She could feel it before she even opened her eyes.
The familiar pulsating sensation seemed to be pounding and clawing its way through the front of her head in a mad attempt to get out. If she had to guess, a hive of bees had taken residence inside of her skull last night and quickly realized there wasn’t enough room in there for them. Now they were buzzing around, stinging everything inside, from her brain to her bones, making it impossible for her to think at all, let alone come up with a way to help them out.
She groaned, the noise rolling up from her chest, irritating her dry throat and displacing the bees so focused most of their effort in pressing against her temples, yearning to leave. She really couldn’t blame them for wanting to escape. She wanted to leave her head too. In fact, it was the reason that she had probably invited them inside in the first place.
It took a few more seconds for her to realize that the buzzing was not only inside of her head, but outside and somewhere to the left. Also, if she didn’t stop it soon, it was probably going to whip the bees into such a frenzy that they’d kill her. The thought of being put out of her misery wasn’t so bad. The thought of bees being what finally did her in was slightly depressing.
She flung out a hand to grab the phone and missed, knocking her hand into the wooden nightstand with such force that the whole thing shook. She could hear the ugly black lamp that Jack had apparently made in middle school wobble precariously, threatening to fall over. The only thing that clattered to the ground was her phone.
The dull throbbing on the back of her hand did nothing to distract her from the more immediate stabbing sensation in her forehead. What hurt more was the fact that she would now have to somehow convince her limbs to get her out of bed, and then bend over to pick up her phone. It was fact she bemoaned with an elongated, “Fuck.” Her throat hurt more. Also her mouth tasted oddly bitter.
The hardwood floors seemed to amplify the sound of the phone buzzing, and as predicted, the bees became crazed, stinging, pushing, and flying around to the point where the only way to get out of this situation was up.
She pushed herself up from her bed, swinging her legs off the edge so that her bare feet landed on the cool, smooth floors. The feeling was nice on her burning skin, and she might have enjoyed it had it not been for the awful churning sensation in her stomach and the way each of her limbs seemed to protest having to hold themselves up, urging her to throw herself back into bed.
With a breath, she pushed out of her bed, falling immediately down onto her knees, and grabbing the phone as it scuttled across the floor with each sound. She flicked through her phone, finding the alarm and shutting it off before returning to the home screen and looking at the time.
She repeated her earlier grievance, this time slightly louder.
Her mind seemed to settle a little bit now that her phone had been silenced so that she was able to locate the hazy memory of waking up an hour ago when she could have showered, made a real breakfast, gotten dressed all at a leisurely rate before walking to work.
She hated herself. Although, if she was going to push this on anyone, it would be Jack. She hated Jack, so much more.
If he had just been there. Been on one of the street corners along with the rest of them, doing those close-magic tricks that he had perfected, then maybe this wouldn’t be the fourth—fifth?—fourth day she woke up with bees in her head. Maybe she wouldn’t have woken up—
She didn’t finish the thought. He had simply been nonexistent before the show and had disappeared once it was over and he had a new place to be. She should have expected this. He’d done it before.
She placed a hand on top of her bed and used it to leverage herself up. Her stomach lurched in protest, but she was up, and she was able to piece together thoughts. Progress.
She looked out the open door of the bedroom, following a trail of her socks, shirt, pants, earrings, a couple of rings, boots, and jacket to the kitchen. Leave it to her drunk self to create an obstacle course for her hungover self. Every. Single. Time.
After a few stumbling steps, she was kicking boots to the side of the hall on her way to the kitchen. The rest of the apartment seemed relatively clean, with the exception of the usual dishes piled around including multiple half-drunk water glasses. She couldn’t remember if Chelsea had come back with her or if she had just continued to forget she had water. It didn’t really matter.
She grabbed onto the bar, using it to steady herself as she ran her hand along the ugly green counters, on her way to the fridge. The cool air of the fridge caused goosebumps to rise on the part of her thigh not covered by the oversized night shirt.
There were no eggs.
She probably didn’t have time for them anyway. According to the microwave she had ten minutes before she was supposed to be at work, so it was whatever. She closed the fridge and turned to the cabinet, pulling out the remains of a loaf of bread. She stuck two of the remaining three pieces in the toaster and cranked up the dial.
She grabbed the half-drunk glass of water sitting on the bar and took a swig before putting it back down and ambling towards the back of the apartment. The water seemed to catch in her throat, sliding down more slowly than it should. She always hated drinking water the morning after. It always felt like it was choking her rather than doing any good.
She kicked the boots and clothes back into her room and into the pile at the door of her closet. The thought that she should really find some time to take care of this briefly entered her head, but considering the fact that all of her time was allocated to work and then going out to forget about that stupid show and its stupid performers, her days were pretty full.
With a sigh she bent over the clothes, digging through the pile in search of the familiar candy striper-esq dress. At last the red and white stripes showed underneath her Nirvana tank top, and with some difficulty, she was able to pull it out. She managed to locate the other necessary parts of the uniform with slightly more ease, and she changed into it, brushed her teeth, and somewhat miraculously worked her blonde hair into a non-greasy looking ponytail before the toaster dinged.
She yawned as she walked over to the toaster, pulling out the rapidly hardening toast. She checked the time on the microwave. She had negative two minutes left. Wonderful. Sticking the toast in her mouth, she glanced around the apartment looking for keys.
In all honesty, they could be anywhere.
She gave the bar a quick glance before moving back towards the bedroom, praying they weren’t in her jacket pocket from last night and buried under the mountain of clothes on the floor. With a desperate glance towards the living room area, she caught a small glint of metal at the bottom of the dilapidated brown couch that she had accidentally torn a little over a year when she—she stopped, halfheartedly wishing that the panic hadn’t chased most of the cloudiness out of her head.
In the next moment, she was out the door, locking the apartment behind her.
“Good morning, Caroline,” the warbling voice of her next-door neighbor greeted. Caroline looked over to the small, white-haired woman who was brushing her hands off on her tan slacks. Caroline plastered on a smile.
“Good morning, Ms. Davenport,” she greeted. “Up pretty early.”
“Oh, you know us old folk,” Ms. Davenport smiled. “Don’t know how many sunrises we’ve got left, so our bones wake us up for every one of them. Not that I mind. Had to walk Maggie and take out the trash anyway.”
“I’m sure you’ve got plenty of sunrises left,” she said, moving towards the stairs. “Skip tomorrow’s.”
“We’ll see,” Ms. Davenport chuckled. “Oh! I’ve got something to show you. Just wait one moment. It’s right on the coffee table.”
Caroline nodded, looking from her neighbor and to the stairway. She was going to be late. Maybe Elaine would cover for her, but Elaine had already covered for her a couple of days ago. She was pushing it.
Ms. Davenport came back in a surprisingly short amount of time, holding a glossy paper in one hand. “My daughter brought this over to me yesterday. She had picked it up on the street last week because she thought she recognized him.”
Ms. Davenport shoved the paper into Caroline’s hands, beaming up at her. Caroline looked down at the image of the dark haired man, grinning devilishly up at her while floating the Queen of Hearts between his hands. Her stomach churned again.
“Isn’t it something? He really made something of himself, didn’t he?”
“Yeah,” Caroline breathed.
“To think, my neighbor’s part of the Phantasmagoria,” Ms. Davenport practically chirped.
“Well, ex-neighbor,” Caroline quietly corrected.
“For now, of course, for now,” the old woman dismissed. “You tell him when he’s all done and back that he has to come over and tell me all about it.”
“Sure,” Caroline agreed, more flatly than she intended. She held out the flyer to Ms. Davenport. “Thanks for sharing this.”
“You keep it, maybe get him to sign it for me,” Ms. Davenport waved her off.
“Sure,” Caroline said again, bringing the paper back to her side.
“Well, I won’t hold you up any longer. You have a good day at work.”
“Thanks, you have a good day too,” Caroline bid as Ms. Davenport retreated into the apartment and Caroline turned, crumbling the flyer and tossing it in the garbage chute on her way out the door and into the grey of the morning.
Chapter Two: Marlon Dean
She calls it hunting. She doesn’t think that it’s helping them.
With a name like Charlemagne’s you’d expect there to be some half-way decent Cognac in the place or at least for the hand dryer in the women’s bathroom to work. Instead, patrons are provided with a brandy that tastes like children’s cough syrup and the privilege of drying their hands on the flimsy pieces of wannabe napkins that tear apart simply from resting under a glass, let alone fighting whatever grime came out of the faucet. I guess to expect much better from a bar in Bushwick, though, is pretty unrealistic. Even with the name. And it’s not because Bushwick is crap or anything—honestly, I feel out of place walking down the street now—but you know, even with the hipsters, it’s still Bushwick.
To say that Charlemagne’s is just a bar though is kind of misleading, and you know, maybe it’s the place’s divided attention that’s responsible for the minor lapses in quality control. Charlemagne’s is an obscure combination of dance club and dive bar, and in its ambiguity, it attracts an interesting crowd. A lot of the girls from Wycoff Heights come down—probably because it’s as far away as you can get from the sterile hospital atmosphere—and then there’s the occasional businessman who wants to get back to his roots who stops by. You usually buys everyone in his vicinity a round at the beginning of the night and proceeds to spend the rest of the evening treating his stool as a confessional and any poor soul who gets too close as a man of God, which, to be honest, is kind of hilarious because anyone who had the power to absolve sins would never be caught dead sitting on a Charlemagne’s stool. Then there’s the couple of lost or already drunk tourists, and the eclectic mix of frat bros and hipsters from NYU who used to frequent Murray Hill bars before they got tired of Manhattan and decided to take over Brooklyn. And then there’s the people like me who come here because, well, where else is there to go?
I tend to stay close to the dance floor. The music’s loud and most of the people have trouble standing without being pressed from all sides by others’ bodies. It’s a jungle of limbs, sweat, and beats. The perfect place for hunting. Even with the lights as they are (which has less to do with ambiance and more to do with how high electrician’s bills are nowadays) it’s pretty easy to scout out my prey—the ones who are too far gone to know what’s happening or will be too busy touching me to notice my hand sweep into their back pocket and relieve them of their wallet, phone, wedding band, or whatever else they’ve got in there. Call me what you will, but if you leave something in you’re back pocket at a crowded bar in Bushwick, it’s pretty clear you don’t want it anymore.
Like, the bros. They’re almost always tired of their genuine leather probably hand stitched Brooks Brothers wallets, so I, generous soul that I am, choose to help them out and relieve them of the burden first. And it’s not like I don’t give them the chance to take their money out first. I make sure they have plenty of time for their vain attempts to pick up girls and outdo their fellow bros in the traditional “Who’s the most loaded?” competition. It’s when they start sticking their wallet in the bartenders’ faces to get their attention that I know they’re ready for help. Usually they don’t even notice that I have helped. They’ve either already lost track of how much money they’ve blown through or they’re so horny that they lose track of themselves as soon as I get close enough to help out. And yeah, I’m sure that not all frat guys are able to blink over losing sixty bucks or whatever, and they don’t all aggressively hit on girls at bars, but these are the guys who chose to Charlemagne’s, and like everyone else who comes here, they’re a special breed of people.
For instance, tonight some bro decided to wear salmon shorts to a dive bar in Bushwick. If I had to guess, he’s the rare tourist/bro crossbreed; a brother from a southern chapter of a fraternity or a recent transplant who has yet to learn that people in New York don’t wear colors.
Whatever his story, it’s clear from his combed back hair, too jovial expression and habit of making comments to his friend and then laughing immediately afterwards that he is the perfect prey. If he really is from out-of-state, I may even let him me buy a couple of drinks and wait until the end of the night before I take my entertainment fee—admittedly, helping them isn’t completely out of the goodness of my heart, it is slightly business too—and then I’ll leave.
The thing with this type of hunting—and maybe with all types of hunting, I don’t really know—is that it’s all in the positioning. Some guys like the chase, and all you have to do is make sure you put yourself in their path and give them something to lock on to. Other guys like the more direct girls who aren’t afraid to walk right up and pitch themselves. Then, there are the ones in-between. Those are the ones you push a little.
It takes me the entire walk to him before I figure out how to push him.
“Hi.” It’s best to start simple. Committing to one course of action too soon is disastrous to say the least. I may have been doing this for a while, but sometimes even my reads on people aren’t one hundred percent right away.
“Hi.” His voice is deep and there’s a bit of a drawl to it. Southern bro it is.
“So, this is kinda awkward…” I look over my shoulder as if searching for eye contact with a friend. Instead, I lock eyes with a brunette tourist at the bar who smiles a little bit at the awkwardness. I smile back and keep it on when I turn back to face Southern Comfort. “Can you help me with a dare?” I bite my lip because even though it’s something that nobody ever actually does, it’s the kind of things you see in movies and pornos, tapping right into the fantasies running through his head right now.
“What’s the dare?” The question was expected. His friend is here, so he feels the need to be in control of the situation and me, which is fine. If he wants to feel like he’s in control, all the better for me.
“I know this sounds really sketchy or like kinda sketchy or something, but it’s really not as bad as you’d think. I mean it’s really overblown, but you can’t know what the dare is until you agree to do it—that’s a rule.”
“I know this sounds
His light green eyes flick up and down, and I know what he’s thinking. “Can I know your name first?”
I smile. He’s in.
“Randi. With an i.”
“I’m Jonah,” he answers. It’s at this point that his friend leaves. This exchanging of names is one of the subtler signals I’ve come across.
“So…” I draw out, and Jonah flashes a grin.
“I’ll do it.”
“Great, so, you need to write your number somewhere on my body.”
He smirks at this. “Anywhere on your body?”
“Preferably a place that my boss won’t see it, but won’t be, like, super awkward to show as proof.” I clarify.
“Back of my neck, my shoulders, my back, my stomach, my foot, umm, I don’t know where else.”
“I think stomach’ll work just fine.”
“You just want to get under my shirt,” I charge narrowing my eyes and grinning slightly. And here I was thinking that he wouldn’t be as predictable as the rest, although I guess, predictability is a bit of a good thing in my line of work, even if it somewhat shuts down job satisfaction.
“No reason this can’t be a symbiotic deal,” he grins, holding out his beer to me in exchange for the felt-tip pen I produced from my back pocket. I’ve found carrying around pens to be very useful in this endeavor. I have to think he’s a rather cocky son-of-a-bitch for handing a complete stranger his open beer. Who knows what I could put in it. Still, it’s a good sign. It means he feels in control. That makes him all the more vulnerable.
“You a bio major?” I ask, as he bends down lifting up the fabric of the swing tank top.
“Yeah, I study biology at UT,” he answers, taking his time to slowly draw a number what feels like the number eight. My eyes scan over his head, taking in the surrounding room as he continues to talk, presumably to tell me what exactly UT stands for and why he’s in New York. The crowd has shifted and more people are now at the bar so the “dance floor” has thinned out a little bit, and then as a drunk girl throws herself into her friend’s arm, I catch sight of an interesting figure.
He’s on the outskirts of the dance floor, closer to the bathrooms than the bar, and he seems amused by the throng in front of him, as if he knows something that we don’t. He’s dressed like he’s watched too many Marlon Brando or James Dean movies what with his leather jacket when everyone else here has stripped down to the basest layers. I can tell that he thinks he’s the shit, that the thought now forming in my head is an incredibly stupid one. I should leave him alone. I should stick with Jonah. Jonah will buy me drinks. Jonah will most definitely be leaving town and probably never coming back. Jonah probably won’t even try to convince me to come home with him because he’s presumably staying over a friend’s. Jonah is a sure bet.
Jonah straightens up in front of me, handing over the pen, and I hand back the beer.
“Thank you so much,” I cut him off as he opens his mouth, straightening my shirt. “You’re a life saver. They were going to make me do shots of tequila if I failed, and I can’t do tequila after last Cinco de Mayo.”
“Yeah? What happened at Cinco de Mayo?”
“I puked playing pin the tail on the donkey,” I giggle a little, keeping my eyes trained on the figure over his shoulder. He’s alone. He hasn’t said a word to anyone who’s around him. Instead he’s just standing there, scanning the crowd, as if he’s also looking for prey. I should really stay with Jonah.
“Anyway, thanks again,” I say, leaning forward, and holding onto his shoulder with one hand and moving up to kiss his cheek. I stumble a little bit, as he catches me.
“Sure you shouldn’t just stay here what with those feet trying to kill you?” he asks. I’ll admit I’ve never heard that one before, but the novelty of the statement doesn’t do enough to keep me intrigued.
“Gotta go get my revenge. Sorry!” I pat him on the shoulder a couple of times before moving towards the Marlon Dean impersonator, weaving in and out of the crowd in the hopes that Jonah can’t follow my progress. I stick the cash I palmed out of his wallet, into the top of my shirt. I take a second in the middle of the crowd, ruffling up my blonde hair as if I’ve been dancing before proceeding to walk back towards him with the subtle lunging stumble of one who hasn’t quite held on to secrets of walking.
“‘Scuse me. Hi. Can I ask you a question and you don’t make fun of me?” His eyes snap towards me and after the requisite once over, he flashes a smirk.
“I’ll do my best.” The statement goes perfectly with his probably painstakingly put together rebel image: leather jacket, Ramones t-shirt, dark jeans. He’s got the beginnings of a beard, just enough for it to be more miscreant than hipster-looking. His ear and his cartilage are pierced with studs, and his dark eyes have lost the quiet smugness that first drew me to him. Instead, they seem more interested than entertained.This should turn me right around, but it doesn’t.
“Which one is the girl’s bathroom?”
“Too many Long Island Iced Teas?” And there’s the cockiness.
“Sidecars,” I correct, doing everything I can to keep the bitterness from my voice. “And you said you wouldn’t make fun of me,” I huff.
“Fair enough,” he concedes, eyebrows raised. I’m half surprised he doesn’t throw in my face the fact that he never actually promised anything. It must be the Sidecars. “It’s the one on the right.”
“Thank you,” I say, walking into the bathroom. The bathroom is littered with toilet paper, water, grime, and the names of conquests. A gaggle of girls stands at the counter, trapped in front of the mirror as they fix their make up and gossip about the “creeps” hitting on them as each one tries to subtly outdo the others.
I take the opportunity to assess.
On the one hand, it’s probably not too late to go back to Jonah, have him buy me drinks—using his credit card of course—and spend the night being wooed.
On the other hand, I could go play cat and mouse with Marlon Dean.
It’s not that hard of a choice.
“I’m too late,” I sigh as I come out of the bathroom. Marlon Dean’s attention snaps back to me.
“Too late for what?” His eyes scan me again, this time with methodical precision. (Show more interest and playfulness in Jack)
“To stop my friend from hooking up with her ex.” I roll my eyes and stagger over to him. Mentioning a friend always seems to put people at ease. Even if that friend is nowhere to be seen.
“Rough,” he comments. His short responses are infuriating (show). They give me nothing to go on. Where is the hook that will get him interested in me? How can I reel him in so I can take him for all he’s worth?
“You have no idea,” I shake my head a little as I look up at him and notice that he’s looking at me so closely I can see the gold inlaid in his otherwise brown eyes. For a second I think that he’s going to kiss me. The thought seems stupid since I haven’t even begun flirting with him yet, but the look is so intense that I find myself shifting my weight in front of him trying to drain the feeling from myself. “What about you?”
“What about me?” His eyes don’t let up at all.
“Why are you stuck by the bathrooms? Where’s your drink?”
“Why? Do you want to buy me one?” he raises an eyebrow again, and I find it somewhat infuriating and just the tiniest bit amusing.
“No.” I draw the word out as if playing with a child. Which I guess I am. “I’m not that kind of girl.”
“So you’re not trying to get me drunk and out of my clothes?” he continues, as if he’s playing me.
“I’m trying to make sure you have a good time. It’s my personal duty to make sure everyone in this bar leaves sufficiently drunk.” I explain, placing a hand over my heart, before putting it on him. “You, sir, need to get on my level.”
“You’re sure you’re not that kind of girl?”
“Only thing I’d try to get you out of is that fucking badass leather jacket.” It’s time to leave and this is my exit ticket.
“I do kinda look like a badass, don’t I?” And I’ve hit it. Play to the ego. Part of me feels at last triumphant that I’ve figured this guy out, and the other part feels adequately justified to come over here and leave Jonah for him because narcissists are unequivocally the most satisfying targets. I always feel like I’m doing the world a favor when I lift from them.
I giggle and reach over to the the jacket letting my hand fall down the zipper. There’s nothing in the pocket of the jacket. “Aren’t you hot though?” His hand is shoved in the other pocket, so unless the wallet isn’t in the back ones, I’m going to have a much harder time at this.
“Really are trying to get me out of this jacket. Shouldn’t I be the one trying to work you out of your clothes?” The line almost stops me, and he gets a genuine laugh as I step closer.
“I’d like to see you try.” I tap my finger on his chest for emphasis, as my other hand brings his wallet—which really shouldn’t have been sticking out of his back pocket like that—to my own back pocket. I’ve made it around my back before his arm wraps around my waist, pulling me closer, his hand closes over mine. And the wallet.
“You’re pretty good,” he compliments lowly. Slipping the wallet down and away from my grip over the top of it. He slides it back into his pocket.
I should run. I should leave. I should turn back into the crowd, disappear, and not come back for months. Instead I remain standing in his personal space.
“I’m losing my touch.” The slurred giggle that had previously been hidden underneath every word is gone, so the statement comes out flat and sharp.
“You just picked the wrong target,” he explains with a shrug, his mask dropping as quickly as mine. He’s no longer smirking, but he doesn’t look particularly angry or offended either. Instead, he has the interested look in his eyes from before.
“How long’d you know?”
“I saw you with the other guy. That’s a good move.”
“Everyone knows where a guy’s brain is,” I shrug. “Anyway thanks for the feedback, but our exchange is done. Happy hunting.” I turn around and stick the cash I palmed out of his wallet into the top of my shirt.
“Hey, wait.” He reaches for my arm, but misses as I avoid the hand and turn around, walking backwards through the crowd. He looks slightly dismayed, and the look intrigues me. Was he playing with me? Why was he letting me have my fun?
“Can’t.” I shake my head as bodies rejoin, coming together again from where I separated them. “It’s against the rules,” I call. I’m not sure if he hears me. I can’t decide if I really care.
Leaving the thick of the crowd to go to the bar is always easier than going after a mark. I’m only groped twice on the way. The bartender—Dion—notices me quickly and comes over.
“You see that guy over there?” I ask, standing on my tiptoes and pointing to Marlon Dean who is now scanning the crowd. “The one who looks like he never quite got past his teen angst phase? When he comes up here, give him a Long Island Iced Tea and tell him that the lovely blonde girl he was looking for has him covered,” I say, slipping a ten out of my dress. “And you can keep the change.”
Chapter Six: Jitterbugs
It took maybe ten minutes to find him after walking in the door. A large part of her wanted to ignore him. It would have been easy to find a nice mark, make some decent money, and get the hell out of there without ever having to deal with that infuriatingly intriguing thing that he had going on. In fact, it was entirely what she should have done. She should have let things go and left him be. But she was already halfway through the crowd, pushing towards the bar before the thought of finding someone else even entered her mind.
“You owe me a drink.” It was far from one of her better opening lines, but judging by how quickly he straightened up and whirled to face her, it didn’t seem to really matter how witty it was. She had achieved a sufficient amount of surprise.
“Yeah?” He raised a dark eyebrow. She raised both of hers in a vain attempt to one-up him, leaning her side against the bar next to the empty seat between them.
“I seem to recall me buying you two drinks, while I have yet to get a single one. You owe me a drink.”
“You know, that’s funny, ‘cause I seem to recall buying myself my own drastically overpriced drink and then Evan Crawley buying me the other.” He has now turned completely in his seat to face me, and I’m able to take in his full outfit. On top of what must be his signature leather jacket, he’s wearing a soft yellow v-neck and ripped jeans. I have to admit, I’m surprised that he owns anything with color, let alone a color like yellow.
“Buy me a drink.”
He smirks and turns to flag down the bartender who quickly walks over. “Can I get a Long Island Iced Tea?” he asks, pointing a finger at me as if to make it very clear that this is not his drink.
“A real drink,” I correct and the smirk is replaced with a genuine smile. The bartender looks from me back to Marlon, questioningly.
“Make that a Sidecar. And I’ll have another Jack and Coke,” he looks at me over his shoulder as he orders the second drink, and I just shrug, sliding into the seat next to his.
“Trick of the trade.”
“How so?” he asks, turning to lean back against the bar with the same suave ease he emanated the first time I met him.
“You know,” I shoot back. If he was able to catch me without having somewhat practiced the art of reading people, then there is something seriously wrong with me.
He nods towards me, granting me the point, and I mentally relax a little. “What I don’t know is if you’re so good at reading people, how come you approached me at all?”
“I can’t challenge myself every once and a while?”
The smirk is back again. “So I’m a challenge to figure out?”
“Reading you isn’t the challenge.” It’s one of the easiest lies I’ve ever told. It came out before I’d even thought of it. “The challenge is pulling one over on the egotistical try hard.”
“Try hard?” he laughs warmly. He hasn’t seemed to master the art of staying in character, which, if anything proves my point. Still, I give him points for not even bothering to fight the egotistical bit.
I push myself up from leaning on the bar and look him over once more before I start. “You try too hard to put on your persona. You adhere too closely to the uniform. The gelled up hair, the scruff, the studs, the leather jacket and all black—Most of the time” I add, as he opens his mouth to fight me. “You lean up against the bar like you invented the action when in reality you’ve stolen it from all of the old-fashioned movies you watch because you think watching them makes you cool and edgy. You drink Jack and Coke because you drank Jack Daniels in college to impress your friends with the fact that you like whiskey, but you’ve never been able to bring yourself to drink it neat and the soda is a good excuse.”
There is a pause in the wake of my analysis. It’s in this silence that the bartender places our drinks in front of us and then walks away, as if unwilling to see how this conversation proceeds from a distance closer than five feet away.
“You don’t pull punches do you?” he asks finally, and I can hear the laughter underneath the question as the corner of his mouth curves up.
“Would you be interested in talking to me if I did?”
“Fair enough,” he concedes, turning around to grab his drink and toasting me with it before taking a sip. I follow suit, sipping the saccharine concoction before me. “So what do you think the real me is like, then?”
The question stops me because it is something I would never expect anyone like me to ask. Not after going through all the work to craft a persona.
“I’ve met you twice,” I balk. I don’t want him to return the favor.
“Just one fact,” he pushes, lifting the drink to his lips again. I can see him smiling from behind it.
I thought for a second, going over our past two interactions. “You enjoy performances,” I say, thinking of our first meeting where he had let me go on a while, probably just to see if I could steal his wallet, in the same way that he wanted to see if I could pin him down now. “And you like poking at things. You can’t leave anything alone.”
My thoughts ran along quickly, trying to remember the minuscule details from our two brief encounters. “You consider yourself chivalrous.” I think of the unnecessary punch. He could have just as easily simply pulled me away, and never turned back to that guy—Evan.
I incline my head towards him and narrow my eyes. “You’re a thief.”
He grins. “Point taken.”
The two of us sit in not uncomfortable silence, before he once again breaks it. “So, how’d you learn to read people?”
“God-given talent.” And a mother in pharmaceutical sales. I add to myself afterwards, taking a long drink.
“You believe in God?”
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s impolite to talk about religion?”
“Guess I’m not very polite,” he smirks. Of all of the infuriating things about him, the smirk tops the list. It’d be one thing if he didn’t do it so often.
“Keep trying and maybe you’ll find wit one day,” I remark, deciding once and for all to put an end to that smirk.
“Are you saying I can’t keep up?” he asks, leaning forward.
I shrug and take another sip of my Sidecar.
“You think pretty highly of yourself, don’t you?” he leans back against the bar.
“If I don’t, who will?”
“I like that.”
“You going to take that from me too?”
“Where’s the fun in telling you?”
“Closer.” I remark, and this elicits a grin from him before he finishes off his drink.
“So why’d you come here tonight?” he asks, placing the empty glass back on the bar with a small clinking noise. His face is completely open as he asks, and I’m struck with his genuineness. For someone who seemed to have no problem engaging in banter—which’s whole point was to avoid any real question—he seemed to have a knack for getting to the heart of things. Quickly.
“You really just dive in there, don’t you?”
“I’m not going to let you avoid this question.”
“You can’t really make me do anything I don’t want to do,” I state, matter-of-factly. Because when it comes down to it, it is a fact.
“If you don’t want to talk to me, how come you’re here?” He’s right. He’s not letting me avoid the question, and I have to admire his persistence. I should have listed it as one of his traits.
“What if I don’t know?” I ask, draining the rest of my own drink before putting it down on the counter next to his. I can’t just let him win.
“I’ll accept that answer,” he concedes before looking over to the empty glass. “You want another?”
I pick the glass back up, looking at it and carefully weighing my options. I could stay here where I have control and where I can easily leave and return back to my—Chelsea’s—apartment and never see this guy again if I don’t want to. Or, I could see what he does when given an ounce of say.
“No. I’m hungry.” I place the glass back onto the counter.
“I’ve tried the food here, and you’d do better to order a shitload of Manhattans and eat the cherry from the bottom,” he advises.
This brings half of a smile to my face. “So what do you suggest?”
“I know a place,” he remarks, flagging down the bartender to settle up.
“Where?” I ask.
“You’ll see,” he says, putting down the last of the money before turning to leave. He’s a few feet away before he realizes I’m not following. He turns with his eyebrow quirked. “But only if you come.”
“I don’t do surprises.”
“Oh come on,” he says lightly, staying where he is. “You’ll like it.”
He rolls his eyes as if he’s exasperated. “‘It’ is a diner.”
“A diner,” I repeat.
“Yeah, you know, a little restaurant that sells cheap food and coffee,” he informs, gesturing with his head towards the door.
“I know what a diner is.” I roll my eye and slide off of the barstool, following him out of Charlemagne’s.
We walk side by side in relative silence down the street. This part of Bushwick is relatively dark at this time at night. With the exception of streetlights and the occasional passing car and the rare lit up window, there’s not much to go on besides the moon. It’s oddly peaceful in the dark with the white noises of the city to keep you company. It’s like it’s own sort of lullaby for the messed up city kids like myself. For the average tourist or Manhattanite it may grate on them as either too quiet or just enough disquiet to give them pause. The sounds have always been soothing for me as I walk home alone from Charlemagne’s. Still, the thought of the quiet causes me to look at Marlon Dean. I’m sort of surprised that he’s managed to keep his mouth closed for so long.
“So you gonna ask for my name yet?” I ask, finally breaking the silence.
“Would you tell me?” he asks, quirking an eyebrow.
“I’d give you a name.”
“You wouldn’t let me pick?”
I roll my eyes and bite the inside of my lip to keep from smiling. As we turn down a side street we walk in silence as I debate inwardly which name to give him. I know the time is winding down. I wouldn’t particularly call Marlon patient. He can wait, but he’s certainly not patient.
“Would you tell me your name if I asked?” I stall, running through the list of names in my head trying to find one I haven’t used recently. One that can be specifically for him and this memory.
“Of course,” he shrugs.
“Your real name?” I push. Then again, going by fake names isn’t exactly something everyone does. Marlon stops us out a bus stop.
“Yeah. That’s what most people mean when they say they’d tell you their name,” he pokes.
“Where are we going?” I ask, looking at the bus stop sign.
“I told you, a diner.”
“Where is this diner?”
“It’s just across the bridge.”
All thoughts of names slip from my head at his statement. If you give an inch, they’ll take a mile. Every. Single. Time. I chide myself. To him I only ask, “What bridge?”
“I’m really not planning on kidnapping and killing you. Besides, I’m pretty sure if it came down to it, you could take me in a fight,” he remarks, looking at me with amusement. “And so you know, you’re really killing this whole playful banter thing we have going on.”
I open and shut my mouth a couple of times before I realize that nothing is coming out. I can take being shouted at and cursed at and talked about just fine. I’m used to those things. But this, this is new.
“I met you in a bar in Bushwick. I have known you for an hour,” I respond, flatly.
He shakes his head. “Three days.”
“Two hours,” I amend.
“Just trust me for the next half hour. We’ll get to the diner, order food, and then you can walk out if you don’t like what’s going on.” I simply stare at him in response. It’s as if he thinks trust is something you can just ask for and it’s given. Like a nickel or something. And yet, there’s just something about him. If I wasn’t willing to go over a bridge to get food with him, I would have never showed up to Charlemagne’s looking for him in the first place.
“Fine,” I sigh.
“Wow, I mean, don’t get too excited. It’s just a diner,” he says, putting his hands up as if to calm me.
“I’ll follow you to the diner. But I don’t do promises, so how long I stay there is up to me,” I warn, holding up a finger.
“Don’t do promises. Don’t do surprises. So no grand romantic gestures in the future, I’m guessing.”
“I don’t do futures either. Or romance.”
“Of course not,” he laughs.
I can hear the bus pull up behind me, and in the next moment, he has climbed on and is swiping his card before moving further in. I follow, making my way onto the empty bus, slightly surprised by the few selections of empty seats. Naturally none of them are together, but still. There are seats on an eleven o’clock bus into Manhattan. That isn’t bad.
He gestures to a seat next to him, and I sit in it, choosing not to sit behind him just to spite him. Describe people.
“I’m glad you got on the bus,” he comments. It’s the second time this night he’s given me the sneaking suspicion that he has me more figured out than I would have liked. Then again, if he knew me so well, why would he push me into going to a diner across the bridge?
“I agreed to follow you and you’ll be happy to know that I don’t do lies either. Add it to the list next to promises.” The elderly woman sitting next to Marlon gives me with an appraising look before turning back to face forward.
“You think all promises are lies?”
“Lies or cover ups.”
“I’m guessing you have some reason for all of these rules.”
“Most people have reasons for their actions.”
“You’re not most people.”
My lips curled into a smile. So things weren’t just rolling off him. “No.” I agree as the bus rumbles onto the bridge. I look out past his shoulder and recognize it to be the Williamsburg Bridge describe. “I’m Miranda.” The name comes out smoothly and easily which is odd because I haven’t used it for years. It just seems to fit here.
“Perfect,” he remarks, and I can feel a creeping warmth around my neck and jawline.
“And now for your end of the bargain?” I ask
I want to throw the perfect back at him, because it really is. I don’t know how I could have ever called him Marlon before because it seems criminal to call him anything other than Jack. And I am not a criminal.
The bus slows to a stop and Jack stands, motioning me off the bus. I don’t put up a fight or question this time. I just follow as he leads us down the street a small diner on the corner with a glass front and classic stainless steel doors. He holds the door open behind him as he leads the way inside.
The place is probably the last bastion of the 50s in the Lower East Side. It’s all neon and metal with the stereotypical white, silver, and candy apple red color scheme. The waitresses, even the ones who probably remember the 50s, all wear uniforms reminiscent of candy stripers.
I look down at myself and can’t help but feel out of place in my little black dress and heels. It doesn’t fit the jeans and faded t-shirt look the rest of the clientele sports. This is a family kind of place. I’m not a family kind of person.
Jack seems unfazed as he moves past me with a small wave to the elderly waitress standing behind the counter and row of bright red plastic-y leather stools. He chooses a booth next to the front window, and once again, I ignore everything within me that tells me to turn around walk out the door, and slide across from him, folding a leg under myself as I sit.
The waitress from behind the counter comes over, pen and pad in hand, and focuses purely on Jack. “What’ll it be today, hun?”
“I think we’re actually going to look at the menus today,” Jack notes and the waitress laughs a little. “But let’s start with a couple of coffees and maybe a basket of fries.” She nods and jots it down before ambling back towards the kitchen.
“Fries with your coffee?”
“You’ve never tried it?”
I can’t help the grimace.
“It’s a Jack Reagan specialty,” he nods. “You’ll love it.”
“Do you want another thing for that list of yours?”
“I’ve already surmised that one,” he answers. “But it doesn’t mean I’ve accepted any of it yet.”
“You probably should.”
“If I always did what I should do, we’d never have met,” he tilts his head as if inviting me to tease him, but I can’t. He’s hit a line that worked. He notices it and and smirk grows on his face.
“Don’t ruin it,” I warn, holding up a finger as he opens his mouth again. “Look at the menu.”
I open my own and peer over the contents. There is a list of burgers named after dance moves–some of which, like the Charleston–weren’t even that popular back then. The rest of the dishes have references to the 50’s through movie stars, political figures, and historical events, and the milkshakes are all named after famous musicians of the era.
By the time the waitress appears carrying a half-full pot of coffee in one hand and a red lattice basket of fries, which couldn’t possibly have been made fresh given how fast they arrived, in the other. She sets the fries down between us and then turns over our coffee mugs, filling each mug up, almost to the point of spilling.
“You two all set?”
“I think so,” Jack looks at me and I nod. “I’ll have the Hand-Jive burger.”
“And for you, hun?” she asks, not looking up from her notepad. The word hun makes me want to cringe.
“I’ll have the Lindy Hop.” She scribbles the rest of the order down before giving Jack a pat on the shoulder and leaving to check on other customers.
“How often do you come here?” I ask, watching him closely. He’s already pulled out about five sugar packets to dump into his coffee. Ignoring the hint, I lift my own mug and take a taste. It’s lukewarm, like it’s been sitting behind the counter waiting for us for hours, and it’s somehow simultaneously bitter and watery.
“This tastes like shit.”
“It’s dollar coffee, what’d you expect?”
He laughs and dips a spoon into his drink. “There’s your mistake. What you should be looking for is caffeinated water. Here.” He tosses a few packets of Splenda across the table, and I pick them up, pouring them all in, and then adding an extra one for good luck, before picking up my own spoon to stir the concoction.
“Try it with the fries,” Jack urges, and I drop the spoon and pick up a fry that’s unable to hold its own weight. I look up at Jack with a skeptical glance.
“Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you’re one of those people who like crispy fries,” he says, stirring the sugar.
“It’s one of my specialties,” I shoot back at him.
“You’ll get used to them,” he says, laying down his spoon on his napkin.
“It only took me a few weeks.”
“So you come here a lot,” I gather, finally getting an answer to my earlier question.
“It’s cheap, and they don’t ask questions when you need them to break an $50 over a cup of coffee and basket of fries. You’re lucky to find a place like this in the Lower East Side anymore.” He takes a sip of his caffeinated water. “Delicious.”
“It’s tepid in every sense of the word,” I argue. He shakes his head and sets down his coffee. We look at each other for a second before he breaks the silence.
“So,” he crosses his arms on the table and leans over them. “What led you to a life of crime in Bushwick?” If anything I’m more surprised that he hasn’t already asked this question.
“Do you want to ask me how old I am first? Or how much I weigh?”
“How much do you weigh? 100 pounds?”
I roll my eyes and ignore him.
“I’m 150, and it’s all muscle.”
“Sure it is.”
“How long have you been working Charlemagne’s?”
“Long enough to have an arrangements with several key people.”
The waitress appears with two grey looking burgers nestled in red lattice baskets balanced on a tray. They’ve come out unsettlingly fast, and they look almost identical. Jack’s just seems slightly bigger.
“Alright, give me a yell if you want anything else,” the waitress instructs and Jack nods as she leaves.
“Is there anything I should know about how to attack this?” I ask, looking unconvinced at the burger. Describe it.
He shrugs. “Don’t count calories. Don’t expect a burger. It’s a Jitterbugs Burger.”
“Reassuring,” I quip and he laughs as I pick it up. He’s dug into his.
The burger is slightly bland, but it’s not rubbery or mushy. It’s a definite step above a fast food burger, but I highly doubt it’d be featured on any diner specials show.
“And? Jack asks, his mouth still slightly full of burger.
I swallow. “It’s pretty ok.”
“Pretty ok? Well, make sure you tell the cook. That’s the highest praise he’ll get all night.”
“I’m glad that at least you think you’re funny.”
He smiles, swallowing. “You think I’m funny too.”
“Anyway, tell me more about yourself. What were your parents like?”
“They were pretty shit,” I answer honestly. The statement comes out the same way my name did: so easily it shocks me. My poor parents aren’t something that I hide from anyone. Guys love to take in girls with “daddy issues” and girls love other people who can commiserate with how much they hate their mother. Although in their case they hate their mother because she doesn’t approve of their life choice to become an actress or won’t support their Chelsea apartment and Whole Foods grocery budget. Mine never gave me what I needed. She never gave me anything except for lessons on how to read people and trust issues, so there’s that.
“Aren’t they all?” he asked and I scanned him up and down. What were the parents of such an anomaly like?
“Yeah? What’s your story?”
“My parents were too busy with work to ever give me the time of day. When they did come home they’d order me around and tell me all the things I needed to do in order to do better and to be successful. It’s like they thought I was just another employee they could manage.”
I nodded, looking closely at him again. “You don’t strike me as someone easy to manage.”
“I gave them hell,” he admitted. “Anyway, any crazy ex-boyfriends?”
She was impressed that he hadn’t even bothered to ask her more about her parents. If he had, she might have told him. She didn’t have to worry about pity in terms of parents when it came to him.
“Depends what you mean by crazy. I have an ex who specializes in street corner exchanges, one who wanted to become a pimp by putting me out on the streets, and another who used to cut up my clothes and draw on me in my sleep so I could become walking performance art. There were others as well, but I think that mostly answers your questions.”
“You sure know how to pick ‘em.”
“I left every single one of them richer for it.”
“Ahh,” he catches on and nods.
“Well, being a Promo Model is just enough to pay the rent and keep the food coming and unless you’re Cadmus Thoth, being a street magician these days doesn’t do much but by a cup of this scrumptious coffee every now and then, so if that’s what you’re looking for, I’m your man. Otherwise, I might have an ex-roommate who hit it big and pays his nighttime companions pretty handsomely.”
There was a lot to unpack in the monologue, but her mind caught on one fact.
“You’re a magician.”
“Yeah, wanna see a trick?”
I shrug, but lean forward as he produces a card from his pocket. “Watch carefully,” he instructs, holding up the three of spades before my face. He flicks the card out over the edge of the table, and it spins into mid air, hovering for a second before coming back into his hand. He does it again, and this time when it comes back, the card levitates between his hands, floating up and down. He keeps it there for a few moments before letting it fall into his open palm and flicking it out again. With the other hand, he snaps and the card appears. I can’t help but be mildly impressed. I reach forward and take the card that he extends to me.
“Keep it,” he instructs as I slide the queen of hearts into the top of my dress.
“How long have you been into magic?”
“Since I was five. My dad took me to see this magic show and ever since then I’ve just wanted to be able to do what they do. Real magic. Like the stuff you read about. Not the same tricks other magic shows do.”
“You’re saying you believe there’s a troop of real life wizards out there?”
“Not wizards. Magicians. Well they’re not all magicians, but they all can do magic. Like, I still remember some of those things the fire breathers could do. It was amazing.”
“See you are my type, you are crazy.” I took a bite out of my burger.
“I’m not crazy,” Jack protested passionately. I was a bit surprised that he hadn’t jumped on the first part of the sentence. Was his fixation with the magic that important? “You’ve never heard of the Phantasmagoria?”
The name makes me pause.
“Once,” I admit finally. “When I was little.”
“So you know,” he looks delighted.
“I mean, I know they’re a thing. Everyone knows they’re a thing. They go away for twenty years and then are all publicity once they’re performing, but they don’t do real magic.”
“Did you see them?”
“You’ve got to see them,” he sighs. “It will change your life.”
“They’ll be performing in two years.”
“Remember the whole don’t do futures thing?”
“This is one exception you won’t regret making.”
“So if you’re so set on being a magician, why waste your time stealing in bars? Shouldn’t that be your supplemental to Promo-Modeling?” I feel uncomfortable talking about something so close to him so soon.
He looks intensely at me for a second and then responds. “I steal because I’m good at it. Because it’s fun and easy.” A pit of judgment knots in my stomach. “It helps me practice my sleight of hand skills.”
“So you don’t steal for money.” he wavers his head from one side to another. “Did you ever consider, I don’t know, actually practicing performing your sleight of hand skills?”
“Well yeah, but I figured, this way I could kill two birds with one stone.”
“Well, why do you steal? Street corner exchanges?”
“I’m not into that stuff.”
“Because being a temp at some new start up doesn’t pay too well either.” I snap slightly. “I barely scrape by, so yeah, I steal for money.”
“They thought I was edgy and that I would fit in because I also don’t deal bullshit.”
“They got you pinned.”
“They got the person I presented pinned,” I corrected. “Anyway, it’s just temporary. Eventually one of us is going to get bored of the other.”
“So, what else do you like to do?” Jack asked, finishing off his burger.
“I do what every brooding poor person with half an imagination does: I read.”
“Little bit of everything.”
“What’s your favorite book?”
“East of Eden.”
“That’s a good one,” Jack seems sort of impressed.
“That’s why it’s my favorite,” I retort, picking one of the crispier looking fries from the bottom of the basket. It’s cold and more mushy than I would have wanted. I shudder.
“I’m more of a Catcher in the Rye person myself,”
“Of course you are.” He seems the type to idolize Holden Caulfield rather than recognize him as the insane asshole he is.
“And, like, the Lord of the Rings.”
I really shouldn’t be surprised at this point. Instead I ask, “Before or after the movie?”
“Started before, and the movie made me finish it,” he said, picking up his coffee. “You ever read it?”
I snorted, bringing my own coffee to my lips.
“Yes?” he presses.
“Who’s your favorite character?” he asks, placing his cup down so eagerly it rang out against the counter.
“Me too. He’s just like the man, you know?”
I nod as the waitress approaches us with the bill.
“Is that all I can getcha?” she asks, and Jack looks up at her.
“Yeah, thanks a bunch,” he says, reaching into his back pocket and pulling out his wallet. The waitress slid the bill over to him, before heading back away as we sorted out the payment.
Jack’s eyes run over the bill before flicking back up at me. “You’re not going to insist on paying so we’re even and you don’t owe me anything or have any attatchment to me or whatever?” An eyebrow raises.
“I’ll accept it as a gift,” I remark, draining the rest of my coffee down to the bitter grinds that have made it to the bottom of my coffee cup. My face twists involuntarily.
“Oh, sure,” he laughs, slipping a fifty into the holder. “My gift to you, then.” Jack looks up from the table and makes eye contact with the waitress who promptly comes over to take care of the change.
“You have a nice night,” she bids, giving one last smile before leaving.
“Done?” Jack asks, and I nod. He throws the rest of his coffee into the back of his throat, before pushing himself up from the table. I follow suit, and soon the two of us were out the door and back on the street.
“Well, it was nice to know you,” I say, facing him.
“So, this is it?” His voice is casual, as if it’s a genuine question and not a challenge.
“Refer to the list,” I answer.
“No promises or no future?” he asks, and I can’t help but grin as I back away.
“Why can’t it be both?” I call, before turning and heading back to take the long walk home.