By Michael Chandler
I wrapped up my workday, and I was one of the few left in the office. I could stow away my things and stow away my thoughts at my leisure, because, no matter what management got from me, I was on salary. It didn’t matter how early I got in, or how late I stayed, either at my leisure, or under their gun.
For the past several months, I would linger evenings to close up the mental office before I left the physical environs, because, at my girlfriend’s behest, I no longer spent time after work at “the bar.” I had taken some ribbing for that, but it was mostly from my bachelor co-workers and lonely, bad pool players, sports connoisseurs, someday-to-be husbands and fathers, who, in their cups, awkwardly, all-too-obviously sought the attentions of young women, while I returned home to “the one for me.”
Surely, one day they would understand what it means to a wife or to a live-in lover, what a drunken spouse indicates to her notion of stability.
I drink, it is true. I enjoy it. Often, I drink to isolate, even among other drinkers. Maybe it is the isolation, more than the symbol of the bottle itself, which invites disappointment and scorn from the loved one. I’m quite sure that this is what Ariel didn’t like to see in me. I retracted. I’d go out drinking with the boys, and I’d return, late home and emotionally far away. There is an element of isolated tippling that I require from time to time, but, done consistently, it raises underlying, undermining questions as to its source.
No man wants to hear her say, “It’s me, isn’t it?”
I circumvented her female logic by limiting my nights out to various “special occasions,” such as birthday or bachelor parties or playoff games, and by returning home at a very reasonable hour after work, most regularly. We would eat and drink (moderately) together, go out together as a couple or with friends, or spend time at home, whence I would listen to the excitements and travails of her day, somehow, never getting in too much about what I may have been thinking. Many of our conversations had me doing little more than agreeing with her, again and again, but compared with many late-night discussions I’d had while on my own at various bars, Ariel was a far more rewarding companion.
Instead of going to the bar, I’d sometimes pick up a pint of bourbon on my way home from the office from the smiling, nonjudgmental lady at the liquor store, find a clever spot to stash it at home, belong to my girl, and still get in a little drinking.
That I did, of this particular Wednesday night. I unlocked our three locks, creaked the metal door inward, poked my upper body in, and called, “Honey? It’s me.”
She was a copy editor for Marie Claire, so I always pretended to have forgotten my grammar.
“I mean, ‘It is I.’”
“I’m in the bathroom!”
I could hear the water running through the bathroom door, obviously ajar. I took a big slug from the bourbon bottle and slid it behind a dictionary and a thesaurus on a shelf next to the TV and VCR. As she was a copy editor, I knew she would not pull out either of those two books anytime soon.
I got myself a glass of her white, sanctioned wine from the refrigerator, had a sip of it to clear my breath of the bourbon, and nabbed a garlic cracker, to fully do the job. I pushed my head into the bathroom, where, blessedly, she was brushing her teeth. I kissed her mouthful of suds, she spat, and we laughed together.
“We gonna eat here, or what do you want to do?” I asked her, as I wiped my foamy lips on my shirtsleeve, teasingly blocking her view of the mirror.
She gave a manly and fully-throated, “Phwoooitew!” through my elbow, into the running drain. She too, then wiped her lips on my sleeve.
“I bought some noodles on my way home, and you can have the rest. I think they’re going to have food there.” She rinsed her mouth out and spat again. “You smell like garlic and booze. Are you going to take a shower?”
“Nnghh,” I answered, and I used my most noncommittal amble toward the living room, to take a hit off the hidden bottle, while she went into the bedroom to put on her underwear and then to invariably parade several outfits, asking my opinion of each.
“What if I had fucked her right there over the sink?” I thought, sticking the bourbon back into its ironic hiding place.
I imagined her begging me to wait until she could, please, please, finish brushing her teeth. I wouldn’t relent. I could see myself pushing her right leg back with my knee, the taste of Pepsodent, and her eyes widening and sparkling, becoming softer as they fluttered closed, the towel gently dropping from her waist as I...
“Did you get those noodles?” she shouted from the bedroom, and I could hear her toes pop-pop the floor, as she pulled herself into her underwear.
“I wasn’t thinking about the noodles. What else you got?”
I love making a dirty joke that no one will ever get.
The food that was to be served, this night out, with me and my girl, was to be provided in memory of a tangential member of our group, who was now deceased. In our several years in New York City, Ariel and I had, separately and together, weathered more than a few deaths of friends and acquaintances. Most were drug overdoses, but there were shocking shootings and stabbings (three, between us), cancer victims (four), drug- or alcohol-related taxi-squashings (two), an unspeakable commuter train miscalculation, and, in one wildly unforgettable instance, Ariel and I had watched in horror, at a rooftop barbeque, as a “street-punk,” named King Tabloid, in a show of drunken bravado, tried to prove that he could grill a beefsteak on his own ribcage, and had fallen, backwards, off the fifth-floor tenement roof and into New York City legend.
Tonight’s memorial was to honor the life of Garshon Parrish, grandson of Maxfield. Garshon had been a victim of autoerotic asphyxiation. It was to be a gallery show of Garshon’s art, now worth who-knew-how-much? During his life, his art had been, among the critics and, far more critically, his social circle, lowly regarded. It was self-exhibited in art-holes, which, God bless them, offered free booze as both bait and a remedy for the blatherings of one more pretentious, skinny, sallow, brooding downtown artist.
We didn’t really enjoy his company when he was alive, but, because he had come from a rich family, through him, we met some other pretentious, but influential people. Over time, I started to feel some sympathy for the guy. He was a bad artist, but as a person, he was essentially lonely and wanted attention, like anyone else. I tried to look at what his obstacles were toward fulfillment, compared to mine. I felt somewhat ashamed, now that he was dead, that I couldn’t have made him more likeable to myself. Hell, I thought, how am I any better than he was?
“What do you think of this?” asked Ariel, skipping into the living room, and smoothing out a short, black cocktail dress.
I had good-taste carte blanche to critique her possible outfits. As it was, she wanted to try on several, and I had proven to deftly “help” her ultimate choice, by usually knowing what she would have chosen in the first place.
“Everybody’s going to be wearing black,” I offered. “Memorial or not, put on some color; then just wear a black scarf with it. That’ll be plenty ‘mourny.’”
“Ooooh, I know...” and she scampered back into the bedroom, calling over her shoulder, “Hey, did you eat those noodles?”
Knowing that she’d be awhile, I hit my bottle again. I’d have another slug when she started trying on shoes, after she put on her make-up.
“No, I’ll eat at the gallery.”
“Over a bunch of wine, I suppose.”
The bourbon almost came out of my nose.
“Honey,” she lamented, “Just don’t embarrass me, okay?”
I heard hangers being moved around in the closet.
I washed my face and did an evening shave. I fixed my hair the way she liked it and which I didn’t, and I got a pressed, favorite shirt out of the hall closet, to which my few articles of clothing were relegated.
“This?” she came out and asked.
“Perfect,” I answered, and it was true. “Wear flats, because who knows how long we gotta walk tonight.”
She drooped her shoulders and sighed. She returned to the bedroom, and I could hear her digging around. I opted to get us each a dram of white wine and let the bourbon sit. She returned, coquettishly swinging a pair of purple Mary Janes from her fingers.
I handed her the wine and easily kissed her, my arm around a bare shoulder.
“Do they smell like girl feet?” I whispered.
We came up from the subway at Broadway and Houston and made our way to the posh gallery, where the memorial was being held. As we got to just a few doors away, we could see a group of people we knew, gathered around the front of the place, drinking wine and cocktails out of plastic cups and smoking.
“God, he never would have gotten a showing here if he was still alive,” Ariel remarked, and tugged my sleeve.
“I don’t know how he ever got one anywhere. Well, actually I do,” I said, rubbing my thumb and forefinger together, to indicate “money.”
As we got to where our friends were, we all said our hellos, and I gave the girls what I knew were no more than symbolic, hollow hugs. There were Ruth and Molly, waitress/actresses, who worked at Pizzaro’s, Courtney, a friend of Ariel’s from college, and Dickie and Paul, friends of friends who hung out at the same nightspots we all did, who had become closer to us over the years. Dickie was an assistant cameraman, and Paul played bass for a punk rock group that was fairly successful, but not enough that he could quit his job at a catering company.
After the hugs, I exaggeratedly peered into Paul’s cup and asked, “Hmmm, what have you got there?”
“Scotch and soda, good Scotch, too,” he smirked. “They’ve got a pretty nice spread in there. We catered the food.”
“Oh, so it can’t be all that, then,” I joked.
“Just stay away from the stuffed mushrooms. They’re left over from last week.”
“Maybe.” He smirked again, in the boyish way that had gotten him laid from coast to coast.
Ariel was already engaged in rapt, superficial conversation with the three other girls and Dickie, so I interrupted briefly and offered to get her a white wine from inside, which she accepted. I went in, and the room was way too dark for any appreciation of even bad art, lit variously by color-gelled klieg lights. I had to strain to make out some of Garshon’s found-art sculptures and garish pastel works. They were mostly black, infused with screeching swaths of decidedly un-matching colors.
“‘Garish-on,’” I thought, and chuckled. “Why didn’t I think of that before he...?”
It was inappropriate.
The music was blaring, and was the kind of lugubrious stuff that was all bass and grinding guitar, with some monk-like voice going on and on about how horrible life is. It had always crossed my mind that life would be that much less horrible without all this gloomily introspective crap. Did they call it, “drudge-rock?”
I had figured that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the bar without running into at least a few people with whom I’d have to make pleasantries, and I was right. There was Garshon’s anorexic sister, Eve, to whom I gave my sympathies, who just shrugged, and whom I couldn’t hear over the music, but who, I swear, said something containing the phrase, “...more for me.” Nearer the bar, I ran into Dominic and his wife, Juniper, a couple that I had been looking forward to seeing. I shook him by his shoulders and gave her a real embrace, and I held up a finger for them to wait for me, as I made my way the few feet to the bar.
I went through my usual m.o. of asking for a double bourbon and, as it is served, asking for two wines, so I can knock back the bourbon while I wait and come away from the bar toting only the innocent stuff. It being an open bar, I tipped generously and then went back to Dominic and Juniper. I was always pleased to see them, and it had been about two weeks. They were genuine, and we all three liked a lot of the same music and movies and books and art. They both had a confidence about them that came from a healthy sense of self-worth, and certainly not from monetary worth, as they both worked hard at their jobs. They were saving their money to open a small literary cafe, so that they could work together every day. They were the type of couple that you want to see succeed, that give you faith in the institution of marriage. I wanted what they had and never felt a twinge of jealousy. They were writing the book.
We had to shout and lean into one another to hear, but that just seemed to fill the room around us with the sweet smell of fresh wine-and-spirit breath. We swapped opinions on a movie we had seen and gave each other tips on some upcoming concerts. I indicated that I had to bring the wine out to Ariel, and Juniper motioned for me to bring her back in, by enthusiastically scooping the air.
Back outside, I gave Ariel her wine and a kiss on the cheek, as she, and then I, got caught up on the latest gossip and tawdry affairs. I sidled away from that and had a cigarette while I chatted with Paul, as Dickie was one of the main perpetrators of the gossip among the girls. He was dishing them the latest about a young starlet with whom he was working, on the set of her current picture. Paul finished his cigarette and rattled the ice in his cup, a welcome signal to me. I touched Ariel’s elbow and told her she should come inside.
“In a minute, in a minute,” she said, not turning her head from the juicy morsels.
Back inside, Paul went to get us drinks, and I sauntered over to the food table. As I was deciding and filling up a small styrofoam plate, two guys were standing next to me. One, in a corduroy blazer with suede elbow patches, was telling his friend all about the cheap ingredients necessary to make such a feeble buffet. He verbally picked apart each dish and explained how little effort had gone into its preparation and what he would have done instead, but how it didn’t matter anyway, because, “By the looks of this crowd, they wouldn’t know steak tartare if it was served alive and bit them.”
Paul came back with our drinks, and I pointed out the opinionated epicurean, who was still, quite wittily, delivering his diatribe. Paul told me that he was a food critic for GQ, and that Paul’s catering firm regularly provided the food for the guy’s parties out in the Hamptons.
“So what does he know?” shrugged Paul.
Just then, the food critic emphatically pointed out to his friend one dish, “which could become habit-forming.” It was the stuffed mushrooms. Paul and I doubled over laughing.
The two of us found a place near the bathrooms, where the music wasn’t so loud, and I asked him a bunch of questions about his band, band news being one of his favorite topics. We were joined, not too long afterwards by Dominic and Juniper and a friend of hers from work, named Mandy, a heavily accented Angolan woman, who could have been an African princess. She was striking in feature and posture, and she seemed to know something about everything that came up in our conversation. We all talked for quite a while, and I offered to fetch us a round of drinks. On my way, I scanned around to see if I noticed Ariel. She was with some couple, knees bent, head and shoulders thrown back, laughing wildly up towards ceiling. I knew what that meant.
For all her remonstrances as to my drinking, all her pre-party cautions and warnings, it was always I who had to carry her home, apologize to friends, waitresses and bartenders, over-tip taxi drivers, undress her for bed, and, on the rare occasions that she dared to ask, remind her of what she had done and said. I always tried to do those things in a warm humor, but her indiscretions, ever duly ignored or forgotten, always piqued me as they were occurring, when I compared them to her inflated notion of my drinking. I think a lot of her complaint had to do with her friends sniping about my copious intake to her. My friends never disparaged her behavior to me. Really, I would have cared nothing about carrying her up three flights of stairs four or five times a year, if she didn’t persistently jab at my behavior.
I got our round of drinks, having one while I waited, and I went back to our group, which had grown to include Ruth and Molly and Dickie. Dickie was retelling the story of the starlet, which four of us present had already heard, and everyone but Mandy was getting fairly well-oiled, our hand gestures and our laughter exaggerated from how we had been an hour before. We all talked on, and Paul started engaging Mandy in private conversation, obviously chatting her up.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ariel near the bar, by herself. She was looking around partly for me, but wondering whether she should get a glass of wine now, or after she found me. She was beginning to confuse her thoughts. I privately called it, her “drunken waffling.” I went over to help her out, somewhat mischievously.
“Honey! I’ve been looking all over for you,” I crowed, with a wide smile. “Come on, let’s get you a glass of wine.”
I led her up to the bar and got her wine and my double bourbon. We both knew that, in spite of the fact that she didn’t want me on the strong spirits, she was at the point where she couldn’t say anything about it. I led her by the hand over to our group, telling her that Dominic and Juniper were looking forward to seeing her. When we got there, we were informed that everyone had decided to go to Two-Shay’s, a bar on Second Street that we all liked and could walk to. We took our drinks with us out onto the street.
There were nine of us altogether, and as we walked, we fragmented into smaller groups, laughing, smoking, bumping and laying arms on each other as we teased and expounded. I was helping keep Ariel going in a straight line. That was one of the reasons I had suggested she wear flat shoes; it would have been far more difficult to do if she had been wearing heels. She asked me no less than three times where her friend Courtney was, looking behind her each time. I lied and told her I had seen Courtney leave before we did. I hadn’t thought to look for her when we were on our way out. Maybe, I offered, she would be at Two-Shay’s.
We got to the bar, and it was late enough not to be too crowded. Ruth, Molly, and Ariel had had enough of walking, so they got a table near the bar, with Dickie as their entertainer. I ordered them a round and brought it to them, and Dominic and Juniper paid for my drink, as we stood at the bar. Paul and Mandy were leaning down over the jukebox, and Paul had his arm around her as they chose their selections.
The three of us at the bar blib-blabbed about anything that struck our fancy, and all ears at the table were turned toward Dickie. After awhile, Dominic nudged me, and the three of us watched for a bit, as Paul and Mandy slow-danced in a corner. After more conversation and another drink, we turned and noticed that they had left. At that moment, the door opened, and two girls we knew came into the bar. One of them, Julie Raines, saw me, and her face lit up, just as Ariel spied her. Julie ran over to me, threw her arms around my neck and kissed me on the cheek. She was that way, but especially with me. I met eyes with Ariel and the two other girls at her table; they were throwing daggers at Julie, in league. Dickie turned to see what was the matter, rolled his eyes, and went back to telling his story.
“Hey! I read your review! I saw it at work,” Julie gushed.
As exuberant and demonstrative as she was, it was hard to believe that Julie Raines was a librarian. Indeed, she worked in the vast periodical section at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.
I had, through an odd set of circumstances, read a scathing review in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, of a documentary, which I had seen and enjoyed. The reviewer had taken a very superficial view of the film and its subject matter – Cleveland’s criminal underworld – and had gone on and on about how the filmmaker had misrepresented that fair city. I had found the newspaper, left behind at a barbershop in Grand Central Station while I was waiting for a haircut, so it was only a day old. I immediately wrote a long, well-thought, balanced response and faxed it to the paper. Imagine my surprise when a friend in Cleveland called and asked me whether I was the same person who had written a rebuttal of the review for the op-ed section of the Plain Dealer. He sent me a copy, and they hadn’t changed or omitted a word. Not only that, but there had been a flurry of letters to the editor in the days after, taking up sides over the original review and my response.
How Julie Raines ever came across it, in the deluge of periodicals, I did not ask, but she wanted to know all about it, and she expressed that desire in a very enthusiastic and tactile way. Ariel rose from her seat and came over and put her arms around me, wobbling a little, unnecessarily staking her territory. I smiled warmly into her upturned face, and finished telling Julie how the article came to be. Ariel stepped meaningfully on my foot, and I used body language to steer the conversation in the physical direction of Dominic and Juniper. I kept up my side of the chat, long enough to not appear abrupt, gently put my hands on Ariel’s shoulders, and reminded her that I had to get up early for work, and shouldn’t we be going? In truth, Ariel had to be at work an hour before I did.
We said our good-nights and went out onto the sidewalk.
“Why do you even talk to her? You know I can’t stand her,” Ariel scowled, weaving. I held her up with an arm around her waist.
“She’s not a bad person, and besides, you’ve got nothing to be jealous of.”
I tried to kiss her, and she turned her head and lurched away.
“I’m not jealous, and besides, she likes you.” Her eyes were glassy, and her neck was becoming very elastic. “And besides, don’t end a sentence with a preposition.”
She delivered the last sentence with a pronounced slur, and slid down onto the curb, her back against a lamppost. Her head bobbed down onto her knees, and her underwear was showing. The subway was out of the question, and I didn’t see a cab anywhere. We finally got one, and I lifted her into it and tossed her purse onto her lap. All the way home, her head lolled about, and she muttered non-sequiturs about my “utterly disgraceful grammar.” I helped her up the stairs, despite, as she plopped down on each landing, her decrying that she could do it herself. At our door, I chided, “No, no, honey, I’ve got the keys,” whereupon she vainly half-searched for her purse, which I was holding.
Once inside, I asked her if she had to pee. No, she didn’t, she said, and I sat her on the bed, knelt and took off her shoes.
“Oh, so now you’re trying to preposition me,” she mused, with half-closed eyes, awkwardly mussing my hair.
I tossed her legs onto the mattress and undressed her, kissed her lips and forehead, and called her silly.
“I’m not silly,” she murmured, and I shut off the light.
Before I joined her, I finished off the rest of my bourbon from behind the reference books and stuck the bottle in my knapsack, to get rid of on my way to work.
The next morning, I woke up before she did, and started making coffee. I heard her rummaging around in the bathroom, probably looking for the ibuprofin. I decided to test her knowledge of the previous night.
“So, Ariel, honey,” I called. “What did you think of the art last night?”
“What art?” was her response. “I mean, who the hell has a memorial on a Wednesday night? Don’t they know that some of us actually have jobs?”
I dug back into my memory of the night before, a little guiltily, to assess any true respects which we and our friends had paid to the life of a human being, who had passed from this earth. I could not recall any respect paid, but of that to ourselves.
Death, I thought, really is only for the living.