“It’s freaking cold,” said Courtney.
“Yes it is,” I said. It was freaking cold.
We had to pass Union Street anyway on our way home to our respective apartments so Courtney and I decided to get one more beer at the Rising Café. We swung into the place like cowboys, the door crashing behind us, and up to the bar where Barb the New Zealander was already opening one Rolling Rock and one Brooklyn Lager.
We were known at every hipster joint and gay bar on Fifth Avenue: the Weslyan-diaspora bar, the Oberlin-diaspora bar, the ex-Lesbian Avenger bar. We just drank all the time, every night for months. We drank athletically, doing reps of beer, then whiskey, then beer. Neither of us was anything special to those bartenders, we didn’t date them or go for breakfast after their shifts. We just left big sloppy tips until our last five dollar bill then it was a smile and fifty cents and “Thanks, man. Thanks.” Sincerely.
Barb refused our money for this round, which was a lucky break and not to be neglected so Courtney stayed to chat her up, pulling her rancher hat down and then pushing it back as she talked. I swung my Rolling Rock into my mouth, walked smooth up the length of the place just to see what girls the universe was providing tonight.
A big-boned and red-headed gal sat with her legs spread like scissors at one booth, dandling a cardboard coaster, punk-rock angelic in a battered Lilly Pulitzer golf skirt. She had that sexy sort of red-haired-ness that made me think of puppies, ice cream trucks, mean children.
I sat down and asked if I could sit down.
“No way,” she said. “What’s your name?”
I knew I had her.
“Are you waiting for someone?”
“Yeah, a friend of mine.” She sat up straight to make room for me on the bench next to her. I slid closer.
“I’m Donna,” she said in her raspy voice.
I nodded to Courtney to come over; I could commandeer this girl’s night no problem but I liked to have a wing-man. The girl was pale and freckled, some sort of teacher, graduate school, talking about gender, race, class.
“Intersections, mapping, liminal space,” she said. Easy target.
I drew out fishline-thin words. I said, “What’s really interesting to me about what you’re saying is how the intersection of class and gender is raced on the body of the cyborg; maybe we are all cyborgs now.”
I laughed behind my hand as her attennae extended at me. I shoot, I score.
Courtney watched me at work with her scientist’s disdain, but with the grudging respect of the beta dog. Her opening maw surprised me. Was she actually going to make a play?
“Y’all yap about cyborg bodies,” she drawled, “but you don’t know the first thing about the construction or operation of real machines.”
Courtney studied machines; she was a graduate student in Decision Sciences and Engineering Systems at Rensselaer Polytech, upstate. I learned to say the full name of her program to impress girls vicariously.
Donna and I drank our beers, sheepish. Nobody said anything for a minute.
“Real artificial intelligence is about teaching systems to make decisions,” Courtney went on. “Not like in your comic books.”
Courtney had about two things to discuss in this world: decision sciences in engineering systems and Southern culture.
Once we were waiting for about two hours on a subway platform deep in Woodside, Queens, lost and drunk at three in the morning, and she talked about a third thing, chance.
The situation was this: it could be proven mathematically that whatever line you choose to wait in will be the longest. Courtney explained more of this and I tuned it out, tuned into another frequency of squeaking subway rats and rain dripping into filthy puddles.
“Okay, imagine you’re going into a bank, and there’s five lines, which one do you stand in?”
I realized an answer was expected of me.
“The closest to the door?”
“No, the shortest, right?” She took off her wire-frames and sucked on the frame, for emphasis.
“Oh, yeah,” I said, feeling pleasantly dumb. “Right. I’d stand in the shortest line.”
“So a bank is a queuing system, see, it’s got a bunch of queues of elements, those are the people and they...”
She kept talking and I kept trying not to get infected with her bourgeois scientific rationalism. I tuned in and out, leaning against the baby blue metal subway pillar.
I thought of the subway station, Courtney’s condescension. Fuck that WASP bastard. She wanted to challenge me? She could have this Donna, who was too tall and whose shoulders were bigger than mine anyhow. But I wasn’t going to make it easy. We sat there, double-teaming the poor girl with fake continental theory and scientific disdain until her friend walked in. Turned out to be a butch, but maybe a faggy one. Definitely not Donna’s girlfriend. She was too okay with us sitting there.
“I’m Ruth.” Deep voice, cheekbones.
I was the big fucking spender that night so I bought a round of Brooklyn Lagers for the table and we all sat there drinking up, really excited to meet people who wanted to keep drinking so late on a Friday night. This felt important.
Barb said, “Last call for alcohol. Last call for freedom of speech.”
Ruth said, “I just had a party last week, lots of liquor left. Why don’t we all go to my house and have some drinks.”
This idea met with rapid consensus. We piled into our coats and a cab and sped across Flatbush to Ruth’s house, a cottagey sort of one-bedroom with a garden full of iced-over animal statues which we looked at through the kitchen window bars.
Ruth was really into being Jewish; she had all this kitschy Jew stuff around like copies of the Plotz zine and a shrine to Barbara Streisand with candles burning.
“I’m half Jewish,” I offered.
“Mazel tov,” said Ruth and we drank, leaving Donna in Courtney’s delighted insect clutches to goy-bond. Something to do with manners and how the South was misunderstood. I sometimes thought about joining AA to get rid of her but I hated the thought of not drinking.
“Must have been some party.”
I appraised the liquor: bottles and bottles of gin, specialty infused vodkas, a whole crisper full of limes. No beers to be found.
Donna sat on a loveseat in the living room, sifting through CDs in a neatly-organized book. Courtney was helping, which probably meant her patter about under-known Southern bands of the eighties. I got down to the business of making us all cocktails in the mint green kitchen.
“Nice place,” I said to Ruth, who leaned in the kitchen doorway to watch me. “What do you do?”
“I’m an educational administrator.”
“That’s cool.” I had no idea what that meant and wondered how old she was.
“What do you do?” she asked me.
I hesitated, deciding not to employ my young, dumb, full of cum persona, but instead to work the intellectual young professional angle.
“Oh, I work in scholarly publishing,” I said with modesty and I made my voice sound like mahogany: deep and unassailable. I prayed to the god of smooth operators I would not have to utter the words “Promotions Assistant.”
“Really? What sort of books do you edit?”
“The press has very strong lists in history and Jewish Studies, especially. In fact, we have a new book you might like about the Kaballah.”
It seemed like a good time to trot drinks out to Courtney and Donna. Courtney had located Guadacanal Diary’s Jamboree CD and was giving a short dissertation on REM’s indebtedness to the album. We huddled in the living room next to an electric fireplace which was just for show. It was cold outside and we tipped those drinks back very efficiently.
I made more Citron and tonics and in my head I counted: Bud while getting dressed, Bud while waiting for Courtney to show up, tallboy with Courtney on the way to the Gate, pint at the Gate, pint and a Jameson’s at Carry Nation, two more Jameson’s at the Gate, pint at the Rising. No, two at the Rising. And still sturdy as an oak.
Everything was just so in Ruth’s apartment. Dark wood molding matched dark wood bookcases, there were small framed paintings, vases with fresh flowers. Against one creamy wall stood an entertainment center, shiny and black as oil. I went to the toilet to piss and stared at the glass shelves with their neat array of full-size Kiehl’s products. Fag. I got kinda turned on, loose and shaggy, it was like being in an Ian Schrager hotel. I stepped out of the bathroom, swaying mildly but pleasurably and Ruth was right there in the dark hall. I said, “Want another drink?” and walked into the kitchen.
“Yeah,” she said, cool as a criminal.
I checked out her face, smooth and that brown people call olive. Big nose, long lashes. She was pretty and also really masculine. She smiled at me and I studied the hard planes of her face, caught her eye, nodded. She cut the distance between us in half, hovered in my air-space: square, slim, muscular, like a blunt-nosed fighter jet. Like furniture, like a polished bevelled cabinet, maybe in the Arts and Crafts style. I put my hands on her neck and expensively-greasy black hair fell onto my hands. In the green kitchen I pulled her to me, this Jew and we kissed, rough and quiet, listening to Courtney and Donna talking in the other room. I hadn’t kissed a butch dyke in years, since before Charlotte left me; it was different from kissing a girl. Ruth had smooth lips but they were muscular somehow. Her tongue wasn’t too wet or sloppy. She tasted slightly of onions, like boys do. I investigated the differences, didn’t swoon or get lost. It was very polite. I was a man and she was a man and it was a manly scene. Like the Israeli army.
I thought, This exact minute has nothing to do with Charlotte, which messed with my game, of course, like a rhinocerous in the corner, which you’re not supposed to think about. I took a time-out to swill down the nearest drink. More vodka-breathed kissing. My phantom limb hardened in my pants but it felt bad, sawing at my underpants like, I gotta get outta here, you are so fucked up.
My phantom dick was talking to me, planning mutiny. I pitied Ruth and tried to attend to the kissing again. I’m not one to leave something set in motion. I leaned her on the table and felt a rush of power, because she was a big manly faggot and we were in an Ian Schrager hotel and everything was so clean. I had no trouble with faggotry. It was almost robotic to me, or maybe androidic. There was a noise, girlish moaning in the other room. Ruth and I laughed. The air turned soupy.
“I’m going to fuck you,” I told her in my top monotone. “Do you have a rubber?”
She fished one out of a bowl on her refrigerator. That’s what gay guys do. They have ceramic bowls and they fill them with things that aren’t food. She kicked off her shoes and her pants were falling and her ass was firm and olive.
“You’re so hot,” she told me. I thought about Charlotte taking my temperature, concerned: You’re so hot, darling. I unzipped and peeled the rubber onto my strapped-on dick.
“Do you like my dick?” I asked. I wanted to know. It wasn’t the expensive silicone kind, but instead the fanciest of the cheap rubber kinds, with a color that exactly matched my fishbelly skin. I was very proud of it and I wore it around a lot. “Do you want it in you?”
I fucked her with my eyes open, my clothes on, looking at her navy-blue Boy London shirt. I fucked her hard, like she was a dog on a leash and we were running, together. I know when I’m about to cry because my face gets hot and I was behind a strange girl’s ass with a hot face. She made some loud sex noises, and I kept on, swinging my hips in that way everybody likes, fucking her good even though I was totally numb. I came without feeling it and my parts hurt right away.
I heard some noise like Courtney grunting in the other room. Disgusting.
“I gotta go,” I said and my voice caught, I was crying little vodka tears.
“Did you—are you okay?”
“Yeah. Dude, I’m fine.”
I started to tuck my dick back into my pants and the base of it hit me, sloshing around, that kind of wet where I could maybe go again.
“Suck it,” I said like a mean inspired porn guy.
“No,” said Ruth. “I’m going to go to bed. You’re too confusing. But you can sleep here.”
So I did, curled up in a sleeping bag on the floor next to Ruth, while Courtney and Donna slept in Ruth’s bed.
Ruth made pancakes for us all in the morning and dug out a Seventies compilation CD, played “Touch Me in the Morning” to wake everybody up. Courtney and I did not look at each other but we left together. Ruth hugged me as we left, surprisingly tight and earnest, a wrestler’s chest-hold. I felt skinny and worn but grateful to her somehow. Charlotte never had taken my temperature; why was I tripping?
We headed back to our side of Flatbush, down to Fifth Avenue.
“That girl was a freak,” Courtney said finally. “She bit me.”
What could I say to that. I squinted into the afternoon sunlight, debating whether to spend a dollar on coffee if I was just going to go back to bed.
“But I have these tickets to the Monet exhibit for tomorrow. Maybe she would go with me.”
“Monet?” I said. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Courtney looked hurt and I realized I’d offended her cultural sensibilities.
“I mean, why, if you don’t even like her,” I said, trying to recover.
“Well I already ordered the tickets. I have to go with somebody.”
I tried to imagine who she’d planned to take when she’d bought the tickets. She probably bought them thinking she’d meet someone to ask out. Poor lonely bastard. I tasted the acid reflux of identification in my throat.
“What are you doing tonight?” I asked, with instant regret.
“Cook a chicken, maybe. Run some programs. You want to get a beer later?”
“Yeah, call me.” I wished she’d invite me over for the chicken but she couldn’t eat in front of people.
Courtney turned off on Union and I kept trudging home into the rest of the endless weekend.
Based in Philadelphia, Andrea Lawlor is a writer and the editor and publisher of the Pocket Myths series.