My life was drenched in a whisky colored miasma for those two years. I lived like a frat boy with no brothers or chapter house. Alone, I was dependent on the charitable contribution Jim Beam made to my life. The guys at the fire department had affectionately nicknamed my home ‘The Ice Shack’ due to its compact size. It was bigger than a dorm room, but smaller than most city studio apartments. Little did they know it was kept at a brisk forty degrees, just like those shanties precariously positioned atop the ice covered river during those frigid winter months. Only a few gallons of heating oil in the tank and no money or credit to purchase fuel, I used the heat sparsely, conserving what little heat I had for those below zero days. Somehow though, I always found money for the bar.
A serene comfort came over me when I was belly up against the smooth reflective surface of an oak slab. I was surrounded by company, yet alone with strangers. All the while the room buzzed with a sexual excitement of drunken promises, voided the next morning by sober minds in unfamiliar beds. The bar was a single room. A dark space with neon signs advertising cheap beer, endowing the space with strip club mood lighting. In the corner, a jukebox belted out a mix of country music and eighties hair bands. Its bright, vibrant colors changed like a chameleon morphing from one electric sensation to the next. As some jackass dropped his quarters into the jukebox, Sublime played Santeria for the fifth time that night, and much to my chagrin, would repeat this song many more times before last call.
It was a brutal winter that year, the mercury dipping far below any level of human comfort. Ice built up layer upon layer as icicles grew off roofs like they were stalactites hanging in caverns deep beneath the earth. Snow piled high on the ground in humpbacks along the streets’ gutters, encasing yards behind frigid prison walls, trapping all of us in our own homes.
The earth took on a perpetual wan, like a grey cellophane had been wrapped across all surfaces. The sky seemed to swallow all signs of sun and blue sky, with roiling clouds looming overhead, blocking even the stars and moon in the frostbitten nights. The world was blanketed in a pall with no end in sight, as the winter months endlessly stretched on.
Ice clinked against the glass as I swirled the drink around, watching the effervescent amber liquid dance, bubble, and froth. The thin, yellowed lime, hung limply in my bourbon and ginger like a pig’s fetus suspended in formaldehyde – the kind stored on the shelf of some science lab – collecting dust as nothing more than a curio for students to gawk at, the true intended purpose of that curiosity having been forgotten long ago. The bar had a chill to it, but warmth exuded from the bodies pressed up against me, as person upon person forced their way through the crowd to stand next to me, just to order their drink at the bar. Arms and hips, legs and ribs. With each brush against my body, I felt warmed, felt wanted and loved in some deranged way. I enjoyed the stranger’s touch. I imagined it was someone who wanted me, someone who craved my flesh as I craved another’s. Solace for my tortured soul. It wasn’t about love, or even sex, but about filling a void that was not left in me, but torn in me. Desperation allows you to make a lot of foolish decisions, and many lead to regrets.
When I first saw her, I wasn’t sure what to think. It was as if she had walked into a zoo and went on a killing spree. After this murderous rampage, she had skinned each animal with meticulous care, and worn her prizes home, all different parts of her outfit. Her body was a menagerie of ungulates, snakes, and exotic cats, clinging to every hip curve and smooth line of breast like printed cellophane wrapped over her body. The pink cosmopolitan in her hand was phosphorous in the neon light of a Budweiser sign dangling haphazardly on the wall behind her. As she stood next to me at the bar, her hip pushed into my side, swaying with the rhythm of the music.
Winking at the bartender, she raised her half filled glass. Within a few seconds he retrieved a fresh one, like a doting labrador fetching her a duck thunderously plucked from the sky. Blowing him a kiss, she turned in my direction, and then to my surprise, introduced herself.
Stephanie. Her name was Stephanie.
“You two dating?” I asked.
“You, and Steve. The Bartender.”
“No. I’m not dating anyone. My last boyfriend broke up with me. Left me. Fuck him. Better off without him. And why would you think I’m dating Steve?”
“He came at your beckon call. You blew him a kiss.”
“Men like me, and I like men. Steve is a nice guy, but I require something more from my men.”
We continued our conversation, yelling over the din of drunken jukebox selections and the cacophony of voices which fused into one loud indiscernible yawp. Her thoughts were vapid, and I learned all about her most recent relationship in just under five minutes.
“He was so cruel. I mean, all I wanted was animal print. You know. I just wanted to decorate my apartment the way I wanted to. Is that too much to ask? He laughed at me. The asshole. The smug prick. He said, no way would he ever let his home be all animal print. That’s what I wanted, I should get it. I deserve it.”
“Animal print, huh?”
I gave her a quick once over – about as subtle as an elephant through a jungle. Her clothes screamed of 1980s hooker from ‘Da Bronx,’ complete with fake nails extending like talons from her fingertips. I had noticed this all before, but now I really focused on it, and began to scrutinize her outfit. Her shirt was a babydoll tee adorned with black tiger stripes slashing across shiny silver material. It was reminiscent of a ball of crumpled tinfoil that she had then unfolded, straightened out, and coaxed into the shape of a shirt. Pants of an unknown material clung to her legs like tights, purple with black boa constrictor print. It was as if two large amazonian reptiles had swallowed her legs, and died there, wasting to lividity and then decomposing there. Thin stilettos, adding a few inches to her already tall frame, were black and white zebra, as if there wasn’t enough exotic fauna already. To complete this ensemble, her cellphone was cased in leopard print, her clutch, cheetah. She was a walking exhibit at a zoo, a carnival freak show, the Wild Woman from Borneo.
Her flesh was orange, overly tanned, a strange irradiated yellow glow in the blacklight glow of neon bar signs. Her hair was pulled back tight, her forehead freckled over with dark spots of bronze against the yellowed skin.
Bourbon altered my perception. Impaired judgement. Let loose lips fly freely, with nary a second thought.
“If I was dating you, I would shower gifts upon you like you were my princess.”
“That’s my nickname!”
A mind muddled in the fog of whisky doesn’t always react the way it should when sober minds prevail. Desperation is an ugly beast.
“If you were my girlfriend, I would call you princess. I would treat you like royalty. You could decorate the apartment head to toe in animal print if your heart so desired, and I wouldn’t say anything against it.”
She beamed. Her face lit up. A smile consumed her face.
In the background, White Snake played on the jukebox and Tawny Kitaen writhed and undulated on the hood of a white Jaguar.
Stephanie left for the restroom, leaving her phone and clutch on the bar like two hides left out to tan in the warm sun.
He appeared in her seat instantly, as if conjured up from some unseen dark corner. Black, small dreadlocks cascaded down his shoulders, like the tentacles of an octopus. His dark skin was like the softest cocoa, and he had a grin like the Cheshire Cat, consuming most of his face in a devious way. Before I could speak, he took the opportunity.
Leaning in to my ear, he whispered a yell through the din of the night’s revelries.
“Buy me a drink, and I’ll tell you a secret about her. About Stephanie. Trust me, you won’t regret it.”
I pulled away, and looked in his eyes. His cheeks scrunched up with his prodigious smile. He gave his boyfriend a conciliatory pat on the hip, as he tugged at his shirt, trying to get his attention.
“Ok, I’ll Bite. Steve, get this man what he wants. On my tab.”
He raised the green drink in front of him, an apple martini no doubt, and pointed at the unnatural green color floating in the glass. Turning to me, he raised his index finger, and hooked it to bring me closer, as if I were a fish on a hook and he were reeling me in.
I leaned in, and he whispered softly. Slowly. Deliberately. So that every word sunk in.
“You are going to get fucked tonight. Trust me.”
Stephanie threw her arms around this stranger, just as he finished speaking these words to me, who, like a prognosticator of nightly proclivities, held such foresight and knowledge. She screamed his name and shook up and down in excitement as they embraced. “Francis!”
As they hugged, he winked at me over her shoulder.
Turning to Steve, I yelled across the bar.
“Hey, Steve! Make that two drinks, on me.”
Nights become fuzzy memories surrounded by a haze of liquor. The alcohol we imbibe allow us to live in the moment with forgetful pleasure. I awoke the next morning with her gone. My princess having disappeared, fled like Cinderella before the clock struck an hour of metamorphosis, as early mornings have that effect. Across my back were the scratches and dried blood from some animal with claws that cut deep through my skin. On the back of my hand were purple looping letters, ‘Call me,’ and the numbers were wrinkled in my palm, as I unfolded my hand.
The hot shower steamed excessively against the chill of the house. Looking in the mirror dark bags hung loosely under bloodshot eyes, an accumulation of all the late nights.
I watched as that ghastly image disappeared in the rolling steam that consumed the glass.
As I stepped into the shower, water cascaded down my head, and my skin relaxed against its warmth. As a frothy foam smoothed over my body, the telltale signs of the night began to disappear, fading into a distant memory. With each swipe of that ivory bar, a little bit of ink vanished. A singular event, a night so easily erased by soap and water.