Episode 3 — The Sweaty Dandy
José Miguel López
James, the Lobster Man
The Looney Tunes voice in the speakers was advising passengers to stay away from the closing doors as Liz arrived running at the top of the stairs. She sprinted across the platform trying to make it through the narrowing gap, but the doors shut inches away from her face. Another twelve minutes went by before a new train arrived. It was 5:38 PM.
As she went underground and the windows became double mirrors, Liz thought of the workers boring a hole through the granite underneath the concrete wall of the tunnel, precisely as the lines in the Poetry in Motion poster suggested her to do. But the dark circles around her eyes kept pulling her back to her own reflection. Hoping to escape from that double stare, irritating as a high-pitched feedback, she tried focusing her attention on her silver Doc Martens below. Soon her boots too were rewording the same question she had tried to avoid every time her image became clearer on the train window. Was she in disguise, dressed up as someone she no longer was? Again she pictured those heroic workers, in real working boots, boring that same tunnel that was taking her nowhere.
Back home, just over half an hour ago, she’d welcomed getting back in her old black jeans after almost two years and a double pregnancy as a small, surprising triumph. Her old silver boots, bearing the scars of nights past, way back in the depths of the closet, were the inevitable pairing. Even if they felt like someone else’s shoes at first, her feet found themselves right at home after a few steps around the house. More importantly, she did like what she saw in the dresser mirror. As she went out the door, even Milo complimented her with a silly comment about her not looking the legal age to serve alcohol.
Feeling pretty confident about the way she looked, Liz walked down 23rd Ave towards 21st Street. It was finally sunny after a long train of miserably wet days and the tint on her shades made everything look softer and more gentle.
Just as a surge of optimism quickened her pace, she spotted the bouncing figure of Jose Miguel López, her next-door neighbor, materializing on the corner directly in front of her. She quickly thought about maneuvering out of this unwanted greeting situation, but there were no stores on either side of the street to take refuge in. There’s no way out, she thought with dismay. He was already lifting his right arm like fucking Columbo, making sure she didn’t miss him.
Lees!, he yelled still half a block away from her. Where are yoo heading so cheerfuly?
She made an effort to be polite, not quite stopping but slowing down and smiling a half-smile as soon as he was close enough. He somehow managed to stop her in her tracks to hug her and kiss her as if they were close relatives who hadn’t seen each other in years. Pointing at his naked wrist after freeing herself from the embrace, Liz explained she was heading to work.
Yoo steel working at the Odessa?, he asked ignoring the not-so-subtle gesture. Instead of letting her answer—this was one habit of his she found particularly annoying—he shot another question:
When are yoo finally going to open your own bar, Lees?
If it were anyone else, she might have shrugged and marched away, alleging business, but he had a way of tapping her shoulder as a sort of physical punctuation that made escape rather difficult. It occurred to Liz that he really would have made a good cop, no matter how hard he tried to come across as the shaman/therapist type.
That name is SOO good. Yoo know I would be your most loyal customer, he added.
I’m sure you would, you freaking charming sponge, Liz thought about saying.
One of these days, José. One of these days, she replied instead, flashing a big mouth-and-teeth-only smile before turning around.
No, I will not fucking forget to say hi to Milo, she mentally replied as she stomped away from his neighbor’s fading-out voice. Just like I won’t forget to ask him again what in hell is that he sees in you.
By now her mood had irreversibly switched. Liz was the first to admit the irrational, almost magnetic repulsion she felt against López, but there were also real reasons behind her dislike. For example, she hated the fact that the Venezuelan blabber, as she liked to call him, seemed to know and remember every minute detail about their lives — case in point, his questioning about her own bar, something she might have mentioned once ages ago, when she and Milo first moved to the building.
It was true that Milo did like Jose Miguel quite a bit, and that didn’t make things any easier. Liz could only guess that geeky dudes were just naturally inclined to like each other. That—the geek gene—is not what bothered Liz. If anything, she had always had a soft spot for nerdy guys. She just couldn’t trust this particular one. Not only did she think he was nosy, but also sneaky, and maybe even a bit of sleaze.
Only a few nights ago she caught him peeping at her from his kitchen window late at night, while she was having a cigarette on the fire escape with nothing on but an oversized t-shirt. She literally felt his gaze on her ass as she put her cigarette out against the metal rail. Of course he pretended he wasn’t even aware of her presence when she looked in his direction and saw him standing there on his blue robe. Not that she thought that a guy seizing the opportunity to check her—or anybody’s—ass out was such big deal. It wasn’t, even if the guy was married—to Ana, a Spaniard she actually liked, even though they weren’t nearly as close as Milo and José Miguel were—and had a child a few years older than the twins. But it did irritate her, mostly because he had also caught her indulging in a clandestine habit of her own.
The fact of the matter is that Liz had always felt there was something odd about the way he looked at her, as if trying real hard to figure her out. His annoying questioning seemed to stem from a desire to analyze and second-guess her, rather than from genuine interest or even politeness. Perhaps not knowing the reason behind the level of curiosity he showed toward her and her family was what made her so uncomfortable around him. What was his fucking agenda anyway? She really had no clue, but she didn’t buy the idea that it was just a cultural thing, which was Milo’s way of explaining away everything that was wrong with him.
When are you going to publish your own fucking book, José?
Good comebacks are always late, Liz thought as she went through the turnstile and stepped out onto the sidewalk. She’d been mentally destroying her neighbor for about 14 subway stations. That’s about seven miles of hate, and she wasn’t even done. Maybe Lopez’s inability to get anything published made him snoop around the way she was sure he did. She overheard him one evening complaining to Milo about his lack of fortune as a writer; at the height of his third or fourth Modelo he even confessed he was ready to relinquish, even though moments later he seemed to be detailing a new plot to Milo. It made sense to Liz that not being able to weave an effective fictional net to catch enough gullible readers, he decided to mess up other people’s lives. Liz had only to look at how the brief exchange with the Venezuelan babbler had flipped around what had started out as a beautiful evening. Instead of a relatively new mom in her mid-thirties, still looking hot in the clothes she wore when she was in her twenties, she felt like a woman in denial, wrapped in her past, dressed up as the single girl who dreamt of The Sweaty Dandy.
Liz turned on First Ave to avoid walking in front of the nail salon façade where she once pictured the blue neon letters spelling the name of her dream pub. She came up with the idea now close to seven years ago, one summer night after a gig with The Fossa’s Baculum, in a steamy little club in Providence, RI.
Guess what, she said, looking at vocalist’s Ronnie Quintana’s shirt, I have just found the perfect name for my future pub.
She was only half joking.
Liz had been working the bar at the Odessa Saturdays and Sundays for about a year, and had also recently started pouring mugs on weekdays at the Beer Garden, in Astoria. Despite having always thought of herself as a misanthropist, or whatever is opposite to gregarious, she was sure to be the right fit for the job. Unlike playing the bass for the Fossa’s, bartending actually paid money, allowing her to postpone, with luck indefinitely, having to accept the death of her musical ambitions. The idea of generating a small cash flow without officially capitulating helped her give shape to the idea of owning a bar. Now that she had a name, she could transform the idea into a concrete project.
Available spaces don’t come easy in NYC, even back then, but as luck would have it, Ronnie’s father, Israel Quintana, owned a bodega in a prime location on Avenue A. The old man was way past retiring age, but hated the idea of parting with his old store. When he heard about Ronnie and Liz’s business proposal, Mr. Quintana agreed to lease them the propriety at a low rate as long as they had all the permits and renovation plans in place. That way he could keep the property, happy to see Ronnie and his friend take over and run the new business.
The two friends set to work on it almost immediately. A formal business proposal was written, tons of paperwork was processed, sketches were sketched and contractors contacted. But because luck is a two-faced bitch, people die all the time, and that’s what Mr. Israel Quintana did as a result of a CVA, eight months after hearing about The Sweaty Dandy for the first time, two months after closing his bodega and one day before Liz and Ronnie got the final approval for the loan.
A few months after the death of her husband, Ms. Quintana, who accepted but could never approve of Ronnie’s being gay, sold the space to a real estate management company that nearly tripled the rent. Liz thought about trying to prevent it by faking a marriage with Ronnie, but seeing how devastated he was after losing his father, she lost the courage to even mention it. Shortly after, Ronnie moved to New Orleans. The Fossa’s musicians followed soon later. Last she heard, they were putting together their third album.
By the time Liz had finished internally recapping the loss of The Sweaty Dandy, she was already half a block from the Odessa. It took her about ten blocks. That was hardly a mile of nostalgia. With still a few minutes to go before her shift, she decided to go across Avenue A into Tompkins Square—she had just enough time for a bittersweet-ending cigarette in the park.
She felt a sense of relief. The timing of Milo’s insertion in her life had been fate’s consolation prize. Hearing the distant cries of the children in the playground, she suddenly missed the twins. That’s what she got instead of a pub, and it was okay to miss some of the things she lost along the way to have what she now had.
She suddenly felt a little crappy about that poor Venezuelan bastard. Shouldn’t she be thankful to him for this little moment of insight?
Nah. Fuck him.
Comforted by this thought, she surrendered to that unique rush of nicotine that only the first cigarette of the day can provide. It was a perfect evening. The sound of drums floated in the air, subtly Puerto Rican. Above, on a tree branch, she spotted a black squirrel, just like the one in the map of Mirkwood in Milo’s room, back when they were dating.
The glossy tights of a running woman pushing a sports stroller caught her attention. Her form was flawless. The precise mechanics of her legs in motion started to pump the deflated memory into shape. Before she could realize what was happening, she felt the blood rushing to her cheeks. The dream, vague, could have been a response to catching Milo doing what he was about to do when she walked in the kitchen. There were hardly any images, only a buzz and a button, the feeling of a hand breaching the elastic border of her pajama bottoms.
There was also laughter, soft and joyful laughter that matched the same gurgling sound recorded on the earliest pages of her pubic history. She woke up in the middle of the night before she could come. One of the few concrete images she could recall was her face. Liz had already recognized it once before, a while ago, on a roadside ad on the BQE, but so far as she could tell, this was the first time she had seen it in a dream. Horny but too tired to do anything about it she went back to sleep, hoping in vain to slip back into that same dream.
Liz put out her cigarette and waved the last traces of smoke away from her face. Funny the way memories pop up in dreams, she thought, as she rushed back to the Odessa to begin her shift, only partially aware that luck is a two-faced bitch and that coincidence is its favorite amusement:
Back in Astoria, with the twins finally in bed, Milo at last reaches the climax he was forced to postpone the night before. His ecstatic expression is bathed by the bluish light of a screen filled with the same fair features that Liz remembered seeing in her dream, those of the lovely meteorologist Loretta Cassey.
Love does come in spurts, thinks Milo, as he runs to the bathroom to get a towel. Little does he know that the seeds of his little obsession—easy to call it little after an orgasm— were planted long ago in Liz’s head, and their seedlings were already growing tall and strong.