BY JERSEY BOYD
No one he knows there. The Knicks are on. He'll have a Guinness. Early still. Same two bartenders still. One old. This is his life. Mustache compensates for lack of hair. An obvious plot. Knicks fan. Giants fan. Sports fan. Loves hockey. Encyclopedic recall of Exile on Main Street lyrics. Could recite from line one to line last with Jagger impersonation, pout and stutter steps. And his friend, his companion, younger, fresher-faced, student-looking, a professional, a careerist—see the way he places a napkin beneath a glass—waiting out his companion's demise. It's his future, control of the bar. He will strip the mid-fifties' respectable wood-paneling, retire the thick black-ink drawings of a robed judge, tweed and bowtied lawyer, monocled professor, and a thin-tied pompous fatman, who sat at the same bar Oscar now sits at, who on the day Japan surrendered drank a toast to Truman and his team of scientists, most of whom spent time in the town as endangered exiles. The younger bartender, born here, thin-haired, balding, he will not make concessions to style, he is himself, prefers life on the bar, prefers to hear a loose-tongue than read an apt description, and who could blame him?
Oscar's never spoken to bartenders. He's not the one they speak to. They want someone who pipes up. Someone loud, cheerful, sitting there because that's what they do, where they go, rather than someone who passes time, watches basketball, obviously eavesdropping on conversations beneath the television, trying to hear what a regular would say. Regulars who proclaim their frequency of sitting and drinking with massive, love-labored, swallowed globes beneath their New Jersey Devils sweatshirts.
"What it is about my cousin is that she's got an inflamed heart."
"An inflammatory near-rupture caused by perpetual and toxic exposure to a lack of love."
"What do you mean? Lack of love? I know her and nothing's wrong with her."
"Alive just over twenty-five years and her heart sank like a key plunging through the toilet water."
"Flushed too or no?"
"Not flushed. Shit-inhabited. A murky reach."
"Did she get it out of the swamp?"
"No. Well, yes. First she reached and came up with not what she wanted which upon second glance she decided was considerably the better."
"I can't stand the suspense."
"She pulled up a pendant."
"Engravings and in what shape?"
"Heart-shaped. Not human and Ohio-shaped. More like a bulbous earthward spade. On the back the initials of her mother and her own. The dates at age sixteen for she and her mother. She washed it with soap. Strung it around her neck, neither knowing nor caring that this pendant would not aid her in entering her apartment. The coincidence of finding a pendant in a toilet with the exact initials and dates of birth of yourself and your mom's enough. She forgot about the key. She forced her way inside. And now she suffers from a lack of love. Meaning that she goes around waiting for the next chance event. Her eyes hunting down connections, nothing gets past her. And nothing ever happens. No coincidences. Nothing of the sort."
"Her guard's up."
"What would you know about her guard being up?"
Or so it seemed they spoke around the bar. Oscar only half-listened to them. The girl’s name was mentioned - it could have been something like Sadie or Sadistic, or a variety of sounds joining to form a name for Oscar's sake. In fact, objectively, say—from the younger bartender's earshot, from his firm position standing on the porous black rubber matting, handwashing pints and highballs, his transcription, his oral stenography would read like a local news account of a shopping center's newly repaved parking lot. Oscar knew they spoke about a young girl, one of their cousins, getting locked out of the house after a date in which her love-life flushed down the tubes. She held on to a pendant that he had given her although she had lost her key. The pendant made him think of Silvia's. He had held it in his mouth once and tasted how cold it was. Right now that pendant's around her neck, unless that is, they actually said something about finding one in the toilet bowl.
Silvia could have been here earlier. Dropped it in the bowl by accident or design. Doubt it. It's old. She loves it. Kisses it. Prays to it. It's as if this one pendant is the only physical connection she has to her mother, to her country. It's if the fact of her blood and traits—her flaring Latino nose with a bridge calmed and sculpted, almost fluidly spreading into her cheeks, which are high, not emaciated and angular and hollow beneath, but, like the upper curve of a heart-shaped pendant, providing smooth drops down into a bay of dark skin—were not enough to remind her where she's from and from whose body she emerged. The pendant, the icon, the solid metal, heart-shaped, umbilical proxy for the connection between her mother and herself, dangling between her breasts, hypnotically always there -- an excuse to stare at her chest Oscar sometimes thinks -- is more representative of her heritage than the obvious fact of her appearance. When he sees her up-close, speaking to him, kissing him, he never thinks that this woman speaking or kissing is Latino—he never thinks it because it's obvious.
He forgets the obvious. The same must go for Silvia. The pendant reminds her who she is. A heart connecting her to the body she grew in. It's only his stupidity to think that one's blood and skin remind one of home. Oscar does not see his pinkness and envision the winding roads of suburbia, but an object, something necessarily off the body, can be a better reminder than something inseparable from yourself. Silvia can always lose her pendant. Drop it in the toilet by accident or design. Her connection is her responsibility—to wear it between her breasts, not beneath her skin, but over her heart, over her skin, over the typical American clothing she wears, her turtlenecks and librarian-like button-down sweaters.
Oscar wears no pendants or icons or anything to remind him where he's from since he sees it all around. Maybe one day, when he finally gets out of his childhood room again, Oscar will wear a little ring that looks like a basketball hoop and net to remind him of the shot he once took from the corner, the swish, the rarity that's still influencing him, allowing him to follow his own lead, since he once scored all the points in a basketball game (a recreation game when he was ten: final score 2-0), and the feat distinguishes him perfectly. It's not something that can be immediately recognized by a stranger. It's subtle. It's not yet written across his skin.
Oscar gets out of there as fast as he can. Up the stairs, out onto the main street, a few people walk toward the brewery, spare tires tucked, bibulous guts sucked-in, nice watches, wildly thin legs, getting ready for a few hours of drinking. What is there to do in this town when there's no small party of friends and acquaintances? Nothing. No recreations, Oscar mutters, staring at a pack of loud teenagers across the street, smoke hazed. Nothing for them to do. Not even once their exhalations and ingestions are legal. Just rooms set up selling places to sit and accelerate the mind with coffee or churn it with alcohol. Beverages. That's all there is to do. Drink potions and watch the way your speech transforms. Watch the way you're dragged out of yourself. Much better to stay at home with a loved-one, throw open the windows and doors, let the new breezes in, lose yourself in another. Try to go deeper into yourself through another. A lover. He thinks that he's never had a better time in this town than when he's shared his confinement.
His father told Oscar that all anyone wants to do on a weekend is circle the basepath: dinner, a movie, a decent bout of fucking, ending up satisfied, complacent, and scoring, safe at home. At the time, when this blessed trinity was presented -- as divine and as orthodox a trinity as Keats' women, wine, and snuff -- Oscar scoffed, conforming exactly to the default he's realized he's set for typical paternal exchanges. It's the whiny spoiled son's remonstrance, thick with exasperation, drawn single-syllable words modified with expletives, and followed by a simple encouragement like come on! that, due to the voice's high-register and thin, boosted volume, sound like a condemnation.
At the time, Oscar scoffed. Now he realizes it's true. There's no socializing because people prefer the solitude, the comfort, the ease of being alone with each other, couples that is, who haven't yet become families of vigorous well-nurtured children, exponentially complicating any generalization or pronouncement of the town's apparent rigor-mortis.
Tonight, still early, Oscar will share himself with a group of young and, for the most part, reproductively unmelded with another people (although conception's a story many could tell), all trying to enjoy themselves, a big event in this town, a simple party. A rarity in itself.
He does another lap around the shopping areas, taking long quick strides past the display windows of upscale retail chains. Dome-headed mannequins reflect the styles, mimicking the townspeople's marketed-to conservative predilections for white and blue—which compliments their exposed skin's sunburn and completes another trinity, this one patriotic -- leather-belted, silver-buckled, while the storefront windows reflect Oscar passing apparitionally across the display's transparent surface. In the center of town is a square, a quaint little park with an evergreen tree that's strung with Christmas lights during the holidays and now is bare. There's an old inn with another basement bar beneath it.
Oscar hears music. He quickly jumps down the flagstone steps and sees, through a large window, like through the glass of an aquarium, people dancing to a ska band. Everyone's older than him. Those who stay in town after appetizers of flash-seared scallops on a bed of angel-hair pasta drizzled with a cilantro and white-bean garnish, accompanied by zinfandel spritzers, finished with a wedge of rummy cheesecake, forgetting about the kids for once, hiring Silvia and her babysitting colleagues to watch their children sleep as they go out and try to enjoy themselves as they once did before they were parents. They've all half-forgotten how to enjoy themselves it seems, dancing like buoys in whitewater, jerking their torsos to the strict upbeat.
Tracking the action with his breath's condensation on a square of the latticed window, Oscar hesitates. He'll step inside and everyone will stop moving, the music, everything will cease and scatter, as if he were on a documentary shoot and a crewperson, observing the exotic mating ritual of a pair of jackals, suddenly has a dehydration-related muscle spasm, and kicks over a support for his camouflaged blind while the bleached grackles, picking lice from the coupling subjects, peal off across the savanna’s air as the jackals blush through their course whiskers, retiring to their well-managed dens. Observing the general neck-craning and leading-with-the-teeth dancing, Oscar blames this sort of semi-synchronized thing they're doing on the tension between receding youth and the unnecessary, yet inevitable, stiffness of maturity. The dancing is arrythmic and clipped. Oscar concludes that it's caused by well-acculturated maturity doggie-paddling through memories of once-upon-a-time getting wild and letting loose the natural inclination to shake ass.
He doesn't go in. Oscar's outside still, thankfully. Oscar goes back up the flight of granite slab stone stairs, and sits on a bench along the square. No one's around at all. He hears the band skanking through a layer of concrete and shubbery. When they end a song there's wild applause. Ovations. This is it, he thinks. Oscar knows of weekend plazas thousands of miles to the south, loud and thronging — street evangelists, gum sellers, widows swinging roses for a few pesos, bottle rockets bursting overhead, pedestrians strolling, crossing paths at every angle, an impossibly complex and unchartable progression of people through the town, stopping each other, embracing, greeting those they haven't seen in a day as if they were separated at birth.
A couple ascends the stairs from the bar beneath the inn. They stumble into each other with their arms around each other's waists. They're both dressed in jeans and blue button-down shirts. Tall yellow tulips line the square and the couple stops to admire them. The couple kisses. It's touching. For a moment there is love. And somehow he doesn't gag. Frustration with where he is now, on a Saturday night, waiting for a party to begin, alone, sitting in his home town's quaint and deserted plaza, entirely safe, secure, a natural adornment instead of an exotic insertion (as in Mexican plazas where he sat and received stares)—thinking that if he had his own place in town then maybe he would be less judgmental. Oscar would live his life as he lived it, with no concern for how others went about spending their time. Instead he sees others as extensions of himself since he's unsettled; he sees these people walking and he imagines them representing his future life, projecting into the future, he sees himself with Silvia or another, slightly sweated from an evening of ambitious skanking, pausing to admire the ripe and erect tulips, satisfied, in love with each other and, by extension, the world. And how it seems unnatural. He would disrupt the balance. He couldn't live in a room filled with ease. He'd call satisfaction boredom. He'd rush out of the room screaming, "Covering cloud! Wreck me and ruin!"
On previous Saturday nights Oscar's spent the time in his room watching rented movies alone. This is much better now. It's out in the open and real. The weather's warmed up, there's life again, there's future, tonight could last until tomorrow morning. There's warmth. And there's exhaustion in the air, as if the season has resisted for so long and now it's giving itself up to everyone. An exhaustion of denial. Take it and forget the winter, everything else. On nights that are warm and new there's a possibility of surprise rising out of the breathlessness. It's breathless and flirtatious. It's an expectant exhaustion. It's given up its resistance, collapsed in pleasure, allowing for the future again. Whereas just a few months ago there was no future, no possibility, we were doomed to know the architecture of trees too well, now everything begins to develop, to cover itself over, wrap itself up, announce a future, or at least a possibility. The air, the season, tonight like a lover perfectly sweet and alone with you, tonight it's flirtatious, accompanying everyone, upping everyone's desirability with its presence, continually touching, teasing, embracing, then running off, returning with lips barely parted. Take it and forget everything else.
The air, the night, the sweetness, a tenderness that's almost audible and visible, turns him into such a well-thinking romantic. The weather makes him forget. He forgets his dilemmas. He forgets anxiety. He forgets what little past he has. He forgets to concern the present with the alignment of the future. Amnesiac. Except that it's a forgetfulness that reminds him. Reminds him of his blood. Reminds him he's not alive to aspire. He'll admit it feels good, hurrah! To feel this and fight through the tendency to kill first thoughts, double-backing. Flowery thoughts. Nothing duplicitous or cleverly derivative. Just banality, perception that seems true, fortunately, for one night, so rare. When it appears it's in danger of snuffing immediately out. Hide those impulses away. Tenderness will get you killed.
Oscar walks toward the party.
Hide those impulses away. What if everyone went around spouting romantic? Verbally prancing? Twinkling toes from dazzling star through vast aurora? If everyone were as soft, we’d have a world ruled by Hallmark, a sentimental, heat-flashing, blushing, water-colored dystopia. All communication would be restricted to sweeping flourishes on tablets of slick black-cherry marble with pastel chalk. Language would be based on the sudden drop and flutter of rose petals. Enjoy your delusion. Such romantic shit-talking trounces right back. Beware the excremental skids! Better not to live through the delusion. The contrast between now and what will come will break you. The romance of this tender air, sweeping you in with those collagen lips parted, blushing tenderness, and once you’re warmed and dazed in a fulgurating moment, you'll lay breathless, only capable of unnecessary, irrational, inane, irreversible action. That tenderness and breathlessness is not the surging of a body overcome with desire, exhausted from restraint, it's just the sights and sounds of eventual distress.
When temptation comes to you it will walk all around and canopy the stars until you can take it in with just one breath. Temptation, the best dressed. Temptation tastes good. Looks good. Sounds good. Pimping the instincts. It tells you everything it knows about itself to throw you off its scent (always sweet). But in the end you breathe and you take temptation in, and no matter how hard you've resisted, you give in (even if you're unaware that you were ever being tempted, and more importantly, when you give-in you won't know it until much later when you're .…), you breathe and it's good, until, gradually, it goes to shit. You cough. The sweetness is syrupy, tasteless, just opened veins of sugar: no nourishment. The tenderness has no roughness. It's too refined. It's too sterile. There's no vulgarity. The breathlessness is asthma. The possibility for the future is a future of escape. Forgetfulness and peace: idiocy. The future you've forgotten arrives. It kisses you and bites your lip until you bleed. But without it, nothing would ever happen. Without it, you’d still be swimming, unevolved. These pass through Oscar as he sits in the town center and then stands, wondering if it's still too early, trying to picture the scene on the porch and getting no clear image.
It's as thick and solid tonight as his chest: lust. Tonight, now, as Oscar walks toward the party—down narrow streets lined with sycamores and three-floor mock-Victorian duplexes with antique lamps hinting at unschooled paintings, large abstractions on a few Saturday night living room walls insisting that he crane his neck for a peep of these rooms' inhabitants, all windows wide, all the domestic sounds of vacuums and dishwashing clanks; a man seen in an upstairs window pulls a blind down; a night-gleaming Lexus passes and its tires seem to coat the pavement with thick saliva. Now as Oscar walks toward the party he feels a rush that's either the effect of an espresso and a stout or something like the imminence of love. He's ready to enter the party. Time's passed. He's unsettled and charged. He's sure that the look in his eyes is almost ecstatic—as if he's been preoccupied all day and gathered himself to go out into public with one long breath that assured him he was worrying about nothing. As he hears voices on the porch and sees the obligatory blue light in the second-story window, that rush in his chest spreads throughout his body. This is hard to sustain. It wants more. It cannot be satisfied. Oscar puts his hands in his pockets to hide his enthusiasm for the world and its few inhabitants he'll see once he ascends the steps to the porch.
Oscar doesn't know anyone, although everyone seems familiar enough.
He's seen some of them on the street, at other parties, but since they've
never spoken, it’s understood they won't speak now. At least not until
they're drunk, or until they stand in line for the bathroom, or an unexpected
tragedy brings them all together. A styrofoam finger like those sold at
football games is turned on-end so that instead of proclaiming that something
is number one it shows the way upstairs. It's an overstated visual cue.
The music's thuds and beats could lead someone without ears or eyes, who
maneuvered only by his body's reaction to soundwaves, to the epicenter
of the party. At the top of the stairs Oscar sees that people are mainly
in the kitchen at the end of a short corridor. A woman he recognizes holds
up the threshold between the corridor and the kitchen and blocks traffic
that tries to politely, if forcibly, move past her. All the exhilaration
from the night air and walking: gone. Now there's something like dread.
Alone, while walking, moving toward the party, he projected a shallow hurrah
of welcomes, backslaps, an ideal of acquaintances and friends, people who
would pull him into them, whom he would enter. Instead, Oscar knows no
one. He's greeted with nods and blank stares.
B R A V E S O U L S R E C E I V E
READ THE FOLLOWING BEFORE PROCEEDING:
Zadie Smith's "On the Road:
American Writers And Their Hair"
"Breanna Dawson, Career Girl"
Tom Bradley's "Proving Grounds"
Interview With An Autofellator
Archive of Recent Activities