The Process

Category: The Lost Kids

The Lost Kids: Done, Maybe. Unrevised, Clearly. These Things Happen.

A NOTE ON THE STORY

It’s entirely strange and uncomfortable to put work out when you know it’s incredibly mediocre–shitty, even.  But to me, it seems a little important to post the raw versions of my work on The Process, because that’s the fucking point of the site.  It’s not a platform I’m trying to use to say, “This is my work!  Judge me!  I think this is incredible and a great example of what I am trying to say to the world!”  Rather, it’s more of a place for me to come to think.  And for you to come to think.  Some author, maybe Mark Twain, or someone, said something about how if you say something, even if it doesn’t evoke a reaction or response right away or ever, it can’t really be unheard.  And in that way you make a change or impression.  I don’t really know if that even applies to what I am attempting to do here.  I guess I appreciate when people say things to have them heard in general, because brains work, and people should use them, even if it’s a futile waste, considering the fact that we are all essentially rocketing to our reserved spots back in the ground after we die at an astounding speed.  Nothing we do probably matters.  At all.  But let’s think, anyway, because it’s something fun to do to pass the time.

The Lost Kids is a story I wanted to write to talk about our generation.  I think our generation may be one of the most lost and wayward ones, but also one of the best, and yet, whose generation is not the most lost?  It’s a whole lot to actually decide where the line is not blurred between introspect and narcissism, especially in the presence of context, truth, and understanding that truth is not a real tangible thing.  So maybe this is more of a portrait of my people.  But roughly hewn by someone who could only hope to capture it in the right way and maybe didn’t.  This is not an autobiography, as my family fears it is, although I see some of myself and my loved ones in each of the characters.  I mean, really, it’s not as though I would be anywhere near smart enough to create purely fictional characters; I’m just too goddamn lazy and possibly slightly obsessed with the people in my own life to do that.

I intend to fix this horrible piece of shit–I really do.  I don’t know if it will happen.  Especially considering how uncertain tomorrow is, and I’m going out for beers tonight, and the sun has come out, and I might forget that I wrote this because I’m breathing in life in the outdoors as the snow melts and dog shit tempers on the sidewalk outside my apartment.

Anyway, I mean to say that this story is for all the people: your behavior in this world is atrocious, and I find it wildly fascinating.  Thank you.

ONE

I stopped feeling lonely when I remembered to check in with Hemingway.  It’d been a long time, and the bastard hadn’t texted or called.  But he’s just the type of friend that reminds you you’ve got people despite the ostensible.  I had just finished up with some business on the Upper East.  Stranger things all the time with these narcissistic art people.  One day it’s Warhol and his movie of couples macking it, and the next it’s a guy planning to recreate the film starring himself.  Well, to be honest, I didn’t mind co-starring, considering the money.  I had found the dude online, looking for a girl to come make out for a hundred bucks.  I’m no whore or anything, but money talks, and I’ll be damned if a college education wasn’t enough to teach me that a hundred bucks for twenty minutes of my time is a higher rate than the ten fifty an hour I’m getting downtown at the restaurant.  I took Economics; I know about high risk-high reward.  That is why I went with a pair of scissors in my bag.

When I got to the place, I wasn’t entirely sure about the high risk part, but the address was to a brownstone, so I walked in.  It was a fancy neighborhood.  And yeah, I know about facades, but don’t forget about the high reward part.  So I walked in, and I smelled weed, so I knew I was probably at the right place.  Sure enough, this scruffy artist emerged from the door up the stairs when I knocked.  If you’ve ever met a stranger like this, it goes like “hi”/ “yes, hello..”/ “come in”/ “thank you…” and then the door shuts and they offer for you to put your bag down, and you think about your scissors and locate where the person’s kidneys must be before you see the person’s Shiba Inu in the corner and decide it must be okay and surrender your bag to the offered chair back.

I looked around at his posters, wine bottles, shiny floors, and furniture.  Must be nice, I thought.  I mean, the dude wasn’t young.  Maybe by the time I’m fifty, I won’t be needing roommates either, but that depends on how far I can get in my career before I lose my shit.  A guy at the bank today was asking me if I was a chef at my job, and I was too hungover to smile when I said no.  Everyone assumes you’re the head fucking chef.  I should’ve asked him if he was the owner of the bank.  Anyway, this artist shows me his idea for the film, shows me the windowsill where our makeoutery will occur, shows me his nice filming equipment, etc.  And I’m there like let’s do this thing, because I have a date and I need time to brush your saliva and my guilt out of my gullet beforehand.

So we make out in three different takes.  It’s awkward because I’m tiny and he’s tall, awkward because I haven’t kissed a man in over a year, awkward because it was at once the longest kiss I’ve had in a while and the worst.  I wondered if he agreed it was terrible.  Or if it was his first kiss.  By the end of the last take, I did start to contemplate whether I would sustain post traumatic stress issues from it, but there was this healing moment when he handed me the hundred dollar bill.  I was like, well that’s what that bill looks like.  And then I got all socialist and divided the money amongst a number of bars downtown.  No trauma was sustained.

So anyway, I woke up the other day feeling all crappy and alone in the world.  I got out of bed and walked to the corner for a bagel, and Ishan finally stopped questioning me on my untoasted bagel preference.  It felt OK to be accepted on that end, but being a regular at the bagel shop wasn’t the sense of belonging I was looking for at the moment.  I bought a scratch off and lost.  It was one of those stupid crossword ones.  I used to win them sometimes–fifty bucks, once.  But anyway, when I went back up to my apartment, I saw something my cousin posted on Facebook about France, and I thought of Hemingway.  I love the guy, but I think moving to Paris after college was a douche move on his part.  Look, I hate America too, but New York is easily as good as Paris, and either way you slice it, Ebola will get to every country eventually.  So maybe I’m a little bitter that he left.  But we have our adventures overseas from each other, and when we compare notes, it’s more of the same shenanigans.

I hadn’t checked in with him in a while, so I pulled up my last email to him to see where I left him.  It read,

“Hey man,

How’s that Paris life treating you, you fancy fuck?  Come back to New York so we can sit in bars together and talk about the merits of butt sex when we’re sitting next to people who are clearly on their first date!  I miss you.  I’m finally settling into my new neighborhood, and I think it might be a secret lesbian Mecca.  I’m not sure yet, so I’ll keep you posted, but I’m seeing a lot of butch haircuts and Birkenstocks.  Oh.  And there’s this lady who rides around town in a scooter for disabled people with a parrot on her shoulder.  A goddamn parrot!  They don’t write this shit in the movies.

I had the weirdest night last weekend.  Remember I told you about the girl I went home with from that 80s party?  Well I ran into her at this bar the other night, and it was awkward, because I left her that fucked up haiku about sorry for falling asleep in the middle of it, and it turned out she was straight anyway.  Total wannabe bi girl, but straight as an arrow.  On the bright side, she let me crash on her couch after the bar.  And her roommate offered me coffee and a phone charge when I woke up like it was some four star hotel or something.  I’m not making this up.  And we got to talking about beer, and she gave me a bottle of her favorite brew.  I’m pretty sure I’m ok with free beer from kind, cute strangers.  Unfortunately, I don’t think she was hitting on me, though.  Everyone wants a big butch these days.  I don’t get that.  I made this horrible mistake of eschewing the institution of categories, and it’s not working out well.  Someone called me a chapstick lesbian, but I’m thinking I’m more of a “needs chapstick lesbian.”  Real talk though, this weather is drying out my lips like a motherfucker.  Maybe that’s the issue.

How are you, though?  I feel like I only get random snapchats from you all captioned, “Don’t drop the baguette!” from various raves you’ve attended.  You really need to come up with a catchier phrase.  Haha..catchy…I think I’m punny.  Speaking of, how are the boys?  I’m guessing they love your American ass, but who knows.  I’ve heard Parisians can be bitches.  I want to hear about your life!

Love you,

Gretch”

He had responded,

“Gretchennnn!  I miss you more.  Calm your horses on this meeting people thing.  It sounds like you’re getting enough for us both.  And what the hell with these nice people inviting you into their homes and offering you free beer in the morning?  Was there a turn down service?  I don’t understand.  I’ve been kicked out of people’s flats here.  Like “OK, this is not a thing, bye, I’m going to bed, go back to whatever arrondissement you came from.”

Still, though, I have been having a lot of fun.  I finally straightened shit out with my work visa, so I can finally get a job.  I don’t want to work, but I’m down to my final Euro, and I’m getting a little partied out, too.  These French people can hang!  Like if you and I thought our blood was made of a 30% wine solution, I fear for the vampire that tries to feast on the Parisians.

You’re done with “don’t drop the baguette”?!  It still gets me every time.  Unclear why.  Ughhh wait so this is so annoying, but I think all French toilets are low-flush.  Everyone has a toilet brush for deuce-dropping purposes, and it freaks me out.  I think as soon as I get rich, I’m gonna get a fancy, American style toilet in my place.  It’s awful.

Oh, I actually do have a story for you.  So I met this guy at a club, and we left at like two in the morning, which is pretty early still for me these days, and we went to buy some blow.  We each do like two small lines, go back to the club, dance our asses off, and then leave to go back to his place.  And at this point, we were starting to come down and we bumped some to keep going (he was going to skip work).  So we’re walking into his place, and this tiny little old lady catches me grinding my teeth a little, and she grabs me by the arm (you know that intense old lady grip–like rivaling Jack and Rose in Titanic).  She looks me in the eyes like she knows what’s up, and then she says in this raspy French, “can I get some?” I died.  She had to be like 90 years old.  I absolutely did not give an old lady coke, but nonetheless…what is my life coming to?

Alright, well I have to go, but we should Skype sometime.  I know our schedules never work, but you know…one day.

Bye, bitch (haha my phone always auto-corrects it to butch!  It knows!)

Hem”

What a guy.  Basically the male version of me, but not at all.  I thought about booking a trip to see him, but I was pretty damn sure I wouldn’t have the money until tax returns come in.  I mean, with my luck, I’ll owe money back to the government, but whatever.  I hate thinking about the government.  Just the other day, my friend, Jen, was telling me her family was all on her dick to vote.  And I didn’t vote either.  The way she saw it, her parents were Republican for money reasons.  And she has Democratic values, but she’s also not making enough money to give a shit either way.  We decided we are definitely fucked either way, so fuck voting.  At least until we read up on what exactly is going on.  We are pretty sure no one really knows.

TWO

So I call up Hem, and it goes to voicemail: “I am not here…or you aren’t.  Is anyone here?  I am not.  What is a phone?…Hey, it’s Hem.  If this is real life, leave me some words of encouragement.”

“Hey, dude, it’s Gretch.  Just calling to say hey and catch up.  I don’t know if this is real life.  If this is a dream, that would be amazing, because I just dumped half a cup of cream in my coffee thinking it was milk, and I don’t want to buy another after waiting in line and spending three dollars on it at fucking La Colombe.  Goddamn hipster unlabeled pitcher of dairy product bullshit.  Oh…I think it’s half and half.  Still, ugh.  Alright.  Call me back.”

I don’t like any sugar in my coffee, and I only drink cappuccinos or cortados on my days off, because money.  On work days, I drink coffee with milk.  Not skim, because that’s bullshit.  Not almond milk, because that’s water thickened with various gums with a touch of almond added for the name…not soy milk because why…not coconut milk because why…not rice milk because I don’t put rice in my coffee…you know.  It’s all OK, what you people are doing to your coffee, because that is what you do.  But I drink my coffee with milk.   La Colombe is good but also distinctly for the posers and masochists who like to wait in line.  I am the latter.

I walk out into the streets with my nose in my phone as usual.  I compulsively check it every few minutes.  It’s a nasty habit I picked up from being alive in this generation, but it happens.  I check my bank account and want to shit my pants.  Maybe I should email that guy on Craigslist who wanted to get spanked for two hundred bucks a pop.  Maybe not.  Tomorrow is pay day.

I get on the subway home; I had gone into the city to wander around, but it had proved pointless.  On the subway, there is a woman with a razor scooter.  She must be about sixty or thirty-something with a meth habit, but it’s unclear.  Who still rides a razor scooter?  I put on my headphones and turn up my lady, Iggy.  “And can’t nobody turn me off.  And if I was a dick, I would be hard, but you would make me soft–my godddd…” Everyone has their creep move on the subway.  Mine is laughing to myself about rap lyrics.

The thing I hate the most about the subway is being a hostage to mouths.  Talking, chewing, clicking, licking, smacking, singing…everyone and their mouths.  I’ve had a terrible time on subways watching all the mouths while I’m listening to my music…I’ve felt surrounded by aliens with this gaping orifice for excess and monotony.  It’s quite ruinous after a while, really.  The way to go about it is to get above ground for air as quickly as possible after the ride.  I don’t know what the fuck it’s about, either, but it’s what happens.  Occasionally, I think to myself that one only has to ride the subway to boost one’s self esteem.  In life, there is beauty and ugly, but down in the train, it’s a different class of it.  Looking at my subway compatriots is the time I most consider taking care of my health.  I mean, Jesus.

Once I’m back in Queens and above ground with my air, I get a few texts from friends also off work.  Seamus wants to grab a drink, and I can’t think of any reason why not.  Seamus and I met at a local AA chapter.  I remember it well, although it was over a year ago.  Seamus was this quiet black dude who never spoke at these fucking meetings.  At the fifth meeting, I finally decided to talk.  It’s every bit as cliché as it appears in the movies.  “I’m Gretchen, and I’m an alcoholic and an addict.”

“Hi, Gretchen.”

“It’s been five weeks since my last drink.  I never thought my drinking was that out of control, but I drank a lot every day.  I was visiting Austin, TX to see family, and I went to explore the city one day while they were all going to see a movie.  I forget what it was.  Some bullshit.  Ah–“Twenty-two Jump Street.”  So I thought, fuck that movie–I’m just gonna go check out the town.  I had never been to Texas before.

So it’s evening, and I pass a strip club.  “Bare Austin,” I think it was called.  I’d been to a bar earlier, and I had a few beers and whiskies, but I was fine.  I go in, and there’s some girl dancing on the pole, but it’s not too packed in there.  I grab a Modelo and sit at the pole.  I reach into my bag for money, and by some fucking awkward circumstance, I only have dollar coins.  I have no idea how I got them.  But I’m aware that pelting the stripper with Sacagawea-printed metal is not the way to go.

So I’m making neat little stacks of my coins on the side of the stage while she shakes her tits around and tells me about the cool spots to visit in town.  It was an oddly tour-guide-like pole dance.  But whatever.  So time gets away from me, and I’ve been there drinking for like two hours, and suddenly I’m being shaken awake by the bartender.  And she’s all like, “excuse me, ma’am but you can’t be sleepin’ in the bar…” And I’m all fucking embarrassed and dazed, so I pay and run out of there.  So I get in my cousin’s car that I borrowed and head home, but right when I’m turning onto her street, I hear a siren and realize I’m being pulled over.

Long story short, ten minutes later I’m walking the line, and ten minutes after that, I’m in fucking hand cuffs in the back of the cop’s car because I blew a point-one-eight.  And I had to do all this bullshit like have a mug shot taken and get finger printed and the like.  And I swear to god, the guy taking my prints had the least efficient method for finger printing.  It took him three times longer than necessary, at least.  I should be a cop, for fuck’s sake….”

“Gretchen…language, please.”

“Ah, fuck off.  I’m done anyway.  We all know how the story ends anyway, right?  I’m here.”  I sat down and listened to a few other sob stories.  Why did I even go?  I should’ve just sat and listened, but I guess I get bored.

And after that meeting, Seamus came up to me after and started laughing like he was gonna piss his pants or something.  I’d never even seen the guy smile, either.  And I thought he was older, but up close I guessed he must’ve been somewhere under thirty.  “Your parents make you come here?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Want to grab a beer?”

“Yeah.  Let’s get out of here.”  We emerged from the dimly lit church into the blindingly bright winter day.  All the snow had melted and refrozen as ice in the streets, and the wind whipped our cheeks as we wandered around the block to an old pub.  It’s weird on the Upper East Side, how there are a smattering of old, shitty pubs amongst the ritziness.

We got to talking and drinking.  I don’t really give a shit about Guiness, but it’s the first thing I could think to order at a place like that, and having gone five–er, three–weeks without a drink, I didn’t much care.  I’m not a goddamn alcoholic…I just made a mistake.  “You’re not an alcoholic until you quit,” I’ve heard some Irish people say.  I agree.

Seamus grew up in Harlem.  He had gone to Columbia on a full ride, but his drinking got in the way, and he got kicked out.  C’est la vie.  He since became a sculptor and dabbled in other media as well.  He’d been in this AA thing for a few months, but he was tired of it, like me.  I mean, maybe this guy had some real issues, but it wasn’t my life to judge.  And he’d been back on the bottle for a couple weeks already, so it wasn’t my fault he was drinking again.  After that, I would go workshop at Seamus’s apartment with him.  Sometimes he would teach me to sculpt, sometimes I would write while he did his shit, sometimes we would take shots and race to see who could knit a longer scarf during one hour’s time.  I always won at that one.  Mine always had runs in it from dropped stitches, but that’s not against the rules.

It turns out Seamus is in Queens visiting an art dealer, so I meet him for a beer.  After a couple rounds and going through the usual updates, he asks me about work.  “Fuck…”

“Oh, here we go…”

“So I’m having this crisis where I don’t think I like food anymore.”

“Do elaborate.”

“It just doesn’t make any sense.  Why care about it?  It’s nourishment, right?  And we want it to taste good, sure.  But I’m losing faith in the ritual/fetishization of the meal.  It’s a meal.  People go out, order food, spend all this money, and it’s like fucking done in an hour.  Often, the food is a let down.  There’s so much wrong with it.”

“But people love going out to eat…I understand, but I still don’t see what your problem is.  You love cooking, right?”

“Well I had this dream recently, right?  So in my dream, I’m making this elaborate meal, and suddenly I feel this sense of ecstasy and calm.  And I think to myself, I love cooking.  And when I woke up, I felt so weird about it.  I haven’t felt that way about making food in so long.  And I have so many problems with cooking.  Garnishes, for example.  Why does every dish need a bright green garnish?  Why?  There is only one possible answer.  One way to make sense of it.”

“What?”

“That makeup is to women what garnishes are to food: code for “please eat me.”

“You’re disgusting.”

“You know I’m right!  Or like a male peacock.  I am bright. Let us mate.  Bright garnishes are like a dish’s way of saying, “please mate your mouth with me right now.  And I guess that’s fine, but I still think it’s ridiculous.  Like, at least the birds’ feathers still function.  How often have you felt that some little piece of chive made your meal worthwhile?  Fuck that.”

“You’re overthinking it…”

“I don’t know, man.  And like, food is the most ephemeral high you could have.  You put it in your mouth, it’s good.  Done.  Soon you’re bored eating the food.  Soon you’re full.  It’s in the past before you know it.  No lasting effects.  It’s not like drinking, where at least you know you may be up to no good later.  Or perhaps that over drinks you are slowly becoming more attractive to your companion.  Right?  Agree with me.  We’re three beers in.  I’m gorgeous, no?

“Of course you are.”

“Food is an enigma, man.  Sometimes I think I’m only in it because it was my first muse.  I’m gonna join the dark side.  Foray into non-funtional art.  It’s easier without the blurred lines.  Food is either food or art or an abomination of the in-between.  Or the best combination of both.  But it’s dangerous to not know.”

THREE

After drinks, Seamus and I decide to grab a growler of something and continue the shenanigans at my place.  It’s not our fault that we both have Pringles syndrome.  It’s a genetic problem, where once you pop, the fun don’t stop, and you just sort of drink until something interesting happens or you pass out.  I grab a gallon of cider from the place on the corner.  We’re on the other side of Queens, so we request an Uber.  As Seamus rambles about his next set of sculpture ideas, I watch the small car icon circle around the nearby blocks on my phone screen.  The driver is lost, of course.  The driver is six minutes away.  The driver is 18 minutes away.  The driver is approaching.  The driver is seven minutes away.  The driver has arrived.  Bullshit system…

We get in the car.  “Are you Gretchel?”

“Huh?  My name is Gretchen…I don’t really know how that gets messed up…It’s like…a pretty normal name.  Dude, did he just call me Gretchel?  Is that a name, ever?”

“Gretch, shut up, man…who cares?”

“Ugh..”

Seamus is sitting in the front of the car.  The chairs are plush, which is something that reminds me of children and their boogers.  You know, when you’re a kid, and your friend’s mom has that mini van with plush seats, and you just always know that your friend’s little brother rubbed his snot all over the seats, and it will forever be encrusted in the soft material?  Leather seats just make so much more sense…But as I sink into the seat and start to warm up in the heat of the car, I get tired.  The driver is talking to Seamus about the food he used to cook.  He’s from the Caribbean.

“…and we always usin’ de coconut in ou’ cookin’, unnastand?  Now I buy de coconut milk in de sto’.  Bat we used to be crackin’ opun de coconuts and poundin’ de meat wit de wata inside…”  He talks about his cooking a while longer and segues into a monologue about how lizards are pets over here, but in his home country, they’re food.

“When I was a kid,” Seamus starts, “my mom took me to a store where they were selling rabbits and asked me which one I liked best.  I thought we were getting one as a pet, but as soon as I chose it, they hung it up, stuck its throat, and skinned it.  I was horrified.  I can’t eat meat to this day.”

I ignore Seamus’s meatless lifestyle, because I want to stay friends.  I just can’t stand vegetarians or vegans as regular dining companions.  Them and their speeches about where to find protein, as if it was some scavenger hunt.  It’s terrible.  In fact, I went through a phase in which I used that dating app, Tinder, to rebel against the vegan institution. For some reason, lesbians and vegans are almost as mutually inclusive as peanut butter and jelly.  I gave up, though, after I had enough conversations that went like this:

Stranger: “Hey cutie”

Me: “Are you a vegan?”

Stranger: “Um…yes.”

Me: “There is no valid reason for your eating habits.  Please discontinue your useless avoidance of animal products!”

Stranger: “*silence*”…

But that’s neither here nor there.  Or anywhere, maybe.  Anyway, the driver is surprised to hear that Seamus’s mom allowed him to choose what he ate:

“When I was a kid, ya didn’t have no say in what ya madda makin’ fa’ dinnah, son.  If I even look at my madda the wrong way, I get my ass beat.  Back den, you get a beatin fa’ everythin’, son.  And dese days, ya hit ya kid, dey call de cops, an’ it’s a crime.  I tell ya, son, I got a daughta’.  She’s twenty yea’s old.  I say, “we goin’ on vacation.”  I take dem back to my country, I teach ha’ a lessun, son.  I tea’ ha ass up.  And den we come back here, I don’t lift a finga’, son.  But de kids dey don’t have de respect.  I don’t do nuthin’ illegal, son.  But ya gotta teach dem, unnastand?  You know, son? When I play hooky as a kid, my madda break a chai’ ovah my back, son.  She don’ play.  An’ I don’ evah play de hooky again, son.”

As I try to decide if I’m hearing all this right, I begin to feel nauseous.  Who is this guy’s daughter?  Where is she?  What did he do to her?  The plush is on my skin, and the heat makes breathing thick.  My feet and hands tingle and sweat, and my lips are wet with saliva.

“Shay, let’s walk.”  He turns around and looks sorry, embarrassed for not saying anything to the driver, maybe.

“Excuse me… can you pull over, dude?  Here is good.”

“You sho’, son?”

“Yeah.”  We don’t tip the bastard, and he starts mouthing off about the entitlement of our generation as we shut the doors over his lunacy and walk away.  We’re about ten minutes from my place, anyway.

“Shay, that guy was such a douche…like how the fuck does Uber employ people like that?  You can’t fucking say that shit to people you’re driving around.  He was bragging about abusing his fucking daughter.  Like what the fuck is that shit about?  How are we supposed to hear something like that and then not be able to do anything to fucking help?”

“I know.”  We open the cider and start to drink it from the growler as we walk down the street.  I have this theory that there aren’t any cops in Queens.  There are just these garden gnomes that ticket cars parked in the wrong places.  It’s cold, but the cider starts to warm me up and removes the recency of our car ride.  When you’re powerless, sometimes you have to fill up the powerlessness and be it, I have found.  The truth of it makes me sad, sometimes, but it’s a rare occurrence.

We get to my place, and I open the door.  “Jesus H. Christ!” Seamus flares his nostrils and purses his lips at the stench emanating from my building.

“So…there’s this cat that dies in its own feces about once a week in one of these first floor apartments…sorry about that, but I find four days out of seven, the place smells like glade, man.  I swear…”  We run up the four flights of stairs to my place to escape the nastiness, and I shut the door as soon as we’re in to seal out the demons.  One of my roommates, Vanessa, is burning some fucking Yankee Candle in her room that is supposed to smell like cake and fairy poop or grape soda or some bullshit.  It beats the dead cat.

“Gretchen…I don’t even know if that was a cat shit smell,” Seamus continues, bitter for being hostage to scents. “Have you ever heard of scaphism?”

“Is that the one where ancient Greeks took someone they sentenced to death and rubbed them in honey and then force-fed them honey and milk until they were shitting themselves and then tied them in between two canoes with their hands and feet bound outside the canoes so that pests would be attracted to them and come feast on them as they died in their own poop as they floated around in a lake?  I have looked at all the names on the mailboxes here, and they’re all Russian.  I don’t think any of them know about scaphism.  I do think they know about cats.  It’s cats, Shay.”

“If you insist.”  Seamus goes to the fridge for a beer, since we drank all the cider.  I wait for his reaction with a buzzed grin.  “Where is all the Stella!”  There is no beer in the fridge, because I drank it all the other day after a long night at work.

“Can you go to the store?,” I ask, widening my big, blue eyes to make him feel guilty.  “I’m tired and cold.”  Seamus is the laziest bastard on the planet, but I know he’ll do it for me, because he’s secretly in love with me.  It might sound cocky, but it’s true.  It sucks for him, because the Stella was technically his.

My great-great-aunt Barb taught me that you always keep your best friends’ liquor in your house if you’re a good person.  She used to have us sneak airplane bottles of whiskey into the nursing home for the two men in her life (both named Jack, as convenience would have it).  Jack one liked Makers Mark, and Jack two liked Jim Beam.  Jack one was a douchebag, if you ask me.  Now, Jack two, I could respect, because I never held up well against Jim Beam, and as far as I know, Jim Beam was not Jack two’s primary reason for shitting his Depends.  Barb never drank either Jack’s whiskey.  She knew how to keep it chill like a true gangster, and I just don’t have her collectedness.  But I digress.

“Ugh…I hate you…What do you want?”

“Whatever you want, dude.  But actually there’s this place down the street that sells decent white wine for like five bucks on sale, and I don’t really know what’s wrong with it.  I think it’s actually a mistake.  Go grab a couple bottles of that, and we can get house-wife status together.  C’mon.  I have new yarn.  We can scarf-knit race.

“It’s winter!  You want white wine?”

“Yeah please…Or surprise me.  I don’t care.  Grab a bottle of Fernet, actually.  We can Skype Hem!”  Seamus doesn’t really like Hemingway.  He thinks he’s a bad influence on me, but I can’t honestly say who is worse.  And Seamus has only met Hem once.  “OK we don’t have to Skype Hem, but just get ye’ to the store!  Jesus, man, I can feel the sobriety coming on…ain’t nobody got time to be hungover at eight PM.”

“Yes ma’am.”

After he leaves, I open the fridge to look for some food.  I only have some leftover dumplings from a couple days ago.  Vanessa has hummus, and Eddie has spaghetti and meatballs.  I cut off half a meatball and gulp it down, ravenous.  To cover my tracks, I turn the remaining meatball half on its side, propping it up against some spaghetti to make it look whole.  Hopefully, Eddie will be high when he eats it and not really notice or remember the strange half-meatball.  Then, I take a few spoonfuls of Vanessa’s hummus.  Fuck…it’s so good.  I eat half of the tub before putting it back.  I will buy her a new one later.  Or something.

When Seamus gets back, he pulls out two bottles of cold Chardonnay.

“Woooo–the housewife hour is upon us!”

“Woo!”  He smiles, clearly priding himself on his ability to stir up some enthusiasm from my normal monotonous stoicism.

“Oh!  There you are!  With the sun setting so early in the winter, there are only so many hours in a day I can see you when you’re not smiling.”

“Bitchhh…”

“Cheers, dude.”  I open the two bottles, and we drink straight from them, like the fancy people that we are.

“L’chaim, biatch.”

“Something like that.”

FOUR

I wake up in a strange mix of comfort and hazy stupor.  As I piece together the reality of the new day, beginning with the daily assessment of, “am I hungover?” followed by, “did I even drink last night?” (not drinking water warrants both questions), I become aware of another being.  Who’s arm is this arm that is not my arm?  Oh, goddamnit.  Please don’t be naked…Please don’t be naked…I turn over to see Seamus half-spooning me in his sleep.  Oh dear…well, we are dressed, and based on the evidence around me, I deduce the events of the previous evening: neon orange crumbs on the floor and in the bed, rolls of duct tape here and there, some shards of glass and sticky residue on the floor—we got white girl wasted and ate a bunch of Cheetos while trying to fashion shoes out of duct tape.  This happens sometimes…all in a night’s work.

I am too dazed to think, so I go into my living room and curl up in the lumpy easy chair.  By now, the shape of my ass is sunken into the poor thing.  At least I get good use out of it.  It’s leather, and I found it down in Alphabet City outside someone’s apartment while I was waiting to meet my friend Sasha for dinner.  I sat in the chair and quickly became attached.  Long story short, we canceled our dinner plans and devised a plan to get the chair back to Queens for free.  Truth be told, it did involve a mildly untrue post on TaskRabbit, which involved payment in beer.  Beer that did not yet exist.  So the guy who drove it back to Queens with us had to buy the beer himself.  I will say that the Christening of the chair party we had together made it worth his while (as threesomes do), so no remorse resulted.  I should really call Sasha to hang out sometime soon.  I miss that bitch.

I really wish that Seamus would go home.  I have to go to work in four hours, and all I want is to lay under my faintly Cheetos-stained down comforter and lament the awkward swimming in my head.  Possibly while eating a bagel.  Ah, a bagel.  Good idea.  I creep into my room and wake up Seamus.  It’s awkward, since I’ve never had to get him out of my bed before, but there’s simply no other solution that will get me back under my own covers quicker.  “Hey, Shay,” I tap his foot, which is jutting off the end of my bed.  “Seamus!  Let’s go!  Shay’s world!  Shay’s world!  Party time!  Excellent!”

“Gretch…stop it…nooooo.”

“Come on, dude.  Let’s go get bagels.  I’m starving.  Por fa-fucking-vor.”

We are still at the stage in our friendship where one degree of politeness and awkwardness is necessary, so he gets up.  He groggily gathers his things, assessing the sad duct-tape shoe he had worked on last night.  He tosses it in the garbage and then follows me out the door.  At the bagel shop, Seamus orders a cinnamon-raisin bagel with veggie cream cheese.  This is something I’ve only witnessed my Jewiest friends do, and it appalls me.  And I knew about it, early on, because my mom’s parents were Jewish, and they did it too.  But back then, I thought it was some old people thing where they were trying to find the highest fiber combination possible.  Not so.  I get my usual poppy bagel in a bag, untoasted, much to Ishan’s chagrin.  Ishan, the main counterperson, thinks all bagels should be toasted.  As much as I like him, I prefer when José works the counter.  José is probably eighteen years old and may or may not be in love with me.  The result is that he takes immense pride in remembering my order.  When he’s there, I enter, he tells me to cut the line, and he says, “poppy seed bagel in a bag, medium coffee, milk-no-sugar?”  And I smile and nod.  “Three dollars.”  Done.

We get our stuff to go, and I bid Seamus goodbye at the train before I shuffle away to go back to bed.  Well, I don’t shuffle away.  I have this awkward pirate-swagger-y walk I developed from the combination of years of fatigue and being mildly pigeon-toed.  So I do that.  Back at home, I take a shower, lint-roll the crumbs off my bed, and get back in.  Everything smells like wine.  I must have spilled some, but it’s unclear where.  Oh well.  I turn on Pandora and drift off again.

When I wake up, my chest hurts, and my stomach feels low in my body; my palms are wet.  I must be dying.  But as my brain shifts back onto the horizon, I become aware of the song coming through my speakers…”Annie are you OK, Annie are you OK, are you OK, Annie?”  A tear sneaks up in my left eye, and I push it back, turn off the music, and sit up, my back against the Bowie poster on my wall.  I slink down and hear it rip a little, but I’m in my head watching something else.  I’m back in Evanston, cooking dinner in Jenna’s house.  She’s watching “This is It,” the documentary about the dancers training for Michael Jackson’s final tour before he died.  She’s seen the movie seventeen times already, but it’s her favorite, and I don’t mind the repetition.  It’s worth witnessing her fascination throughout the documentary.  “Smooth Criminal” is her favorite song and routine in the show.  She’s obsessed with the lean.  How the hell do they do that?  She’s always trying to do it, so I’m constantly catching her before she falls to the ground.

I force myself to exit the vision and stop thinking about her; she doesn’t deserve the consideration.  Coming out of the flashbacks always reminds me of Harry Potter coming out of the pensieve.  It’s ridiculous, and the inability to forget is exhausting.

I pull myself together and get ready for work.  Pants, hat…apron…ah, goddamnit, I forgot to wash my aprons with the rest of my laundry…I’ll just wear one backwards…wait…where the fuck is my hat?  I rush out the door, since I’m cutting it close and need to pick up a new hat before work now.  Hopefully, Chef won’t bitch about my apron.  After only seven months at Downton, I am tiring of the douche-y, pretentious kitchen.  But fuck it—I need a job, and it’s good experience.  Once I’m there, I walk in the back door and through the kitchen to the locker room.  “Grizzly bearrrr, what up, girl?”

“Hey, Devon.”

“Sup, monsta?”

“Charlie.”

“Grizzlllllle!”

“Dan, hey dude.”

Luckily, no one is in the locker room anymore, because I’m a minute late.  I’m the only girl in the kitchen, so I always have to wait for the bathroom to be free if I want to change or just suck it up and change with the boys.  I wouldn’t really care, either, except for this one dude, Andre, is obsessed with me.  One has to send the right messages in this life if one does not desire to be hassled.  You know.

FIVE

While I change, I think about my prep for the day…I’ll have to make the goddamn parsnip puree again, because Charlie forgot to steep the fucking sachet of herbs in the cream when he made it yesterday…gotta make pickled chestnuts, soak cherries in Armagnac, make roasted pear consommé, chicken skin chips, cut foie…It’s all definitely doable, and because of the law of hangovers (which states that all mise en place will get done miraculously early), I will be set.  If only I could get this fucking agar agar stain out of my apron, my life would be perfect.  But life is never that.

I walk into the kitchen and set about starting my day.  I gather all my shit and then get started on setting up the hot apps station.  During my first hour of work, I usually don’t talk much, just to make sure I’m headed in the right direction and so I don’t get in trouble for dicking around right off the bat.  After an hour and a half, when I’ve gotten my major projects out of the way, I usually start talking to Dennis.  Dennis works roast, and he’s usually pretty on point with picking up on my jokes, so we get along.  “Go out last night?” Dennis can tell when I’ve been out drinking regardless of any effort I make to look like a normal, healthy human.

“Sí.”

“What’d you do?”

“Creative drinking with Seamus.  You know.  The beers, then the ciders, then the wines…the equal opportunity drinking.”

“Anything else equal opportunity happen?”

“No, asshole.”  Thank fucking god…

“Hey, monsta’.  How ya doin’ this fine day?” I turn around, and It’s Andre.  Goddamnit.

“Hola, biatch.”

“How was your day off?”

“Why don’t you ask your mom?”

“So cliché, Gretchen, really.”

“Ask her!  OK, walk away.  Doesn’t negate the situation.”  Andre stalks away in a half-serious tizzy.  What a dildo.  Last time we all went for drinks, he got wasted on three shots of Fireball and proposed to me.  Beyond the fact that I thought only white yuppie girls and their boyfriends drank Fireball, I lost any shred of respect for him when I realized what a lightweight he was.  I mean…come on.  We’re cooks, are we not?  Get it to-fucking-gether.

“Nice,” Dennis grins, clearly relieved I have driven Andre away from our prep area.  Dennis hates Andre.  Mostly everyone has some disdain for him, but Dennis hates him most, ever since this one day in service a couple months ago when Andre sabotaged his mise.  Dennis had just gotten moved to roast, and Andre got stuck on entremet.  He’d been on that station for the past seven months, and he assumed he was next in line for roast, but Dennis jumped to roast from hot apps.  Dennis has natural ability, and Andre is just one of those people who will always be in the shits.  It’s as if he knows entremet like the back of his hand, but then he tripped acid and said “oh my god, man, who’s hand is that!”  Ever since the mise sabotage, they have been mortal enemies.

“I just can’t handle his love,” I start to complain to Dennis.  “It’s getting motherfuckin’ creepy, dude.  Like just because you have girlish hips doesn’t mean I’m gonna grant you access to my exclusively female dating pool.  Is that so difficult to understand?  Like one time I mentioned a guy I dated in high school when I was telling a story, and he goes, ‘oh, so you’ve dated guys before?’  Like oh…you got me…because you have made such a valid point, I suppose that I should date you, right?  Wanker.”

“Oui.  Wanker.”

“Oui.”  The first thing I’m gonna do when I get out of this kitchen is stop saying “oui.”  I’m not fucking French.  It’s a terrible habit, and I’m seriously over accidentally using it colloquially with non-kitchen friends and family.  I could almost think of nothing douchier.  Bartender: ‘Do you want to keep it open?’  Me: ‘Oui.  Er…’ Face palm.

We finish up prep and set up for service, and then we steal some bread from pastry in lieu of eating the grey meat that Charlie put up for family meal.  Fuck that shit.  I’m living proof that coffee, alcohol, and refined carbs (and one glass of water per month) are all a person needs to survive.  “Brah, let’s bust out this service and get the fuck out of here.  I’m tired, I want to go home, and I’m sick of cooking foie and scallops all night every night.”

“Oui.”  The first ticket comes in, and everyone on the line focuses up.  I return to my station down the line.

“May the odds be ever in your favor!” I announce, quoting the Hunger Games as I do every night.  Andre laughs his stupid laugh.  Service starts strong, and I’m selling scallops like foie never existed, which is unusual.

“Devon, fire one octopus.”

“Oui.”

“Puss on fire!” I smirk at Devon down the line.

“Grizzly, maybe some new material would be worth considering,” he laughs.  I do say that every night, but to me, it never gets old.  My hangover is starting to get a little exhausting, but it only makes me a little more delirious.  I’m not fucking anything up so far, so I’m in a good mood.  As long as Chef doesn’t throw anything back at me, I’ll call it a solid Monday.  Well, it’s Thursday, but my Monday.  You know.

“Hey, Jimmy, forty-two has a vegan for second course, but there’s a foie with it.  I’ll let you know when you can toss the salad.”  Elijah, one of our runners, laughs.  Jimmy doesn’t get it.  I look around, sort of bummed to have a joke fall on deaf ears, but then I see Dennis hunched over, trying not to lose his shit.  Great success…

“Oui, salad tossing postponed,” Jimmy replies, finally catching on.

“You know, Jim.  Gotta buy me a drink first.”

“Oui, chivalry.”

“Quiet the fuck down, please!”  Chef pretends he doesn’t like my shenanigans, but I know he appreciates some good sucio humor.

“Ouiiiiiiiiii.”  The whole line quiets to a hush.  Best not to push my luck…it’s gonna be a quiet service from here on out.  All I need to do is focus up, sear, baste, pass.  Sear, baste, pass.  And never forget to shut the fuck up.  That is key.  Around nine, Chef comes over and asks if I’ve been seasoning the scallops with salt and pepper.  “Just salt, chef.”

“Why the fuck are you not using pepper on the scallop?  I told you to fucking pepper the scallop, Gretchen.  So why is that not happening?”

“Oui,” I reply, not really intent on starting anything.  Fuck pepper.  Salt makes food taste amplified.  Pepper makes food taste like fucking pepper.  It makes no fucking sense to season everything with salt and pepper.  Why not season everything with salt and cinnamon?  It’s the same level of crazy.  Fuck pepper.  I kind of consider myself constantly in active rebellion against pepper.  I could practically argue against adding it to anything other than steak au poivre, just because it’s gotten to me that bad.  Chef leaves me alone, but I still can’t bring myself to season the scallops with pepper.  It makes them look stupid and taste stupid.  Around ten, Chef comes back and throws a scallop on my station.

“Pepper!  Where is the fucking pepper?”  By now, I’m too tired to give a shit.

“Black pepper as a seasoning goes against my moral belief system, Chef.”

“Oh, is that so?”

“I mean, yeah…it’s a spice…so…”

“Well you know what goes against my moral belief system?  Employing cooks who don’t do what the fuck I tell them to fucking do.  Yeah?  Do you want your job?  I could find thousands of cooks looking to fill your spot right now who would do whatever I told them to do.”

“Chef, I want my job.  I just…”

“I’m going to tell you to use pepper, and then you’re going to shut the fuck up and say ‘oui,’ or you can get the fuck out right now.  And you’re going to use it—not just say you will.  The door is that way.  Your choice, but we’re getting in the fucking shits waiting for your food.  Let’s fucking go.”

“Oui.”  If I didn’t have bills to pay, I probably would have walked out right at that moment, but I need the money.  Pepper it is.  Fucking A.

On my way out of work later, I pass Chef in his office.

“Gretchen, you better watch your attitude, you hear?”

“Sorry, Chef.”

“Do it again, and I’ll kick your ass out.”

“Oui.  But Chef, I’m the only girl.  Don’t you think that would look suspicious?  I mean, I noted my gender on my papers when I started working here, and I believe that was an optional move in case we needed to file a claim anytime down the road, so…”

“Gretchen…watch it,” Chef is slightly amused by my fake threat.

“I’m not trying to start anything, but what ever happened to the two brown guys that used to work here?  I’m just sayin’.”

“Go home.”

“Oui.”

“Gretchen!  Wait…are you going for drinks?” Andre pops up out of nowhere.  Goddamnit.  I wasn’t going to go, but if everyone is going, it could be fun.  Fucking Andre always has to ruin shit.

“I don’t know, man.  I haven’t been feeling really well lately, and I’m kinda hungover.”

“I noticed you’re off one of the days I’m off this week.  Tuesday, I think it is.  Want to grab a drink with me that night?  We can hit that bar you were talking about.”

“Um…thanks…but I don’t think that will be your scene.  I’m not really sure, but thanks.  I’ve been trying to do a lot of stuff in my free time, so I don’t have a ton of time for going out.”  Lie.

“Like what?”

“I’ve been going to a lot of museums and shit.”  Also untrue.

“Oh, well we should go to the MoMA together.  I’ve been wanting to check out this one exhibit lately.”

“Andre?”

“Yeah?”

“This will never happen.  Ever.  OK?  You’re a nice dude, but half of that statement disqualifies you from dating me.  And it’s not the nice half.”

He acts natural, as he likes to do.  “I just meant as friends.  God, Gretchen.”  Right.  Friends.

“Have you ever seen “When Harry Met Sally?””

“No…wh—“

“Well get with the fucking program and watch that shit.  I gotta go.  Bye!”  I walk out the door into the frigid January night.  What a wanker.

SIX

The rest of the work week is all the same.  Searing, basting, passing, yelling, oui-ing, peppering, white peppering (even worse).  And then it ends, like it does every Monday, and I wonder whether I should drink it all away or go home, sleep, and get “more” out of my days off.  And, like I do each Monday, I choose to go out, because Tuesday is never certain, as life goes.

I pull off my black socks in the locker room and put on my weekend socks of choice—indigo with green toes today.  When you’re a cook, you develop little psycho rituals to try to separate life inside the restaurant from life outside.  Mine is sock changing.  I consider wearing black socks in the real world a sign of giving up, conformity, and loss of identity.  I think Mr. Rogers was spot-on, although I don’t think we ever knew where he was coming from that he was so dressed up before the show…an affair?  Was he cheating on us, his loyal viewers?  Who can say…

I walk out the back door, and it’s raining.  Not too bad, but holy hell—it’s warm for the end of January.  I take off my hat and put it in my bag…wait, where is my purse?  Goddamn it, it’s back in the locker room…I better go get it before one of the dish washers orders pizza with my credit card again.  Fucking A.  I turn around to go back in, and when I do, my heart jumps into my throat.  “Surprise, biatch.”  It’s Hem.

“Oh my god, dude, what the fuck are you doing here!”  I jump on him, attempting to hug him and possibly squeeze the life out of him for scaring me like that.  “I don’t get it!  It’s you in the flesh!  How?  Why aren’t you in Paris?”

“The job I landed working with that paper sent my boss to New York on business, and he took me with him!”

“Of course.  Naturally.  Because why wouldn’t you be on a business trip a month after you started legally working in France…Only you, man.  Jesus.”

“I know…Come on!  Let’s go!  I can already taste the Fernet.  I really need a break from absinthe.  I’m finally starting to like it, but it took weeks of faking it.”

“On that Stockholm Syndrome then?”

“Almost.”

“OK, let me just run back in and get my purse.  I’ll be right there.”  I run in, and as I’m turning into the locker room, I see Don holding my bag.  “Son of a bitch…Don, hands where I can see ‘em.  There will be no pizza ordering today.  Not on my watch.  Jesus.  I leave for one second.”  Don laughs as I snatch my bag out of his hands and take inventory of my cards.  “I know you stole my doubloons, asshole.  I needed those for laundry, but whatever.”  Ain’t nobody got time to fight for three dollars in quarters, and we don’t even have an HR department to speak of, anyway.  Don walks back to the dish pit, pockets jingling, and I run back outside.  “Let’s go, Nicholas.”

“Ay!”  He hates when I call him by his first name.

“Niiii-cho-laaaaaas!” I taunt him to the tune of the Ricola commercial.  He looks playfully annoyed, so I run toward the bar, continuing the chant, as he chases me.  He can’t catch me, because he smokes too much and has terrible lungs.  I, on the other hand, am designed for a quick getaway with my small, light frame and freakishly functional heart and lungs.  I never work out, but I can run like a Kenyan if need be.  When he looks winded after a couple blocks, I stop and let him catch up.  “I assume you want to hit up The Nail first?”

“Duh!”  The Nail is our favorite bar downtown.  Before Hem moved away, the bartenders knew us as “the kids that come in and take down a whole bottle of Fernet in a night.”  One has reputations to uphold in this life.  You know.

“Can I get a double Fernet and ginger, please?” I ask the bartender.  “Actually, make it two.”

“Keep it open?”

“Ou—er, yes.”

“Oui oui oui oui oui,” Hem teases me.

“Well who’s French now, motherfucker?”

“Mmmeeeee.”

“Gretchen, I haven’t seen you in here in a while,” the bartender says.

“Sorry—what’s your name?  Have we met?  I have a shitty memory.  Slash I been drankin’.”

“Uh…I’m Tom…you gave me your number a few weeks ago and invited me to your friend’s holiday party.  I couldn’t go, but I thought maybe we could go out sometime soon?”

“Awkward…yeah that sounds about right.  Sorry, Tom.  Nice to meet you again!”

“Well do you—“

“Thanks, Tom!” I lift my drink and walk back to a table with Hem, laughing.  Poor Tom.  Balding, ginger Tom who is probably just a few years older than us but looks forty and probably hasn’t gotten laid since junior year of high school.  Hem giggles and pulls up a meme on his phone to show me.  It’s two pictures of a scene in Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet.” One is captioned, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks.  It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.”  And then the picture of Juliet is captioned, “I’m a lesbian.”

“Ha!  That’s amazing.  I could use a t-shirt of that.  Anyway, tell me about your life!  I can’t even believe you’re sitting next to me right now.  This is the best thing that’s happened to me all winter.”  We talk some, but soon Hem decides we should dance, and I can’t disagree, because the DJ has put on ’90’s music.  We dance on, and then I feel a tap on my shoulder.  Please don’t be Tom.  I turn around to find three of my old co-workers from the hot minute I worked at a magazine after college.  “Daryl!  Hey, girl.  What are you doing here?”

“We never got our shit together for a company holiday party, so a month later we decided to get drinks here and then go back to Hannah’s to continue the fun.  We’ve been here like three hours already.  Do you guys want to join?  She lives like three blocks from here.”  I’ve been to Hannah’s a few times, and it is close.

“Dude, this is Daryl, Hannah, and Izzy.  I worked with them at PaperJam.  Want to go to Hannah’s for a little?”

“Wait is this the girl you told me gave her cab driver a hand job for a free ride?” he whispered in my ear.

“Yes…Shhh!  Not everyone knows she did that,” I grinned, knowing he was intrigued.

“Let’s go!  These people sound awesome.”

“Alright, D, we’re in.  Vámonos.”  We walk to Hannah’s, and when we get inside, I am overcome with jealousy.  This bitch lives in a huge two-bedroom apartment in Chinatown, and one of the rooms is vacant because her mom “uses it for business.”  That means she stays there once a month when she goes out in the city and feels too drunk to go back to Staten Island.  Must be nice.  Hannah occasionally rents it out on Airbnb so she can afford drugs, but usually she just uses the bedroom as a crashing place for friends.  I guess I could feel fortunate for that bit.

Hemingway decides he’s become close enough with Hannah after he establishes that they’re wearing matching Toms, so he takes it to the next level by asking if she has any blow.  Normally, I would worry he was making an ass of himself, but everybody loves him from the get-go and never questions his sometimes brash idiosyncrasies.  Of course, Hannah has a bunch of coke, since she was away last week and rented out both of her rooms.

“What can we do it off of?” Hem looks around for a flat surface, none of which seem to exist.  You would think someone with money would have a table, but that’s not always so.

“Oh, here.”  Hannah grabs her full-size mirror off the wall and lays it on top of Daryl and Izzy, who are passed out drunk in her bed.

“Well, that’s ratchet…but I guess we never claimed to have standards,” I laughed.  Hannah hands us a rolled up $50. “Bitch, are you serious?”  I unroll the bill to see what it looks like.  Well, I won’t be seeing a bill this big in a while.  C’est la vie.  To me, it’s healthy to act old money when you’re really piss poor once in a while.  It’s good for self esteem.  I roll it back up and cut three lines.  “You first, Frenchie.”

The drunken fatigue wears off, and then we do a couple more bumps.  Hem turns on The Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps,” and we all get on the extra bed and jump around.  “Mix your milk with my cocoa puff!  Milky, milky cocoa puff!”

Izzy rolls over, knocking the mirror off the bed.  “Ugh, guys…whyyyyy…”

“Iz, come on!  This is your favorite song!”

“What?  I hate Fergie…What are you talking about?” She looks confused.

“Izzy, we’re gonna go to Electrode.  Wanna come?” Hannah asks.

“No…what the fuck?  I’m so tired.”

“Come with us!” I shout.  I don’t talk to Izzy much, because I find her mildly too attractive to hold a conversation with, but I’m not about inhibitions by now.  I didn’t even know we were going out again, but I could continue the party.  It’s only two thirty, so the club will be open another hour and a half.  And it’s right down the street.

Hem is grinding his teeth around, and I really can’t feel my face either.  It’s like you never really know you’re high until you’re numb or you see the sun come up.  Or you’re dancing on a bed to Fergie.  Well, I suppose that would make you either high or a sober twelve year old, but let’s not overthink things here.  Surprisingly, and much to my excitement, Izzy is getting up to come out with us.  She bumps some coke off her keys and tucks Daryl into bed.  She has a meeting at nine tomorrow, so we don’t wake her up to join us.

“You guys are stupid,” Izzy grins, catching my eye as we walk out the door.  Aha.  This could be a good night.

SEVEN

Since it’s a Monday, there’s no real line to speak of at Electrode.  We get in, get creepy little red armadillos stamped on our wrists for entry, and grab gin and tonics at the bar.  I always love the way the quinine glows around black lights, so gin and tonics are my club drink of choice.  That is, when Jay Z isn’t buying bottle service for me and my crew.  You know.

The club is basically empty, which would be depressing, but we are all having too much fun on our own to give a shit. Plus, the DJ is so discouraged by the turnout that she has granted our requests and started drinking herself into oblivion.  Hem and I are dancing our stupid dances and singing like the idiots that we are.  High or not, I am always aware of the strangeness when we’re dancing to rap.  It looks something like if you watched the characters dancing in Charlie Brown’s Christmas but replaced the festive music with Nicki Minaj.  “Fucking little whores are fucking up my decors…couldn’t get Michael Kors if you was fucking Michael Kors!” we scream, laughing.  Some people think Beethoven’s Ninth is a classic…but really, what’s more exquisite than “Dance A$$ Remix?”  Answer: few things.

Izzy dances over to me and leans in close to my ear.  “Want to go do some more of this?”

“You have the blow?”

“Yeah.  I took the rest with us.  Kinda figured we might want it…Let’s go!”  I follow her to the bathroom, not really worried anyone else would see.  Hem and Hannah are square dancing to “Get Silly,” and the DJ is half asleep at her post.  The bartender is talking to the only other three people in there, who seem to be a group of German tourists.   “Hem told me he surprised you tonight coming to the city.”

“Yeah!  I had no idea he was coming.”

“That’s really awesome.”  She opens the door to the women’s room.  It’s small, damp, and dim, but the sink has flat sides, which is satisfactory for our snorting pleasure.  She does a line and then cuts one for me.  When I come up from the sink, I’m face to face with her, and she leans in, her nose close to mine.  I must look surprised, because she smirks and says, “you didn’t really come in here with completely innocent intentions, did you?”

“Well, I—“ she leans in and brushes her lips against mine.  What the fuck?  I really did think this girl had a boyfriend, but maybe that old dude in her profile picture is her dad.  That shit can happen.  So I go in for a full kiss, and it’s good, but then there’s a knock on the door.

“Guys!”  It’s Hannah.  Hm.  “Do you have the stuff in there!”  Goddamnit, Hannah.

“I’m gonna let her in, but let’s just go back to my place,” Izzy whispers.

“Alright.”  We open the door, and Hannah looks mildly confused.  Is that dude in her profile picture her boyfriend or her dad?  I ask her, telepathically.  She doesn’t get my message, so I remain in the dark.

“Hannah, here.  I’m feeling kinda shitty, so Gretchen is gonna walk me home.  Sorry…I’m really just too drunk.”

“Um, bullshit, but OK.  Have fun, guys!”  Hannah is too perceptive and has too high a tolerance to all substances to miss a beat.  Oh well.  She doesn’t give a shit.

We wander back to Izzy’s place off Union Square, which seemed a lot closer when we left the bar.  However, it’s still not very cold out, which wouldn’t really matter at this point anyway, so the walk doesn’t suck.  She lives in a tiny studio.  It makes sense, considering anything more in that area would require some financial set-up like Hannah’s.  The paper really doesn’t pay enough for them to even look sideways at Manhattan, but neither of them will look anywhere off the island.

“Do you even have a sink or kitchen in here?”

“No…just a bathroom.  I don’t cook, so it’s not a big deal.  I just live on dollar pizza.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” I look at her, at once jealous and turned on.  I had to give up my dollar pizza diet, because my body was not having it.  Or my pants were not having it.  You know.

“Think I look good, then?” she smiles, goofily, and comes closer to kiss me again.

“Maybe.”  She pushes me onto her bed, which is barely a feat, considering it is more difficult not to fall onto it in such a  small space.  As she kisses me, her long brown hair brushes over my chest, sending a chill through my body.  She’s even more beautiful than I thought she was before.  Lucky me.  As she takes off my clothes and continues to kiss my body, I become aware that I still can’t feel all that much.  Oh, alcohol, the thing that at once lures us to bed and kills the fun.  Oh well.  Nothing wrong with play for play’s sake.  “Mmm.  That’s good, babe.  Hm, fuck–Jenna…”  Oh, shit.

“What did you say?”

“Nothing.  What?”

“No.  Who’s Jenna?”  Goddamnit.

“No one…It’s just my ex…It’s not even a big deal.  Don’t be so upset!”  Izzy looks entirely displeased, and I can’t really blame her.  Awkward.

Jenna was my writing professor at school.  Professor Gransford, I should say.  I took an intro class my second year in college, and she was this new professor fresh off the boat from England.  Everyone in my class hated her, because she made us work so hard.  She was so funny about it, too, because she acted like she had no idea she was doing it.  She would have us workshop each other’s writing in class some days; other days she would lock us all in the classroom and blast trap music the entire period.  Then she would post homework online, and it would be like, “read ninety pages of such and such book and then write a ten page essay on how such and such relates to such and such.”  And usually it would be completely difficult, and everyone got an F.

I found it intriguing.  F on everything.  Of course there would be a curve, but what a nightmare.  And then this one day, I wrote a paper about how the two subjects had nothing to do with one another, and how the proposed topic was a load of shit, and I got a D.  A D!  A glorious, shining D.  So naturally, I was the one who ended up with an A in the course, but that’s besides the point.  After I got the D on the paper, I felt I had cracked her code and therefore felt entitled to visiting her in her office and having these intellectual spars every now and then.

And that’s where I fell in a little.  Of course I was attracted to her earlier on: she was gorgeous.  Long, brown hair, green eyes…she was only thirty and looked twenty-five at most.  But it was the office visits that got me.  I wouldn’t say she was as funny as I am, but she could hold her own in a battle of wit.  And I never really met anyone else who could.  Plus, that British accent thing…I’d be lying if I said even a bum with a British accent didn’t turn me on just slightly.  But nothing ever came of it for a while.  Until this one day.

Since I knew I was going to fail the next assignment anyway, I wrote an essay on why hairless cats are a superior species to humans and would ultimately take over the world.  It was completely unrelated to the assigned topic.  So, of course, I got an F.  But on my paper, Jenna had written, “I have three.  Come visit them today at five,” with her address below.  I absolutely wasted no time on that one.  I went to her house, and, as promised, she did have three Sphynx cats.  Hansel, Gretel, and Bill.  Bill was kind of the loner, which seemed appropriate.  I played with the cats a while, as Jenna and I argued about whether we thought the nerdy engineering students in the class were wearing Nike sneakers as shoes ironically or genuinely.

We had a few beers while we talked. After a while, I realized that it was late, and I had work to catch up on after spending the previous night writing bullshit about hairless cats dominating the world.  I made moves to leave, and she walked me to her door.  I was saying goodbye and something about how she shouldn’t fail me on the paper, since she should have faith in her cats taking over the world, and she cut me off.  I’ll never forget—she just looked at me and said, “you’re such a wanker.”

I looked up, because I had developed a nervous habit of avoiding eye contact with her sometimes.  And she just kissed me.  Just like that, and all of a sudden, I’m outside my damn body, watching myself take this lady’s clothes off against her living room wall.  I had been with plenty of girls before, but this was totally different.  The smell, the taste, the feel…it was at once the most energizing and slow experience of my life.  I felt colors.  That’s all I could really say to get near describing it.

I was with Jenna over the next two years of school, in secret, of course.  That was very fucking hard, being with someone I loved that much and not being able to tell anyone.  Seeing her and having to act like I didn’t even know her.  It was exciting, feeling like I had this big secret, to be sure.  Sneaking quickies in her car before classes and then exiting ten or so minutes apart to keep a low profile.  But it got exhausting after a while.

I had planned to stay in Evanston with her after graduation, but I had to abort that mission.  April of my senior year, I walked in on her sucking the department head’s dick in her office.  Even though our arguments about the future had been getting worse, I never suspected any bullshit like that.  And the whole fucked up thing, too, is that I tried to let it go.  But in the end, she actually went with that guy.

The last thing she had said to me was, “who I am with you is just not who I am meant to be.”  Not who she was meant to be.  Not who she was meant to be.  The words still haunt the little rhythms in my life.  When I chop, my knife makes the sound: Not-who-I-was-meant-to-be.  When I walk, when I scrub my dishes.  It’s totally a disaster.

I moved to New York right after school and didn’t answer her calls for the first six months.  I had started to let go of her, but she called again recently, and I picked up.  We talked a dead talk, and at the end, she said she was pregnant.  I was silent for a long time.  Are you there?  She had said.  No.  I had answered, and I hung up.  Then, I took the last letter she wrote me, after I left, which said,

“Gretchen,

All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist…it is just an illusion we have here on earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone, it is gone forever.

Always yours,

Jenna” (a quote from her favorite author, Vonnegut), and wrote on it in red Sharpie, “Then you are sucking Sutner’s dick for all of eternity.  –G” and put it in the mail.  I haven’t returned her calls since.

Things are too awkward now, with Izzy, so I get my stuff and leave.  “Sorry, Iz.  I really didn’t mean anything.”

“I’ll talk to you later.”  I get on the train back to Queens, and although I don’t feel good surrounded by the stale air of the subway, it beats the bright sun coming up outside.  I put on my headphones to try to drown out the feelings.  But the come-down is on me, and soon my cheeks are hot and wet with my tears.  I try to decide what the fuck I’m crying for, because I haven’t in so long.  I am sad that all this, all these people, all these places will be gone so soon.  Mortality.  I cry for mortality.  And in this moment, I am aware that I am being weak.  Aware that I am being dramatic.  But I wrap myself up in the weakness and the drama like a big bear skin, and I am all of it.

EIGHT

“Gretchen.  Gretchen.  Wake up!”

“Wha?”

“What are you doing out here?”  I look up, and Vanessa is looking down at me, expression both concerned and annoyed.  I look around, and I am in fetal position in the corner outside the door to our apartment.

“I couldn’t get in last night.”

“Do you have your keys?”

“Yeah, but I think I lost the one to our door.”

“Alright.  Well I can make you a copy later.  Come inside.  Jeez!  I can’t believe you slept out here all night.  Like, someone could have hurt you out there.  I don’t understand why you didn’t just call me or something.”  By the time I got home, she probably was already up eating her oatmeal with banana and flax before the gym, but who’s to say for sure.  I walk into the apartment and sit in my chair, dazed.  I mindlessly thumb through my bag to take inventory of my belongings.  Cards, keys, phone, shamrock…Where is my shamrock?

Earlier in the year, an old lady in the park came over to me and my friend and gave us each a four leaf clover that she had mounted on card stock with Scotch tape, each with the date of the find on the back.  I wouldn’t say I had any great luck since then, but I believe in a self fulfilling prophecy, and if I felt lucky, maybe I was projecting luck on my own life.  Well, now it’s all up to chance again.  Maybe it’s better that way.  Keep the superstition to a minimum; take no scapegoats.  “I would totally stay and listen to whatever crazy stories you have from last night, but I’m running late for the gym.  Want to do lunch sometime this week?  We really need to catch up.”

“Sure.”

“Are you OK?”

“Yeah…I’m like totally great,” I respond, making a mild effort to communicate in her basic tongue.

“OK, bye!”  She leaves, and I am relieved of her frantic energy.  If I were her, I probably wouldn’t have to go to the gym.  Just burn off all the calories with my nervous energy.  I feel better after sleeping a few hours, but I still have a creeped out vibe from what happened with Izzy.  Oh well.  The clock says it’s eleven.  Not bad for my Saturday; I still have a full weekend ahead of me.  I reach for Vanessa’s copy of the Times, but then I remember that it’s Tuesday, and the food section won’t be out until tomorrow.  My brain is running at half speed, but I don’t feel like going back to sleep.  Still, I retreat to my room and lay on top of my unmade bed.

I text Hem, Hey dude.  where are you?  brunch?  do you have work shit today?  i’m back at home now.  I get up and shower, dropping my razor, the soap, the shampoo bottle…basically everything as I attempt to clean up my hair, body, and conscience.  You can’t unsmudge a conscience with soap.  It takes tougher stuff.  Turpentine, maybe. I think to myself.  I laugh.  So funny.  Not so funny

When I get out of the shower, I check my phone.  Hem responded, back at my hotel in soho.  the boss has a crush on me.  i don’t have to work this trip lol.  i’ll come to queens if you make eggs.  I text him back, cool.  bring eggs.  i have bread.  wait, it’s moldy.  bring bread.  

Hem buzzes in an hour later, and by then, I’ve composed myself a little and put on my favorite slippers—fuzzy, evil, cyclops bunny slippers—and my raggedy flannel bathrobe I found at a flea market.  I’m only allowed to wear the robe when Vanessa isn’t home, because otherwise she breaks into impassioned soliloquies about the dangers of bedbugs passed on through old clothing and how girls our age shouldn’t succumb to the trend of looking homeless for the sake of fashion, because we have standards to uphold, and all the rest.  It’s really just super comfortable, and I can’t see how some silk kimono bullshit could hold a candle to it, but whatever.  I think her mom used to put her in pageants as a child or something.  It’s unclear.  I open the door, and he’s there, looking disheveled but also mildly refreshed.

“So you and Izzy, huh!” He grins, elbowing me in the ribs.  “Girl, what is this robe?  I love it.  It’s like classic grandpa.”

“Thanks, I know.  It’s the best.  And…um…no, nothing happened.”

“I thought you went back to her place!”

“I called her Jenna.”

“I see.”  He places his grocery bag of breakfast items on our kitchen table.  “Well if it makes you feel any better, after Hannah and I did some more coke, I shit my pants a little and had to go home.”  I laugh and almost choke on the water I’m trying to drink.  “It was my fucking unicorn boxers, too.  I just threw them out.  I’m so disappointed.”

“It’s ok; we’ll find you some new boxers.  It won’t be the same, but life goes like that.  I lost my shamrock last night.”

“Aw, no!”

“Yeah.”  I open the plastic bag, and take out the eggs.  “Dude, why did you get a baguette instead of like white, wheat, or rye bread or something?”

“Please.  I can’t eat that crap anymore.”  Oh, OK.

“Well excuse me for living in America.  Alright, fine.”  I toast pieces of baguette and drizzle them with some of Vanessa’s expensive olive oil.  Hopefully she didn’t weigh this on her psychotic gram scale before leaving, because I don’t feel like getting into that battle.  I make a soft scramble with six of the eggs.  Although I’m more of a fried eggs person, the idea of a runny yoke does not sound nice right now.  We eat in silence, for all of the two minutes it takes us to scarf up our breakfast.

“Let’s go spoon in your bed.  I just want to lay down.  I can’t do it today.”

“I’m little.”

“Fine.”  We go into my room and snuggle under my itchy blankets, which I also got at a flea market.  “Are you a horse?  Like why are these blankets so itchy?”

“They’re nice blankets!”

“So are you OK, Gretch?  I thought you were over Jenna…It’s been like over a year already.”

“Yeah…I thought I was over it too, but I still have these flashbacks, and I think sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t have cut her out of my life.  I kind of feel like when you’re so close with someone like that, you exchange parts of yourselves.  I know that sounds so fucking cheesy.  But like when you lose them, it takes a long time to repair or find the half of yourself you gave up.  I don’t know what I’m saying.  I’m kind of delirious.”

“I get you though.  But maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.  You never know if maybe your new path in life will bring you something better or put you on the right path to your destiny.”

“But I don’t believe in that, dude.  Wait take your hands off my stomach…No, that’s my boob.  What are you doing!”

“Sorry!  You know I like boobs,”  he giggles.  “But continue.”

“Well I just don’t think things are just meant to be.  Or that everything happens for a reason.  That’s such a bad excuse.”

“What about God or religion?  You must have some belief system…”

“Pff…no way.  To me, that’s the ultimate sham.  Something good happens, it’s because of God.  Something bad happens, it’s because of God.  God is the ultimate scapegoat that humans created to explain the inexplicable.  Heaven is the coping mechanism to counter the possibility of eternal nothingness.  Hell is the fable to keep humans in check.  To me, everything is a matter of chance.  You and I are a cluster of cells, just like anything else.  Our intelligence allows us to think otherwise.  But to me, it’s more likely that each of us is a cell in a greater body than that each of us is a person placed on earth by God, and that if we do good, we go to a cooler place, and if we do bad, we go to a shitty place.  That’s the most basic idea I’ve ever heard.”

“Jesus Christ…I don’t even think my brain can get on that level right now.  Ratchet it down a bit, OK there, Socrates?”

“Sorry.”

“You’ve really never believed in God?”

“I used to.  I used to go to Church.  But when I was twelve, I decided that God must be a dude sitting on a couch, watching us all on TV and just kinda laughing and drinking white Russians.  Like The Big Lebowski.”

“What the fuck, girl?”

“My friends were really awkward, and we got bullied a lot, and my parents were gonna get a divorce, and all this shit.  It was a strange time.  And then, when I was in high school, I decided that God must be a dominatrix.  Because everything about those four years was just painful.  And I felt like the faithful sub of the universe.  I was a dramatic kid, not gonna lie.”

“No shit…  I can’t believe we’ve never been over this topic.  You’re ridiculous.”

“Well, by the time I turned seventeen, I realized that the God thing was not for me.  So there you have it.”

“Want to make some whiskey-coffees and watch a movie or something?”

“Yes.”  I brew a pot of coffee with the last grounds that I have.  “What about tequila?  The only whiskey I have is the last of this Pappy Van Winkle that I’ll probably never get my hands on again.”

“Tequila is fine.”

“You know what, though?”

“What?”

“Let’s fucking do the Pappy.  Tomorrow is never certain.”

“You want to put Pappy Van Winkle in your coffee?  That’s sacrilege.”

“It’s healthy to act old money sometimes, in the height of your poverty, dude.  And like, what if every time we go to sleep, we wake up in a new body?  And life is just like a bunch of souls playing musical chairs in all the bodies?  I want to be the one to drink the Pappy.”

“Whatever you need to postulate, as long as I’m drinking Pappy Van Winkle in the morning with my best friend.”

“Exactly.”

NINE

Hem decides that we’re going to have a Winona Ryder marathon, so we watch “Girl Interrupted” and then start to watch “The Heathers.”  I have to agree with him that it’s a shame she’s not that relevant in pop culture anymore.  I think it turned out she was a klepto or some shit, but who really cares?  I guess it’s one thing to be a bad bitch like Lindsay Lohan and stuff, but once you get down to details, thievery is not that cool.  I will admit that it took me some time to realize that she and Kiera Knightly were not, in fact, the same person, but that’s neither here nor there.  So after the millionth Heather dies in the movie, we start to get bored and talk.

“So I’m leaving tomorrow morning around ten,” Hem informs me.

“What?  I’m off tomorrow.  I thought we could go on one of our margarita crawls.”

“Girl, are you kidding me?  After last night, you want to go out for a day of margaritas?  What shape would that leave you in for work on Thursday?”

“Boy, are you serious?  You are talking to me about not going into work hungover right now?  I’ve been on my station for months.  I’m on autopilot.  But I guess you’re probably right, anyway.  I’ve got a constant fucking sleep deficit.”

“Yeah.  You should stay in for once.”

“Hm.  Maybe.  So are you gonna hook up with your boss, then?  You said he’s into you.  Is he cute?”

“I tell myself I won’t, but I know I totally will.  I don’t know…He’s cute in a fifty year old French man kind of way.  I can dig a receding hairline, though.  Plus his accent is so hot!  I don’t know, girl.  It’s bad territory.  He has a wife!  But you know those Europeans are less repressed than Americans.  They’ll fuck anyone.”

“Maybe I should just come back with you.  Pull a Jean Valjean and start a new life.”

“Do it!  We can start an indie band and become famous.”

“Do you have any musical talent?  I only played the clarinet in the intro to band class in high school so I could look well-rounded on my college applications.  I suck at that shit.  Like, on the rare occasion that I practiced, my family’s cat would hide in the basement until it was over.  Lucky for her, that almost never occurred.”

“Either way.  I’ll sing.  We’ll figure it out.”

I get a text from Dennis that says, “hey girl—off tomorrow.  my friend canceled on me for our res at demo tomorrow night if you wanna go.”  Hm.  Demo is this fancy fucking avante garde place where the menu changes every night and all that shit.  I’ve been curious about it, but I don’t have any money, and I don’t feel like chancing the disappointment.  I’d rather just lay in bed, drink a bottle of wine, and watch reruns of “Hey Arnold” online.  I text him back: “poverty central…sorry man.  maybe another time.”  A few minutes later, I get a snapchat from Dennis.  I open it, and it’s a scratch off captioned, I won, biatch.  Ur coming to din.”

While I feel bad using Dennis’s apparent lottery money for my dining privilege, I don’t feel that bad.  I don’t know anyone else he would go with.  Cooks tend to be single and have days off that normal people won’t go out on.  And one of my old co-workers works as a sous there, so we’ll get a bunch of free shit.  “You won a scratch off??” I text him. “That’s bullshit.  I’m in.  What time?”  He texts me back, “yes!  Six.  Wear your Sunday best.”  To which I respond, “I always look my Sunday best, asshole.”  I’ll wear the Rag and Bone onesie my aunt got me for Christmas.  I don’t really have a designer onesie lifestyle, but I aspire to.

“Who’s the new boyfriend?” Hem asks, reading over my shoulder.

“You know my co-worker Dennis?  He just won a scratch off and is making me go to dinner with him tomorrow.”

“Making you?”

“Well, you know.  It’s one of those places where the meal could be amazing or total bullshit.”  Hem nods in understanding.  “Dude, it sucks that you have to go back with your boss; otherwise, I’d say you should stay over here and just take the train to the airport in the morning.  It’s not far from here.”

“I know.  Oh well.  When I win a scratch off, I’m gonna fly you to Paris to visit me.”

“Damn—my boys treat me nice!  Dinner, flights, maybe some gold hoop earrings with my name in them…”  We all know they don’t make “Gretchen” hoop earrings, but one can dream.  We laugh and run our fingers through our hair, pretending to slick it back.  It’s something we do every time one of us makes a chola joke.  I very briefly dated a Puerto Rican girl, Maria, in college, and through her, we learned a lot about the flyness of Latina culture.

“Well, Gretch…I hate to say I have to leave, especially before Winona Ryder blows up her high school, but it’s time.”

“Noooo!”  We hug, and I force him to take my ex-favorite jet-setting sweater for the plane.  It’s hard to explain why, but it’s the best sweater ever worn for travel.  But it was also Jenna’s, and I secretly just want to never see it again.  To me, a gift is even better when its gifting benefits both parties, so Hem doesn’t have to know my alternate agenda for getting rid of it.

After he leaves, I finish the rest of “The Heathers” and then doze off.  Even though it’s only eight, I sleep until I hear my alarm going off at ten the next morning.  Holy shit.  I slept all night?  It was only going to be a nap!  Oh well.  I drag myself into a seated position and frown at the drool spot on my pillow.  I once heard a woman tell her husband, “you are why we can’t have white things!”  I am why I can’t have white things.  I make a mental note to buy some not white sheets when I one day win a scratch off or the next time I work a six-day week.  What bullshit this life is, I think.  Working overtime for sheets.  

I spend my day catching up on chores, and when three o’clock roles around, I grab a Negra Modelo and head into the bathroom to shower and get ready for dinner.  Dennis will laugh when he sees me dressed up.  I don’t think we’ve ever really hung out on a day off.  I do my hair and makeup, put on my sweet new onesie, and look at the clock.  It’s only four.  I mean, Jesus.  All my friends in college took two hours to get ready for a bar crawl.  I can’t even manage to take an hour to get ready for a fancy dinner?  I decide to reward myself with another beer instead of overthinking it, and I listen to some music to relax.  I leave around five, even though the restaurant is uptown, and I’ll be early.  I’ll just wait for Dennis at the bar and get a fancy cocktail.  After all, it is on the lottery’s tab tonight.

TEN

It ends up taking me over an hour to get to Demo, because the trains are all fucked up.  However, it turns out Dennis is also running late, so we meet at the door at a quarter past six.  He has already called, so they’re expecting us late, and all is well.  When he walks up, he looks shocked.  “I almost didn’t recognize you!  Damn, girl.  I think I’ve only ever seen you in your uniform or maybe jeans.”

“Well surprise, bitch.  I dressed up nice for you, because you’re my sugar daddy tonight.”

“This is true,” he laughs.  “I would order for you and all, but it’s a set menu, so that won’t be necessary.”  I cringe, as I have flashbacks to my short time working as a server at a restaurant near my school, where some of the men used to order for their dates.  Even though I knew it was well-intentioned, I also knew I would punch someone in the face if they tried to tell me what to eat.  And if they ordered me a salad, they would be lucky if it was a punch in the face instead of somewhere else.  “Let’s go in,” Dennis opens the door with a dramatic gesture, clearly reveling in our momentary swankiness.

We walk in and up to the host stand.  At first, no one is there, but then a guy walks up from the dining room.  “Oh my god, dude…talk to him when he gets here.  I have to look away.”

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

“Welcome, Mr. Smith?”  Of course they know who he is.  Good old top restaurant hospitality.  Is it hospitality?  Stalking?  I guess semantics don’t really matter.  The host brings us to our table as he makes some small talk with Dennis, whose facial expression is starting to resemble that of a dog who spots a bag of treats.  I can’t help but catch a little of his enthusiasm, skeptical as I am.  The dining room looks cool and understated without being stark or too modern.  We sit, and I manage to avoid all eye contact with the host.

“What the hell was that all about?” Dennis asks.

“Um…I think I fucked that guy at my friend Sasha’s Hannukah party.”

“Him?” Dennis looks entirely confused.

“Yes!”

“Wait but he looks gay.”

“Yeah…but like pretty sure.  I fucked him.”

“Wait what the fuck…you mean with a—“

“Oui.”

“Wait I thought—“

“The theme was ‘Eight Days of Drag,’ OK?  It felt right at the time.”

“Oui.”

Just as I’m starting to feel pretty awkward, a server comes to our table to take our drink order.  Thank fucking god.  “I’ll have a Brooklyn Gin and tonic, stirred, with olives.  Really fucking dry.  Er—sorry.  Really dry.”  Dennis orders an Old Fashioned.  “I can’t curse in this nice of a restaurant!  Jesus.  I do not belong in this kind of an establishment.”

“You’re fine, Griz.  Chill the fuck out.”

“See?  Neither can you!”  Our server comes back with our drinks, and right after we take our first sips, a runner arrives with two small plates.

“Here we have our bay scallops with bacon powder, Meyer lemon, and frozen brown butter.”  We each eat our first bite, and it’s tasty, even if the powder seems awkwardly gummy in the presence of the other components.  We nod to each other in approval, neither blown away nor distraught with our choice of restaurant, which is a strong start in my book, anyway.

“Grizzly, you have a tattoo?  I never knew that.  Who is that?”  Dennis stares at my arm, trying to discern the likeness of the portrait that occupies my inner bicep.

“First of all, it’s Miss Grizzly Smith, to you, on this special occasion,” I start.  “Secondly, it’s a portrait of Jesse Tuck, from ‘Tuck Everlasting.’” I answer.

“Favorite book?”

“No…when I was younger, and I wanted a tattoo, my mom used to always say that any tattoo I chose would get old to me over time.  So in rebellion, I chose to get a portrait of someone who would never grow old.”

Dennis laughs, “you’re fucking ridiculous, you know?”

“Language, dahling.  That’s no way to speak to a lady,”  I joke.  Soon, another runner comes back with two tiny bowls and places them before us.

“So here we have our purslane with mint emulsion and pomegranate.”  As she walks away, I peer into my bowl of slowly deflating, verdant foam.  At first I recall the day our cat clawed my inflatable Kermit when I was a kid, but my curiosity soon trumps all other thoughts.  I take my spoon and draw up some of the bowl’s contents to my mouth for the first bite.  Dennis does the same.  We both crinkle our noses a little; although the flavors aren’t terrible, the texture of plants floating in frothiness is awkwardly violating.

“Meh,” Dennis concludes.

“Meh,” I agree.  The rest of the meal continues this way, with some of the courses impressing and some distressing.  By the fifteenth and final course, I am full and confused.  Especially because we split two bottles of wine among us.  As we’re signing the bill, our server comes to the table and drops a small tray with two pieces of woody looking substance.

“We end our meals here with some Birch bark,” he says, as if that’s a normal statement.

“Pardon me?”  Dennis says, “What do we do with it?”

“You just lightly chew on it, and its medicinal qualities aid digestion.  It’s also very delicious.”  He walks away, and we look at each other in disbelief.

“Should we do it?” Dennis looks conflicted.  I nibble on the corner out of curiosity, and confirm my suspicion that it is in fact just tree bark.  Nothing special.

“Here.”  I take our barks and draw faces on them with the Sharpie in my pocket.  “They’re like Plank from ‘Ed, Ed, and Eddie!’”

“I’m pissed they want us to eat bark,” Dennis looks pained.

“Dahling, don’t fret,” I say.  I put our bark friends on the table cloth and pen a speech bubble between them.

“Holy shit, Gretchen!  I think I read the table cloths here are like a grand!”  I am unfazed.  Bark is not for lovers.  I write in the speech bubble.

“Let’s bounce.  They deserve that shit.  Tree bark is not food.”  We stand up and stroll out into the night.  “That was fun, but let’s never go to a restaurant ever again, OK?”

“OK.  But then what?”

“I don’t know.  I just don’t think I like them anymore.”

“Hm.  OK.”  We get in a cab back to Queens, and while the driver beings to swerve through traffic, I start to doze.  As sleep takes over, I enter a place where chewing on bark is not a pricey activity for fancy people, and my existence feels briefly reconciled.

ELEVEN

I walk into work on Thursday, slightly dazed from all the wine Dennis and I drank the previous night.  When I get into the locker room, I’m surprised to see Dennis there, since Thursday is usually his other day off.   “The fuck are you doing here?”

“Devon called in.  I’m filling in.”

“Sucks for you.  Should’ve let the call go to voicemail.”

“Believe it or not, I don’t have Downton’s number saved in my fucking phone, so I thought it was the delivery guy calling up with the food I ordered this morning.”  I give him a look of sympathy and laugh.

“Well, you’re lucky I’m here.  How are you feeling?  I feel a little shitty.  I kind of think that ice wine at the end sent me over a bit.”

“I’m fine.  Takes a lot more to bring me down.  But I am slightly worried that we’re gonna hear about that table cloth.”

“Fuck it, dude.  I don’t think so.  I’m pretty sure the karma of the birch bark is on our side.  Just don’t pick up your phone if Demo calls you.  As a matter of fact, just stop answering your phone unless it’s me.  It’s safest that way.”

“Oui.”  We walk into the kitchen and set about our days.  Andre is in, mouthing off about the concert he went to on his day off.  He claims his cousin hooked him up with a backstage pass to meet Drake and that he smoked a joint with him, but we never believe his stories.  I mean, really.  If Drake wanted to smoke weed with the likes of Andre, I would take back both my mild enthusiasm for his music and my childhood crush on him as Jimmy, the wheelchair kid from “Degrassi.”

Prep goes as usual, without any major hitches.  Although I’m fairly bored prepping the hot apps station, I take slight sadistic pleasure in watching Andre go down waiting for all the ingredients he needs to come in on second run.  Since Chef realizes Andre can’t continue prep for another thirty minutes, he puts him in charge of making the protein and starch for family meal, which is amusing and makes my life about one batch of polenta easier.

Andre catches me smirking as he huffily browns ground meat in the tilt skillet and glares my way.  “Too hungover to help a brother out, then?  Don’t pretend.  I see your red-ass eyes.”

“I’m not hungover, man.  I just smoked a joint with Drake out in the alley.  He and I are pretty tight these days.”  I’m feeling snarky and not in the mood for Andre’s normal bitchery.  He ignores me and continues his work; Dennis holds his laughter.  To avoid confrontation, Dennis and I eat Andre’s crappy family meal, but our cease-fire is too difficult.  “I’m really glad you’re taking chef’s hypertension into account when you make family, Andre.  I mean, salt, shmalt, am I right?  It’s the devil’s spice, if you ask me.”  Dennis snickers.

“Aw, fuck you guys.  If you want good food, maybe you should lend a hand.”  I can feel Andre’s love for me waning with his patience.  Maybe it’s a good thing.  I never considered myself “too nice,” but maybe signals got crossed.  This new enemy could be much more tolerable.

We finish up our bland food and set up for service.  It’s a slower night, so things move quietly and steadily at first.  Tension in the kitchen dissolves, and everyone is focused.  About an hour in, though, I put up a scallop, and as Chef reaches for it, Andre says, “so what’s up with the great pepper shortage of 2015?”  Chef snaps his head toward me, and my breath catches as my hands go cold and sweaty.  Fuck.  Andre had started to laugh at his seemingly harmless joke, but it’s clear it isn’t funny, and his face goes serious.

Chef turns purple but doesn’t yell.  “Gretchen,” he starts: “Get the fuck out of here.”

“But—“

“Now.”  My chest fills with anger, and everything seems surreal.  Andre has blown my cover, and I am suddenly jobless.  What a goddamn idiot.  I stay calm and put my knives in my bag, as chef pulls a sous off the pass to work my station.  But I can’t just leave.  I walk down the line to Andre, grab his ears, pull his face down to mine, and lay a long, passionate kiss on his lips.

“Is that what you wanted, motherfucker?”  I let go of his face, slap his right cheek, and walk out the back door.  Although I’m still freaking out about getting kicked out of the restaurant, I feel a heavy adrenaline rush.  And if Chef really wants to lose me over black pepper, he can suck it.

I take the train home and decide to drink away the events of the evening.  I can worry about finding a job tomorrow.  But for now, I have to take my mind off this shit.  Once I’m back in Queens, I plant my ass on a stool at the bar of the Gentry House, a well established local bar.  I know the bartender, and when he sees me, he says, “Fernet and Coke?”

“Nah, Ben.  I’ll have a Modelo and a Jameson shot.”

“Coming from work, then?  Ah, I guess not.  It’s only nine.”

“No, I am.  I just fucking lost my job.”  Ben looks sympathetic and puts up the beer with two shots.

“What happened?”

“Long story.”  I drink my shots consecutively and leave my beer a minute to feel the burn of the whisky in my throat.  Then I down half of the icy lager.  I feel my shoulders drop as my reality begins to fade.  Andre can go fuck himself.  And so can Chef.  “Ben,” I say, “Hook me up with a Fernet and Coke.”

“Yes ma’am, I’ll make it a double.”

“You’re my only friend, Ben.  I love you.”

“You have lots of friends, Gretchen.”

“Duh, I know.  But you wouldn’t tell Chef that I’m a fundamentalist anti-black pepper radical.”

“I would not.”  I drink the rest of my beer and then start my cocktail.  A few girls next to me at the bar have noticed my heavy drinking.  I size up their situation, guessing their mostly full, clear beverages are my arch nemesis cocktail:

“Vodka-soda?” I ask, making eye contact with them.  Bitches love bubbly booze water.  The one closest to me is a pretty blonde, the one next to her is a brunette Latina looking girl, and next to her is a chubby Asian girl.  Kind of a motley crew, but it seems they might all have the commonality of enjoying the swill of basic bitches.

“How’d you know?”  The brunette asks.

“Wild guess.”

“So you’re pretty thirsty, the blonde says, looking at the plethora of glasses in front of me.”

“I lost my job today.”

“Oh.  That sucks.”

“I didn’t like it there anyway.  I was gonna leave soon.  Maybe do my own thing”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a cook.”

“Are you a chef or a cook?”

“It depends on who I’m talking to.  You’re pretty.  Maybe I’m a chef, then.”  Ben laughs.  The girl can tell I’m being an asshole, but she also doesn’t fully understand the joke.  “What do you do?”  I ask.

“I work for a PR firm.”

“Nice,” I lie.  Although I respect a good PR person, I secretly hope she won’t talk about the business.  I’m still sizing up her friends, and I notice the Latina girl I originally pinned as mostly basic has a bunch of ghetto tattoos all over her forearms.  I briefly wonder if she’s dangerous.  Or basic and dangerous, which kind of equals dramatic prison material.

“I’m Olivia.  This is Natasha and this is Gina.”

“Nice to meet you all,” I muster.  I’m starting to feel a little drunk, which I think is a good thing, considering my new friends.

“So what do you want to do on your own?  You said you want to do your own thing?  I’m actually a really good cook myself.  It’s funny, but I have friends that are cooks, and I cook much more advanced stuff than they do at home.  I’m just really good in the kitchen.”  Here we go…another civilian with over-confidence in their cooking ability.  There’s probably nothing more gratifying than talking to a normal person who has no regard for the lifestyle cooks take on to hone their craft.  “What’s something you make well?”

“Well, my favorite thing to make at home is fresh pasta.  Usually with a braised lamb ragu.  I braise lamb shanks with like dark beer, thyme, juniper–”

“I would use rosemary instead.”  I pause.  Bitch, are you serious?  I’m mildly incensed that she’s asked me what I like to do only to give her civilian input on one simple dish I like to make at home.  I don’t really know what to say, but I let it go.  “So what do you want to do next?  If you could do anything, what would you do?”

“Um…”  I’m losing steam, but I figure I’ll give it one more shot, since I have no one else to talk to, and Ben’s boyfriend has come to the bar and started talking to him.  “Well, it’s not a traditional concept, but I want to throw pop-up dinners in museums around the world.  And it would just be about the art.  And the food would be awesome, but it would sort of be like in the background.

“I just don’t see how that would work.  I mean, you say you’re a chef, but you’re all about this art.  I don’t understand how that connects.  If you’re not one hundred percent focused on the food, how are you supposed to market this to anyone?  Who would want to just go look at art and kind of maybe eat some food?”  This girl is getting super annoying, and my patience is wearing thin.

“OK, you asked me what I wanted to do, and I’m telling you.  But you’re being annoying as fuck, and I’m not really into being cross-examined while I’m drinking in a bar after losing my job, if that’s OK with you.”  She looks shocked.

“I’m just trying to have a conversation with you, and you call me annoying as…”  And she’s sensitive.  This is what I get for being surrounded by guys all the time.

“I’m sorry, but I’m just not feeling like this is a conversation.  You’re so confident in your shit, but you’re gonna sit here and shit on my dreams, because they don’t fit into your cookie-cutter idea of how the world works.  So let’s just drop the topic.”  Olivia looks annoyed but intrigued.

“Fine.”

“Olivia, I’m getting so bored at this bar.  Can’t we go somewhere with better music?” Natasha is starting to get antsy, and I fear her mood could quickly swing toward belligerent.  Olivia confirms:

“she’s about to go crazy.  We better go.  You should come with us!”

“Really.”  I am mildly surprised by her suggestion, considering my bluntness.

“Yeah!  I mean, you seem cool, and I feel like it could help to have a badass chef around when I need to hold back Natasha from a fight later on.”

“I’d rather not.  I think I’m just gonna go home.  But you could come with me,” I smirk.  She looks up and catches my eye, laughs, and declines my offer.

“Not tonight, but here’s my card.  Let’s get a drink sometime.  I live around here.  How old are you anyway?”

“Old enough to know better.  You?”

“Thirty-two.  But really, what about you?”  Damn.  Hmm…

“Twenty-nine,” I bluff.  But what’s in five years?  What I lack in age, I make up for in crankiness.  “Well, I gotta go.  I’ll see you around.  Ben, can I close out?”

“It’s on me.  Just this time.  Don’t need you taking back to the streets, now, do we?” he jokes.  Olivia shoots me a sideways glance.  I give her the poker face, pick up my stuff, and head out the door.  Always best to keep them guessing. As I walk into the night, my phone buzzes, and I see a text from Chef.  It says, I’m not gonna lie, that was awesome.  I will give you your job back if you come in tomorrow, eat a tablespoon of black pepper, and swear to use it when I fucking say.  I’m surprised at the offer but uncertain.  I always knew Chef hated Andre.  For now, I put it out of my mind, get in a cab, and take a five minute ride to my bed.

TWELVE

I walk into my building and run up the stairs, because apparently someone’s cat has died in its own feces again.  Once I’m safely in my room, I exhale in relief, my breath still heavy with Fernet.  I sit down on the end of my bed, take off my boots, and toss them into the corner.  They hit my trash, and a Heineken bottle falls into one shoe, dripping the last of its contents inside of it.  Goddamn it.  The way my feet smell, now with beer.  Frat boots.  Yum.  I’m about to change into pajamas, but I hear music coming from the room next door.

Normally, I don’t really pay attention to the sounds from beyond the wall, because it’s just unfortunate that the walls are so thin.  I would rather consider the voices part of the nature in Queens than invite the details of strangers’ routines into my own.  But this is different, because I’ve never heard music coming from next door.  It’s always just banter.  The song is slow and haunting, and although it has a familiarity to it, I’m sure I’ve never heard it before.  While I know it’s strange, I feel the need to find out more about it.  It’s possible I’m still a little drunk, but that’s never stopped me from doing anything.

I open my door and walk into the hall in my socks.  My toe pokes through the right sock onto the cold tile in the hall, and it bothers me.  The hallway floor in our building is no place for the toe of a lady.  I bend it to shrink it back into the sock to little avail.  Another song has started, and it sounds something like the first one.  I walk a few steps and put my ear to the neighbor’s door.  And maybe I’m just a bad person…well, baby, I know…my curiosity trumps my hesitation, and I see my fist rise up and knock on their door.  Fuck.  I think about running back into my place, but that seems stupid, so I wait when I hear footsteps approaching.

The door opens, and a pale, skinny guy with stringy brown hair opens the door.  “Hello?” he says.

“Um…Hi.  I’m Gretchen…” my face turns red, betraying my determination to play it cool. “I live next door.  I heard your music playing, and I thought it was great, so I was just curious what it was.”

“Because Shazam doesn’t exist and all.”

“Um…right…duh…”

“I’m kidding—just being an asshole.  I’m Jed.  Want to come listen?”  I look past him into his dim apartment.  For being next door, it looks far more dismal than mine, but I spot a record player behind him.

“Oh, it’s vinyl?”

“Yah…Of Monsters and Men.  You don’t know them?  Their song “Little Talks” was wildly popular like two years ago.”

“Oh, that’s why it sounded familiar.  Weird.  OK, now I look like a total retard.  Yeah, I’ll come listen to some.”  He opens the door, allowing me to walk through into his room.  It’s a studio, which surprises me, because I only ever heard about two or more bedroom apartments in the building.  He flips the record and starts the other side as I glance around to size up my surroundings.

The glass over the light on his ceiling is cloudy and has little shadows in it suggesting an insect graveyard, and the air is slightly more humid than in the rest of the building.  The smell of tobacco, weed, and sweat hang in the air, reminding me of the time Hem and I lived in a room in a frat house our sophomore year of college.  Jed seems about thirty-five, so I briefly wonder how he’s never heard of air freshener, windows, or even deodorant.  Strange.  “So what do you do?”

“I’m an actor.”

“Ah.”

“Kidding.  I dropped out of NYU ten years ago and I’ve been working at the corner grocery ever since.  That’s kind of just something to do.  I’m living off the money I got when my parents died.”

“Jeez, I’m sorry, dude.”

“Thanks.  I’m OK—it was a while back, while I was in school.  They were on this plane home from California, and something went wrong with the engine of the plane.  Only a few people survived the crash.  They thought my dad might make it, but he didn’t pull through the surgeries in the ER.  Anyway, not trying to air my sob story, so how about listening to the music?”

“Yeah, sure.”  After a song, he sticks his hand in a drawer in his desk and pulls out a small, lacquered wooden box.  He opens it, and holds it out:

“Drugs?”

“Dude, what the fuck is all that shit?”

“Whatever you want.”

“Are you the one who gets little packages in the mail downstairs all the time?  I always thought it might be some sort of Silk Road type situation.”

“Those are my packages, but all that shit is actually collectable Pokemon merch.”

“Actually?”

“Yes.  All this shit is from my boy at the store.  Xanex, Klonopin, molly, I have some weed over here if you prefer something a little lower on the guilt spectrum.”  His face is pale and drawn, and I suddenly realize I’m hanging out with a total junkie.  Awkward.  “If you’re into the harder stuff, I’ve gotta say, I’ve been listening to this music on heroin lately, and it’s like the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

“Fucking heroin?  Are you serious?  Like, the last thing I need in my life at this moment in time is to a) get addicted to heroin, b) overdose on heroin, or c) all of the above!”  He looks slightly embarrassed.

“Sorry…I…we can just listen…I smoked too much weed before, and, um—“

“No, it’s OK.  I’ll smoke some weed and listen to the other disk with you.  Sorry for being a drug prude, but just no in regards to heroin in general.  I would probably tell you that you should stop, but I’m not like your mom or anything.  Fuck….um…sorry.”

“OK, let’s just stop talking and smoke some.”  We take a couple hits from his bong, and he puts on the second disk.  I’m starting to relax after all the excitement from the events of the day, but I’m still trying to avoid thinking about whether or not to go back to work.  Curiosity gets the best of me after a while, and I re-open the conversation.

“Do they make your situation easier?  The drugs and shit?”  Jed looks up, eyes a little glazed.  He looks like he would be handsome if he took a shower and changed his shirt, and that makes me sad.

“For a little.  But it never goes away.  I’ve made my peace with it, though.  Hard to do, but I did.”

“God, dude, I couldn’t imagine what that fucking takes.”  I take another big bong hit and hold my breath while he begins to talk.

“Shit got so bad after they were gone.  I left school, I didn’t have any money, I lived on the street for a week.  But then my extended family found me and set me up here with the money my parents left me.  I wasn’t totally alone, but I wanted to be for a while.  I spent the first year in here just thinking it all through.  Trying to understand where to go from there.  I never really believed in religion…to me, the idea was that god was like some excuse…like just some sort of…”

“Like a scapegoat.”

“Yeah.  So after they were gone, trying to grapple with having no faith in heaven and knowing that they were gone-gone.  Forever.  Finding out that loss is permanent, not temporary.  That no one is ever ready to lose, but it happens, and that’s it.  Like, it changed the whole world for me.”

“How so?”

“I don’t keep anything now.  Everything I own, I consider a rental, and everything I buy, I throw out after a bit.  I delete my pictures, documents, whatever.  Being ready to lose everything at any moment feels more sensible to me.”  Fuck, this is some heavy shit I walked into.

“I understand that.  People love things and each other, and losing is such a major stress.  Like, losing people is terrible, but we maybe shouldn’t be so wrapped up in attaching ourselves to material things only to stress when they eventually break, get lost, stolen, et cetera?”

“Right.”

“I’ve never lived that way, but I am one for living for today over the future.  I don’t plan.  Just take each day as it comes and trust the adventure.”

“What do you mean ‘trust the adventure’?”

“Just to know that all good things in the past occurred on random days when maybe they were least expected, and that will continue to happen at any random time.  So if you trust the adventure, you accept that life could bring anything to you at any given time.  Bad or good.  And it’s a dead end, literally and metaphorically, because there’s no end-game to trusting the adventure.  We all end up in the dirt.  But it’s sort of like being open to existing, because all other methods of living involve goal-orientation, waiting, and future-living.  And we both know the future is highly uncertain.”

“I see you’ve thought a bit in your day.  How the fuck old are you?”

“Old enough to know better.”

“How old?”

“Twenty-nine.”

“Eighteen?”

“Twenty-four,” I grin.

“Well, twenty-four-year-old-Gretchen who trusts the adventure, what would you like to do today?”

“Today?  I was gonna go to bed before I came here.  It’s two AM now.”

“Night is a technicality, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes, but I’m actually really stoned now, and I’m tired as fuck.  I can’t believe I’m even talking right now.”

“Would you like to go to Canada tomorrow?”

“Canada?  I just lost my job.  I’m broke.  I mean…”

“I have a lot of money.  Let’s go.  Just like a week.  All of this trip is on me.  You can teach me to trust the adventure.”  I’m not entirely sure what to say, especially considering how high I’ve gotten, so I agree.  What else would I do during my indefinite unemployment?

“Alright, let’s talk in the morning.  I’m so fucking tired.  I’m going to bed, but if you still want to be my vacation sugar daddy tomorrow, text me.”  I put my number in his phone and say goodnight.  “It was nice to meet you, Jed.”

“Mm.”  He is smiling with his eyes half shut, slouched to the side in his navy beanbag chair.  I walk out of his place and shut the door, and I feel the cool tile on my right big toe.  Ew.  I walk into my place, lock the door, and face-plant onto the couch.  I don’t remember the last time I felt so tired.  And a little sad.  I drift off to sleep, and the little pit in my chest dissolves into the night.

THIRTEEN

I wake up to the blinding brightness of day coming through the living room window and fumble for my phone to check the time.  I feel more out of it than usual; maybe I’m still a little high, but it’s unclear.  I stay still for a few minutes and float, which is something I like to do when I wake up hungover.  When I feel like my head is drifting through the universe, if I stay still, I feel my body going with it, and I’m weightless.  It can be a little nauseating, though, so after a few minutes, I sit up and become one with my tired body.  My feet hurt, as usual.  My spine aches at the top, where my shoulders connect, and I wonder, briefly, if I could ever maybe swap it out with a new body.  That would be ideal.

To re-orient myself with life’s tangibility and the oppressive gravity, I drag myself into my leather chair.  It is always comforting to have a thing surround your body with so much familiarity.  As I sit, dazed, staring at our faded blue carpet, I muddle through the events of last night in my mind.  The memory of arguing with Olivia makes me giggle.  What a strange girl.  Or am I strange?  Either way, I’m glad I didn’t end up finding out what the night had in store for her and her bruiser friend.  If Hem had met her, we would have run our fingers through our hair in true chola style.

Well fuck…I start to wonder about Jed.  Does he really think we’re going to Canada?  Is it even safe to travel with a drug-addled dude I barely know?  Should I actually just go back to work?  The idea of passing chef’s black pepper challenge makes me nauseous.  Fuck that…Maybe I should go to Canada pending Jed’s current state.  My stomach starts yelling at me, and I realize I haven’t eaten in a while.  I don’t think I have any food, but I shuffle to the fridge and open it anyway.  As I stare at its contents, I blank out and fall into a daze.  The sadness of Jed’s story creeps back up in my chest, and I lose focus, seeing only the dish of pills he had pulled out last night and hearing his tired voice say, “they were gone-gone…they were gone-gone…they were gone-gone…”

“Gretchen!”  I’m startled by Vanessa’s energetic voice, and I come out of my trance fast, overtaken by the sudden urge to poop.

“Uh…hey, V…What’s up…”

“Ermagerd…you look exhausted!  What is wrong?  Have you slept this week?  Have you been hanging out with Hannah again?”

“Uh…no…I just didn’t sleep well, and I’m kind of hungry.”

“Gretch, like, why were you sleeping on the couch, though?”

“I dropped off my laundry yesterday and haven’t gotten my sheets back yet,” I bluff.

“Don’t you have another set to change them out?”

“No…”

“Do you want a smoothie?  I’m about to try this new recipe I found online.  Oprah recommends it as a great energy booster for when you’re trying to lose weight.  I mean, not that you need to lose weight or anything…I do…I still need to drop that pound and a half I gained over the holidays…I’m so jealous you can stay as small as you are and be a chef and all that.  It’s totally not fair.  Do you have thyroid problems?  Because if I had thyroid problems, I would definitely not do anything about it if it was working in my favor.  I know it’s not healthy, but let’s be serious.  Some comedian once said that if AIDS was curable, women would get it on purpose to lose weight, and I’m not gonna lie…I totally agree with that.  Well…maybe.  So do you want a smoothie?”

I am not prepared for this burst of energy, but I oblige out of fatigue and ambivalence: “Yeah…sure…does it have kale, though?  I don’t want a leaves smoothie.”

“No, but it has spirulina powder.  It’s algae.  Is that OK?”

“Sure.”  As Vanessa starts pontificating on the benefits of consuming algae, I wander to the bathroom.  My guts feel disoriented and weird.  As I sit, mentally discombobulated, on the toilet, I wonder if I should have declined the smoothie.  A bagel sounds much better than algae at the moment.  I take a picture of my dropped pants and send Hem a Snapchat captioned “pooping.”  Oh…fuck…I sent it to my mom by mistake…Well, these things happen.   She may not even know how to open a Snapchat.

“Smoothies are ready!  It’s so good!”  I hear Vanessa yell.

“Coming…”  I walk out, and Vanessa is holding out a tall glass of blue-brown puree.  It looks gross, but I really don’t have the mental capacity to decline.  I take a sip, and it’s odd, but the cold feels good.  “Is there carob in here?”

“Yes.”

“Is there cayenne in here?”

“Ermagerd…only a little!  You’re good!”  I cough at the spiciness and try to ignore the fact that the smoothie tastes a little like cold barbecue.

“Thanks, V.”  Just as I prepare myself for the second sip, there’s a knock on the door.  “You have friends coming over?”

“No.  Do you?”  My phone buzzes as I head to the door.  It’s a text from my mom that says, “why are you so disgusting!?”  Oops.  There’s another knock, so I put my phone in my pocket and open the door.

“Buenos dias, Gretchen!”  It’s Jed.  Vanessa looks confused.

“Vanessa, this is Jed.  Jed, this is my roommate, Vanessa.”  A door opens behind me, and Eddie emerges from his room.  He looks up at all of us, surprised to be greeted by a group, and nods while ducking into the bathroom in an effort to expediently hide his morning boner.  “That’s Eddie.”

“Gretchen and I are going to Canada today,” Jed announces, looking excited and more energetic than he was last night.  It actually looks like he showered, but his hair still looks a little gross.  Maybe he just changed clothes.

“You didn’t tell me you were going away!” Vanessa exclaims, looking hurt to be left out but also excited.

“Um…yeah, well, it was a little last minute.”

“How do you two know each other?”

“Jed actually lives next door.”

“Wait, you’re the guy who gets all the tiny packages in the mail all the time?”

“Yes.  I collect Pokemon merch.”  Vanessa is starting to look judge-y, so I take her into my room to talk.

“Vanessa is gonna help me pack real quick, Jed.  Sit down for a minute, I’ll be right back.  Here!  Have this smoothie.”  I’m glad to be able to pawn off the beverage now that I’ve decided it’s not palatable in my current state.

“Gretchen, when did you meet this Jed guy?”

“Last night.”

“You can’t go to Canada with him!”

“Yes I can.”

“What about work?”

“I left Downton yesterday.”

“What?”

“I’ll find a new job when I get back.  I have enough money for next month’s rent.  Don’t worry.”

“I don’t care about that…I mean, I do…but isn’t it kind of stupid to be going on a trip with this stranger?  He looks kind of grimy…”

“He doesn’t have anyone, V.  I feel like this would be good for him.  I’m not stupid…I’ll be careful.  But I think he’s really harmless.  And he’s sweet.  I get him.”

“OK.”  I grab up a couple outfits and stuff them in my backpack.  I don’t really know how long we’ll be away, but I’m sure I’ll be able to make it work.

“Jed, how are we getting there?”

“I’m using Bobo’s car.”

“Who the fuck is Bobo?”

“My boy from the grocery.”

“The drug dealer?  Are we gonna get followed by the cops?”

“No.  Chill out.  It’s fine.  I booked a hotel in Montreal through Wednesday.”

“OK.”  I realize that Jed has artfully dumped the smoothie and washed out the glass.  Lucky me.  I guess I’m not going back to Downton, so I text Chef, “I’m not coming back.  Sorry.”  And put my phone in my pocket.  “Bye, V.  I’ll see you on Thursday, then.

“OK…Have fun and be safe.  Text me when you get to the border.  And then when you get to your hotel.  Will you call me later?”

“Sure.”  I walk out the door, and Jed closes it behind me.  “I can’t believe we’re actually doing this!”

“Trust the adventure, right?”

“I fucking guess so.  Have you ever been to Canada?”

“No.”

“Me neither.  Can we go get a bagel before we leave?”

“Sure.  Let’s go to Bean Bros.”  We walk in, and José is at the counter.

“Hey, José.  How are you?”  He looks right past me to Jed.

“Jed, brother, what’s up?  Ishan!  Jed stopped by!”  What the fuck…Ishan emerges from the back.

“Jed!  What’s good?”  Lots of fist pounding takes place, and suddenly I feel like the outsider in my own bagel shop.  Without even taking our order, the boys put together a medium coffee with milk, a cappuccino, an untoasted poppy bagel, and a toasted everything bagel with bacon-scallion cream cheese.  No charge.  Jed and I thank them, and then we head toward the door.

“Sit down or hit the road?”  Jed asks.

“Let’s hit the road.  Doesn’t it take forever to get there?”

“I guess we’ll see.”

“So, how do you know them so well?”

“Ishan is a customer, you know.  And sometimes I give José a bunch of money to do hand-offs to my customers at the bagel shop.”:

“The bagel shop traffics drugs?”

“Well…sometimes.”

“Jeez.”

“We all benefit.  And you know, there are no real cops in Queens.”

“Just garden gnomes that ticket cars!”

“Exactly.”  He hits the unlock button on his keys when we near a dark blue van.

“We’re taking a kidnapping van to Canada?”

“It’s a good car.”

“We’re gonna look like Bonnie and Clyde meets the ice cream man.”

“I like the sound of that, though.  Don’t you?”

“Sounds like a good premise for a band, anyway.  Alright.  Let’s do this.”  I dump my belongings in the back and climb into the passenger seat.  It’s a tall car for me to get into, but riding high up always makes me feel powerful.  After I settle into my seat, I text back my mom, “whoops, wrong Snapchat.”  C’est la vie.  “Oh, by the way, Jed, I can’t drive, so I hope you got all the coffee you need.”

“Even if you could, Bobo made me swear not to let anyone drive his car, so it’s all good.  Why can’t you drive?”

“DUI.”

“Ah.  You shouldn’t leave Queens!  There are cops out there.”

“Speaking of leaving Queens.”

“Yes ma’am.”  Jed puts the key in the ignition, starts the van, and pulls out of the spot as he takes an overzealous bite of his bagel.  Cream cheese oozes out and falls onto the seatbelt.  “Ah, fuck,” he licks it off.

“Ew!”

“What?  It’s delicious cream cheese!  I’m not letting it go to waste.  I’m trying to forget what that smoothie tasted like!”

“True.  I’m sorry I tried to give it to you.”

“You’re forgiven.  Put on some music.  Your choice.”  I turn on the radio, and Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Rocket Queen” comes on.  “Did you know Axl Rose brought a girl into the studio and fucked her for the sex noises in the background of that bridge?”

“What if I told you that was me?”

“Right.  And how old are you again?  Eighteen?”

“Twenty-four.  OK, it wasn’t me.  But it’s still cool.”  I rip off a piece of my bagel, spilling poppy seeds all over the floor of the car.  I would feel bad, but there’s still cream cheese on his seatbelt, so fuck it.  I rest my head against the window and listen to the music as we drive off, as Axl Rose sings, Here I am, and you’re a rocket queen…I might be a little young, but honey, I ain’t naive…

FOURTEEN

When I wake up, I look out to a line of cars ahead of us.  Holy shit, Jed–are we at the border already?  What time is it?”  He looks over at me and laughs.

“It’s six.”

“Jesus.  Should we be worried about border control?  Are you sure there aren’t any drugs hiding in this van right now?  Are we gonna get arrested?”

“Calm down, Gretchen.  I don’t think there’s anything in here.”

“You don’t think…”

“I checked.  Just calm down.  Here.  Want some?”  Jed holds out a half-eaten McDouble.

“Ew…you’re disgusting…”  I take the burger, realizing I’m starving, and take a bite.  For a cold, grey meat sandwich, it’s perfect.  I wolf down the three remaining bites.

“So disgusting…” Jed smirks.

“Shut up.”  I turn up the radio, which Jed has switched to some hip hop station and sing along:  “Ass fat!  Yeah I know!  The mo’ you spendin’, the fasta it go!” I do my best Nikki Minaj impression, and Jed looks surprised.  “C’mon Jed.  I know you know the words, too.  Throw some mo’!  Throw some mo’!”  He grins.

“You’re fucking crazy.  Turn it off for now; we’re coming up to the booth.”  I turn off the radio, as we drive up to the woman checking passports.  She asks Jed a bunch of questions about our trip and what kind of shit we have in the car.

“OK, can you pull up there and go inside so that we can check your car?”  Fuck.  I knew this was going to end in a drug bust or something.

“Sure.”

“Jed, what the hell?  No other cars ahead of us got checked.”

“I don’t know.  It’s probably just routine.  Don’t worry about it.”  We get out of the car and go into the building.  To take my mind off the situation at hand, I read some brochures about Canadian tourism and maple syrup, but my hands are sweaty, and I have to pee.  After a few minutes, the man who went out to inspect the car comes in and says something to another guard at the desk.  I can’t hear what they’re saying, but I see the second guard put on a pair of gloves and go out to the car.  We’re totally fucked.  I shouldn’t have come to Canada with this stranger.  I don’t want to go to jail.

A couple minutes later, I see another guard summoned out to the car.

“Jed…this is not looking good.”  I can tell he’s trying to stay calm for my sake.  How patronizing.  A few minutes later, the first guard comes back in and walks over to us with a serious expression.

“You can go back out to your car.”  I feel relieved but also confused.  We walk out the door, and one of the guards looks up.

“Where did you get this car?”

“It’s my friend’s…”

“This is the same van Rush used when they first started touring.  Not just the same model, but the same van!  Geddy Lee rode in this car!” he exclaims in a heavy French accent.

“My friend’s uncle helped organize Rush’s first tour in America.  Their van was on its final days, so they left it with him in America, and later on, he gave it to my friend to fix up if he wanted.  It’s a miracle it runs, but it does.”

“Bobo fucking owns Rush’s old tour van?  We’re driving Rush’s old tour van?  Jed!”  I’m at once ecstatic and offended Jed hadn’t told me before.  He smiles, and the guard gives him the keys.

“Have fun in Montreal,” the guard says.

I’m still trying to calm down, and as I get back into the van, I feel jittery.  “Alright, Jed.  Well, that was fucked up.  And I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.  Fuck you!  Anyway, I guess it’s appropriate to put this on, then.”  As he turns his key in the ignition and starts to drive, I put some Rush on my phone and turn it all the way up.  “MONDAY WARRIOR MEAN, MEAN STRIDE, TODAY’S TOM SAWYER, MEAN, MEAN PRIDE!”  I yell.  Jed smiles and joins in.  “THOUGH HIS MIND IS NOT FOR RENT, DON’T PUT HIM DOWN AS ARROGANT!”  We do a wonderful, terrible job singing the song, and I laugh to myself, briefly thinking that Jed is a little bit of a Tom Sawyer guy.

“So I’m really hungry.  Should we just go put our shit in the hotel and go get some food right away?”

“Yes,” I agree.  I’m fucking hungry, and I would love a drink.  Actually, I would love a bathroom, and then a drink, and then some food.  Dennis went to Canada last year, and he said the food was amazing.  “Should we go try some of this poutine shit, or should we go somewhere fancy?  After all, this is a very sophisticated getaway week for us, is it not?”

“I say fancy.  I mean, haven’t you had your fill of poutine in New York?  It’s at every hip eatery.”

“But I would hope it’s better here.”

“Maybe so.  Oh, here it is,” Jed points to a pretty brick building and pulls up to the valet.  The hotel looks really nice, and I feel a little bad that he’s spending his money on our room.  However, it’s not every day people my age get to do such things, so I brush off the guilt.  We check in and go up to our room.

“A king?”  I look at him with a playfully annoyed smirk.  Like hell I’m sharing a bed with a random man I just met.  But I don’t mind.  I’ll sleep on the luxurious looking leather couch.

“It’s all they had available.”

“Naturally.”  We drop our bags and go downstairs to ask the receptionists about restaurant recommendations.  Typically, I have a whole list of places to go when I travel, but something about the spontaneity of this trip made me want to wing everything.  The hostess is a young woman probably not much older than me, and although she is well dressed and groomed, something about her vibe seems a little punky and badass.  When we ask her where we should eat, she pauses, sizing us up, probably wondering what two younger, somewhat grungy Americans are doing at a nice hotel in Montreal in the middle of the winter.  Barely missing a beat, she recommends a place called Gros.

“What’s it like?”  I ask.

“It’s hard to really say,” she starts.  “But just go.  I think you two will like it.”

“What kind of attire is it?”

“Go as you are,” she smiles in a strangely mysterious, all knowing way.

“Well OK, let’s do it, then,” Jed seems pleased with the bare amount of information we’ve received.

“Fuck it, yeah.  Let’s go.  I’m starving.”  We walk toward the door, and as Jed opens it, I ask, “Is it wrong to trust someone’s restaurant recommendation just because she’s hot?”  He laughs, realizing we’ve both trusted this receptionist in blind faith, and says,

“No.  I think it’s perfectly fine.”

Gros is only five blocks from our hotel.  It’s pretty busy when we get there, but it is also small.

“Table for two?”

“Yes, thanks.”

“OK, just give me one moment…here.  Have these while I get your table ready.”  The host hands us shots of brown liquor.

“That’s how I always want to be greeted.  Everywhere I go,” I say, as I sniff the beverage, verifying that it’s whiskey.  “Cheers, Jed.”

“Cheers, m’lady!”  We down the fiery shots, and my belly warms up immediately.  My stomach growls, wondering why I’m only sending it alcohol when it really wants food.  Shhh…I tell it.  Food to come.  The host sits us at a table in the back corner, which is dim and beautiful.

“Well, how romantic!” I joke.  Jed laughs, but there’s a hint of something else in the laugh that worries me.  I hope he doesn’t feel this is a romantic dinner.  Or is it?  Canada feels like an alternate universe to me.  Maybe I will create a new world today.  This place…this food…this person…for now, I love them all?  I could love everything here.  And that might be perfect.  And yet, maybe this is the whiskey talking.

“What can I get you two to drink?” A woman appears next to our table.  We order a large bottle of La Fin Du Monde, a beer made in Montreal, to split.  A few minutes later, the waitress comes back with two glasses and the bottle and pours it for us.  She sets down a basket of biscuits between us and gives us some time to look at the menu.

“Cheers!”  I clink glasses with Jed, and some of the tall, white foam runs over the side of my glass.  The beer is refreshing and strong, and the biscuits are warm.  “Do we even need anything else?”

“Haha…yes…but this is pretty great by itself,” he agrees.  “What about this braised goose tacos situation?”

“Mmm…that sounds great.  What about this lobster po’ boy with crispy pig ears and Ranch?”

“Should we have smoked before coming here?”

“Maybe.  But we’re pretty hungry already.”

“Excuse me,” a woman at the table next to us looks over at us. “I don’t mean to intrude, but would you like to go smoke?  My husband and I are taking a break in our meal, and we’re going to step outside.  People actually do it here quite frequently.  The restaurant doesn’t really mind; there’s an alley right next door.”

“Seriously?”  Jed looks happy, and the woman nods.  “Gretchen?”

“Sure.  Let’s go.”  We put our napkins on the table and walk outside.  It’s started to snow, and most of the streets are empty.  I realize it’s already ten, and that makes me happy.  Late dinners are one of my favorite things.  The woman pulls a joint out of a small tin in her purse and lights it with a match from a Gros matchbook.

“So where are you two from?”

“New York,” I say.  “Are you from here?”

“No, actually we’re from Toronto, but my husband is a graphic designer, and I’m a musician, so we moved here, because it’s more conducive to our work.  Perhaps not because of the work itself, but, em…the nature of the environment,” she laughs, taking a pointed drag.  “And what do you do?”

“I’m a salesman, and she’s a cook,” Jed replies.

“And how long have you been together?”

“Oh, we’re–”

“Two years,” Jed cuts me off.  I smirk. I can play this game.  We talk with the couple, Bette and Louis, some more, and when we finish the joint, we return to dinner.  Back in the restaurant, we push our tables together and order a ton of food.  Even though Bette and Louis were once half way through their meal, they’re again ravenous.

It turns out they’re both devout wine lovers, so they order wines with our food that make everything perfect.  Muscadet with our seafood, Carignan with our goose tacos, a Cote du Rhone with a fried rabbit dish.  Although at first I was nervous about prices, it eventually becomes clear that the chef is good friends with Bette and Louis, and by extension, everything is on the house.

“We’ve known Jean for ten years,” Louis says.  “He was my best man in our wedding.  He’s like a brother to me.  I design all his menus and book covers, and I eat here free.  It’s the essence of a symbiotic relationship.”

“To symbiosis!”  I toast, as I begin to feel quite drunk.

“Symbiosis!”  Everyone cheers, in unison.  After the other tables have cleared out of the restaurant, Jean and a few other chefs come out of the kitchen with some more food and a few bottles of Pastis.  We all drink, talk, and smoke in only candlelight, now, and I feel a sense of peace that I’ve never before experienced.  Jed looks happy, too, which makes me happy.  He looks up and catches my eye, and I smirk, thinking, yes, two years, we’ve been together now.  He looks healthy in the candle light, and something like love bubbles up in me for a moment.  I’m surprised, but I suspend the concern to prolong the good feeling.

“Well, then,” Jean announces, stirring me from my dream-like state, “I think it’s time to go have some fun.  To the bars!”

“To the bars!”  Bette echoes.  Jed and I exchange looks of surprise, considering we clearly underestimated just how hard these French Canadians could party, and we shrug, chiming in,

“To the bars!”

FIFTEEN

When we leave the restaurant, I realize I am severely underdressed for the weather.  It’s dropped to about zero degrees, and it’s snowing, and all I brought was my peacoat.  Of course I knew that was a fucking stupid move when I was leaving, but cold is always a very distant theory until it’s gnawing at your face and ass.  “Jed, I think I should go back and get some more clothes to put on…” I start.

“No, no, you don’t need more clothes,” Jean interjects.  “Wear the Pastis jacket!”  He hands me the half-finished bottle–er–half finished second bottle of Pastis.  “It will protect you from the cold.  Look at me–I’m not even wearing a coat as heavy as yours.”  Yeah, and you just worked in the hot kitchen all night and weigh about two hundred pounds more than I do.  Although I find fault with Jean’s argument, I take the Pastis and drink, feeling my belly and face warm up a bit as I do.  It’s better than nothing, to be sure.

“Jed, want some Pastis jacket?”

“Nah, I’m good,” he grins, holding up his two already full hands, one with a joint and one with a beer.

“I see that,” I smirk.  At least I haven’t seen him do anything hard since we’ve gotten here.  Not that I’ve had my eye on him the whole time, or anything.  Who knows whether he was taking pills while I was asleep in the car.  Although I like to think he might care enough about me already not to put my life on the line for a temporary high, I also know that rationale is not solid…at all.  “Jean, where are we going?”

“Ask Bette and Louis.  I never choose.  But we usually go to the same places.  Bette and Louis know where the fun is; I just follow along and enjoy.” Louis turns around, looks at me playfully, and says,

“Why do you need to know?”

“Curious.”

“Have you read Alice in Wonderland?”

“Yes.”

“So remember the part when Alice asks the Cheshire cat which way she should go at the fork in the road?”

“Yes.”

“And he asks her where she’s trying to go.”

“Right, and she says she doesn’t know…”

“And so he says that, in that case, it doesn’t matter which path she takes.”

“OK, Mr. Party Philosophy 101…I get it.  Take me down your rabbit hole…I’m in…Why did that sound so dirty?  I don’t really know what I’m saying…let’s just go…”  The cooks trailing behind us laugh at me in a sort of well-orchestrated movie effects kind of way, and I giggle, taking another swig of Pastis.  This Pastis jacket concept isn’t too bad, actually.  We stop and turn into a smallish alley, and Bette turns around to me and asks,

” ‘ave you ever been to a strip club?”  I smirk, thinking about how the last time I’d been was before getting arrested for drunk driving.  Great.  At least Jed is in charge of driving the Rush-mobile.  She opens the strangely warped wooden door and nods toward the inside, signaling for us to go in.

The warmth of the bar causes my cold face to go immediately ruddy, and I imagine I must look like something in between a young woman and an old Irish man, but not in the post-plastic surgery Joan Rivers kind of way.  I laugh at this.

“What’s so funny?”  Jed asks, his face starting to look relaxed and dazed from all the drinking and smoking.

“Everything, don’t you think?”

“Yes, my lady.”  We sit down at a large table just off the bar, and Jean shows up with two brimming pitchers of beer and a tray of whiskeys for everyone.  Jesus H. Christ.

“Well, everyone,” Jean begins, in all his sweaty, drunken glory, “We are lucky to meet two young travelers tonight.  While they may be Americans, we will forgive them this for the simple reason that it is a gift to enjoy the company of young lovers experiencing life’s great gifts of food, drink, and good company.  They uphold the values we prize in our lives, and it’s comforting to see that a next generation of people are safeguarding the institution of bounty and excess.  To l’amour!”

L’amour!” Everyone shouts.  And just then, I see her on the stage.  A familiar face on a naked body…the receptionist from our hotel!

“Oh my God, Jed–it’s her!  The hotel receptionist!”  Jed looks toward the stage and chuckles.

“Shit…”  She dances toward the edge of the stage, catches my eye, and winks.

“So, I see you’ve met Clara, probably at your hotel?” Louis catches on quickly.  “She tends to direct people she finds interesting to Jean’s restaurant because she knows he herds people in here like flocks of sheep.  She’s been a friend for years.  When she’s done with her shift, she’ll come hang out.”

“Damn, good thing we listened to her dinner advice,” Jed says.

“Shut up!”  I punch him in the knee cap, feigning jealousy.  Am I feigning anymore?  I’m not so sure.

“So you’re a cook?” Jean sidles over to me from the other end of the table and sits in a free chair.

“Yeah…but I don’t have a place to work right now.  It’s hard, you know?  Trying to understand if all the work is worth it at a fancy place or whatever.”

“Well…if you love the food, you don’t have to think so hard.  Like anything else.  I love my kids.  I hate when they fucking wet the bed and I have to change their sheets at four in the morning when all I want to do is sleep.  But it’s worth it.  You love the food?  You understand why you’re taking the trash out at three in the morning or scraping grease off the fucking oven.  There’s just no choice in the matter.”

“Oui,” I giggle.  It is a little wise, but I’m drunk, so it’s also funny.

“You speak French?”

“Enough.”

“What is enough?”

“Enough to shut the fuck up and say oui.”

“Ah, oui,” he laughs.

“Am I interrupting?”  I feel a hand snake around my shoulder and turn toward the voice.  Oh, shit…it’s this Clara bitch…

“No…no, not at all,” I stammer.  She’s way prettier than I realized back at the hotel.  And the inkling of badass I got before has gone full blown in the context of the strip club.  She’s put on a pair of tight black jeans and a rust colored silk blouse and still managed to come off sexier than when she was almost completely naked ten minutes ago…amazing…

“So, surprise…” she smirks.

“Yeah…you played us right into your trap, huh?  Do you bring all the cute American tourists into this little set-up, then?”

“No…”

“Then…”

“Platelet people.”

“What does that mean?”

“I have a theory that people who have seen a darker side of life stick to each other…like platelets…It’s an unconscious effort to heal the wound…”

“What makes you think we’re wounded?”

“What makes you think you’re not?”  I follow her gaze to Jed, who looks happy but hopeless, as usual.  I laugh.

“OK, but me?”

“You’re content in life?”

“Well…no…but contentedness seems lazy…I’m just hungry for more…”

“We’re not all the same, but you don’t see any…how do you Americans call it…basic bitches around here…do you?”  She laughs.

“No!  No basic bitches!  That is true,” I laugh.  Fair enough.  Platelet people it is.

“And besides…I get a sense of loss from you, somehow.  You’re having fun, but you have a guard up.  You’re not letting yourself be with him…easily.”

“Maybe that’s not exactly what I’m into,” I smirk, pointedly.

“Ah, oui, but either way, I think maybe you are.”

Bette comes over and saves me from the strange direction this conversation is going in, and I’m relieved. “Can I get you two another drink?” she asks.

“You know, yes, but I don’t know what I want.”

“Well, young lady, it’s a bit too late to tell you to stick to one thing, so your guess is as good as mine.”

“This is true.  How about a beer and a whiskey again.  I can try to stick to that.”

“Oui, Clara?”

“The same.  You know, I’m a bit tired after my shift.  Would anyone like to…get less tired?”  She grins and taps her nose with a well-manicured finger.  Well, it’s not as though the night seemed like it would end anytime soon, anyway.  

Ouaaaiiiiiiii” all the cooks and Jean chime in, clearly excited that cocaine has made an appearance in the conversation.

“Wayyyyy!”  Jed adds.

“Fuck it,” I agree, as she passes around a small bag and spoon.  The bag goes around the circle until it’s out.

“No worries; I have more for in a bit,” she says.  The bitterness invades the back of my throat as I perk up a little.  “How is that?”  Clara asks, looking me over.

“Great, thanks.”

“Want some more?”

“Maybe.”

“Ah, oui, but I can’t find the spoon anymore…” she smiles, tucking it into her pocket.  “But I know a good surface.”  She jumps up backwards and has a seat on the bar, spins sideways, and lays down.  Before I can process the situation, she’s topless with a roughly poured line between her tits.  Well this is occurring…I’m highly amused by the situation and completely ecstatic that I agreed to go to Canada with Jed.  This is hilarious, ridiculous, and all the debauchery I ever wanted and more.  Well, maybe.

“How can I be so sure this is coke?”  I joke, and I stick my finger in her mouth, wet it, use it to pick up some of the powder off her chest, and rub it on my gums.  She looks surprised and amused.  “Yep, it seems to be…”  I bend down and stick my face between her breasts, snorting up about half of the coke and missing the rest.  We’re both laughing uncontrollably by now, and Jean appears out of nowhere and licks up all the rest off her body.  “Jesus, man!”

“Jean would replace powdered sugar on his donuts with blow if he could; don’t be concerned,” Clara laughs.

“Evidently!”  Clara sits up and leans close.

“I liked your finger in my mouth,” she whispers in my ear.  “But–”

“Oh, hello, I see you’ve met my lady,” Jed appears, wide-eyed.

“Monsieur Jed, hello…”

“Thanks for your recommendation earlier.  The restaurant was incredible.  And this…this is not bad, either, he says, glancing at her still naked chest.

“I thought you might like it,” she says, as she puts her shirt back on.  “Come, let’s dance.”SIXTEEN

We dance.  I dance my stupid jig, Clara moves a little more seductively, and Jed thinks he is dancing, but I wouldn’t really call it that.  Either way, we’re not exactly in judgment mode.  I turn around, and the stage is empty, except for Jean leaned up against a pole, eating a cone of fries.  “Well that’s a fucking sight to see.  How is he still eating?”

“Jean always eats.  I mean, look at him,” Clara laughs.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Clara dances closer to me at times before dancing away to be in her own little world.  As usual, I wonder what her end game is.  People are so strange with their intentions.

“Gretchen…do you want to leave soon?” Jed asks, looking kind of sweaty and burnt out.

“You OK?”

“Great–”

“You two want to go back?” Clara chimes in.

“I guess so; do you want to go with us?  Where do you live?”

“Actually, I have an apartment across the street from the hotel.  I’ll walk with you.”

“Should we take a cab?”

“No,” Clara laughs.  “The hotel is just ten minutes from here.”

We bid the rest of the group goodbye and thank them for everything.  They are all extremely enthusiastic about having met us and insist we come back into Gros before we leave for New York.

The walk is even shorter than I imagined.  As we near the hotel, I reach into my bag to look for my room key, but Clara reaches her hand into the bag and pulls out my hand.  “Don’t you two want to come for just one last drink?”  I look at Jed, and he seems like he’s condensed back into more of a human by now.

“Why not?”

“Why not?” I agree.

“This is mine,” Clara points to an old building on the left and leads us to the door.  She lives on the third floor, which doesn’t really faze me considering all the stairs I take in my New York apartment.  Jed, however, is sweating by the time we reach her place.  “You live on the same floor as me…why is this so difficult for you?”

“I honestly don’t even leave my place half the time.”

“Jeez.”  Clara’s apartment is small and neat, and she doesn’t have any roommates.  Maowww…as I sit down at her table, a cat jumps up on top of it.

“Hellooo, sir,” Clara scratches his head.  He’s a hairless cat and is grey except for one pink ear.

“What’s his name?” I ask, already cobbling together a plan to kidnap the strange animal.

“Scarface.”

“Actually?”

“Oui.  What would you like to drink?  I like tea with Calvados before bed.”

“What is bed?  We’re going to bed?”

“Your context, not mine.”

“I’ll have one of those teas with Calvados I’ve heard such good things about.”

“Me too,” Jed mumbles, as Scarface climbs onto his shoulders.  Clara puts on music and places a kettle of water on the stove while filling each of three cups half full of her brandy and an Earl Grey tea bag.  We sit in a dazed but comfortable quiet with Janice Joplin playing low in the background.  I think about the part in Pulp Fiction when Marcellus Wallace’s wife tells John Travolta’s character that there’s something nice about being able to share silence between people without it being uncomfortable.  And it’s true.  Everything is perfect without voices at the moment.

The whistle of the kettle interrupts our reverie, and Clara gets up to concoct our drinks.

“Come,” she says, holding all three cups and signaling us to follow her through the door out of her kitchen.  We follow her into her room and sit down on the bed, each accepting our cup of boozy tea. It’s delicious, even though I wish I had a lemon.  But I’m ashamed to wish for anything more than this, so I eject the thought and take a long, slow sip.

The tea ventures into me, warming my throat, now my chest, now my belly.

“So is this how you lure all American tourists home with you?  Cute cat, hot tea, booze…there are probably seven and a half roofies in here, am I right?”

“Ah, yes, you’ve found me out,” Clara smiles.  I hope she’s joking, because I really don’t have time to be a part of some fucked up new version of Taken, even though I guess I do, considering I just left work and have no real life plans.  Is that how it ends?  Young woman gets roofied by female stripper in Montreal, found starving, tied to pole, covered in cat scratches?  That would happen to me, but I’m not ready, considering I haven’t had time to fully detail Hem on the preferences I have for my viking style floating pyre for my funeral…”Hey–” Clara catches my attention, aware that I’m completely spaced out in my own world.  “No roofies,” she smirks, running her hand up my arm to my shoulder.

She puts my cup on her bedside table and looks at me, undoes the top button of my shirt, looks at Jed.  “It looks better like this, no?”

“I think it does,” Jed agrees, smiling into his nearly empty tea cup.  “And you know what…” he adds, “orange doesn’t really seem to be your color…”

“No?  Jean said he liked my blouse.  But then again he bought it for me.  But what does he know about style?  Someone from New York, on the other hand, he would know about these things.”

“It’s true, it’s not exactly the best with your drinking flush, especially,” I agree, helping her slip it off.  Jed and I flash each other a grin through the dim light.  Scarface jumps up on the end table, knocking my empty cup onto the floor.

“Such a voyeur you are,” Clara says to him.  “Pervert.”

The night weaves through like some kind of ridiculous fabric, rich and soft and bright, and we don’t think much, and our brains are fried, and it’s something beautiful and grotesque, or I am.  I forget who we are, because everything is new, and we don’t know where we are; Scarface watches.  Maybe he is god.  I would blame these conceptions on the tea, but considering the few things that were not consumed over the course of the night, I don’t see where the ideas are not coming from, you know.

As the sun begins to come up, Clara dozes off, and I steal one of her cigarettes off the table, light it, and take a half-purposeful drag.  Jed looks completely wiped out but tinted with self-satisfaction.

“That happened,” I say.

“It did.”

Quieres?” I hold out the cigarette, but he nods ‘no’.  “OK, so…”

“So…” he cocks his head at me and looks with heavy-lidded eyes.

“I think I’m falling in love with you.” I spit out, mildly blasé but also unnerved.  Ye olde love coming around at me without proper planning, as it does.  Cunt-bag love.

“Yes…”

“I don’t want to, though, you know.”

“I see.”

“Not like…love…it’s good.  I know, but I don’t trust it for a second.  It’s this mortal thing with a chance at immortality, and that’s difficult to me.  It’s like being alive and not being sure if you might die one day.  This I do not like.”

“And at what point do you feel you have the control to just handle it?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Gretchen…it does suck…but it’s like anything else.  You enter into it knowing it could be gone at any moment.  Like you wouldn’t surpass the chance to buy Boardwalk in Monopoly just because you might lose it later in the game.  Because if you do, you’re alone with the certainty of what you don’t have.  But that’s it.  You don’t have shit: no chance at winning, nothing.  And certainty is not worth the sacrifice of experience.  And as it happens, I’m falling in love with you.”

“I hate Monopoly,” I smirk.

“Shut up,” he squeezes my shoulder and flares his nostrils at my ridiculousness, as he does.

“Oui.”

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The Lost Kids

SIXTEEN

We dance.  I dance my stupid jig, Clara moves a little more seductively, and Jed thinks he is dancing, but I wouldn’t really call it that.  Either way, we’re not exactly in judgment mode.  I turn around, and the stage is empty, except for Jean leaned up against a pole, eating a cone of fries.  “Well that’s a fucking sight to see.  How is he still eating?”

“Jean always eats.  I mean, look at him,” Clara laughs.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Clara dances closer to me at times before dancing away to be in her own little world.  As usual, I wonder what her end game is.  People are so strange with their intentions.

“Gretchen…do you want to leave soon?” Jed asks, looking kind of sweaty and burnt out.

“You OK?”

“Great–”

“You two want to go back?” Clara chimes in.

“I guess so; do you want to go with us?  Where do you live?”

“Actually, I have an apartment across the street from the hotel.  I’ll walk with you.”

“Should we take a cab?”

“No,” Clara laughs.  “The hotel is just ten minutes from here.”

We bid the rest of the group goodbye and thank them for everything.  They are all extremely enthusiastic about having met us and insist we come back into Gros before we leave for New York.

The walk is even shorter than I imagined.  As we near the hotel, I reach into my bag to look for my room key, but Clara reaches her hand into the bag and pulls out my hand.  “Don’t you two want to come for just one last drink?”  I look at Jed, and he seems like he’s condensed back into more of a human by now.

“Why not?”

“Why not?” I agree.

“This is mine,” Clara points to an old building on the left and leads us to the door.  She lives on the third floor, which doesn’t really faze me considering all the stairs I take in my New York apartment.  Jed, however, is sweating by the time we reach her place.  “You live on the same floor as me…why is this so difficult for you?”

“I honestly don’t even leave my place half the time.”

“Jeez.”  Clara’s apartment is small and neat, and she doesn’t have any roommates.  Maowww…as I sit down at her table, a cat jumps up on top of it.

“Hellooo, sir,” Clara scratches his head.  He’s a hairless cat and is grey except for one pink ear.

“What’s his name?” I ask, already cobbling together a plan to kidnap the strange animal.

“Scarface.”

“Actually?”

“Oui.  What would you like to drink?  I like tea with Calvados before bed.”

“What is bed?  We’re going to bed?”

“Your context, not mine.”

“I’ll have one of those teas with Calvados I’ve heard such good things about.”

“Me too,” Jed mumbles, as Scarface climbs onto his shoulders.  Clara puts on music and places a kettle of water on the stove while filling each of three cups half full of her brandy and an Earl Grey tea bag.  We sit in a dazed but comfortable quiet with Janice Joplin playing low in the background.  I think about the part in Pulp Fiction when Marcellus Wallace’s wife tells John Travolta’s character that there’s something nice about being able to share silence between people without it being uncomfortable.  And it’s true.  Everything is perfect without voices at the moment.

The whistle of the kettle interrupts our reverie, and Clara gets up to concoct our drinks.

“Come,” she says, holding all three cups and signaling us to follow her through the door out of her kitchen.  We follow her into her room and sit down on the bed, each accepting our cup of boozy tea. It’s delicious, even though I wish I had a lemon.  But I’m ashamed to wish for anything more than this, so I eject the thought and take a long, slow sip.

The tea ventures into me, warming my throat, now my chest, now my belly.

“So is this how you lure all American tourists home with you?  Cute cat, hot tea, booze…there are probably seven and a half roofies in here, am I right?”

“Ah, yes, you’ve found me out,” Clara smiles.  I hope she’s joking, because I really don’t have time to be a part of some fucked up new version of Taken, even though I guess I do, considering I just left work and have no real life plans.  Is that how it ends?  Young woman gets roofied by female stripper in Montreal, found starving, tied to pole, covered in cat scratches?  That would happen to me, but I’m not ready, considering I haven’t had time to fully detail Hem on the preferences I have for my viking style floating pyre for my funeral…”Hey–” Clara catches my attention, aware that I’m completely spaced out in my own world.  “No roofies,” she smirks, running her hand up my arm to my shoulder.

She puts my cup on her bedside table and looks at me, undoes the top button of my shirt, looks at Jed.  “It looks better like this, no?”

“I think it does,” Jed agrees, smiling into his nearly empty tea cup.  “And you know what…” he adds, “orange doesn’t really seem to be your color…”

“No?  Jean said he liked my blouse.  But then again he bought it for me.  But what does he know about style?  Someone from New York, on the other hand, he would know about these things.”

“It’s true, it’s not exactly the best with your drinking flush, especially,” I agree, helping her slip it off.  Jed and I flash each other a grin through the dim light.  Scarface jumps up on the end table, knocking my empty cup onto the floor.

“Such a voyeur you are,” Clara says to him.  “Pervert.”

The night weaves through like some kind of ridiculous fabric, rich and soft and bright, and we don’t think much, and our brains are fried, and it’s something beautiful and grotesque, or I am.  I forget who we are, because everything is new, and we don’t know where we are; Scarface watches.  Maybe he is god.  I would blame these conceptions on the tea, but considering the few things that were not consumed over the course of the night, I don’t see where the ideas are not coming from, you know.

As the sun begins to come up, Clara dozes off, and I steal one of her cigarettes off the table, light it, and take a half-purposeful drag.  Jed looks completely wiped out but tinted with self-satisfaction.

“That happened,” I say.

“It did.”

Quieres?” I hold out the cigarette, but he nods ‘no’.  “OK, so…”

“So…” he cocks his head at me and looks with heavy-lidded eyes.

“I think I’m falling in love with you.” I spit out, mildly blasé but also unnerved.  Ye olde love coming around at me without proper planning, as it does.  Cunt-bag love.

“Yes…”

“I don’t want to, though, you know.”

“I see.”

“Not like…love…it’s good.  I know, but I don’t trust it for a second.  It’s this mortal thing with a chance at immortality, and that’s difficult to me.  It’s like being alive and not being sure if you might die one day.  This I do not like.”

“And at what point do you feel you have the control to just handle it?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Gretchen…it does suck…but it’s like anything else.  You enter into it knowing it could be gone at any moment.  Like you wouldn’t surpass the chance to buy Boardwalk in Monopoly just because you might lose it later in the game.  Because if you do, you’re alone with the certainty of what you don’t have.  But that’s it.  You don’t have shit: no chance at winning, nothing.  And certainty is not worth the sacrifice of experience.  And as it happens, I’m falling in love with you.”

“I hate Monopoly,” I smirk.

“Shut up,” he squeezes my shoulder and flares his nostrils at my ridiculousness, as he does.

“Oui.”

The Lost Kids

FIFTEEN

When we leave the restaurant, I realize I am severely underdressed for the weather.  It’s dropped to about zero degrees, and it’s snowing, and all I brought was my peacoat.  Of course I knew that was a fucking stupid move when I was leaving, but cold is always a very distant theory until it’s gnawing at your face and ass.  “Jed, I think I should go back and get some more clothes to put on…” I start.

“No, no, you don’t need more clothes,” Jean interjects.  “Wear the Pastis jacket!”  He hands me the half-finished bottle–er–half finished second bottle of Pastis.  “It will protect you from the cold.  Look at me–I’m not even wearing a coat as heavy as yours.”  Yeah, and you just worked in the hot kitchen all night and weigh about two hundred pounds more than I do.  Although I find fault with Jean’s argument, I take the Pastis and drink, feeling my belly and face warm up a bit as I do.  It’s better than nothing, to be sure.

“Jed, want some Pastis jacket?”

“Nah, I’m good,” he grins, holding up his two already full hands, one with a joint and one with a beer.

“I see that,” I smirk.  At least I haven’t seen him do anything hard since we’ve gotten here.  Not that I’ve had my eye on him the whole time, or anything.  Who knows whether he was taking pills while I was asleep in the car.  Although I like to think he might care enough about me already not to put my life on the line for a temporary high, I also know that rationale is not solid…at all.  “Jean, where are we going?”

“Ask Bette and Louis.  I never choose.  But we usually go to the same places.  Bette and Louis know where the fun is; I just follow along and enjoy.” Louis turns around, looks at me playfully, and says,

“Why do you need to know?”

“Curious.”

“Have you read Alice in Wonderland?”

“Yes.”

“So remember the part when Alice asks the Cheshire cat which way she should go at the fork in the road?”

“Yes.”

“And he asks her where she’s trying to go.”

“Right, and she says she doesn’t know…”

“And so he says that, in that case, it doesn’t matter which path she takes.”

“OK, Mr. Party Philosophy 101…I get it.  Take me down your rabbit hole…I’m in…Why did that sound so dirty?  I don’t really know what I’m saying…let’s just go…”  The cooks trailing behind us laugh at me in a sort of well-orchestrated movie effects kind of way, and I giggle, taking another swig of Pastis.  This Pastis jacket concept isn’t too bad, actually.  We stop and turn into a smallish alley, and Bette turns around to me and asks,

” ‘ave you ever been to a strip club?”  I smirk, thinking about how the last time I’d been was before getting arrested for drunk driving.  Great.  At least Jed is in charge of driving the Rush-mobile.  She opens the strangely warped wooden door and nods toward the inside, signaling for us to go in.

The warmth of the bar causes my cold face to go immediately ruddy, and I imagine I must look like something in between a young woman and an old Irish man, but not in the post-plastic surgery Joan Rivers kind of way.  I laugh at this.

“What’s so funny?”  Jed asks, his face starting to look relaxed and dazed from all the drinking and smoking.

“Everything, don’t you think?”

“Yes, my lady.”  We sit down at a large table just off the bar, and Jean shows up with two brimming pitchers of beer and a tray of whiskeys for everyone.  Jesus H. Christ.

“Well, everyone,” Jean begins, in all his sweaty, drunken glory, “We are lucky to meet two young travelers tonight.  While they may be Americans, we will forgive them this for the simple reason that it is a gift to enjoy the company of young lovers experiencing life’s great gifts of food, drink, and good company.  They uphold the values we prize in our lives, and it’s comforting to see that a next generation of people are safeguarding the institution of bounty and excess.  To l’amour!”

L’amour!” Everyone shouts.  And just then, I see her on the stage.  A familiar face on a naked body…the receptionist from our hotel!

“Oh my God, Jed–it’s her!  The hotel receptionist!”  Jed looks toward the stage and chuckles.

“Shit…”  She dances toward the edge of the stage, catches my eye, and winks.

“So, I see you’ve met Clara, probably at your hotel?” Louis catches on quickly.  “She tends to direct people she finds interesting to Jean’s restaurant because she knows he herds people in here like flocks of sheep.  She’s been a friend for years.  When she’s done with her shift, she’ll come hang out.”

“Damn, good thing we listened to her dinner advice,” Jed says.

“Shut up!”  I punch him in the knee cap, feigning jealousy.  Am I feigning anymore?  I’m not so sure.

“So you’re a cook?” Jean sidles over to me from the other end of the table and sits in a free chair.

“Yeah…but I don’t have a place to work right now.  It’s hard, you know?  Trying to understand if all the work is worth it at a fancy place or whatever.”

“Well…if you love the food, you don’t have to think so hard.  Like anything else.  I love my kids.  I hate when they fucking wet the bed and I have to change their sheets at four in the morning when all I want to do is sleep.  But it’s worth it.  You love the food?  You understand why you’re taking the trash out at three in the morning or scraping grease off the fucking oven.  There’s just no choice in the matter.”

“Oui,” I giggle.  It is a little wise, but I’m drunk, so it’s also funny.

“You speak French?”

“Enough.”

“What is enough?”

“Enough to shut the fuck up and say oui.”

“Ah, oui,” he laughs.

“Am I interrupting?”  I feel a hand snake around my shoulder and turn toward the voice.  Oh, shit…it’s this Clara bitch…

“No…no, not at all,” I stammer.  She’s way prettier than I realized back at the hotel.  And the inkling of badass I got before has gone full blown in the context of the strip club.  She’s put on a pair of tight black jeans and a rust colored silk blouse and still managed to come off sexier than when she was almost completely naked ten minutes ago…amazing…

“So, surprise…” she smirks.

“Yeah…you played us right into your trap, huh?  Do you bring all the cute American tourists into this little set-up, then?”

“No…”

“Then…”

“Platelet people.”

“What does that mean?”

“I have a theory that people who have seen a darker side of life stick to each other…like platelets…It’s an unconscious effort to heal the wound…”

“What makes you think we’re wounded?”

“What makes you think you’re not?”  I follow her gaze to Jed, who looks happy but hopeless, as usual.  I laugh.

“OK, but me?”

“You’re content in life?”

“Well…no…but contentedness seems lazy…I’m just hungry for more…”

“We’re not all the same, but you don’t see any…how do you Americans call it…basic bitches around here…do you?”  She laughs.

“No!  No basic bitches!  That is true,” I laugh.  Fair enough.  Platelet people it is.

“And besides…I get a sense of loss from you, somehow.  You’re having fun, but you have a guard up.  You’re not letting yourself be with him…easily.”

“Maybe that’s not exactly what I’m into,” I smirk, pointedly.

“Ah, oui, but either way, I think maybe you are.”

Bette comes over and saves me from the strange direction this conversation is going in, and I’m relieved. “Can I get you two another drink?” she asks.

“You know, yes, but I don’t know what I want.”

“Well, young lady, it’s a bit too late to tell you to stick to one thing, so your guess is as good as mine.”

“This is true.  How about a beer and a whiskey again.  I can try to stick to that.”

“Oui, Clara?”

“The same.  You know, I’m a bit tired after my shift.  Would anyone like to…get less tired?”  She grins and taps her nose with a well-manicured finger.  Well, it’s not as though the night seemed like it would end anytime soon, anyway.  

Ouaaaiiiiiiii” all the cooks and Jean chime in, clearly excited that cocaine has made an appearance in the conversation.

“Wayyyyy!”  Jed adds.

“Fuck it,” I agree, as she passes around a small bag and spoon.  The bag goes around the circle until it’s out.

“No worries; I have more for in a bit,” she says.  The bitterness invades the back of my throat as I perk up a little.  “How is that?”  Clara asks, looking me over.

“Great, thanks.”

“Want some more?”

“Maybe.”

“Ah, oui, but I can’t find the spoon anymore…” she smiles, tucking it into her pocket.  “But I know a good surface.”  She jumps up backwards and has a seat on the bar, spins sideways, and lays down.  Before I can process the situation, she’s topless with a roughly poured line between her tits.  Well this is occurring…I’m highly amused by the situation and completely ecstatic that I agreed to go to Canada with Jed.  This is hilarious, ridiculous, and all the debauchery I ever wanted and more.  Well, maybe.

“How can I be so sure this is coke?”  I joke, and I stick my finger in her mouth, wet it, use it to pick up some of the powder off her chest, and rub it on my gums.  She looks surprised and amused.  “Yep, it seems to be…”  I bend down and stick my face between her breasts, snorting up about half of the coke and missing the rest.  We’re both laughing uncontrollably by now, and Jean appears out of nowhere and licks up all the rest off her body.  “Jesus, man!”

“Jean would replace powdered sugar on his donuts with blow if he could; don’t be concerned,” Clara laughs.

“Evidently!”  Clara sits up and leans close.

“I liked your finger in my mouth,” she whispers in my ear.  “But–”

“Oh, hello, I see you’ve met my lady,” Jed appears, wide-eyed.

“Monsieur Jed, hello…”

“Thanks for your recommendation earlier.  The restaurant was incredible.  And this…this is not bad, either, he says, glancing at her still naked chest.

“I thought you might like it,” she says, as she puts her shirt back on.  “Come, let’s dance.”

The Lost Kids

FOURTEEN

When I wake up, I look out to a line of cars ahead of us.  Holy shit, Jed–are we at the border already?  What time is it?”  He looks over at me and laughs.

“It’s six.”

“Jesus.  Should we be worried about border control?  Are you sure there aren’t any drugs hiding in this van right now?  Are we gonna get arrested?”

“Calm down, Gretchen.  I don’t think there’s anything in here.”

“You don’t think…”

“I checked.  Just calm down.  Here.  Want some?”  Jed holds out a half-eaten McDouble.

“Ew…you’re disgusting…”  I take the burger, realizing I’m starving, and take a bite.  For a cold, grey meat sandwich, it’s perfect.  I wolf down the three remaining bites.

“So disgusting…” Jed smirks.

“Shut up.”  I turn up the radio, which Jed has switched to some hip hop station and sing along:  “Ass fat!  Yeah I know!  The mo’ you spendin’, the fasta it go!” I do my best Nikki Minaj impression, and Jed looks surprised.  “C’mon Jed.  I know you know the words, too.  Throw some mo’!  Throw some mo’!”  He grins.

“You’re fucking crazy.  Turn it off for now; we’re coming up to the booth.”  I turn off the radio, as we drive up to the woman checking passports.  She asks Jed a bunch of questions about our trip and what kind of shit we have in the car.

“OK, can you pull up there and go inside so that we can check your car?”  Fuck.  I knew this was going to end in a drug bust or something.

“Sure.”

“Jed, what the hell?  No other cars ahead of us got checked.”

“I don’t know.  It’s probably just routine.  Don’t worry about it.”  We get out of the car and go into the building.  To take my mind off the situation at hand, I read some brochures about Canadian tourism and maple syrup, but my hands are sweaty, and I have to pee.  After a few minutes, the man who went out to inspect the car comes in and says something to another guard at the desk.  I can’t hear what they’re saying, but I see the second guard put on a pair of gloves and go out to the car.  We’re totally fucked.  I shouldn’t have come to Canada with this stranger.  I don’t want to go to jail.

A couple minutes later, I see another guard summoned out to the car.

“Jed…this is not looking good.”  I can tell he’s trying to stay calm for my sake.  How patronizing.  A few minutes later, the first guard comes back in and walks over to us with a serious expression.

“You can go back out to your car.”  I feel relieved but also confused.  We walk out the door, and one of the guards looks up.

“Where did you get this car?”

“It’s my friend’s…”

“This is the same van Rush used when they first started touring.  Not just the same model, but the same van!  Geddy Lee rode in this car!” he exclaims in a heavy French accent.

“My friend’s uncle helped organize Rush’s first tour in America.  Their van was on its final days, so they left it with him in America, and later on, he gave it to my friend to fix up if he wanted.  It’s a miracle it runs, but it does.”

“Bobo fucking owns Rush’s old tour van?  We’re driving Rush’s old tour van?  Jed!”  I’m at once ecstatic and offended Jed hadn’t told me before.  He smiles, and the guard gives him the keys.

“Have fun in Montreal,” the guard says.

I’m still trying to calm down, and as I get back into the van, I feel jittery.  “Alright, Jed.  Well, that was fucked up.  And I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.  Fuck you!  Anyway, I guess it’s appropriate to put this on, then.”  As he turns his key in the ignition and starts to drive, I put some Rush on my phone and turn it all the way up.  “MONDAY WARRIOR MEAN, MEAN STRIDE, TODAY’S TOM SAWYER, MEAN, MEAN PRIDE!”  I yell.  Jed smiles and joins in.  “THOUGH HIS MIND IS NOT FOR RENT, DON’T PUT HIM DOWN AS ARROGANT!”  We do a wonderful, terrible job singing the song, and I laugh to myself, briefly thinking that Jed is a little bit of a Tom Sawyer guy.

“So I’m really hungry.  Should we just go put our shit in the hotel and go get some food right away?”

“Yes,” I agree.  I’m fucking hungry, and I would love a drink.  Actually, I would love a bathroom, and then a drink, and then some food.  Dennis went to Canada last year, and he said the food was amazing.  “Should we go try some of this poutine shit, or should we go somewhere fancy?  After all, this is a very sophisticated getaway week for us, is it not?”

“I say fancy.  I mean, haven’t you had your fill of poutine in New York?  It’s at every hip eatery.”

“But I would hope it’s better here.”

“Maybe so.  Oh, here it is,” Jed points to a pretty brick building and pulls up to the valet.  The hotel looks really nice, and I feel a little bad that he’s spending his money on our room.  However, it’s not every day people my age get to do such things, so I brush off the guilt.  We check in and go up to our room.

“A king?”  I look at him with a playfully annoyed smirk.  Like hell I’m sharing a bed with a random man I just met.  But I don’t mind.  I’ll sleep on the luxurious looking leather couch.

“It’s all they had available.”

“Naturally.”  We drop our bags and go downstairs to ask the receptionists about restaurant recommendations.  Typically, I have a whole list of places to go when I travel, but something about the spontaneity of this trip made me want to wing everything.  The hostess is a young woman probably not much older than me, and although she is well dressed and groomed, something about her vibe seems a little punky and badass.  When we ask her where we should eat, she pauses, sizing us up, probably wondering what two younger, somewhat grungy Americans are doing at a nice hotel in Montreal in the middle of the winter.  Barely missing a beat, she recommends a place called Gros.

“What’s it like?”  I ask.

“It’s hard to really say,” she starts.  “But just go.  I think you two will like it.”

“What kind of attire is it?”

“Go as you are,” she smiles in a strangely mysterious, all knowing way.

“Well OK, let’s do it, then,” Jed seems pleased with the bare amount of information we’ve received.

“Fuck it, yeah.  Let’s go.  I’m starving.”  We walk toward the door, and as Jed opens it, I ask, “Is it wrong to trust someone’s restaurant recommendation just because she’s hot?”  He laughs, realizing we’ve both trusted this receptionist in blind faith, and says,

“No.  I think it’s perfectly fine.”

Gros is only five blocks from our hotel.  It’s pretty busy when we get there, but it is also small.

“Table for two?”

“Yes, thanks.”

“OK, just give me one moment…here.  Have these while I get your table ready.”  The host hands us shots of brown liquor.

“That’s how I always want to be greeted.  Everywhere I go,” I say, as I sniff the beverage, verifying that it’s whiskey.  “Cheers, Jed.”

“Cheers, m’lady!”  We down the fiery shots, and my belly warms up immediately.  My stomach growls, wondering why I’m only sending it alcohol when it really wants food.  Shhh…I tell it.  Food to come.  The host sits us at a table in the back corner, which is dim and beautiful.

“Well, how romantic!” I joke.  Jed laughs, but there’s a hint of something else in the laugh that worries me.  I hope he doesn’t feel this is a romantic dinner.  Or is it?  Canada feels like an alternate universe to me.  Maybe I will create a new world today.  This place…this food…this person…for now, I love them all?  I could love everything here.  And that might be perfect.  And yet, maybe this is the whiskey talking.

“What can I get you two to drink?” A woman appears next to our table.  We order a large bottle of La Fin Du Monde, a beer made in Montreal, to split.  A few minutes later, the waitress comes back with two glasses and the bottle and pours it for us.  She sets down a basket of biscuits between us and gives us some time to look at the menu.

“Cheers!”  I clink glasses with Jed, and some of the tall, white foam runs over the side of my glass.  The beer is refreshing and strong, and the biscuits are warm.  “Do we even need anything else?”

“Haha…yes…but this is pretty great by itself,” he agrees.  “What about this braised goose tacos situation?”

“Mmm…that sounds great.  What about this lobster po’ boy with crispy pig ears and Ranch?”

“Should we have smoked before coming here?”

“Maybe.  But we’re pretty hungry already.”

“Excuse me,” a woman at the table next to us looks over at us. “I don’t mean to intrude, but would you like to go smoke?  My husband and I are taking a break in our meal, and we’re going to step outside.  People actually do it here quite frequently.  The restaurant doesn’t really mind; there’s an alley right next door.”

“Seriously?”  Jed looks happy, and the woman nods.  “Gretchen?”

“Sure.  Let’s go.”  We put our napkins on the table and walk outside.  It’s started to snow, and most of the streets are empty.  I realize it’s already ten, and that makes me happy.  Late dinners are one of my favorite things.  The woman pulls a joint out of a small tin in her purse and lights it with a match from a Gros matchbook.

“So where are you two from?”

“New York,” I say.  “Are you from here?”

“No, actually we’re from Toronto, but my husband is a graphic designer, and I’m a musician, so we moved here, because it’s more conducive to our work.  Perhaps not because of the work itself, but, em…the nature of the environment,” she laughs, taking a pointed drag.  “And what do you do?”

“I’m a salesman, and she’s a cook,” Jed replies.

“And how long have you been together?”

“Oh, we’re–”

“Two years,” Jed cuts me off.  I smirk. I can play this game.  We talk with the couple, Bette and Louis, some more, and when we finish the joint, we return to dinner.  Back in the restaurant, we push our tables together and order a ton of food.  Even though Bette and Louis were once half way through their meal, they’re again ravenous.

It turns out they’re both devout wine lovers, so they order wines with our food that make everything perfect.  Muscadet with our seafood, Carignan with our goose tacos, a Cote du Rhone with a fried rabbit dish.  Although at first I was nervous about prices, it eventually becomes clear that the chef is good friends with Bette and Louis, and by extension, everything is on the house.

“We’ve known Jean for ten years,” Louis says.  “He was my best man in our wedding.  He’s like a brother to me.  I design all his menus and book covers, and I eat here free.  It’s the essence of a symbiotic relationship.”

“To symbiosis!”  I toast, as I begin to feel quite drunk.

“Symbiosis!”  Everyone cheers, in unison.  After the other tables have cleared out of the restaurant, Jean and a few other chefs come out of the kitchen with some more food and a few bottles of Pastis.  We all drink, talk, and smoke in only candlelight, now, and I feel a sense of peace that I’ve never before experienced.  Jed looks happy, too, which makes me happy.  He looks up and catches my eye, and I smirk, thinking, yes, two years, we’ve been together now.  He looks healthy in the candle light, and something like love bubbles up in me for a moment.  I’m surprised, but I suspend the concern to prolong the good feeling.

“Well, then,” Jean announces, stirring me from my dream-like state, “I think it’s time to go have some fun.  To the bars!”

“To the bars!”  Bette echoes.  Jed and I exchange looks of surprise, considering we clearly underestimated just how hard these French Canadians could party, and we shrug, chiming in,

“To the bars!”

The Lost Kids

THIRTEEN

I wake up to the blinding brightness of day coming through the living room window and fumble for my phone to check the time.  I feel more out of it than usual; maybe I’m still a little high, but it’s unclear.  I stay still for a few minutes and float, which is something I like to do when I wake up hungover.  When I feel like my head is drifting through the universe, if I stay still, I feel my body going with it, and I’m weightless.  It can be a little nauseating, though, so after a few minutes, I sit up and become one with my tired body.  My feet hurt, as usual.  My spine aches at the top, where my shoulders connect, and I wonder, briefly, if I could ever maybe swap it out with a new body.  That would be ideal.

To re-orient myself with life’s tangibility and the oppressive gravity, I drag myself into my leather chair.  It is always comforting to have a thing surround your body with so much familiarity.  As I sit, dazed, staring at our faded blue carpet, I muddle through the events of last night in my mind.  The memory of arguing with Olivia makes me giggle.  What a strange girl.  Or am I strange?  Either way, I’m glad I didn’t end up finding out what the night had in store for her and her bruiser friend.  If Hem had met her, we would have run our fingers through our hair in true chola style.

Well fuck…I start to wonder about Jed.  Does he really think we’re going to Canada?  Is it even safe to travel with a drug-addled dude I barely know?  Should I actually just go back to work?  The idea of passing chef’s black pepper challenge makes me nauseous.  Fuck that…Maybe I should go to Canada pending Jed’s current state.  My stomach starts yelling at me, and I realize I haven’t eaten in a while.  I don’t think I have any food, but I shuffle to the fridge and open it anyway.  As I stare at its contents, I blank out and fall into a daze.  The sadness of Jed’s story creeps back up in my chest, and I lose focus, seeing only the dish of pills he had pulled out last night and hearing his tired voice say, “they were gone-gone…they were gone-gone…they were gone-gone…”

“Gretchen!”  I’m startled by Vanessa’s energetic voice, and I come out of my trance fast, overtaken by the sudden urge to poop.

“Uh…hey, V…What’s up…”

“Ermagerd…you look exhausted!  What is wrong?  Have you slept this week?  Have you been hanging out with Hannah again?”

“Uh…no…I just didn’t sleep well, and I’m kind of hungry.”

“Gretch, like, why were you sleeping on the couch, though?”

“I dropped off my laundry yesterday and haven’t gotten my sheets back yet,” I bluff.

“Don’t you have another set to change them out?”

“No…”

“Do you want a smoothie?  I’m about to try this new recipe I found online.  Oprah recommends it as a great energy booster for when you’re trying to lose weight.  I mean, not that you need to lose weight or anything…I do…I still need to drop that pound and a half I gained over the holidays…I’m so jealous you can stay as small as you are and be a chef and all that.  It’s totally not fair.  Do you have thyroid problems?  Because if I had thyroid problems, I would definitely not do anything about it if it was working in my favor.  I know it’s not healthy, but let’s be serious.  Some comedian once said that if AIDS was curable, women would get it on purpose to lose weight, and I’m not gonna lie…I totally agree with that.  Well…maybe.  So do you want a smoothie?”

I am not prepared for this burst of energy, but I oblige out of fatigue and ambivalence: “Yeah…sure…does it have kale, though?  I don’t want a leaves smoothie.”

“No, but it has spirulina powder.  It’s algae.  Is that OK?”

“Sure.”  As Vanessa starts pontificating on the benefits of consuming algae, I wander to the bathroom.  My guts feel disoriented and weird.  As I sit, mentally discombobulated, on the toilet, I wonder if I should have declined the smoothie.  A bagel sounds much better than algae at the moment.  I take a picture of my dropped pants and send Hem a Snapchat captioned “pooping.”  Oh…fuck…I sent it to my mom by mistake…Well, these things happen.   She may not even know how to open a Snapchat.

“Smoothies are ready!  It’s so good!”  I hear Vanessa yell.

“Coming…”  I walk out, and Vanessa is holding out a tall glass of blue-brown puree.  It looks gross, but I really don’t have the mental capacity to decline.  I take a sip, and it’s odd, but the cold feels good.  “Is there carob in here?”

“Yes.”

“Is there cayenne in here?”

“Ermagerd…only a little!  You’re good!”  I cough at the spiciness and try to ignore the fact that the smoothie tastes a little like cold barbecue.

“Thanks, V.”  Just as I prepare myself for the second sip, there’s a knock on the door.  “You have friends coming over?”

“No.  Do you?”  My phone buzzes as I head to the door.  It’s a text from my mom that says, “why are you so disgusting!?”  Oops.  There’s another knock, so I put my phone in my pocket and open the door.

“Buenos dias, Gretchen!”  It’s Jed.  Vanessa looks confused.

“Vanessa, this is Jed.  Jed, this is my roommate, Vanessa.”  A door opens behind me, and Eddie emerges from his room.  He looks up at all of us, surprised to be greeted by a group, and nods while ducking into the bathroom in an effort to expediently hide his morning boner.  “That’s Eddie.”

“Gretchen and I are going to Canada today,” Jed announces, looking excited and more energetic than he was last night.  It actually looks like he showered, but his hair still looks a little gross.  Maybe he just changed clothes.

“You didn’t tell me you were going away!” Vanessa exclaims, looking hurt to be left out but also excited.

“Um…yeah, well, it was a little last minute.”

“How do you two know each other?”

“Jed actually lives next door.”

“Wait, you’re the guy who gets all the tiny packages in the mail all the time?”

“Yes.  I collect Pokemon merch.”  Vanessa is starting to look judge-y, so I take her into my room to talk.

“Vanessa is gonna help me pack real quick, Jed.  Sit down for a minute, I’ll be right back.  Here!  Have this smoothie.”  I’m glad to be able to pawn off the beverage now that I’ve decided it’s not palatable in my current state.

“Gretchen, when did you meet this Jed guy?”

“Last night.”

“You can’t go to Canada with him!”

“Yes I can.”

“What about work?”

“I left Downton yesterday.”

“What?”

“I’ll find a new job when I get back.  I have enough money for next month’s rent.  Don’t worry.”

“I don’t care about that…I mean, I do…but isn’t it kind of stupid to be going on a trip with this stranger?  He looks kind of grimy…”

“He doesn’t have anyone, V.  I feel like this would be good for him.  I’m not stupid…I’ll be careful.  But I think he’s really harmless.  And he’s sweet.  I get him.”

“OK.”  I grab up a couple outfits and stuff them in my backpack.  I don’t really know how long we’ll be away, but I’m sure I’ll be able to make it work.

“Jed, how are we getting there?”

“I’m using Bobo’s car.”

“Who the fuck is Bobo?”

“My boy from the grocery.”

“The drug dealer?  Are we gonna get followed by the cops?”

“No.  Chill out.  It’s fine.  I booked a hotel in Montreal through Wednesday.”

“OK.”  I realize that Jed has artfully dumped the smoothie and washed out the glass.  Lucky me.  I guess I’m not going back to Downton, so I text Chef, “I’m not coming back.  Sorry.”  And put my phone in my pocket.  “Bye, V.  I’ll see you on Thursday, then.

“OK…Have fun and be safe.  Text me when you get to the border.  And then when you get to your hotel.  Will you call me later?”

“Sure.”  I walk out the door, and Jed closes it behind me.  “I can’t believe we’re actually doing this!”

“Trust the adventure, right?”

“I fucking guess so.  Have you ever been to Canada?”

“No.”

“Me neither.  Can we go get a bagel before we leave?”

“Sure.  Let’s go to Bean Bros.”  We walk in, and José is at the counter.

“Hey, José.  How are you?”  He looks right past me to Jed.

“Jed, brother, what’s up?  Ishan!  Jed stopped by!”  What the fuck…Ishan emerges from the back.

“Jed!  What’s good?”  Lots of fist pounding takes place, and suddenly I feel like the outsider in my own bagel shop.  Without even taking our order, the boys put together a medium coffee with milk, a cappuccino, an untoasted poppy bagel, and a toasted everything bagel with bacon-scallion cream cheese.  No charge.  Jed and I thank them, and then we head toward the door.

“Sit down or hit the road?”  Jed asks.

“Let’s hit the road.  Doesn’t it take forever to get there?”

“I guess we’ll see.”

“So, how do you know them so well?”

“Ishan is a customer, you know.  And sometimes I give José a bunch of money to do hand-offs to my customers at the bagel shop.”:

“The bagel shop traffics drugs?”

“Well…sometimes.”

“Jeez.”

“We all benefit.  And you know, there are no real cops in Queens.”

“Just garden gnomes that ticket cars!”

“Exactly.”  He hits the unlock button on his keys when we near a dark blue van.

“We’re taking a kidnapping van to Canada?”

“It’s a good car.”

“We’re gonna look like Bonnie and Clyde meets the ice cream man.”

“I like the sound of that, though.  Don’t you?”

“Sounds like a good premise for a band, anyway.  Alright.  Let’s do this.”  I dump my belongings in the back and climb into the passenger seat.  It’s a tall car for me to get into, but riding high up always makes me feel powerful.  After I settle into my seat, I text back my mom, “whoops, wrong Snapchat.”  C’est la vie.  “Oh, by the way, Jed, I can’t drive, so I hope you got all the coffee you need.”

“Even if you could, Bobo made me swear not to let anyone drive his car, so it’s all good.  Why can’t you drive?”

“DUI.”

“Ah.  You shouldn’t leave Queens!  There are cops out there.”

“Speaking of leaving Queens.”

“Yes ma’am.”  Jed puts the key in the ignition, starts the van, and pulls out of the spot as he takes an overzealous bite of his bagel.  Cream cheese oozes out and falls onto the seatbelt.  “Ah, fuck,” he licks it off.

“Ew!”

“What?  It’s delicious cream cheese!  I’m not letting it go to waste.  I’m trying to forget what that smoothie tasted like!”

“True.  I’m sorry I tried to give it to you.”

“You’re forgiven.  Put on some music.  Your choice.”  I turn on the radio, and Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Rocket Queen” comes on.  “Did you know Axl Rose brought a girl into the studio and fucked her for the sex noises in the background of that bridge?”

“What if I told you that was me?”

“Right.  And how old are you again?  Eighteen?”

“Twenty-four.  OK, it wasn’t me.  But it’s still cool.”  I rip off a piece of my bagel, spilling poppy seeds all over the floor of the car.  I would feel bad, but there’s still cream cheese on his seatbelt, so fuck it.  I rest my head against the window and listen to the music as we drive off, as Axl Rose sings, Here I am, and you’re a rocket queen…I might be a little young, but honey, I ain’t naive…

The Lost Kids

TWELVE

I walk into my building and run up the stairs, because apparently someone’s cat has died in its own feces again.  Once I’m safely in my room, I exhale in relief, my breath still heavy with Fernet.  I sit down on the end of my bed, take off my boots, and toss them into the corner.  They hit my trash, and a Heineken bottle falls into one shoe, dripping the last of its contents inside of it.  Goddamn it.  The way my feet smell, now with beer.  Frat boots.  Yum.  I’m about to change into pajamas, but I hear music coming from the room next door.

Normally, I don’t really pay attention to the sounds from beyond the wall, because it’s just unfortunate that the walls are so thin.  I would rather consider the voices part of the nature in Queens than invite the details of strangers’ routines into my own.  But this is different, because I’ve never heard music coming from next door.  It’s always just banter.  The song is slow and haunting, and although it has a familiarity to it, I’m sure I’ve never heard it before.  While I know it’s strange, I feel the need to find out more about it.  It’s possible I’m still a little drunk, but that’s never stopped me from doing anything.

I open my door and walk into the hall in my socks.  My toe pokes through the right sock onto the cold tile in the hall, and it bothers me.  The hallway floor in our building is no place for the toe of a lady.  I bend it to shrink it back into the sock to little avail.  Another song has started, and it sounds something like the first one.  I walk a few steps and put my ear to the neighbor’s door.  And maybe I’m just a bad person…well, baby, I know…my curiosity trumps my hesitation, and I see my fist rise up and knock on their door.  Fuck.  I think about running back into my place, but that seems stupid, so I wait when I hear footsteps approaching.

The door opens, and a pale, skinny guy with stringy brown hair opens the door.  “Hello?” he says.

“Um…Hi.  I’m Gretchen…” my face turns red, betraying my determination to play it cool. “I live next door.  I heard your music playing, and I thought it was great, so I was just curious what it was.”

“Because Shazam doesn’t exist and all.”

“Um…right…duh…”

“I’m kidding—just being an asshole.  I’m Jed.  Want to come listen?”  I look past him into his dim apartment.  For being next door, it looks far more dismal than mine, but I spot a record player behind him.

“Oh, it’s vinyl?”

“Yah…Of Monsters and Men.  You don’t know them?  Their song “Little Talks” was wildly popular like two years ago.”

“Oh, that’s why it sounded familiar.  Weird.  OK, now I look like a total retard.  Yeah, I’ll come listen to some.”  He opens the door, allowing me to walk through into his room.  It’s a studio, which surprises me, because I only ever heard about two or more bedroom apartments in the building.  He flips the record and starts the other side as I glance around to size up my surroundings.

The glass over the light on his ceiling is cloudy and has little shadows in it suggesting an insect graveyard, and the air is slightly more humid than in the rest of the building.  The smell of tobacco, weed, and sweat hang in the air, reminding me of the time Hem and I lived in a room in a frat house our sophomore year of college.  Jed seems about thirty-five, so I briefly wonder how he’s never heard of air freshener, windows, or even deodorant.  Strange.  “So what do you do?”

“I’m an actor.”

“Ah.”

“Kidding.  I dropped out of NYU ten years ago and I’ve been working at the corner grocery ever since.  That’s kind of just something to do.  I’m living off the money I got when my parents died.”

“Jeez, I’m sorry, dude.”

“Thanks.  I’m OK—it was a while back, while I was in school.  They were on this plane home from California, and something went wrong with the engine of the plane.  Only a few people survived the crash.  They thought my dad might make it, but he didn’t pull through the surgeries in the ER.  Anyway, not trying to air my sob story, so how about listening to the music?”

“Yeah, sure.”  After a song, he sticks his hand in a drawer in his desk and pulls out a small, lacquered wooden box.  He opens it, and holds it out:

“Drugs?”

“Dude, what the fuck is all that shit?”

“Whatever you want.”

“Are you the one who gets little packages in the mail downstairs all the time?  I always thought it might be some sort of Silk Road type situation.”

“Those are my packages, but all that shit is actually collectable Pokemon merch.”

“Actually?”

“Yes.  All this shit is from my boy at the store.  Xanex, Klonopin, molly, I have some weed over here if you prefer something a little lower on the guilt spectrum.”  His face is pale and drawn, and I suddenly realize I’m hanging out with a total junkie.  Awkward.  “If you’re into the harder stuff, I’ve gotta say, I’ve been listening to this music on heroin lately, and it’s like the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

“Fucking heroin?  Are you serious?  Like, the last thing I need in my life at this moment in time is to a) get addicted to heroin, b) overdose on heroin, or c) all of the above!”  He looks slightly embarrassed.

“Sorry…I…we can just listen…I smoked too much weed before, and, um—“

“No, it’s OK.  I’ll smoke some weed and listen to the other disk with you.  Sorry for being a drug prude, but just no in regards to heroin in general.  I would probably tell you that you should stop, but I’m not like your mom or anything.  Fuck….um…sorry.”

“OK, let’s just stop talking and smoke some.”  We take a couple hits from his bong, and he puts on the second disk.  I’m starting to relax after all the excitement from the events of the day, but I’m still trying to avoid thinking about whether or not to go back to work.  Curiosity gets the best of me after a while, and I re-open the conversation.

“Do they make your situation easier?  The drugs and shit?”  Jed looks up, eyes a little glazed.  He looks like he would be handsome if he took a shower and changed his shirt, and that makes me sad.

“For a little.  But it never goes away.  I’ve made my peace with it, though.  Hard to do, but I did.”

“God, dude, I couldn’t imagine what that fucking takes.”  I take another big bong hit and hold my breath while he begins to talk.

“Shit got so bad after they were gone.  I left school, I didn’t have any money, I lived on the street for a week.  But then my extended family found me and set me up here with the money my parents left me.  I wasn’t totally alone, but I wanted to be for a while.  I spent the first year in here just thinking it all through.  Trying to understand where to go from there.  I never really believed in religion…to me, the idea was that god was like some excuse…like just some sort of…”

“Like a scapegoat.”

“Yeah.  So after they were gone, trying to grapple with having no faith in heaven and knowing that they were gone-gone.  Forever.  Finding out that loss is permanent, not temporary.  That no one is ever ready to lose, but it happens, and that’s it.  Like, it changed the whole world for me.”

“How so?”

“I don’t keep anything now.  Everything I own, I consider a rental, and everything I buy, I throw out after a bit.  I delete my pictures, documents, whatever.  Being ready to lose everything at any moment feels more sensible to me.”  Fuck, this is some heavy shit I walked into.

“I understand that.  People love things and each other, and losing is such a major stress.  Like, losing people is terrible, but we maybe shouldn’t be so wrapped up in attaching ourselves to material things only to stress when they eventually break, get lost, stolen, et cetera?”

“Right.”

“I’ve never lived that way, but I am one for living for today over the future.  I don’t plan.  Just take each day as it comes and trust the adventure.”

“What do you mean ‘trust the adventure’?”

“Just to know that all good things in the past occurred on random days when maybe they were least expected, and that will continue to happen at any random time.  So if you trust the adventure, you accept that life could bring anything to you at any given time.  Bad or good.  And it’s a dead end, literally and metaphorically, because there’s no end-game to trusting the adventure.  We all end up in the dirt.  But it’s sort of like being open to existing, because all other methods of living involve goal-orientation, waiting, and future-living.  And we both know the future is highly uncertain.”

“I see you’ve thought a bit in your day.  How the fuck old are you?”

“Old enough to know better.”

“How old?”

“Twenty-nine.”

“Eighteen?”

“Twenty-four,” I grin.

“Well, twenty-four-year-old-Gretchen who trusts the adventure, what would you like to do today?”

“Today?  I was gonna go to bed before I came here.  It’s two AM now.”

“Night is a technicality, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes, but I’m actually really stoned now, and I’m tired as fuck.  I can’t believe I’m even talking right now.”

“Would you like to go to Canada tomorrow?”

“Canada?  I just lost my job.  I’m broke.  I mean…”

“I have a lot of money.  Let’s go.  Just like a week.  All of this trip is on me.  You can teach me to trust the adventure.”  I’m not entirely sure what to say, especially considering how high I’ve gotten, so I agree.  What else would I do during my indefinite unemployment?

“Alright, let’s talk in the morning.  I’m so fucking tired.  I’m going to bed, but if you still want to be my vacation sugar daddy tomorrow, text me.”  I put my number in his phone and say goodnight.  “It was nice to meet you, Jed.”

“Mm.”  He is smiling with his eyes half shut, slouched to the side in his navy beanbag chair.  I walk out of his place and shut the door, and I feel the cool tile on my right big toe.  Ew.  I walk into my place, lock the door, and face-plant onto the couch.  I don’t remember the last time I felt so tired.  And a little sad.  I drift off to sleep, and the little pit in my chest dissolves into the night.

The Lost Kids

ELEVEN

I walk into work on Thursday, slightly dazed from all the wine Dennis and I drank the previous night.  When I get into the locker room, I’m surprised to see Dennis there, since Thursday is usually his other day off.   “The fuck are you doing here?”

“Devon called in.  I’m filling in.”

“Sucks for you.  Should’ve let the call go to voicemail.”

“Believe it or not, I don’t have Downton’s number saved in my fucking phone, so I thought it was the delivery guy calling up with the food I ordered this morning.”  I give him a look of sympathy and laugh.

“Well, you’re lucky I’m here.  How are you feeling?  I feel a little shitty.  I kind of think that ice wine at the end sent me over a bit.”

“I’m fine.  Takes a lot more to bring me down.  But I am slightly worried that we’re gonna hear about that table cloth.”

“Fuck it, dude.  I don’t think so.  I’m pretty sure the karma of the birch bark is on our side.  Just don’t pick up your phone if Demo calls you.  As a matter of fact, just stop answering your phone unless it’s me.  It’s safest that way.”

“Oui.”  We walk into the kitchen and set about our days.  Andre is in, mouthing off about the concert he went to on his day off.  He claims his cousin hooked him up with a backstage pass to meet Drake and that he smoked a joint with him, but we never believe his stories.  I mean, really.  If Drake wanted to smoke weed with the likes of Andre, I would take back both my mild enthusiasm for his music and my childhood crush on him as Jimmy, the wheelchair kid from “Degrassi.”

Prep goes as usual, without any major hitches.  Although I’m fairly bored prepping the hot apps station, I take slight sadistic pleasure in watching Andre go down waiting for all the ingredients he needs to come in on second run.  Since Chef realizes Andre can’t continue prep for another thirty minutes, he puts him in charge of making the protein and starch for family meal, which is amusing and makes my life about one batch of polenta easier.

Andre catches me smirking as he huffily browns ground meat in the tilt skillet and glares my way.  “Too hungover to help a brother out, then?  Don’t pretend.  I see your red-ass eyes.”

“I’m not hungover, man.  I just smoked a joint with Drake out in the alley.  He and I are pretty tight these days.”  I’m feeling snarky and not in the mood for Andre’s normal bitchery.  He ignores me and continues his work; Dennis holds his laughter.  To avoid confrontation, Dennis and I eat Andre’s crappy family meal, but our cease-fire is too difficult.  “I’m really glad you’re taking chef’s hypertension into account when you make family, Andre.  I mean, salt, shmalt, am I right?  It’s the devil’s spice, if you ask me.”  Dennis snickers.

“Aw, fuck you guys.  If you want good food, maybe you should lend a hand.”  I can feel Andre’s love for me waning with his patience.  Maybe it’s a good thing.  I never considered myself “too nice,” but maybe signals got crossed.  This new enemy could be much more tolerable.

We finish up our bland food and set up for service.  It’s a slower night, so things move quietly and steadily at first.  Tension in the kitchen dissolves, and everyone is focused.  About an hour in, though, I put up a scallop, and as Chef reaches for it, Andre says, “so what’s up with the great pepper shortage of 2015?”  Chef snaps his head toward me, and my breath catches as my hands go cold and sweaty.  Fuck.  Andre had started to laugh at his seemingly harmless joke, but it’s clear it isn’t funny, and his face goes serious.

Chef turns purple but doesn’t yell.  “Gretchen,” he starts: “Get the fuck out of here.”

“But—“

“Now.”  My chest fills with anger, and everything seems surreal.  Andre has blown my cover, and I am suddenly jobless.  What a goddamn idiot.  I stay calm and put my knives in my bag, as chef pulls a sous off the pass to work my station.  But I can’t just leave.  I walk down the line to Andre, grab his ears, pull his face down to mine, and lay a long, passionate kiss on his lips.

“Is that what you wanted, motherfucker?”  I let go of his face, slap his right cheek, and walk out the back door.  Although I’m still freaking out about getting kicked out of the restaurant, I feel a heavy adrenaline rush.  And if Chef really wants to lose me over black pepper, he can suck it.

I take the train home and decide to drink away the events of the evening.  I can worry about finding a job tomorrow.  But for now, I have to take my mind off this shit.  Once I’m back in Queens, I plant my ass on a stool at the bar of the Gentry House, a well established local bar.  I know the bartender, and when he sees me, he says, “Fernet and Coke?”

“Nah, Ben.  I’ll have a Modelo and a Jameson shot.”

“Coming from work, then?  Ah, I guess not.  It’s only nine.”

“No, I am.  I just fucking lost my job.”  Ben looks sympathetic and puts up the beer with two shots.

“What happened?”

“Long story.”  I drink my shots consecutively and leave my beer a minute to feel the burn of the whisky in my throat.  Then I down half of the icy lager.  I feel my shoulders drop as my reality begins to fade.  Andre can go fuck himself.  And so can Chef.  “Ben,” I say, “Hook me up with a Fernet and Coke.”

“Yes ma’am, I’ll make it a double.”

“You’re my only friend, Ben.  I love you.”

“You have lots of friends, Gretchen.”

“Duh, I know.  But you wouldn’t tell Chef that I’m a fundamentalist anti-black pepper radical.”

“I would not.”  I drink the rest of my beer and then start my cocktail.  A few girls next to me at the bar have noticed my heavy drinking.  I size up their situation, guessing their mostly full, clear beverages are my arch nemesis cocktail:

“Vodka-soda?” I ask, making eye contact with them.  Bitches love bubbly booze water.  The one closest to me is a pretty blonde, the one next to her is a brunette Latina looking girl, and next to her is a chubby Asian girl.  Kind of a motley crew, but it seems they might all have the commonality of enjoying the swill of basic bitches.

“How’d you know?”  The brunette asks.

“Wild guess.”

“So you’re pretty thirsty, the blonde says, looking at the plethora of glasses in front of me.”

“I lost my job today.”

“Oh.  That sucks.”

“I didn’t like it there anyway.  I was gonna leave soon.  Maybe do my own thing”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a cook.”

“Are you a chef or a cook?”

“It depends on who I’m talking to.  You’re pretty.  Maybe I’m a chef, then.”  Ben laughs.  The girl can tell I’m being an asshole, but she also doesn’t fully understand the joke.  “What do you do?”  I ask.

“I work for a PR firm.”

“Nice,” I lie.  Although I respect a good PR person, I secretly hope she won’t talk about the business.  I’m still sizing up her friends, and I notice the Latina girl I originally pinned as mostly basic has a bunch of ghetto tattoos all over her forearms.  I briefly wonder if she’s dangerous.  Or basic and dangerous, which kind of equals dramatic prison material.

“I’m Olivia.  This is Natasha and this is Gina.”

“Nice to meet you all,” I muster.  I’m starting to feel a little drunk, which I think is a good thing, considering my new friends.

“So what do you want to do on your own?  You said you want to do your own thing?  I’m actually a really good cook myself.  It’s funny, but I have friends that are cooks, and I cook much more advanced stuff than they do at home.  I’m just really good in the kitchen.”  Here we go…another civilian with over-confidence in their cooking ability.  There’s probably nothing more gratifying than talking to a normal person who has no regard for the lifestyle cooks take on to hone their craft.  “What’s something you make well?”

“Well, my favorite thing to make at home is fresh pasta.  Usually with a braised lamb ragu.  I braise lamb shanks with like dark beer, thyme, juniper–”

“I would use rosemary instead.”  I pause.  Bitch, are you serious?  I’m mildly incensed that she’s asked me what I like to do only to give her civilian input on one simple dish I like to make at home.  I don’t really know what to say, but I let it go.  “So what do you want to do next?  If you could do anything, what would you do?”

“Um…”  I’m losing steam, but I figure I’ll give it one more shot, since I have no one else to talk to, and Ben’s boyfriend has come to the bar and started talking to him.  “Well, it’s not a traditional concept, but I want to throw pop-up dinners in museums around the world.  And it would just be about the art.  And the food would be awesome, but it would sort of be like in the background.

“I just don’t see how that would work.  I mean, you say you’re a chef, but you’re all about this art.  I don’t understand how that connects.  If you’re not one hundred percent focused on the food, how are you supposed to market this to anyone?  Who would want to just go look at art and kind of maybe eat some food?”  This girl is getting super annoying, and my patience is wearing thin.

“OK, you asked me what I wanted to do, and I’m telling you.  But you’re being annoying as fuck, and I’m not really into being cross-examined while I’m drinking in a bar after losing my job, if that’s OK with you.”  She looks shocked.

“I’m just trying to have a conversation with you, and you call me annoying as…”  And she’s sensitive.  This is what I get for being surrounded by guys all the time.

“I’m sorry, but I’m just not feeling like this is a conversation.  You’re so confident in your shit, but you’re gonna sit here and shit on my dreams, because they don’t fit into your cookie-cutter idea of how the world works.  So let’s just drop the topic.”  Olivia looks annoyed but intrigued.

“Fine.”

“Olivia, I’m getting so bored at this bar.  Can’t we go somewhere with better music?” Natasha is starting to get antsy, and I fear her mood could quickly swing toward belligerent.  Olivia confirms:

“she’s about to go crazy.  We better go.  You should come with us!”

“Really.”  I am mildly surprised by her suggestion, considering my bluntness.

“Yeah!  I mean, you seem cool, and I feel like it could help to have a badass chef around when I need to hold back Natasha from a fight later on.”

“I’d rather not.  I think I’m just gonna go home.  But you could come with me,” I smirk.  She looks up and catches my eye, laughs, and declines my offer.

“Not tonight, but here’s my card.  Let’s get a drink sometime.  I live around here.  How old are you anyway?”

“Old enough to know better.  You?”

“Thirty-two.  But really, what about you?”  Damn.  Hmm…

“Twenty-nine,” I bluff.  But what’s in five years?  What I lack in age, I make up for in crankiness.  “Well, I gotta go.  I’ll see you around.  Ben, can I close out?”

“It’s on me.  Just this time.  Don’t need you taking back to the streets, now, do we?” he jokes.  Olivia shoots me a sideways glance.  I give her the poker face, pick up my stuff, and head out the door.  Always best to keep them guessing. As I walk into the night, my phone buzzes, and I see a text from Chef.  It says, I’m not gonna lie, that was awesome.  I will give you your job back if you come in tomorrow, eat a tablespoon of black pepper, and swear to use it when I fucking say.  I’m surprised at the offer but uncertain.  I always knew Chef hated Andre.  For now, I put it out of my mind, get in a cab, and take a five minute ride to my bed.

The Lost Kids

TEN

It ends up taking me over an hour to get to Demo, because the trains are all fucked up.  However, it turns out Dennis is also running late, so we meet at the door at a quarter past six.  He has already called, so they’re expecting us late, and all is well.  When he walks up, he looks shocked.  “I almost didn’t recognize you!  Damn, girl.  I think I’ve only ever seen you in your uniform or maybe jeans.”

“Well surprise, bitch.  I dressed up nice for you, because you’re my sugar daddy tonight.”

“This is true,” he laughs.  “I would order for you and all, but it’s a set menu, so that won’t be necessary.”  I cringe, as I have flashbacks to my short time working as a server at a restaurant near my school, where some of the men used to order for their dates.  Even though I knew it was well-intentioned, I also knew I would punch someone in the face if they tried to tell me what to eat.  And if they ordered me a salad, they would be lucky if it was a punch in the face instead of somewhere else.  “Let’s go in,” Dennis opens the door with a dramatic gesture, clearly reveling in our momentary swankiness.

We walk in and up to the host stand.  At first, no one is there, but then a guy walks up from the dining room.  “Oh my god, dude…talk to him when he gets here.  I have to look away.”

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

“Welcome, Mr. Smith?”  Of course they know who he is.  Good old top restaurant hospitality.  Is it hospitality?  Stalking?  I guess semantics don’t really matter.  The host brings us to our table as he makes some small talk with Dennis, whose facial expression is starting to resemble that of a dog who spots a bag of treats.  I can’t help but catch a little of his enthusiasm, skeptical as I am.  The dining room looks cool and understated without being stark or too modern.  We sit, and I manage to avoid all eye contact with the host.

“What the hell was that all about?” Dennis asks.

“Um…I think I fucked that guy at my friend Sasha’s Hannukah party.”

“Him?” Dennis looks entirely confused.

“Yes!”

“Wait but he looks gay.”

“Yeah…but like pretty sure.  I fucked him.”

“Wait what the fuck…you mean with a—“

“Oui.”

“Wait I thought—“

“The theme was ‘Eight Days of Drag,’ OK?  It felt right at the time.”

“Oui.”

Just as I’m starting to feel pretty awkward, a server comes to our table to take our drink order.  Thank fucking god.  “I’ll have a Brooklyn Gin and tonic, stirred, with olives.  Really fucking dry.  Er—sorry.  Really dry.”  Dennis orders an Old Fashioned.  “I can’t curse in this nice of a restaurant!  Jesus.  I do not belong in this kind of an establishment.”

“You’re fine, Griz.  Chill the fuck out.”

“See?  Neither can you!”  Our server comes back with our drinks, and right after we take our first sips, a runner arrives with two small plates.

“Here we have our bay scallops with bacon powder, Meyer lemon, and frozen brown butter.”  We each eat our first bite, and it’s tasty, even if the powder seems awkwardly gummy in the presence of the other components.  We nod to each other in approval, neither blown away nor distraught with our choice of restaurant, which is a strong start in my book, anyway.

“Grizzly, you have a tattoo?  I never knew that.  Who is that?”  Dennis stares at my arm, trying to discern the likeness of the portrait that occupies my inner bicep.

“First of all, it’s Miss Grizzly Smith, to you, on this special occasion,” I start.  “Secondly, it’s a portrait of Jesse Tuck, from ‘Tuck Everlasting.’” I answer.

“Favorite book?”

“No…when I was younger, and I wanted a tattoo, my mom used to always say that any tattoo I chose would get old to me over time.  So in rebellion, I chose to get a portrait of someone who would never grow old.”

Dennis laughs, “you’re fucking ridiculous, you know?”

“Language, dahling.  That’s no way to speak to a lady,”  I joke.  Soon, another runner comes back with two tiny bowls and places them before us.

“So here we have our purslane with mint emulsion and pomegranate.”  As she walks away, I peer into my bowl of slowly deflating, verdant foam.  At first I recall the day our cat clawed my inflatable Kermit when I was a kid, but my curiosity soon trumps all other thoughts.  I take my spoon and draw up some of the bowl’s contents to my mouth for the first bite.  Dennis does the same.  We both crinkle our noses a little; although the flavors aren’t terrible, the texture of plants floating in frothiness is awkwardly violating.

“Meh,” Dennis concludes.

“Meh,” I agree.  The rest of the meal continues this way, with some of the courses impressing and some distressing.  By the fifteenth and final course, I am full and confused.  Especially because we split two bottles of wine among us.  As we’re signing the bill, our server comes to the table and drops a small tray with two pieces of woody looking substance.

“We end our meals here with some Birch bark,” he says, as if that’s a normal statement.

“Pardon me?”  Dennis says, “What do we do with it?”

“You just lightly chew on it, and its medicinal qualities aid digestion.  It’s also very delicious.”  He walks away, and we look at each other in disbelief.

“Should we do it?” Dennis looks conflicted.  I nibble on the corner out of curiosity, and confirm my suspicion that it is in fact just tree bark.  Nothing special.

“Here.”  I take our barks and draw faces on them with the Sharpie in my pocket.  “They’re like Plank from ‘Ed, Ed, and Eddie!’”

“I’m pissed they want us to eat bark,” Dennis looks pained.

“Dahling, don’t fret,” I say.  I put our bark friends on the table cloth and pen a speech bubble between them.

“Holy shit, Gretchen!  I think I read the table cloths here are like a grand!”  I am unfazed.  Bark is not for lovers.  I write in the speech bubble.

“Let’s bounce.  They deserve that shit.  Tree bark is not food.”  We stand up and stroll out into the night.  “That was fun, but let’s never go to a restaurant ever again, OK?”

“OK.  But then what?”

“I don’t know.  I just don’t think I like them anymore.”

“Hm.  OK.”  We get in a cab back to Queens, and while the driver beings to swerve through traffic, I start to doze.  As sleep takes over, I enter a place where chewing on bark is not a pricey activity for fancy people, and my existence feels briefly reconciled.

The Lost Kids

NINE

Hem decides that we’re going to have a Winona Ryder marathon, so we watch “Girl Interrupted” and then start to watch “The Heathers.”  I have to agree with him that it’s a shame she’s not that relevant in pop culture anymore.  I think it turned out she was a klepto or some shit, but who really cares?  I guess it’s one thing to be a bad bitch like Lindsay Lohan and stuff, but once you get down to details, thievery is not that cool.  I will admit that it took me some time to realize that she and Kiera Knightly were not, in fact, the same person, but that’s neither here nor there.  So after the millionth Heather dies in the movie, we start to get bored and talk.

“So I’m leaving tomorrow morning around ten,” Hem informs me.

“What?  I’m off tomorrow.  I thought we could go on one of our margarita crawls.”

“Girl, are you kidding me?  After last night, you want to go out for a day of margaritas?  What shape would that leave you in for work on Thursday?”

“Boy, are you serious?  You are talking to me about not going into work hungover right now?  I’ve been on my station for months.  I’m on autopilot.  But I guess you’re probably right, anyway.  I’ve got a constant fucking sleep deficit.”

“Yeah.  You should stay in for once.”

“Hm.  Maybe.  So are you gonna hook up with your boss, then?  You said he’s into you.  Is he cute?”

“I tell myself I won’t, but I know I totally will.  I don’t know…He’s cute in a fifty year old French man kind of way.  I can dig a receding hairline, though.  Plus his accent is so hot!  I don’t know, girl.  It’s bad territory.  He has a wife!  But you know those Europeans are less repressed than Americans.  They’ll fuck anyone.”

“Maybe I should just come back with you.  Pull a Jean Valjean and start a new life.”

“Do it!  We can start an indie band and become famous.”

“Do you have any musical talent?  I only played the clarinet in the intro to band class in high school so I could look well-rounded on my college applications.  I suck at that shit.  Like, on the rare occasion that I practiced, my family’s cat would hide in the basement until it was over.  Lucky for her, that almost never occurred.”

“Either way.  I’ll sing.  We’ll figure it out.”

I get a text from Dennis that says, “hey girl—off tomorrow.  my friend canceled on me for our res at demo tomorrow night if you wanna go.”  Hm.  Demo is this fancy fucking avante garde place where the menu changes every night and all that shit.  I’ve been curious about it, but I don’t have any money, and I don’t feel like chancing the disappointment.  I’d rather just lay in bed, drink a bottle of wine, and watch reruns of “Hey Arnold” online.  I text him back: “poverty central…sorry man.  maybe another time.”  A few minutes later, I get a snapchat from Dennis.  I open it, and it’s a scratch off captioned, I won, biatch.  Ur coming to din.”

While I feel bad using Dennis’s apparent lottery money for my dining privilege, I don’t feel that bad.  I don’t know anyone else he would go with.  Cooks tend to be single and have days off that normal people won’t go out on.  And one of my old co-workers works as a sous there, so we’ll get a bunch of free shit.  “You won a scratch off??” I text him. “That’s bullshit.  I’m in.  What time?”  He texts me back, “yes!  Six.  Wear your Sunday best.”  To which I respond, “I always look my Sunday best, asshole.”  I’ll wear the Rag and Bone onesie my aunt got me for Christmas.  I don’t really have a designer onesie lifestyle, but I aspire to.

“Who’s the new boyfriend?” Hem asks, reading over my shoulder.

“You know my co-worker Dennis?  He just won a scratch off and is making me go to dinner with him tomorrow.”

“Making you?”

“Well, you know.  It’s one of those places where the meal could be amazing or total bullshit.”  Hem nods in understanding.  “Dude, it sucks that you have to go back with your boss; otherwise, I’d say you should stay over here and just take the train to the airport in the morning.  It’s not far from here.”

“I know.  Oh well.  When I win a scratch off, I’m gonna fly you to Paris to visit me.”

“Damn—my boys treat me nice!  Dinner, flights, maybe some gold hoop earrings with my name in them…”  We all know they don’t make “Gretchen” hoop earrings, but one can dream.  We laugh and run our fingers through our hair, pretending to slick it back.  It’s something we do every time one of us makes a chola joke.  I very briefly dated a Puerto Rican girl, Maria, in college, and through her, we learned a lot about the flyness of Latina culture.

“Well, Gretch…I hate to say I have to leave, especially before Winona Ryder blows up her high school, but it’s time.”

“Noooo!”  We hug, and I force him to take my ex-favorite jet-setting sweater for the plane.  It’s hard to explain why, but it’s the best sweater ever worn for travel.  But it was also Jenna’s, and I secretly just want to never see it again.  To me, a gift is even better when its gifting benefits both parties, so Hem doesn’t have to know my alternate agenda for getting rid of it.

After he leaves, I finish the rest of “The Heathers” and then doze off.  Even though it’s only eight, I sleep until I hear my alarm going off at ten the next morning.  Holy shit.  I slept all night?  It was only going to be a nap!  Oh well.  I drag myself into a seated position and frown at the drool spot on my pillow.  I once heard a woman tell her husband, “you are why we can’t have white things!”  I am why I can’t have white things.  I make a mental note to buy some not white sheets when I one day win a scratch off or the next time I work a six-day week.  What bullshit this life is, I think.  Working overtime for sheets.  

I spend my day catching up on chores, and when three o’clock roles around, I grab a Negra Modelo and head into the bathroom to shower and get ready for dinner.  Dennis will laugh when he sees me dressed up.  I don’t think we’ve ever really hung out on a day off.  I do my hair and makeup, put on my sweet new onesie, and look at the clock.  It’s only four.  I mean, Jesus.  All my friends in college took two hours to get ready for a bar crawl.  I can’t even manage to take an hour to get ready for a fancy dinner?  I decide to reward myself with another beer instead of overthinking it, and I listen to some music to relax.  I leave around five, even though the restaurant is uptown, and I’ll be early.  I’ll just wait for Dennis at the bar and get a fancy cocktail.  After all, it is on the lottery’s tab tonight.

The Lost Kids

EIGHT

“Gretchen.  Gretchen.  Wake up!”

“Wha?”

“What are you doing out here?”  I look up, and Vanessa is looking down at me, expression both concerned and annoyed.  I look around, and I am in fetal position in the corner outside the door to our apartment.

“I couldn’t get in last night.”

“Do you have your keys?”

“Yeah, but I think I lost the one to our door.”

“Alright.  Well I can make you a copy later.  Come inside.  Jeez!  I can’t believe you slept out here all night.  Like, someone could have hurt you out there.  I don’t understand why you didn’t just call me or something.”  By the time I got home, she probably was already up eating her oatmeal with banana and flax before the gym, but who’s to say for sure.  I walk into the apartment and sit in my chair, dazed.  I mindlessly thumb through my bag to take inventory of my belongings.  Cards, keys, phone, shamrock…Where is my shamrock?

Earlier in the year, an old lady in the park came over to me and my friend and gave us each a four leaf clover that she had mounted on card stock with Scotch tape, each with the date of the find on the back.  I wouldn’t say I had any great luck since then, but I believe in a self fulfilling prophecy, and if I felt lucky, maybe I was projecting luck on my own life.  Well, now it’s all up to chance again.  Maybe it’s better that way.  Keep the superstition to a minimum; take no scapegoats.  “I would totally stay and listen to whatever crazy stories you have from last night, but I’m running late for the gym.  Want to do lunch sometime this week?  We really need to catch up.”

“Sure.”

“Are you OK?”

“Yeah…I’m like totally great,” I respond, making a mild effort to communicate in her basic tongue.

“OK, bye!”  She leaves, and I am relieved of her frantic energy.  If I were her, I probably wouldn’t have to go to the gym.  Just burn off all the calories with my nervous energy.  I feel better after sleeping a few hours, but I still have a creeped out vibe from what happened with Izzy.  Oh well.  The clock says it’s eleven.  Not bad for my Saturday; I still have a full weekend ahead of me.  I reach for Vanessa’s copy of the Times, but then I remember that it’s Tuesday, and the food section won’t be out until tomorrow.  My brain is running at half speed, but I don’t feel like going back to sleep.  Still, I retreat to my room and lay on top of my unmade bed.

I text Hem, Hey dude.  where are you?  brunch?  do you have work shit today?  i’m back at home now.  I get up and shower, dropping my razor, the soap, the shampoo bottle…basically everything as I attempt to clean up my hair, body, and conscience.  You can’t unsmudge a conscience with soap.  It takes tougher stuff.  Turpentine, maybe. I think to myself.  I laugh.  So funny.  Not so funny

When I get out of the shower, I check my phone.  Hem responded, back at my hotel in soho.  the boss has a crush on me.  i don’t have to work this trip lol.  i’ll come to queens if you make eggs.  I text him back, cool.  bring eggs.  i have bread.  wait, it’s moldy.  bring bread.  

Hem buzzes in an hour later, and by then, I’ve composed myself a little and put on my favorite slippers—fuzzy, evil, cyclops bunny slippers—and my raggedy flannel bathrobe I found at a flea market.  I’m only allowed to wear the robe when Vanessa isn’t home, because otherwise she breaks into impassioned soliloquies about the dangers of bedbugs passed on through old clothing and how girls our age shouldn’t succumb to the trend of looking homeless for the sake of fashion, because we have standards to uphold, and all the rest.  It’s really just super comfortable, and I can’t see how some silk kimono bullshit could hold a candle to it, but whatever.  I think her mom used to put her in pageants as a child or something.  It’s unclear.  I open the door, and he’s there, looking disheveled but also mildly refreshed.

“So you and Izzy, huh!” He grins, elbowing me in the ribs.  “Girl, what is this robe?  I love it.  It’s like classic grandpa.”

“Thanks, I know.  It’s the best.  And…um…no, nothing happened.”

“I thought you went back to her place!”

“I called her Jenna.”

“I see.”  He places his grocery bag of breakfast items on our kitchen table.  “Well if it makes you feel any better, after Hannah and I did some more coke, I shit my pants a little and had to go home.”  I laugh and almost choke on the water I’m trying to drink.  “It was my fucking unicorn boxers, too.  I just threw them out.  I’m so disappointed.”

“It’s ok; we’ll find you some new boxers.  It won’t be the same, but life goes like that.  I lost my shamrock last night.”

“Aw, no!”

“Yeah.”  I open the plastic bag, and take out the eggs.  “Dude, why did you get a baguette instead of like white, wheat, or rye bread or something?”

“Please.  I can’t eat that crap anymore.”  Oh, OK.

“Well excuse me for living in America.  Alright, fine.”  I toast pieces of baguette and drizzle them with some of Vanessa’s expensive olive oil.  Hopefully she didn’t weigh this on her psychotic gram scale before leaving, because I don’t feel like getting into that battle.  I make a soft scramble with six of the eggs.  Although I’m more of a fried eggs person, the idea of a runny yoke does not sound nice right now.  We eat in silence, for all of the two minutes it takes us to scarf up our breakfast.

“Let’s go spoon in your bed.  I just want to lay down.  I can’t do it today.”

“I’m little.”

“Fine.”  We go into my room and snuggle under my itchy blankets, which I also got at a flea market.  “Are you a horse?  Like why are these blankets so itchy?”

“They’re nice blankets!”

“So are you OK, Gretch?  I thought you were over Jenna…It’s been like over a year already.”

“Yeah…I thought I was over it too, but I still have these flashbacks, and I think sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t have cut her out of my life.  I kind of feel like when you’re so close with someone like that, you exchange parts of yourselves.  I know that sounds so fucking cheesy.  But like when you lose them, it takes a long time to repair or find the half of yourself you gave up.  I don’t know what I’m saying.  I’m kind of delirious.”

“I get you though.  But maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.  You never know if maybe your new path in life will bring you something better or put you on the right path to your destiny.”

“But I don’t believe in that, dude.  Wait take your hands off my stomach…No, that’s my boob.  What are you doing!”

“Sorry!  You know I like boobs,”  he giggles.  “But continue.”

“Well I just don’t think things are just meant to be.  Or that everything happens for a reason.  That’s such a bad excuse.”

“What about God or religion?  You must have some belief system…”

“Pff…no way.  To me, that’s the ultimate sham.  Something good happens, it’s because of God.  Something bad happens, it’s because of God.  God is the ultimate scapegoat that humans created to explain the inexplicable.  Heaven is the coping mechanism to counter the possibility of eternal nothingness.  Hell is the fable to keep humans in check.  To me, everything is a matter of chance.  You and I are a cluster of cells, just like anything else.  Our intelligence allows us to think otherwise.  But to me, it’s more likely that each of us is a cell in a greater body than that each of us is a person placed on earth by God, and that if we do good, we go to a cooler place, and if we do bad, we go to a shitty place.  That’s the most basic idea I’ve ever heard.”

“Jesus Christ…I don’t even think my brain can get on that level right now.  Ratchet it down a bit, OK there, Socrates?”

“Sorry.”

“You’ve really never believed in God?”

“I used to.  I used to go to Church.  But when I was twelve, I decided that God must be a dude sitting on a couch, watching us all on TV and just kinda laughing and drinking white Russians.  Like The Big Lebowski.”

“What the fuck, girl?”

“My friends were really awkward, and we got bullied a lot, and my parents were gonna get a divorce, and all this shit.  It was a strange time.  And then, when I was in high school, I decided that God must be a dominatrix.  Because everything about those four years was just painful.  And I felt like the faithful sub of the universe.  I was a dramatic kid, not gonna lie.”

“No shit…  I can’t believe we’ve never been over this topic.  You’re ridiculous.”

“Well, by the time I turned seventeen, I realized that the God thing was not for me.  So there you have it.”

“Want to make some whiskey-coffees and watch a movie or something?”

“Yes.”  I brew a pot of coffee with the last grounds that I have.  “What about tequila?  The only whiskey I have is the last of this Pappy Van Winkle that I’ll probably never get my hands on again.”

“Tequila is fine.”

“You know what, though?”

“What?”

“Let’s fucking do the Pappy.  Tomorrow is never certain.”

“You want to put Pappy Van Winkle in your coffee?  That’s sacrilege.”

“It’s healthy to act old money sometimes, in the height of your poverty, dude.  And like, what if every time we go to sleep, we wake up in a new body?  And life is just like a bunch of souls playing musical chairs in all the bodies?  I want to be the one to drink the Pappy.”

“Whatever you need to postulate, as long as I’m drinking Pappy Van Winkle in the morning with my best friend.”

“Exactly.”