By Guest Contributor
If she thought about it, the whole affair with David had started in Sophie’s Bar on a sweltering July night and died somewhere on the way to the no-name pub on the first evening that tasted of Fall: They spanned only one season, and more bar nights than she meant to. She’d sworn off meeting men over alcohol on the eve of her 32nd birthday, after the bad split with the Polish filmmaker. But the temptation always remained: Everyone knows you can catch more flies with Guinness.
It was hard to follow David’s rationale for gussying up as a woman on the very night he was going to meet her brother. David struck her as an unlikely cross-dresser, but maybe he’d heard something about the athletic prowess of the men in her family and just wanted to stay out of the competition. For that matter, her own zombie waitress costume was a misguided attempt to woo David back into her charms, an excuse to highlight her feminine assets with the perfection of painted-on eyebrows and fake lashes, to showcase her long legs in a short uniform and high-heeled boots. Her efforts in this direction were immediately thwarted by his casual, late decision to dress up in this half-assed female get-up complete with clip-on earrings and tube-sock padding for breasts, making a mockery of the whole transformative potential of the ancient rituals of this pagan holiday. While he was rolling another cigarette on the edge of her bed and regaling her with tales of another ex-girlfriend, she was meticulously applying white face and thinking of the art of masks and energies to be channeled and the chance to start over and become some other couple who had fewer, and more interesting, problems. But instead there he was in the clothes he’d found in the flamboyant part of her closet, costumes that he was using out of order: an ankle-length velvet skirt, patent leather belt, and a floral blouse unbuttoned far enough to reveal his considerable chest hair. His aviator glasses and slumping posture added the final touch of nonsense to his Halloween ensemble.
They started down Nassau for the long trek from outer Greenpoint to the Bedford Avenue L station. The breeze was warmer than it should be in late October, but cool enough to feel like Autumn, crisp enough to seem like change. Meanwhile, you could have cut the air between them with a knife. She was in that hopeless place. She was determined to have high times like she had every New York Halloween, and yet she was already sure David was going to wreck the evening she wanted. As they walked, she thought what a ridiculous pair they made, she the cabaret stage doll with delusions of grandeur and he the crazy Midwestern auntie. “Western Pennsylvania’s not the Midwest,” David would protest. “Ok, Appalachia, then,” she’d retort, as if each place name were an interchangeable insult.
On the sidewalk that ran through McCarren Park they crossed paths with a charismatic fellow who was once Holiday Help at the bookstore where she worked, and he paused to say hello. He was dressed as an axe murder victim and she stared into the half of his sympathetic face that wasn’t covered in stage blood while he told her about the three-act play he was directing in DUMBO. When they moved out of earshot (the axe murder victim was headed to a party in the old artists’ building near Newtown Creek), David laid into her about not introducing him, and she felt the evening shift a little in the bad direction. She couldn’t actually recall the book bagger’s name but David didn’t believe her, and he threw a jealousy fit besides; that seemed to be his new thing. Earlier in the week he conveniently forgot her best friend’s name, so that when she arrived home two hours after her shift ended, he quickly blew up into, “WHO THE FUCK— IS ‘JASON’?” David had a key to her apartment, but she didn’t think it gave him unlimited emotional say over how she spent her time. She hated the feeling of going to bed with someone who was giving her the silent treatment, which was noticeably different from living alone.
When he held her, her hardness melted and she wanted to sing his praises to the rooftops. When he moved towards her, she wanted to protect him from the world that seemed to pain him into strange defenses. He held her less often these days and instead kept her at arm’s length with his incessant stories. He told her stories about his former lovers and stories about his former colleagues and stories about all the other bright young things he used to run with in a former life full of ambition and hope. He told her stories of his childhood in Pennsylvania and stories of the days he spent in Paris and stories of the months he spent in Austria. He told her stories that annoyed her and stories that surprised her and stories that made her wince. He told her stories that made her marvel that he was here to tell them. When he ran out of stories, he told her jokes in which a viola player always suffered the punch line: she was learning that these were the Pollock jokes of the classical music world.
In the subway station, they saw one of David’s wealthy friends from his Oberlin days. Ethan owned a loft on Berry Street where he made electronic music and a house in the Hudson Valley where he threw sporadic parties. He was dressed in one of those Halloween costumes that one has to ask about and when the answer is given, it’s a clever but unfunny pun; all the conspicuous education with none of the entertainment value. She recalled that Ethan’s father was the vice president of a firm whose minions filled a small skyscraper in the Financial District, but she couldn’t remember which one; anyway all those names ran together in her head. Goldman Brothers, Lehman Sachs. When David left town later, when they finally went bust, he told her that she was the only person he’d ever known who had actually achieved the mythic task of coming to New York with no job and no connections and finding employment through the ads in the back of the Village Voice. She once imagined he would rise to the occasion and try to do the same, in the months while he shared her closet and her bed, but somehow the coal miner’s son had managed to inherit the exceptional expectations of his most coddled acquaintances.
The train was packed. Art school costumes mingled with uniformed folks headed to the late shift: nurses, ambulance drivers, waitresses at the all-nights. Then there were the ones she couldn’t tell what. Was the straphanger in the Abe Lincoln beard and black suit going to a party or just commuting to his bartending job? The elaborate Victorian next to him could be decked out for the occasion, or she might be one of the 1901 goths squatting the Williamsburg Bank building. What about the guy in black scarf and brown military drab, was he a Subcomandante Marcos or a Bushwick anarchist? She couldn’t be sure whether the dude in the green football jacket was an undercover cop or just a sports fan. David leaned in and she thought he might kiss her, but instead he was asking which stop they should take. David knew well that she would want to get out at Third Avenue and parade past the bookstore windows, whereas he’d be vying for First Avenue and going out of their way for a first round at Sophie’s. Usually it was the corner bar closest to her apartment on Nassau where he would down a two-dollar glass of red wine quicker than he could lie about where he’d been last night, but she’d distracted him from this pit stop on their way out of Brooklyn.
“It won’t even count as Halloween if we don’t have the first drink at Sophie’s.” David was always making nonsense pronouncements that ended with the name of his favorite Alphabet City watering hole, “Sophie’s.” Before she could open her mouth to argue with him, the L train’s most ubiquitous panhandler appeared at the end of the car. He maneuvered his way between a young woman approximating Bjork’s swan costume and a couple dressed like a White Stripes album cover, and delivered his spiel to the Saturday night crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, with your generous assistance, I am rebuilding my life one day at a time.” He was a familiar face: Eddie was nine months clean and had been selling STREET NEWS on the subway everyday for the past eight. As he passed them she handed him a dollar for the paper but skipped their usual chit-chat since she figured he was unlikely to recognize her in her full face paint. When she looked again at David, he was squinting hard like he was trying to block everything out: the bright lights of the chrome space, the effervescent people, the bodies packed like sardines, or their next argument—she never knew exactly what troubled him in these moments. He remained with his face squeezed like that for the rest of the ride under the river.
They were due to meet up with her brother and his girlfriend at a bar in the East Village she could only vaguely picture—one of those preppy Irish saloons the NYU kids flocked to, the kind that made parts of Second Avenue useless on the weekends anymore. Her brother was like a Kennedy. He was as tall as a tree, he was great looking, he skied and played basketball, he was studying in Massachusetts to become a landscape architect. He radiated good health and good genes. His girlfriend was from a tight-knit family, beautiful, and refined.
Her younger brother was once her little baby when she was a nine-year-old mother’s helper on a suburban Virginia street. David was closer to her brother’s age than to her own, and lately she felt like his mother as well, working all day at the bookstore in Manhattan to come home and find him gleefully reading her bookshelves in Brooklyn. She wondered if he was really looking for a job, since he got sullen and silent every time she asked how it was going. She wondered if it mattered to him to rent his own apartment, or if he preferred the kindness of bed sheets that someone else schlepped to the laundromat. She wondered what he really did with Jen in her Columbia dorm room, the sophomore who’d been his student last year when he TA’ed the class on Ethnomusicology. David loved to throw campus terminology around even now that he was a drop-out; New York was still his academic playground, his PhD lounge. She didn’t associate New York with college and sometimes asked him why he hadn’t ended up in Boston.
What was it about romances that happened in neighborhoods off the L train? All her friends in Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Maspeth were wage-poor working girls who’d managed to shack up with young Byrons who made even less money than they did. The unemployed, the barely employed, the artists who were allergic to resumes, the “freelancers” who were perpetually in between gigs. Young men aspiring to the trust fund nonchalance without the bankroll, aspiring to cocky independence without the skills to become self-sufficient, aiming for big-city big-shot without passing through street smarts or paychecks. These relationships were always temporary, but there was always another one to be had. It was like a parade of lost boys was marching down the L line, hopping from one slammed door to the next woman’s open arms, her warm futon, her motherly teat. Whereas the N/R line seemed to spawn marriages and one-bedrooms full of smartly-stacked IKEA furniture.
On the corner of First and 14th, David was talking her into having one drink before he met the brother, but she was slow to understand why it couldn’t be had at any old barstool on the way there. There must be a hundred establishments they were about to pass by, with a hundred bartenders willing to pull a frothy Guinness or pour a whiskey neat. She recalled the time she made a big deal of taking him to her favorite bar on St. Mark’s Place and he explained to her that he didn’t like going to bars in general, he liked going to old man bars. He explained that, actually, he liked going to his bar. He explained that this bar, Lulu’s, was bright with bubble gum colors, and it was giving him the shits. His mood started sliding to black as if to overcompensate. Finally she gave up and they left before their third round was served, though she hoped her generous tip would keep her in good graces with the drag queens who delivered bubbly glasses of Diet Coke and warm plates of penne pasta so efficiently to her table.
Sophie’s was dark like a cave, sunless like a coal mine. Maybe David parked himself there for long hours out of a sort of solidarity, a survivor’s guilt. Somewhere in the Southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, a Ukrainian bar not unlike Sophie’s was filled with David’s neighbors and cousins after every shift change. Why should he be so lucky to escape it completely?
They started on the well-worn path to Sophie’s. First Avenue was lively with Halloween revelers: Decked-out apartment-dwellers pouring out of the subway, larger-than-life party-goers drifting east after the parade, bar-hoppers filling the sidewalks at intervals. David ducked into a bodega to get some Mountain Dew. Sometimes she thought of him as total liquid, a man who needed a 20-ounce Mountain Dew to walk to a bar to have two drinks that would get him to the next bar where he’d drink for a few hours. His moods, too, were liquid, the way he could flow from one feeling state to another so quickly with barely a ripple of warning. It reminded her of the rivers he was always talking about—bodies of water from his far off lands—the Danube, the Seine, the Monongahela, the Youghiogheny. He could sit and watch a river for hours, he said.
She stood and watched the sidewalk flow by while she waited for him: A group of men dressed like it was Carnivale in Brazil. Two women dolled up like movie stars from the ’40s and two men costumed as creatures from the Star Wars cantina. A couple, holding hands, dressed like the Twin Towers. It had been two years since; the magazines were still debating whether an act of terrorism had brought on the death of irony.
“Keep off the grass, buddy!” David yelled over his shoulder at a dude who slinked off down the side street. He’d emerged from the bodega in an edgier mood than he went in, but he wouldn’t say anything about why. A spandex Spider-Man in patent leather boots passed them by, and she wondered what David’s cut-rate Carol Burnett costume looked like to anyone who hadn’t just spent the last few months in an increasingly-small Greenpoint room with him, studying him up close. She tended to treat him like a mystery she’d been given to solve, but it was a lonely job playing the silent detective. David stepped up his stride on the Avenue as they headed to Sophie’s and for a moment she could remember the strange magic of climbing onto a stool, watching a bartender pour a drink for the fellow she walked in with, and feeling the night music begin.
For David’s part, he decried the women in his life who could chain-drink vodka (his ex fiancé, his last two lovers, and his mother) but her seltzers with grapefruit juice seemed to bother him even more. He said the vodka made them mean, but he told her that her sober state made him want to drink enough for the both of them. It was something to say, anyhow.
With some men, there was always a bottle in bed between you, but with David it was a whole bar. David never even kept beer in her apartment, but if they fought, he wasn’t afraid to storm off to Sophie’s at the drop of a hat, the East River be damned. In general, if he was angry at her he’d stay out at the bar until 7:00am; if he was happy with her, he’d take her on a date to the bar and show her off to the regulars like they’d never seen her before. Gary who sat closest to the pool table was an illustrator for scientific magazines, George was a longtime EMT worker who wrote plays, Adolfo was a professional musician from Argentina, Brendan was a professional Irish drunk by way of Canada, Kurt was an Army vet from the Gulf War, and Frank had been stationed in Dong Ha in ’67. To hear David tell it, they all sounded eternally single with intermittent Sophie’s affairs, but it took her awhile to see what it all added up to. If she and David were happy when they walked in to Sophie’s, how they left was a crapshoot. Heads they exited even cozier than they came in, Tails they left separately and didn’t speak for 14 hours. And tonight, they weren’t walking in cozy so much as walking on eggshells.
After a few more blocks, David surprised her by saying they should head straight for the brother’s pub after all.
They turned west on 9th Street. David seemed to relax a little on the side street that was darker and lonelier than the Avenue. As his tension eased, hers did, too. They went back and forth like this all the time, and the transitions were always cryptic—what could make her turn so solid with animosity when she was so fondly in love, what could make her soften again when she was so determined to punish him?
A waif wearing emerald-outlined wings and not much more rounded the corner of Second Avenue and headed toward them, a lightness in her step. David stated the obvious, “Nice Tinker Bell….,” but it set her to thinking of women in tiny clothing. It made her think of the red, white, and blue parka that had ruined the allure of her pink ballerina costume on so many cold, young Halloweens in her aluminum-sided neighborhood several states south of here. It made her think of women she’d read about, like the antebellum ladies who caught their death from fashionable but unseasonable ball gowns. It made her think of the women who moved to New York to dress like “Sex and the City” characters, who learned more about the city from actresses prancing around a Hollywood set than from their neighbors or coworkers. Women who walked down vacant streets in tiny skirts and tall stilettos and wrapped themselves in vanity and cell phone conversations. Women who wouldn’t even read about what the city was like: They didn’t read the history books or the local newspapers which reported what had happened so much as they read TIME OUT NY to find out what was about to happen.
“Music Man, where you BEEN?” Tinker Bell squealed and threw her arms around David. “Music Man, you’re going the wrong way!” Of course. Underneath the glitter face paint and the blonde hair extension, it was just Stephanie from Sophie’s.
It was Stephanie from the night she met David. Stephanie had been a sort of inverse matchmaker on that steaming July night as they sat leaning into one another at the bar. She was the flighty ingénue who would bounce over to beg video game quarters off David, who in turn would round up some coins from patrons Stephanie wouldn’t have approached on her own. Her interruptions made them laugh, she and David, and the laughter smoothed their nerves. Stephanie as a topic made her way into their conversation; their observations of her were the first thing they had shared. She was the unself-conscious extrovert they weren’t, as she narrated her plastic gunshots at “Big Buck Hunter” for hours and whooped it up in the background of their evening every time she scored. By contrast, she and David hugged the edge of the worn wood bar as David took the opportunity to tell her stories of the macho deer hunters he had left “back home.” It was weeks later that he told her the one about his father and the rifle; the bar was much less crowded that time and she could recall the sound of a boy dribbling a basketball down the sidewalk.
“See you on 5th Street?” Stephanie seemed eager to keep moving eastward, but before she turned away, she waved her wand over the two of them. “Goldschläger and pixie dust, you guys!” she half-sang, in her high-spirited manner. Then she flitted off in the direction of the witch store.
David turned to her, and there was a split second when she studied his face for a cue, a warning. The street was theirs alone, and she held her breath waiting for his reaction. Then David broke into a lopsided smile. “Awww! Stephanie blessed us! Baby, it’s a sign!” She was so relieved; on another night, such abject flakiness could have set him off into a downward spiral, a bitter rant about the nature of fun or happiness or urbanites or “Wall Street babies.” Soon they were walking hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder, cooing about serendipity and releasing themselves from the worst thoughts of the evening. She was happy to imagine that the next pint might make a good mood giddier instead of a dark mood, bleaker. She was happy they would have less to hide when she introduced David to her brother.
Looking back, Stephanie was just one skinny bar hound who probably never traveled west of Third Avenue or north of 14th Street. They were bound to see her again eventually, but here they made her into their compass, their prophet, their fortune teller, their good luck charm. They were grasping at straws when the writing was already on the wall. Hindsight was 20/20. As she watched this October story play now before her memory-eyes, she saw that they’d already spent their final lovers’ night of open-hearted yearning before this; everything from Halloween forward was just two people taking turns at manipulation and masochism, two people plotting an exit or gauging their endurance, two people with masks firmly intact as they waited for the other one to play it vulnerable, to play it true.
Karen Lillis is the author of four books of fiction, most recently WATCH THE DOORS AS THEY CLOSE (Spuyten Duyvil, 2012). Currently based in Pittsburgh, she is at work on a memoir of her time behind the register at St Mark’s Bookshop. She blogs about small press lit and indie bookstores at Karen the Small Press Librarian: http://karenslibraryblog.blogspot.com/
Photographs by Seth Kushner and Dean Haspiel