This is my attempt to write a short story in the first person from a woman’s POV and in the present tense. I won’t be surprised if I’m bad at interpreting the feminine condition. Here goes…
You’ll never catch me at a bar before 1 am. To do what—ripen other tomatoes by contrast? No thanks. Let the lawyers and stockbrokers make their withdrawals of the nines and tens. If I’m early, I’ll wait outside. A woman who sits too long at a bar un-approached takes a cab home, alone. I know my limitations and what they can fetch. You’ll say that I have a pretty face, but you’ll add that I’m not hot. Dolled-up, I turn a few heads with competition out of circulation. And I always wear high heels. They’re too conspicuous—they make me look short. Still, better than not being looked at. Whenever I put on makeup, I think how shallow I must be to give in to the standards of men. Do I really want the men who are all about height and tits and ass?
Who am I kidding? These are the men worth it. The others want the same stuff—they are just too cowardly to reach. Guess how many promotions and raises they get.
I make the last puff count. Living on twenty cigarettes per day is not easy—luckily it’s not true either. I pull out the Newports I save for emergencies. Newports, because if they were Marlboros I’d smoke them all before buying more. Even if I run, I won’t make it to 6th and 7th before Frankie leaves for the night. Frankie sells buttlegged cigarettes on 7th Avenue between 6th and 10th streets. He gets them from Virginia and sells them as loosies—one for seventy-five cents, two for a dollar. Because I have a pretty face, or so he says, he can let go of two packs for fifteen bucks. I know my pack-a-day habit isn’t healthy, but I don’t understand people who don’t smoke at all. The smell of a cigarette in the morning is my Starbucks. If only more people understood that, smoking wouldn’t have that stigma. People are so arbitrary about vices. Some habits are cool, others sin. But it’s not like I’m addicted. In Paris, I smoked fewer than ten in fifteen days, tired of asking Puis-je fumer ici? everywhere. Most people don’t understand that I don’t want to quit. To them, smoking is a pathology that people need to be socialized out of. Nobody thinks it’s impolite to drown someone in tales of doom as long as he’s dangling a cigarette. Try lecturing a guy on sodium as he’s about to eat a hot-dog. Speaking of which, the fat, black guy-at-the-door at Sehrgut is asking an obvious teenager what her sun sign is. Hey, if you have made up a sophisticated test for carding, at least update it now and then. He probably asked her mother the same question fifteen years ago. And it’s pointless too; the ones with the fake IDs have every detail memorized. I exhale upwards to avoid the menthol fumes—I hate smelling them and hate smelling like them.
I’m not carded when I enter Sehrgut at one fifteen. It doesn’t matter. I beat another woman in a polite race to the just-emptied empty stool at the far end of the bar. “Long time,” mouths the bartender. It’s deafening in here. He pours my Aventinus Eisbock into a glass, and immediately tilts his head and smiles when he remembers that I like pouring my own. It starts to get crazy. The bar plays Alicia Keys and Jay Z’s Empire State of Mind even though it’s so old, just so out-of-towners can go Newww Yawwrk. Only someone not from the city can enjoy that song. It irritates New Yorkers. Just like any other tribute to New York, it takes a piece of the city and hands it to outsiders to enjoy. As if they earned it. I start to pay, but the bartender waves me off, his fingers nearly knocking the credit card off my outstretched hand. “Compliments of…that guy,” I follow his finger with a smile ready, but my benefactor is already walking towards me.
“Hi. I’m Sam.”
“Sure. I’m from Chicago; here on vacation.” The stool next to mine becomes empty, and he is quick.
“Oh. I’m from here,” I say.
“That you are. The bartender clearly knows you. You’ve always lived in the city?” I can’t help but smile. He is awful at this. He is not bad-looking and seems sincere. But can he even taste his beer with gum in his mouth?
“I’m from here. But I moved back from DC a year ago.”
“Work?” he asks.
“Yup.” Not true, but no way I’m visiting that topic with a stranger in a bar. This type of situation always makes me uneasy. My pulse is making my wrist feel weird. His face rests on his fist as his elbow digs into the counter—he is trying to look casual. I’m worried that there will be a knuckle-impression on his cheek. Luckily, he switches topics and positions.
“You’re really beautiful, you know?”
“Thanks!” I say. Amazing how he swooped for the kill. I had not figured him to be aggressive. At least he’s looking at my eyes when he is saying it. And it’s not 3 am—that’s when guys go for backhand cross-court winners.
“What do you do, Sam?” I ask, my turn to objectify him.
He said, “I teach Mathematics at the University of Illinois in Chicago,” his last words apologizing for his first. Anybody who expands the word math is probably too serious for me. Suddenly he looks closer to forty than thirty.
I persist. “Nice. I took some grad-level calculus in college.”
“As an undergrad? That’s impressive.” His eyes twinkle. Can eyes really twinkle? “Yeah. I had a crush on this math professor. I worked extra hard. He was impressed, and he asked me to take a few of his graduate courses. It was a fun couple of semesters.” I say.
“You mind if we go someplace where I don’t have to read your lips?” he asks. I haven’t even answered, but he is standing and offering me his hand like I’m stepping off a carriage not a barstool. Thanks Lancelot.
“I know a good place,” I say. There are over two hundred bars in the lower east side.
We walk a few blocks north of Houston to a half-basement. It is louder than Sehrgut in here. People jostle us as they’re walking in, walking out, finding a place to sit, and stealing chairs with jackets wrapped around them. A lady is singing in some Russian sounding language, and at least forty people clap in a place that should really hold twenty. The restroom line goes all the way to the front door.
“I’m sorry. It’s quiet on most days, and they make great vodka infusions,” I say.
“I guess everybody in Manhattan found out. No worries. I know a place.” We walk back to Houston past my favorite overpriced juice stall.
“Nice,” I say, “This can’t be your first trip to the city. How did you find this place?” I look at the dust on the shelves, the refrigerator with beers I can’t recognize, the menu written in chalk with common words deliberately misspelled, the lady behind the counter with all those tattoos, and the shelf with books so eclectic I wonder how their readers ever ate at the same place. The sign reads Leave a book, take a book.
“I found this place the last time I was in the city drunk at 4 am, which is to say the last time I was in the city. I was hungry.”
Interesting. Math geek who likes to get drunk and knows weird places to eat in the lower east side. We talk about this and that for an hour. I surprise him by describing Goldbach’s conjecture. He surprises me by saying that he has to leave early tomorrow morning for Chicago, and that he had fun. I take a cab home, alone.