July 11, 2013

The Whore of Hobson

“I never did learn how to play Sudoku,” I said.

David meets someone more damaged than he is.

“Oh, it’s easy. You’ll get addicted.” Then she showed me how to play. That I felt grateful for this interest in bettering my gaming skills shows just how bad things have gotten.

What do you do when you realize that you’ve fucked up your life? That you’re in your late 40s and still alone, even though you’ve learned so much and you’ve tried honestly and enthusiastically to meet someone, but that even after the sober self-evaluation and the working toward becoming a better man, and — tolerant, empathetic, willing to risk — nothing came of it? That you’ve grown disinterested in your work and yearn for something simple and true, that you hate your new apartment, that you miss your neighbor’s handjobs, that a loneliness penetrates your nervous system deeply enough it’s physiological instead of merely emotional? So what do you do?

You start eating chicken wings and drinking heavily. The drinking heavily part begins in New York cocktail bars because you can’t bear living in your apartment, the apartment you’d give up in a second for any number of the titted disappointments you still harbor feelings for, because for some reason there’s no letting go. Even when it’s done the switches remain stuck on love and remorse and the hope of a second chance. So you drink heavily, but you drink the good stuff, the good wines, the expensive wines, so it doesn’t seem as wrong or as utilitarian. The chicken wings part begins in Vermont, where you’ve dropped unexpectedly to sell the house, and quickly, because the other Jew in town has made a cash offer. You have no kitchen stuff left in the cupboards; it’s all packed or sold, so you swing between The Spoke for pizza and the wings joint for wings.

You’ve seen this girl almost every night, because she also hits the two places, plus the coffeeshop, every day, and she’s always alone, and she’s always doing her Sudoku. She’s a redhead, she drinks cans of PBR, but she looks barely of age to drink cans of anything. You have no choice but to finally acknowledge each other. This is carefully observed by Elizabeth, the bartender who, with a plot of land, and a husband and two kids, has become partially self-sufficient, thanks to the goats and chickens and vegetable garden. You’ve been looking for her clone. At least you finally figured out what you want: a hippie chick who knows how to raise things, like corn and kale, chickens and children.

“You have to make sure the total is always nine in a row or a column, but without repeating a number.”

I started buying the girl cans of PBR. They cost only two dollars apiece, so to a New Yorker they seemed almost free. She summer-rented a dorm room at the college with her two cats. She acted shocked that I’d be doing something as nutty as buying her drinks. During our third encounter, I asked, “You mean boys never buy you drinks?”

“Not really. I was surprised. But then I heard all about you, so I thought, ‘why not?’ They’re only two dollars.”

“Wait, what do you mean, you heard all about me?”

She stopped scribbling in her Sudoku booklet. “People told me what your deal is.”

“What?”

“That you’re a rich guy from New York who blows into town every summer and throws his money around.”

“Seriously? Wait, they said I was rich?”

“Yeah, and you have a giant house here, but you only come for a few months. So, I was, like, sure, let him buy me drinks.”

“Who told you this crazy shit?”

“So you’re not rich?”

“Maybe compared to a college student.”

“I’m 23. I dropped out for a couple years.”

“What else did you hear?” I could feel the farmer bartender’s quick eyes shifting to our conversation. She pointed to the girl’s PBR. Weirdly fraught, the moment ended with another round.

“I heard you own a bunch of houses around the country. You don’t work. And you’ve got some rich grandmother.”

“Bullshit. I’m a freelancer. It only looks like I’m not working.” And yet, didn’t I also want her to think I was rich? It was a delicate balance to project just the right mixture of slacker and economic superiority. But one false move and you’re pegged a douche.

The truth was that ever since owning the house, a socioeconomic tension had surfaced between me and my friends here that hadn’t existed when I was just a renter. It didn’t matter if it was just about scale, about working in New York versus working in Vermont, the rift loomed over everything, over every interaction.

“Damn, now I feel guilty for you buying me beers.”

“So who’s talking about me?”

If not for the red line that forbids dating anyone with whom you share a yawning 25 year age gap, I would have wanted to know why she had asked about me. And that was the disheartening takeaway: that I had more prospects among women under thirty than I did among those older than thirty-five, who seemed happy enough with their cats. Still, her eyes were almond-shaped, and I’d already lain in bed imagining what her vagina looked like. I also pictured the thin strands of her red hair across my belly, shiny, skinny tributaries in a drought.

“This is Hobson, David. Everybody talks about everybody.”

I’d been found out even after wearing the hoodie with the holes at the elbows. She grabbed her PBR and slugged a good measure.

“At least you’re not known as the whore of Hobson.”

That stopped everything. That stopped the drinking, and it stopped my faked interest in the Sudoku, as well as the crossword puzzle we’d been working on.

She said, “You didn’t know that I sleep with everybody and that I have a drinking and drug problem?”

I’ve known happy, joyful sluts, but she wasn’t one of them. If I were 25, I would have ignored her darkness. Add her to the list of the scarred, the personality disordered, the angry, the debilitatingly neurotic, the mercenary.

It took something out of her to talk like that. She looked at me over her can of PBR. I said something ordinary about trying to be happy without being self-destructive. She told me that she had slept with a lot of boys over at The Spoke; that she could barely show her face in there. She had the darting eyes of someone alone a lot, and the talkativeness of someone who didn’t get to talk a lot.

She ordered another round. We drank more. Meanwhile, people I knew watched us. My neighbor bought me a shot, and we stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. Oh, a cigarette? Yes, that’s happened, too. Drinking, eating wings, and smoking. Soon I’d leave the idyllic countryside of Vermont and return to the city, where amid the gray buildings and the hammering noise, I’d straighten out.

“I saw that girl you’re talking to,” my neighbor said. He ran a body shop that specialized in classic cars. He wore a Raiders cap and a gold chain.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, and she’s into it. You got her if you want her, David.”

“There’s a big age difference. Huge.”

He laughed. “You have much more of a conscience than I have!”

“My paternal instincts have overtaken my predatory instincts.”

Back inside, I didn’t offer to buy the girl another drink. Instead, I said I wanted to try another crossword puzzle. And that’s what we did, and it’s what we did almost every night at the wings joint until I left Vermont.