All of the decent tables at the Gentleman’s Wharf were taken. Along with most restaurants (or diners)(or coffee shops), it had tables that were either good or bad. They set the bad tables in places that made the good tables appear holier.
Nobody attended to the damned. A busboy flashed by and set a glass of water and a basket of sourdough so hastily on my table that I missed him. I had to stare at a wall, where a black-and-white picture hung of a group of men in the very same restaurant playing cards at a table facing the bay; they were caught looking at the camera. Supposedly, by the suits and the hats and the suspenders they wore—along with the indoor cigars and the greasy hair—it was taken in the 1940’s. The man closest to the camera was turned around in his chair and smirking back at me in pity. One of the whiskey bottles had been knocked over on the table, with a mysterious vapor flowing out of it
Man, why didn’t I make a reservation? All of the other customers seated in the restaurant had run ahead of me to sit near the windows, to gaze out at the bay. I was too slow. I overthought. They were wealthier than me, by far. They were simple-minded enough to reserve those tables far ahead of time. My complicated ass had to settle for the one in the corner, making me the dunce of the restaurant, the loser. But what had I lost? I had been called a loser many times (a nerd, an asshole, a cheater, a liar, a moron, a pervert, a narcissist, a sociopath—all of which were specific). But a loser? Well, people threw that insult without any real meaning. Seldom did I hear anyone call someone else a winner. Sometimes an athlete won; a politician, too; lawyers; businessmen. Sometimes they lost. A loser had to be someone who lost every time and every thing at everything. That was impossible. Society was so obsessed with winning. If one lost, one was nothing. If one was victorious, people thought they would catch the victory bug from that one, so they tagged along.
By the time I ate the last piece of sourdough, I was still waiting for my client. I was waiting on the waiter, too.
I asked the bartender, “where’s my waiter?”
He was in the middle of pouring wine for a rich old man, slowly and carefully as if the weight of the cabernet might crack the glass stem.
“She’ll be right with you, Sir,” he said, with his stiff attention on the glass.
“My name’s Eric North,” I said.“My client is supposed to be here.” In case the rich man was interested, I said to the bartender, “I sell coats.” Neither of them seemed to give a damn. “I really thought he’d be here by now. I don’t have all day. When you see my waitress, can you ask her to come to my table?”
“Of course, Sir.”
She never showed up.
The bartender had shunned my request, so I ordered a beer and a bowl of clam chowder straight from him.
“How long will it take the clam chowder?” I asked him.
“Oh, give it ten minutes.”
I set the timer on my watch. When those ten minutes were up, I picked it up from the bar. The year was 2030. The president of the United States had a neck full of tattoos, and waiters were becoming more and more obsolete. With lesser waiters came stricter demands. Waiters and waitresses were no longer employees but independent contractors, which meant they could choose which customers to wait on. If a customer looked well-to-do, the waiter or waitress would serve him for a generous tip. For the most part, customers served themselves at most restaurants in the city. When their numbers were called, the customers would pick up the food directly from the chef through a small opening to the kitchen.
“Did you see anyone come in yet in those ten minutes?” I asked.
“What was your name again?”
“Eric North…Mr. North…Actually, yes, someone did come asking for you, now that I remember.”
“What did he look like? I’ve only spoken to him on the phone.”
“I thought he was a teenager.”
“Come to think of it, what’s that syndrome where’s he’s really an adult?… Anyway, I pointed him over to you, and he walked right back out.”
“He was my client; he had to be.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’ll come right back.”
So I waited at the worst table in the restaurant, with my back turned, waiting for any of those old winners to leave so I could sit at one of their tables. They let themselves rot in leisure on a Monday afternoon and laugh at their own jokes. I grumbled just loud enough to hear myself over my breath, commiserating with myself in the corner over a watery, potatoey bowl of clam chowder. It must’ve come from a barrel specific for losers.
“The clams here are amazing,” one of them said.
At one spoonful, I thought I had tasted a hint of clam.
Without the waiters or my client coming by, I walked out. To avenge them and the humiliation, I treated myself to a free lunch and thought of the most hurtful words for my Yelp review—under an anonymous account of course.
I stepped onto the train before the restaurant manager could catch me. He tried to pry the doors open. He even chased after the train. That was the best part of the afternoon.
But then every seat in the car was taken as well. I stood, holding onto one of those suspended handles. Depending on which way I turned, the faces of those who sat below me were at level with my crotch. They belonged to three young, innocent female tourists, looking, in wonder, out the window at the bay.
At least on the train, the passengers got off every ten or so minutes. Yet, new passengers would get on. In fact, some of them took head-starts from the terminals for a seat. One of them slipped right under where the young ladies were. Gripping the handle, I stumbled with the shove of the train. My sciatica was growing. The older I got, the more seats were taken. The world was running out of them. And the older I got, the more things I lost: my hair, my space, my freedoms, my options, my patience, my confidence, my faith in God, my muscle mass…I couldn’t ask for any of them back either.
A friend of mine once said, “you have to ask for everything in this life.” He died, a month later, from a heart attack in Times Square. He had to ask for an ambulance.
“Excuse me,” I said to the kid, “I will pay you five dollars if you let me sit there.”
He shook his head.
“What?” I said.
“I said I would pay you five dollars. Why would you turn that down?”
He crossed his arms tightly in front of his chest, and he shook his head again. To show I wasn’t bluffing, I pulled out the bill and held the crisp paper near the tip of his nose.
“Here, smell it,” I said. “Smells like real money, doesn’t it? It’s a new bill, too. That’s why it smells this easy.”
“You’re Eric North,” he said.
“How did you know?”
“Is this your wish? To have this seat?”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “You came by the Gentleman’s Wharf, didn’t you?”
“You’re my next appointment.”
“And you must be my next appointment. Amarabu?”
“Out of everything in the world, is this what you want?”
“What are you? Fifteen?”
“I’m ageless. I’ve never had a birthday. You might think I’m fifteen, but where I’m from, we all look fifteen. The fact is, I’ve been around for eons. So, here is your chance, Mr. North.”
“You didn’t want to buy a coat, did you?”
“Just tell me, what is your wish?”
I didn’t understand his game. Regarding his question, out of everything I had wished for, none of them had come true. That lame seat that Amarabu was sitting in, with graffiti etched in it, was at the bottom of the list, but at the time I wanted nothing else in the world.
“OK,” I said. “Prove to me. Go on.”
“I’ll give you a preliminary wish; after that, I will grant you only one real wish, and it will be final.”
“Then I wish everyone in this train would get off now.”
Amarabu smiled. He snapped his fingers. The train came to a startling halt. Everyone stumbled forward. I squeezed the handle, and the kid snatched the bill from my fingers. He along with everybody else scuttled out, leaving me alone in that car.
I sat in disturbed peace until the next stop. So Amarabu really could’ve been a genie—a crooked genie, but a genie nonetheless, with the timing of a parking enforcer.
My stop came two minutes later. The walk from the station was a half a mile home. My shoes were made for sitting. Sure, they presented me as an appropriate salesman, but those flatfooted duck-shoes had triggered sciatica. By night, sciatica had shot down my back to my ankles. Moving each leg was like snapping them with 50 rubber bands. Assuredly, it would go away from the moment I sat in my chair, my favorite chair, the chair that my father had left for me, his piece of furniture that I truly valued, a chair I could’ve sat in for the rest of my life, for all I cared; I could’ve turned into a human marshmallow, letting the rest of the world eat itself to death like a dumb snake—as long as they let me sit there. If my wife or my relatives wanted to speak to me, they could speak to me.
Ah, but that night, she sat in it, watching Wheel of Fortune. If I kicked Maggie out of the chair, she would’ve yelled at me. That was the state of our marriage. She believed in arguing; I didn’t. From afar and in a practical sense, arguments never ended in victory. The egos jousted until the egos went dull. Neither ego accepted defeat either. Both were right; both were wrong. In the end, she and I wouldn’t have accomplished anything except lost breath, wasted time, and depleted energy.
So, I lay on our couch from Ikea and rested my legs at the other end. Couches were made for sitting, not lying down; they stiffened my back and my mind. The older I got, the more that couch kept shrinking. I swore. When I was a newlywed, my feet would dangle over the edge. Eventually, my knees would sit on top. Besides, no matter how much I bunched the pillow, my neck kept hurting.
I was so tired, though, from standing on that train and from sitting in that wobbly chair at the restaurant, I fell asleep, to be awakened at 4am by the national anthem on network television. After the national anthem, the station turned to a blizzard with white noise.
I stumbled half-awake to the bedroom where she had taken the good side of the bed. It was the side closest to the fan, which blew left to right and right to left…Even on humid summer nights like that night, Maggie would shut off the air-conditioner: a habit she had learned from her father. Mr. Martin once treated us to an Applebee’s for my forty-fourth birthday so he could use his Groupon. Ah, he came from an older generation, like our mattress. Back then, the mattress was expensive. We’d had it for twelve years. We needed a new one, but a new one had to feel stronger and softer than the old one.
One could move onto only something stronger and more expensive.
She would usually go to bed before I would. Whoever went to bed first assumed the better side. Somehow, though, by morning, if I had gone to bed first, both of us would’ve tossed-and-turned to opposite sides. I swore she knew a bed fairy (or someone else) who showed up when I was sleeping and rolled me over. I would wake up, sweating, with a pinched neck.
I nudged her.
“Maggie, wake up. I can’t sleep on this side anymore.”
She muttered, half-awake:
“your side is fine. What’re you talking about?”
“It’s too hot over here, and I feel it sinking. Every time I sleep there, I feel like I’m falling off.”
“You old man, you’re losing your mind.”
She kept her back facing me, and she pulled me against her. Maggie had to sleep with my cock pressed against her spine. When she snored, I turned the other way. A cold draft blew on my face.
“I only gave you the preliminary,” I heard.
It was that voice from the train. I opened my eyes to the genie. He stood in front of the window, with the Venetian blinds blowing—from either the fan or from whatever force was shooting from his pores. Actually, he wasn’t standing; he was levitating. His feet were about a foot from the floor.
“How did you get in here?”
“I’m levitating, and you’re asking how I got in here?”
“The front door was unlocked.”
“Well, shit, what do you want? I just sell coats for a living.”
“Mr. North, I have to fulfill a quota. If I can’t fulfill your wish, I get demoted.”
“You mean, there’s some company of genies?”
“Yes, it’s a company. Any institution where money is passed around is a business: that includes churches, colleges, and hospitals. And by the way, the word ‘genie’ is a slur.”
“What isn’t a slur these days?
“Enough about me,” he said. “I’m short of time, so I need to grant your wish before the train shows up.”
“You levitate, but you still need a train?”
“Yes, I can fly, but it gets foggy. Anyway, let’s cut through the gristle. What is the one true wish you want?”
“Out of everything?” I said. “My god, this is a lot of pressure. It’s why I canceled satellite TV: too many choices.”
“In that case, look at any wish as ESPN,” he said. “Forget the Home and Garden Channel.”
“OK, any wish is like ESPN…Any wish is like ESPN.”
“My time is precious, Mr. North.”
“I’m thinking I’m thinking.”
“Just close your eyes and think of the first wish that comes to mind.”
“I want her side of the bed.”
“I said I want her side of the bed. She always gets it.”
“So, out of all the wishes I could’ve granted you, you picked her side of the bed?
”And I want a seat on the train and the best table at restaurants. Does all of that count?”
“I thought more of you, Mr. North.”
“Fine. Screw that one,” I said. “I wish for a new car.”
“But you just told me the first wish that came to your mind.”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t prepared for this.”
“I can’t do that,” he said.
“You can’t do what?”
“I can only grant you the first wish that comes to your mind.”
“If you have other wishes, I’m afraid you will have to fulfill them without me. That is all.”
“Wait. What if I paid you more? I can dig into my 401k.”
“I don’t accept money, Mr. North.”
“Then how do you guys make ends meet?”
He set one arm over the other, in front of himself. He shut his eyes and squeezed them shut, still levitating.
I blacked out for a moment. I was disoriented. I lost direction of the ceiling until I found that I was on the other side of the bed—the good side.
“Wake up,” she said.
But I pretended to be in a deep sleep. Faking a snore was difficult. I kept my eyes closed, lying in a fetal position until I was blasted by cold water on my face.
“Jesus with a toaster,” I said.
“You took my side,” she said.
“Your side? I didn’t take it anywhere.”
“I was sleeping there.”
“Now, let’s get this straight. How long have we been married?”
“What does that matter?”
“I want you to think back to all the times you got your way.”
“Excuse me. I didn’t know you were keeping tabs.”
“OK, let’s make a deal,” I said.
“We switch off each night. Tonight, I sleep in front of the fan. Tomorrow night, you sleep in front of the fan.”
“But I can’t sleep without the fan blowing in my face.”
“Neither can I. Then I’ll turn on the air-conditioner.”
“Eric, that’s stupid. You know how high the bill gets.”
“This is insane.”
“You always have to have your way, Eric.”
“My way? I never get my way.”
“Fine,” she said. “How about I sleep in the basement where I can sweat to death and listen to the rats? You would like that, wouldn’t you? You sick old man.”
She sat on the other side of the bed, with her back facing me and her arms crossed, and she pouted.
I knew what would come next. She called her father, with me in the room. He made her hand me the phone, and he scolded me with a lecture about the importance of compromises, which was what I had been trying to teach her about all along:
“Yes, Mr. Martin…OK, Mr. Martin.”
Mr. Martin started repeating himself, so I hung up on him.
“Fine, fine, I’ll get up,” I said. “Take the whole damn bed. Then tomorrow night, it’s my whole bed.”
“Where’re you going?”
“To the basement. I should’ve wished for another wedding.”
“What did you say?”
“I mean, it could start things over.”
She kept silent at that.
“There was this genie. Never mind. It’s late.”
“What genie? What’re you talking about?”
“This genie, his name is Amarabu. I met him on the train. He’s this kid, about fifteen. Well, he looks fifteen, but he can fly, so I guess he’s ageless. I thought he was some punk from Oakland. So when you were sleeping, he showed up in the bedroom.”
“I heard you talking to someone. So this genie came in. What else? What did he say?”
“He said what you think a genie might say. I didn’t know this, but the word ‘genie’ is a slur.”
“I knew that.”
“Honey, he was levitating.”
Maggie had to slap her hand over her face and keep it there, to make sure the laugh would stay in her mouth.
“I’m telling the truth.”
“OK, so that must’ve meant you should believe him.”
“For a start, yes.”
“And what did Abracadabra the Genie do?”
“It’s Amarabu, I think. He granted me one wish. One wish only.”
“Why not three wishes? Aren’t you supposed to grant you three? Where’s the bottle he came out of?”
“This one doesn’t come from bottles. Although I do remember a bottle that I saw in this picture at the restaurant. Anyway, I don’t know where Amarabu comes from; he keeps it a secret. He said something about a quota. Maggie, it put me under a lot of pressure. You know how I am about ultimatums. Just look what your father put me through.”
“So what was your wish to this levitating genie?”
“All I could come up with was this side of the bed.”
“You what? Please tell me that you dreamed this up.”
“And I wanted my seat on the train and my table at the restaurant. I told you, I came up with nothing else.”
“Eric, we’re in debt, we have a rat problem, I’m overweight, you’re overweight, I’ve been out of a job, and you come up with that?”
“Let’s just sleep on it,” I said. “I’ll see Amarabu again. He just caught me off guard on a bad day.”
“But I can’t understand why you would choose that out of any other wish.”
“It’s like those times when we’re at karaoke, and you tell me to go up there and sing. I can never choose what to sing; not because there are no options either; there are too many. But don’t worry. I’ll find him again.”
“Then thank your genie. You got your stupid wish.”
She rolled to her side, with her back facing me.
“Come on,” she said, “press against me.”
Maybe Amarabu really was dreamed up, from the train to the bedroom. But he seemed to have left behind a fortune cookie. It must’ve fallen out of his pocket. I picked it up, tore off the plastic, right to pulling it apart for the fortune. But it wouldn’t crack. It was more stubborn than a crab leg glazed in cement. I even pressed my teeth into it. It felt like a fortune cookie; it had the same sugary taste. But if I had bitten further, it would’ve chipped my teeth.
Sticking my penis against her back, I hoped I would get at least a few hours of sleep. I could sleep only with a pillow stuffed between my legs. Neither she nor I could survive in this overstuffed world without being moderately weird.
I awoke a few hours later on the right side of the bed. The shower was running. Saturday had come, the one day of the week when I could celebrate living. Actually, it was Tuesday. I had slept so hard for those few hours that I had confused the days of the week. I had to be in the office in two hours. The train station on Tuesdays was always its worst. I needed a shower, but she was already in there, as with every morning. Somehow, she would be in there whenever I was just waking up. She would take too long.
“Amarabu,” I said. “Are you there? Speak to me if you are.”
He ignored me. Either he was with another client, or he was asleep.
“Amarabu, if you can hear me, I want another wish. I want her to stop taking showers when I need to take showers.”
Thinking it would work, I snapped my finger. The shower stopped in an instant. She came out dripping, with her hair wet and raggedy like the fibers of a mop. The bathrobe over her breasts made her look like one of those fools who wore wooden barrels over one’s chest. Ah, what did I do? I would ask myself that question every time she came out of the bathroom looking like this. Eric, you could’ve ended this marriage yesterday or the day before it or a year ago, but you let it prolong, for what? What was waiting for me after her? My friends had gotten married, too. They were hardly friends anymore—for years. Friends saw each other. They spoke to each other. They bowled together. They watched the Giants games together. They drank together:
“Hey, Eric, it’s your turn to play something on the jukebox.”
“But I don’t know what to play.”
I could’ve wished to see my friends again. So much for that.
From that night on, nothing changed except for my luck with the seats and tables. Everywhere I went, even the Gentleman’s Wharf, there was a favorable seat or table always near a window, and the chairs never wobbled. Out of good grace, my wife would always let me have the good side of the bed; the pillow, too, that she had always taken. Everything else was hers.
I left the apartment each day with the impenetrable fortune cookie in my pocket. Someday, I hoped, the enamel would crack, and I would be able to pull it apart for the fortune. As far as I know, heaven was devoid of Posturepedics and my father’s chair and the tables in front of the bay. Forever I would be content with that one good fortune, but only that one good fortune.