And so it was that I entered the holiday season surrounded by obnoxiously happy people who weren’t single. The city of Cambridge started to string the street lights with faux holly and little bulbs a week after Halloween. I spent an afternoon looking for a candle holder, went to Pier One, Urban Outfitters, Crate and Barrell, and a junk shop down in Allston, and heard Christmas music in each establishment. Although, to be fair, the junk shop was playing “I Am Santa Claus” from Twisted Christmas by Bob Rivers. My only refuge was Jon’s Place.
Or so I thought. I set myself up to work a twelve-hour day one Wednesday so I would be out of the house. Work was the standard mid-week morning shift with Adrian, fun because I didn’t hang out with him as much since Steven came on the scene.
“You know what two books Roald Dahl used the heartrate of a mouse in?” he asked me after the morning rush was over.
“Hang on….The Witches, at the end, when the little boy gets turned into a mouse, right?”
“Yep….one more?” I couldn’t think of it. “I give up.”
“Matilda,” he said, grinning. “It came up last night when Steven was lying on my chest listening to my heartbeat.”
I made vomiting gestures. “Good God. I hope your chest hair and his ear hair didn’t mate.”
“He doesn’t have ear hair,” he said. He slumped over the counter.
“I read an article the other day,” he said. “Did you know that gay men have less average life expectancy than straight men?”
He shrugged. “The usual suspects: suicides, getting whacked by idiots, AIDS… There was a big stink a few years ago when some wingnut took some doctored information and wrote an article saying that we only lived to an average age of forty-seven.”
I whistled. “Wow.”
“Oh, that wasn’t true,” he said. “But it’s bad enough; we just don’t live as long as you guys do.”
“What’s with the morbidity? You talk to your dad again?
Adrian’s dad was a low human being who had divorced Adrian’s mother in a perfect storm of abuse and infidelity. Adrian still called him every now and then; his father had fallen into a state of perpetual anger, much of which was usually directed at Adrian,who’d come out to both his parents while the divorce was just getting started. He’d figure that maybe the shock would give them an issue to work on together, maybe stay together. It hadnt’ worked; his dad often donated money to organizations that claimed to be able to rescue gay men from their homosexual tendencies, and the man regularly harangued Adrian about going to one his retreats.
“Yeah, there’s a ‘Holiday Gathering’ around Thanksgiving, run by a bunch of liars who think that everything I’m about is wrong.”
“I’m sorry, man,” I said. There was nothing else I could say; when Adrian spoke with his father, the only thing he could do was talk his way through it and try to convince himself everything his father said was supposed to be loving. I’d never met the man, but if I ever did I’d break his fucking nose.
“I tried to talk to him once,” said Adrian. “I was trying to convince him that the way I am isn’t a choice. It’s the way I am. I said ‘Why would I possibly want to choose this? Why would I want to fight with my father and be ignored by my mother and run the risk of having my bones broken by arm-dragging idiots every day of my life? Why would I want to live this way, if it results in being treated this way by you?’ You know what he said? He said that I was a confused boy. Boy. I’m twenty-four years old. I’ve been to Paris and Amsterdam and walked around in London. My dad’s never had a passport, never really left Texas, and he still makes me feel like I should be able to change my identity, like it’s as easy as cleaning my room.”
I put my arm on his shoulder. “He’s an asshole. You know that. Everyone knows that.”
Adrian sighed. “That’s what Steven says. He says I should just stop talking to him.”
“Why don’t you?”
He looked at me. “Because he’s my father, and I want him to understand me, and I want him to know that it wasn’t his yelling and punches that made me gay. God made me gay, if there is a God, and eventually my father will understand that and stop hating himself for what I am.”
At that moment, Steven walked in the door, his pale green surgical scrubs visible under a near-black trenchcoat, wearing a soft smile. He tossed his rag over his shoulder, hopped over the counter Dukes of Hazzard style, and enveloped Steven in a massive bear-hug.
“Hey, sweet thing,” said Steven. “Want to take a nooner?”
“Lunch early today, Pete!” he shouted. The six or seven people sitting down looked up and back down again, as the two lovebirds engaged in a very hard three-second kiss.
“Get a room!” I yelled back, rescuing the rag from the jug of iced coffee that I had just been ready to put in the fridge. Down the sink went the coffee; I helped its progress with a sigh. The clock read quarter to eleven. Adrian walked back to the counter and leaned over.
“Seriously, you going to be okay here?” he said.
I nodded. “Jenny’s usually a little early these days; she’ll be here in a half an hour or so, and the two of us can handle lunch, I think. Get ye gone.”
He punched me on the shoulder. “Thanks, Pete. I owe you.” He and Steven left, hand in hand. Adrian walked with a bit of a bounce in his step, and I accepted Steven right there. If he wanted to date my friend, it was fine with me.
A group of lawyers on break from a debate at City Hall came in, all needing caffeine in order to stay awake during an upcoming point of procedure. They swarmed on in like a group of Aliens, their leather-and-wool peacoats thrown over their arms and their collective body reeking of hair gel and expensive colognes. They didn’t bother to form a line, rushing the counter like I’d heard people do in Chinese railway stations.
“Ever sit through a point of procedure?” The lead guy asked me. He was wearing an off-white shirt and red tie, making it look to me like his throat had been cut and he’d bled all over his chest. I shook my head.
He shivered. “Don’t. Double latte, please.” This was followed by a large coffee, no cream, double cappucino, double espresso, triple espresso, and hot chocolate. I raised my eyebrows as I jotted down the shorthand for the last order and asked the last guy if he was sure.
“Yeah,” he said. “Caffeine shreds my ulcer, so I have to pretend. Don’t tell the other guys, though. I might get a reputation. Can you make that cocoa extra dark?”
I had them sit down next to the newspapers while I made it all up. The triple espresso killed me, because I had to use both espresso guns and do it last so that it had the right dark-to-cream ratio. I’ve never really figured out how to pour a triple and come up with the right amount and the right ratio of cream to coffee. To hell with it; I made it into two doubles and signaled to Triple Espresso to come over, and I explained what I’d done.
“Works for me,” he said, paying the lot with a twenty. “Keep the change.” Not bad—a six-dollar tip.
“Hey, Pete,” said Jenny. I hadn’t noticed her come in. She was wearing an apron and had pulled her hair back in a short ponytail. “Where’s Adrian?”
“Took off early for his nooner,” I said.
“What’s a nooner?” she said.
There were several ways to answer that question; I could remind her of the time she’d come back from the storage room in a huff and demanded to show me that something was missing in there, and the something had turned out to be her underwear and we’d gone at it like crazed dinosaurs, knocking over piles of flavoring and nearly breaking open a tin of chocolate syrup, all while the people in line could hear the muted crashes and wondered what was going on and why nobody was at the counter. Or I could have talked about the time when I scheduled someone to come in and take her place as an emergency sub for an hour in the early afternoon and we’d gone back to my apartment in a taxi, forgetting about the expense because we were so damned horny and we could eat the seven dollars because, hey, whatever. I’d tossed the driver a ten and torn upstairs before anyone could have seen us, past Barry’s door with the thundering dragons and the banshee shrieks of the dying, and we spent that hour banging so hard we tore my cheap sheets.
“Oh, Steven came by, and…you know.”
She turned red. “Ah.” She mixed herself a hot cocoa and sat down on the stool, working her hair into a topknot with the help of a wooden drink stirrer.
“Pete, am I still attractive to you?”
“You know, am I still…um…pretty?”
Why the hell was she asking me this? “Sure.”
She sat there for a second and took the stirrer out of her hair, causing it to fall down to just below her shoulders in a golden-brown tumble. The stirrer fell to her lap and she picked it up and started to chew on it, taking a sip of cocoa now and then. She kept the stirrer in her mouth for the next couple of hours, all through the lunch rush, and then made herself another drink, a latte with a half-shot of Hershey’s syrup and a touch of cherry. The stirrer stayed in her mouth, and finally I couldn’t take it any more.
“Jenny, what’s up?”
“Well, it’s Adam.”
Three words, and all the feelings of bile that I had thought were gone welled up from down in my intestines and threatened to spill out of my mouth. They wanted me to say things like he’s a prick, isn’t he and so you finally dropped him or that’s what you get with obviously gay theater guys,, because she was looking sad and I wanted to make the sadness better. I didn’t say anything, though, because the look she was giving me wasn’t I want you back or let’s go back into the supply room now but puzzlement. I held up a finger and turned to the register to ring up a woman with a British accent who wanted tea and a muffin, then turned back to Jenny, and looked at her until she spoke.
“I’m not sure where I want it to go,” she said, taking another sip.
“What do you mean?” I said, wanting for her to say I think it’s winding down or it’s over, which was pathetic, and also impossible since I’d obviously moved on.
“Well, it’s like…I feel like we have this serious connection. Serious. We get along on a very spiritual level, and that’s really great. I mean, he’s not the listener that some people are. Like you, you’re a better listener than he is.” Yes! “But we never had that really deep-level connection that I have with Adam, y’know?”
Huh? What? I think my look must have said what I didn’t say, because she started talking again.
“See, it’s like we’ll talk and then not talk, and totally understand everything that each other wants.”
“So if you understand each other, what’s the problem?” I said. She used to talk about New Age stuff like this with me, and I would listen; I don’t have any opinion one way or another, really. Not my bag, even if it is kind of stupid. Wait….I had an opinion…I didn’t like it. I wasn’t into crystals and signs and horoscopes that actually predicted your personality and things like that, and Jenny was. Maybe that was the key; our major malfunction, as it were.
“…and so maybe it’s the same way with him,” she was saying as I thought to myself, “and that’s why I’m all screwed up. Wow…” she took another sip. “That’s it! Thanks, Pete!” She jumped up and hugged me, grabbed the rag, went around the counter to wipe off the three or four empty tables, and then Adam walked in. She chucked the rag over her shoulder and jumped into his arms, causing him to urrp in surprise. All the customers looked up, and looked down quickly again as she engaged him in some serious lip-lock, her hands invisible in his curly near-Afro hair. I swear he hadn’t cut it in three months, and he was beginning to look like Greg Brady.
It shouldn’t have hurt, really, right? There should be a statute of limitations on that sort of thing, where a judge somewhere in your soul looks up the date in the master files and decides okay, this one has gone on long enough and checks off a box that says “no more pain.” But it does, really, and it never ends. I bet if you take a guy who’s been married for fifty years and showed him a picture of the first girl he ever kissed fooling around with some other guy, that married guy would have a twinge somewhere. It does get better, I know that. When I was sitting there watching Adam and Jenny, I no longer wanted to rip Adam’s eyes out with my fingernails, or go home and puke. I just wanted to not look at it, make myself a really good coffee drink and hope they’d go away.
“Hey Pete,” said Jenny. “Is it cool if I take off?”
I looked around the shop. A few chess players, one guy with white-boy dreads who had already refilled his Eco-mug three times, and a smattering of students with the requisite laptops and piles of paper. Quiet, mellow. “Sure,” I said, although I would have probably let them go even if there was something going on; if I hadn’t Adam might have stuck around.
They walked out the front door hand in hand, Adam’s near-Afro bouncing with every step that he took. Bounce away, the little nasty place in my head said, have fun screwing my girlfriend. I hated that thought, because I knew that she wasn’t my girlfriend and hadn’t been for several months. I shut the voice up by mixing another perfect drink; café au lait with vanilla. Simple, perfect, and it kept me going until Jason came in about forty minutes later, early for his three p.m. shift.
“Hey Pete,” he said. “Wasn’t Jenny supposed to be here?”
“She left early,” I said.
“Oh, bummer.” He checked the timesheets. “Hey, have you met this chick that’s coming in after you?” I looked over his shoulder. Maryann.
“Yeah. She’s been increasing her hours lately, got cut from her other job.”
“Oh, bummer,” he said. “I got a call like that the other day from one of the part-timers, too.”
“Tough times,” I said.
He grinned. “Not for me. My business is totally recession-proof.”
Four skate rat kids came in shivering with a craving for whipped cream, killing any attempt at conversation. We mixed up their drinks and sent them on their way, and then Quentin Donnelly walked in the door.
I know that it’s possible to hate people on a first impression, as I had instantly hated Quentin Donnelly. It had been a long time since I hated someone even more on a second look. Donnelly was wearing a leather jacket, brown, beat-up, bought from Skymall or the Sharper Image : “Bring back the memory of the Greatest Generation with our genuine Aviator bomber jacket.” His hair was overly unslick, and a scarf dangled from his shoulders, both ends equally long. Everyone knows that scarves are properly worn assymetrically, so that you can wrap them around your neck. If you wear it symmetrically, it becomes a fashion accessory rather than a warmth accessory.
“Hi,” he said. “My name is Quentin Donelly. I came by here a little while ago, looking for Jon. Is he around?”
“No,” I said.
“Does he have a phone number?”
“Yes,” I said. “But we don’t give it out.”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “Can I leave a message for him, then?”
“Is the message ‘Give me a call?’” I asked.
“Well, we would like him to contact us at his earliest convenience, regarding some business opportunities that we would be interested in mutually pursuing…”
“So, the message is ‘please call me,’” I said. “Because you want to buy the place and turn it into another Starbucks branch, complete with over-roasted coffee, wireless Internet access that you pay for by the month, and a table layout put together by market research to subtly increase customer turnover? All while taking away an institution that has remained as a bastion of neighborhood flavor in the face of a total onslaught of yuppification? All while charging more for a basic cup of coffee than we do for small espresso drinks?”
Quentin Donnelly looked irritated. He ran his fingers through his hair, which came out completely unscathed.
“No,” he said. “As I’m sure you’re well aware, Starbucks is committed to being a positive member of the community, and part of our commitment is to fit into the neighborhoods we enter with a minimum of impact. We always meet with leading members of the community…”
“…and talk about how their property values are going to rise because more lemmings are going to make high offers on surrounding property because wealthy idiots who don’t know coffee from liquid mud are going to make astounding offers to the local middle-class owners because a new Starbucks always means higher property values. It’s a vicious cycle of gentrification, slowly turning the last interesting pockets of American cities into caricatures of semi-urbanity with all the character of a Noah’s New York Bagels in a strip mall in Des Moines. No thanks.” I had read a bit on the subject, okay?
He looked back for a second or two, then reached into his back pocket and pulled out a silver cigarette case, snapping it open with a practiced motion of his wrist.
The card he dropped on the counter read
Director, Business Development
“I’ll make sure he gets this,” I said. “Maybe.”
“Thank you very much,” said Quentin Donnelly. “You know, you guys should really be thinking about your future.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“This place isn’t going to be here forever,” he said. He looked me straight in the face. “Our entry-level management program would be very lucrative for guys like you, if you can get over your own self-importance. What are your real chances at a place like this? With us, you can get ahead. You’d learn a bit, and really advance your career. Something’s bound to shut this rat-trap down sooner or later. Let me know.” He smiled at me, as if all of the insults I’d piped his way hadn’t touched him at all, turned around and left. I could feel the blast of cold air that came through the door from where I was.
“Career?” I said.
“I already have one,” said Jason.
“Dealing,” I said. “Isn’t really a career.”
“Fucking businessmen,” he said. “That’s no good.”
“Got that right,” I said.
“Whatever,” said Jason.
“Whatever,” I said. “Bastard.”
Some snow was building outside; it had been cloudy today, at the worst time of the year for days, when the sun shone with a feeble light until about three o’clock and then sank below the skyline before you really had any chance at the afternoon. If it was cloudy, forget it; you might as well just stay inside, and that’s what our customers did. More people came in as the afternoon went on, until the stool seats near the window were all filled up and the solo folks started to sit down at tables with an open seat. Jon’s Place was packed and humming with the click-clack of chess pieces and the whirr of cards. Four people were on each of the three-seat couches near the silent fireplace. Every now and then the pipes in the bathroom emitted the ghostly groan that signaled the beginning of the cold weather had begun. Jason and I stayed busy steaming and foaming and shooting and cleaning, and before I knew it it was quarter to five and nearly pitch-black outside. I almost fell into the trap of thinking it would be a good end to the day.
It wasn’t particularly rushed when the guy with the cell phone came in. He was tall, maybe six-two, and he had slung his jacket over his left shoulder, holding it by the collar. His pants were held up by red suspenders, but he was no fireman. He was jabbering into a cell phone as he took his place in line behind Jack Ramsey, who was coming up for his fifth cup of the day, and a musty-smelling literature grad student. I could hear him above the afternoon hum.
“No, I don’t think they’ll go for that,” he said. “Maybe if we give them two-four….no, I can’t go up to six, that won’t cut it…” He was turning his head from side to side as he talked, looking to see if people were watching him.
“Coffee, Jerry,” said Jack Ramsey. “God, give me coffee.”
“Refill, fifty cents,” I said.
“Tell that asshole that he’s going to come around or he’ll be underground, okay?” said the suspenders guy. “I can have his butt for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with his colon as a snack in between. Capiche?” His voice was a deep baritone, but with a sharp edge that cut through noise and naturally dominated the room; I bet he was a hit in conference rooms.
“Didn’t I pay you a dollar in advance last cup?” said Jack.
“Fuck him,” said the suspenders guy.
“No,” I said. “Hey, can you keep it down?” I aimed that one at the suspenders guy. He kept talking.
“Okay,” said Jack. He reached into the breast pocked of his faded blue flannel shirt and produced a blackened quarter, three nickels and a dime. “Fascist,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said.
“No, they can wait for this. This is a really fucking important deal!” said suspenders guy. “I’m not going to sit on my can and watch all my hard work go down the drain because those jackasses won’t grow any balls…”
“Got any French Roast today?” said the grad student. I liked his voice; it sounded little-used, as if he spent far too much time in the darkness of dusty basement library stacks.
“Nah, we’re only doing Colombian and Sumatran,” I said. “The Sumatran’s dark..it’s pretty close.” “Okay, give me that in an au lait. Shot of hazelnut,” he said.
“Bob, fuck off,” said suspenders guy. “Are you losing your nuts, too? What is going on over there?”
“Can you quiet down?” I said.
“And another thing,” said suspenders guy. “I want you to take this down…take a letter. ‘Dea’r…no…scratch the ‘dear.’ ‘Mr. Robertson: pay me what you know I have coming, or I’ll personally make sure that you spend the rest of your career making coffee for board meetings with the other retards. You’ll buy beans for me using your own money and grind ‘em with a mortar and pestle. Think about it.’ Print that and have it on my desk…double espresso, hop to it…have that on my desk before I get back for me to sign.”
He flipped shut his cell phone with a practiced one-hand motion. “How much?” he said.
“For what?” I said.
“My double espresso,” he said. “I ordered a fucking double espresso.” He said the last sentence loud enough to penetrate the hubbub of Jon’s Place; a few people looked up.
“Don’t swear,” I said.
“Why the hell not?” he shot back. “I ordered something, and it’s not ready yet. I’ll swear until the goddamned thing is ready.”
“I don’t think it’s ever going to be ready for you,” I said, taking out my rag and wiping down the counter where some of his spit had splattered.
I’d never seen someone’s face turn purple before; his did, working its way from department-store tomato to summer cherry to full-on beet in a matter of three or four seconds.
“There are children here,” I said. “Why don’t you leave?”
“Are you throwing me out?” he said, in a quiet voice that was probably meant to sound dangerous.
“Yep,” I said. “Don’t come back, either.”
“Do you know who I am?” he said.
“No,” I said. I looked over at the people sitting down, about two-thirds of whom I recognized as regulars of some sort. “Hey!” I shouted. “Any one of you know who this guy is?”
Nobody moved. After a few seconds, Jack Ramsey raised his hand.
“Jerry, I can’t tell you who he is, but I can tell you what he is.”
“And what would that be?” I said.
“A jackass,” he riposted, and the laughter started like the beginning of a breaking wave, until every customer in the shop was roaring, even the people who’d looked uncomfortable when I’d spoken up.
“You’re gonna pay for this,” said suspenders guy. “You’re all going to pay!”
He was walking backwards as he said this, and would have sounded much more impressive if he hadn’t bumped into the sweatered grad student, who was walking towards the condiment bar with his café au lait. The collision resulted in a coffee fountain, half of it landing on the grad student, half on the suspenders guy, who yelled like a tortured cat, turned around, and stormed out, beating at the brown stain that covered his shoulder with one hand.
“Damn,” said the grad student. “Now I’m out of coffee.” The spilled au lait didn’t show at all against the brown of his sweater.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I’ll make you one on the house.”
Jason came up from the storeroom.
“What happened?” he said.
It had happened to two people today, why not three? Jason dropped a pitcher in the middle of a cappucino, scrambled over the counter, almost catching the bottom of his ultra-baggy carpenter’s jeans on the espresso machine and landing on his head on the other side, and sprinted out the door, nearly bowling over a tea-carrying professor-type on the way. I could see him through the window, kissing a blonde girl with abandon, a pretty girl (I thought) with shorter hair than me. The four people on the stools near the window started to clap, thinking that they’d been privileged to see the endgame of a romantic comedy.
“God, what the fuck is with this place today?” I said out loud, staring down at the counter with my eyes closed
“What do you mean?”
“Well, every other fucking person behind the counter today has jumped over to that side and ended up snogging somebody, somehow, while I sit here and watch, and one of those fucking people happened to be my ex-fucking girlfriend, so I’m kind of pissed off, you know? It’s like how come stuff like that never happens to someone who deserves it, not that Adrian and Jason don’t, but Jesus freakin’ Christ,”
And then I shut up because a hairless hand, a female hand, grabbed my chin and pulled my face across the counter and I was being kissed like Adrian and Jenny and Jason, a serious kiss that lasted for about ten seconds, one where I definitely felt a little bit of a probing tongue flicking at the base of my top teeth. I was shocked, so shocked that I didn’t open my eyes for a moment after whoever it was broke it off, and I registered that I had just been kissed by someone a little bit taller than me, and there was applause coming from most of the customers. I looked up into brown hair above a corduroy jacket over a business suit.
“Well, now we’re even,” said Brianna with a grin.
“What’s going on?” said another voice from behind the espresso machine. “I think I’m supposed to be working.”
“Maryann?” I said. “Brianna…uh…shit…”
Maryann cut the words off from my mouth. I hadn’t worked with her in a while, and she was something of a shock: dressed like a porn movie’s version of a high school student; a green miniskirt that covered half of her thighs, if that, with said thighs encased in form-fitting fishnet stockings over a pair of tights. That was striking enough, but it was the top that had cut me off; a midriff-baring t-shirt with a star on it, the star itself resting on breasts that defied the laws of physics; they jutted out from her chest in a way that no human male could ignore, coming at me like Polaris missiles as she walked around the counter to the back, where I stood sideways to her and sideways to Brianna, who was watching the whole thing with the same grin she’d had since I opened my eyes.
“Hang on,” I said to Maryann, and turned to Brianna.
“What was that for?” I said. “I thought you weren’t into guys at all.”
“I’m not,” she said, “But I thought I’d stop by and surprise you and thank you for taking care of me the other night; I feel pretty bad about dragging you along. You were sitting there feeling sorry for yourself, so I thought I’d sneak around the back and put you to rights. Did it help?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Tell you what,” she said, “I don’t like kissing guys, and I didn’t mind that at all. So did it help?”
And of course it did. Hearing from an avowed dyke that you can smack lips as well as anyone (because that’s what she really meant) was like what I imagine a crack hit must feel like. My heart swelled up until it was bigger than my lungs and my spleen combined, and I felt my eyes buzzing.
“Hey Pete, get this.” It was Jason’s voice, and I had to turn around again to see him, arm-in arm with the blonde girl from outside. It was getting crowded behind the counter, and they were nearly in my face.
“This is Angie, we met the other night and lost each other’s phone numbers, and I just saw her walking by. Is that fate or what, man?”
I shook my head. “Have fun with Maryann. I’ll see you later.”
Brianna followed me outside after I’d put my book in my shoulder bag and left the shop. I knew that she was right behind me because the door didn’t close right away after I stepped out into the evening. The air was right around freezing; I took a scarf out of my bag and wrapped it around my neck.
“Hey, can I take you to dinner?” asked Brianna.
I thought about it for a second; dinner with a pretty brunette who had no interest in me or spaghetti at home? No-brainer;I was out of parmesan cheese. “Where are we going?” I said.
“Your house,” she said.
“In Allston,” she said.
Your House was a skeevish pub down on Commonwealth Avenue in Allston, a place that I’d passed a few times but never been to. If it was an apartment it would have been advertised as “garden level.” As a bar, it was simply dark, every wall lined with cushions and couches. We tok a seat on one of the benches and looked at the menu, which was written on the wall. I asked the manager how they changed for specials or if something new was in and he looked at me strangely.
“That’s paint,” he said. “It doesn’t change.”
We both ended up ordering hamburgers; hers plain, mine with avocado, cheese, onion, tomato, relish, and lettuce. We sat there for a while not talking, watching a Simpsons replay on one of the three TVs that overhung the eating/drinking area. It was the one where Homer eats an insanity pepper and hallucinates the talking dog, voiced by Johnny Cash. I always liked that one, although it’s not really funny anymore. Our burgers came and we ate them, still not talking. They were good, not Tim’s quality, but still a solid, better-than-Fudrucker’s burger. The Simpsons ended and a Cheers rerun came on. I hate Cheers, mainly because tourists come to Boston all summer long and get lost, then come into Jon’s Place to ask directions to “that bar they had in Cheers.” Of course, the place that they based the TV show on has long-since become a tourist trap, and nobody will know your name in there because the only people who go there are from out of town. There’s a perfectly decent pub down the street, but if you tell them that, they ignore you and go to the Cheers joint anyway. I never even ask how they managed to get to Central Square from Beacon Hill without noticing that they are in the wrong township.
“Pretty lame evening, huh?” said Brianna, interrupting what was shaping up to be a pretty decent mental rant.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I could be at home eating buttered pasta with sauce and without cheese, listening to music and cursing the fact that I’ve already seen all the movies they have at the library.”
“Well, I just wanted to thank you for the other night again,” she mumbled, looking down into the remains of her meal. “It was really good of you to listen to me ramble on.”
“Is it really that hard?” I said.
She looked up. “Yeah, it’s hard. .”
“Oh,” I said. I hadn’t thought it would be. I mean, it’s supposed to be easier for women; everyone knows it’s easier for women. Say you’re a guy and you’re at some sort of social function, whether it be a party or a bar or even a dance club where the bass is so low and loud you can feel your over-baggy pants whirling around with every beat. So you’re this guy and you’re out scoping and man, you’ve got to work. You have to be suave and sophisticated and wealthy and funny and all the other things that people tell you are important, and you have to project that all into your voice so that the girl on the receiving end doesn’t get the picture, which is, really, that you want to get laid. Remember Tootsie when Dustin Hoffman just tells Jessica Lange that he wants to go to bed with her? She tosses water all over his face, and he looks like an idiot. That’s the fear; if you let any bit of that out, any verbal slip could cause you to be there with water all over your body, usually centered around your crotch. Girls, on the other hand….man, all you have to do is go up to a guy and talk to him; he’ll follow you around like a Labrador, hoping to be patted on the head or on a more sensitive area.
I told this to Brianna, edited just a tad. She laughed at me.
“Every now and then I wonder why I’m a lesbian,” she said.
“Guys are so much easier to deal with,” she said.
“What?” I said
“Never mind,” she said. “What are you up to tomorrow night?”
“No idea,” I said. “Working until seven, that’s about it.”
“Why don’t you come out with me and some friends? I’ve got someone you might like to meet.”
“Okay,” I said.
Someone you might like to meet. When your mother says that, it’s time to re-build the living room fort that you used to make as a kid and hide there for days, perhaps weeks. One time when I was home from college for the summer, my mother had used that line on me, and I resisted meeting the legendary Allyson for most of the duration of a summer job, until finally my parents guilted me into attending a dinner party of their friends so they could show me off and tell lies about all the great things I was learning in school. Allyson was there, the daughter of a friend of my mother’s who was a real estate agent and talked about it all the time.
“Hi Pete,” Allyson’s mother said, “Know where you’re going to live when you graduate?”
“No,” I said.
“Well, when you do, talk to me. I’ll get you set up with a sweet pad in no time at all. I know everyone, everywhere. Oh yes, this is my daughter, Allyson.”
“Hi,” said Allyson.
“Hi.” We stood there looking at each other, me in a slightly-large blue buttoned down shirt tucked into my gray slackish pants that I only wore when going to dinner parties with my parents, her in a dress that might have been called a frock if we lived in a different time, an off-red frock, her hair done up in a ponytail. The entire ensemble put her age in doubt.
What could we do? Everyone around us was in their forties and fifties, talking about mortgages and 401(k) plans and things that had no bearing on any sane person. We had a conversation, starting with the standard openers (“Where do you go to school?”), moving on to more important things (movies, the party scene at each other’s respective learning institutions, etc.), having a very general nineteen-year-old talk. We had very little in common other than our age—if we’d met at a study group or in class we would have established the grounds very quickly and moved on to other things and other people. At a parent-gathering we were forced together, trying desperately for some sort of mutual like or grounds for a mild argument. As I sat there drinking endless glasses of slowly flattening ginger ale, I swore to myself that I’d never again meet anyone through I’ve got someone I’d like you to meet. Allyson’s mother practically pushed her at me as we were getting our things and going. I told her it was nice to meet her and shook her hand, trying not to look at the look of extreme disappointment in her mother’s eyes. What did she want, hot tonguing action right there?
Since that party, I’d never met someone through that phrase. I got nervous after Brianna said goodby and jumped on the Green Line. Kenmore Square station was flooded, so I had to take a shuttle bus from there up to Park Street, which meant traffic, which meant that it took me an hour and a half to go a total distance of about a mile and a half. As usual, I swore to myself that the next time I was in Allston I’d just take the bus that goes over the river and avoid downtown completely
I stopped by my local video store on my way home from the T station,. The video clerk tonight was a long-haired guy in a black T-shirt and black jeans who would look at you from over the top of his glasses if you rented something that didn’t meet his approval. I dropped off a copy of Lethal Weapon 4 that Barry had rented (he’d seen the first three, and I figured that 4 would be a good introduction to the deity that is Jet Li) and took a quick look around.
There were a few other people in the store: an older guy in the Anime section, two high school kids taking their time in the Adult Dramas and sneaking furtive glances over to the Adult section. I made my way over to the new releases and started scanning across the top row. It took me five minutes to get through all the new releases and come away with absolutely nothing, so I looked in the Staff Selections aisle, where they were doing a Kevin Kline special. I picked out A Fish Called Wanda because I hadn’t seen it and I’ve always had a little bit of a thing for Jamie Lee Curtis, overlooking the various childhood playground experts who had insisted a she was physically a guy. The guy behind the counter didn’t pay any attention to me for a good twenty or thirty seconds, tearing his gaze away from the Swedish flick that was playing over the storewide TV.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Just this,” I said.
“Hm….there’s a problem. This movie,” he said, holding up Lethal Weapon 4, “was late.”
“Sorry,” I said, “My roommate rented it…I just dropped it off for him.”
“Well, I can’t let you rent again until this is paid for.”
“Because the system won’t let me until your address is cleared up.”
“But it’s not my movie.”
“It doesn’t matter. How do we know that you’re not the person who returned this…movie” he gestured with Lethal Weapon 4 “ and aren’t using another name to avoid the fines?”
I got the distinct feeling that if I had returned a film instead of a movie this wouldn’t have been a big deal.
“Okay, what’s the fine?”
“Four dollars and thirty-two cents.”
I gave him a five. “Keep the change and apply it towards the rental.”
He nodded. “Two forty-one.”
My wallet contained exactly one more dollar.
“Um…I’m a little short. Can I pay the rest the next time I rent?”
“Sorry, we have to take payment at the time of the rental.” He grimaced and turned his attention back to the television.
“But I gave you a credit card number when I got my membership here; can’t you just charge it to that, plus a few bucks, until I return it tomorrow and pay then with cash?”
I stood there for about twenty seconds, as it dawned on me that there was nothing I could do short of going outside in the cold and walking the three blocks to the nearest ATM. Of course, the only one that wouldn’t charge me a fee was back the way I had come down in Central Square. I sighed a heavy sigh, shouldered my bag, and noticed one of the high school kids gesturing at me. I walked over.
“Hey mister,” he said, and I started. Nobody had ever called me that before.
“Um….if we pay you five bucks will you rent this for us?” He held out a DVD case with shaking hands. The cover showed a platinum blonde in a black corset with one hand on one of her shoulder straps and one on her upper thigh. She stared at me with parted lips and dazzling blue colored contact lenses, a seductive look that can only be generated by someone who’s been paid. Her forehead bumped up against the words Beaver Ridge. The kid and his friend both looked at me hopefully. They were fourteen, fifteen at best, in the throes of acne and growth spurts and tall intimidating women with body parts as mysterious as the deserts of inland China. I thought about it for a second. Should I contribute to the corruption of a minor, giving these two a night with the joys of feigned screen orgasms and money shots? It was illegal and kind of slimy and I would have killed for an adult to do the same for me at their age.
“Sure,” I said.
The kid who’d made the gesture nearly crumpled with relief under the weight of his backwards Red Sox hat. His friend grinned flipped the bangs of his skaterat bowl cut behind his ears and gave me a ten-dollar bill. They ran out of the store.
“Excuse me?” I said to the clerk. He looked down from his movie and pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose.
“I…uh… found some money, and I want to rent this.” I said.
“Hm,” he said. “Do you have some ID?”
I could feel my face heating up as I dug in my wallet for my drivers license. He examined it as closely as a bouncer would, tilting it this way and that to make sure that the holograms appeared at the right angle. I could feel someone in line behind me, aware that I was headed back home for a night of laughs and masturbation. The guy was probably laughing his ass off in silence, getting ready to go home to his supermodel wife and saying hey, I’m sorry I’m late but I was caught behind some poor jackass at the video store who was being carded for a whackoff flick… and then he and her would drink wine and make love on a bear shag carpet, tangled up with his head near the fangs of the bear while the fire crackled in the background, laughing afterwards at the poor jerk alone in his dark apartment with a multi-angle DVD and some soiled Kleenex…
“Here you go,” said the guy behind the counter after giving me my change. “Have a good night, now.” My face felt like the skyscraper in Towering Inferno.. I mumbled thanks and got the hell out of there. The two kids were waiting for me; Red Sox Hat had pulled his cap so far down over his eyes that I couldn’t see any trace of his face. I offered the tape over to them.
“Thanks, mister,” said Bowl Cut. “This saved our lives.”
“Wait, what do you mean?” I said. “You that hard up?”
“Oh, it’s porno night for a bunch of us tonight, but our DSL is down and we couldn’t download anything. It looks real bad if you can’t come up with a flick for the guys,” he said. They turned around and walked away up Massachusetts Avenue. I watched them for a while and then went on home, trying to remember if I’d ever had an established porno night with my friends ten years ago. I decided I hadn’t, and that the highly organized state of the world these days had trickled down to the adolescent set.
When I was nearly home I realized that their five bucks would have paid for A Fish Called Wanda. The lights were on in the living room , which was covered in wires, computers, and geeks. Guys were sitting on the couch, around the kitchen table, on stools with computers on the counters, and on the floor. Every one of them was wearing a huge pair of headphones; nobody looked up when I walked in the door. I picked my way over to Barry’s room through the maze of tower cases and cat 5 cable.
“God-dammit!” said a cadaverous elderly man as I accidentally kneed him in the shoulder. “Can’t you watch where you’re going?”
Barry was in his room, sitting at his desk in his normal position. Gina was sitting on the floor next to him, working on a laptop, wearing earbud-style headphones. She happened to be looking away from the screen as I walked in, and she flashed me grin. That smile still made my heart jump; maybe there was something to it? I tapped Barry on the shoulder.
“Hang on,” he said quietly. “I’m stalking.” The first-person view on his screen was scrolling slowly; his character was moving slowly down a darkened corridor, holding a minigun. Barry tapped forward, leaning over his screen, the picture of intensity. One of his shortened locks fell forward into his eyes, and he let it stay there. On the screen, a mecha/robot walked out from a side passage. Barry hit two buttons, the minigun flared, and the robot died in a haze of blood and flying parts.
“Nice,” said Barry. He took off his headphones and looked up at me. “Oh, hey Pete. What’s up?”
“I was going to ask you,” I said. “What is this?”
“A LAN party,” said Barry. “I was a little short on money because I haven’t really built up my attributes and income yet, so I decided to have a little get-together with a buy-in, win it, and after I win I’ll be a little more stable.” He lowered his voice. “I really have to win, and I really have to beat Gina. If she wins she says she’s going to take me out to dinner, and I think that she’s trying to break down the lines that we drew up when we started hanging out.”
“You know, all of our history. We can only be friends.” Barry looked a little pained as he said that. “I made up a little document and had her sign it.”
I shuddered. I still had a long way to go with Barry.
“Um…Barry, how long is this going to go on?”
He shrugged. “Until everyone leaves. Probably not until morning.”
“Barry,” I said. “I have to go to bed.”
“I know,” he said. “That’s why nobody’s in your room, and everyone’s wearing headphones. We’ll be quiet as mice. The real kind, not the computer kind.” He grinned. “I wouldn’t do that to you, Pete.”
That wasn’t true. A year ago, Barry would have done that to me, not out of malice or anger or because he felt like being a dick, but because he just wouldn’t have thought that far ahead. He would have invited a bunch of guys over, told them to set up wherever they could find space, and I would have come home to two guys in Darth Maul costumes spilling half-thawed frozen pizza all over my stereo. I would have been angry, but it would have been tough to be really angry because Barry would have been like a kid, shaking with fear of what I might do. Instead, my room was empty and I could sleep off my day. Maybe Barry didn’t have as long to go as I thought.
Gina took off her headphones. “Are you going to come back to the game?” she said. “People are starting to talk some trash. And I can’t beat you if you’re not around.”
Barry grinned again. “You’re going down.”
She arched her eyebrows. “Really?”
I turned around and left, stealing a last glance at Gina before I went through the door. She didn’t notice, totally absorbed in her game. My room was exactly as I had left it, and when I closed the door I couldn’t hear a single thing, other than the occasional muffled obscenity. It was noisier when Barry was playing games by himself with the stereo on. I took off my shoes, lay down, and fell asleep before I could remember that I hadn’t remembered to brush my teeth.