Only a week after a heartbroken friend from New York came to my house in Vermont, I got another urban escapee, this one from Chicago. He was an old college buddy known for his humor, good looks, intelligence, and lovable self-absorption. I called him “Golden Boy” and he told me to eat shit.
Even though the house up here in the land of rolling hills, soft light, cows, and shady dumbasses is huge and built for a family, it turns out that I hate people. I thought I was lonely squirreled away deep in its rooms, but I found that I love to be alone so I can be lonely. Therefore, the second Jason showed up for an indeterminate length, we began to make calculations. Me, on how to put him to work on the house and keep him here for as short a stay as possible, and he, on how to extract as many free vacation days with the least amount of effort.
By the last night — two weeks later — we both were not completely satisfied with the outcome. He did mow the lawn, help re-pitch the gutter, and drag my garbage across town to a dumpster that I’m “allowed” to use, but he did no housework and I cleaned up after him. I had expected a roommate and a factotum, basically, while he had expected a hotel and room service. He wanted to stay even longer than two weeks, but he forgot to ply me with alcohol and food to win an extension. Even so, it was nice having him around, his urbanity pulling me out of that kind of lethargic resignation that takes hold of you in rural towns, because every day is exactly the same as the previous one.
We shared a last dinner at a nearby bistro of inconsistent offerings, but it was the only game in town and the mojitos were better than in New York. We walked the mile and a half to the hilltop on the kind of beautiful night that makes Vermont sometimes worth it. But before we got to the road leading to the bistro, we bumped into a local friend of mine who wondered where we were going. He asked because at that precise moment, a dusky 7pm, walking down Main Street, Jason and I were, simply put, the best looking couple in town.
“We’re going to the bistro,” I said, “for a last supper.”
“Last supper? Is your friend treating you?” This is what it always comes down to in Vermont: nose-butting.
“I don’t know, we’ll see,” I said, looking at Jason while he stared distantly at the river, following its winding banks with intense fascination.
At the bistro, after my mojito, glass of wine, green salad, fancy burger, and chocolate mousse, and he with his sad, inexpensive little chicken sandwich, we were at loggerheads.
“Are you ready to settle up?” asked the waitress.
“Yes,” I said, “We are ready to settle up.”
The check came and for a moment it sat unmolested on the table. Then, projecting an air of childlike curiosity, a kind of staring innocence that only someone who has led a life charmed by raffish ease can maintain well into his thirties, Jason casually reached for the check. He brought it to his eyes and peered at it with pretend incomprehension, while I followed his wallet that he had already dropped on the table, taking this as a good sign. But soon I realized that he had no intention of making a move.
“I’m bad with sums,” I remarked.
“Oh?” said Jason.
“Always. Also I need reading glasses now. I can’t read bills anymore.”
“You’re getting old,” Jason said.
“Yes, I know. Soon, I’ll become a pensioner on a fixed income. A very fixed income.”
“Isn’t that a line from Seinfeld?”
“Yes. Regardless, I’m bad with sums.”
“Yes, I know,” Jason said.
“So just add it up and tell me what I owe.”
Jason sighed, irritated that I had tasked him with this odious detail. He lifted the check closer to his nose. I can’t be entirely sure, but I think his hand shook with an infinitesimally detectable Parkinsonian tremor. I took this also as a good sign.
After examining the check for what seemed like an hour, he finally put it down and looked at me.
“Okay, so you owe, um, like thirty-two dollars.”
“That’s right.” It sounded a bit less than it ought to have been. Maybe he had decided to pick up a piece of my tab, after all.
“Yeah,” he said. But I could hear in his voice – I could hear it – a note of uncertainty.
“Okay,” I said. I reached into my wallet and began to file through the bills. I counted them out slowly, very slowly.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Jason said. “I think I made a mistake.” He looked again at the check, squinting deeply at the figures scrawled on it. “I think it’s more like thirty-six dollars you owe, actually. Thirty-six.”
“Thirty-six? Really? Okay. So thirty-six then.” I found the extra four dollars and handed it all over to him. “Here. Thirty-six.”
“Thanks.” He returned the check to the table, but he still didn’t look happy. Everything about him had slowed down, as though I was watching him through a glass partition at an aquarium and he was on the other side, in the water, weakly grasping at the invisible plankton.
“You know, wait a minute,” he said again. “I don’t think that thirty-six is really enough.”
He was fucking with me, the little shit. He wanted to goad me into verbalizing exactly what I was expecting of him, so he could come back and tell me what a selfish, cheap bastard I was. I had always suspected that he was a closet antisemite. It would all come out now. All of it.
“Thirty-six isn’t enough? You want more?”
“Wait, let me look.” Again he scrutinized the bill, flipped it over, did a little reading there, and then flipped it back.
“I forgot about the two drinks you had.”
“You cheap cunt.”
Jason ignored this and instead said, “You owe forty. Forty dollars.”
“Forty? Really? Are you sure this time?”
“Yes, completely sure. Forty bucks.”
I fished around in my wallet and took out another four dollars.
“Here you go.”
We sat silently. I sipped the dregs of my wine. The waitress came and put her hand on the stack of bills.
“Are we all set here?”
“Yeah, we’re all set,” said Jason.
After a moment holding a thoughtful expression, Jason looked at me and said, “You know, I actually owe you some money.”
“What? What for?”
“I never paid you back for that bread yesterday.”
“You know, that artisanal baker’s sourdough brew country loaf that you paid five dollars for. I owe you two-fifty.”
He produced two dollars and fifty cents and handed it over to me.
“Here you go,” he said.
I took his money and we left the bistro. Jason flew back to Chicago the next day, and I was alone again in my big, drafty house.