“Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan.”Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
Sitting in a coffee shop, I reminisced over the woman who popped my cherry.
It was during my summer vacation. We met on AOL chat and later in person at a coffee house in my hometown. She was thirty, and I was a broke college student on Prozac. Meg belched in the patio, spread her legs, and after a chain of Parliaments indulged me in the formative notes of her youth.
“In my freshman year of high school, I was possessed by the soul of Jack Kerouac.”
“In Algebra class, too. I was having my period.”
“You know who he is, right?”
“Isn’t he a dead country and western singer?”
“He’s a poet, Pumpkin Pie. And he isn’t dead if he lives through me.”
It didn’t matter if she were possessed by Bob Costas.
What did it take to get laid? I shrugged my shoulders and said, “OK.”
On our first date, she invited me to a candlelight meeting in her bedroom where a coterie of junior college beatniks convened in a circle and read poetry. Her parents slept in the next room.
She called herself a libertarian activist.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she said.
What did it matter? Every single thing frightened me, from cactus to women, and every other living creature seemed to be having sex. At twenty-one, I perceived the world as a scary place–a different hell than the one in my forties. I couldn’t compare them to see which was worse.
Afterward, she brought me on her German hog to a bar called The Cellar, a Faustian market of Gothic outcasts where she stole shots and swapped tongues with other men and women; where the bartender poured drinks and lost count of the seconds either drunkenly or generously. She said he once stabbed a patron with a corkscrew and got the handcuffs. A Goth-industrial metal band there ripped off Korn, but their show triggered an animus in the room where the girls clawed each other over their Goth-boys. Some bled, some others puked, and urine leaked from the clogged-up bathrooms. For some weird reason, I wanted to keep going back.
In that underground habitat, Meg became Jack. She took shit from no one. She goosed a woman for giving me the eye, and she tore the ring right out her nose. That prelude led to my first time. She came out of her bathroom in pigtails and candy-cane panties. Her name was Kitty.
That fall, when Meg stayed with me at college, my dorm mate laughed at her and said, “do you even know what a libertarian is?”
She scratched his face and accused him of being a “communist swine.”
“I can’t date someone with a roommate like that. It goes against my beliefs. So farewell, Pumpkin Pie. I wish you the best. In five years, you’ll be fabulous.”
Our affair ended after three months, and she whisked herself away on her Zundapp she called “Stella.”
I would’ve cried, but too much Prozac numbed my feelings enough to dull my orgasms.
And she was wrong about the five years.
“See the guy at the front of the line? He has COPD.”
I was pulled from the daydream by an acquaintance who sat across the table. His name was Ken, and he rode a Moped. He drove there every morning from his loft on Melrose and gossiped about the regulars. There was nothing else to know about him.
“The lady behind him has had shock treatment 53 times.”
Ken never spoke much about himself other than his Netflix series.
“It’s still in the works, my friend, still in the works.”
A year ago the show was still in the works.
He upset two rules most people adhered to:
(1.) never to bother somebody who’s reading something and
(2.) never to bother somebody who’s writing something.
In terms of those commandments, pigeons practiced more restraint than Ken. I raised the levels in my headphones until his lips moved like the ones in a Fritz Lang film. Yet his voice managed to sneak its way in.
“We’re a week away from the deal. Then pop the cork. It’s a wrap. Isn’t that thrilling?”
“I can’t hear you.”
“What about you? You still writing that silly little blog?”
Contrary to what some skeptics believed, writer’s block existed, and Ken embodied it. I squashed a cockroach with my shoe, not because I despised it but to help preserve the health of the shop. There were several ways to exterminate him. I watched a YouTube clip on sacrifice. It was hosted by my born-again neighbor. He referred to biblical tales, all of which lost me.
When I had turned thirty-three, he bought me a wallet-size copy of The Old Testament as a gift. I sat on my toilet and opened it to the beginning.
I met John.
I met Luke.
I met Mary.
I met Matthew.
I met Abraham.
I forgot each of their names from the moment we shook hands, so I left the party early.
When I got up to wipe, I fumbled it and kaplunk. Of all the reasons to go to hell…I pulled it out with a sandwich bag.
“What did you think?” my neighbor asked.
“Too much exposition.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“A lot of it needs to be flushed out.”
Anyway, just to focus on a novel, I had spared so-called friendships; so-called love affairs; chances at meager raises at even less useful jobs. After eight hours of dullard work and an added two hours of wartime commutes, I crawled home each night to kiss my dog, to scratch my wife’s head, and to catch the latest episode of some trendy show at what hour, with no vigor left in me to write something. Like Married With Children…, those summers in college had been canceled too soon. Ted McGinley didn’t even need to show up to my graduation.
Meanwhile, Edward kept yipping about his Netflix series. This was before killers and rapists destroyed the personal ads in Craigslist. I found a Satanic cult in Koreatown that performed sacrifices. For the service, they needed a live chicken. I searched Google for a service to rent them, but nothing came up. My born-again neighbor had been planning entrepreneurial work on a pet rental app and was trying to reach his goal on Kickstarter. If I wanted, say, chickens for a day, I would’ve swiped right. But he had moved away and lost contact with me because I was a “Pagan.”
Sooner than later, my mind drifted through the wasteful matter of the internet to Facebook. After all this time, what happened to Meg? In her profile, she would’ve used either her legal name or one of her other three names, with Meg as her default.
Her drunk name, Jack (for Kerouac).
Her libertarian name, Steel Castle.
Her sexual name, Kitty Santasmagoria.
Hundreds of profiles appeared in the search, comprised of women who lived as far as Iceland–none matched her likeness anyway. One listed her age at 107 years old; her place, the afterlife, which smacked of Meg’s black humor. But Meg was white, not Indonesian.
A 50-year-old woman from San Francisco, where Kerouac was said to have lost his mind and found God, noted the same hometown as mine, where we met. But this woman’s legs were shaved, and she didn’t wear Doc Martens or baggy Che Guevara shirts; just the standard clothing of a woman in modern culture. Her curly auburn hair, though, and the way this woman sucked her cheeks in for every photo, gave her away. She had to be her. I clenched my jaws and sent a friend request. Maybe it was a manic state, but regardless of whether she was or wasn’t her, my wishes took over, so I had to travel back in time. I left the coffee shop for the 101 North.
“Wait, where are you going?” Ken said.
“I’ll deal with you later.”
The gridlock on the freeway symbolized the path to success in Hollywood. Just to get out of town, people around me waited through the sludge of eternity for the next short mile, while a red Ferrari blazed down the carpool lane. He won that day.
Ninety or so miles later, when I was coasting freely down the Grapevine, I played Disintegration by The Cure, to transcend myself into that first night with Kitty and our Faustian bargain.
“I’ll fuck this fairytale bullshit right out your ears.”
Kitty’s pillow-talk made transcendence sad yet stirring. Not only that but also her puffing parliaments up in the cowgirl with her ashtray on my stomach. The tobacco dust on my dash hinting at the specks of tar clinging to her ceiling fan. It sparkled like stripper glitter. Either it was sex that filled up my car or the pair of gym socks beneath the driver’s seat. Nevertheless, pleasing myself behind the wheel at 70mph went smoother than I thought.
On a Tuesday evening, I relished each step down to The Cellar, without knowing what it had become. The person who owned the place had gentrified it into a hipster hideout. It donned the gaudy wardrobe of a speakeasy–someplace that pinched the nipples of a couple of frat alums at the end of the bar. They brushed peanut shells off their Greek sweaters and talked about real estate. The bartenders dressed in spats, bow ties, and suspenders. Ironically, the jukebox played Creed.
My bartender, Marty, flipped his caramel hair to one side. His handlebar mustache hung under his nose like a party favorite. He did a behind-the-back Frisbee toss of a coaster that landed at my fingers.
“Welcome to happy hour, Boss. What we having?”
“You know, I used to come here years ago.”
“Our specials are $4 Jager Martinis and $3 Skinny Margaritas.”
“What’s a Jager Martini?”
“I can look up the ingredients.”
“Forget it. Jack ordered Greyhounds. Get me a Greyhound.”
Marty rubbed his mustache.
“Sorry, but remind me what a Greyhound is?”
Because of that, he owed me a buyback.
“You got grapefruit juice and vodka?”
“That’s a Greyhound.”
“I can do that in my sleep.”
Sure, the taste of it could make a snake wince, but Jack would force me to drink it against my will, and I did what I could to stay in 1998. He flipped and twirled a bottle of Popov like a bandleader, and he poured a splash of it into a shooter before he dumped it into the glass.
“Tell me what you think,” he said, waiting with his arms crossed like Gordon Ramsey at a table of food critics.
I pulled the cherries, the orange peel, and the sliced pineapple out to nip at it. Even though I couldn’t trace any vodka, there was a damp breeze of 1998 flowing through the door.
“Let bygones be bygones,” I told him. He looked proud.
“You know, the Cellar used to keep that door shut at all times,” I said, “so the cops wouldn’t get in.”
Marty was chopping mint leaves and celery.
“There was once a fire, and the bartender put it out with an extinguisher he kept under the bar. Everyone stayed calm; he opened the door to let the smoke out, and he closed it again. Business went on that night.”
And Marty put the knife down to a game of Candy Crush on his iPhone.
“That was twenty years ago. That door to my left led to the cigar room, but now it’s probably where you stock the beer kegs.”
“No, it’s still the cigar room,” he said.
“Oh, is it.”
I picked up my glass and my pack of Marlboros and headed over there.
“You can’t smoke,” he said. “You’ll have to do it out front.”
“Do it out front? But may I still go in there?”
“Of course, but leave your drink here.”
“What else can’t I bring?”
“No vaping either.”
I was losing faith in any chance of a buzz.
But going to that door, I was afraid of what repressed feelings might arise on the other side. The faint creak of its opening was trying to express something. I began talking to myself like Meursault in The Stranger. Inside there, the mortar held the memories intact. Elements of those nights rose from the sticky floor and those velvet couches around the corner with the burn holes in them to the blinking light on the ceiling, in the air of burning tobacco and the butane from Zippos lighting earthy cloves. Metal chains swung from the wallets of the goth guys and gals; the sweat of black eyeliner dripped from the wooden faces on the petite gals with their pink hair and striped stockings, who waited for the Nothing to whisk them away from the shackling suburbs to the nightmare before Christmas.
“Jesus, what the hell was in that Greyhound?”
“You made it, Pumpkin Pie.”
The voice and the pet name came from one woman.
Far in the shadows, her cigarette hand tilted back, her right leg crossed over her left leg, Jack sat in the corner where she once said my cock tasted like my neck.
I pushed through the herd of Misfits jackets and Edward Scissorhands haircuts to sit next to her.
“You’re really here?”
“I never left.”
“I’ve been waiting, too. I never knew what to say. Did you get my friend request?”
“What’s a friend request?”
She truly never left. Besides, libertarian activists didn’t have time for Facebook.
“Why don’t you stop talking to yourself and kiss me.”
The menopausal version of Jack wore a black leather jacket and torn-up jeans and black rubber high-heeled boots. As for kink, I had never let go of the way she liked to have her hair pulled and her earlobes bitten. I slipped a hand between her thighs; the other hand slid between the buttons of her flannel at which she bit her vodka-soaked lower lip.
“Give me your mouth,” she said.
Our tongues hardened, softened; they withdrew, jousted, tangled, wrestled. The room spun like a carousel. Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” bounced off the bricks. I pulled a clump of that curly Auburn hair so hard at the roots, it fell out.
“It’s OK, Pumpkin Pie.”
She took it from me and patched it in its right place; wiped the slobber from her lips and smeared her cheeks with her blood-red lipstick. This was vintage Jack.
“Let’s ride Stella back home and finish this like old times.”
“Do you still live with your parents?”
“What about Steel Castle?”
“She died nine years ago from typhoid, but Kitty is waiting.”
“You know, I never did tell you this, but I was a virgin when I met you.”
“Uh-huh, yes, I could tell by your hips.”
The Gothic circus tightened up around us, lighting Djarums.
“Don’t go anywhere,” I said. “I need to finish my Greyhound.”
She remained there as quietly as a secret. I pushed back through the herd, but they traveled with me. The Goths left upstairs to the limits of that town. The Bauhaus faded into Franz Ferdinand, so I guessed Marty was trying to force me out.
When I returned to my stool, the Greyhound was missing.
“Where is it?” I asked.
“Sorry, Boss, I thought you left.”
“Thought I left? You saw me go in there.”
“You were gone for almost an hour.”
“An hour? Fine. I’ll buy another.”
“But just so you know, Happy Hour is over. I’ll have to charge you the full price.”
“For the love of God, please stop calling me Boss.”
Not only did he make me pay for it, but he also never said sorry. At the original Cellar, the drink cost $2.50; it was twice as strong, too. But Marty came with the bargain, along with Ken; along with what became of that place. But something was in that Greyhound, I swore it, not just the acidic juice from the can.
“This just isn’t right,” I said to him.
Marty picked up a TV remote.
“What do you need? The soccer game? I can put it on.”
“No, but that’s my point. We used to come here to get away from the TV, and we watched bands play on that little stage in the corner.”
Now a raffle machine was where the drum set used to be, and my nostrils were plugged-up by a floor mopped in Fabuloso. Man, twenty years didn’t just fly by; they splattered before me like cow guts from the ceiling.
Marty wouldn’t listen to my story. He served me the second round without the fruits on top, not even an umbrella. I should’ve been thankful for that, but I wasn’t. He left me for the frat brothers at the other end. I took the last sip, and that was it.
Once the Phi Sigma Kappas went back to their real estate firm, I pulled out my credit card and left that mistake for the rain trickling out front.
In the San Joaquin Valley, it fell a week out of each year. I almost tripped over a silver pail catching raindrops. A lipstick case and Parliament butts floated in its pool. I worried if not a single thought about me ever dribbled in Meg’s head. What did the whole trip amount to? Better yet, what was Jung sniffing when he thought up the collective unconscious?
Well, the next Sunday, the woman from San Francisco wrote me back:
Who the fuck is this?
My stomach leaped to my throat and tried to hide there. I described every detail I could about our three-month affair, to which she replied, oh, yeah, you again.
She declined my friend request, too.
What a desperate fool I was to reach out to a girlfriend after twenty years. I had sent a message in a bottle that hadn’t a message–just a plea for homage. At least the bottle in the river can be chased down and taken back, but an email is final. In movies, a character’s options are boundless. As far as the years go, movie time can stretch and retract as much as it wants. I can only pretend I’m in one until the next nudnik bothers me about his Netflix series. The spiritual guides call it transcendental meditation, which is a fancy term for daydreaming. And daydreaming isn’t what it once was.
Ken texted me, hey, where did you go, to which I didn’t respond. I blocked his number instead.
Now I sit in a different coffee shop, with strangers abound who are loud and insane, but they keep to themselves–or try to. The older I get, the more often I’ve removed myself from injurious people. My wife asks me why I’ve been so quiet, but I can’t give her the real reason. Ever since following the weathered tracks of my first romance, I can’t think about it with the same vibrancy. Yes, absence makes the heart grow fonder, but presence makes the heart go numb.