September 17, 2009

Unsexy Encounter at a Roadside Motel

He had gone on a road trip, my friend did, driving from New York down to Florida to meet up with some old buddies. He had put on his driving cap, had the car checked out, changed the oil. He’s a fastidious fellow. Some would call him rigid and even moralizing. Yes, he does tend to point out other people’s flaws. He means well, though. To his credit, he sees a psychiatrist twice a week. But the road trip changed all that. The road trip dragged him into the gutter with the rest of us.

The moment he got back he wanted to see me. It was urgent, he said. He had a crazy story. It couldn’t wait. He had to tell someone.

“I don’t know what was going through my head,” he said at the cocktail lounge where we sat on high-backed stools. A dour barman attended us with the gravity that has been recently associated with the martini culture. My distressed friend ordered a single malt. 12 year. Neat. He was that freaked out.

“You can’t tell anyone. Not a soul.”

“I swear.”

“I’m serious.” With a staring focus, he took a sip of his drink. “You ever been to a prostitute?”

“No. Too scared. Afraid I’ll have problems. You know.”

“God, you’re like Woody Allen.”

“He got a lot of women, you know. But there was this one time. Ah, never mind.”

He grasped the tumbler and shook his head roughly, as though trying to clear water out of his ears.

“I drove for hours trying to get down to Miami. It was getting late. I had to stop somewhere or I’d get into an accident. So at about 2am I got off the highway and drove for a bit until I found a motel. I stop and go in.”

“You go in.”

“I go in. What else am I going to do? I go in. Ring the bell at the desk. A light in the back comes on and a man walks out. This guy was so fat. But you could tell he didn’t care. And his shirt’s stained with pizza grease. But I’m tired and so I ask for a room. And literally, it’s like $25.”

“A bargain.”

“Yeah. So he hands me the room key. Then he’s quiet for a moment like he’s trying to decide something. He asks me if I like girls. And I tell him, sure, of course.”

“You love girls.”

“I love girls. What am I supposed to say? That I hate girls? He says if I’m interested, he’s got a girl who would spend some time with me.”

“He said that? Spend some time with you?”

“Exactly that. It sounded so innocent and I’m delirious with exhaustion. And I have in my head — I’m seeing a blond girl in cutoff jeans.”

Embarrassed, my friend cupped his forehead and squinted at the lacquer of the finely grained counter.

“So I kind of say ok. I’m not thinking straight. And actually, I’m feeling a little lonely and self-pitying. Then he says I need to give him fifty bucks and then another 75 to the lady.”

“Also a bargain.”

“But I was still a little shocked. I thought he was trying to be nice to me.”

“And you think I’m the Woody Allen?”

My friend slumped back in his seat. Telling this story was taking a lot out of him.

“Well, I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen now. Do I go to my room or what? But we go outside and walk by all the rooms and then around the back through a patch of tall, wet grass to a small building, like a little house.”

I put my drink down. None of what he told me was making any sense. All of it went completely against his character of caution and intense rumination over the smallest of decisions.

“The guy pulls a chain loaded with keys out of his pocket, opens the door and we go inside.”

“You went in? Are you nuts?”

“I didn’t want to be rude. So then he turns on the lights — bright fluorescent lights and very loud. The room is completely empty, except for a table in the middle with some blankets on it. And the walls! The walls are covered with pages ripped from porn magazines and taped up. Then he tells me to wait and he leaves me there.”

“So you’re alone now? What do you do?”

“I walk around. I look at some of the pictures. Then I go to the table and lie down.”

“Because you’re waiting for the lady.”

“I thought I’d take a little nap. Anyway, a few minutes later, she comes in.”

“Hot?”

“No.”

“Not hot?”

“Not at all hot. She’s fat, too. Extremely fat. She’s got on tacky lingerie. Cellulite everywhere. And she’s wearing lots of makeup. She looks bored. She doesn’t even smile.”

“And so? You get out of there?”

“No. What am I supposed to do? So she comes over to the table. And then, you know.”

“You’re kidding me. You had sex with her?”

“No, not exactly. Just a handjob.”

“Just a handjob.”

“A handjob. And then the whole thing’s over. I thank her and give her the money. Then I go to my room and sleep.”

He finished his story and sighed. He looked relieved.

“Honestly,” I said, “I don’t know whether to be thoroughly disgusted with you or a little envious.”

“Envious?”

“Of your pluck.”

My friend sighed again. He had lost his father to cancer only last year. Leukemia. He had spent the winter cleaning out his father’s house. Lots of relics from the 70s. His father had been somewhat of a wild man. Giant parties; public infidelities. My friend had tried his best to live his life in defiant opposition to hedonism. Had tried.

“Did you see her the next morning?” I asked.

“No, I left early. Got down to Miami and saw my friends.”

His shoulders had relaxed. He was smiling now.

I clapped my friend’s shoulder. “Actually, now that you told me your story, you seem very relaxed.”

“I am,” he said, smiling. “I feel pretty good. You should try it.”

I looked for the bartender.

“Check, please!”

September 8, 2009

Beauty and the Feast

I stared at the picture. Yes, it was her. Beautiful. Stricken. Beautiful and stricken in that haunting way gentiles have of repressing tragedy so deeply that it somehow re-emerges as a gothic romance. That kind of beauty.

“So it is her,” said Gretchen.

“Yes, that’s her.”

“And she’s beautiful?”

“Very,” I said.

“Really?”

Impatient, Cassie pushed. “Yes, Gretchen. Very pretty. Really.”

Gretchen sighed. She put away her iPhone.

We had been sitting in a new restaurant somewhere on Hudson Street; I’ve forgotten exactly where and I’ve never gone back. I was running late from work and by the time I walked through the door Cassie and Gretchen had nearly gone through a bottle of wine.

“We were just talking about you and you’re new girlfriend,” Cassie had said, florid faced, when I sat down, a half hour late.

Oh, no, I thought.

The place was small, warm, and smelled of candles and wood.

“Oh no,” I said.

“Yes, we have a little bet going about whether you two are still together.”

“That’s right,” said Gretchen. “We don’t think so. Are you?”

I ordered a glass of wine. Crepes were ordered, too. Goat cheese and mushrooms, and another with salmon, cucumbers, and crème fraiche. The waiter had the presumptuous air of an owner about him. Owner-waiters are the worst; they take liberties. This one — bug-eyed, t‑shirted — cracked jokes that were so unfunny I can’t even remember them for reproduction here. He also kept staring into Cassie’s blouse.

“So far I haven’t driven her away,” I said.

“Oh,” said Cassie, sounding disappointed. “Well, that’s good.”

Somehow, in the instant that my new relationship had been irrevocably confirmed, I had left Cassie’s and Gretchen’s circle of bawdy despair to become an outsider. It might have been unspoken, this expulsion, and they might not even have been aware of it themselves, but the sensation was palpable.

“How long’s it been now?”

“About four and a half months.”

They both leaned closer.

Really, they said. That long?

Again I told them the story of how we had met on JDate, of the four martinis, and of the sloppy kissing upon the delivery of the fifth.

“So online dating really works,” said Cassie.

“Yeah, it really works,” said Gretta. “There’s hope.”

My wine came. The crepes came. We began to eat silently, as though we needed to get through something.

Then Cassie said, “How do my boobs look? I mean, in comparison to other dinner club nights.”

So maybe I was still in the circle, after all. Or at least partway.

“They look great,” I said, cutting up my crêpe. “Can’t stop looking at them.”

Gretchen said, “They look better than the food tastes.”

We laughed. Then Gretchen asked me if I knew a certain woman at the office where I worked. One of Gretchen’s colleagues was engaged to marry her.

“Sure,” I said. “She’s beautiful.”

“What? Really?” Gretchen looked puzzled.

“If it’s the one I’m thinking of — high cheekbones? curly hair? — who sits across from me, then, yes, she’s what you would call beautiful.”

“A hottie, eh?” Cassie leaned forward. “Who the hell is she?”

“Like model beautiful.”

Now Gretchen looked shaken. “I just don’t think she’s attractive at all. I was really surprised when I saw her picture.”

“You’re crazy. She’s the kind of beautiful that makes men stumble over their words. Men act like idiots in front of her.”

More food came. Mussels. Steak frites. Gretchen looked at her plate. “When I saw her picture,” she said quietly, “I just thought, ‘well, at least there’s someone for everyone.’ ”

“I have to see this girl,” said Cassie. “I’m dying of curiosity.” She ordered another bottle from the bug-eyed waiter.

“You can be the tie breaker,” I said. “Look, maybe it’s just a bad picture.”

We ate ravenously. Me, because I had come late and was hungry, while Gretchen and Cassie had been drinking on an empty stomach and were now desperate for sustenance. Our mouths shown with fat, our teeth red from wine.

Gretchen pulled her iPhone out of her bag. “He sent me her photo.”

“See, he’s showing her off,” I said.

Gretchen passed around her phone over the bowls and plates of food that had come to completely dominate the table.

“Yes, it’s her,” I said.

“She is a hottie,” said Cassie.

“I just can’t believe it,” said Gretchen. “I don’t think she’s pretty at all. I thought it was kind of sweet that my co-worker had fallen in love with her.”

“But no, Gretchen,” said Cassie, firmly now, “she really does look like a model.”

“Wow,” said Gretchen, slumping in her chair, a little devastated.

Gretchen, it’s time now to say, is a big-featured Slav. She’s got the wide Russian face, the black corkscrew curls of a barbarian princess, and the curves of a peasant sexpot. In short, Gretchen doesn’t look American. She is a hottie of an entirely different sort, while the girl in the photo — angular features, heart-shaped mouth, piercing eyes, slender — is the Anglo-Saxon beauty that we are more accustomed to. Gretchen couldn’t understand what men saw in these heartbreaking waifs, these women who looked always ready to cry.

“But you could say,” said Cassie in a more conciliatory tone than before, “you could say she’s more model hot than Connecticut hot. And you know how models — well, they can sometimes be a little weird looking.”

“That’s true,” said Gretchen.

“Yes,” said Cassie, “it’s like how models can sometimes look like freaks–”

“Like space aliens,” I said. “What’s Connecticut hot?”

“Yeah, like space aliens. If you look at them in a certain way. You know, Connecticut hot. Those blond fresh-faced beauties. Who ride horses.”

“So not Jews,” I said.

“Well, no.”

The food had stopped steaming for a while now and began to look like something you’d want to throw out.

“At certain angles,” I lied, “at certain angles those high cheekbones and those full lips — well, they look a little off. Like they’re not real.”

“That’s what I’m talking about,” said Gretchen, recovering.

Cassie sighed. “Maybe we should order some dessert.”