(Welcome to week 11 of the Friday Afternoon Serial. If you haven’t had an opportunity to read Chapters 1-10, we highly recommend doing so before delving forward into Chapter Eleven. Otherwise, enjoy. Pass it on. After the jump, the plot twists.)
“This is the first drink I’ve had in months,” I say, eyeing up the half-empty pint of Guinness in front of me.
“You’re not an alcoholic, are you?” Meghan McKenzie asks, putting her hand to her chest.
“No, no … God, no,” I say, scoffing at the suggestion. “I’m a binge drinker,
not an alcoholic.”
“What’s the difference?” Meghan asks, sarcastically.
“Binge drinkers can’t stop until they pass out,” I say. “Alcoholics can’t stop until they dry out.”
This seems to break the tension.
There is a slight moment of apprehension, however, when the waitress returns and Meghan insists she doesn’t need another beer. “I’ll just have some of his,” Meghan tells the waitress, realizing I’ve already ordered a second pint for myself.
“Is everything OK?” I ask, once the waitress is out of earshot. “Because I want you to know I was only kidding about all that passing-out stuff. I mean, there was a time when I might not have been, which – I guess – is part of what makes the whole thing funny in the first place. But I want you to know things are much better now. I actually feel like I have a lot more control ove …”
“Shhhhhhhhhhhh,” Meghan McKenzie says, placing her hand over mine in the center of the table. “Relax, Bobby Lee. You have nothing to worry about. The one-drink thing is just an old custom, that’s all.”
“What kind of custom?” I ask.
“In certain South American cultures, when two people are out on a date, they order one drink and place it between them, so everyone else in the room recognizes the two of them as being together.”
“Are we ‘together’?” I ask, looking down at Meghan McKenzie’s hand on mine.
“We are tonight,” Meghan says, removing her hand to take a quick swig of my beer.
We are at McSweeney’s, a trendy Irish Pub located in the heart of midtown Manhattan.
We walked here from Union Square – a 20-minute tête-à-tête during which Meghan explained her utter contempt for both Times Square and clichéd Irish bars.
“Why are we going to an Irish pub in the center of Times Square then?” I asked.
“My friend Aidan works there,” Meghan said, very matter-of-fact. “That’s why.”
Here is what Fran Lebowitz had to say about Times Square:
“If you’re from New York and you run into another New Yorker in Times Square, it’s like running into someone you knew at a gay bar in the 1970s … You immediately start making excuses about why you’re there.”
That Fran Lebowitz … She’s one righteous dude.
Aidan is the head bartender at McSweeney’s Irish Pub – a position he’s held for the past 14 years.
Aidan never charges Meghan McKenzie for drinks.
Meghan McKenzie claims free drinks are a karma thing between bartenders.
I claim the only place free lunches are found is in mousetraps.
Regardless, here we sit, Meghan McKenzie and I, in the back booth of a midtown bar, staring at one another across a candle-lit table – the constant flicker casting tiny crescent shadows beneath Meghan’s cheekbones whenever she smiles.
Meghan McKenzie appears frail and fragile; rail thin in a way that may have seemed completely natural back when she was 18-years old, but seems decidedly unnatural for a woman in her mid-30s. Her hair is still strawberry-blonde, but she’s straightened it, adding some vibrant ginger highlights. Her skin looks pale and worn. But her smile hasn’t aged a bit, and neither have those emerald green eyes of hers.
All of which is to say that Meghan McKenzie is still beautiful, yes.
But not in the same way she used to be.
When Meghan McKenzie was young, she looked carefree and buoyant.
Now she looks resentful and cold – like a gorgeous, tiny vessel, lost at sea.
Amidst the natural, almost seamless rhythm of our conversation, I find myself wondering if the girl I met 18 years ago is still in there somewhere, or whether Meghan McKenzie has grown so jaded and cynical she doesn’t even remember who that girl was anymore.
Don’t take that as a shot at Meghan McKenzie.
I wonder the same thing about myself sometimes.
The walls in McSweeney’s are lined with shiny wooden trinkets. The columns are made of polished mahogany. The floors are checkered black and green.
The entire place smells like boiled cabbage and baby wipes.
“So this is what an authentic Irish pub looks like,” I say, my eyes wandering freely about the place.
“Not at all,” Meghan McKenzie says, pulling down an antique shillelagh hanging on the wall next to us.
The shillelagh has the words “Made in China” embossed along its base.
“This is what an authentic American tourist trap looks like,” Meghan explains.
Suddenly, the whole thing seems to make perfect sense.
The Americans are making money off the Irish.
The Chinese are making money off the Americans.
And the Irish are making soda bread from scratch.
Erin Go Bragh!
Meghan and I spend most of our time at McSweeney’s filling in the broad strokes – where we’ve been, what we’ve done, how we’ve overcome – or fallen victim to – the many obstacles life has placed in our way, lo, these past 18 years or so.
I tell Meghan about the remainder of my college years. I tell her how I came up with the original concept for Subhuman: Volume One. I tell her how I had no idea the character would ever become as popular as it has. I tell her about meeting Laura and getting married. I tell her how – and why – Laura and I eventually began to grow apart. I tell her how Laura and I agreed to have a child because we believed it would help resuscitate our marriage. I tell her it wasn’t until after Laura gave birth to our second child that we realized just how absurd our thinking really was.
I tell Meghan about my drinking – how it started, why it escalated, when it started to impact my quality of life … why I opted to do absolutely nothing about it until the incident in San Diego.
I tell Meghan McKenzie about my relationship with Miggs. I tell her about Miggs’ relationship with Laura. I tell her about my divorce. I tell her about all the subtle, damning ways our divorce is affecting the kids – how Tommy’s grown more passive, how Sara’s developed tiny bags under her eyes.
I tell her about the book I’m working on, how I’m writing on a nightly basis.
I tell her everything is much better now.
I tell her there are moments when I’m not entirely sure I believe that.
Four beers deep, Meghan reciprocates, telling me how she got sucked into the downtown scene during her sophomore year at NYU. She tells me how she dropped out of college during her junior year, how her father kicked her out of his Upper East Side townhouse, how she spent the next six months crashing with friends until the well ran dry.
She tells me about frigid nights when she became so desperate for a warm bed, she’d wander into corner bars and leave with the first drunk guy – or girl – who lived nearby. She tells me how that lifestyle led to more frequent drug use, how it was difficult to say no when the only other alternative was sleeping on the street.
She tells me she was a binge user, but never an addict.
She tells me how she cruised the streets of Soho with a bottle of Grey Goose, leveraging her good looks for access to loft parties; how she’d hang out at these parties until dawn, passing out on the living room floor long after everyone else had either left or fallen asleep.
She tells me how she learned to sell food stamps for cash; how she learned to count cards and pick pockets. She tells me how she learned to sell nickel bags to tourists for the price of a dime; how she learned to crack parking meters for a pocketful of quarters.
She tells me she never resorted to prostitution, at least not in any traditional sense.
She tells me she spent the winter of ’99 hanging out with a group of runaways who called themselves the China Girls. She tells me these girls would meet at the corner of Allen and Broome five nights a week, before boarding the 7:30 bus to Atlantic City.
She tells me how way back in those days, a lot of Atlantic City casinos struck deals with the Chinatown bus company, how a casino representative would board each carriage upon arrival in Atlantic City, handing out free $25 vouchers as an incentive to attract tourists to a specific resort. Meghan tells me China Girls took those vouchers directly to the cage, at which point the casinos were legally bound to redeem the vouchers for cash, no questions asked.
She tells me how round-trip fares were so low back then that the China Girls were basically doubling their investment. She tells me the bus provided them with a warm place to sleep during the two-and-a-half hour ride to and from Atlantic City.
She tells me how all the back and forth took a major toll on her, how most of the other China Girls eventually wound up dead, doped up, or in jail. She tells me she was fortunate enough to get her shit straight before the walls came crashing down.
She tells me how a chance meeting with an old friend from high school led to her joining the Peace Corps. She tells me how she shipped off to Paraguay in the Summer of 2001; how she met a local boy named Santiago and fell in love. She tells me this is how she learned about the one-drink custom. She tells me the experience opened her eyes to how vast and wonderful the world really is; how the buildings in New York City loom so large that most people can’t see beyond them; how it’s easy to forget about the outside world if you build walls high enough to ignore it.
She tells me I absolutely must read My Lost City by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
She tells me how the gender differences between cultures ultimately led to her falling out of love with Santiago and returning to New York City. She tells me how she used a conditional loan from her father to buy her way into a Brooklyn co-op, where she lived until she was 30 years old.
She tells me how the monthly payments eventually caught up with her; how she was subsequently kicked out of the co-op; how she wound up moving in with her boyfriend downtown. She tells me how that boyfriend got her a job tending bar at the Mercury Lounge three nights a week. She tells me she kept the job, despite losing the boyfriend. She tells me after three weeks of looking for a new place to live, her boss mentioned a friend of his had a basement apartment for rent in a quiet little neighborhood buried
deep inside the West Village.
She tells me that basement apartment was located at 39B Commerce Street – the same apartment I sat outside of two months prior, before propping an original hardback copy of Subhuman: Volume One up against the door.
She tells me she was reading in her bedroom that afternoon when she heard someone wandering down the steps. She tells me she watched from the darkness of her living room as I turned and wandered back up the steps.
She tells me she didn’t have the guts to run outside and stop me.
She tells me she’s regretted that decision ever since.
Meghan and I leave McSweeney’s shortly after midnight, our bellies full and warm.
Aidan the bartender does not hook us up. In fact, he does not even offer us a discount.
He has ignored Meghan and I ever since we walked in the door. When Meghan introduced me, Aidan waved hello via a mirror reflection behind the bar, as he pretended to count money. Since then, he hasn’t so much as acknowledged us.
If you’re wondering what Aidan the bartender looks like … keep wondering.
We have more pressing matters to discuss.
Meghan McKenzie and I walk north along Seventh Avenue, en route to Central Park. Meghan wraps her arm around mine at the 57th Street intersection, and the two of us lean into one another gently. Perhaps it’s nostalgia, or the alcohol, or both, but I can’t get over the fact that I am here, now, entering Central Park at one o’clock in the morning alongside the girl I fell in love with so many years ago. I can’t get over the way her hair still smells like glistening apples. I can’t get over the lilting, gentle way she laughs.
I can’t get over her, quite frankly.
I guess in many ways, I never really have.
Meghan lights a cigarette as we veer left onto the Literary Walk. From there we pass under and through the Bethesda Terrace, northeast past the Conservatory Pond, continuing along a birch-lined path until we spill out along 5th Avenue.
Meghan digs into her bag and pulls out a half-empty fifth of Scotch.
We pass it back and forth as we continue north along Museum Mile. When we reach the Metropolitan, we take a seat on the front steps. Between tugs of whiskey, I lean in and kiss Meghan McKenzie on the lips.
I kiss her long and slow, enjoying the eerie silence that falls over the world during moments like this. I lean into her palm, warm and dry upon my cheek. I taste the bubble gum and nicotine on her tongue. I feel the wind and the slight trembling of my hand as it moves across her back.
When the kissing is over, Meghan McKenzie rests her head on my shoulder. I take her hand in mine. We sit together in silence for several minutes, both of us hoping to savor the moment as long as we possibly can.
“I haven’t been this far uptown since Christmas,” Meghan whispers in my ear.
“I haven’t been this far uptown since 1992,” I whisper back, nudging her cheek. “In fact, I spent the entire summer in that building right across the street.”
“I remember,” Meghan says, looking up at the balcony of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 12th-story penthouse. “I wonder if Mr. Hawthorne still lives there.”
No sooner does Meghan McKenzie ask the question than the answer reveals itself in the form of Nathaniel Hawthorne, emerging from a stretch limousine directly across the street. He stands with his back to the limo, straightening the creases in his tux. Then he wheels around, extending a hand to help his companion from the car.
I rise to my feet, fully prepared to cross the street and demand Nathaniel Hawthorne introduce me to his date. But that thought fades the moment his female companion steps out onto the sidewalk, wearing a jet-black chiffon dress and matching high heels.
I fall back onto the steps – reeling in utter shock – as Nathaniel Hawthorne takes my soon-to-be-ex-wife by the hand and whisks her past the doorman, en route to his 5th-Avenue penthouse.
During the cab ride back to Meghan McKenzie’s apartment, the entire conversation sounds like an Abbott and Costello routine.
“That was Monty’s father?”
“And that was your ex-wife that walked into the building with him?”
“Soon-to-be ex-wife, yes.”
“And Monty’s father is your divorce lawyer?”
“Up until now, yes.”
“So your divorce lawyer is dating your soon-to-be ex-wife, who’s also having an affair with your best friend … the same best friend who also happens to be your divorce lawyer’s son?”
“Miggs and I aren’t really best friends anymore.”
“So who are you most angry with?”
“Who am I most what?”
“Most Angry with – the father, the son, or your soon-to-be ex-wife?”
“Because I’m the one who allowed each of them to weasel their way into my life.”
Sitting in the back seat en route to the West Village, I can’t help but wonder whether my soon-to-be ex-wife is lying naked in the dark right now, getting drilled by some barrel-chested Neanderthal in a Stetson hat … Nor can I stop thinking about the Freudian implications of all this taking place in the same bedroom where Meghan McKenzie took my virginity some 18 years prior.
Back at the apartment, Meghan rolls a joint as I scan the bookshelf, eager for distraction.
We sit on a Persian rug in the living room, where Meghan strokes my cheek, asking repeatedly whether I’m sure I’m OK.
I am not sure I’m OK.
I’m far too drunk and a little too high to make that call right now. The good news is I’m able to effectively block it out for the time being, in much the same way an athlete is able to block out an injury he knows will be twice as painful come morning.
The two of us pass the time rifling through Meghan’s extensive record collection.
She’s got Blonde on Blonde and Closing Time and Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn on vinyl. She’s got Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and an entire crate full of Memphis Blues. She’s got enough vintage Motown to get us through two wars.
We geek out to one classic after another, sharing stories of what each song means to us, the entire experience intensified by alcohol and pot and the intimacy of Meghan McKenzie’s pre-war apartment.
As the first hint of daylight seeps in through a crack in the curtains, Meghan switches to her laptop, introducing me to some of the modern artists I might have missed along the way. She’s particularly fond of a Swedish folksinger named Kristan Matsson, who records under the name The Tallest Man on Earth.
“You’ve got to hear this guy,” she says. “He’s just the goddamned best, is what he is.”
And so it comes to pass that a few minutes after 7 AM on the morning of Wednesday, May 22nd, Meghan McKenzie passes out, her head resting in my lap.
I spend the next half hour watching her as she sleeps, my thoughts restlessly torn between lurid images of the asshole lawyer who’s fucking my soon-to-be-ex-wife, and the freewheelin’ sounds of The Tallest Man on Earth.
©Copyright Bob Hill
(Next Friday: Subhuman: Volume One, Chapter Twelve)