It’s Friday night and I’m sitting at the counter in the Broadway Diner. I’m supposed to meet Hugh, our friend Zoya, and a mutual friend of ours Sasha, for the first meeting of what we’ve called the “Friday Night Supper Club.” The idea came about after I had suggested to Hugh that we needed a good night on the town. Hugh agreed, and recounted a similar arrangement made by Carl Reiner, Joseph Heller, Mel Brooks, and others in the fifties. The idea had merit, so we stole it.
There in the diner, though, I’m sipping on a hot cup of coffee, trying to finish a draft of a letter I’ve been writing and re-writing for a week. Hugh strolls in as I cross out one of the closing paragraphs.
“Good evening, my dear litigious bastard,” Hugh K says, his brow wrinkled as he delivers his mirthful greeting.
“Good evening, Mr. K. And how are we on this wonderful Friday?”
“Fine indeed, sir. Fine indeed.” Hugh intones. We smile at the faux formality of our phrasings. “And what is that you’re writing there? Another one of your soul-stealing contracts?”
I look down at the letter and smile.
“No. I suppose you could call this a … a paean.” I reply slowly, choosing my words as I scratch at my beard.
“A paean?” Hugh asks, his eyebrows arched precipitously.
“A paean.” I answer as I get up from the counter. I throw a few bills on the counter for the coffee.
“Shall we, Mr. K?” I ask as I motion toward the door.
Hugh nods and begins walking out. I stuff the draft of the letter into the breast pocket of my jacket and follow Hugh out the door and into the night air. We walk down to where Hugh has parked his old Ford Bronco. Inside, Sasha waits, laughing along to a Dave Attell disk that has been making the rounds amongst friends.
“So, who is the recipient of this paean, counselor?” Hugh asks as we stroll down to the Bronco.
“Do you remember that trip I took down south a few weeks back?” I ask as I pause to light a cigarette.
“Down to DC, right?”
“You met that girl…”
“Yeah,” I answer, cutting him off as I take a drag from the cigarette.
From inside the Bronco, I can hear Sasha yell, “We’re going to be late!” Sasha is a boisterous woman. In the 1940’s, she would have been the wisecracking sidekick to the delicate heroine. Hugh and I smirk and shrug. The story will come out later.
We get to the restaurant, a Portuguese place in Asbury Park called Bistro Ole, ten minutes after our reservations. Standing outside, Hugh, Sasha, and I chat as we wait for Zoya to arrive. She pulls up in a red Hyundai clone of the Saab 9-3 coupe just as the maitre d’ steps outside to reassure us that our table would be ready shortly.
“How could I not have a table for you people?” The maitre d’ asks with a flourish. “You’re lovely. Even your little bearded friend here.” The maitre d’ puts his hand on my shoulder and squeezes. “Ooh, he is so rugged.”
I rub my left hand across my eyebrow as I feel my cheeks heating up. Zoya trots across the street over to us.
“Oh, he’s blushing; that’s so adorable,” the maitre d’ jokes as Zoya walks over to us.
“Is she with you?” The maitre d’ asks us. “Oh, she is a doll. Ladies,” the maitre d’ says as an invitation before kissing Zoya and Sasha.
“I’ll get your table ready right now,” the maitre d’ says before stepping back into the restaurant.
We’re silent for a beat. Hugh and I stare at each other, our eyes bugged out after our sensory overload.
“I just loved him in The Birdcage,” I state in my best deadpan tone.
“Shhh…. Jackass,” Hugh hisses. “This is Asbury.”
Asbury Park’s recent revitalization is largely a result of adventurous artists and a burgeoning homosexual community making the town their home. It’s done wonders for the town’s rateables.
“What?” I ask with mock defensiveness, although I notice a few women that have been standing near us now giving me considerable glares. I shrug.
“I was just joking,” I say.
We’re seated beside the restaurant’s huge Mondrian-esque mixed media installation. By this point in the meal, we’ve already finished off a pitcher of sangria and half of the varietal red – Oratorio, I believe – that Hugh brought. I let out a contented sigh. We have shared appetizers of grilled Portobello mushrooms and plantains relleno (a dish of plantains with shredded meat). Sasha is talking about how she is uncomfortable with the size of her arms. She used to box locally. Hugh and I try to reassure her, and I find myself annoyed at the rather cloy voice that comes out when I say “they look very nice.” I grimace at the false-sounding reassurance and think of my own insecurities, those things that make my dealings with women nervous and stutter-driven.
Our dinners arrive. I size up mine, a dish of pork done in a mustard base. A few weeks ago, I sat down to a similar dinner, this one in Felix, a trendy Washington restaurant. There, I had pork marinated, interestingly, in black tea.
The dinner in Washington was a more anxious one for me. I sat at a table with someone I had never met before, with someone who had no past connection to me. I barely noticed my food that night, as I was intent on listening to the two women that sat across from me.
One, a brunette, with delicate hands and a sweet smile, Sugarmama, looked on quietly as her friend, a much louder blonde, Ariana, told me of her family’s connection to the former President Bush and a famous architect. I smiled at the time, but I could feel my eyes pinch at the corners as I listened. I wanted to hear the quiet one speak. I wanted to continue to put a face and a voice onto someone that I had grown to know and like from emails and readings of her website.
I take a sip of wine after a final bite of my meal. Hugh and I have been chatting for a while about his plans to apply for a creative writing grant at USC. After a while, we pay our tab, and head outside. Hugh steers the conversation back to the letter.
“So, you’re writing a paean, you said,” he remarks.
I laugh as we walk to Hugh’s truck. “You waited till I had a bit of wine in me before asking about that.”
We both laugh at that.
“Well, I hear it loosens the tongue.”
“It does indeed.”
“Does this mean you will continue to hide the identity of the person receiving this letter?”
“No, not at all. I’ve told you about her before. This is the woman I met down in DC. Sugarmama. The one from my website.”
“Ah yes… the internet girl.”
“Yeah,” I say with a frown. “The internet girl.” I get a bad feeling about the way he said that.
“Well, that is how you met her, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I answer, “but I don’t want you to get the idea that this is something akin to the computer generation’s form of the personal ads.”
Sasha chimes in. “I met someone off of the internet … from match.com, I think… and that wasn’t pathetic.”
“I thought you weren’t happy with him. And what makes you think this has anything to do with pathos?” I answer.
“Well, yeah, I wasn’t happy with him,” she replies. A wolfish smile crosses her face, “but I’m still human. I still have needs.”
We’re on the road, driving toward Zoya’s house. I have no idea where we are. I am drunk.
“So, if it wasn’t “match.com,” Hugh asks, “what is it?”
I think back to my meeting with SM and smile. We were both so tentative, so awkward in our attempts to get to know each other.
“I once saw this movie. I can’t remember the name. It was with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. He was a bookseller in London. She was a literate widow in New York. They met, in letters only, because she sought out rare books, which, I guess, only he sold. They had this remarkable friendship – one during which they never met in person – over many, many years because of the bond they framed with their letters.”
I pause for a moment, formulating what I want to say.
“I guess it’s something like that. Some people have a connection because of their words.”
Sasha chuckles at that and quietly tells me that I’m “such a geek.” It’s a good-natured snipe, and I smile self-consciously as I rub my hand through the back of my hair.
“Yeah,” I say with a sigh, “I guess so.”
Sugarmama, her friend Ariana and I were walking from bar to bar in the warm, southern, Spring air. Her friend was frustrated with me because I didn’t remember where one of my old DC bars was located and had forced us to take a roundabout path to it. After a few minutes of reconnoitering, I located the bar – Madam’s Organ – and we tromped in.
Madam’s Organ had a honky tonk flair to it. Drinks were served in Mason jars and bluegrass and punk/country acts were regular staples there. Sugarmama and I squeezed our way up to the bar to get drinks. She was trying to keep her hair from falling down over one of her eyes. I watched from the corners of mine.
Sugarmama looked at me sheepishly.
“I wanted to get some time to talk alone with you,” she said as we watched her friend return from the bathroom.
“We’ll get some,” I answered. “Eventually.”
At Zoya’s house, we’re wandering around aimlessly. There’s an awkward pause. Hugh and I look at the small wet bar by the refrigerator.
“I believe I see another bottle of the Oratorio,” Hugh notes.
“Indeed, I as well.” I smile.
We grab glasses and attack the bottle with gusto.
Sugarmama and I were talking in Madam’s Organ, and we were close. Beneath the table, I could feel my knee pressed against hers. I could have moved it, probably, but she felt warm. We were talking about those we knew that also wrote online. Sugarmama knew of my friends from Boston. I asked about her life, during college, in New Orleans. I cracked a joke about the “Girls Gone Wild” footage that I constantly saw on late night television. She laughed, probably humoring me, and placed her hand on my knee. We both smiled, and I looked down.
I thought of an excuse to lean in and say something in her ear. I placed my hand on her shoulder, and cracked another inane joke. Her hair smelt amazing.
Hugh and I stare out into the night with glassy eyes. He and I had just gone over a love letter that he had once written to Zoya.
“After all the shit you just gave me…” I begin.
“Well,” Hugh answers in his dry baritone, “It’s not like you.”
“I’m capable of writing without acrimony,” I answer with mock indignation.
Hugh grunts and smiles in reply.
We both sit and stare into the dark, taking drags on cigarettes.
“Going into town?” I ask.
“It’s kinda late.”
“Ashes, then?” I suggest, thinking of a sedate cigar bar.
Hugh thinks for a second.
“Yeah, what the hell,” he answers.
Sugarmama, her friend and I were in a cab. Her friend was yelling at me for ignoring her in Madam’s Organ. For a second, my lawyer’s instinct takes over, and I started to formulate a defense. I took a breath and thought better of it.
“Where are we going now?” Ariana asked.
“An Irish bar I used to go to,” I answered.
“Where?” the friend reiterated, more forcefully.
“Umm… Fado. It’s down by Chinatown.” I thought for a second. “Look, I’m sorry again…. I didn’t mean to….”
“That’s fine. Just tell me what’s going on. Hand signals. Something, for Christ’s sake.”
I sunk down into my seat.
Hugh and I stand in the crowded hallway of the Dublin House. Hugh’s little brother, Cal, called before and we had agreed to meet him in here instead of going to Ashes. Hugh and I grimace at the crowd while Cal hits on some girl.
“If only I had a taser,” I begin.
Hugh grunts in acknowledgement. We are possessive of the Dublin House. It is ours. It has been since we were sixteen, sneaking in from the coffee houses. After a few more minutes of jostling, though, we’re heading toward the door. We gulp down the last of our pints in disgust. The crowd is loud, boorish, and full of “bennies,” the New Jersey nickname for the trashier tourists who come down to the shore towns from New York.
Walking over to Ashes, I tell Hugh more about the Washington trip.
Sugarmama and I tried not to laugh as Ariana stormed off to the bathroom in Fado.
“Um…. I didn’t mean to piss off your friend,” I said.
“No, don’t worry about that. Ariana likes to be the center of a conversation.”
I looked down as I talked to her, even though I knew it was a bad habit. “Well, I just wanted to get to talk to you more.”
We paused, both tired from our long days.
I noticed Sugarmama looking at something over my shoulder. I flagged down the bartender before turning around, and ordered two pints of ale. Sugarmama and I slid into our barstools. I turned to see what Sugarmama was looking at. Her friend, Ariana, I surmised. Ariana walked over to Sugarmama and I and sidled between our barstools.
“Get you anything, Ariana?” I asked, trying to hide an amused smile.
Hugh and I stand in a corner of the cigar bar, sipping our gins. I had picked up a Romeo y Juliet at the attached cigar store, and occasionally I take a puff on it.
“I don’t know how you can stand those things.”
“They’re good,” I say. “On occasion, at least.”
“A change of pace,” I continue, pointing out Hugh’s chain-smoking cigarette addiction.
“Mmm,” Hugh says in acknowledgement from behind his highball glass. With a flick of his head, he indicates something behind me. I turn to see his brother, Cal, bopping his way through the crowd in his denim jacket and jeans (an outfit I once referred to as his “British prisoner’s uniform”).
“Couldn’t take it?” Hugh asks.
“Too crowded. This isn’t bad, though.”
I look around. A number of older couples, most of whom are expensively dressed, congregate around the marble-and-mica bar. Their faces are pale and shadowy from the lighting hidden beneath the translucent slabs of stone and mica. Still, I think, at least we weren’t pressed up against them.
I think about the parts of the weekend that I didn’t tell Hugh about. I think about Sugarmama leaning in to kiss me on the cheek after the cabbie dropped me off at my hotel. A was waiting in the still-running cab. I closed my eyes slowly, and then reopened them, looking at Sugarmama as she kissed me.
Hugh and Cal are used to me drifting off into dream landscapes. They continue with their conversation, now mostly about the girl Cal was going after. I nurse my cigar, regretting that I got it, since I don’t want to leave until I finish it. Instead, I stand there and think about how memories can be compressed and expanded. About how, after Sugarmama kissed me good night, I stood at the window of my hotel room, staring out at the White House and the Washington Monument. About how I sat down in one of the hotel armchairs and thought about the day, the television muted in front of me.
The next day of the trip down to Washington never comes up in my discussion with Hugh. Instead, I keep to myself a quiet, pleasant morning in Eastern Market. It was the neighborhood I lived in during law school, and I think about showing Sugarmama and Ariana my crumbling, 18th Century apartment. It was my safe harbor in law school, though, and I didn’t think Sugarmama and Ariana would enjoy traveling along with me on that little jaunt down memory lane. Instead, we wandered through the stalls selling produce, antiques, rugs, pigs’ feet, and local artwork. We went down to an outdoor café on Pennsylvania Avenue, where we chatted quietly, slowly, over sandwiches and iced tea. My head hurt, more from the lack of sleep than the drink. We had lost our energy. It was time to go.
After lunch, I walked Sugarmama and Ariana down to the Eastern Market Metro stop. They wanted to visit someone in Arlington, just across the Potomac. I wanted to head home to New Jersey before sundown.
We bid our farewells. Ariana and I shook hands. Sugarmama and I kissed each other’s cheeks, and hugged far less tentatively than when we met the day before. They walked toward the escalator leading down to the station. I started to walk back to my car, but thought better of it. I turned and watched Sugarmama head down into the concrete heart of the Metro stop. I watched her head move as she talked to Ariana, never looking back up at me.
Smiling, I turned again and headed for my car, and for home.
My cigar is almost done. Hugh and Cal have just left, and I am finishing up my gin in the corner as I watch the bartenders finish closing up the last of the open tabs. I think, and realize that, like memories, relationships expand and compress. Old friends from high school fade and move away, their relationships with me contracting to a vague point in the past. New relationships begin with intensity of feeling, and are compressed into a single controlling moment. They are compressed into the flash of a firework in the night sky. Old friendships expand out as they continue, becoming the warm glow of candles at a dinner table in a restaurant.
updated 7/31/03: formatting, replacing initials with pseudonyms