well, fuck, Lenny can certainly do that. He doesn’t bother asking if she’s sure—frankly, he’s not sure he could handle the delay at this point—and only nods, happy to comply. He shucks his his shirt off, letting her eager hands help with the last of the buttons, and it’s not until he’s shoved his pants down his legs and off the bed that he realizes he’s left a crucial component in the pocket.
“Fuck,” he mutters.
The walk—stumble—of shame he has to do to fish the condom out of his discarded pants isn’t quite undignifying enough to wilt his erection. He fumbles in the left pocket—shit, wrong one—and then the right—these pants do have one, don’t they?—before his fingers snag the foil package. Thank fuck, because now isn’t the time to get dressed and find the nearest drug store.
Midge is on the bed, waiting for him like something out of a naughty calendar. It’s an image that’s being permanently wired into his memory, that’s for sure. Lenny rips the package open with the impatience of a man inches away from lost pirate’s gold, rolling it on his dick without preamble. Midge beckons him forward, equally as impatient.
“Come on, don’t take all day,” she needles, reaching for him. “I’ll start without you, don’t think I won’t.”
That’s an offer Lenny will definitely look into—but not now, later. He climbs onto the bed, right on top of Midge, her body soft and perfect and exhilirating against his. He grabs her by the thigh, hitching it up, as he guides himself into place. Midge’s eyes are challenging, pleading him to do it, to fuck her, and Lenny wonders if he has the same wondrous thirst on his face too.
There’s no resistance when Lenny slides into her. He rasps out a breath, then a heady moan as she draws him in, drawing a leg around his waist. She’s tight, and hot, and the way she’s adjusting and clenching around him is like someone’s setting off firecrackers behind his eyelids. Her nails dig down his back, leaving tracks behind that demand movement. Lenny is all too eager to accommodate, and he starts rolling forward without preamble.
“C’mon,” Midge says. Even breathless, she still has the space in her lungs to goad. “You can do better than that, can’t you?”
Lenny wouldn’t fall for a challenge like that out in the streets, but in bed, he’s up and raring to go at those words. If he’s letting himself be played, fine, because this is a win-win situation if there ever was one. She’s smiling up at him, alluring, come-hither, her perfect locks starting to come undone against the backdrop of the white pillowcases, and Lenny can’t help himself: he leans down to kiss her, a rough promise, as he snaps his hips in harder. His thighs burn with the strain, but when he adjusts his angle to alleviate the tension, Midge gasps out at the next thrust in. Looks like he found just the right position.
He reaches between them to touch her, coaxing sweet, breathy noises out with one dexterous thumb. How long has he wanted this with her, and how dizzying is it that the reality feels so fucking good? He leans down to pay attention to the soft skin of her chest, the underside of her breast, the curve of her neck, hungry for as much of her he can get at once.
“This good enough for you?” he asks, breathless.
“Yeah,” she responds, just as short on air. Her hands slip at the nape of his neck, beads of sweat there impeding her grip. “Just like that. Lenny.”
Fuck, does he want that recorded on vinyl, just the breathy, blissed out way she moans his name, Lenny, interspersed with only the hitches of her breath as he fucks her, rhythmic and greedy. He rocks his hips forward, enough so that he grinds against her clit, adding pressure that makes her lose her composure, throbbing around him, arching up against him.
He whispers praise into her skin before he realizes he’s doing it. She’s beautiful, she’s fucking perfect, she’s maddening, all of it spilling out unnoticed in a hiss until he feels the curve of her smile against his jaw. He loves her, he totally fucking loves her, and he’s not going to last much longer at this rate. He doesn’t think she will either. He’s had women fake it with him before, always with the over-the-top groans of need, but everything about Midge right now feels unpacked, authentic, no stage persona or Mrs. Maisel or Amanda Gleeson or whoever else the fuck she is in front of other people.
“Fuck,” he grits out, hips going erratic, stuttering into her. She’s started meeting his thrusts, rolling her body up against his, and Lenny’s feeling the waves of it all start to get urgent.
Her hand finds his cheek, thumbing at the hot skin there. “Lenny,” she says again, close enough to his ear that it feels like a whispered prayer. He groans, losing focus as it builds and builds until he comes, pulsing, vibrating with the force of it.
He softens slowly, waiting for his breathing to calm, his sweat to dry. Midge is still pushing up against him, needy, and Lenny pulls out before replacing the loss with two fingers, angling them so his thumb can pick up its work on her clit, rolling, sliding, stroking her to release. He can concentrate on her moans even better now that his own pleasure isn’t buzzing in his ears, on all the details, from her eager hips to the way she keeps biting on her bottom lip until she lets it go, red and raw. He sucks that lip into his mouth, too tempted to deny himself, and commits to memory the way her eyes go dark and her chest arches up as he makes her come.
He kisses along her clavicle while she relaxes, feeling the rapidfire beat of her heart through his lips as he presses them to her sternum, to her pebbled nipples, to her heaving stomach. She finally draws him up by the shoulders, kissing him as her breathing returns to normal.
“Holy shit,” she says to the ceiling after they part. “You’re not half bad, mister.”
Lenny can’t seem to keep his mouth off of her long enough to properly respond. This might have been a mistake, if only because he feels, concerningly, like he’s just found a new drug, something that intoxicates, demands his attention. He presses his nose into Midge’s neck, breathing her in.
He starts losing coherence when she runs her hand through his hair, stroking the strands, officially out of place from how neatly he had them combed this morning. A cigarette would make this moment absolutely fucking perfect.
“Holy shit is right,” he agrees in a fucked out mumble. He glances at her, looking in a way he’s never seen her before. He’s seen the nightgown-clad drunk in the backseat of the police car, the flawless performer up on stage, the primly dressed housewife, and now, this post-coital angel of a woman, sweat by her hairline, smile lazy and satisfied. He’s not sure she’s really from this earth. No way to be sure.
He doesn’t realize how tired he is until Midge curls up on his chest, soft hair brushing against his chin, hand warm on his shoulder. He pulls her that important last hair’s breadth closer, only dimly aware that he might wake up to a sleeping arm at some point tonight.
Lenny’s still deep in sleep the next morning when he feels someone stirring in his arms, trying to squeeze their way out. His brain, fogged up in the remainders of a dispersing dream, can’t seem to fathom the idea of anyone leaving the clasp of his cuddle, much less the inviting warmth of the bed, and he tries to pull her back to the smarter decision of staying right where she is.
Her. Right. Fuck. Midge. The memories climb back in like warm bath water settling over Lenny’s whole body. The ride to Philly. Her performance, the hotel, the kissing, the then some.
“Where’re you going?” he mutters, proud to just be coherent at this hour. The sun isn’t even up yet, for fuck’s sake.
“Uh.” Midge sounds perfectly alert. She wiggles herself into sitting upright on the bed. “Nowhere. Go back to sleep.”
Lenny blearily peeks out one eye. “Nowhere?”
Midge wavers, entire body wobbling, as if unsure if it wants to go or stay. Finally, she waves a dismissive hand about and says, “I just have to go take care of my makeup.”
“Your makeup?” Lenny repeats, getting more confused after each word. “Trying to impress the room service delivery guy?”
“No, it’s just—” Midge stops, annoyed—at herself, possibly. “You’ve never seen me without makeup.”
“And underneath that lipstick, you’re secretly the bride of Frankenstein, is that it?”
“No,” Midge says, prim, lips pressed tightly together. Lenny peers up at her: eyes bright and unlined, mouth free of artificial color. She definitely didn’t look like that last night. Did she scurry off to the bathroom mirror after he had conked out? She promptly looks away when she notices Lenny squinting at her. “It’s just… something I do. I don’t want you to see me without my face done.”
“It’s done,” Lenny tells her. He tightens his grip around her waist—soft, silken, and still blissfully naked, which is giving Lenny ideas for the morning—and tries to anchor her down onto the bed. “Midge, I’ve seen women throwing up on the side of the road after having six too many at the club. If there’s some kinda… feminine mystique shit you’re upholding, I've already seen the puppet strings.”
His hand wanders to her wrist, tugging her down. Lenny’s strength must surprise her, because she falls back onto the bed with a cry. The shock on her face wastes no time morphing into indignance.
She opens her mouth to complain, but Lenny beats her to it, pressing a sleepy kiss underneath her ear, nosing brown curls aside.
“If it’s any consolation, the sex hair is working for me,” Lenny murmurs. “Does a good job reminding me how great last night was.”
She squirms underneath him when he scrapes his teeth down her neck, stopping to nibble at her jawline, at which point she melts back into the mattress, hands finding his shoulders. Even half asleep, he’s starting to get ingenious ideas as to how they can spend the morning. His hand is just beginning to slide lazily up her thigh, when—
The sudden knock on the door is jarring. What good is a fancy hotel like this if housekeeping still barges in on you with your pants around your ankles? Midge, on the other hand, is hardly irritated, and springs up.
“That’ll be breakfast,” she says, hurrying to grab clothes. If Lenny was unhappy about the disturbances before, the reappearance of Midge in clothes certainly tips him over the edge. Then again, her garment of choice is a pink, see-through, lacy contraption of a nightgown that swishes around her legs, hypnotic, as she hurries around the room. Lenny’s certainly waking up, that’s for sure.
Midge opens the door, and the room service that gets carried into the room looks like a breakfast fit for a king—golden slices of toasted bread, bowls of diced fruit, freshly hard-boiled eggs, divine collections of cold cuts, and pitchers of cool juice. Midge carries the tray over after thanking the delivery man and sending him on his way, presumably to save him the horror of catching a glimpse of her bed companion stark naked between the sheets.
Midge sets the tray onto the sheets with the visible reluctance of someone who’s grown up being told crumbs in bed are a severely punishable offense. Regardless, she gets back into bed anyway, cross-legged in front of the array of food.
“You weren’t kidding about the breakfast,” Lenny says, sitting up. He hasn’t eaten like this since his wedding buffet. He grabs a piece of fruit, popping it into his mouth. Juicy.
“Try the bread,” Midge says, nudging a plate toward him. “The hotel in Jersey didn’t have the best food, but this place is nice. Almost as good as Zelda’s cooking.”
“Oh, she cooks at home.”
“You have a cook?” Lenny holds up a hand when Midge is poised to reply. “Don’t answer that.”
“Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean I can’t. I actually cook one hell of a brisket.”
Lenny slides a grape into his mouth, then a strawberry for good measure. “That better be a dinner invitation.”
Whatever it is he’s said, it seems to surprise Midge. She blinks, as if unable to parse his intentions, which is something Lenny does his best not to take offense to.
“What? You didn’t really think I was only in it for the breakfast, did you?” He looks down at the massively overflowing tray of goods. “Not that the breakfast isn’t good. It’s damn good. But not the point.”
“So… you really are serious about this?” Midge asks. She starts buttering a piece of toast in what seems to be an attempt at nonchalance.
“Yeah.” He doesn’t think anyone could ever resign themselves to just half-baked when it comes to Midge. “And as far as the timing goes, we’ll work it out. We both got shitty schedules, so I get it if you’re busy sometimes.”
“Yeah, really. What’d you expect?”
Midge shrugs, still obviously startled. “I don’t know. That it’d be too complicated for you, or something.”
“Too complicated?” Lenny says, then huffs. “I’ll take that over boring anytime. As a matter of fact, my business basically depends on me not living a boring life, you know.”
“I thought it depended on the pope not living a boring life.”
“Ha, ha, ha.” He slides his hand onto her knee underneath the thin sheets. Memories of the night before burn pleasantly up his spine. He wouldn’t mind a repeat performance, a sequel of sorts. Or maybe two. “How about this. I’ll stick around for as long as you aren’t sick of me.”
Midge’s mouth twitches before she rolls her lips into her mouth. Lenny can see her holding back a comedian instinct to make a joke, maybe because she doesn’t want the moment to be turned into one. She leans in, giving him a chaste kiss that tastes like many more good mornings to come.
“Sounds good,” she says, and goes back to her toast bread.
He comes to one other of Midge’s shows in the US. Not the Chicago show, because it’s in a theater he’s basically been told to keep a fifty-foot distance from at all times—like a broad with a restraining order—but the one in California. Somehow, the hotel room there is even nicer. Palm trees in sight and everything.
Lenny likes California. Weather’s nicer. People are a little less high-strung than they are in New York. The restaurants aren’t bad either, even if the food is a little bland. The fish on his plate could’ve been treated a little better in that kitchen, but that’s what the salt and pepper shakers on the tables are for.
“I’m not coming to the European shows,” Lenny tells Midge as he shakes a couple of cigarettes out of his pack. He offers one to her over the table, reaching into his jacket for his lighter. “Those flights are such long hauls.”
“Well, that’s honestly for the better,” Midge says.
Lenny raises his eyebrows.
“My family’s coming to a few,” she explains as he flicks his lighter to life. “The one in Paris, for sure—my mother loves Paris, almost a concerning amount, really, we have to make sure she won’t glue herself to the hotel there—and maybe one in Italy. I asked them if they wanted to come. They’ve never really seen me perform, not really, and my mother is obsessed with Shy, so we all decided they’d come out to see me.”
“Big step,” Lenny says. “And… your husband?”
Midge pauses. She covers it up by sliding the cigarette between her lips, but she takes a touch too long getting it back out. “He’s not coming,” she says. “He’s staying behind with the kids.”
Fine by Lenny. The more distance the bastard keeps from Midge, the better. It’s not like it’s any of his business, and he sure as hell isn’t interested in putting Midge on some kind of leash, but exes are never easy. Never good for you, either.
The next bit seems to be a tad harder for Midge to get out. “We’re signing the papers when I come back. Divorce papers, I mean.”
Official. Lenny doesn’t even bother hiding his smile. He puffs a victorious ring of smoke out of his mouth, showing off.
“Sounds final,” he says. “Tell me the mood here, how you’d like to react. Happy? Sad? I can do sad.”
“No! Happy, definitely happy.” After a moment, her determination wilts a bit. “With a side of confused, I suppose. I don’t really know what to do next. I’ve been preparing for the divorce for a while in my head, but now that it’s happening…” She looks at him, eyes a little wild around the edges. “Do you want to hear something awful?”
It must be pretty bad, because Midge sets down her soup spoon to say it. Lenny nods. “Try me.”
“Sometimes I wish none of it ever would’ve happened. That I never would’ve met him. That I never would’ve started a family, because all of it is just… in the way now.” She cringes, as if anticipating the blow of Lenny’s judgment. “I know, I know it’s terrible. And it’s silly, doesn’t even make sense, because if I could go back in time somehow and change it, the things that made me want to go and change it never would’ve happened in the first place.” She heaves herself up with a mighty breath. “And I never would’ve gotten into comedy.”
Lenny winks. “Or gotten arrested.”
Her eyes soften. “Or met you,” she says. Her shoe bumps against Lenny’s ankle. It doesn’t quite run up his leg, but it’s a close thing. Thank god for tablecloths in nice restaurants. “...while getting arrested.”
“It’s pretty much the only way to get an exclusive audience with me these days.”
That makes her laugh. It’s weirdly satisfying, seeing Midge laugh at his jokes, more satisfying than when anyone else does it, and he’s had entire comedy clubs in stitches for him before.
“By the way,” Midge starts up. She picks up her spoon again, dipping back into her bowl. “I think you should know, I got a few more business propositions at my last show. There might be another tour in it for me. Maybe another TV stint.”
Lenny’s not surprised. Midge isn’t playing basket houses anymore, and with audiences like Shy Baldwin’s at hand, of course there are some scouts in the audience looking to hound down talent.
If she’s looking for an out, Lenny will give it to her. He doesn’t want to chase after uninterested prey. And—although he’ll never say this one out loud—he doesn’t want to go too deep if Midge is somewhere on the surface peering down at him.
And boy, is he deep already. Those eyes alone are like fucking quicksand, and that smile like cement weights tied to his shoes.
Gently, he asks, “You wanna end this?”
On the bright side, she doesn’t look like the idea’s even occurred to her. “What? No!”
“You sure that’s not where you’re headed? ‘Cause you don’t gotta drag this out to spare me my dignity.”
“Trust me, that’s not what I’m doing. I—I like you, Lenny.”
She goes pink on the cheeks. “Oh ho,” he says, beaming, pointing with his cigarette. “Look at that blush.”
She doesn’t back down. If anything, she straightens up, readjusting the napkin in her lap. “You gonna say it back or are you gonna leave me hanging?”
It’s so gleefully high school. Lenny won’t admit how much he’s enjoying it. There was a time when he was sure he wouldn’t feel those teenaged butterflies again, that the best he’d ever get again would just be caterpillars and cocoons, like when he was in the war, or when he and Honey called it quits, or all those times he thought he’d never get out of those asbestos-riddled jail cells. Never say never, and all that.
“I like you too,” he says, leaning in, like he’s sharing a secret. I love you, his brain adds, corrects, but Lenny keeps that one to himself.
There’s a postcard sitting in Lenny’s mailbox two months later. It’s black and white, an aerial view of the Eiffel Tower. La Tour Eiffel is in delicate cursive on the bottom left, just for anyone too dim to pick up on what it is.
Lenny flips it over. Midge’s handwriting looks up at him in blue ink. Something warm and soothing bathes him from the inside out, better than any puff of a cigarette, any slug of scotch.
We made it to Paris! I’m seeing my parents tonight. Wish me luck. Are you staying out of trouble? You better be.
There’s a smear of pink in the corner, vaguely lip-shaped, like Midge impulsively kissed the postcard before sending it off. Lenny imagines her: gloved hands, cold-nipped nose, hovering over a yellow Parisian postbox, thinking of him.
He taps the postcard over his thumb, twice. How long has it been since he’s gotten a postcard, if ever? Actually, how long has it been since he’s gotten mail that wasn’t a fucking bill? He wonders just how ridiculous it would be to hang it up, tuck it into the piece of wall moulding that’s coming off in the bedroom. It’s not like he has a calendar counting down the days until Midge’s return, so maybe keeping one fucking postcard isn’t going to turn him into some lovesick Romeo.
He keeps the postcard. Message side out.
It’s spring when Midge finally gets back from Europe, when her tour-of-all tours comes to an end. Lenny gets completely overcharged on the cab ride to Idlewild Airport to pick her up. He’s still muttering curses as the car speeds off with the better part of Lenny’s last paycheck, a mood which doesn’t lift until he’s had a cigarette and remembered why he’s here in the first place.
Midge. Six fucking months. Six months alongside a handsome singer with wallets stuffed to bursting with cash. Six months in Europe with stylish men with tantalizing accents. Six months with groupies, with dark-haired Italians, with Swiss sweet-talkers.
Lenny lights another cigarette.
Still, her not saying no when he offered to pick her up must mean something. If she comes out of that gate with a mustached, muscled Frenchman on her arm, Lenny’s fucking tailing it for the exit. He takes a long draw from his cigarette, letting it settle in his throat, letting it warm his chest. It’s been a cold spring in New York so far.
Midge didn’t get the memo. She’s not even wearing a coat when Lenny finally spots her, just a pillbox hat and a shirt-waist dress, surrounded by her matching suitcases. Her eyes brighten when she sees Lenny.
“You came,” she says as he approaches, smiling.
“I take offense to that tone of surprise, you know.”
He stops in front of her, close enough that she has to tilt her head upwards to look him in the eye. Her smile is soft, happy. Loving. Something like a feather duster seems to tickle Lenny in the heart.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hi,” he says back, then leans down to kiss her. He wasn’t sure if they were going to do that—kisses hello, kisses goodbye, the whole rigamarole—but it fits, it feels nice. Midge goes pliant in his arms, and it isn’t until she’s burrowed herself impossibly close that Lenny feels her goosebumps. He slides his trench off his shoulders, wrapping it around hers. “Are coats out of trend in Europe or what?”
“Thanks,” Midge says, drawing the fabric further around herself. When Lenny grabs hold of her luggage for her, she seizes his arm. “Aren’t you going to ask me how my trip was?”
“I might have an idea,” he says. “But tell me anyway.”
“It was marvelous,” she answers. “But also exhausting. Draining. I didn’t get much sleep on the plane. Oh, but I did get caviar.”
Before she can continue, Susie comes waltzing up, only one meager duffle hung over her shoulder. Her hair is a little wild; Lenny guesses that she did, in fact, get plenty of sleep on the plane. She gives Lenny a curt nod when she sees him, clearly not at all surprised that he’s there.
“Hey,” she says. “Line for the bathroom was huge. We all taking a cab back together or what?” She points two stern fingers at Lenny and Midge. “You two lovebirds can control yourself in the backseat, right?”
“We will do our best,” Midge promises.
The cab ride back into the city is just as expensive as the ride out, but Susie insists on paying, pride over-inflated with her commission cash. She’s a real manager now, she says, clicking her tongue, so she can handle this, and then proceeds to whisper-argue with the driver about not getting any ideas about overcharging. Midge finds Lenny’s knee where they’re pressed together in the backseat while Susie negotiates, and squeezes.
They both end up telling Lenny stories from the trip while the car inches along into city traffic and the sun sets. This dinner in Italy, that crowd in Germany, how much her mother ended up begrudgingly loving her set, so on and so on.
“I’m getting the feeling,” Lenny says, squinting, “that I’m going to be fending swarms of autograph hounds away from you from here on out.”
“Oh yeah,” Susie cuts in, beaming. “She did well, I’ll tell you that much. People love her. Even Shy Baldwin made a pass at her.”
Lenny whirls on Midge, who’s gone bright pink. “Excuse me?”
“It was nothing,” she says, hasty. “Susie, I told you not to tell that story.”
“Oh, there’s a whole story?”
The cab screeches to a halt outside of Susie’s apartment building, the look of which is so shabby it makes Lenny feel better about his own hellhole. She says goodbye with demands to have Midge check in soon—can’t let the momentum simmer away, and definitely can’t sleep in too long anymore—before she grabs her duffle and takes off. The hum of the car is quiet after she leaves, interrupted only by the driver craning his neck back and asking where to next.
Midge turns to Lenny, wearing a look that’s mostly coquettish, but with an undercurrent of hopefulness. “My place?” she asks, voice low.
Lenny sure as hell isn’t saying no. He stretches his arm back, draping it across Midge’s shoulders, still well-wrapped in his coat. “Question,” he murmurs into her ear, “will there be room service breakfast there as well?”
“I will do what I can.”
The drive feels torturously long after that, inner-city traffic creating a delightful symphony of honking as background music. The streetlights play off of the puddles in the road from last night’s rain, reflecting bright colors off the ground. Lenny keeps himself occupied with brushing Midge’s hair away from her shoulder with his thumb and pressing slow kisses to her neck, lulled and enticed in equal parts by the scent of her perfume. It’s been too long. More than three months at this point, something his dick hasn’t failed to remember either.
Midge, for her part, has fished a red notebook out of her purse as entertainment. Lenny watches her flip through the pages, a few scribbled jokes catching his eye. He nips at the skin under her ear as he watches her write so much honking you’d think all of 42nd Street was trying to seduce a goose.
“Funny,” he murmurs into her neck.
They eventually end up on Riverside Drive. Nice part of town, that’s for sure, which is only emphasized when the doorman hurries forward to occupy himself with Midge’s luggage once it’s lugged out of the trunk. And if the man operating the elevator finds it strange that Midge is bringing a man who isn’t her husband upstairs at this time of night, he has too many manners to ask, let alone stare. Lenny takes advantage of his disinterest and slings an arm around Midge’s hip, letting one innocent hand rest just barely on the curve of her backside.
“Back from your trip, Mrs. Maisel?”
“Yes, and I got you a souvenir from Italy, Jerry. I’ll give it to you tomorrow once I dig it out of my suitcase.”
The elevator attendant grins, and Midge grins back, and Lenny rolls his eyes at the ceiling.
“You’re a real goody two-shoes, you know that?” he tells her once they’re out of the elevator.
The self-satisfied smile on Midge’s face isn’t going anywhere. She tilts her shoulder up to her chin, chuffed. “Thank you very much,” she says, fishing the keys out of her purse.
“There better be a souvenir in those two hundred suitcases for me too.”
The grin on her face changes from smug to suggestive. Dick-reporting-for-duty kind of suggestive. “Oh, you’re getting a souvenir, but it’s not in my suitcases.”
Lenny readjusts his trousers once Midge heads down the hall, newly reenergized. How she can skip around in those heels after an international flight is another one of those female sorcery things Lenny won’t ever be able to grasp, but now isn’t the time to puzzle out the great riddles of the world.
Midge unlocks the door to the apartment, but doesn’t turn on any lights as she closes the door behind them. In the dark, Lenny can only make out a few shapes—the edges of counters, the lines of walls. The only thing he can tell for certain is that the place is big.
Her hand finds his in the shadows, tugging.
“This way,” she says, leading him through a dark hallway. Lenny can hear her tiptoeing on the carpet, hastening.
She doesn’t reach for a lamp until they’re in her room. The yellow light bathing the furniture is almost too bright once she turns it on, illuminating sickly pink walls and a stack of old records. And… a tiny bed that Lenny’s back is not going to be happy with come morning.
Fuck it. He’s waited months for this reunion and he’s not going to let a measly mattress scare him off.
“So whaddya wanna do tonight?” he asks, meandering over to the record player. Some of these comedy albums are fucking relics. If he wasn’t thoroughly busy with a different endeavor right now, he’d actually want to listen to them. He turns to Midge, spinning a vinyl over his shoulder. “The Marx Brothers?”
He nearly drops it. Midge has shucked off Lenny’s trench, removed her shoes, and is currently shimmying out of her dress, and if that’s not her favorite pair of underwear, it’s definitely Lenny’s. She puts her hands on her hips, regarding the record player.
“If you want,” she says.
What a minx. A fucking vixen, a goddess in revealing white lace. Lenny grabs her by the waist and kisses her, hard and eager, fumbling to put the vinyl down somewhere where it won’t suffer collateral damage.
She smiles against his lips, tugging him toward the bed until they topple on top of it.
In the light of day, Lenny can see just how Upper West Side the place really is. Man, oh man, these people are not kidding around. Midge’s bedroom alone is already something else—velvet hats hanging off the edge of a vanity table, the wrinkle-less floral curtains, the piles of Russian literature, the—are those porcelain dog figurines?
Next to him, Midge is dead to the world, curled into her sheets, pale skin bright against her pink pillows. Looks like a bit of jet lag is catching up to her. He indulges himself, carding his fingers through strands of her hair, thumbing the soft skin of her cheek. He would stay here all day if his stomach wasn’t demanding caffeine right about now.
Lenny slides out from the bed, stretching, cracking out the knots in his spine. He was right about his back being angry with him, but it was worth it.
So, so fucking worth it.
He half-heartedly pulls on a few pieces of wrinkled clothing before meandering his way into the kitchen, slightly surprised to find it unmanned by white-gloved butlers. This entire place is full of frill and opulence and don’t-touch-that furniture and don’t-eat-on-that plates. Better not get any fingerprints on anything valuable.
He opens up the fridge, deeming it safe, and takes a peek inside.
Not even a minute later, someone clearing their throat pulls Lenny’s attention away from the food. A man is standing in the kitchen doorway, coffee cup in hand and brocade dressing gown belted at the waist. He looks at Lenny like he’s an incorrectly delivered package, left on the wrong doorstep, not so much confused, but unerringly unimpressed.
“Morning,” Lenny says. “You Midge’s father?”
He doesn’t answer. He seems completely committed to the effort of avoiding a conversation with Lenny altogether, but rather judging silently from a distance. Finally, he calls out, “Rose,” and walks with renewed vigor away from the doorway. “Rose!”
Well, there’s that. Midge is probably going to cast a kitten when she finds out this—wrinkled shirt half-tucked in, rooting through the fridge, bushy-haired after a night of debauching his daughter—is how her uptight father met sailor mouth comedian and repeat offender Lenny Bruce.
He can hear the distant sounds of a frantic conversation down the hall, no doubt between Midge’s parents. Lenny makes out a few words here and there—scruffy-haired man, in the kitchen, Midge’s overnight guest—the last of which is hissed with disdain—before a woman bustles into the kitchen, dark brown hair, slender figure, familiar nose shape. Midge’s mother.
“Morning,” Lenny tries again, adding in his default lopsided smile.
“Hello,” the woman says. At least she speaks, even if she does look extremely uncomfortable, like a hostess finding that one of her dinner guests slept under the sink last night instead of going home. “I… don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”
Lenny sticks out a hand. “Lenny Bruce,” he says. Midge’s father has appeared once more to linger in the doorway, listening, but certainly not participating. “I’m a friend of Midge’s.”
“Oh. My apologies,” she says, in the distinct way that makes it clear she’s not actually apologizing. She shakes Lenny’s hand with a dainty, ladylike grip. “Midge has so many… new friends lately, it’s hard to keep track of them all. Are you… also a comedian?”
“That I am.”
Midge’s father mutters something under his breath before storming off again, this time in the direction of Midge’s room. Lenny watches him with thinly veiled amusement.
“Don’t mind him,” Midge’s mother insists. She has a peculiar way of speaking—airy, deceptively light, like an angel’s food cake—as if she’s trying so hard to come off as nonchalant that she’s completely overshot the mark. That attempt at a polite smile on her face actually looks quite uncomfortable. “That’s Miriam’s father, Abe. And I’m her mother, Rose.”
“Miriam!” Abe shouts from down the hall, pounding on Midge’s door. “Miriam, will you please grace us and your guest with your presence?”
Rose’s smile tweaks at the edges until she looks more like a poorly made wax figure than a person. The effort of staying polite seems to be physically straining her face.
Lenny can hear Midge’s bedroom door flying open a minute later. When she hurries into the kitchen, she looks very much like a kid caught with their hand in the cookie jar, regressed back into a chagrined child. Living with your parents can do that to you, although there sure isn’t anything juvenile about that nightgown, even if Midge is frantically tying a robe around it to keep covered up. Her sex hair is a nice touch, too, but Lenny is keeping that particular comment close to the vest.
Abe gestures vaguely at the room at large. “Would you like to explain what’s going on here?”
“That’s Lenny,” Midge says, sounding remarkably less panicked than Lenny was expecting, aside from initial sputtering. That’s the sort of trick that only ages of lying to your family can perfect. “He’s, uh.”
“A friend, yes, of course he is,” Abe cuts in. “Do all your friends emerge from your room barely dressed these days, Miriam?”
“What about Benjamin?” Rose asks. “I thought you two were working things out.”
“No, mama,” Midge says quickly. “We said we might consider this all again after I got back from tour, but—”
“But you picked up him on tour and decided to hell with the well-paid doctor, is that it?”
All this feels like a very loud cue for Lenny to leave, and he would’ve if all this wasn’t so fucking fascinating. The inner workings of the upper class Jewish socialites of New York. Lenny’s already trying to figure out how he can work this gold into a routine.
Midge has her arms held out, face cautious, like someone trying to appease a spooked moose. “Papa,” she says again. “I didn’t pick him up on tour. He picked me up from the airport.”
“We’ve known each other for a while, and he’s a good guy.”
“A good guy?” Abe sounds truly incredulous, like a man convinced he’s about to be handed counterfeit money and refusing to believe otherwise. He shoots Lenny a look before lowering his voice. It has absolutely no effect, since Lenny can still hear him perfectly clearly across the kitchen. “Miriam. He looks like someone who doesn’t even own a comb.”
“He owns a comb, Papa!”
“Then he could act like it!”
Rose, either sympathetic to Lenny’s awkward position or used to reeling in her husband’s tempers, lays a cautious hand on Abe’s shoulder. Midge, for her part, looks stunned into silence. Yom Kippur must be a fucking joy in this house, Lenny imagines.
Abe takes a rattling breath inward, as if bracing himself. He turns to Lenny, as apprehensive in his gaze as he is pedantic. “Young man,” he says. “What was your name again?”
“Lenny Bruce,” he repeats, enunciating every letter.
He stares long enough to remind Lenny of some of the judges presiding over court cases Lenny’s been in. That stare could put the fear of god in some weak-kneed criminals, that’s for sure.
Finally, he turns to Midge. “Miriam,” he says quietly. Deadly quiet, like an empty town after a bomb’s gone off. “Your mother and I would like a word.”
“Well,” Midge says. Lenny has never seen someone eat scrambled eggs so defeatedly before. “That could’ve gone better.”
“Eh, it could’ve gone worse,” he says. He’s not usually much of an optimist, but he doesn’t like seeing all those unhappy frowns on Midge’s face. “It’ll be better next time.”
“Next time? You’d really be up for seeing my parents again?”
“Second impressions are underrated,” he tells her.
She seems impressed. Lenny has the sneaking suspicion that she’s been waiting—ever since he kissed her that night outside of the bar, probably—for Lenny to jump ship. And yeah, her life is a bit of a mess right now—a warzone, really, if Lenny’s being honest—but so is his. Better to join forces than head for the hills.
The waitress comes by to refill their coffee cups. It took Midge saying she wanted to go pick up the kids from her ex for her parents to relent enough to let her leave, and even then, it barely gave Lenny a free pass to not be forced to stay behind and be interrogated by her glacier-eyed father. The Spanish Inquisition would’ve probably looked like a real walk in the park if that conversation had happened.
Lenny doesn’t let himself worry about it. Sometimes high-strung dads in sweater vests just need time to digest, and Mr. Weissman looks like someone who takes weeks for a single emotional bowel movement. Besides, Lenny’s never been that great with parents anyway. Something about his slouched shoulders, foul mouth, and choice of career never seems to impress them. No point in getting all twisted up over it.
“Dinner,” Midge says. She’s lost some of the glumness from her face, replaced with a familiar grit. Never stays down long, that one. “We’ll all have dinner. I’ll convince Papa.”
Lenny nods. “Sounds good,” he says, and pretends to not get a little nervous. He would say it doesn’t matter all that much to him, but it obviously matters to Midge, and he’s put himself in the pickle of having Midge matter to him. So he’ll do the god awful dinner and he won’t moan about it. “So, when will you be able to send the script to my place? Or even just a list of non-approved topics?”
“If I did that, you might as well just keep your mouth shut all evening long.”
“Got it.” Lenny zips up his lips and throws the key away. Midge smiles. “No charming them with my inappropriate jokes, then?”
“Let’s err on the side of caution.”
Lenny relents, watching Midge dig into her eggs with slightly more pizazz. She looks nice, despite getting ready earlier as quickly as possible to escape the never-ending monsoon of questions from her parents. It was almost refreshing, in a roundabout way. Lenny doesn’t remember the last time someone was so damn interested in who he was and where he came from.
She’s in a green sweater, barely any makeup. It’s the kind of color Lenny wouldn’t like anywhere but on Midge, where it somehow defies all laws of aesthetics and just works. He can’t lie; this morning was pretty fucking bad, but he somehow can’t bring himself to feel bad. He’s on a bit of a high, maybe from the blowjob demonstration last night, or maybe from waking up in Midge’s floral nightmare of a room with her by his side.
He’s disgusting, he is. One of those in-love bastards who ruin Valentine’s Day for all the sane members of the population.
Midge checks the wristwatch on her arm. “I really probably should pick up the kids soon,” she says, regretful. “I haven’t seen them in ages, and Joel’s going to be mad if I’m late. Honestly, I still don’t think he’s over the fact that I went on a six-month long tour while he’s been trying to get his comedy off the ground for years.”
“Class act,” Lenny mutters. “You know, you’re only gonna skyrocket from here on out. He better get used to it.”
“Skyrocket, huh?” She looks pleased. “That’s not a bad way to put it. Did I tell you that Susie might buy her own club?”
“She’s wanted to for a while, but she didn’t have the money before. That, or she might try to buy Baz out.”
Lenny nods. “Sounds like both of you have very busy futures ahead,” he observes. “Any chance there’s room for a guy like me in that glamorous life you’re building?”
Midge smiles. The way she looks at him—all warm and fuzzy, like she’s somehow feeling all the things Lenny is feeling in spades right now—is fond, doting.
“I think there’s room. I’ll move some things around.”
Lenny nods. She nods back. The clinking of glassware around them is a soothing sound, a hint of normalcy, nothing like the jackrabbit beat of his heart awaiting her answer. What is it about that smile of hers that unseats him and his cool as a cucumber disposition so much?
They eat for a few pleasantly quiet moments. Lenny listens to the sizzle of the grill, the smell of fresh breakfast sausages carried over on trays. He drags a piece of bread through the oozing egg yolk on his plate. He could get used to this. Easy time spent with Midge, just being happy.
“Just so you know, that whole spiel with your family might just worm its way into my act in the future,” he says after he’s chewed another bite.
Midge makes a show of her surprise. “Why, I was going to do the same thing,” she says. “How do we settle this? Funniest joke wins?”
He shrugs. He looks at Midge, some inner contentment spreading as he watches her eat breakfast across from him, and lets the bottle rockets go off in his stomach at the feeling. “I’ll let you have this one,” he says.