I hated last call. Not that I'd get the boot. I never did. Not as long as I acted straight, didn't act up. The cocaine kept me from that. I'd watch the bartenders count the cash, sweep up. I'd even help with the bottles, clear off some of the tables. But it didn't last. Time ran out. The keys rattled like bones.
"Got to lock up."
We'd shuffle, the few of us on the inside, say goodbye the way drunks say goodbye, in dead silence, and disappear. Exhaust chased brake lights at the corner. Music shrieked and receded until the buzz of street lamps leveled the sound into a flat line of nothing. I always looked back in the bar for some reason, past the dead neon to my dark stool. But I was never there. I was on the street, alone, listening to myself breathe, waiting for my heart to attack, bored with a bag at four o'clock in the morning.
I was between girlfriends. Not that it mattered. I stayed out when Michelle was around. Which had something to do with her moving to California, that and a job. Which also had something to do with her fucking her Tai Chi coach when she got there. It was over. That's what I told her. And then her parents kicked me out of their house.
I moved in with a couple of buddies.
"We'll save money," Mike said.
My salary went to booze and drugs. Rent was an afterthought. That's why I lived in shit shacks. I didn't care. Even less when I was high.
"Fine," I told Mike.
For three c-notes I was living in the corner of a converted garage with a prep chef and a house painter. It was on the other side of town. Nowhere near the bar. I drove drunk.
The morning I turned forty, Mike and Ben went to a funeral. I sat in the parking lot poking a black cat carcass with a stick. I don't normally drink on the Sabbath. But it was a special day.
Going home was depressing. I avoided it, drank and snorted, waited to see which ran out first, the coke or the options. If I scored late, options lost, and I'd follow a thirsty shadow home.
Nothing was open at four, nothing safe, nothing straight. But a bag of blow sometimes demands desperate detours. And that's how I ended at Sol.
I had no interest in rave clubs. I told Rich that when he invited me.
"I'll put you on the V.I.P.," Rich said.
Rich co-owned the joint, played the records till dawn. But it wasn't my deal, the music, the clothes. And that's why I didn't go. It wasn't a boozer's scene. Not until I banged on the back door.
"Newsman!" the bouncer yelled.
"Go easy," I either said out loud or thought to myself.
He waved me in.
I couldn't find Rich. I didn't care. I bumped up in the bathroom and found a chair. It was like watching television, dancing stereotypes, kids who bought the hype. The songs segued, the lights twirled. The whole bit. I bought a beer at the back bar, sat next to an Asian chick in a gold dress on a red leather couch. She put her head on my shoulder. And we sat that way till dawn's purple light.
I liked Ginny. Ginny Jue, Cantonese Chinese, born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, UVA graduate, certified public accountant, freak. She roomed with Johnny, Vietnamese, CNN copy boy, also freak. He hated the sound of slapping slippers, said it gave him flashbacks, his mom, her screams.
"Real shrill," he said, "like 'Jaw-nee,' slap, slap, slap. 'Why you no clean toy-let bowel?'"
Slippers were not allowed in their midtown apartment overlooking Piedmont Park, a nice joint turned cat box. It smelled like kitty litter with a hint of soy sauce. The word fecund came to mind the first time. I don't know why.
Ginny wouldn't sleep with me. Not because I was a drunk. Not because of my runny nose. Not because I was almost twenty years older. It was her boyfriend, the chemist. He was her only connection. Not until she found another one, she said, would she dump pharmaceutical man. She liked me, she said. But he supplied her drug of choice, Ecstasy, of course.
So I slept on monogamy's couch those first few mornings. Which wasn't hard. Once she closed the door to her naked, feline body, a Chinese symbol of something tattooed above the crack of her ass winking an ancient secret as she turned. But the colored lights bugged me, the strobe lights. She'd turn on the stereo, the rave stuff, only less heart rendering. And the lights would start. I'd pass out, surface from unconsciousness and think I was coming to in an ambulance. Or a bar after too many, some colorful place that meant trouble. But the stereo looked complicated. So did the lights. I didn't want to fuck with it. So I'd try to ride it out, the anxiety, the sweat waterfall, until I woke up on a carousel. And then I just went home, jumpy and blue.
Michelle would call.
"How's it going," she'd ask.
"I signed up for Tai Chi," I said.
I couldn't help it. I didn't care. Not because of Ginny. I just didn't care about anything. It was too much bother. I had work. I had booze. I had drugs. That was enough. Everything else was an effort, a compromise of down time. I didn't want a relationship, but I wanted sex, the old misogynist catch-22. Cocaine kept me flaccid for the most part. Something Michelle enjoyed mentioning. But I liked the idea, the nostalgia of conquest, of strange sex. Maybe Ginny knew that. It's obvious when single dick's involved. And just as sad as it is obvious. But she dangled her sex carrot. And I chased it with urgent ego because I was tired of my bartender's face.
A month in, still no booty. But we'd meet. I saw a few new places, the basement clubs where epileptics were advised at the door. We even went to a fashion show.
Ginny and Johnny were part of a clique, a hip Asian clique that ran in horizontal circles. That's how we ended up at Freddy's loft on the deep side of downtown. Freddy doesn't sound Malaysian, as far as names go. But he looked it. Not to mention homosexual. Which made sense since Freddy designed clothes. He was a fashion designer. At least that's what Ginny said on the way over.
"He always throws a big party when a new line is coming out," she said.
We parked. I noticed the empty motorcycle shop across the street. It was the same place where an undercover cop killed a kid on the sidewalk. The cop thought he was robbing the shop. He wasn't.
I started to tell the story. But I was alone.
Freddy hugged Ginny, looked at me and hugged somebody else. He wore gold lame pants, no shirt, no shoes or socks, just the pants. His skin looked golden. It might have been the Klieg lights. But his hair was definitely blue, spiked and blue.
"Enjoy," he said to someone.
But it wasn't me.
There were clothes on standing racks, clothes on models. The models moved. The racks blocked the bar. But I found it. Three stiff drinks, and I moved, too.
The loft was big, two-tiered, and minimal. Ginny looked good on the white couch, probably because her coat was black. So I sat and pretended I cared.
"Go easy on the liquor," she whispered.
"Why," I asked.
I'd only spilled one drink. But it was on the hardwood.
"You'll see," Ginny whispered.
I thought sex. But I knew Ginny had just rendezvoused with the chemist. I swallowed. And then I knew.
"We're going to do drugs," I said without a thread of cool.
"Be quiet," she said, standing. "Just wait."
Ginny mingled. I drank, excited. And then I was drunk. I knew I was drunk when someone screamed. It was Freddy.
"You can't wear that!" Freddy said, pulling the furry coat off my arm. "You're too big! You'll tear it."
I handed Freddy the coat.
"My money's no good here?" I slurred.
The music stopped on cue. Everyone stared. It was me and Freddy and the furry coat, the giant and the gay Malaysian and the dead dog. Someone laughed. Then everyone laughed.
"You funny man," Freddy laughed.
He put the coat back on the rack, signaled something to somebody and somehow I was standing in the cold.
"Let's go," Ginny sighed.
And we did. But not before I told her the story about the undercover cop and the dead kid on the sidewalk.
Ginny handed me the pill by the bar in the big club. I barely remembered walking in. She knew the bouncer. The bouncer knew me. We were somewhere on Peachtree. And we walked in free. The lights were playing with heartbeats. So was the music. It was fast. I was slow.
"You said you wanted to do drugs with me," she yelled over necks. "That's it."
I stared at the pill, rolled it over, and swallowed it dry.
"I'm going to dance," Ginny said.
She handed me her coat and became one with the silhouettes.
I thought a little while waiting for the bartender's eyes. I had bothered Ginny about getting high. I didn't know why. Big shot shit, I guessed. Blow hard. Mister Drugs. Bored. I talked like I knew all about it, Ecstasy. But I'd never done it before. I was a boozer, a speed man, walking the line in between. I didn't know shit about designer drugs. Not that I was anxious. I was tired, all booze and no blow. So I spotted a couch on the lighter side of hell and slouched with one more drink.
"Are you all right?"
Ginny danced over with a glow pop kid.
"Fine," I waved her off. "Dance."
I rested my head and closed my eyes. I felt old, not pathetically old, but too old to be where I was and waiting for what I was waiting. It was something different, though. Or something revisited, one or the other. But I was already getting tired of it, the time compromise, the dry humping, the patience. I enjoyed Ginny. Just not enough to genuinely participate. I was played out. And I couldn't fake it any more.
I opened my eyes from something like sleep and felt a swelling, a surge coming for somewhere familiar, someplace like my stomach. I tried to stand but couldn't. It wasn't the couch. It was me. I reached for the trashcan at the other end. But the sight of my arm made me sick, something did because my arm was green with dripping bile. That was the initial projectile, off my arm and onto a few platform shoes. The rest of it was on me, chin to knees, flowing like a baby volcano's first eruption. All I could do was watch and enjoy. Everyone else was, including the moonlighting cop in the nearest corner. He was moving my way with a look of recognition when Ginny cut in with wet towels from somewhere.
"I thought you said you did drugs," she seethed while sopping.
"I do," I said, gagging from the smell that makes people ashamed. "But not that kind of drug."
It made sense to me. I was innocent. That shit was all over the place. Heroin. Pharmaceuticals. Hallucinogens. I didn't know. I didn't have the vocabulary. I barely had the motor skills to act embarrassed. But I tried.
"I'm sorry," I said through the towel at my chin.
And suddenly I felt like a new man, for the moment. To prove it, I stood. The cop watched. So I walked his way, the way to the bar. He raised a hand. I raised mine. He opened his mouth. I opened mine.
"I'm just going to get a cup of water."
The cop agreed with a head bounce.
"I'm supposed to throw you out," he said, black, bulky and bald. "But I like your stories."
"Something you ate?"
"Or drank," I smiled.
The cop smiled, and I walked away with the cup of water. But the vomit area had been cordoned off, a skinny guy and a muscular guy worked two old mops and a bucket. I could smell the inside of my body in the room. The mops made it worse. For once I appreciated the joint's anonymity. And I used it.
I tried to dance like everybody else. But it made me sick again. So I watched Ginny dance. But she looked silly. Everybody looked silly. I felt silly standing there. Immobility returned. It was that music again. It held my throat. I couldn't breathe. My chest and stomach traded places. And my head flew and banked and crashed at my feet.
"Just hold on," I said once.
And then I said something else.
"What's the point of holding on?"
And then I got tired of talking to myself.
Ginny held me in a drug embrace.
"Let's go to a hotel," she said through the cut skin of her eyes.
I couldn't tell if it was submission or the pills. It didn't matter. We found a cab and the cab found a hotel.
I'd been to the Four Seasons before, same situation, different drugs, different girl. But I liked the fakeness of it, the grand expense of the exclusivity, the hype of a fat bed with a fancy shower that any drunk with legitimate plastic could have. And I slapped mine down with a rubber hand.
"That'll be two hundred and eighty dollars, sir."
"Yes, it will."
We made it to the room, made it to the long awaited bed. I knew I was naked. I could see my clothes on the spinning floor. Ginny stepped over the stained pile of dried bile. And she was naked, too. She crawled toward me from the end of the bed, her outline in the windowed skyline like a soft-core prelude. I felt her hand on my shin, on my thigh. And I felt lightness for the first time, a calm, a cool clean antacid. I exhaled, anticipating Ginny's ancient secret, her body on mine, until I felt a nice nothingness, inhaled it deeply, and disappeared.
"Don't you dare pass out, motherfucker," wasn't a pleasant way of saying good night. But it was the best Ginny could do given the snores.
"Wake the fuck up!"
But I never did.
There was no resolution, no ecstasy, after all.