Tenth Avenue, New York
That last time I was in Chelsea, I walked up and down Eighth Avenue not remembering where The Half King was. I was thirty-nine then, two whole avenues off, trying to remember who I was from that other life: those countries of twenty-two and thirty. I rode the train back to Brooklyn with the rising of a headache so fierce I couldn’t look at the ceiling for two days and a boy whose lavender shirt hid an inverted sternum and a string of tattooed words—prayers in various languages. A few days later, talking on the phone to Carrie and she said, Girl. It’s Tenth Avenue. Now she has a baby at her hip, a ring that never comes off, a house in Santa Cruz with a view of the ocean. Ten years ago, we both lived here.
Everyone Talked About Leaving.
We grew up within five miles of each other, district lines funneling us into different schools—some to the city magnet and East-side schools and some to the suburbs. They dated each other—the usual rivalries, unrequited loves, triangulations—but I was outside of it. They worked at the India House, one of two Indian restaurants in our city. To me, these kids were uncomplicated and beautiful. They were future or past Zen Buddhists, surprisingly good dancers and good-enough musicians, devoted pot smokers and skiers, the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers and professors who did not become doctors, lawyers, and professors. They went to community college; they traveled. To them, I had a kitchen that smelled like cumin and a live-in grandmother who cooked. In my town, the sons and daughters of doctors, engineers, and professors replicated, and that was that. To the city kids, I was exotic and amenable. Different town, different skin color. I didn’t have a history with them. I was a late addition and the only Indian. We were lithe twenty-one year olds when we met—you should have seen us—square teeth, fresh skin, thin still. They had never seen me in braces nor had I seen them. Getting to know them was like going to someone else’s high school reunion. Because it wasn’t mine, I could enjoy it.
Cobbs Hill, Rochester
Sitting on our hill, looking out at our city—its modest skyline, someone was always smoking, someone else just flicking the lighter’s wheel. We were there in every season—watching the birders, the butterflies, the lovers; the kids sledding, the women walking, the men running by, listening to their headphones. We sat and talked; sometimes, we kissed. This was all I needed for a while: a hill, a view. We never went to other cities on the weekend; we never went anywhere. New York City was another country, a set of names I didn’t know—neighborhoods and subway lines—complaints about the 6 train, the unbearably slow F train—Central Park West, the East Village, Tribeca (whatever these places were)—to use places other than New York—all to show off your cosmopolitan, well-traveled self. It was Western New York: disturbingly close to Ohio and six hours from anywhere you wanted to be. It was where I had my first stumbling kiss, drinking Rolling Rock by the littered ditches near the expressway, walking over to Cobbs Hill, too drunk to drive home.
We were young then. Our city, then, had decayed the least of the ones upstate; digital had not yet strangled Kodachrome and the film business. Jobs had not yet migrated overseas. But our time was coming. We made some small accommodations—changed our tagline from The Flour City (mills on the high falls of the Genesee River) to Flower City (lilac trees every shade of purple) to the Image City. Xerox, Bausch and Lomb, Kodak: every major industry was ocular, but we did not see fast enough or far enough. And half of us had not yet moved to California. And the musicians and dancers had not yet left for New York. And I had not yet begun to think I could too. I think I was happy in some absolute, unspeakable way, though. I can’t remember if I knew it or if it has just become something to say now: I was happy then.
I was twenty-two then. By twenty-five we had all moved. The people who stayed explained themselves when we ran into them at the old bars on Alexander Street and the new bars on South. We never asked, they always told: they had spent a year (eight months) somewhere else. San Francisco, Chicago, Tampa, Boston; they mentioned the independent film theater and the cheap rent here in town. But they were sheepish, the way I had been, when I moved back and taught at the middle school in the center of town. Even my old teachers said, What are you doing here? One of my history teachers, the curly-haired, kind-eyed track coach, took me aside and said, This is what I make now. This is what I’ll make when I retire. You will make even less. He gave me his son’s business card and said his company was hiring.
And so I moved. If you had any ambition (and I had enough) you had to leave. The easiest way to break up (for example: with the Irish kid I kissed occasionally then) is to move away. I spent the second half of my twenties single, waiting for I don’t know what. Some sort of sign to bring me back. I couldn’t take New York seriously—haircuts more expensive than most clothes I owned, interns with interesting glasses working for no pay, strivers. I just assumed that I would circle back to find a boy about my age from my previous life, waiting for me. The whole point was to recognize him.
The Half King is one of those new old-seeming hip bars. Leaded-glass windows; one cadmium orange wall, sponge-painted so you can see the pale showing through; booths and bar and floors built from wide, weathered boards of pine and oak. This city is full of such bars; maybe all cities are. One night, curious about the name, I leaned over the bar using what little cleavage I have. The second bartender made his way over. He can’t say much and it’s loud anyway. They were appealing to our demographic: ’70s classic rock. People are wearing deliberately faded tee shirts in blue and green announcing the names of places, as though they are the names of teams. Minnetonka, New Jersey, Canada: the usual irony. It was happy hour in Chelsea: the art opening after-party, gallery-goers loud and getting louder, still hungry, already a little drunk on wine and cheese cubes, on wilting celery sticks and broccoli florets. The predictable effect of grazing on food that will leave you hungrier than when you began.
The bartender says: All the wood in the bar comes from a 200 year-old barn in Pennsylvania. Why? I didn’t ask. He tells me The Half King was a Seneca chief, part of the Iroquois, who ended up in the Ohio Valley. I wonder if they have to memorize this. He points me toward a plaque, black letters on gold, lit by one perfect light curving above it, on the far wall: “The eighteenth-century Seneca chief known as ‘The Half King’ is a figure so obscure that no one knows his real name—it was most likely Tanaghrisson, or something close to it. Little is known of Tanaghrisson’s early life.”
The plaque and the story are both out of the way and also, literally, highlighted. I add this to the information I know: the Iroquois were the Six Nation confederacy is Upstate New York. They spread out along the Finger Lakes, West to Lake Erie. We memorized this in Social Studies. None of us escaped going to some sort of camp named after the tribes: Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Mohawk. The last tribe, the Tuscaroras, did not have a camp or lake named after them; they were not local to the area. The Senecas inhabited what is now Rochester. My street was once Seneca land and does it matter here, here in this city, where everything new refers to something else that was once before? My entire neighborhood: all of it belonged to the Senecas. There is a plaque near the elementary school that tells us so. Our streets were a series of British-sounding names. Rochester is where I was once asked if my father was an Indian chief. Wrong kind of Indian. Wrong kind of chief. Chief of Cardiology, asshole. The plaque near our elementary school was just another story about just another chief: another agreement, conditional, and later broken. Tanaghrisson. What does it mean if nothing is known about your early life?
Bartenders, Younger Than You, Chelsea
The first bartender I try to shove my way close to does not look at me for a while. She has three tattoos I can see, wears olive cargo pants and a tight black shirt, which hikes up to show her abdomen. She is young enough to sport one that is smooth, flat, unmarked. She looks Indian. She wears a nose ring, her hair in two flat, shiny, braids, and a bangle tightened across her left biceps. Ink-blue script decorating the nape of her neck and she’s talking to the other two bartenders; they are passing by each other on the way to glasses, to lime triangles, to the cash register. They have a language back there behind the bar, it’s seamless almost, a silent dance, and I can imagine them drinking after hours, after the rest of us have stumbled home. I wonder if she’s the kind of girl Mark would like. I wonder if she’s the kind of girl I should try to look like. She and I and a couple of others are the dark in a sea of white. This bar could be Upstate. Mark. He is not even looking over at us.
Hey, Sweetie, she says to me. What can I get you? I’m taken aback by her use of the diminutive. I’m clearly older than she is. Seeing how crowded the place is, skimming the labels and names, I say, quickly, Whatever’s good on tap. I don’t want to make a decision; I let her decide.
Bad Indian Food
The first time I saw Mark we were in Chelsea. A bunch of us were meeting at The Half King after Carrie’s opening. I had dinner first, a date, at an Indian restaurant with jewel-colored drinks that looked better than they tasted. This place showed ’60s Bollywood films with the sound turned off. The women danced on the screen above the bar and I could look up between first-date questions to see their silent singing. Do you like to travel? I was waiting for the rain scene, for the translucent soaked white sari, for the male lead to pull her close. How many brothers and sisters do you have? I was with the last in a string of nice but obviously wrong guys. I’ve always wanted to go to Spain. He paid for dinner and then we walked some blocks over to The Half King. He left me at the door of the bar, had to work early the next day. I had not encouraged him to come inside. It’s loud, I said. Thanks for dinner. I had a good time, I said, and smiled. I wore jeans that felt too tight, which meant they fit. And it meant that I was, in my own way, trying to take the date seriously.
After this last date with another nice guy, I went back to seeing the slackers I called my friends. Mark was not my friend, but we had friends in common from Rochester. It bothered me that you could see the same people at parties for years and never make that leap from friend-of-friend to friend. I have always had a willful persistence to want what isn’t there.
Zip codes, Elvis Costello
We went to different high schools, lived in different towns (I would rather say that than admit where I lived. I had a city zip code). Mark showed up at the same places on Monroe Avenue, before Monroe burned out into a Mediterranean restaurant and two diners, that second-hand store and a Hollywood Video. Five blocks of the Avenue succumbed to chains—as if to a fire or an illness. This was before all the preppies had their noses pierced, before they all had tattoos. Mark has glasses now, hair spiked, a sort of Elvis Costello look. It’s not that he looked like him exactly; it’s that sense of someone. Year later when we run into each other in the city, it’s at a lounge in Park Slope with dark velvet curtains in the back, a fake fireplace and I play, unoriginally, Journey on the jukebox.
The Irish kid, the seventh grade teacher, grew up in Utica, so for him Rochester was big enough. He had cowlicked brown hair, bright blue eyes, and a Filipina ex-girlfriend. So he, like most of us, had the desire to step out of his own life. He liked his apartment even though it was across the street from a cemetery, next to a loud bar and a flower shop. I didn’t like his apartment (bachelor beige, an overstuffed sofa from his brother, an oversized picture of his mother), but I loved the cemetery. It was the best one in the area for walking and Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony were buried there. Like every kid who grew up there, I knew that, and could recite the local attractions, but I have never been to see the graves. After we broke up, the teacher got himself a good camera (this was the late nineties, long before digital) and started taking black and white photos of headstones and trees and epitaphs and sky. He refused to speak to me at school. I couldn’t stand being ignored. We chaperoned a school trip to Canada, Quebec City. No words. He looked at me. What is it that you want? I tried to forget he had come to our first date with a rose in hand. Who does things like that anymore? It must have suffered, wilted in its green wax paper on the table at the India House, while we sipped our mango lassis. But still. I wrote a letter to him. I called a few times. I didn’t want to let it go.
Emerson says: “When the half-gods go, the gods arrive.” Even the wrong ones: I didn’t want to let them go.
Q Train, Brooklyn Bridge
That night they were in Chelsea at Carrie’s show, then at The Half King, sliding into a wooden booth. Mark came from deejaying somewhere. We always sit the furthest away from each other at these things. Later, I knew he would return to Brooklyn to some other underground party. I was more than slightly jealous. He had prematurely grey hair and a place in Brooklyn Heights. It wasn’t clear to anyone how he afforded it. And maybe that made it clear.
There had been a girlfriend, but I hadn’t heard anything about her for a while. I hated those guys who were not single, but their girlfriends were never around. I was younger then. I didn’t understand why you’d be out without your girlfriend. Every one of these guys were bike riders, had the sheen and stink of sweat, that surety that allowed them to disdain deodorant and to dodge cars and cross bridges, suspended over water on two wheels at night. I followed that certainty then. When I first got to New York, everything about it disoriented me. Crossing the river on the Q train, on the Manhattan, I watched the pillars of Brooklyn Bridge and was soothed—the bridge belongs to everyone. But beyond that, at night, there were too many bridges to keep straight, at least after three drinks, at least when I was waiting for a cab, at least when I was new to New York. The bridges looked like strands of diamonds to me then. I didn’t need to know where they went. I didn’t care. I was happy just to see them.
I think about this. It seems as if there is something about us that we ourselves can’t see that lets everyone know where we are from. At the end of the night, Carrie walks me to the door. Are you OK to get home?
What’s OK, I said. I felt reckless from beer, reckless from the city. Sure, I said. I miss you. Even when you’re here, I miss you. You look good, she said, and squeezed my hand. Her hair was long and loose and she looked beautiful, even with half her make-up worn away, only the ghost of lipstick on her lips, a smudge of lavender above her eyes, traces of blue eyeliner underneath.
Carrie, New York, Leotards
At The Half King, it was smoky—this was before the city put the ban into effect. Too much music, girls crammed into their tops, hair straightened, drinks brimming, nearly pushing over. I didn’t believe in hair straightening then. I didn’t believe in silver shirts, but it was all I wanted. To be that obviously the center of the room, garish, shimmering. Most of my twenties, I wondered why I was single, but by thirty I had figured out that most of being pretty was merely agreeing that you were.
The shirt I wore was turquoise, reliably striking against brown skin. Guys: it’s not difficult to get their attention. You just need something sparkly, some color. Mark nodded in my direction, Hey. How’s it going. He almost never said my name. Sometimes I wondered if he actually knew it. We showed up at the same birthday parties and readings, knew the same people who had worked at the same restaurants in college—the seedy Brazilian restaurant; the mediocre Ethiopian place on Alexander Street that seemed always about to go out of business. The food was awful—it seemed as though someone got sick every other time we were there—but somehow it never stopped us from going, and the place never closed down. Carrie could slip us free drinks. This is not a small thing: to have a place where the bartender lets you run up a tab that you will never pay. Carrie wore those fitted tops that make you think of leotards, scalloped across her chest, long blonde hair slightly tangled. She took dance classes (we all did then). All the girls I knew were dancers; all the boys we knew were in bands.
Mark, Skinny Ties
Something changes when someone says your name. I almost never said his name either. I thought I should dislike him, because I wasn’t sure he liked me. But really, it made me want to try harder.
He dressed ironically, which sometimes I liked, other times felt too old for. I wasn’t living in Williamsburg and had never really wanted to. I liked the expression on his face: rueful, ironic. Three day’s growth. But his suit: that’s what got me. Polyester—the whole ensemble. Gray, with a tie (skinny), matte, the way you’d want to see it. Black plastic frames. Fabulous, without trying. He’d gotten it right, and I suppose that’s what I liked. The studied effortlessness.
Mark says, So, you’re going back to school? What do people do with a degree in cultural studies these days? There are no jobs out there. Carrie is my number one. She says, You don’t know what you’re talking about. We’ll be going to her book parties. You don’t need to go to school to write a book, Mark points out, raising his eyebrows.
The only way to end this conversation is to drink more, or to leave, or to kiss someone. All the usual and customary ways of dealing with boredom or anxiety.
The booth behind us cheers, on their way to or just after a round of shots. I kiss Carrie, somewhere between mouth and cheek, and place my hands on her head. Not everyone loves me as much as you do. It’s one of many reasons I like to be around her.
I’m going out for a smoke, Mark said. My cigarettes are in Chris’s car. Chris tosses him the keys. I press my way past the other people so that I can leave too. It had been an invitation. Carrie says, Do you want me to go with you? No, I tell her. I just need to get some air. And it’s true—the number of people has tripled and I feel as though I’m at a terrible college party and I want to leave.
Our booth: they were slackers and they were my friends. Some of them, like Mark, I hadn’t known in Rochester. We met in the city, then traced our lives back to the neighborhoods circling Cobbs Hill and our birthright: the ability to deal with weather. We made allowances for each other; proximity, having grown up near each other, seemed to mean something once we had all left that area. History = destiny. Does it? Now thirty, we were dancers teaching Pilates and yoga, we had dropped out of graduate school to be in bands. We were temping our way through offices in midtown, filching paper supplies, drinking too much with bartender-actors who talked much more than acted. I wrote a little, drank wine in plastic cups at other people’s readings, dragged student essays in my wake. We lived in Greenpoint, Washington Heights, Inwood, Bushwick. At twenty-five, you could find us on the Upper West Side and Park Slope. After thirty, it was harder to live like that, three to a place, just for the neighborhood.
Do you want a smoke? Mark held out the package. I have always envied smokers—they have a way out of every situation, a chance to look back at whatever moment, even at a party, and see it as scene. Sure. I don’t smoke really unless I’ve had a couple of drinks.
How’s that law school thing going? I say.
I hate it. I’m not going to practice. I just wanted to have done it.
You don’t want to practice at all?
It’s its own thing, just going to law school. That’s been interesting, an exercise, you know. Like Sudoku or training for a marathon. But lawyers are fucking boring.
Yes, I wanted to say, I know you are smart. Do you think you might move back? I’m always thinking about it—and that separates us—divides those of us at the booth that night. The ones who consider going back and the ones who never would. The ones who were all about getting out. It doesn’t matter that you can own a house, a three-story Victorian, there. You’d still have to live there, that’s the point. No place there even close to the bars in Chelsea except maybe that place down on Monroe. The independent bookstores had disappeared: the lesbian one, the rare books one, the general one—all of them—replaced with only a drug store and a video store—we were renting movies and filling our Lexapro and Paxil scrips more than reading; the adult movie theater was still open, and so was the ethnic clothing store we all worked at one point or another. Mark once said that New York spoils all other cities for you. But I am not him.
We are running out of things to say. I am shaking; it’s February and it’s cold out. Not upstate-cold, but cold enough. Mark leans over to me. You’re cute, he says. Don’t you have a girlfriend? I ask. Relax, he says. It’s just a compliment. You’re cute too, I say, but it falls flat. It was just a moment and I hadn’t needed to make it visible. So many things, I’ve come to believe, are better left unsaid. I want that moment back, back at the bar, when the current starts to snake between us, the press of people between us, but we are angling toward each other by talking to everyone else.
So what’s your book about? Mark asks. I hate this question. It’s like The Great Gatsby, I say, except set in Western New York instead of Long Island and Manhattan. Mark takes another drag from his cigarette. He doesn’t know me well enough to gauge whether or not I’m kidding. So are you Jordan? he asks. Tennis is for assholes, I tell him. Daisy Buchanan? He’s showing off now. I don’t believe in affairs, I say. Mark takes another drag from his cigarette, looks toward the West Side Highway, eyes closed. Then he unzips his jacket, begins digging into his pocket for his phone. I hear the ring, distorted from clothing and the honking of cars, but it sounds first farther and then so close, as though he is a moving car and the sound is blaring from the speakers. It sounds like a Prince song, but it could be anything. I walk over to Tenth Avenue, just a few steps away. I’ve left my phone inside and there’s nothing for me to do with my hands.
This isn’t what I thought thirty was going to look like. Everyone always reaching for something else. Almost none of us wear rings—that kind of ring.
Mark comes up next to me so quietly that I jump. It’s just me, he says. It wouldn’t be The Great Gatsby if it were in Western New York, you know. Yes, I say, irritated. I know. I’m the English teacher here. I take a deep breath and hold it for a moment before exhaling. Mark says: I need to get something from Chris’s car. I watch my breath smoke away, and then follow him around the corner.
We’ve walked back inside. This bar: we could be anywhere —Cleveland, Milwaukee, upstate along the Hudson, a million college towns, even Rochester—once the art crowd disappears. We could be at home. I am a loud person trapped in a shy person’s mannerisms. Things had gotten a little quiet out there, and cold.
Carrie says: Serena, come sit next to me. She looks tired, mascara shadows beneath her eyes, lines at the corners showing her age—the blondes, it seems were getting them first. I look over at the long bar and it punches me in the stomach—the knowledge of how much I want to be the twenty-three-year-old with the cut arms behind the distressed wood, of how much I want to be someone other than me. If I squint, we can all be on a boat—all the wood is old and gorgeous—and we’re off of the coast near Woods Hole, heading to Bermuda or Barbados. Carrie asks: What are you looking at? I open my mouth, start to launch into how I miss my younger self, how I want to be that girl with the flat abdomen, how I want to find someone who I can move back home with. If you’re with someone, you can go back. I stop myself. They’ve written the alcohol percentages next to the names of the beers, I point toward the old-fashioned black chalkboard above the bar where both the names of beer on tap and in bottles are listed. In small neat letters, next to the beer, alcohol content is listed—4.8, 8.5—as though they are scores. Isn’t that strange? I say. Carrie looks up and beyond the crowd of people.
What? she says. It’s gotten so loud now. Who do you think is cute? Who is winning, I think. She brushes her hair away from her face, but one strand stays, slightly stuck there by sweat. Her lipstick is almost completely erased now, but it doesn’t make her any less pretty. She likes to play this game as though she is single, too.
The seventh grade teacher married his student teacher and moved to Canandaigua, the westernmost of the major Finger Lakes, once also Seneca Land. It meant “the chosen spot” in whatever language the Senecas spoke. Seneca, I guess. The teacher had a baby and a weekend band. He had gotten over his first engagement and he had gotten over me. I let him find out from other people that I was leaving. I had never planned on staying. Not unless he was remarkable. (Was I that much of a snob? I was.) I wanted remarkable. I wanted more.
I’d already gotten accepted to a master’s degree outside of the city (yet another program, the easiest way to leave). School was the way I always left: an orientation, a start date, a move in a certain direction, parental approval. Now I was leaving again, another program, another state, another degree, so every place, everything I did, had that clarity—I wanted to remember, to fix things into place. That is what leaving does. That is what I’ve become addicted to.
We walked outside because we could. Mark said I want to kiss you because he could. I said: Aren’t you living with that girl?
Organic Farming and Acupuncture
Carrie says, What about Chris? Chris has been quietly talking to someone’s roommate and looks up to see if anyone needs a drink. He is marriage-material, wearing a button-down, a watch, and a smile that is guileless. I want to get married, but not to that. Not now.
Carrie’s boyfriend used to date someone else at our table, a redhead whom I hadn’t known. She’s married now, has the proud early bump, a white eyelet blouse, fitted to show off the swelling. I’m older than she is. The redhead majored in anthropology, but knew enough not to go to graduate school in it. She lets you know she traveled to Haifa and Lesbos, went on archeology digs—that she has a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side decorated with fossils; that she worked at the Smithsonian before she got tenure in a suburban school district. Her husband inherited some money; they have a place three hours away, upstate. Carrie leans over to me. We’re thinking about getting pregnant, too, she says to me. It’s a mix of shy and confident—the way she says it. We are still too young then to know better, to have friends who take Clomid and see acupuncturists, who cannot bear to attend other friends’ baby showers. She talks about organic farming and massage therapy school. I smile at her. When she says we, what opens up is what was always there: a person, a house, a plan behind her. Always that almost-jealousy between friends. What about you, she asks. What about me?
Carrie and her boyfriend have known each other since high school. I’m jealous of that. It’s what I always wanted. But I also can’t imagine it. What’s the point of paying the rent to live in New York if you’ve already met someone? New York is about looking around. New York for me was about looking around. Mark slides back into the booth. I ask Carrie’s boyfriend if I can buy him another drink. He says no, I elbow my way to the bar, push in front of the frat boy wall, and come back holding two Coronas. I was always a shy person hiding behind a loud person’s mannerisms. The people from my high school I would long for if I let myself long are long married. That’s what people in my town did—replicate and duplicate and procreate. I have done none of the above. I want to wear something so bright and so tiny that the wall of people will part. I bring back one Corona to push across the table, one for me to clasp my fingers around. I ease my way back into the booth and look at all of them—the ones I know and the ones I’ve just met. The roommate dragged along, another friend of a friend, whose name I don’t remember five minutes after we were introduced. Chris, who looks like a nice guy, a guy my mother might like, and who looks at me as though he might be interested, if I were to look back.
I can already tell I will remember this moment. I can’t stay here at thirty, stay living in a room with an airshaft window, stay living in a place where the boys who ask me out will never help me move when I am actually moving. Carrie says: Why do you waste your time with the kind of guy who won’t help you move? What about one who will pack up his crummy car and move with you? The kind of guy I should want probably has a nicer car than that. And he probably has a better job than me, a good job even, so I am the one who would have to move. Or maybe it’s not about jobs at all; maybe it’s about being willing to stay.
It’s not like I have someone like you do, I say. A Boyfriend. Most of the time, I can’t even say the word. I can say: this guy. I can say The DJ, The Nice Guy, The 7th Grade Teacher. The Pot Dealer, The Assistant Professor, The ER Doctor. Someone is driving Carrie home. And he, her boyfriend, is the tallest and the best-looking guy there. I didn’t say it before, but it’s true. The only people who have ever helped me move share a last name and some amount of genetic material with me. Mark has a girlfriend, Carrie says. I know, I tell her. We were just talking.
When I leave The Half King tonight, it will be just me on the sidewalk, flagging down a taxi. After thirty—I can see it—the world is Noah’s Ark. And even if Carrie walks outside with me, I will be the only one getting into the car. I have no idea what kinds of deals have been brokered between the people who sit here, grinning and shit-faced, who live with each other, whether or not there are rings or merely the promise of them, or no promise at all.
I know it’s hard sometimes, she says. It would be for me, too. It’s not so bad, I say, to sleep diagonal on the bed. I get the whole thing. Anyway, I have you, I tell her. And that’s not a small thing.
I want to believe Carrie, who is across from me, absently rubbing a turquoise pendant and leaning into her boyfriend’s shoulder. She thinks I can be like her. That I could have chosen differently, that I could choose differently. I want to be more than someone’s cigarette break. I want to have a friend where it’s not necessary to lie. I want to be able to say something to her that she won’t say to her boyfriend without my asking her not to say anything.
Carrie notices Mark’s arm nearly touching mine. He’s someone else’s, she says, after he’s gotten up, and looks at me, hard. I notice her cheeks are flushed, but it takes me a minute to realize she’s angry. And then another moment to realize that I am, too.
We were once twenty-one and not married, we wore pink and peach tank-tops and loose Indian skirts, we were not married; we flit around the room and boys as though we were butterflies. We were butterflies; we were twins. Now she is a plant, planted, an aloe vera or jasmine, blooming. Maybe a begonia or a geranium, potted, a houseplant, domestic.
He’s not wearing a ring. I open my eyes, try to look aggrieved, can meet her eyes, but not stay there for long. Carrie, I say, and shrug my shoulders. I have not signed a lease with anyone else. I have not promised anyone anything. She has known Mark longer than she’s known me; why shouldn’t she be looking at him and talking to him.
My dinner date was a nice guy. No, it wasn’t a great date. It really wasn’t. And he is not at this booth, right now. He could be, but I would not be the single girl at the table if he were there.
Mark is lighter now and I’m heavier—because I wanted nothing before—and I want him now. I want him to look at me. I want him to call me. I want it to be okay that I took his phone, dropped it on the ground. That the ground opened up, and the phone split apart, bounced away from us on the sidewalk. That our hands touched when we both bent down to retrieve the battery. That I reached up to his shoulders and that I let him pull me to the back of the building. I want it to be OK that I walked us over to his car. This could be a different story. He could want to move away with me. We could tell a story to our children or at a wedding.
If I have one more drink, this is what I’ll see: those of us who want to stay a little longer, stretch it out, this night, who have some reason not to want to leave right away, and those who can let it go, see it’s just another night in a set of nights like this. Someone’s birthday, someone’s art opening, someone’s dance performance downtown, and we’re out afterwards. I catch myself watching the beautiful bartender again—I can’t tell if she’s twenty-two or twenty-seven—if she’s from Ohio or from Scarsdale or from Bergen County. I can’t hear the Mid-Atlantic vowel shift in her voice since what we are doing is not talking, we are observing, we are interpreting. What she has is something I wish I had had. The knowledge that it is OK to use the fact that you’re young and reasonably pretty. Now I see that I was using it all along. I used to be afraid to hail a taxi, but the truth is that if I hesitated, someone else would step up to hail it for me.
My hands are cold and I place them over the tea-light flickering on the table. What I have is an address book full of half kings—people I once loved. People I still love. None of them are here at this table. Even those of us who are here: we can barely hear each other across that table.
I sit there, stay, hand curved over the tea-light, for another hour or two, trying to fix it all into place. I am making a picture to conjure for when I’m missing New York. Lime wedges suspended in Coronas; strands of white Christmas lights; still-skinny ex-dancers; wooden booths scratched over with names, circles and circles of rings, staining. The archaeologist, drinking her seltzer. Postcards advertising lipstick or bands sticking to the bottom of our half-drained bottles for a moment before falling to the table. My blue shirt, the smell of smoke, the profile of the Indian chief on the far wall. I’m buying another round. I’m looking around. Everything I can see clearly is about to pass. I’m leaving, I say. I know tomorrow is another bad hangover waiting for me, but right now, the bar slowly clearing, the air outside sharpening, I can believe that the candle heating my hands, the oceanic shush of highway, our tangled arms and legs—that all of that is enough—and that I will grow out of it—the car outside, wanting Mark. I tell myself I can move back, that New York isn’t a river rushing. And none of this lasts anyway—not Carrie and me in a twin-way, not Mark and me, not twenty-one, not the possibility of Chris or any other nice guy smiling at me across the booth. Not what I want most of all: a bouquet of possibilities, the ship, which was once something else, choosing to return. This time he would choose differently—and I tell myself after thirty so will I.
Sejal Shah’s writing has been recently nominated for Best American Essays and the Pushcart Prize. She lives and teaches in Upstate New York. Visit her online at www.sejal-shah.com.
“The Half King” originally appeared in Scenester (TLR Early Summer, 2013)