I was a bored and hungry mammal. I lived in a small apartment on Perry Street that had a working fireplace, but only if you could find logs the size of cupcakes, as my hearth had the dimensions of an Easy–Bake Oven. I sat on my fire escape and watched happy couples come and go, finishing the rhyme in my head, “talking of Michelangelo.” But they were never really discussing Michelangelo. Marc Jacobs, who had opened a store on the corner, was a more likely subject. I wasn’t bitter. I didn’t want a girlfriend, not really, at least not right away. But I could have used a functional vagina. It had been a while since I’d had access to one of those, and my penis kept reminding me how accommodating they could be.
Sunday was winding down, and the streetlights flickered to life. It was early April and the day had held hope that spring had finally arrived, but as the sun set a cool breeze informed us we weren’t quite there yet. I zipped up my sweatshirt and wished once again that I smoked. It just seemed like something that might be nice to do, romantic. I stared at Hunan Pan across the street; soon I would call them as I always did, and they would bring me my supper. It was getting a little embarrassing, though.
“Hello, this Hunan Pan.”
“Hi, can I get an order for delivery?”
“You ninety–nine Perry, number Three–A?”
“Steamed vegetable dumplings and moo–shu chicken with extra pancake?”
“No, um, the dumplings and moo–shu beef.”
Sigh. “Fine. Give me the chicken.”
“Okay. Fifteen minute, Mr. Snuka.”
They may have known my voice, but they’d never know my name. I wasn’t Mr. Snuka, aka Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, the wrestler from the eighties. I was Jason Strider, a Jewish guy with sideburns. Ever since I moved to New York three years ago, I had used pseudonyms when ordering in. Raphael’s, my second most frequent takeout, knew me as Sir Peter O’Toole.
I slipped back through the window into my apartment and began weighing options for the evening. Common sense held that I should eat my dinner, watch The Simpsons like the rest of my demographic, and get a reasonable night of sleep before work the next day.
But my penis, my damn penis. He just wouldn’t shut up. And I had to admit, his argument wasn’t without merit, or logic. His basic premise: “Any girl out tonight might be just as desperate as you.” I offered that I had been out a lot this week; the last two nights hadn’t ended until way into the morning, and even now a slight hangover hummed behind my eyes. But Lil’ Petey, as I called him, was persuasive. The problem with being a boy is the constant struggle between listening to your brain and listening to your dick. The problem with being me was that somehow my dick had acquired the argumentative skills of a debate team captain. Or perhaps I was just weak.
I took a quick shower and had just barely gotten a towel around me as the buzzer rang, announcing the arrival of my supper. I opened the door a crack and handed a small Hispanic man a few crumpled bills in exchange for his one crumpled bag. I quickly pulled on jeans and, over a long–sleeved T–shirt, a short–sleeved one that read “Henry Rollins Is No Fun.” Then I began to eat straight from the cardboard boxes. Yum, the taste of déjà vu. Once finished, I went back into the bathroom and fussed with my hair a bit; it was the same shortish, messyish style that I had sported in one iteration or another since the bad Steve Perry bi–level back in junior high. I looked at the circles under my eyes. Darker and deeper every day. They were the reason I had, about six months ago, forgone my contacts and started wearing glasses, thick black frames I might’ve stolen from Elvis Costello, if we had similar prescriptions. Plus, the first night I had gone out with my glasses on, I had made out with a ridiculously hot girl. Call me superstitious.
I fished through the papers on my coffee table and found the flyer that a random woman with a disturbing number of facial piercings had given me on the subway. THE LiZEE BAND, SUNDAY AT 8:30, AT THE UMBRELLA ROOM. The band was named for the girl herself. She had dyed black hair and wore an ill–fitting business suit; it was a look that said, “It’s because I have to, okay?” She’d approached me and every other young person on the F train, given us flyers, and invited us to see her band. The Umbrella Room was literally five blocks from my house. And eight–thirty was nice and early. It seemed worth the risk. Lil’ Petey 1, Jason 0.
It was almost eight, so I cannonballed the ass-end of a joint with the remaining third of a two–liter Diet Coke and let them race each other to see which could get to my brain first. For me, Diet Coke and marijuana went together like ice–cold milk and an Oreo cookie. Like Jacoby and Meyers. Like sha–nah–nah–nah yippity–dip–da–do. I hit the lights, locked my door, and let gravity take me down the stairs like a slightly bent Slinky. Once I was outside, the cool night air felt great against my skin. I searched my mind for an adjective better than “great.” I had been an English major, after all; I had been taught to avoid mundane adjectives. Refreshing, soothing, bracing…nope, “great” really did best describe the feeling.
I turned up Hudson and looked across the street at the people hanging out in front of the White Horse Tavern. The White Horse was where Dylan Thomas supposedly mumbled, “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies, I think that’s the record…” before keeling over and dying a few days later. It’s an unproven story, but that didn’t stop busloads of tourists in matching sweat suits from rolling up every Thursday through Saturday. Tonight, however, it looked as if just a few folks from the neighborhood were hanging out by the door, enjoying the evening. One was Patty, the fiftysomething bohemian woman who lived across the hall from me. Gray–haired, a bit of a mutterer, she wore sandals all year round: rain, snow, locusts—sandals. I never used to see her much, but lately we’d been bumping into each other in the building more often. I imagined her to be some sort of lesbian poet who chain–smoked cigarillos and once let Allen Ginsberg sleep in her bathtub because he was “tired and also filthy, just filthy.” The one thing I did know from peeking at her rent bill (our landlord taped them to our doors like your mother might tape a note to “clean your room”) was that she paid only $210 a month for the same apartment I paid a grand for. And a thousand bucks was considered a deal. So I kept an ear open every time she left her apartment, lest she fall down the stairs and I could inherit the New York dream. I was joking, but she had once given me a card with her “lawyer’s” number on it, just in case anything should happen to her. Then she gave me an orange she wasn’t going to eat.
“Hey, Patty!” I yelled across the street.
She waved. “Hi, neighbor.”
I waved back but quickened my step. I was stoned and easily distracted and didn’t want to fly off on a tangent. High, I often went too far for too little. No, I was on a mission. I was going to see this LiZee group. They might just become my new favorite band. Maybe I would buy a T–shirt and start a blog.
Going to a bar alone is no big deal for some people, but for me it was always a bit of an awkward experience. Somehow it always felt as if everyone were looking at me. “Did he come by himself?” “Did he get stood up by a girl?” “Poor guy might be suicidal, let’s step away in case he tries to off himself and we get hit with flesh shrapnel; this is a new shirt.” It wasn’t something I did often, but I liked the adventure of it, although I had to deal with the slight anxiety as well. The pot both helped and hurt. It motivated me out of the house and led me to believe I might be the funniest person ever to roam the planet, but once inside the bar it sometimes gave me the inner confidence of a man whose fly was stuck open.
This was a side effect of partying that my friends and I called “The Fear.” Mild paranoia was just a touch of The Fear, hardly worth bothering with; a full dose really came the morning after, a bottomless pit of regret and shame fueled by drugs, alcohol, lack of sleep, and the insidious feeling that you had somehow just fucked up monumentally. I had learned to live with The Fear, but we were not very good roommates and I believed he was using my toothbrush.
Luckily, when I arrived at the Umbrella, the LiZee band was already onstage tuning up, so I felt like just another guy who had come to check them out. The Umbrella was a tiny bar with a tiny stage; it was pretty dingy, with an, um, umbrella motif. There was one black one nailed to the brick wall behind the bar. I made my way toward it and praised Vishnu that there was an open stool. I climbed aboard and ordered a Bud; it seemed like a Bud moment.
The band continued to sound–check. The guitarist, a balding, rotund dude whose tight T–shirt revealed a muffin–top of flab over the waist of his jeans, stood next to the bassist, a shockingly thin poster–boy for meth awareness. Together they looked like before and after, plus side effects. Their random plucking morphed into actual playing and suddenly LiZee started singing. She was no longer confined to her business suit; now she wore a white shirt and ripped pink tights. She was rubbing against the monitors provocatively, shrieking passionately, going for a sort of Karen O vibe. Even the most tone–deaf could hear she was missing. The only thing that kept me from leaving after song two was inertia. They had some damn comfortable bar stools at the Umbrella.
A girl squeezed between me and the guy on the next stool, who I was sure was related to someone in the band named Jimmy. Or else maybe he just liked to yell, “You rip, Jimmy!” The girl had plastic glasses similar to mine but tortoiseshell; her hair was in pigtails. She held her money up but was overlooked. Petey stirred.
“Want me to get the bartender?” I asked her over the music.
She smiled. “Thanks, could you ask her for a Jameson’s, please?” She handed me a ten.
I took her money. “Uh–huh, no problem.” Just a single drink, she was probably here alone. My crotch was gloating already. I made eye contact with the bartender, who shot back the “I see you but wait your fucking turn” look. An awkward moment passed. “She saw me, but I think she’s making a martini for someone first,” I said to the girl.
“That’s cool. So how do you know this band?” She had a smattering of freckles, and she did a sweet squinty thing when she pushed her glasses up her nose. She was so cute it hurt.
“I don’t, actually.” I told her the train story. “I was sitting home bored and I figured what the hell.” I was hoping I had good breath, as she was fairly close to me. I dug in my pocket for a mint. Nothing.
“I don’t know them either,” she said. “I was walking past and I saw them setting up so I came in to watch. What do you think?” She twirled her hair, just like girls do on TV.
“Um…what do you think?” I responded, just as the bartender leaned in. “Jameson’s please,” I said, smiling at her.
“Rocks?” She sneered. She could hardly tolerate me. I fucking hated bartenders like that. Why the anger? You’re at work and a band is playing, life is not so awful. I looked at my pigtailed friend.
“Neat please,” she said. The bartender fixed it and I paid, giving the change to Pigtails. “I’m Jane,” she said to me, holding up her drink.
“Jason.” I clinked her glass with the Bud, which was getting low. “Nice to meet you.”
“You too.” She sipped and smiled.
The band played for another half hour but the last thing we did was listen. Jane started telling me about a “gorgeous” Swiss Mountain Dog she had seen on the way to the bar that had made her really want a puppy, and I responded with a story about Daisy, my dog growing up, that didn’t really go anywhere except prove that when younger I’d given my dog a pretty queer name. Luckily, the pointless anecdote didn’t put her off. She flashed me a grin, perfect teeth wet with whiskey.
“So, what do you do, Jason?”
The smile hung there, full of promise. I decided not to disappoint it with the truth.
We left before the last E chord died, and walked down Hudson. “So no way, you’re really an orthodontist? I always thought of them as older,” said Jane, now wearing a cabbie hat and strolling alongside me. She lived in Brooklyn and we were walking sort of toward a subway. We were near my apartment, but I was feeling a little too chicken to close the deal.
“Well, I’m not like a regular one, like in the ’burbs,” I said, hands jammed in my pockets. “I’m a downtown, New York City orthodonist. My clientele are all artists and fashion people and their kids. Jeff Koons designed my office, know him?” She nodded. “Our dental chairs look like oversized red tongues, and all my dental hygienists wear big plushy costumes like Barney, but they’re not dinosaurs, it’s all dental–related—they’re like molars and toothbrushes and plaque and stuff. Once Sting came in for a retainer and had me record the whole procedure on a DAT.” I lowered my voice. “He’s got a receding gumline, you know.”
“Oh my God, Sting? That’s hilarious.” We walked on a bit more. “So what do you want to do now? Do you want to call it a night?”
“Um, I’m up for something. I could get another drink.”
“I’m kind of hungry, actually; I didn’t have dinner yet,” she said, adjusting her hat. We stopped and looked around. There were no restaurants on the block.
"Well, we could go to my apartment, back there on Perry, and order in. And if you want, I have some weed there.” I immediately regretted that choice of word, it sounded so AEPi. But it didn’t matter.
“That sounds perfect.”
From the Trade Paperback edition.