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You meet Gertrude for the first time in a Pike Street bar on a windy October weeknight. Wednesday and Thursday are your weekend; it's Tuesday. You've been drinking since you got off work, having met a co-worker by chance outside Rudy's Shave & Salon, where you and he agree to combine both your tips on an evening of getting as drunk as possible in as grandiose a style as two baristas can manage in the trendy brew-pubs that line the bright avenues of Capitol Hill. Nate's haircut looks freshly Aryan Youth and gay and you find him suitably vague-looking for your first time out with a man in you can't remember how long. Maybe ever.

Nate is the lithest man you've ever met, an adjective you usually reserve with fondness, and a little wistfully, for girls. Tonight he blows around inside a red checkered Gap shirt tucked into Levis. His braided belt hangs on his little hips and from there his legs and torso pull forever. He is not a gay man, though you know he's slept with boys. He was once involved with your friend, Todd, a beefy queen who wrote an unremarkable play about the whole ordeal. You remember a line the wan, pockmarked amateur cast as Nate proclaimed towards the end: "He was abusive and I was manipulative and it was beautiful." You left the show alone, thinking how enviable it was that Todd wrote every single day, and how tragic that he'd never be very good.

The real-life Nate is maddeningly charismatic and blemish-free, and hyper-sexual in any number of beguiling directions. Rumor has it he's the most-often-laid employee at Cafe V'Italia, your steamy, incestuous place of work. You're scheduled for two six-hour shifts per week with Nate, and are smug but zealous to inspect the new hickies blooming along his fine collarbones and lovely throat. During the afternoon lag you exchange backrubs, your own five-foot-eight-inch lank from atop a milkcrate to tackle his bony shoulders.

You dream about Nate at least once a week. Each time you nearly have sex but never have a condom or always have a girlfriend, and you wake knowing that even in the dozing parallel universe of risk without consequence, you will only ever be handcuffed to your conscience.

Nate loves that you dream about him and you love that you can tell him your dreams. You are his perfect boy-girl, all firm and barely there from behind; all breasts and a little belly from the front. The long body of a swimmer-gone-stripper; the lean face of a fag. By the pastry case he swoops in behind you, arms folding up your caving-in-laughing back and chest; you are two schoolboys bent at the waste as his hands latch at your hipbones, and alien whiskers whisper in your ear, "I love...I love the right there of you."

You're not so sure you want to take this friendship you have with Nate to the streets. Men bore you, for starters; they don't listen and they certainly don't ask questions, and whatever they have to say you've already heard at the movies. The very fact of such blandness intrigues you, however, and beckons the "Yes" in your next breath to Nate's invitation for beer and cocktails. You're curious about shallow, unreflecting boy lives; there's unfathomable safety in heighth and breastlessness that you covet, and if you can't make it yours, you are obliged to at least drink up in the wide beam of its privilege tonight.

At Giovanni's, first stop across from Rudy's, you sit on stools at the window and order three fast Jack-and-Cokes. Nate refines himself to some pretty Scotch with a bewitching name. It smells like a box of band-aids; you stick to your three dollar standard of getting the job done. He asks about your karate school, the hulking loft on 10th where you and so many in the V'Italia herd stretch and kick and jab three times a week. "I'm thinking of looking into the place," he says, uncommitted.

"You should. It's a great experience," you return, unconvinced and unconvincing. You haven't had enough hard liquor to explain in a confessional slur of background and detail that you hate the whole goddamn cult of a place, hate Tae Know Do, hate your instructor, hate sparring and the terrible intimacy of grappling, hate not showing up for weeks at a time and having to start all over again under Master Kaia's black-belted gaze of pity because she and everyone know you opted for a month-long binge over the shining spiritual endeavor of physical fitness.

You swallow the last of your second drink, take a sip of the third. Nate is gingerly getting buzzed. He watches the television over the bar, and for a long minute you get to stare at his fuzzy jaw and the popped-out periphery of one darting green eye. They call your shifts together The Nate and Suzie Show, and have nicknamed you Angry One and Angry Too, respectively. The owner, a frenetic little control freak named Kevin, keeps threatening to separate you on your lucrative Saturday shift, when all the gay men stop in to flirt with their bi boy barista, and all the bi girls smile adventurously at his saucy partner-in-crime. You never make more money than when you work with Nate; dollar bills and sometimes fives stuff the tip jar and occasionally a crumpled phone number juts from the fading green bunch. Kevin could care less about this little fan club. He doesn't see the steady flow and affirmation of their cash the way you do. Instead he hears about the tall latte tossed in a whining customer's lap, the tag-team swearing match over the price of an americano, the chocolate cupcake thrown in manic frustration out the open cafe window, landing with a gushy smack! to stain the leather interior of a patron's Saab. The customer is never right at V'Italia. Your regulars know and appreciate this tenet, and then proceed to tip generously for the abuse. Seattle's a complacent, masochistic town; it begs for what it gets.

You consider Nate's infamous rage and decide to deter him from anywhere near your dojo. You distract him with, "You know Kevin's trying to separate us again?"

"Yeah well," he shrugs, "When hasn't the world been against us?" He smiles down at you and puts an arm around, squeezing. You huddle up into his arm-pit, pausing for a quick bite at his shoulder, and say proudly, "Never."

You head for the Medusa next, just one block up and across an intersection jammed with Bugs, mopeds and assault ATV's, all climbing away from Downtown towards evenings that will uncannily resemble your own thus far. You know the staff at Medusa, and often barter microbrews for proportionally pricey mochas. There's a raspberry, grapefruity beer they have that you like and you get a pitcher. You're not normally one for fruit and beer but you enjoy the urgency in pretending you're getting a meal out of the deal. Nate orders his own version of dinner in a hefty pint of stout.

Half way through the pitcher, your spine begins its tingle to the jukebox resonating through the booth's cracking oxblood vinyl; conversation even with a man is easy and a little mesmerizing; your lips blur into words and smiles around your teeth. You have arrived.

The ambiance of Medusa, however, is like that of an over-lit private school cafeteria. And you know from countless prior experiences that staying too drunk for too long in one place invites nausea and unsparing introspection. Nate is squinting faintly himself. You lean into his line of vision and tell him you know just the place to more appropriately linger among these liquid minutes.

The city whizzes by on your considerable walk up Broadway, and you don't catch much of the avenue's heroine chic and porn star impersonators this evening. Gliding over it all, untouched and unaffected, is the goal of all your buzzed missions to Del's, your favorite pub, where, through earnest inquiries into each featured import and persistent tips, you've established your own Cliff-and-Norm-like seating arrangement at the coziest end of a pretty rambunctious bar. It's the only bar you've found out here where you can get a room-temperature Guinness, whose warm darkness down your throat mimics soothingly the deep woods and brasses of the saloon itself. Betsy puts two of these on square napkins in front of you and your dashing friend. She yells over ESPN and happy hour that her lover of 13 years is finally leaving her husband, and so goes the barstool soap opera you've been tuning into every evening for about four months now. You get properly caught up and introduce her to Nate, who raises both eyebrows at what might be interest in the saga, but what is more likely the dawning recognition that you're a drunk, and engage in your status as such every single day from this exact spot. You excuse yourself and weave towards the bathroom, stopping to buy overpriced cigarettes from a machine. It's that time in the works to begin chain smoking. Back at the bar Betsy offers you a light. You exhale and explain to Nate, "I only smoke when I drink," sending the three of you into rasping peels of pitiful laughter.

Nate suggests coffee and you agree this would be a good way to pull in the slackening reins so you can start all over again, this time with a lighter beer, in about an hour or so. You've spent a great deal of your year-and-a-half in Seattle methodically honing the craft of staying as functionally obliterated for as many hours in a row as possible. By functional you mean: able to walk from bar to bar, smoke without puking, carry on a conversation (or read, depending upon the options on either side of your stool), then select with some amount of discretion a movie to go home with, not forgetting to stop at the deli for a six-pack with which to enjoy that night's blockbuster. If you can carry out all these assigned chores without feeling a single thing, then your evening has been a positively glittering success.

Your tall, handsome stranger of a drinking buddy seems put at ease by your capacity to drink, order, talk, tip, and decide what's next. You think there may be some potential here, as the few friends you've taken your chances on and brought along on what for you is the routine culmination of each day, generally call it a night by around 10. It's already 11:30 when you and Nate slide into Plenty, where you both order coffee with Red Hook chasers. Plenty is one of the classier dyke bars on Pike, with an exposed brick interior, vegetarian bar food, and an exotic Alabama bartender named Cass, whom you recently discovered is also a successful sculptor with a show up in Pioneer Square. Her barback was once a stockbroker, and you wonder just what it is about this town that beckons its best and brightest into the service industry. You're sure the answer is Microsoft, but you keep this nagging theory to yourself as just one more in a million regarding the absolute power-that-be across the 501.

Nate and you are discussing a certain red-headed regular you both find breathtaking, all Carolina drawl and flashing green eyes. "Her name's Cynthia," you inform him, careful to lay on the condescension over which of you it was who scored the girl's name that day she burst into your coffee shop. The irony and implication of the word "score" is, for the moment, lost on you both; little does anyone in the entire world know that in three swift months, Cynthia will be pregnant with Nate's son -- "knocked up like a cheerleader on prom night," you remember Bruce Willis gloating about Melanie Griffith in Nobody's Fool, a particularly enveloping bar book and after-hours film.

Nate thinks she might be a lesbian but you know better -- that one, he's full of such flattery towards your sexual preference, and two, "Cynthia's already told me you have a great ass, Nate." He feigns being taken aback, a considered wince of the brow and jump in the shoulders. "It's true," you go on, shedding your own flattering highbeam on his studiously subdued heterosexuality. Nate has tips to earn, tricks to seduce; furthermore, he's surrounded by homos. But you're drunk, belligerent and a wee bored -- you turn to the presence you felt squeeze onto the stool on your left a minute ago; you meet an uncanny gray eye and then wink with what's in store for your poor dumb boy of a date.

The gray gaze holds hard to yours, however, and Nate is left gratefully off the hook for whatever it is he probably hasn't done, but that you were going to have him confess to anyway, on the tacky behalf of all straight men on Capitol Hill who are playing the queer card for kicks. You've seen this tiny woman in the cracked motorcycle jacket and PLO scarf before. You saw her just this past Saturday, in fact. You lift your finger and wag it with your nodding head, just wasted enough to finally talk to her.

She's nodding too, and grinning, you note. She turns away to tap the arm of the woman beside her, who also looks at you. They smile together. You raise your arm in a kind of wave/salute and see that Nate has done the same, your two plaid arms eagerly chopping the air. You and Nate stare at one another and blink in agreement that without that marble coffee shop counter between you and the world, you are both destined for dorkdom.

You say, "I saw you the other day, both of you. You were walking up around 14th, early in the morning, all gushy together." You scrunch your brow, wonder where you get this stuff. Neither woman seems put-off. The tiny dark-haired one laughs at you and her blonde partner juts in with what sounds like, "You should talk." It occurs to you that these two lovely ladies saw you that morning too, all gushy yourself with a certain ex-girlfriend you hadn't quite stopped sleeping with yet.

There's a sheepish pause in which Nate, who works his other two shifts with Morgan -- ex-in-question --, chokes back his beer in a melodramatic "Ha!" whose lone syllable simpers and indicts: we knew all along the most ill-suited, awkward couple in the history of co-dependent serial monogamy was still at it. You dig a clumsy elbow into his ribs and order another round of whatever this sudden party of four is drinking.

You came to Seattle with Morgan in June of 1995. You had just graduated from a tiny, bucolic women's college in the middle of Pittsburgh, your hometown of which you were desperately tired, but for which you were willing to confess profound, undying affection. Morgan and you had been in a mostly long-distance relationship between New York and the Burgh, the demise of which began its slow, exhausting inevitability the moment you climbed into the cab of the Hertz rental truck to begin the 2000-mile trek towards officially shacking up.

It took you a little more than a week to conjure the crackling visceral hate you feel for the Emerald City, and it will ultimately take you a little more than two years to leave the place. In the mean time, you've cleaned houses all over town for a woman named Lois, whom you met at your first and last Seattle AA meeting, and who not only got you a job, but also gave you her 1-year chip in a touching, utterly pointless effort at believing in you. You will not be believed in if it kills you, and it just might. You hated cleaning houses more than the city itself and in fact blame the experience for blasting any inclination you may have had to escape your self-imposed exile in Capitol Hill. You can't drive through Ravenna or Ballard or Wallingford without passing a wood-sided home whose toilet you scrubbed, whose liquor trays you dusted and "tidied" so that the liquid in all the decanters lined up evenly, and whose drawers and cabinets you perused for revealing diary entries and prescription drugs. Morgan was the one working at V'Italia, espresso bar to the hip and insipid, and generally gorgeous lot of 20-somethings that wandered along Denny Way. When she arranged a job there for you too, you promised you'd quit drinking, go back to the dojo and test for a green belt. You did both for an unprecedented thirty-day chunk, and that's how you knew getting coveted work slinging coffee meant qualitatively more than it should.

Eight months and two leases later (the first signed on a dump that was broken into by your junkie super), Morgan finally decides she can no longer live with you. She heads towards the top of the Hill, to immaculate wood floors sprawling towards a view of the Cascade Mountains. You go lower down to a notorious "safe-house" for lesbians. No men allowed, not a plumber or your father, and there's a sign on the front door that reads, "Never mind the dog -- beware of owner" over a picture of a handgun, in case anyone thinks the separatist owner, Leigh, is kidding around. You live in a dump but it's all yours and you revel in drinking alone every chance you get. Your favorite way to give Morgan and her righteous concern the finger is to crack open a longneck before you get to work, where a typical afternoon shift means sending the barback out for a six-pack. You and your partner, usually Nate or Lorie, V'Italia's wide-eyed, remote pot-head, then pour yourselves 12 once to-go cup after 12 once to-go cup of whatever was on special at the deli across the street. Lorie has an alarming, undiagnosed mood disorder and abuse issues that often manifest themselves in tearful, twitching stages during customer transactions at the cash register. This does little where tips are concerned, but while Nate might betray you by forfeiting his share of the fun some days, Lorie is always up for the cordial, unflappable alternate reality of too much caffeine tempered with just enough beer.

You love your job. It's good money that goes directly into your pocket; you work with beautiful people who like to drink; your store has the reputation for the best short latte in town served up with the most attitude by the cutest girls, and every issue of Seattle's oversexed weekly, The Stranger, lists another "I saw you" ad for one the hotties with whom you work the bar. You have the most coveted service job on Broadway when just five months ago you were scrubbing floors. You're shallow, snotty, and fitting right into this town you actively loathe and passively escape from every day you're in it.

You've tried a hundred times to engage the people around you at bars and restaurants in constructive discussions about the pitfalls of Seattle. Once you realized, however, that it was this incessant, petulant discourse about the town which perpetuated its whining demise, you shut your Midwestern trap.

Your gray-eyed neighbor says her name is Gertrude and then leans back from out of your view of her partner, whom she introduces as Mikaela. Cass's dimmed the halogens over the bar, causing all the dinner dates downstairs to hush into intimacy, and the raucous pool players upstairs to clank around even more obnoxiously. Your foursome gets and empties its pitcher into schooners, then settles into its fresh dynamic: you and Gertrude on the snug inside of Nate and Mikaela, who is telling you that she and Gertrude have been living here for a little over a year. This is a normal West Coast introduction, you've found, with the time-spent-in-transience allotted for at the end of of one's first name. No one is from Seattle, not on Capitol Hill at any rate, and very few of you have been here for more than two years. You find yourself approaching veteran status with nearly 18 months and a consistent zip-code, though not the same street address, in case anyone got the quaint impression that you're 23 and wanting to settle down. At the moment, however, you're more determined to make sure of their names.

"Gertrude," you say back. You sober up a grade at the meaty oddness of it in your mouth, and therefore refrain from mentioning the aqua-blue cinderblock of a vacuum cleaner that you and Lois once christened Gert. In fact, to hear the name twice in a decade is cause for a moment of perplexed, sober reflection. Or another Rolling Rock, which Cass has already put down in front of you, as if she finds the whole thing a little puzzling herself.

Gertrude nods her coarse black bob at you. She turns to Mikaela and they exchange a look implying they get this a lot, so let's get on with it. You say, "Mick-ay-la" to make sure you have it right and feel like a real hick, or yinzer -- Pittsburgh's homebrewed idiom for someone shamelessly revealing herself as dense and underexposed. In your determination to learn her name, you bend in to note that the so-called Mikaela is one devastating woman, with a brilliant blonde mane draping the back of her fitted leather coat, and translucent features sharp and soft all at once. Her smile uncovers small charming squares for teeth and is framed by two dimples that stare at you as inquisitively as her clean blue eyes are right now. Gertrude is her dark, gritty but gleaming antithesis and you know instantly that this is a couple who has been shaken up and manipulated by any number of cunning, reprehensible dykes just wanting in on their blaze of stunning polarity. You resolve at once, and with uncharacteristic steadfastness, not to become another in a long line of friends gone sour.

Gertrude looks you over and then up-and-downs Nate, whom you've forgotten existed, having inexplicably connected with two women for the first time since your arrival on this Coast. Nate's torso is in a sort of heap over the bar, but he's smiling and nodding at what touches you as his respect for your space in this life-altering little scenario. You're not sure why the past 20 minutes have informed a life change, but you know that's what's happening and you know Gertrude and Mikaela think so too. Everyone is up for this occasion.

Gertrude gets smug, says, "You guys work at V'Italia." You and Nate nod in unison, busted again. Gertrude knows all about that place, evidently, and you now recall seeing her in your line from time to time. Placing the face with the drink is a favorite barista party trick, but you can't remember, or even make up, for the life of you what this woman might thirst for. You want to take a guess, make it a long shot, and be right, impress everyone, but upon closer inspection of her clothes -- the dead giveaways of the vogue and judgmental --, you realize you wouldn't be able to guess her age or profession or astrological sign -- this last stunt being your savviest and most useless. Nate's liquored voice gravels in, "Tall americano."

Six girl eyes fire his way; "That's right," Gertrude says, "That's pretty good."

"That was pretty good," you have to agree, and reach up for a garbled high five with your senior barista, "A role model for us all."

Nate gives you a wink and a shrug and smiles, "If you want, Suzie, I'll show you how to impress the ladies sometime."

You punch your No, thanks, I'll handle it into his shoulder and light the cigarette Mikaela just bummed from your pack on the bar, making sure the cap on your zippo clicks shut with snappy finesse.

Gertrude rolls her eyes, clearly the suavest without trying here among the sorry earnestness she's just been privy to. She goes suddenly grave then, her head and voice low, forcing her team to huddle around her next statement, which devastates, "You know guys, I don't think V'Italia coffee is any great shakes." She throws her hair and tight lilliputian shoulders back, reasserting her posture for the challenge.

Nate slams his big hand on the bar. "That's it," he roars, "We're leaving. Come on, Suzie," He unsticks his denim butt from the stool, gives us a toothy grin, and wavers off towards the men's room.

Mikaela giggles, "Did you think he was serious? I thought he was serious." Then in a loud attempt at authority, she slurs, "Can we get some shots over here."

Over Jameson's that arrive in little weeble people-like shot glasses, you and Nate explain to Gertrude that first of all, of course she thinks your coffee's overrated, she's getting the wrong drink, "and second of all," you confess in conspiratorial tones, "the blend has been a tiny bit off lately. We've got this new roaster," you glance at Nate, who nods solemnly his resigned approval for you to go on, tell them, "this new roaster who's a real stoner, and the Viva blend -- that we use for our americano's? -- has been all screwed up."

Nate wants them to fathom the gravity of your breech here. "We've probably been bugged," he says, "We'll probably be fired." He drains his shot.

Gertrude and Mikaela look skeptical but Nate's determined, "No, it's true." He tells them the unfortunate account of Maggie, aspiring barback, who couldn't keep her mouth shut regarding a certain shipment of beans following a dry spell in Guatemala. "Fired on the spot," says Nate, "Kevin had to get on the bar his prissy little self to close out her shift. No one ever heard from her again."

You were told this tale upon being hired yourself. Crafty fear tactic, you thought, but after serving Kevin a mediocre espresso one Sunday when he showed up unannounced, and then suffering his prancing scorn and humiliation into the following week until the next poor schlep pulled a lousy shot, you believed every word of it. You tell Gertrude what's on your mind. "Listen, you shouldn't be drinking tall drinks anyway. Everyone knows the short ceramic and to-go cups are sexier. And two, short drinks have less water to dilute the espresso. Duh," you add with a smile of what you hope comes off as faux-condescension. You love telling people this theory because it's true; a V'Italia employee, all of whom have the market cornered on what passes as "sexy," wouldn't be caught dead with a tall cup in her hand, unless, of course, it's filled with beer. "Also," you continue, "get the Gold blend; it's heartier."

"Definitely," Nate nods.

Gertrude shakes her head, miffed, "What am I ordering?"

You and Nate, patient enough in your duties of snobbery but a tad exasperated, say on cue together, "Short Gold Americano."

Gertrude and Mikaela look exasperated too, clearly over the whole learning experience. You light a cigarette and shed your own sardonic light on what you know they're thinking: "Isn't this just so Seattle?" You drag and exhale reflectively to set a new mood. "I mean, we've spent the past 20 minutes of our lives discussing which espresso beverage makes a person sexy."

You feel Nate slump at your side, "Oh Christ," he says, "here we go: The Suzie Theory on why Seattle and everyone in it is so shallow, also known as, Why-She-Hates-It-Here-But-Won't-Leave."

"Shut up, Nate." You turn to the women you know instinctively understand where you're coming from. "Okay," you solicit, pushing up your shirtsleeves to properly administer your poll, "Where are you guys from?"

"Durham, North Carolina," Mikaela says with a languid stretch over the "I." "And before that Gertrude lived in Long Island."

"You're kidding," you say. You would not have pegged her for a New Yorker, or even a wanna-be-New-Yorker from that swampy strip of rudeness and bad accents. In fact, Gertrude's veneer feels fairly suited to this Coast: limp, sloppy clothes with a boot-clad edge and a health-nut's pallor. It's the lean, strict set of her jaw, her harsh laugh and discerning gaze that confide in you she's on fire, and deserves a city that will coax the burn right out of her. You wonder if, in all your years of watching women and finding beauty in the damnedest places, you've ever seen such fierceness as this girl. You recall your conversation with Morgan the morning you caught these two stunners slouched in love along a damp, brightening street. Your were in typically caustic, hungover form, pushing and pulling at your heartbroken ex-lover in a series of nights into mornings you should not have been spending together. Even Morgan, generally far more magnanimous and generous of spirit than you, spewed a little bile at the PDA passing on your left. "Too sexy for their shirts," she quoted, from the club song that you normally sing out at young, slick, presumptuous lesbians pointedly not giving each other the time of day. Her surliness startled you and struck at the crust around your fondness for her. You reached around her waist and snuck in to brush your lips by her jaw, when they turned to look back at you. You peer at Gertrude now and remember to wonder what they'd said.

"`Fucking Seattle lesbians,'" she offers. "That's what we said the other morning when we passed you."

"Hmm," you reflect, "That about summed it up for us as well."

"Actually," says Mikaela, "We thought ya'll were real cute." She winks to keep you guessing whether her dialectic slips back to Durham are self-parody or genuine.

Gertrude backs her girlfriend up on this one, "It's true. Plus we liked your asses all sidling along together."

She turns towards Mikaela, who nods and confesses triumphantly through low-blown smoke, "We were objectifying you."

They laugh together then, and the marveling pain in your throat for all you ever wanted -- a girlfriend who wasn't too possessive or politically correct or uptight to scope chicks with you -- propels your curiosity, "How long have you guys been together anyway?"

Gertrude says five years at the same time Mikaela says six. They concede it depends on what you mean by "together." You don't need an explanation to decode this routine. You've assessed the butch/femme dichotomy here to gather that one of them -- probably Mikaela -- considers their first kiss their anniversary, while the no-nonsense Gertrude naturally gauges everything from the first time they had sex. Their individual definitions of sex may be fraught with disparities, for that matter. You say as much because you've suddenly never felt so comfortable with a couple before. They've invited you into their easy dynamic and a charmed hunch tells you there's not much you can't say here.

Gertrude responds, "Well, if you count our very first kiss," and here her fine, sinewy grasp finds her lover's knee, "Then we've been together for more like eight years." Nate and you take an admiring breath and stare into your beers. Anything over two years for you has been disastrous, and anything over a month for Nate means he has a stalker on his hands. Gertrude and Mikaela sense as much and Mikaela goes on to explain politely that that first kiss didn't count --

"Couldn't count," Gertrude busts in, "Because she was underage and her parents were gonna haul my ass to jail."

"Yeah," contends the former minor in question. "What she said."

Even Cass, your professionally discrete bartender, puts both elbows on her own bar to hunker down for this one. But the two mystifying outlaws are having none of it. "There's not enough whiskey in this city or hours left before work to get me started down that road," Mikaela says, shaking her head and widening the grin that reads, "Really guys, you don't want to know."

You're watchful of this well-mannered but effective refusal, and you gather from Gertrude's tender, obliged pinch at her champion's elbow that there's real tragedy lurking in the backwaters of their survival. Cass, one part occupation, two parts Alabama, offers a respectful round on the house and takes her leave.

Gertrude asks what exactly you all were talking about before the Ricki Lake inquiry into her love life started.

Nate responds, all sugar and sarcasm, "Suzie was quizzing you to make sure you're ambivalent enough about Seattle to make it a suitable home for yourselves."

Gertrude is quick to oblige and would like to know "how come everyone here is so goddamn flighty and noncommittal, and why, just when you think you may have connected with someone, she doesn't call you back or forgets to show up for the coffee date you both agreed to last week because she `totally spaced that I had an appointment with my herbalist this morning.'"

This last bit, replete as it is with trippy-hippy hand gestures, nearly hurtles Nate off his barstool. The West Coast native in him can't deny our new pal's uncanny impression of how it is to try and make plans or potential friends in this part of the world. You sit open-mouthed with relief and a thrill that beside you sits the only other person this side of Iowa who gets it.

You call such instances the "Yes, exactly! phenomenon" and you find they occur less often and with less enthusiasm every year older you get and every mile you've spent away from Pittsburgh. You test this one a little to see if it sticks. "Okay, what else? I find the PC-ness of this place nauseating and ungenuine. Yourselves?"

Two resounding nods in the affirmative encourage you to rant on. "Where back home I was merely sarcastic and funny as hell, here I have a goddamn anger management disorder."

Nate looses it all over again at your apparent indignation over this general consensus. Having a certifiable and as yet untreated control issue himself, his hysterics remain void of anything too accusatory. Mikaela lets go a lovely chuckle of the blonde-bombshell variety you're a real sucker for, the ones whose eyes and giggles convince you, with no sincerity whatsoever, that you're the funniest, most gripping person the girl has ever met. You like her all over again in a gregarious tingle of pins and needles, awe and gratitude.

Gertrude gives you a slow nod; her smile is serious and validating. She says, "Exactly. Exactly." Then, "Where are from, anyway?"

"Pittsburgh," you bolden, and prepare for the worst. But she doesn't say she's sorry and she doesn't mistake it for Philadelphia in the next sentence and she doesn't flinch or wrinkle her nose, as if she can suddenly smell the soot your city hasn't mass-produced for decades all over you. These are the reactions you most often get for being so tragically geographically impaired. Instead she repeats, "Pittsburgh. I've always wanted to go to Pittsburgh."

This clinches it. You ask Cass for a pen and break your number one rule of never giving your phone number to anyone you meet at a bar or at an AA meeting. On napkins damply ringed with your evening, digits are exchanged and promises are made a little self-consciously now that you've all indicted an entire city on its tasteless hallmark of hollow plans.

Nate reminds you of the walk to volunteer Park you still have to make for the sheer high school thrill of breaking an open container law. You get off your stool and pull out your credit card to pay for everything that's happened here, murmuring one thing or another about debt and alcoholism because you like to be upfront with your friends. Gertrude says she's not interested in getting an alcoholic into anymore debt. She does not say, you note, that she's not interested in an alcoholic, and in fact adds, "I'm going to call you." You register and file the absence of "We." You admire the independence this suggests about their relationship while trying not to get excited about any fluid delineations of monogamy it could mean. You recall a vow you made several drinks ago and say, "Good. We should all get together." You look decidedly at Mikaela as you say this, so that everyone can pretend you're not about to fall in love with Gertrude when only a minute ago you felt so innocuously cozy with them both. Your brain is suddenly very heavy, very full and overwhelmed and bewildered by the intangible rules of triangles. You grab onto Nate's uncomplicated arm, pulling him from his stool, and head for the door.

It doesn't exactly rain in Seattle. It spits and drizzles and threatens and tapers off and hovers and spits some more. It's in drizzle mode as you step from Plenty onto Pike. It's very late, sometime after one, and the wet October air smacks your flush face. Your cigarette has never tasted better and you take long strides to stretch and cool down from another breathless rendering of everything wrong West of the Mississippi. The sleek, empty street makes you hopeful for something nameless but closer, and for this one minute that might turn into an hour or a lifetime, Seattle's not so bad. You can almost imagine living here. You smile all around and see Nate in his red slicker and wet head down at the Texaco lot on the corner. He's waiting for you; the night is so young.

Supposedly there's a surviving blue law in Washington State that dictates one cannot purchase alcohol between the hours of two a.m. and six a.m. Because you're under no illusions that you need alcohol to at least be available to you 24 hours a day, you've always been one to plan ahead and have never needed to buy your product between these law-enforced hours. When Nate comes out of the mini-mart empty handed, you know all the rumors about four hour Prohibition are true. You're crushed, and the tiniest panic starts its esophageal burn. Before it spreads to your fingers, you light a cigarette and remember your refrigerator just two blocks away. There'd been a two-for-one on 22-ouncers of Pete's at the Red Apple that morning; you bought six. "Nate," you say, "Never fear. You've hooked up with a real boy scout tonight."

You're not sure how he's convinced you that he has to come inside your Nazi-dyke living arrangement, wherein lives -- and sleeps like the dead, you pray -- the gun-toting landlady who will evict you should the hairy-rapist-likes of your friend so much as step foot on her porch. And yet as you empty your fridge into your knapsack, you hear Nate's virile stream of urine echo menacingly into the communal toilet. You're sure they all hear it too and even your bloodstream's sluggish alcohol level can't keep your heart from slamming against your sternum. You remind yourself that anxiety is the reason you drink in the first place, remember?, and try to play it cool as Nate saunters back in from the loo. "I put the seat down," he reassures, and you smile at the ridiculousness of the whole thing, then prod him down the stairs to get the hell out of there.

Back on track outside, sipping from paper bags, you say, "Well Nate, if ever we were going to have sex, that was our chance."

"What? Back at the Bulldagger Villa?" He cracks himself up. "I guess that would have been the way to do it, huh?"

"We won't rule it out...maybe next time," you say. But you don't want a next time because you're one of those bulldaggers and you know pretty damn well where your fantasy life ends and reality begins. Nate knows it too. He also knows Cynthia's name finally, thanks to you. He says he's going to ask her out. You've arrived at a swing-set inside a murky Volunteer Park. Even at 2:30 a.m. it's a fairly safe place; the creepiest man you could meet is probably there to cruise other men; you're not scared. Besides, Nate is one tall dude with a pistol-quick temper and at least pretends to be protective of you. You think, "This is the closest I'll walking deep into the night and being okay."

You turn to Nate on his swing, who's excitedly telling you his plan to ask her her on a "real date," he says, "dinner and everything."

You can only imagine what an unreal date means for this man of a million hickies and a shady anecdote behind every one. You're happy for him, having already divulged from Cynthia herself that she'll say yes. You decide to let Nate find this out for himself and only say, "Name your first-born after me, will you. I'm the one getting you two fools together." Too bad they'll have a boy.

Nate suddenly remembers he's covering a shift "for Morgan, actually, in like, three hours. Shit."

"Oh man, Nate, I'm sorry." You really do feel his pain. Those six o'clock shifts are killers, big money and no stopping for six hours in a row, pounding out shots for the bar's more nastily addicted, otherwise known as the employed.

On your way out of the park, you're sly to maneuver the walk back into the neighborhood so that you end on 17th, one of the few streets with brick apartment buildings crammed with wood-paned windows and distant, lamplit lives shaded by bulging old maples. For two blocks you pretend you're back in Pittsburgh with beer and a buddy and surroundings you can handle -- the brick dense with history, the drops off the branches sliding along your face. Morgan lives in one of these places. It's no coincidence you've come up here. Nate inquires, "Suzie, should I take you home?"

You stop in front of a sprawling red-brick thing that makes up the block between Olive and Union. "You just did," you say, and nod towards the door.

Nate now knows officially where you live, of course, or this could all be pulled off far less awkwardly. He only rolls his eyes and says, "I don't even want to know who lives here." He comes at you for a great bear hug and you exchange what terrific times you both had and you should do it again, soon, and see you Saturday. You kiss his now very rough cheek. He checks out with the usual, "Bye, sweetie," that you always wait for and cling to for half-a-second. You watch him jaunt across the street and wish him teary, drunken, melodramatic godspeed.

"Morgan," you say into the buzzer grate, "It's me, Suzie."

She's too groggy to want to know what the hell you're doing there; the front door clicks, and you're in. The hallways smell musty and medicinally like Nate's first Scotch so many -- it seems suddenly -- days ago. You arrive on the third floor and to a mass of red hair poking out from her apartment door. Morgan's face is pale and hot with sleep; her red hair is always ablaze however, and this contrasts eerily with the pitch-black hole beyond the open crack of the door. The feeling like you made a mistake kicks in, right on time, but by now you're so used to this misgiving that you push on passed it into the muggy studio.

"Christ this place is hot." You switch on a bedside light, blinding the two pretty blue mole eyes wincing in front of you.

"Suzie, what are you doing here?"

"I was with Nate and he told me he's covering your shift tomorrow morning and I wanted to know why." The integrity of this statement impresses you. You had no idea that's why you'd come but its straight shot over to the bemused twist of Morgan's mouth strikes you both as about right.

"I have an audition."

"Oh," you nod. You feel pretty dumb all of a sudden and then remember that one of the reasons you got dumped was you weren't outwardly supportive enough of her acting career. You decide to remedy this once and for all and ask, "For what...with whom?"

"For a show going up at the Intiman, actually."

Now this is impressive, extremely, and even out-of-the-loop you knows to show it. "You're kidding?" you say, stirring two smiles, "Morgan, that's awesome. I'm so impressed." You back into a kitchen chair, thumping down hard on its seat in your renewed reverence for a great actress who ends up in lots of unpaid schlock. Morgan's peering into her refrigerator. She's washed in its light and you note just how chiseled her frame has gotten in the year you've been in Tae Kwon Do together. You think for the zillionth time, "That could be my body; if I weren't a total disaster and loving it, I could have that body." The duplicity here comes as no surprise either and you know Morgan doesn't want to hear a word of it, sick unto death as she is, poor thing, of your self-loathing and your sporadic, over-achieving, athletic struggle for redemption, which generally gets you little more than black eyes, pulled hamstrings, and a shoddy excuse to pop percocet like candy. She pulls out two Rolling Rocks, cracks off the caps, puts them on the table, and straddles the chair across from yours. You jerk your shoulders in astonishment.

"Morgan?," you probe, "Why do you have beer?"

"I was upset earlier," she retorts, with a short, dont-ask bottoms up of the bottle.

"Hmm." You're speechless here. Morgan never drinks. Never in your skewed estimation can range from the literal to a drink or two per week. This is one of Morgan's most endearing and infuriating quirks: She gets hideously upset, usually over your heedless disregard for your own welfare, so she goes and buys a six-pack herself, and guzzles it up, getting sadder and sloppier by the bottle. It doesn't happen with any regularity, say every couple months, and she certainly never shares the opportunity with you. You're always selfishly a little relieved when you see the empty bottles in her recycling bin; she may not be an alcoholic, you think, but at least she's human. Her unwavering devotion to her career and the martial arts and veganism and getting out of bed each morning has often made you wonder.

You take a long, icy swallow. Morgan has on a tight thermal shirt and striped flannel pajama pants. He bare feet maintain textbook arches and their moonlit elegance chokes you up a single, breath-catching notch. Your evening comes back to you in searchlighted sweeps across the eclipsed fog of your memory. "Hey," you perk up, "I met those two women we saw the other day, the touchy-feely gorgeous ones."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah, they're amazing women, I think. The one's name is Gertrude. Can you believe that?"

But Morgan doesn't care about any new bar friends you might have made tonight, and she clearly doesn't remember the vacuum sweeper named Gert. She's quiet and thoughtful and asks should she drive you home now. Your house is only three blocks away but one of the corners is on a creepy wide avenue separating your sparkling, bar-hopping Capitol Hill from the shadowy, dilapidated, residential one where you live. You'd certainly accept a ride home at this point. You'd certainly stay right here all night too, with this girl who knows you right down to your waterlogged bag of bones for better or, unavoidably, for worse. She looks over at you like she heard that, and picks her keys up off the table.



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