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I've been sitting at the counter of this bar for almost an hour, now on my third drink, when I notice one of the women, in a group of women, saunter in and sit in a booth. There are five of them, all in their mid-twenties to early thirties. I don't want to seem too conspicuous. I try to verify my suspicion from the mirror at the bar. There are too many bottles in the way. I turn around and look. Yes, it's her--my ex-wife. She sees me looking, no expression on her face, quickly goes back to her four friends--smiling and laughing, as if I don't exist.
The best thing to do--get up and leave, go home or to another bar. I thought this would be an uncomplicated day--come in and have a few drinks, go home and maybe watch some television. Now she enters the narrative, much in the same way she originally came in: without preamble.
I haven't seen my ex-wife in five months. She wears a gray blazer, white blouse, dark skirt. She's just off work, I assume; she's an associate editor at a mass-market paperback publisher. Her friends don't look as if they're in publishing; they don't have that fatigued demeanor many of her colleagues have. I wonder who they are.
I get another drink. I hear them laughing and talking, and I feel small. I can see her face in the mirror now: long black hair, fair skin. I remember things. I hate it when you drink and remember. Drinking alone isn't a good thing sometimes. These women have the right idea: come in as a group. You get less melancholy. I don't have any drinking buddies.
I get up and go to the bathroom. I feel her looking at me, although she'd never admit it. One of her friends, a blonde, glances my way; shewhispers something to the woman next to her. Short dark hair. I don't believe I know any of them. I never knew her friends that well. We had an isolated-from-the-world kind of marriage--eight months in all.
In the men's room, I decide I'm going to do it. What the hell. It would be uncivilized, after all, not to say hello.
I go to the bar first, freshen my drink, and make my way over to the booth and the five women. My ex-wife is at one end, the blonde who looked at me at the other. My ex-wife sees me coming and flips the hair out of her eyes, trying to ignore me. The other women look my way; one giggles. They're expectant. Maybe they think I have a line, that I want to come on to them all. How the hell do I know what women think?
My ex-wife looks up. "Hi."
"Tasha," one of the women--a redhead--says, "Is this someone we should know about?"
"This is Leonard, my ex-husband," she tells them.
"Oh," one of them says, "the mysterious ex-hubby."
I feel sweaty all of the sudden.
"Hello," they say to me.
"Hello," I say back.
"Hey," says the blonde, "why don't you join us?"
Tasha starts to say something, but two others say, "Hey, that'd be fun. We should have a guy here, get his impressions."
"I'm sure Leonard has things to do," my ex-wife says.
"I was just sitting over there drinking," I say. "Just wanted to say--hello."
"We're drinking, too," the blonde says. "That's what you do in a bar. Drink and talk and bullshit. Why don't you join us? There's plenty of room, and I don't think Tasha would really mind--would you, Tasha?"
My ex-wife brushes the hair from her eyes again, glares at me as the hair falls back. "No, I wouldn't mind. What the hell."
Yeah, what the hell. Our favorite phrase from a failed union. Tasha moves into the booth, next to the redhead. The blonde nods. I sit next to my ex-wife and feel fucked. She's trying to prove something to them, to me, maybe to herself, I don't know. That she can keep calm and cool in my presence? That the marriage is behind her now? Or does she want to show her friends what an asshole I was, a memento mori of her past?
I'm a little drunk and a little lonely and I don't care, so I sit next to my ex-wife and look at these women and wait for anything.
"We're kind of like a club," the blonde says.
"We're not a club," the redhead says.
Tasha is observing me with one eye. I want to ask her how she's been. They're all drinking wine, except for the blonde, who's having a beer.
The blonde, I find out, is Amelia; she's an elementary school teacher. The redhead is Sheila, a hostess in a restaurant uptown. The woman with short dark hair is Cara, a jazz musician; and the last woman, rather quiet, Lisa, who has brown hair--she's a writer.
I smile. "You all have names that end with 'A'."
"Except Holly," Amelia says. "Holly isn't here yet."
"Holly's always late," Sheila says.
"That's the charm of Holly," Cara says. "Fashionably late."
"She's a nerd," Amelia says to me. "She's into computers."
"Nerd doesn't fit," Lisa finally talks. "She dresses better than a nerd. But she is very smart," she adds, looking at me. "She programs things."
"Computers," Amelia says, taking a long pull from her beer bottle.
"So," Sheila says to me, "what do you do, Leonard?" She seems tipsy.
"Well," I say.
"He works at a private investigation agency," Tasha says as if she were tasting something bad. Maybe it's the wine. "Or at least he used to. Do you still work at Grape and Manor, Len?"
I drink my drink. "Yeah."
"A private eye?" Lisa says, sitting up.
"Something like that," I say.
"Didn't you write a private-eye novel?" Sheila asks Lisa.
"I tried writing one," Lisa says, shrugging. "They're popular, and I was going to have a woman dick, because that's real in right now, but the book didn't work. That's not the kind of stuff I write."
"What do you write?" I ask.
"Books," she says.
"Is that how you know Tasha?"
"Yes," Tasha answers for her.
"You don't look like a private eyeball," Amelia tells me. "Aren't you supposed to have one of those hats--a fedora? And a trench coat or something? Aren't you supposed to talk like that one guy--the guy in the old black-and-white movies, you know?"
"Actually, dear, I do own a fedora and a long trench," I say in my best Bogart impersonation, "When I'm out chasing the bad guys."
"Oh!" Amelia kicks me with her leg. "That gives me goose bumps!"
"Huh," from my ex-wife, shaking her head.
"Everything gives you goose bumps," Sheila says, and then adds, to me: "We were thinking of nicknaming her 'Goose bump.'"
"The only nickname I have is 'Amnesia,'" Amelia says.
Lisa leans forward. "You never told us the story behind that nickname."
"Maybe she will tonight," Cara says.
Amelia sips her beer, sees that it's empty, and says, "Maybe I will." She waves for the waitress.
"So do you really go after bad guys?" Sheila asks me. "Do you follow people around? Do you carry a gun? Do you peep on husbands cheating on their wives?"
"Or even vice versa," Lisa says.
"No," Tasha says, "he doesn't do those things."
"I don't usually carry a gun," I say. "It's not necessary. Most of my work involves doing background checks on people applying for certain jobs, and serving court papers on people."
Amelia asks, "You don't sit in your office and wait for sexy women in wide-brimmed hats and skirts with high slits wanting you to solve mysteries?"
"It's never like that," I say. "It's usually boring."
"It is," Tasha says.
The waitress comes to the table. I insist on buying the round. Amelia orders a beer and the others all want wine, white, except for Lisa, who has red. I ask for a refill of my vodka tonic.
"So," I say, "you ladies get together once a week and shoot the bull?"
"Lady?" Sheila says mockingly. "Who are you calling a lady?"
"Sorry. Women. Girls?" I grin.
Sheila says, "I still like being called a girl. In three months I'm going to be thirty fucking years old."
The waitress returns with new drinks and I give her a twenty, tell her to keep the change. I sip my drink.
"One day I want to write a book, any kind of book." Amelia shrugs. "I don't know what it'll be about."
"Let's not talk about books," Tasha says. "I've been talking books all day. I'm sick of books."
Silence as we drink.
"We can talk about men," Cara says.
"We always talk about men," Sheila says.
Amelia says, "Men are an endless topic."
"Endless is the word," Sheila says.
My ex-wife gives me another quick look.
"Do we need men?" Lisa says.
I'm enjoying this.
"You don't if you're a lesbian," Amelia says.
I want to touch Tasha at this moment. I am remembering Veronica, a friend of hers. One night, during our marriage, we took her to bed, and afterwards, things were never the same. I watched Tasha get caught up in the swarm of that evening, the alcohol and the drugs and the sex we couldn't control. Then I believed that evening was a watershed, that it marked the decline of our marriage. And yes, it did.
Tasha says, "We need men."
"I need men," Amelia says, looking at me from her beer, "but that's because I like men. All sorts of men, as long as they're not fat or sweaty or dumb."
"Ah," I say.
"So, Leonard," Sheila says to me. "When you get together with your buddies, your guy pals, what do you fellas talk about the most? You probably talk about women."
I really don't have any buddies, not the kind I get together with. I'm pretty much a loner, and always have been. Tasha knows this.
"Sometimes what we talk about is we talk about women," I say.
"Or sports," Cara says.
"I'm really not into sports."
"I like sports," Amelia says. "I like football. I like to watch football on TV."
"You just like to look at the players," Cara says.
"All those cute butts," Amelia says. "Oh, yes."
"I went out with a football player in high school," Lisa says.
"A dumb jock. I didn't go out with him for long. I don't know why I dated him in the first place. He was cute, sure, and a lot of the girls at school wanted him, but he didn't have crap up here," she adds, pointing to her temple.
"Stereotype," Tasha says, "I'm sure not all football players are dumb jocks."
"I agree," Lisa says, "but this fellow happened to be one."
"So did you sleep with him?" Sheila wants to know.
"We only went out for a short time."
"But I bet he tried to get some," Cara says into her wine.
"He tried, and failed."
"I never slept with a football player," Amelia says. "I think it'd be interesting."
"You would," Sheila smiles.
"Look how I'm talking," Amelia says, "I wonder what Leonard here is thinking."
"He thinks you're a horn-dog," Cara says.
"I'm just being honest."
"Call her a horn-dog," Cara tells me.
"If you feel uncomfortable talking with me here--" I say to Amelia.
"Not me," Amelia answers. "I'm always honest."
"We don't want Leonard to leave," Sheila says.
Tasha looks at me. "How's Jay?"
"Who's Jay?" Sheila asks.
"A good friend of mine," I say. "He paints. His work is in the galleries now and then." I add, "He's a friend of Tasha's, too."
"I went out with a painter once," Cara says. "He always smelled like paint. That really bugged me."
"What did he paint?" Lisa asks.
"I think Leonard is talking about a real artist," Amelia says.
"Artist, yes," Tasha says, touching her wine glass.
"Is he an artist," Cara asks, "or a 'real' artist?"
"Is there a difference?" Sheila says.
Lisa answers, "Yes."
Tasha says, "All that's academic. Philosophical."
"Philosophy is horse manure," Sheila says.
"Or house manure, if you're a painter," Amelia says.
"Touché," I say.
"All those philosophers did was sit in French cafés and bullshit."
"Kind of like what we're doing now," Cara says.
"I've never been to France," Sheila says.
"I've never been anywhere," Amelia says, "except to outer space."
Lisa smiles. "I was in France one summer. I was nineteen, going all over Europe. It was an experience."
"Yeah," Cara says.
"I really went into outer space, in a UFO," Amelia says quietly at the same time Tasha says, "Leonard is French."
There's a brief pause when we all try to decide whether or not Amelia actually said that. Then she says, "Oh, you're French?"
"Half French," I say.
"Which half?" Sheila asks.
I say, "My mother is French, my father is American."
"You have dual citizenship?" Lisa says.
"No. I'm all American."
"You don't have an accent," Amelia says.
"I was there when I was really young," I say.
"Then he came here," Tasha says.
"Have you ever gone back?" Lisa asks.
"I used to," I say.
Tasha says, "I wonder where Holly is?"
"Late," Lisa says.
"As always," Sheila says.
"Subways and buses," Amelia says. "I used to drive when I lived upstate. I would drive toward the mountains and look at them. Sometimes I'd think I could drive forever, on and on, going anywhere and everywhere, leaving my past behind."
"I hate cars," Tasha says. "They have no respect for space."
"Or pavement," Lisa adds.
"Are our feet competing with cars?" Amelia says. She seems confused, drinks her beer. I wonder what is really on her mind. I shouldn't speak. I should just listen. I have always been a good listener. I make a fool out of myself when I talk and drink. Talking and drinking don't always mix well.
"So," Sheila says.
"So," Amelia says.
"So," Cara says.
"I have to go to the bathroom," Tasha says.
I get up so she can get out. I sit back in the booth, and I'm next to Sheila now. I see that her skirt is hiked up some from her position, charcoal gray nylons. I find her attractive. I find them all attractive.
Amelia kicks me with her foot. "Oh, sorry," she says.
"So," Sheila says to me.
"So," I say.
"You must feel a little weird."
"Tasha," she says.
"That's not what I mean," Sheila says.
"It's okay," I say.
"She hasn't said a lot about you," Sheila says.
"Well," I say.
Cara says, "You're putting him on the spot. Poor Leonard."
"Am I making you feel uncomfortable?" Sheila asks, leaning close, her hand brushing my leg.
"Not at all," I smile, and it's no lie.
I do feel weird.
"Where did you and Tasha meet?" Amelia asks.
"It's a strange story."
"I like strange stories."
"No talking about Tasha while she's gone," Lisa says. "That's not nice."
"Sorry," Amelia says.
"Now I bet you feel like you're on the spot," Sheila says.
"Me?" I say. "Never."
She has red lipstick, thick lips. I like her mouth. I like her hair.
"You're a private eye?" Cara asks me.
"My brother is a cop," Cara says, "and his wife is always worried about him. Afraid he'll get shot. She's a nervous wreck. I could never be married to a cop."
"I could never be married to a nervous wreck," Amelia says.
"I don't think I could ever be married," Lisa says.
"Why not?" Amelia asks.
"I want to get married one day," Lisa explains. "I've never really met anyone I wanted to marry ... or who wanted to marry me. My mother keeps bothering me about it. 'Lisa, why aren't you married?' She wants grandchildren."
"I can't see myself as anyone's grandmother," Sheila says.
"It'll happen one day," Cara tells her. "It happens to everyone."
"First I need to have a kid of my own," Sheila says, shaking her head. "And the thought of having a kid is so alien to me. But I guess this is something I should really be thinking about since I'm almost thirty. Oh, Jesus, this is depressing, let's talk about something else, please."
"I--" Amelia starts.
We look at her.
She shrugs and drinks her beer.
Tasha returns. I start to get up, but she sits down, wedging me between herself and Sheila.
"Did I miss anything?" she asks.
"We were talking about kids," Cara says, "or the idea of having them. And then about having grandchildren."
I feel something coming from Tasha, but she only says, "Oh."
"Actually," Sheila says, "we were grilling Leonard for info on where you and he met oh-so-long-ago, if it was that oh-so-long-ago."
"Well," my ex-wife says, "it's a weird story."