“Hey,” Gerald said. “You guys aren’t hiring, are you?”
“What do you mean?” I said. “Aren’t you a business guy?”
“I was,” he said. “Look, can I just have an application?”
I started to say something funny, then didn’t. Gerald didn’t look like he was joking.
“Sure,” I said, leaning over and digging one out from under the counter, where the applications lay underneath a zippered cash bag. “Here you go.”
Our application is three pages long. It has the standard stuff: name, address, work history, things like that. The last two pages are blank, except for the question why are you here? Adrian and I had thought that one up after a particularly grueling Thursday night shift. The idea was to filter out the idiots—if you didn’t have a good story to tell, why would we want to work with you?
Gerald took the application back to his normal place, and I nearly forgot about him, until he came up and asked if he could have another one to use as an add-on, because he had run out of paper. I gave him the extra. About twenty minutes later, he came back up.
“More paper?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I’m done. That’s a hell of a thing to ask people.”
“You’d be surprised,” I said. “Sometimes we get grad students in here who are trying to earn a few extra bucks, and they’ll try to be clever. One guy wrote ‘because.’”
“Did you hire him?”
“No. We’d seen that one before.”
Gerald smiled. He looked tired.
“Well, I hope you like mine.”
“Honestly,” I said. “The fact that you wrote that much means that we’d probably take you, it’s just that all of our shifts are full right now, even the Friday and Saturday nights. If something opens up…”
“I know,’ he said with a sigh. “You’ll call me.”
“I won’t,” I said. “Adrian will. I don’t call new hires.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Adrian just always does it.”
“Oh,” he said. He walked back to his place and opened up the paper.
“Don’t hire him, Jerry,” said Jack Ramsey from his table.
“My name isn’t Jerry,” I said. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Your coffee,” he said.
And so it went.
I’m an investment banker. The name of the bank I used to work for isn’t important. They’re all the same—take any of those three words that sound like they come from Brahmin families and you have one of the factories that grab Ivy League graduates by the fistful and dump them on an unsuspecting market. That’s the group of people who make stock recommendations. I could tell you stories about how a hungover twenty-two-year old caused a half-day market slide because he was nearly passed out on his keyboard.
I signed up with my bank at the end of my senior year. They gave me the biggest signing bonus of the three banks that offered me positions. Most of the five thousand dollars went for suits from Brooks Brothers, ties and shoes—really nice Rockports. The company had mailed me a guide to Boston when I’d been hired—they recommended that new associates live in the North End, Back Bay, or Beacon Hill so that you would be close to the office for those times when you’re at work after public transportation closes down. I remember grinning when I read that; it made me feel badass. I’d made it. I was going to be a man. I chose the North End because it was the closest neighborhood to the office. I liked the picture in the guidebook of old Italian men gathered on a porch smoking cigarettes.
I moved into my apartment in one day, filled it with furniture the next, and the day after that I put on my new suit and tie and walked to work; it was the middle of June. Nobody had told me how freakin’ hot it gets in Boston. I’m from California, and it’s a hell of a lot hotter in June here than it is back home. You could see through my white shirt by the time I go to the Big Dig underpass; when I got to work I’d put my jacket back on. The building was air-conditioned, and I shivered through my first day of work, during which I sat through meetings about company policy with twenty other new recruits, all men, all with the encrustations of dried sweat on their foreheads. I didn’t care. I was excited. The guy who took us through orientation told us that one day, if we worked hard enough, we could change the financial world. We were going to add to the value chain, differentiate ourselves from the market, be the fucking engine of the revolution.
But first, we’d have to pay dues. I guess you have to in every job. Before you can tend bar, you have to barback. Before you can work at the counter at the adult bookstore, you’re probably the guy who has to clean up the jerkoff booths. In Hollywood, you have to be a producer’s assistant to a fat, bearded coke addict and provide him with a constant flow of drugs and women who’ll exchange a blowjob for a bit part. I understand that, but I still don’t understand the bullshit I had to produce during my first year as an investment banker.
They’d give us reams and reams of paper, all printed with research about a company or a sector, information generated by the bank’s research wing. My job was to analyze this research and come up with a recommendation to buy or sell. Meanwhile, another team of two or three young kids was looking at the exact same stack of research, tasked to come up with the exact opposite conclusion. We caught on really fast, and sometimes we’d make a game out of it. We’d look at all the research but not the last page of the assignment, the one that told us what conclusion we were supposed to reach, and we’d put together a huge paper, as long as two hundred pages, of research and words and conclusions that could be taken either way, and we’d look at our assignment at the last minute and construct a finale that fit what we’d written already. Nobody ever figured us out. I think they threw everything away. It didn’t matter to us, and it didn’t matter to my boss; all he cared about was that we stayed late. He used to walk around the office at eight o’clock and grunt happily when he saw you in your cube with the light on. It didn’t matter if we were actually doing anything—just that we were there.
After a year of this I got promoted to conference call alternate. Every fiscal quarter the SEC requires that publicly traded companies have to disclose their earnings. When they disclose their earnings, they also estimate how much money they’re going to make in the coming quarter—the SEC doesn’t require this, but the investment banks do. This way, when the analysts make an estimate of the company’s upcoming earnings—they never say that earnings are going to be exactly what the company says they will—the bank looks like it knows what it’s doing, and people will pay the bank more in fees. If the analyst is off, that’s okay, because nobody really cares. The companies report this stuff via a conference call that all of the analysts dial into
My job for that year was to listen to the conference call while the primary analyst was off getting coffee or screwing his pool secretary. My job was to come up with a question to ask the company CEO or CFO after the company presentation. Analysts never ask anything interesting—an analyst will usually ask a question on a subject that’s already been covered. But he has to get his name in the published transcript of the call so that they can show that he actually does work. That means he’ll get promoted and get to bang a better looking secretary. Sometimes the primary analyst would give me his cell phone with instructions to call when the Q and A started. Every now and then he wouldn’t make it in time, and I’d ask his question myself.
“Gerald Willis,” I’d say, “In for John Anderson today.” If I could get on enough transcripts, one of the higher-ups might notice my name and promote me to primary analyst and I’d get a pool secretary to screw, calls of my own to listen to, and a junior analyst to push around. I was put into the technology area because I was one time I “fixed” my boss’s boss’s computer, which had frozen during a meeting, by rebooting it.
“John, this is just the type of hands-on guy that the company needs for the Internet sector,” my boss’s boss had said to my boss after that. “We ought to think about that.”
I got my promotion, a year earlier than most of my analyst class. The promotion came with a couple of junior analysts and one-third access to a pool secretary, who I banged twice in one year, both times on the table of one of the conference rooms. We used a condom both times, and I wasn’t sure where to put it when we were done. Each time the janitorial staff had already come through and emptied the garbage cans, and leaving a used condom in a fresh garbage can for the others to discover in the morning wouldn’t do. Each time I ended up walking down the hall in my suit with my belt undone and my tie loose around my neck, holding a used condom by the rim with two fingers, hoping like hell that none of the junior analysts or summer interns who were always in the office until well past midnight would see me walking down the halls trying to keep his own jizz off of his fingers and tie. After the second time I decided not to bang her anymore, not because I’d get fired if I got caught, but because I didn’t like that jizz-walk down the hall.
I listened to calls for two years, watching from the sidelines as small technology companies who had the word “Internet” in their names made hundreds of millions of invisible dollars and spent it all on crystal fountains and huge offices and cars to impress the girls in their lives. More often than not those girls were secretaries from investment banks who left for the dot-coms because the potential seemed greater on the other side. My secretary left halfway through that two-year period to an Internet company that planned to sell car stereo upgrades online.
Things started to go sour, and the Internet companies all started to report ways that they were cutting costs and focusing on profitability—two words that I’d never heard on the conference calls. Three months after the first firm that I followed went out of business, eight more had done the same—everyone whom I’d analyzed and written poorly-researched reports about and issued “buy” recommendations for was slowly going out of business. Three months after that I was only covering two companies—one that sold pet products and an online bank with no physical branches. Christ. I got bored and bribed one of the IT guys to get rid of the network restrictions on illicit out-of-the-office material, and started to spend my days at the office downloading porn and keeping up with the Red Sox. Most of my office mates were in the same boat. We played endless rounds of hallway mini-golf, competed to see who could find the most disgusting fetish pictures possible. I won that one with a picture of a snake slithering out of a woman. Jesus.
I got fired on the winning day. My boss’s boss—the man whose computer I’d fixed the year before—came in and asked if I could join a quick meeting in the conference room where I’d banged the pool secretary. My boss was there, along with three guys from my group and a nervous-looking woman with short brown hair and wire-framed square rimless spectacles. I didn’t like her. My boss’s boss launched into a long speech about business cycles, synergy, and the need to make sacrifices, and I noticed that my own boss wasn’t looking at his boss anymore. His head was down and his hands were playing with each other, wiping themselves across the fingers as if he was trying to clean something off.
“So we’re having to have your positions eliminated,” said my boss’s boss, looking everywhere but across the table at the five of us.
“What’s our new assignment?” asked Ian, one of my officemates.
“No, you don’t understand,” squeaked the brown-haired woman. “The company is having your position eliminated.”
“We’re being laid off,” whispered my boss. “Holy shit. I’ve got kids, ballet lessons…fuck.”
Five men in brown uniforms, cops without the badges, but with the nightclubs and guns, entered the room through the side door that led to the bathroom where I’d twice flushed used condoms.
“These men will escort you back to your desks to make sure you take all of your personal possessions,” said the woman. “Please be cooperative.” She passed out folders to each of us. “These folders have detailed information about unemployment insurance and other benefits available to you from the state. If you have any questions, I’m available, and you’ll find my business card inside.”
“What’s our severance?” asked my boss.
“Two weeks,” said the woman.
“Two weeks?” said my boss.
We got up to leave. “One more thing,” said the woman. “You were all issued cell phones by the company last year. Please leave those in your desk for repossession. We expect you off the premises in thirty minutes.”
We walked down the hallway to our area—the four of us to the large room with our cubes and my boss to his windowless office.
“Oh shit,” said Ian, looking at his palm-sized cell phone, “all of my phone numbers are in here—friends, family, everyone. I don’t have time to copy them down…what can I do?”
“Take it,” said my boss, who had walked into our area without us noticing. He carried a small cardboard box with the company logo on it. I could see the red-framed picture of his son that was always behind his desk on the top. “These guards don’t give a shit.” He looked at one of the guards, a mustached man whose belly spilled over his belt and flowed down to near his crotch. The guard shook his head slightly.
“We’re only here to see that you don’t make any trouble,” he said. “I hope you guys hurry—we have another assignment in ten minutes on the fourteenth floor.”
“Hm,” said my boss. “I guess they’re really flushing ‘em out today. Fuckers.”
We walked to the elevator with our logoed boxes and our cell phones and let the revolving door spit us out into the street at two-o’clock. I’d never been outside of my building at that time. I’d only been there at quarter to nine, twelve, one, and after six. The streets were nearly empty of. During commuting and lunch hours, they were always packed with people like me. We stood there in fall sport jackets in a rough group, looking at each other, not sure what to say. I’d spent countless hours with my four cubicle-mates, telling jokes, making fun of the ridiculous companies we’d been asked to cover or recommend or research to a certain angle, but I don’t remember where any of them was from before college; I think they were all from New Jersey. I’m from Maine.
After a few minutes of forced conversation (“Well, maybe we should try to make a weekday afternoon Sox game,” “Anyone know if they’ll mail our severance, or do we pick it up?” “Do we actually have to go in to the unemployment office?” ), we went our separate ways. I walked through downtown, under the always-quaking rusty green overpass where the Central Artery slashes through the border between the office buildings and the low brownstones of the North End. It was a Friday afternoon, and I could smell the yeasty cocoa scent of black-and-white cookies baking at Mike’s Pastry. I walked down Hanover Street and took a left after Circle Pizza, and nearly ran into three old men with wispy white hair playing cribbage on a rickety card table. I stopped so abruptly that I spilled some of the junk I’d brought from the office on the ground, and one man with a weathered face and a smoldering cigarette in a cheap plastic holder chuffed a word in Italian and helped me pick up the pieces of my working life from the gutter.
Since then I’ve been playing around with my resume, trying to make it sound like I did something in my two years at the bank that would make me worth hiring. I use a lot of words like “synergy” and “capitalized,” “produced” and “implemented.” None of the companies that I covered exist anymore, and the reports that were published with my name on them have all been thrown away. My friend in IT, who still works at the bank, says that our computers were junked—taken away to a storage facility with two hundred others machines that had once been used by employees who were laid off when I was. They’ll sit there for a year and eventually be moved to a landfill, where the parts will stay for hundreds of years. The company could have given us our computers to use for job-hunting, or just as a severance perk. Instead, they chucked them in the garbage. I managed to keep mine because one of my friends in the IT department saved it. My unemployment is pretty good; it just about covers the rent on my apartment. I have some money saved up because I sold all of my stocks on a hunch about two weeks before the big layoff, and I use that to buy food and coffee. Every resume that I’ve sent out has generated an auto-response “thank you for sending your resume” letter that is carefully worded to not give the slightest hint about what chances I have. I’ve been out of work for three months, and every day the paper has an article on how Merrill Lynch is laying off 150, Piper Jaffray is letting 200 go. I read a lot now, mostly from books that never use the word “synergy.” I’m twenty-five years old and have nowhere to go in the morning.
“Hey Adrian,” I said. “You’ve got to read this.” I gave him Gerald’s application. Adrian read it while sipping espresso.
“Wow,” he said.
“Can we hire this guy?” I said.
Adrian shook his head. “Have you seen our application pool lately?”
“No, I’ve been kind of involved,” I said.
“Self absorbed, you mean.”
“Look.” He jiggled another drawer another drawer, pulling at it six times before it opened. It was stacked full of completed applications. He took Gerald’s and dropped it in.
“Haven’t you noticed how many people have been applying for the last couple of months?” He asked. “It’s a deluge, Pete.”
“Layoffs,” said a man on the other side of the counter. He was gaunt, thin, pale, like a thirtyish cartoon version of the Grim Reaper with skin. “I was going to ask you for an application, too, but…”
“You’re kidding,” I said. The guy was at least forty years old.
The Grim Reaper grinned. It was ghastly.
“I’m walking all the way up Massachusetts Avenue,” he said. “Dropping off applications at every place I see. You should have seen the guys at the Indian travel agency. Nobody’d ever applied there before.”
“Do you know how many stories like Gerald’s I’ve heard?” asked Adrian. “If we hired everyone who neeed a job, everyone would get half a shift per week. It’s gotten tougher out there since you got laid off.”
“How long have you been here?” asked the Grim Reaper.
“Couple of years,” I said.
“Things have changed,” he said. “Was it this crowded on Friday mornings when you first started working here?”
“No,” I said. “But I just figured that we were getting more popular.”
“Your coffee is good,” said the Grim Reaper. “But it’s not that good. I’d say half the people in here are unemployed right now.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I don’t know if you’re going to like this girl,” said Adrian.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I said. “I’m going to be pretty clear on this, Adrian. I don’t like blind dates very much.”
“How many have you been on?” he asked.
I hesitated. “One.”
“I’ll go ahead and say that your range of experience isn’t enough to make your judgement anything to take seriously,” he said. “Anyway, I just don’t know if she’s your type.”
“Is she female?”
“Is she into guys?”
“Then she’s probably my type.” That may sound insensitive and shallow and all that other stuff, but when it boils down to it, it’s true. I’m a guy, for Chrissakes. I like girls. I don’t have a type. Nobody has a type to the point where they can say “I like redheads.” (On a side note, that’s also bullshit, because everyone likes redheads) Well, maybe women do, but who really knows what they’re thinking? I often think that when a girl tells you “you’re just not my type,” it’s a convenient lie, because what she really means is “you don’t have enough money” or “your clothes are stupid” or “you forgot to open the door for me once a few weeks ago and that means that you’ll be a horrible father to my children and might hit my mother.” My point is that type is a bullshit word, because even if someone is your type, there’s a million other reasons why you might hate them.
“Well, it’s just that she’s kind of….normal.”
What did he mean by that? “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that she has only two earrings and tends to wear clothes from the Gap and may have never been to the Middle East upstairs to see a band that nobody else has ever heard of.”
I stopped in the middle of slicing a bagel to toaster width. “Ade, I’m really not that much of a culture snob.”
He laughed. “Sure, whatever. Here’s the deal. She’s going to come by the coffee shop right when you get off—six, right? And you’re going to go to dinner and talk. Then you’re going to come back here, where I’m going to be reading a book in the corner, and you’re either going to have coffee and talk more or you’ll drop her off with me.”
That struck me as weird, and I told him so.
“Well, I wanted you to have an out if it turns out terrible. That way her night isn’t ruined: it goes bad with you, she can hang out with me and my limitless capacity to entertain.”
“I appreciate the thought, Ade. I really do.”
Our conversation was interrupted at that point by a consistent crowd—never was it busy, but the line never got below three or four people, and it seemed like every other person had a personal problem, a drink that was too sweet or too hot or too foamy. . And then I got to thinking about the names of old Masters of the Universe characters, and wondering whether or not the Hordak and his Evil Horde were some sort of weird precognitive reference to the HORDE tour of the mid-‘90s and all the crappy tuneless jam-based stoner music that spawned from that, and then it was five ‘til six.
“Hey, Pete!” shouted Adrian. I hadn’t seen her walk in; I was down in the storage room in the basement bringing up another box of to-go cup tops. “Sarah’s here,” he shouted. “Come on up!”
I stood down there in the storage room, struggling to open a taped box without a knife, and thought about staying down there for the rest of the evening. It’s not that I didn’t want to meet Sarah or am particularly afraid of blind dates, but sitting down in the storage room and staring at the labels on cup boxes seemed easier than the potential walk up the stairs. I sat there for a minute, decided to abandon the cup tops, pulled the string on the bare bulb and headed up.
Sarah sat there with Adrian, and his description of her was exactly correct. She looked normal. No hippie clothing, no non-lobe piercings, a plain silver band on the ring finger of her right hand. I couldn’t see if she was wearing a belt on her blue jeans, but if she was I was willing to bet that it was leather, no studs or spikes or belt buckles with distillery logos. Her hair was long enough to curl behind her ears, but short enough to show a tiny bit of neck above her cream-colored button-down shirt.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” she said.
I offered a hand, she shook it. Neither of us said anything for a few seconds, and I could feel my heart begin to go a little bit faster, kind of like the jump you get after seven a.m. espresso.
“Anyway,” said Adrian, whipping me on the shoulder with a clean white cleaning rag, “you two get the hell out of here. As the social planner, I’m decreeing your dinner spot to be….the Moon Man Brewery.”
“Okay,” I said. “Shall we?”
She smiled then, a good smile that revealed two slightly off-kilter bottom teeth.
The Moon Man is about a half mile from Jon’s Place, just on other side of Harvard Square. It’s as yuppified and annoying as most places in the Square these days, but the beer is good and the food is decent. . Sarah and I talked about the standard stuff on the walk there: where we went to college (Swarthmore), where we grew up (Sandusky, Ohio), where we live now (she had an apartment in Brighton) how she knew Adrian (through a friend who had used him as a last-minute date for a company party), and other such topics.
The Moon Man wasn’t particularly crowded that night, so we got a table after waiting about five minutes. The hostess, who couldn’t have been much more than nineteen and had a disturbing brunette resemblance to a girl who’d asked me to a Sadie Hawkins dance in high school, sat us in a booth over on the side of the atrium. This was going to be the fun part: can two people who don’t know each other from Adam survive an hour plus of food-punctuated conversation? My experience is that it’s not that hard; carrying on a conversation with anyone is pretty easy, provided that neither party is lacking any normal cognitive abilities. There are a million things to discuss; most people have a history, have lived in places, have friends who have done strange things, have at least one funny quirk that they’re willing to share. The question that you have to ask yourself as the bill comes and it becomes time to order dessert is: do I want do do this again? The worst thing is to find yourself at a second dinner and realize halfway through the salad that you have nothing more to say.
“So,” she said after ordering a pizza on a pita with shiitake mushrooms and three types of cheese, “what makes you work at a coffee shop?”
“It’s not that much of a story,” I said. “I moved up here after college because I wanted to live in a manageable city. Jon offered me a job after I got laid off from a Kendall Square software firm. It sounded good to me; I could fill in the hours I didn’t spend looking for a real job there at the coffee shop. After a few months, I was working well over forty hours a week at the shop and had stopped looking for office jobs. It’s almost two years later, here I am. How’d you get into what you do?”
She shook her head. “Not much of a story, either. On-campus recruiting. I graduated last year and dropped off some resumes at a job fair. PWC called me up, flew me up here, offered me a job, and here I am. Guess we’re both pretty unexciting, huh?”
I laughed at that. She got irony points.
I couldn’t tell her that I was lying when I told her why I work at Jon’s. People like what I do, and sometimes they tell me so. That feels good, and it’s the type of good feeling I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t get sitting in front of a computer and taking buy/sell orders on frozen concentrated orange juice futures from anonymous rich people in Bel Air. I work there because I like the smell of coffee on a cold winter morning, and I feel like what I do is important in its own way.
“So this is the point,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, we find out what we like to do, and decide if we feel like the other is worth talking to,” she said.
I could feel my face turning red, because what she had said was completely true. We had to have this turn of conversation: where we liked to go, what we’d read, what television we watched.
“You date a lot?” I asked. I was a bit embarassed by her bluntness; shouldn’t she just have let the conversation happened without acknowledging it?
“A bit,” she said. “I decided a couple of months ago to treat guys like a meeting with a client—there’s an obvious purpose to this, right?”
“So let’s get to it.”
Her openness didn’t destroy the evening. We started right in, and it soon became apparent that we weren’t going to have much to do if we started to hang out on a regular basis, let alone if we started to swap fluids in bed. She liked to stay in on early Sunday nights and watch Must-See-TV, I didn’t have an antenna or cable. She listened to the NPR radio on the way to work, the legion of same-sounding NPR hosts scares me. By the time dessert arrived we’d both reached the same unspoken conclusion: it wasn’t going to work out. We split the bill and walked back to Jon’s Place in silence. If she ever came in for coffee at Jon’s, I’d say hi and ask how things were going, she’d say things were going fine. If we ended up hanging out together in a group—with Adrian that was eminently possible—we’d talk and be friendly, but that was it. I wouldn’t call, and neither would she.
After I took her back and dropped her off with Adrian, I went home. The thwacks and thuds and screams of pain emanated from Barry’s room. The phone rang—it was Gina, looking for Barry.
“Hey,” she said as I walked toward his room with the phone. “I heard you had a date tonight. How’d it go?”
“Not too exciting,”
“What was the problem?” she asked.
“I guess she just wasn’t my type.”
“Too bad,” she said.
I waited for her to say something, maybe hint that she really wanted to talk to me rather than Barry, that this phone call was really an excuse to hear my voice and listen to what I had to say. She didn’t say anything; I could hear the faint tapping of her fingers.I knocked on Barry’s door and opened it up. Barry wasn’t actually playing a game. He was sitting on his bed, watching a DVD on his computer monitor.
“Phone for me?” he said. He looked surprised.
“Yep,” I said. “What are you watching?”
“I forget the movie; it’s about gladiators and it’s with that guy with the hole in his chin.”
Spartacus. Nice. Barry was getting somewhere.
“Hey…” he said into the phone. “Oh, Gina! Hi!” He clicked his mouth, the movie paused, and I slunk back to my room.
Adrian came into work on Wednesday twenty minutes late. Unusual, not unheard of. I was in a pretty bitter mood, the result of a previous-evening failed attempt at homemade Pad Thai and the subsequent deilivery of decidedly uninspired tofu fried noodles from China Star. I was nibbling on a blueberry bagel that had been left ove from the day before.
“Where’ve you been?”
He gave me a naughty-boy grin and put his backpack down next to the fridge.
“Sorry, Pete. Didn’t sleep much.”
“Oh God, you got laid last night, didn’t you?”
“What makes you say that?”
“The FFG. It’s all over your face.”
Ade paused for a bare instant and cocked his head to the left. “Yeah, you’re right.”
“So who was he?”
He grinned again, wide enough to crack the sides of his lips on a dry day. “He’s a doctor. Thirty-two years old, really nice. I met him at a reading at Border’s last night. There was this editor reading excerpts from an anthology of modern gay men’s fiction.”
“So it was a pickup spot.”
“Yeah. Anyway, we sat next to each other and I snuck a look in his bags and then we were discussing organic chemistry and having a blast.”
One thing I should mention about Adrian is that he’s brilliant—smart enough to drive all of his friends nuts on occasion. He was offered spots in two or three doctoral programs in mathematics when he graduated, but turned them down because he wants to become the first gay mayor of Austin, Texas. He claims that working at Jon’s Place helps his public speaking. In the meantime, he reads science textbooks for fun and laughs at the inside jokes.
“Does this guy have a name?”
“No way. Steve is an action-hero name. Steven wears glasses.”
After that the rest of the workday went pretty well; Adrian talked about Steven this and Steven that; his energy got to me after a while, erasing the memory of the utterly average noodles and the zero-interest factor of my last couple of nights. The rhythm of the day caught up to me and I even managed to brush off my total lack of anything interesting since the not-a-disaster-but-kind-of-lame Sarah experience of two weeks before. and by the end of the lunch rush we were practicing team juggling with the fruit. It’s one of the few things that I’m better at; he kept dropping the orange until it finally split, spewing pulp and jice all over the floor. I left it there and replaced it in the juggling order with a rock-hard week-old muffin.
“So you should meet him,” he said.
“Well, you guys have a pretty cool place, and you never have anyone over. Why don’t you have a party or something and I’ll bring Steven?”
A party. I missedthe grapefruit, which bounced on the counter and over to a table, ending up smack in the middle of a nearly-empty cup of chai.
“Oh, crap.” Adrian hopped the counter and fetched the grapefruit before the chai’s woman managed to get a word out. “Sorry about that. Let me make you another cup, ok?”
“Ok,” she said. She had no idea what was going on, so she stayed seated and flounced her long skirt a bit. Adrian looked nervous.
“What’s with you?” I said.
I said I did.
“She’s one of those old hippie women. Look, her ponytail is tied with a piece of rope. There’s nothing worse than an angered ex-hippie. It’s like all the piece and love got pulled out of them after the Summer of Love and there’s nothing left behind but bitch and yell.”
He finished foaming the chai and brought it back to the woman, who had used the rope to tie off the end of her long grey hair; she had braided it while waiting.
“I think you’re over-reacting.” I said.
“No way. If I hadn’t dropped an extra biscotti in with this she would have thrown a serious hissyfit.”
And then Quentin Donnelly the Starbucks guy walked in. I remembered hating his guts on sight, but, in retrospect, I was willing to credit that to the hangover I’d had that day. Really. I was all set to give him the benefit of the doubt. Lots of doubt, true, but he’d get the benefit. That benefit lasted until he opened his mouth for the second sentence.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m Quentin Donnelly.”
“I know,” I said. “You came in here a little while ago, looking for Jon. He’s not here.”
“A good thing, too,” he said. “The way you have this place set up, I’m surprised, really surprised. We’ll clean it up after we take over, though.”
“That’s the business proposition,” he said, patiently, as if explaining mathematics to a four-year old. “We’ll take over and handle all the business, and turn this place into a profit machine.”
“A question,” said Adrian.
“Did you just come from an Andrew Carnegie course today or something? You seem awfully fired up.”
Donnelly’s canine grin faltered.
“How did you…anyway. Jon isn’t here?”
I shook my head. Adrian shook his head. We both looked at him. His grin faltered more, and he looked back at us. The grin came back, as if someone had flipped a circuit breaker somewhere.
“Well, have him call us. It’s a great opportunity, and it’s going to happen sooner or later anyway. Better to strike while the iron is hot.” He flipped a card onto the counter and turned around. The counter was dry, and the card slid over it, finally falling off on our side, directly into the foamy brown water of the mop pail.
“Poetic justice,” said Adrian.
It was only after I got home that I remembered Adrian’s party suggestion. It didn’t seem like a bad idea. I had never had people over because of Barry; he never seemed like he’d be comfortable in a large group of strangers, so I had moved my social life, such as it was, elsewhere. But, he had changed a bit in the last month; I was pretty sure that he could hold a conversation with a normal person and not come off as too abnormal. Not for a real throw-down (and there’s no way our apartment could handle more than a few people comfortably, anyway), but we could pull off a nice small gathering: some food, some drinks, conversation…my God, I was in the nascent stages of planning a dinner party.
“Dinner Party” is a loaded phrase. My parents first started throwing them when I was around six or seven. I’d wander back in from doing little-kid things on a Saturday evening, and be unceremoniously tossed in the bathtub by my dad, who would always be wearing suspenders at that point. I’d get clean and eat a quick meal in the kitchen. The guests would arrive, mom and dad would introduce them to me, I’d say “hi,” and then retire to the family room to watch a Disney cartoon while the adults made conversation that I didn’t understand; I knew because I snuck out and hid next to the dining room door once to listen. After the movie, a parent would come in and make me go to bed. The formula didn’t change much over the years, except that bedtime got later and as high school came along, I’d leave the house instead of staying in.
Dinner parties are a parent thing, a grown-up thing, a thing that people do when they’re well on the way to wherever it is you are when older people look at you and say “he’s on his way.” Obviously, I couldn’t be throwing one, being on the way to nowhere in particular. I’d just have to call it something else.
“Yeah?” He was barely audible behind his door and a noise that sounded like a horse and cart running over a six-year old with Tourrette’s syndrome.
“What do you think about having some people over, cooking some food, hanging out?”
“You mean a dinner party?”
“No, having some people over, cooking some food, hanging out.”
The doorknob turned and he came out to the living room, his eyes a little glazed over. “What’s the difference?”
“I don’t think we’re together enough to throw a dinner party. What do you think?”
“Can I bring some people?”
“A few, sure.”
“Do I have to do anything?”
“OK. But I get to throw another party here.”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
Is sat on my bed later that night after a dinner of standard spaghetti, making the following list on a notepad that advertised Viagra. I wrote this:
1) Who to invite? Adrian, Steven (is it Stephen or Steven? This is important to know), Barry can invite somebody, Jenny (But then she’d bring her boyfriend; Ug.)?
2) What to make? Spaghetti? Did we even have a cookbook?
Great. Three lines and I was stuck. Hm…Okay, I could invite Jason, except that would mean three people from work in one room, plus too many guys. Who could I actually invite? It hit me then that my social life was pretty lame; other than people from work, I really didn’t know anyone I wanted to invite to any sort of gathering. I had a few people I would have over if it was a get-drunk-and-pretend-to-dance affair, but, well, the only people I really hung with these days were Adrian, Barry, Jason, and Jenny when we worked the same shift, which was less and less. But wasn’t the whole point of a dinner party to get to know new people anyway? I started to despair…Jack Ramsey? The guy who didn’t know my name and yelled at me all the time? No. Hm… I wrote down a new list:
Adrian (+ Stephen)
Barry (+ Guest)
Jason (+ Guest)
Seven people, leaving me the odd man out. That didn’t sound too bad; I was going to cook, after all! I couldn’t possibly be expected to entertain and cook at the same time, right?
Well, it didn’t sound right, so that’s where I was. I called everyone and let Barry know what the deal was through his doorway, and turned my attention to the bookshelf. We had Unix manuals, cheat handbooks, junk by Bill Gates, Bartlett’s, Daniel Pinkwater…nothing that could be construed as instructions on how to cook a meal. I knocked on Barry’s door:
“You are about to enter the fourth level of the Abyss, land of the snot demons. Prepare for…” the demon-voice cut off and Barry cut in: “Yeah?”
“Hey, you know how to cook anything?”
“Oh. You don’t happen to have a cookbook handy, do you?”
“Hang on.” I heard the noise of stuff being moved, and the door opened. “Do you need to find a recipe?”
“Come on in.” I opened the door. Barry was sitting in his underwear, a sight that surely made Michaelangelo cry like a little girl. All of his possessions except his computer were piled next to his window. He was staring at his screen, arms at his sides.
“Just a second,” he said. “OK. You need a recipe, right?”
I nodded. Barry raised his arms to his keyboard and mouse, popped up a browser window and brought up the Epicurious Foods website.
“Any recipe you want, right here,” he said.
“I just want something that’s easy to cook for eight people,” I said.
He typed easy to cook for eight people into one of the blanks. The screen cycled and came up with Easy Chicken and Potato Curry. The byline said “perfect for an informal gathering.” I looked at it. All the ingredients seemed familiar and easy to find, it didn’t require much beyond a big pot and a knife, and it claimed to feed eight.
“Thanks, Barry,” I said. He didn’t answer, absorbed already in his game.
“Can you print that?”
“Oh, sorry, forgot that,” he said.
I picked the printout off of his printer and closed the door. The hellish voices started up again.
Thursday and Friday happened. Everyone promised to show up, Adrian said he would bring a salad, I made him promise to bring something that would go with curry. Jason said he would bring some booze. Barry had invited Gina.
Saturday came early, and I spent the whole day preparing. By the time I had cleaned the apartment (including the bathroom), washed the dishes, borrowed some chairs from the couple downstairs, gone to the grocery store, forgotten potatoes, gone back to the store, forgotten yogurt, gone back, sliced the vegetables, browned the chicken and thrown everything together for a two-hour simmer, it was ten minutes past six, and I’d told people to show up at around six-thirty.Two minutes to shower, two to dress (Black t-shirt, grey pants, black leather shoes. I was trying to make a good impression on the guests I didn’t know), and the door resounded from a knock.
Of course it was Barry’s friend; computer people are always late for work and early for social engagements. Of course, it was Gina, which made me stand there and stutter like an idiot for a few seconds. Barry came right up, though, and did a masterful job of taking her coat, putting it in my room on the bed (I had made my room the cloakroom partly because Barry’s is such a mess and partly in the hope that Jason’s guest would look around and immediately think that I was a guy she’d like to know) and getting her some wine. Barry and Gina immediately delved into a conversation about routers and the possibilities for wireless terabit transmission. I was befuddled. Gina was sitting on my couch, in a just-below-the-knees skirt, black boots, and turtleneck sweater, looking like she could easily be in a candid-looking model shot in Vogue, talking about esoteric tech topics and chuckling at Barry’s jokes, which I didn’t get at all. A sample:
Barry: … but of course, he really meant gigahertz, so the guy sold him an old 1.4 megahertz bus…for seventeen dollars.
Gina: (laughing) Classic, just classic!
I busied myself in the kitchen, rearranging the silverware drawer.
Adrian showed up wearing a tie. A silk black tie over a pale blue dress shirt. Steven was right behind him, and he was exactly as I thought he would be. Five six or five-seven, wire-rimmed spectacles, wearing a turtleneck. He was slightly built; I couldn’t imagine Adrian not breaking him if they ever got the least bit rough. We all exchanged greetings and I invited Ade back in the kitchen for a taste test.
“What’s with the tie, man?”
“Well, he’s always been really well-dressed the last few times we’ve seen each other, and I was beginning to get self-conscious.”
“I didn’t know you even owned a tie.”
“Are you worried that because I’m dressing up I’ll all of a sudden get a bourgeois sensibility, quit the coffee shop and go become and investment banker?”
“Yes,” I said, thinking how boring my life would be if I didn’t work with Adrian.
“No way,” he said. “A mayor needs to connect with the people. There aren’t any I-bankers in Austin, Pete.” He clapped me on the shoulder and drew me close in. “Isn’t he just a doll?”
I drew away. “Ade, that’ s the most categorically flaming thing you’ve ever said to me. Be careful; someone might think you’re gay.”
He chuckled. “Seriously.”
“What can I say? Unlike most of the short guys you go for, he’s definitely showered and shaved in the past three days. That’s a plus.”
A snort. “So you like him.”
“Let me tell you after this evening.”
I did like Steven. He seemed like a good guy, kind of like the characters that John Cusack always plays. He was talking to Barry and Gina about the impact of handheld PCs on the medical profession, and he was cool about it, intelligent without excess. It’s a topic that I have no interest in, and Barry probably already knew about, but he made it…warm and fuzzy? That’s the best way I can describe his way of speaking—I liked to listen to him talk.
The doorbell rang.
Jason was there, with Brianna. Of all the people I expected him to bring, she was dead last. What do a high-powered fight-for-the-people lawyer and a b-boy coffeeshop weirdo have in common? My confusion must have been all over my face, as Brianna immediately grinned and gave me a small hug.
“I see you guys know each other,” said Jason, handing over a brown bag that clinked. “Here. Jack. Coke. Limes.”
My mind seethed, the possibilities of this evening suddenly getting brighter—there was no way that Brianna couldn’t have known that the party she was going to with Jason was at my place, therefore she wanted to come over here (because there was no way in hell that anything was going on between the two of them; I’d bet my beanbag chair on it), which meant that there was some other attraction—Adrian was gay, Jason was out, there was no way that she knew Barry….Elation! Thrills! This was more than just a dinner party to meet my friend’s boyfriend, this was turning into a dinner party where I could maybe have something happen with the hot girl who I’d thought I’d blown it with by bailing on the job she’d so nicely set me up with. I could feel my fingertips tingling, like the beginning of an ephedrine high.
“Steven? Steven!” Brianna ran over to the couch and tackled Steven.
“Uh….what?” I said, to no one in particular. Jason heard, though.
“Oh, I guess they know each other through some gay thing,” he said.
“You know, she’s the heavy-duty social justice dyke lawyer, he’s a gay doctor, they probably intersect somewhere.”
I went back into the kitchen to check on the curry.
“You didn’t know, did you?” said Adrian. He had followed me.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“It’s pretty easy to read. You saw her come in, and you’d kind of been thinking about calling her for a few days, since you decided to not work for her, but you’d never gotten around to it, and she showed up and you were thinking perfect! But now she’s gay and you’re back to where you were.”
“So what? It’s not like it really changes anything from when you started this evening, right?”
Yes, it did. I’d spent a lot of effort on Brianna—out at Planter’s, going over to her job, falling in love with her in that ephemeral way that pops up when you’re really into someone who you don’t know and then think you’ll never know; I hadn’t really wanted to see her again after I left her office. Couldn’t she have stayed behind that office door as a perfectly useful fantasy girlfriend, not showing up at your door with the news that she not only doesn’t want me, but doesn’t want anyone remotely like me? Not to mention that she had tricked my by implying that she wasn’t into women by saying that she wasn’t into most women, but would jump Gina Gershon.
I tried to tell this to Adrian, and he laughed. “She didn’t, Pete. Would you say that you’re into most women?”
“Of course not.”
“So why is it different when she says it?”
Adrian laughed. “This is one of those times when I’m really glad I’m not straight.”
Surprisingly (to me), the rest of the night went pretty well. Brianna’s lesbianism took a lot of the pressure off of me; instead of spending too much time talking to her and trying to act like I was interesting, I topped off glasses and served food, listeing to Steven talk about life down at Mass General, which he made sound like a funny episode of ER. . It was neat—you usually think of doctors as otherworldly intellectual beings, and it was cool to hear the story of the scrub nurse who walked in on the anesthesiologist and the janitor getting it on in the locker room. Barry acquitted himself well; he even participated in conversation that didn’t have a technical basis. Even Jason added to the conversation, keeping his obscenity and hip-hop references far below his usual levels. The food was okay, we finished the wine and did some damage to Jason’s Jack Daniels. After a few of those I started the same argument that I always had with Jason—whether Public Enemy or Nirvana was a larger force to change culture in the early ‘90s.
“Bring the Noize, man,” he said, “Bring the fuckin’ Noize!” Everyone else laughed, even Barry, although I had the feeling that he was laughing just because everyone else was.
I had a warm, fuzzy feeling as I cleared the table and went back to my one-basin sink to start the dishes, leaving the others around the table, watching Adrian act out the story of me and the crazy guy at Jon’s Place using salt shakers as action figures).
“Hey, you’re a good host,” said Brianna from far less than one foot away.
“Oh, thanks,” I said.
“Let me help you dry,” she said.
With help, it was easy—she got all the moisture off and put everything away, which was much better than my original plan of leaving everything by the side of the sink and letting air do the job. She had rolled up her sleeves and tied her hair back to do the job. She looked great.
“It’s kind of a bummer that I dig chicks,” she said.
“’Cause if I didn’t, I’d probably go after someone like you.”
Everyone was leaving. The clock back on the microwave in the kitchen read 10:30. “Hey, where’are you going?” I said.
“Oh, Pete,” said Jason, “Great party, man. Gotta blaze, though. Business calls; gotta get to Landsdowne before midnight or I’ll have to turn my rent into pumpkins.”
“Me, too,” said Brianna. “Jacques is throwing a drag-king show tonight, and I wanna go. I’ll see you at Jon’s sometime.”
I went into my room to get their coats, because that’s what hosts always did on Masterpiece Theater when I’d watch it with my parents. Adrian followed me.
“Pete, I’d love to hang out, but, uh…”
He had the courtesy to turn a bit red. “Yep.”
“Get out of here,” I said, tossing him his coat. I went back to the living room to fi0nd it empty, except for the symphony of skewering and death emanating from the speakers in Barry’s room, punctuated by the occasional “Yeah! Get him!” from Gina. The couch beckoned, and there I flopped, not tired, not energized, wondering what a twenty-five-year-old urbanite such as myself was doing at home alone on a Saturday night after throwing a party. The door opened again, revealing Brianna.
“You ever been to a drag king show?” she asked.
“Want to come along?”
“Sure,” I said.
I picked up my coat after a moment’s indecision—what kind of coat to wear to a drag-king show? I settled on my midweight raincoat. It’s not too snotty, but formal enough to pass muster in most of the places in town.
Jacques is a club downtown, slightly off the Common, right back of the downtown hotels that are always full of business travellers. I’d been there a few times to see bands downstairs, which had a separate entrance. I’d never been to the upstairs but I’d heard it through the ceiling, a pulsing combination of bass and pounding feet. I’d never been to any kind of drag show, so I asked Brianna what to expect as we walked down Massachusetts Ave towards the Central Square T.
“Well, you know what a drag queen show is? Gay guys dressed as hot women?”
“Yeah, that’s what this is going to be?”
“No, this is a drag king show. Dykes dressed as guys.”
Oh. We got to Massachusetts Avenue, which was abuzz with the Saturday night energy. Two old crackheads were arguing in loud voices near the stairs to the entrance of the T stop, som Goth kids watching in fascination from behind the glass at Hi-Five Pizza. One of the crackheads shoved the other and then started to run; the other guy just looked at him and sat down with his back next to the railing on the stairs. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and cursed its emptimess.
“Go’ ci’rette, man?” he mushmouthed to me and Brianna as we passed. I didn’t answer.
We waited for a train for three or four minutes.
“This might be kind of weird for you,” Brianna said. “Lesbian politics is a lot more hardcore than anything you’ve ever seen before. You go to a college with sororities?” I nodded. “It’s like that, but a lot worse because we actually screw each other before trying to screw each other over. Pretty much everyone in town is going to be there tonight, and there’ll be a ton of ex-couples there. I thought I’d gotten away from that when I got out of the Smith lesbian scene, but it’s just as bad here because everyone from there moved here.”
“If it’s so bad, why do you stay?”
She grinned. “Well, there is this girl….”
The bouncer at Jacques was a girl who had played rugby in college; I’m not making a physical judgement here: her sweatshirt said “Wellesley Rugby.” We payed three dollars to get in and entered a bright, crowded room with two bars and the Eurythmics on high volume.
“So what now?” I shouted to Brianna.
“Show starts in five minutes. Want a beer?” I nodded, not really wanting another drink because the break between dinner and out had sobered me up from the not-quite-drunk I’d been before, but wanting one because I really needed something to do with my right hand; the left one was holding my jacket. Brianna returned with two Bud Lights.
“You don’t strike me as a Bud person,” I said.
“It’s de rigeur here,” she said. “Half of the chicks in here are rich as all hell, but it’s really not a good idea for them to show it.”
“Was it cool to be a Republican when you were in college?”
“Of course not.”
“Take that mindset and triple it at a feminist all-women’s college. All of these women were going to come right out of school and change the world, activisting their way through life. Of course, at some point they had to pay the bills, so here you go. But, you have to keep giving lip service to the old idealism. Check it out.”
I scoped the room, and she was right. The crowd was an alternative polyglot, a sea of eyebrow and nose rings, colored tattoos poking above collars and out from under long-sleeved shirts. Backwards baseball caps, ripped sweaters, old running shoes. I even spotted a pair of circa-1984 original-issue Air Jordans.
“All right, you bitches, you ready to go?” hollered a female voice over the P.A. The crowd roared.
“First up, Nadine!”
Nadine had painted a beard onto her face with mascara and wore a University of Texas cap along with a Berkeley sweatshirt and jeans. There was no stage, just an empty space in the crowd about thirty feet across. It reminded me of the Russian Roulette scene in the Deer Hunter. The Eurythmics were cut off, she smacked her hand into her crotch, and “Dirty Diana” by Michael Jackson came blasting over the PA. Nadine went crazy, lip-synching in perfect unison with the recording of the Gloved One, dancing like a kid who’s spent too much time with early-80s MTV, aping the act all the way down to the spins and epileptic body undulations. The crowd loved it, screaming and yelling and reaching out to touch her, banging their heads to the chorus and throwing beer in the air.
I turned to talk to Brianna, but she had disappeared into the crowd. I noticed a couple of other guys there; one poor fellow was wearing a checked button-down shirt and jeans, drinking a Heineken. He looked uncomfortable, with a frozen smile.
“Next up, Mary!”
Mary had rented a tuxedo and painted on a Hitler moustache. Her song was “Tearing up my Heart,” by ‘N Sync, and the crowd frothed. Her lip-synch was just a bit off, and I could see little beads of sweat gathering on her forehead as she danced around, and one of the hairs in her ponytail came undone and hung over her left eye. The audience didn’t care a whit. Her song finished and the applause was loud. Mary blushed and plunged back into the crowd.
“Pretty crazy, huh?” Brianna was next to me again, and I turned to face her and nearly recoiled because her eyes were so close, an inch above mine an eyelash away.
“Wait’ll you see the next one.” She smiled. “Remember that girl I was talking about?”
I said I did.
“She’s here,” she said. “Think I should make a move?”
I shrugged, still sort-of hoping that the universe would align the stars and she’d make a play for me, which made about as much sense as the show I was watching.
“Okay,” she said, “Gimme a kiss for luck.” I pecked her on the cheek and watched until I couldn’t see her in the relative dimness of the crowd.
“Give it up, kids! Give it up for Angie!”
Angie was gorgeous. You could see it even though she’d covered her hair with a top hat and half of her face with fake sideburns. Her black slacks were a little tighter than a guy would have worn them, and they were held up with white suspenders over a white shirt, slightly contrasting her pale skin. The song started to blast:
You and me baby ain’t nothin but mammals
So let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel…
The crowd went nuts as Angie worked the crowd like an exotic dancer. She wrapped her black tie around one girl’s neck and dragged her out of the crowd, releasing her after a slap with the tie. Angie danced around the circle, grabbed a girl, bent her over and started to slam her pelvis into the other girl’s rump, spanking her a round, giving a performance to match the beat. I had to move back from the circle because the crowd was getting a bit rough; girls were pushing each other out of the way for a chance to be abused by Angie the drag queen.
“You stinking bitch!” The scream penetrated, lanced through the music, and everyone looked up. One dark shape flew backwards into Angie, knocking her back into the ring of girls, then another jumped on top of the first and started flailing away like a rabid chimpanzee. The crowd recoiled as one and the music cut off. The two girls continued fighting in a tornado of arms and legs and hair, and I realized that Brianna was the girl on the bottom.
Great. What to do? The standard gentlemanly thing is to defend all women that you know from any sort of violence. How the rules applied at a dyke drag king show where most of the attendance could wipe the floor with a skinny coffee jock like yours truly I wasn’t sure. Would it be seen as patronizing, a male trying to assert his typical gender role, thus forcing both combatants to turn on me? Would they give up their differences and both jump me in a good, XXX-porn sort of way (admittedly a long shot, but don’t tell me that most guys wouldn’t think of that first off)? Centuries of breeding took over after another few moments and I moved towards the two struggling forms. I had to get Brianna out of there—she’d saved me from a Saturday night of Bauhaus albums and ice cream.
I pushed my way to ringside, nearly tripping over a red-colored Doc Marten in the process, and was stopped cold by the sheer ferocity of the two. They hit each other open-handed, generating the same smack that you hear when a kid falls off a skateboard onto the concrete with his hands first. They rolled around on the ground and pushed each other up, took each other down with moves right out of the World Wrestling Federation, and were generally taking and giving a horrific pounding. Screw it, I thought, and waded right in. I tried to get a grip on Brianna’s back to pull her away, but one of the other girl’s running shoes hiked right up into my crotch as I bent over, generating the searing awful gutbusting wrench of holy hellfire pain that you can only experience during and after puberty when your testicles are actually doing what nature intended them to do and they want to remind you that reproduction is valuable. I pitched forward and fell on to the back of Brianna’s right leg, twisting sideways and getting my right cheek caught on a flailing fingernail. Pain flared up, and I felt something drip onto my neck.
“Ow,” I said. Actually, it was more like “Aughiugheughugh.” My eyes filled with tears and I felt hands under my shoulders pull me up. I vaguely saw another pair of hands do the same to Brianna.
“You two together?” said a voice. I nodded, or Brianna did. I couldn’t tell which of us had actually moved.
“Okay, you’re outta here,” said the voice, and I was dragged through the crowd and sat down outside the door. I looked up and caught a glimpse of my dragger’s sweatshirt: “sly Rugby.” A thump, and Brianna was sitting next to me, and she was crying.
“Fu…fu….sh….c…” she said.
“You all right?” I said, aware of the ridiculousness of the statement but unable to say anything else. That’s what you say. I reached out to touch her shoulder, which was bare because her shirt had been ripped to the collar. She had a wicked shiner coming in on her left eye, and the exposed shoulder was a lattice of small cuts.
“”She’s taken,” she said between sobs.
“Oh,” I said, confused again.
“All I did was talk to her, and then she comes up and starts wailing on me, and she didn’t do anything to stop her, and I thought she liked me….” She dissolved into snuffling.
“Hey, take this,” I said, and gave her my jacket. She put it on. The arms were a little bit short on her, showing a watch line on her left wrist. I shivered a bit; sitting in one place on the concrete was making me cold. Winter was coming.
“Hey, uh…let’s go,” I said. She nodded and stood up. “Where do you live?” I said.
“Near the symphony.” Completely the opposite direction from where I was, which put me in a bind—should I put her on the Green line and walk back to the Red, leaving her alone? I wouldn’t, but I only had eight bucks on me, which wouldn’t be enough for post-T-closing cab fare. I looked at her blotched face and shaking hands (not to mention my jacket) and decided I would get her home and worry about it later.
“C’mon,” I said, “Let’s get you home.”
“Can we walk?” she said.
“Okay,” I said, stuffing my hands into my pockets.
We walked up Boylston street, past the overpriced sandwich joints that change to bars when the office workers leave for the day. The FAO Schwartz store on Arlington street was shut up tight, as were the publishing offices next door. A taxi cruising the other way blinked us with his headlights and I gestured him off. We walked past Dartmouth Street and the Prudential Center, the lights of the restaurant at the top still bright at one in the morning. I could see my breath with every exhale. The crowds from the fraternity-boy bars close to Massachusetts Avenue were beginning to spill out on the street to look for cabs, their baseball-capped normality almost soothing after the aggressive punkiness of the Jacques crowd.
“Look at that lucky bastard,” said one guy to his friends in a loud voice as we walked by. I checked to make sure he wasn’t looking, then gave him the finger.
“Good job,” said Brianna.
Massachusetts Avenue and Boylston is a garbage-strewn intersection, dominated by the Berklee Music School on the corner. We took a left on Mass Ave, around the school and a guy rooting through one of the stone garbage cans. A young couple burst out of the Store 24, giggling and pawing each other; the girl was carrying a bag, and I could read the Trojan logo through the thin plastic. Eventually we got to the Christian Science Headquarters, where the pool glows in any moonlight and reflects the lights of symphony hall. We took a right around the corner from the concert hall onto a tree-lined street and stopped in front of a four-story brownstone. Her name wasn’t listed on the mailbox list.
“Come on in,” she said.
“Nah, I don’t think so. I’ll just take my jacket and get a cab or something.”
“At two in the morning on a Saturday night? You’ll wait for an hour. Come on in and I’ll call one for you.”
She lived up three flights of poorly-lit, narrow stairs. I was tired when she let me in her front door.
“Make yourself comfortable,” she said, and headed off. I heard the sound of running water in a sink. She had left me in a living room. Her couch was a tad bigger than mine, but she didn’t have any other chairs or sitting implements. Her lamps matched, and the couch was facing a TV with a built-in DVD player. Five or six movies were stacked on top of the TV—Singin’ in the Rain, Chasing Amy (of course!), the Marilyn Monroe Platinum collection. The ceiling was a little lower and the walls just a bit yellower, but you could tell that Brianna lived here alone, putting her in a place of financial security that I could only dream of.
“Want some tea?” she said from the kitchen, an alley just off the living room.
“Sure,” I said.
She messed around in the kitchen for a good five minutes, and I had nearly fallen asleep on the couch when the whistling of the teapot jarred me back to consciousness.
“Here you go,” she said, handing me a cup of the green stuff. It was good and hot, and just a little bit sweet.
“Sugar?” I asked.
“Yep. I put some in because I always do. Is it okay?”
“Yeah, it’ s fine.”
“Well, thanks for walking me home,” she said
“So, you want to know what happened?”
“Actually, no,” I said. It was the truth; I’d figured it out myself already—bust in and start hitting on someone’s girlfriend, and fireworks ensue. It’s no different if the someone is a giant fratboy meathead or an overaggressive butch: both are the type to go after you swinging.
“Okay,” she said, and started talking anyway, telling me about the girl who she loved, how she was sensitive and beautiful and loved Brianna’s work and wanted to make a difference as well, although she was waiting tables at Vinny Testa’s and hated it because it was beneath her, because she’d dropped out of college to pursue Art and Life in the city, but money eventually got in the way, like it always does; Brianna had more than the girl did, and the girl got jealous because she couldn’t buy Brianna gifts like Brianna could, and the jealousy turned to suspicion, and the suspicion turned to anger, and then Brianna caught her with cologne on her underwear and it turned out that the girl had been messing around with a guy behind Brianna’s back even though the girl had been gay since she was sixteen, but just wanted to know what it was like so she could be absolutely sure that she was going the right way. Brianna had cried and cried because she’d been in love, and when you’re in love you’re supposed to be sure, which I don’t know about since that would mean that I’ve never been in love, and shouldn’t you be in love at least once before you turn twenty-five? Romeo and Juliet were only eighteen or so and they had killed themselves, and I couldn’t imagine killing myself over someone, except perhaps for a second the first time I saw Jenny and Adam kiss. I’d see them together and it still hurt even though it’d been a couple of months, which was a third as long as we’d been together, and there was some sort of statute of limitations on pain, right? A ratio? 3:1 seemed awfully generous to me, unless Jenny was something more to me than a normal person would be. There’s no way I wanted to think about that because what if I’d completely blown it somehow with her and she was it for me, my last shot? I had friends who were getting married and Brianna was still talking and I had taken off my shoes so I could listen better, and as she talked I started thinking about a few other things that were related to the things she was talking about, and the next thing I didn’t know I was dreaming along to her voice and disappeared into sleep.