Emily’s lightsaber weed didn’t put me to sleep. I lay there, awake and restless, thinking about everything and nothing. The weaning process was over. This would be my first day without prednisone. The drug still seeped through my system, keeping my eyes open and my mind awake, but soon it would be over, or so I believed.
I slid out from under Emily and dug through my bag, grabbing the bottle of yellow pills. Temazapam. I padded softly into the kitchen, poured a glass of water, and swallowed a tablet. I woke up on the couch, just before dawn, my ears stuffed with wax, a puddle of drool on the cushion. Cautiously I stood, disoriented and nauseous. I wobbled into the bathroom and threw up, dug wax out of my ears, then found my laptop and began to write.
The sun rose, bright and strong. Emily continued sleeping. Her apartment stood on the second floor of a crumbling tenement. If you climbed through the kitchen window, you ended up on the roof of an adjacent building. I grabbed a towel, crawled out the opening, and laid in the sun.
“There you are!” Emily stepped through the window and crossed the roof, squinting in the sunlight.
“How’d you sleep?”
“Good,” she bent down and kissed me.
“How’s the sun?”
“About like that,” I pointed towards the brilliant ball of gas and fire.
“I’m going to put on a bathing suit and join you.”
I followed her inside and we had sex instead.
“Did you leave your recorder on while we had sex?” asked Emily when we were done.
“I can’t wait for you to listen to it some day,” she giggled. “You’ll be all hot and bothered and I won’t be around to get you off.”
I shifted my weight so her bony hip would stop digging into my ass, “Has anyone ever broken your heart?” I was sitting on top of her, drawing a jellyfish on her side with a Sharpie. Emily loved animals with tentacles. Her favorites were the cephalopods, but I preferred drawing jellies.
“No. I’ve broken up with every boyfriend.”
“And girlfriend?” I asked.
“And girlfriend,” she nodded.
Outside, a train rumbled past, loud and screeching.
“I’ve been the antagonist in every relationship too,” I finished the final tentacle. “It sucks, always being the bad guy.”
“I imagine being broken up with is unpleasant as well.” Emily looked in the mirror while I snapped a picture on my phone. “My most recent ex is going to be at the improv club tonight.”
“When did you break up with him?”
“A couple of weeks ago. He’s a little obsessed so it might get awkward.”
“Is he mean?”
“He’s a hippie.”
“Well, I hope he causes a scene. It’ll really spice up my book.”
“He won’t.” Emily began to dress.
“If you and I became a thing,” I said, “it would be like the Superbowl of dating.”
“We’re both undefeated, one of us would eventually break up with the other and then the perfect streak would be over.”
Emily laughed. Neither of us tried to convince the other that our fictional relationship would last, that it was anything more than a bag of cookies, the expiration date printed on one side.
Emily laid back down, cuddling into my tiny arms. “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done sexually?” she asked.
“Missionary position,” I said.
Emily traced her fingers across my deflated chest, “No ropes or whips or anything?”
“I’m pretty vanilla. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done?”
“Threesomes,” she answered absently.
“With a guy and a girl or two guys?”
“They were all with a guy and a girl.”
“How did that happen?”
“I went through a threesome phase,” she said. “I’d approach couples at bars and ask if they wanted a third. I thought it would be liberating, a way to break free from my Christian past, but it was always awkward.”
“The guys were more into it than the girls. It seemed like the girls had been forced into the situation. Things usually ended with tears and me sneaking out at two in the morning.”
“Fantasy rarely lives up to expectation.” I combed my frail hands through her auburn hair. “Just once, I’d like to imagine a thing and have it turn out exactly as planned.”
Emily kissed me. I kissed her back.
Later that night we dressed up fancy and headed out for a Dinner on the Town.
“What’s up with you and Carol?” I asked as the train clacked through tunnels towards Manhattan.
“What do you mean?” Emily and I were lucky, we had found seats on the crowded ride.
“She talks too much.” I had recently written my Ping Pong Theory of Conversation, which posited that most successful conversations involved a delicate back-and-forth, question-and-answer balance. I was very proud of my theory and wanted to impose it on people like Carol. “It’s annoying,” I said. “I don’t know how you can stand it.”
“I love her,” said Emily, tapping her fingers against the steel pole between us, “she’s fantastic.”
“But you know that she’s at least a little insufferable, right?”
Emily shrugged, “You can love someone without loving everything about them.”
I thought about my mother, the Craterhoof Behemoth of Healing. All my life I had toiled beneath the burden of her demands for perfection, trying to win the affection of a woman who didn’t know how to love. Was I now applying the same template to others, requiring perfection in exchange for acceptance? Was that why my mother and I fought so much? Was she failing to live up to my own unreasonable demands? “I can overlook small foibles,” I said, “but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to ignore the big stuff.”
“That must be very lonely,” Emily leaned her head against my shoulder.
I looked out the window, at the dark black of the tunnel. My gaunt reflection stared back, “It is.”
We found a fancy restaurant on a dirty street and sat outside amidst the seething mass of human chaos. The food was adequate and uninspired. Our check arrived with two Fortune Teller Miracle Fish, each in their own wrapper.
“I love these!” said Emily, opening hers.
“What are they?” I grabbed the red and white package skeptically.
Emily removed a thin sheet of red plastic shaped like a fish. She placed it on her palm. The film curled up into a cylinder. Emily consulted the instructions printed on the wrapper, “It says I’m passionate!”
I looked at my own Fortune Teller Miracle Fish. Printed on the package was a list of all the shapes your fish could make. If the head moved, it meant you were jealous, if its tail curled, it meant you felt indifferent, and so on. I removed the plastic from its wrapper and placed it flat on my open palm. The thing bent in the center and flipped itself over, I looked at the wrapper to discover my fortune.
“What’s it say?” asked Emily.
“False,” I answered, a little sad. “It says I’m false.”
Emily laughed and took a sip of her water, “It’s just a plastic fish.”
But I couldn’t help feeling disappointed.
After dinner, we headed to The Pit, an improv theatre where Emily was scheduled to perform with her troupe. The place had a familiar reek of mediocrity.
In another life, I’d moved to Los Angeles to try and make it as a rock star. Within the City of Angels, I found any number of open mic nights where aspiring musicians gathered to listen to each other play. The hope was that you would be discovered, but in reality it was an incestuous affair designed to sell alcohol. You ended up playing in front of other musicians who hated you.
The Pit was like those open mic nights. There were various rooms with seats and stages and a clientele of competing actors and actresses, each auditioning for their chance at fame.
Emily was part of a team trying to work its way up through the ranks. “That’s Charlie,” she said. “My ex-boyfriend.” Behind the bar stood a smiling hippie. He looked perfectly unkempt and affable, with long hair, a black, brimmed hat and a ukelele slung across his back. “I’m going to find the other members of my team and get warmed up,” said Emily, “Will you be OK on your own?”
Standing in lobbies is terrible, especially if you’re alone. You can only pretend to be interested in the posters on the wall for a few minutes before you end up staring blankly at the floor. I poured myself a glass of water from an orange cooler on a table by the bathroom then stood by some chairs, acting thirsty, stealing glances at Charlie. The regulars milled around, talking to one another about improvisational theatre and their favorite comedians. Eventually, Emily’s ex-boyfriend approached.
“I’m Charlie,” he held out his hand. “Can I buy you a drink?” His teeth were white and his clothes were dirty. He wore shorts, a t-shirt and a vest. The ensemble was capped off with red Chuck Taylors and tons of necklaces, bracelets and rings.
“No thanks, man.” I shook his hand and hoped that he would try to punch me or something.
“You sure? It’s on me.”
“I have Chron’s,” I said.
“What?” The place was filling up, getting noisy.
“I don’t drink.”
“How about some water?”
I held up the glass I’d poured out of the plastic cooler by the bathrooms.
“The stuff behind the bar has lemon,” Charlie was persistent and friendly.
“Sure,” I conceded at last. If he wasn’t going to attack me, I figured we should chat. I sat down on a stool at the far end of the bar.
Charlie filled a glass from a huge, clear jug with ice and lemons floating in it. I held it up to him in mock toast, “Cheers.”
“How long are you in town?” Charlie removed a few empty glasses from the top of the bar and collected a receipt.
“A few more days.”
Relief washed over his face. I wouldn’t be around forever, he would get another shot to take back Emily, “Where are you from?” He asked.
“Denver. What’s with the ukelele?”
“It’s my one, true love,” said Charlie proudly. “Do you play music?”
“No,” I lied. “What brought you to New York?”
“I don’t know,” Charlie tapped his fingers on the bar. “I just wanted to live in New York. One day I filled a cardboard box with a few things and moved out. I slept on couches until I found a job and an apartment and now it’s ten years later.”
“You haven’t been here for ten years,” said another patron sitting at the bar. He was an older guy with a beard and unkempt hair.
Charlie got a little flustered, “Off and on for ten years.”
“So it sent you packing the first time?” I asked.
“It sent him packing a couple of times,” laughed the old guy.
“I’ve been here for a year and half this time,” Charlie decided to cut his loses. “It’s the longest stretch so far.”
“What’s the secret?” I asked, but I no longer cared what he had to say. Guys who wore ukeleles to comedy clubs and lied about how long they’d lived in New York weren’t worth listening to.
“You have to give up any standard of living,” Charlie said sagely. “Live like a dirty rat and you’ll be fine.”
We kept talking, sparring back and forth. The place filled, getting noisier and more crowded. Charlie stood at the end of the bar by the water container with ice and lemons, chatting me up, letting the other bartender do all the work.
“Everyone with tickets for the upstairs show, please line up,” said a voice over a loudspeaker.
I thanked Charlie for the water, said goodbye and shuffled towards the line. An attendant ushered a few people with tickets into a room with stadium seating and folding theatre chairs, the rest of the crowd remained in the other room by the bar. The theatre was sparsely populated and quiet, the few audience members talking quietly with one another. I sat down in an empty row by myself.
Stairs ran between the seats from the floor to the back of the room, 15 rows up. Instead of a curtain, a wall had been erected at the back of the stage. The lights dimmed. The actors in Emily’s troupe emerged from behind the wall to a smattering of applause. They asked for three random subjects from the audience. There was silence, then a few brave souls called out various topics. The actors began weaving a story around the chosen subjects, it ended up being about a bunch of animals in a zoo.
The performance was unremarkable, just like Emily had warned. The performers lacked cohesion and a couple of them seemed nervous. Emily was the best of the bunch. It wasn’t terrible, but somehow, that made it worse. There were moments of brilliance, but mostly it was uncomfortable.
In the lobby after the performance, a new crowd had assembled and was awaiting their turn to take one of the many stages. Emily schmoozed with her friends, talking and networking, lighting up the room with an undefinable charm. I followed her around, making conversation where I could. She introduced me to a guy with huge biceps and dark hair who seemed like he was in love with her. Then we chatted up a group of friends who had met her at karaoke. Charlie lurked in the background, trying to seem happy, his face a wreak of smiles. Eventually he approached. “Can we talk?” he asked, touching Emily’s shoulder.
“I don’t know,” she looked at me, the question in her eyes.
“It’s fine,” I said, trying to be cool.
The two went outside, leaving me surrounded by strangers. I leaned against the wall for a while, then walked up to a small Asian girl with hipster glasses. Emily had introduced us earlier, “Hi,” I said, “Can I hang out with you, since we sort of know each other?”
“Sure,” she said, “where’s Emily?”
“She’s outside, talking to Charlie,” I pointed in the general direction with one hand.
The girl looked over my shoulder, searching for the unhappy couple, “Are you two fucking?”
“Yes,” I stopped, “I probably shouldn’t have told you that.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll still get laid tonight.”
“OK,” I laughed, “thanks.”
“I’m going to go out there and break them up,” she said.
“Now?” I figured Emily was a big girl and didn’t need saving, “Don’t you think they need to—”
“No,” the girl shoved past. She went outside, grabbed Emily and separated her from Charlie, then hauled her back inside and deposited her next to me.
“We need to get out of here,” said Emily.
“OK,” it seemed her friend had been right, that Emily had wanted to escape.
It took a while to press through the crowd. Everyone kept stopping Emily so they could talk to her. Eventually, we pushed outside into the summer night, the world aglow with light and steam.
“God, that was awful,” said Emily. “He made me feel so bad about breaking up with him. He wouldn’t stop talking. He just rambled on and on.”
“Why’d you leave him?”
“He’s…” Emily thought about it. “He’s just so… He lives in an apartment with, like, seven other people. He sleeps on a mattress on the floor and there’s a blanket spread across the entrance to his room instead of a door. He couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t have sex with him at his place. Finally, I made him start staying at mine, but he’d never talk to me. I’d hang out in my room and he’d watch conspiracy videos in the living room. He was obsessed with shadow governments and the New World Order.”
“Is he liberal?” We crossed the street and headed towards the train station.
“So he thinks Bush blew up the towers?”
“Exactly. Plus, he’s unmotivated and lazy.”
“But he moved to New York,” I said. “That takes guts.”
“Lots of people move to New York.”
“I wish I was one of them.”
“You should!” Laughed Emily, “You so totally should.”
“Once I’m an engineer,” I said. “I’ll get my degree, land a job and live it up in Manhattan. I’ll buy a place by the park and none of the rooms will have blankets for doors.”
“Not even one?” Emily asked in mock amazement.
“None of the important ones.”
It was a silly dream, one I would never achieve. I was an artist. I could pretend to be an engineer, but the world knew the difference. I was the only one who thought I had a chance.
We climbed on the subway headed back to Queens. It was late at night and the car was empty. As the train pulled away from station, I let the acceleration pull me into Emily, exaggerating the motion with a little extra force. It was a childish flirt, a variation on the shoves boys give girls on the playground, a means of inducing further contact. Emily’s reaction was spontaneous and instinctive. She didn’t defend herself, she didn’t push away. Instead, she wrapped her arms around my tiny body and pulled me closer. The sensation was foreign and thrilling. A wave of emotion washed over me. I had never felt so loved. In the midst of this inexplicable belonging, a part of me wondered what had happened.
She pulled me closer.
When we were kids, just learning to interact with the opposite sex, our games usually involved some sort of conflict. Boys dragged girls to a designated spot, girls stole the basketball from the boys. The pageantry was meant to hide the truth. “I’m not in love with her, I’m just trying to steal her doll.” Plausible deniability to ward our hearts against rebuff. We didn’t want to capture those girls, we wanted them to come willingly. We didn’t want to steal their toys, we wanted them to stay.
As adults, the specifics changed, but the intent was the same — ruses, like Charlie’s ukelele, a way of concealing the truth.
But not Emily.
Emily pulled me closer.
It was the honesty of the response that struck the chord. There had been no time to think, only an instinctive reaction, an open vulnerability, refreshing and new.
I thought about my past relationships, about Little Ex and all the others, a string of broken hearts and wasted time. Had I failed to pull them closer? Was my initial instinct, this desire to tease and shove, somehow connected to my failure in love? Had my childhood training laid a foundation full of flaws?
Emily squeezed me tight. I leaned my head against hers. Together, we rode the train back home.
to be continued