I lost my virginity in the summer of 1998. I was twenty-one. We met on AOL chat before we met at a coffee house. I was a college student, broke on Prozac. Meg was thirty and an auditor for gas stations. She belched at the patio table. She spread her legs apart with her jeans on. She snuffed Parliament after Parliament in an ashtray and lit another. She also called herself a libertarian, whatever that meant.
“I was possessed by the soul of Jack Kerouac at fourteen,” she said. “It happened in Algebra class when I had my period. You know him, right?”
“Isn’t he a dead country singer?”
“No, he’s a poet, Pumpkin Pie. And he’s not dead if he lives through me.”
I said what I had to say to get laid.
Twenty years later, it was eight hours of dullard work and two hours of wartime commutes. I would crawl home each night. I would kiss my dog. I would scratch my wife’s head. I would watch trendy TV shows, losing vigor by the day’s end.
One day, I drifted from the wasteful internet to Facebook—as if there was a difference. I searched for Meg. Pages showed profiles of women with the same name from countries such as Iceland, Scotland, and the Netherlands. But they looked different than Meg. One was one-hundred-and-seven years old. Her location was the afterlife. It sounded like Meg’s black humor. But this lady was Indonesian. A fifty-year-old woman from San Francisco shared my hometown. San Francisco was where Kerouac had lost his mind. In her pictures, she wore clothes most women would wear. She didn’t wear Doc Martens or Che Guevara shirts. But her curly blond hair and her sunken cheeks gave her away. I sent a friend request. It could’ve been mania, but one day I skipped Los Angeles to twenty years into the past.
I was stuck on the 101 North in gridlock. It took forever to leave town.
I coasted down the grapevine ninety minutes later. I played goth music to remember those nights with her and her vivid pillow talk. “I’ll fuck the fairytale bullshit right out of your ears.” The dust on my dashboard reminded me of the tar clinging to her ceiling fan. It sparkled like stripper glitter. The smell of sex filled my car. I masturbated at seventy miles per hour, down a steep decline. It went smoother than I thought.
I tried to capture the memories at The Cellar. It was now under new management, as you would’ve guessed. What else could I have expected after all those years? They’d turned it into a hipster hideout. It was a cardboard speakeasy. It was a place for frat alums. It had dozens of tap beers. A couple of alums at the other end of the bar brushed peanut shells off their suits. They talked about real estate. Bartenders wore spats, bow ties, and suspenders. The jukebox ironically played pop metal.
My bartender flipped his brown hair. His handlebar mustache hung under his nose like a party favorite. He tossed a coaster at my fingertips to impress me.
“I’m Marty. Welcome to happy hour, boss. What’re you having?”
He looked like a Marty.
“I used to come here,” I said. “Long ago.”
“Our specials are four-dollar Jager Martinis.”
“What’s a Jager Martini?”
“Good question,” he said.
“Forget it.” Jack used to order me Greyhounds. “Get me a Greyhound.”
Marty rubbed his mustache, looking lost.”Sorry, but remind me what a Greyhound is.”
Why wasn’t I surprised? “Grapefruit juice and vodka.”
“That’s a Greyhound.”
“I can make those in my sleep.”
The taste could make a rattlesnake recoil, but Meg used to force me to drink it against my will. I tried my best to transport myself to the nineties. Marty waited for me to taste it after he’d made it.
“Tell me what you think,” he said.
I pulled cherries, orange peels, and sliced pineapples from the glass for a sip. All I tasted was grapefruit juice. But a gentle breeze flew in from 1998. They kept the door open upstairs.
“Let bygones be bygones,” I told him.
He looked proud.
“The Cellar used to shut the door to keep the cops out.”
Marty began chopping mint leaves and celery. He was ignoring me.
“Twenty years ago was like a lifetime ago. The door behind me led to the cigar room. Now it’s probably where you stock the beer.”
“It’s still the cigar room,” he said.
“Oh, is it.”
I took my glass and a pack of Marlboros for the door.
“No smoking,” he said. “You’ll have to do it out front.”
“Out front?” I said. “We used to smoke back there until two in the morning when they closed. Can I still see it?”
“Of course. But we close at ten. And leave your drink here.”
“Leave it here? We used to bring our drinks and sit in the lounge chairs all night. What can I bring?”
“No vaping either.”
Times had changed for the worse. But I wondered what waited for me on the other side. The door creaked open. I caught a whiff of clove cigarettes. Goth music bounced off the bricks. The mortar held memories of those nights. The floor was still sticky. The room was still dingy. The velvet couches with burn holes, the flickering lights on the ceiling were still there. I could smell the burning tobacco and butane lighters. I could see the goth guys with metal chains hanging from their wallets, and goth girls with mascara dripping down their cheeks.
“You made it, Pumpkin Pie,” she said.
The voice and pet name came from only one woman.
Meg in the corner booth tilted her cigarette hand in a shadow. Her right leg crossed over her left leg.
“You’re really here?” I asked.
It took me to our first date. She invited me to her house. She lit a candle at a powwow in her bedroom next to Mom and Dad’s room. Junior college beatniks snapped their fingers rhythmically. They read their poems. The poems were sappy and political. I felt out of place. Meg stood and read an ode. She kept saying Pumpkin Pie, so I knew it was about me. She made me blush.
She drove me to The Cellar on her German motorcycle. It was a Zundapp called Stella. She stole somebody’s shot at the Cellar and stuck her tongue down a woman’s throat. When a customer tried to steal her tip, the bartender stabbed him with a corkscrew. Yeah, those were the days.
A goth metal band began to play. They triggered sexual energy in the crowd. Girls used to claw each other over their men. Some would bleed, and others puked. Urine leaked from the toilets. God, I missed that place.
Meg would become Jack in The Cellar. Her libertarian name was Steel Castle. Her sexual name was Kitty Phantasmagoria. Jack took no bullshit. After a woman smiled at me, Jack ripped her nose ring out.
She stole my innocence on that first date. Kitty stripped down to her candy-striped panties. Her legs were bristly combs. She smoked Parliaments and rode me to a climax with her ashtray on my stomach. The Prozac kept me from coming. I would have that problem all summer, but the memories were what counted.
She saw me at my college dorm in the fall semester. My roommate laughed at her, saying, “Do you even know what a libertarian is?”
Steel Castle scratched his face and called him communist swine. She grabbed her clothes and marched out of my dorm. “Sorry, but I can’t date someone with a roommate like that. Farewell, Pumpkin Pie. I wish you nothing but the best. In five years, you’ll be fabulous.”
I watched her climb onto Stella and zoom away forever. I would’ve cried, but the Prozac numbed my feelings. And she was wrong about the five years.
Jack lit a Parliament in the corner booth despite the new rules in The Cellar.
“I’ve been waiting, too,” I said. “I always wondered what to say. Did you get my friend request?”
“What’s a friend request?”
She’d remained indeed. Meg was too busy for social media.
“Kiss me, Pumpkin Pie,” she said.
Jack on menopause still wore her black leather jacket with silver zippers. My hand slipped between her thighs. Her lips were soaked in vodka. Our tongues hardened, softened, withdrew, jousted, and wrestled. Meg loved to have her ears kissed and her hair pulled. I ripped a clump of hair out of her head.
“It’s OK, Pumpkin Pie.” She patched it in its proper place. After that, she wiped the slobber from her lips and smudged her cheeks with lipstick, the real Jack.
“Let’s ride Stella home like old times,” she said.
“Are your parents home?” I asked.
“What about Steel Castle?”
“Died nine years ago from typhoid. But Kitty is waiting.”
“Stay here,” I said. “I need to finish my Greyhound.”
“I’ll be waiting, Pumpkin Pie.”
When I left the room, the goth music faded to modern alternative.
My Greyhound was missing from the bar counter.
“Where’s my drink?” I asked.
“Sorry, boss. I thought you left.”
“Thought I left? You saw me go in there.”
“You were gone for like an hour.”
“I was?” It felt like ten minutes. “Fine. I’ll buy another.”
“Just so you know, it’s no longer happy hour, boss.”
“For the love of God, stop calling me boss.”
The drink would cost two-fifty. It was ten times as strong, too. But that amateur Marty embodied what that place had become. Weak and overpriced.
“This is plain wrong,” I said to him.
Marty grabbed a TV remote. “What do you need? You need the soccer game? I can put it on.”
“See my point? We used to come here to escape TV. We would watch bands play on that little stage in the corner.”
The drum set was now a raffle machine. My nostrils burned. It wasn’t from the rot of old beer either. It was from the Fabuloso after the other bartender had mopped the floor. No one ever mopped the floor at the Cellar. Twenty years didn’t whizz by. They splattered like whale guts.
Marty ignored my story. He served my second round with more fruits and a little umbrella. He left me there for the frat brothers. The reverie died. What was the point of sitting any longer? So I took my last sip and decided to close out.
The Phi Sigma Kappa brothers got off their stools. It was time for them to head back to the real estate firm. I pulled out my credit card. The Cellar used to be a cash-only bar.
I stepped outside. The rain had begun trickling under the moon. The San Joaquin Valley was wet a few days out of the year. It had to come out on that day. I tripped over a silver pail. It caught raindrops. A lipstick case and cigarette butts floated in it. The butts had purple lipstick stains like the ones Meg used to snuff in her bedroom. Did a thought about me ever cross her mind in those twenty years?
Well, the following Sunday, the woman from San Francisco wrote me back:
Who the fuck is this?
I described every detail possible about our three-month relationship. She replied: oh, yeah, u again.
She rejected my friend request.
What a fool I was to reach out to a girlfriend after all those years. It was only a plea for attention.
“Why have you been so quiet?” my wife asked me.
I had trouble explaining. It’s all black and white.