(after Anton Chekhov's story of the same title)
"He can't stand being alone. Believe it or not, he has separation anxiety -- goes into hysterics whenever he's left alone -- even by a stranger, like if you left right now, he'd freak out." The handsome woman was talking about her pit-bull, a brownish, tail-wagging, barking thing. "He's been diagnosed with separation anxiety and just started taking Prozac -- but for dogs."
"Where do you leave him during work?" I asked Tasha, the bartender at Food Bar who boasted the longest tenure of all the staff, male or female -- four years. She wore a tight black t-shirt and black pants. Big muscles, even for a man. But she wasn't a man. Her dog kept barking hysterically, twisting his leash into a series of knots.
"Crouton, shh! No noise!," she stubbed her cigarette out on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, made sure it was extinguished and then tossed it into a mesh trashcan. The butt tumbled out of the side of the trashcan, despite her efforts to dispose of it properly. "He stays in the back office; I usually walk him once a night, when Alison covers the bar for me."
Alison was a much younger woman, also dressed in a tight black t-shirt and pants. I had been told that the dress-code was black, but I didn't know how tight. The idea, insinuated by the manager, was to look as much like a gay man as possible, without drawing too much attention to oneself. And in my, Alison's and Tasha's case, without drawing attention to the fact that one was not a man, but rather a mannish woman. A certain aesthetic was clearly being met.
Alison looked at her wristwatch and stubbed out her cigarette, too. She tossed hers into the gutter. "No wonder the dog's such a fucking nut-job -- cooped up in that office all night long. I'd be crazy, too. Where's my Prozac?"
Tasha shot Alison a queer look, to which Alison responded by shoving her hands into her pockets and looking up 8th Avenue, eyes fixed on the lights that were just starting to ignite above the street -- and above them, a darkened Empire State Building.
Crouton must've known he was the topic of discussion, because he lifted his muzzle and whimpered pitifully. "What about me?" he seemed to ask. "My suffering is beyond human comprehension, so please forgive me. But will I or won't I get my walk tonight?"
It was an August night, warm, with stars just starting to appear. The boys started filing onto the street, clean-shaven, sunburned, and glowing in their many shades of tight tank-tops and perfectly-weathered leather sandals. Never having been in a position to be in the service of these boys, I found the warm, surging mood (dazed, leisurely faces) gloomier than it actually was. In desperate need of cash, I had stumbled upon this wait-staff position at an upscale and trendy Chelsea restaurant only a few days before. Because I was fifteen minutes from being inundated by dozens of wishes and demands that were not my own, I found myself seeking some sort of mentoring by the older Tasha and even the younger and brooding Alison.
In fact, after the initial discussion and subsequent tension and ruckus ostensibly caused by the dog, I felt right at home with the two women, who playfully ribbed me as we were doing sidework to get the restaurant adequately prepared for Saturday dinner. For some reason, I felt as though they let me in during the short time we had spent getting to know each other. But it did appear to me that there was something afoot between Alison and Tasha that was not immediately apparent -- a contest of sorts, and one that had started some time before I arrived on the scene.
About five minutes before our shift officially began, Alison lit up another quick cigarette, and the three of us stood watching the living, breathing street: the tall, half-cocked construction crane; the bent trashcans; wet trash; muddied puddles; jagged heaps of garbage; the second-floor apartments with dull lights of their own; the cars packed nose to rear on either side of the avenue, double parked with lights flashing in some cases; the packs of men -- sometimes five abreast -- studiously heading to their chosen evening destinations -- perhaps some to our very establishment. There was so little order on that street that the clutter somehow gave the landscape (cityscape?) a weird, bizarre configuration redolent of primeval chaos. But then it was also so disordered that it approached order, in that everything -- the cars on the street, pedestrians on the sidewalk, streetlamps above -- everything was in the right place. But ultimately, all of it felt utterly otherworldly to me. Saturday was not the best night for one to be carrying her first solo shift at a busy Chelsea restaurant.
Alison pulled on her cigarette a few more times. She sighed audibly while exhaling.
"What's up your ass?" asked Tasha, clapping the young Alison on the shoulder, harder than mere affection would seem to dictate.
Alison didn't answer. I watched the two out of the corner of my eye, as though I weren't in fact interested in what they were saying. We three stood there silently, and I noticed that we all noticed when the Empire State Building's lights came on -- all red.
"What do you suppose that's for?" Tasha asked to no one in particular.
Neither Alison nor I responded.
"It's what, August 10th? What day is that?" she asked, confirming the date on her wristwatch. "Nothing special, no Valentine's, no war, no one died, nothing."
"Does there have to be anything?" Alison asked. "Maybe it's nothing. No-Thing. Nothing."
The dog started barking and spinning in a circle around the parking meter to which he was tied.
"Shh. No noise!" Tasha yelled. "What does that mean?" she asked Alison, who by then had finished another cigarette and was standing looking at the glowing Empire State Building with her hands on her hips.
I looked too, and because it wasn't quite night, the red lights on the building looked somehow impotent, dull, and in the process of vanishing in the distant gloom -- rather than growing more brilliant. Tourists' flashbulbs ignited random mini-explosions from the observation-deck.
"It means nothing. It's red because some schmuck decided, 'Today, red,' not because it means anything. Just that. Some red-faced, fat, white, heterosexual, privileged male decided to make his phallus red for the night, and people the likes of you run around speculating about some deeper meaning underneath it all. It's just a big, red representation of a dick in the sky."
"How old are you?" asked Tasha?
"How old are you, I want to know," Tasha said, flexing her muscles.
"How old are you?" Alison asked.
"Oh," Alison said. "Well, I'm twenty-two."
I felt there was no need to point out the obvious: that Tasha was exactly double the young Alison's age. I chose instead to keep my math to myself and see where the verbal joust was headed.
"You've spent too much time at a women's college, no doubt nestled cozily somewhere in New England, no?"
"Why? What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means I've been in rehab for smack three times -- two successfully -- hustled for a few years to eat, and no less than 50 of my friends have died in front of me over the last 15 years."
"So. That some sort of badge?" Alison looked at her watch. I looked at mine as well and noticed that our shift was just about to start. Then to me, Alison said, "El, how many of your friends die? Me, I've personally known only one. But let's put our numbers up and go head-to-head with Tasha."
I did not say anything.
"Please, like any of this matters," Alison said.
Tasha coughed and cleared her throat. "You haven't earned an attitude like that, sweetcheeks," Tasha said to Alison. "The pointlessness of it all, the futility of this world, huh? I read you the minute you walked in here and filled out a job application."
I did not feel comfortable engaging in this conversation, so I tied my pouch around my waist and entered the restaurant. Alison followed me, and Tasha came in last, taking her place behind the bar and putting the tip jar prominently in the center of the bar. The jar said simply, "TIPS."
Business was steady, but manageable. I handled my section adequately. Tasha prioritized my drinks so that my tables remained happy. The boys were drinking a lot of cool Cosmopolitans, vodka Martinis, imported beers. The restaurant got louder as the night went on, faces reddened, tabs amassing. I had a wad of cash accumulating in my pouch, and the night was far from being over.
At the end of the evening, when there were just two tables finishing up their dinners, Tasha proceeded to tell Alison and me a story. Neither of us seemed very interested -- we were quite busy cleaning up and breaking down our various stations -- but Tasha was intent on telling us about the past.
This took place one summer in the late 1970s, when I had just finished college. Or I was finished with college, or it finished me. (I never got a diploma.) I was going to the University of California at Santa Cruz, and when I was fed up with my early English novel class and the fact that all of the books were by white men, I went down to Los Angeles for five days. It's where I was born and grew up, I should say.
I don't love Los Angeles. I like New York much more, but I'm sure there's nothing odd in my feeling excessively at ease in the comfortable bourgeois niche in which I was raised. I didn't know what I was doing back in L.A. I presume I had a notion that I was about to be loosed somehow, and going home was a good place to start the process of becoming undone. I walked miserably past the high school I attended, and I took a melancholy stroll through the park along Ocean Avenue, which runs parallel to the blue Pacific Ocean below.
The bluff was a favorite haunt of my childhood. I went there both alone and with friends, to drink, smoke drugs, huff and puff in a sexual manner behind the sets of low bushes. I sat on a bench, leaned over the railing and looked down at the Santa Monica Pier with its rattling ferris wheel and national historical monument of an indoor carousel. It had been repainted since the last time I saw it -- red and orange. The ocean was rough; there were white caps as far as I could see.
You know, when a depressive person is on her own by the ocean, or thinks about any scenery that is impressive simply in its grandeur, her sadness is always combined with a conviction that she'll live and die in obscurity. So, the natural response is to find the nearest sharp object or permanent marker and etch one's name into a piece of rock or wood, or other place that immediately becomes handy. This is why all lonely, secluded spots like that park bench and rocks surrounding waterfalls are always covered with graffiti and carved names and random dates. I did the very thing: with my pocket-knife I carved "Tash was here -- 1977" onto the second slat of the backrest.
I felt sad and a little bored. The boredom, the noise in my head, the waves' humming and the cars on Ocean Avenue, gradually brought on that same feeling of futility which Alison was just expressing. In retrospect it might've had something to do with inhaling all the fumes emitted by leaded gasoline, but even by the ripe age of 22, I was already well aware that existence lacked all meaning and purpose, that everything was a sham and illusion, that the life of an inmate in San Quentin was essentially the same as that within the walls of a three-story stuccoed mansion in Beverly Hills, that the difference between the brain of an Einstein and that of a fly had no real significance, that no one in this world was either right or wrong, that everything was nonsense, and could go to hell.
Well, judging from my own case, it should be apparent that the line of thought under consideration has an addictive, narcotic element, like tobacco or heroin, at its center. You exploit every moment of solitude, seize every chance to gloat over the pointlessness of existence and the darkness of the grave, like Alison most likely spends her days off doing.
While I sat on that bench a group of school children filed by, corralled by three teachers in the front, middle and rear of the pack. The kids oohed and aahed at a dog standing on two legs at the promise of a Frisbee that its owner was dangling in front of him, just out of reach. I thought: Why are these children born, I wonder, what do they live for? Is there any sense in their existence? They'll grow up like me, not knowing why, they'll live in this God-forsaken hell-hole of a city, get unhappily married and raise kids of their own who'll waddle down Ocean avenue on a field trip from school. And then they'll die.
I actually became annoyed with those children for walking and talking as though they did in fact know what they were living for. Then two women walked between me and the children; they strolled arm in arm, on a lunch-break perhaps, both in crisp business-suits. My anger subsided a small amount.
It would be nice to distract oneself with a woman -- one of these, even -- I thought, as I watched them pass with wadded-up lunch bags and rolled-up pant legs. As these two faded beneath a row of palm trees, my eyes fell upon the next wooden bench, where a young woman sat as I did, though she was decidedly more feminine. She wore a tight t-shirt with a light sweater of sorts over it, unbuttoned in the front. She looked listlessly down at the ocean, the pier, the amusement rides below. She sighed audibly, which I took for a means of capturing my attention, because she accompanied the sigh with a bored glance my way.
It was at that precise moment she entered me. It was as quick as that. And though she appeared to have little to no interest me or anyone else, I decided to talk to her all the same. "Excuse me, but do you have the time?" I asked, quite un-creatively.
She looked at her skinny arm, maneuvered her wrist so as to view the face of her wristwatch, which had slid around to the pale inner surface of her wrist. "Twelve-thirty."
"Hmm, I thought it was later than that," I said, trying to elongate the interaction, or even to get her to look at me once again. But she wouldn't. "Such a beautiful day, too..."
She looked at me dully, then the unimaginable happened: her eyes widened, her face seemed to flush. "Tasha, right? Don't you remember me? Kristen Teller, from SaMo High?"
"Kristen, yes," I managed, though I did not readily recognize her.
"We were in "Oklahoma" together, remember? 'Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry...'" she sang.
"'When I take you out in my surrey, when I -- ' yes, I remember," I said.
She joined me on my bench. We had kissed once and only once in high school -- -- behind the Dumpsters after my volleyball practice and her choir rehearsal. She put her arm around me, her ear next to my ear, the way she had that day by the Dumpsters. I knew it was impossible, but she smelled the way she had that afternoon. Or at least the way I remembered her smelling.
"I'm fucked," she said, holding up her left hand and pointing to what was presumably an engagement ring.
"What do you mean?"
"Kiss me," she said. And so I did.
My table motioned for their check, and I interrupted Tasha to add it up and drop it off. Alison was wiping down the condiments with a wet rag. She looked as though she wanted to say: "I can't wait to see where this is going," as though she'd endured dozens of Tasha's stories in the past. But I was interested and couldn't wait to run my table's credit card so I could hear what happened with Tasha and her high school friend.
Tasha bent behind the bar and came up with a rack of sparkling clean glasses. She began to unload them onto the racks above the bar, and Alison turned to me and said, "That Tasha sure does know how to tell a story, eh?" She was adding up her checks and separating cash from credit receipts.
Tasha dropped a glass onto the bar, but it did not break. She continued.
So needless to say, the afternoon ended up east of the park benches where we met, all the way down Wilshire Boulevard, to the Stardust Motel. There was a day rate, but I paid for overnight.
After we'd made love several times -- Kristen's engagement ring sitting on the dusty end table next to the by-then-bare mattress -- she scooted up against the pressed-wood headboard and lit a cigarette.
"This must be a bit confusing to you," she said after a few slow hits from the cigarette, accompanied by sighs. The sheets made a scratchy noise when threaded in between her thighs. Even her legs seemed to sigh when she moved them.
"They say that every sigh is a kiss that was never given," I said.
"Please. Where did you get that line?" Kristen asked, giggling.
"I don't know where I got it. You have to admit it was apropos just then, right?"
"Not really," she said. Then, "What? Don't you wonder about this?"
"This, my ring, me in bed with you."
"Not really. But I presume you want to tell me about it."
"As I said before, I'm fucked," she said calmly, finishing her cigarette. She was beautiful. The fluttering inside me surged once again, as it had several times since we sang "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" together in the park. But I kept it down.
"Fucked, how?" I asked.
"I'm walking out on him. The wedding's on Saturday. I'm not telling anyone." She laughed rather diabolically. I pictured a nice, skinny boy with his hair slicked back, standing in a church with a white tuxedo jacket and a red flower on his lapel -- all alone. "I thought about that kiss for years."
"Why didn't you do anything about it?" I asked.
"I did. I slept with girls in college. And now this -- this has to count for something."
"Perhaps." I became acutely aware then, of a time that would come sooner or later when Kristen and I, her scrawny fiancee, the dog begging for the Frisbee, all of us would lie under the dark and weeping trees beyond a cemetery wall. But at the same time, I was troubled -- horrified -- that Kristen would leave that room, not marry the guy and still I would have nothing beyond this afternoon in the Stardust motel, the crusty mattress, the cigarette-burned indoor-outdoor carpeting.
"Well, what is it you want, my dear?" I mumbled finally. "Should we go to the ends of the earth together? I'll take you away from this hell-hole, I'll give you happiness. I love you, I mean, should we go, should we?"
Her face actually seemed surprised at first, but then she slipped back into the mocking laughter that marked her discussion of the inanity of her predicament. In the midst of the laughter I pulled myself back on top of her and began kissing her on the forehead, the eyes, temples. I kept making vows, promises, ridiculous avowals of what, I didn't know. Oaths and promises are practically a physiological necessity in love affairs. Sometimes you know you are lying, and yet you swear that the promises are true. And other times, you actually believe the shit yourself.
Kristen pulled away and looked at me above her. "What's this?" she asked.
"Well, well, what a story," Alison broke in. "Then you turned this girl gay, up and moved to Hawaii and ran a sugar-cane farm together -- of course paying your laborers fairly and limiting their work-days to a maximum of twelve hours." Alison began putting chairs upside down on the tables.
The last customers had exited the restaurant, and Tasha locked the front door behind them. I was still adding up my tickets at the bar. I had made $135 in tips on credit cards. And about $50 in cash.
"I see you're threatened by this, Alison. What's that about?" Tasha asked, finally sitting down on a bar-stool next to me. "Besides, maybe this is for the benefit of our new friend El here, and has nothing to do with you."
"Oh, I'm sure my lesson's coming," Alison said, and unwrapped the pouch from around her slender hips. Alison excused herself and disappeared downstairs to the restroom. She came back up with Tasha's dog, tongue lolling out. Tasha didn't resume the story until Alison was back within earshot.
I awoke in the Stardust Hotel alone. I was entirely disoriented because it was night, but it felt as though it should've been morning. I looked at the clock by the bed, the lights twinkling in through the slats in the drapes. A sushi restaurant across the street emanated red and blue neon, which appeared as thin lines on the hotel-room ceiling.
It took me a moment to realize where I was, who I had been with. Then I remembered Kristen's smell, the loud sighs, her pale neck and flushed face when she had an orgasm underneath me. And then there was the Dumpsters in high school -- the way neither of us had been scared, but rather sure of our kiss as though it was the most perfect thing on earth.
Surely I'm not in love? I wondered, scratching my hand because it had been resting on the brown, stained exposed corner of the mattress.
What had impressed me so profoundly about Kristen? Her plan to walk out on her wedding? Maybe she wasn't really going to walk out at all. Maybe she would marry the skinny fiancee, have the three kids, move to the Valley and become fat and miserable and stagnant, and then die.
I called information for Kristen's number. There was no listing. I asked for her family's house, but no luck. I went back to the bench on Ocean Avenue, looked down at the carousel. I could not find her. I didn't know if what I was doing even constituted looking. I started smoking, to round out the pouty, brooding air I had embraced since waking up alone in the Stardust.
I decided to walk out onto Santa Monica Pier to look back at the beach, the bluffs. Stuffed animals blew in the wind above empty midway games. No one was playing. A man in a straw hat yelled my way: "Three shots free, three shots free." But the oversized, rubber softballs never actually fit through the lips of the jugs anyway.
I thought I'd had it all together, that I'd done some serious thinking during all of my tortured 22 years. I'd come up with all I needed to know about the pointlessness of life and the darkness of the grave. But there, alone on the pier, it was through the loss of Kristen (or the idea of Kristen), my great misfortune that I came to comprehend my own all-around ignorance. That the brooding I'd done lead only to emotional sterility, boredom, one-sidedness, detachment.
And where has it left me? Twenty-two years later, in some ways in the very same place I started off. No Kristen, just a fantasy swirling around her, a dingy motor hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, and the white caps on the ocean.
"Ah well," Alison began. "These missed opportunities, life's little mysteries, small torture -- it happens."
We were on the street again. Tasha pulled down the gate over the facade of the restaurant. It slid down grudgingly, though Tasha made it look easy. It echoed through the silent block. A streetlamp above us went out, and all three of us looked up at it as though we were being set up for an attack of some sort.
Alison's face expressed intellectual inertia. Clearly she was not moved in any way by Tasha's story. I didn't know whether or not I was, but I found myself defensive of Tasha and wanting Alison to demonstrate at least some measure of humility or respect.
"What, you think I'm supposed to be converted after that story?" Alison asked. "You look as though you think you've succeeded at something."
"Me? No, I'm not trying to convert anyone," Tasha said. "I don't think I ever made any such claim. I was just sharing a little tidbit with our new friend here, and hoping maybe a little of it would rub off on you."
We headed up 8th Avenue, Tasha's dog urinating on various upright objects. The tip of the Empire State Building still glowed red. A few boys stumbled out of a taxi on the corner of 18th Street. One howled into the hot silence the way construction workers acknowledge a passing woman, attractive or not. But he wasn't howling at any woman.
"How, then, is this supposed to rub off on me?" asked Alison. "You still feel the same way as I. Why can older people come to this conclusion, but it is so detestable in the young? It's as though it's a matter of gray hairs or number of heroin addictions conquered."
"Oh no, my dear girl. Please. Older folk get their pessimism from the inside of their heads -- not from the outside, like the young. We get it from suffering, and being wrong, fucking up, and losing, and making endless mistakes, often the same ones over and over again, never getting it right."
Alison coughed rather sarcastically.
Tasha went on. "You hate life and everything in it because you believe life's meaning is hidden from you and only you. And because of that, you fear your own death. Those who earn their pessimism suffer because the truth is hidden from everyone -- they fear for all of humanity's death, not just their own."
"Well, that's a load of crap. You're full of it, and anyway, I gotta head east," Alison said. "Nice working with you El. And Tasha: always a pleasure."
She turned right down 21st Street, and the dog barked a few times. Before Alison got too far, she turned and said, "And your story -- it proves nothing," and disappeared.
We continued up 8th Avenue in silence. But I, too, soon had to head east. Tasha's dog began spinning circles and barking hysterically when it looked like we were separating, that the pack was breaking up.
"It's no wonder the dog goes crazy when people leave," Tasha said. "I'd do it too, if it were socially acceptable."
I said, "Good-bye. I'll see you day after tomorrow," and looked up 23rd. Just before I turned to go, Tasha looked at me and lead my eyes to the Empire State Building. At that second, the red lights were extinguished. The entire structure reduced to one blinking red light at its tip.
"I'm sorry if Alison and I bored you with our sparring," Tasha said, her dog calming slightly. "It gets so boring in that hell-hole, what else is there to do but talk about shit? Can't shoot up, can't drink; no, there's no fun anymore."
"Not at all, not at all," I said, looking back up at the blackened building.
"I'm still gonna find out why it was red tonight," Tasha said, turning to go. "I'm sure there's some general information number I can call. Yeah."
"Well, goodnight," I said.
"Goodnight." The dog resumed his hysteria.
A lot was said that night. My feet hurt, my back as well. I had a wad of cash, and my skin smelled like olive oil, the way the walls of a restaurant absorb a particular cuisine's aroma.
But then a lot wasn't said, too, I thought. Nothing in this world -- none of it, makes a lot of sense, does it?
As I headed to my tiny, dark studio apartment on 23rd Street, I wondered what color the Empire State Building would be the next night.
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