At 11:30, I'm waiting for my omelet to arrive and drinking coffee with Sunday at Manatus on Bleecker. Georgia and I used to eat here all the time—it's right around the corner from her old apartment—and I haven't been here in a good five or six years, but it hasn't changed a bit, which makes me happy on one level and wistful on the other. Lives change; places don't. Some of them, anyway. But conversations? Good ones are like meals.
I don't know about you, but my mind operates like an oven with four burners on it and a good-sized microwave within easy reaching distance. Whatever I'm working on now is in the oven, baking away. Every now and then I check in on it, add things to it, baste it, keep it fresh, make sure it doesn’t over cook, make sure that it's going to be as close to perfect as possible when it finally gets put on the plate. Meanwhile, simmering away on the burners, I have from 1 to 4 other ideas, things that I'm heating up or bringing to a boil. The back burners are on the slower heat, because they are going to take the longest to being to a boil, The front burners are higher, with at least one of them on full boil, because I like to work on cooking one thing and preparing another at the same time. And then there's the microwave, which has a mind of its own, and will suddenly DING when a conversation sparks something or when my knight-on-a-chessboard brain moves off at an odd angle or when my magpie mind sees something shiny and snatches it up to feather my mental nest with it. (Did you know that Veronica Lake worked as a bartender at the Naughty Pine back in the early 60's? She was living and tending bar at the Martha Washington Hotel on East 30th, and a Friday night shift opened up at the Pine. She took it for three weeks before quitting in a huff because everybody treated her like a bartender and not Veronica Lake Tending Bar.)
So picture, if you will, Sunday and myself sitting at a side table having a very pleasant, wide-ranging conversation that jumps all over the place; and while you’re at it, picture me with a full kitchen behind me, and every now and then something that Sunday says makes me turn around and stir a pot, open the oven door, or take something out of the microwave. And one of our topics of conversation: the fact that conversation is my greatest inspiration. I’m ten times more creative (at least) when someone is talking to me; good talk is like flint to my stone. In me, the best inspiration is like a musical instrument. It can’t play itself. It needs somebody to fret it. “And oh, how the women in my life fret me,” I say, going for the great pun and the cheap laugh, which is always my verbal downfall.
“Speaking of people who fret you, tell me about Emma Lee,” Sunday says, and I do. It's not much of a story. I tell her about the night I had drinks at the bar with my work-friend Sejal, and the look on Emma Lee's face when I was giving Sejal a shoulder rub. “It could have scraped barnacles off a whale, that look,” I said. That was when I knew she felt more than friendship for me. “And you didn't take advantage of it?” “No.” “And you didn't put a stop to it either.” “No.” “Flattering, huh?” “No, not that at all. I've been wrong about people's affections before. I figure until and unless they actually tell me straight out that there's more going on, then I don’t have the right to assume anything.” “Very wise,” says Sunday, “and also very safe.” Can't argue with that. “So who HAVE you taken advantage of at the Pine?”
And I think, what the hey, I've seen this woman's mother naked, what is there left to be ashamed of? So I tell her about Pakistani Girl (“Sejal?” “God no--Sejal is Indian!”) who got so drunk eight months ago on St Patrick's Day that she invited me back to the place where she was house-sitting on the Lower East Side. Only she was so drunky drunk that she couldn't remember the address. Picture me trying to fend her off in the taxi while I go through the mail in her incredibly packed purse to find a bill with her current address on it. Picture me literally carrying her to the door, and then spending five eternal minutes trying to work the key into the lock, only to realize that she gave me the wrong key ring. Picture her peeling off her dress and dragging me down to the floor while she cheers like a hockey fan. And then picture me doing what Matthew does best: disengaging myself, giving her glass after glass of water, sitting down next to her, putting a blanket over her body, and explaining to her that there is no way anything is going to happen between the two of us tonight because she is way too drunk, and I do not do that. (Mind you, I have done it many times in the past. But I do not do it any more.) And if you can't picture it, then watch The Philadelphia Story, paying particular attention to when Jimmy Stewart says “There are rules about that sort of thing,” and Katharine Hepburn sighs “I think men are wonderful.” Paki Girl did no such sighing. After the fifth glass of water, she passed out, I put her to bed, spooned with her for three hours till my watch alarm went off, and I got up, showered, got dressed in my drinking clothes, and headed for work. I called her that afternoon, and just as I figured, she had no memory of anything past the point where we were in the cab. “But now I think she was lying,” I say. Randi asks me why. “Because she hasn't been in the Pine since.”
Sunday asks about other staff/random hookups at the bar. I know of a couple, but I tell her “I have enough trouble remembering my own indiscretions,” and ask about her and Randi. I tell her my play idea. She liked it, but says my original idea was better, that the guy should be the homme fatale, getting two women who are fighting with each other to become friends. I say that if it's in a corporate setting, then the people in charge WANT women to be fighting with each other, because that means they will never become allies to fight against the male power structure which supports corporate America. “Women can fight all the time with each other. They prefer it. Men, on the other hand.” She gets my point. Then she asks me if I'm seeing anyone.
SUNDAY: Don’t you have any active girlfriends?
ME: No, they’re all exes. Or whys.
SUNDAY: You need somebody who says why not.
ME: (deliberately misquoting Shaw’s Back To Methuselah) I see women; I say, “Why?” But you dream women that never were; and you say “Why not?”
SUNDAY: Well, if you’re going to throw SHAW at me . . .
ME: Who ARE you?
She looks at me for a moment, and I can feel one of those Sunday moments coming up, the ones that are going to take me off-guard. “I think you and Randi should hook up,” she says. I immediately go for the joke again. “I think YOU and Randi should hook up,” and Sunday laughs and says, “Martin would love that.” “Especially if Amanda was part of it,” I say. “As long as Dominic isn’t part of it,” Sunday says, and we toast the final end—and not the temporary end— of Dominic and Randi.
ME: So who's replacing Dominic?
SUNDAY: I think Randi has somebody in mind.
ME: Anybody I know?
SUNDAY: That depends. How are you at self-knowledge?
It takes me a good five seconds before I get it. Second 1: wait, what? Second 2: Did she just say what I think she said? Second 3: that's a brilliant line, I have to write that down and use it somewhere. Second 4: is she talking about ME? Second 5: she means ME. Second 6: I'M Dominic's replacement? I don't fucking replace ANYBODY! (Okay, that last one, no. But the first five? Yes.)
I pride myself on noticing things, so it really brings me up short when I realize how blind I am. I mean, I’m well aware of how I read as Everyone’s Neutered Straight Male Friend; I complain about it all the time. But I also play into it. Because it’s safe. And it feeds the Complainer in me. So it takes me a while, sometimes, to actually notice when someone likes me more than a friend. I know Kerry Anne does, and I know Emma Lee REALLY likes me that way, but that's been the extent of it. It’s like I’m programmed not to notice it, so until it’s pointed out (and even then), I’m totally oblivious. If someone is indeed sending me passion signals, it sure ain’t happening at my signals bar.
“So when did all THIS start?” I ask Sunday, and she smiles and says two words: “Two weeks.” And I remember the moment exactly. Because right after it happened, I wrote it all down and put it into the play I'm writing. It was a Sunday afternoon about a year and a half ago. Randi and Dominic were in one of their break-ups, and Randi had just had a Saturday night date. She wasn’t working that day, but she came in for a whiskey, saw me at the bar, sat next to me, raised her glass in a toast, and said:
ME: So how'd it go last night?
RANDI: I don't know; tell me what you think this means. When he left, what he said at the door was, “I had a really faboo time tonight.” Not just a faboo time--a really faboo time. And I said: “Yeah--me too.” And then he gives me a tongue kiss and he says “I'll call you tomorrow,” his exact words. “I'll call you tomorrow.” Which is today. So that means he's gonna call me today, right?
RANDI: Why not?--I think he really likes me.
ME: Well, if he really likes you, he'll call in two weeks.
RANDI: Two weeks?!?
ME: When a guy says he'll call you tomorrow, you gotta give him two weeks. Why? Because that's a guy's idea of tomorrow. Look. You met him last night. He's not gonna call you today, nobody calls the morning after a first date, unless he's a total loser, or extremely neurotic. Either way, you don't need him. Tomorrow he'll actually pick up the phone at work and start dialing your number, and then he'll stop. Oh God--I didn't call her yesterday; that means she's waiting for me to call her today—I can't call her today, she's expecting it. Besides, it's Friday night, she's probably out on a date, I'll call her tomorrow. That brings us to the weekend. Saturday's out because she went out last night, she's probably not alone, why am I calling her when she's seeing someone else--what am I, stupid? And if I call her Sunday night, then she'll wonder why I didn't call her all weekend--what did I, break my fingers or something? Monday I'm in work, and I say okay, I'll clean off my desk, call after lunch; it gets busy after lunch, I put it off, I'll call tonight. Monday night I say to myself, Jesus, it's been what, five days since I saw her? If I call her now she's gonna hang up on me, I should have called her last night, I call her now she's gonna think I'm a real jerk. And I can't call her tomorrow night, she's gonna need a day to cool off, I'll do it Wednesday, Wednesday's a week, I'll apologize, maybe I'll ask her out for Friday. Wednesday morning comes around and it's oh my God, I can't call her for a Friday night date on a Wednesday, I should have called her Tuesday, now she's already got a date, or even if she doesn't she's gonna say she does, because I should have called earlier. That's the first week. The second week is a piece of cake--I mean it's been a week, and nothing's happened, we haven't even seen each other again, so obviously I couldn't have had as good a time as I thought I did--and she didn't either, I mean she hasn't called me, right? The next four to six days, depending on Mr. Right's maturity level, are spent in wiping his memory clean of the last week. The great male gift of amnesia therapy. The lobotomy of love. He forgets everything--promising to call, thinking about calling, not calling--everything. Out of sight, out of mind--and of course he figures it's out of yours, too. Which is why approximately two weeks after your date, there he'll be on the other end of the phone like an old friend, saying, “Hey, how've you been--listen, you free tonight?” Two weeks.
RANDI: So what should I do when he calls?
ME: Be patient with him; he has no idea what he's doing.
RANDI: Oh come on—he doesn't know what he's doing? Making me wait two weeks till he calls back? He knows exactly what he's doing—he's putting me in my place.
After brunch, we part at the door. “So when’s your next shift?” I ask and Sunday gives me a sheepish smile. “I don’t have one,” she says in a little girl voice, and after I do an “Uncle Tonoose!” spit take, “You QUIT?” I cry, and she has this look on her face like, “Please don’t hate me,” and I just wrap her up in a big Matthew hug and say “Good for you; good for you.” We end up standing in front of the restaurant for the next 20 minutes while she talks about it—how hard a decision it was; how being behind a bar while she was no longer drinking was something she thought she could handle, but can’t; how Richie was pissed more about the fact that he hadn’t finished her letter of recommendation yet, so he’d have it for her at the Farewell Party; how she’s going to miss the people. “Thank God I’m a statistic and not people,” I say, getting a laugh out of her, and we hug again. I ask her who else knows; she says “Well, I only told Jynah, so—everyone.” Which gets a huge laugh out of me.
We hug again, this time as a goodbye. “You can't tell Randi what I told you,” Sunday says. I nod. “Don’t worry,” I say, “I won’t,” thinking of Randi saying “The guy or the Guinness?” and me saying “What do you want it to be?” “So how do you feel about her?” Sunday asks, and I tell her the truth. “I think she’s amazing. She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s pretty; but she only likes guys who are bad for her, and she has this big chip on her shoulder.”
And Sunday says: “So knock it off, Wells. Knock it off.”
Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells