Tuesday, 11/7/06, 2AM. You do not find Chapel Perilous; it finds you. You do not leave Chapel Perilous; it abandons you. You do not enter Chapel Perilous; like Love, you only discover that you are there once you look behind you and realize that you have crossed the dividing line between where you were then and where you are now. How do you recognize that you have crossed the line? Simple. Things you look for come to you. Reference books fall from your hand and open to the page you have been seeking. A project you are working on, the details of which you have never shared with a living soul, is the topic of an overheard express train conversation. You think of someone you haven’t heard from in ages; five minutes later, you bump into her on the street, even though she lives three states away. You are in Chapel Perilous—the command post of reality, where the words “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction” are etched into the wall over the Control Panel, because that’s exactly what happens when you are in this place. The worst kind of improbable fiction. It’s like the Flitcraft story in Maltese Falcon, where a near-death experience makes Flitcraft feel “like somebody has taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.” And in those works, in Chapel Perilous, every chance occurrence is part of an implicate order in which everything fits together so well and completely that it either means that you’re losing your mind, or it means that the Universe is suddenly and totally interested in YOU, and has a vested interest in leading you by the hand to a revelation of something so unimaginable that it will undermine your faith in daily life. Chapel Perilous is a window into the world beyond the Matrix. It is like Fairyland—if you eat anything while you’re there, if you digest a single ounce of what it gives you, then you’re trapped inside forever. It is like luck—it comes and goes at a time of its own choosing, and the only thing you can rely on is that it will disappear the moment you count on it working in your favor. And it is like destiny, because luck and happenstance have nothing to do with it. Everything is meant. Everything has an echo. When you are in Chapel Perilous, the Abyss not only looks back at you, it cashes all your checks. When you are in Chapel Perilous, you are the main character in God’s novel. When you are in Chapel Perilous, everything happens for a reason.
Back when I was drinking Bass Ale, during the Punic Wars, I was sitting to the right of the taps one night at the upstairs Naughty Pine, writing in my notebook, vaguely aware of a silver-haired bearded guy counseling an attractive blonde woman in the northwest corner of the bar. They were sitting next to the jukebox. When it started playing “Tempted” by Squeeze, the woman laughed with such despair that it was like hearing a dream choke to death. She was not having an easy time of it. I couldn’t hear the details of their conversation, but I could get the feel of it, having been in hundreds of the same type: A is laying out the options, and B is saying “Yes, but,” which can be anything from “Yes, but I love him” to “Yes, but it’s not up to me” to “Yes, but what else can I do?” Which means she wants sympathy, and not advice.
MATTHEW’S FIRST RULE OF FRIENDSHIP: Always ask this question: “Do they want advice, or sympathy?” And remember that the ones who want advice will always accept your sympathy, but the ones who want your sympathy will never forgive you for giving them advice.
MATTHEW’S SECOND RULE OF FRIENDSHIP: Never break the First Rule.
I was in the Scribble Zone, so I don’t remember seeing the guy leave; the next thing I knew, Dave was tapping on my notebook. He had poured me a new pint and set it down next to the blonde. When I looked up at him, he said: “Her name is Ava. Go talk to her; she likes comic books.” And that is how I met one of my closest friends on the planet. I took my notebook over with me, introduced myself, and five minutes later, a voice inside me said “Ah—HERE you are; do you know how long I’ve been waiting for you to show up in my life?” (Ava’s version: “Five minutes after we started talking, I said to myself, ‘I think I’ll keep him.’”) and six minutes after we started talking? We were talking about Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49, Foucault’s Pendulum andThe Illuminati Trilogy, Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol (“Bona ta vada, Danny the Street!”) and Warren Ellis’ Planetary (“It’s a strange world.” “Let’s keep it that way.”). And Chapel Perilous. That night was not the first time that I had ever felt like a puzzle piece which Life had suddenly picked up and snapped down perfectly against a complete stranger, but it remains the only time in my life when so many of the odd curves and indentations in my weirdly-shaped piece have fit against the curves and indentations of someone else’s. Which is a Chapel Perilous thing, when two complete strangers can become the Power Twins. (“Form of a green card!”) (Heh—as if; right, Ava?) It has nothing to do with sex or romance; it has everything to do with two people meeting on Soulmate Street because they were already united in the Church Of Chance.
Now. I told you that story to tell you this one.
The title of this one is: How Matthew Met Dolores. This is back in the Good Old Days, when you took your life in your hands to walk east of Avenue A, when Pizzeria Uno’s on Third Avenue was my local, and when Bill E was my Dave. Picture it if you can. I am sitting at the bar next to my bar-friend Ben. I have a silver loop in my left ear. My hair is down to my shoulders. It is dyed blonde. (I know; I know.) I am wearing a necklace with a yin-yang medallion. I am watching the Knicks in the playoffs, which tells you how long ago this was, and behind me and to my left is this woman with short white-blonde hair, this woman in a suit, nursing a drink and lighting a cigarette. She looks like a cross between Annie Lennox and The Thin White Duke. She looks hot, and I like to think I do too, but I don’t, because no matter how many times I write the word DESIRABLE, everyone in the world reads it as SAFE. So when a seat at the bar opens up?
[Dolores sidles up to the bar.]
DOLORES: Mind if I smoke?
[Matthew pulls out a lighter and lights up her cigarette. She offers him one.]
MATTHEW: I quit.
DOLORES: But you still carry around a lighter.
MATTHEW: Most of my friends smoke.
DOLORES: How long have you quit?
MATTHEW: This time? Two years. Since my mother died of lung cancer. I smoked up until the day of her funeral, and I haven’t touched one since.
DOLORES: How old was she?
DOLORES: That’s young.
MATTHEW: I can’t even imagine forty, never mind fifty-seven. What do you want to be when you’re fifty-seven?
DOLORES: I want to have at least one Tony Award and a small film career to support my theatre habit.
MATTHEW: You’re an actress. What restaurant?
DOLORES: Actually I do temp at a law firm.
MATTHEW: I do nine to five at Smith Barney and write plays in my spare time.
DOLORES: Shouldn’t that be the other way around?
MATTHEW: I wish.
DOLORES: No really –- if you say you work at Smith Barney, that’s how you think of yourself. You should always describe yourself by what you want to be, not what you have to be. So what do you want to be when you’re fifty-seven?
DOLORES: Here’s to your mother.
MATTHEW: My mother.
DOLORES: So are you working on anything?
MATTHEW: Always. A play about Giordano Bruno, a play about Aaron Burr, a comedy about subatomic physics. You?
DOLORES: Nothing right now. I just moved here—I’ve been acting in DC, I was at the Folger for two years. My big thing was I did Helen in Troilus and Cressida.
MATTHEW: The one with Dan Southern as Hector? I saw that! I was down in DC for a work thing and caught the Sunday matinee.
DOLORES: You know Southern?
MATTHEW: He directed a farce I wrote. “Etched In Stone.”
DOLORES: Wow. Small world.
MATTHEW: [TOASTING] Small world. So what’s an actress from DC doing in a Third Avenue bar?
DOLORES: I live here now, and I’m meeting someone, we’re going dancing at Webster Hall. But it doesn’t look like he’s coming. You like to dance?
MATTHEW: I love to dance.
DOLORES: But you’re here to watch the game.
MATTHEW: It’s just a game.
DOLORES: That’s the way I feel. I mean don’t get me wrong, I like tall guys in shorts; but I like short guys in tight jeans a lot better.
MATTHEW: [To Bill the Bartender] Check!
End of play, beginning of relationship: boy meets girl, boy goes nuts over girl, girl sings “Under My Thumb” until she gets tired of it all, and then sings “Start Me Up” to anything in pants. Or in other words: Shit—It’s Nothing But Another Disaster.
The Siege Perilous
”Was it really that much of a disaster?” Dolores asks. We’ve just acted out our first meeting, to the delight of Ned and the Professor, and the increasingly mind-boggled astonishment of Sunday. “My end of it was,” I say, “but you got her out of it,” and I point to Sunday. ‘I thought you said her name was Laura.” Dolores explains that her daughter started going by her middle name when she turned 14 “because her name sounded too much like my name,” and Sunday mutters, “I’m right here at the table mother,” and then goes, “Wait—you guys are still in touch?” “Oh yes,” says Dolores. “This is my writer friend I’m always talking about.” “THIS IS YOUR WRITER FRIEND?!?” Sunday cries. “But you said he was famous!” The sting of that is salved and more when Dolores replies, “He is to me.” “I’m paying for dinner,” I say. “You better be,” Dolores replies, and Sunday cries “YOU’RE HAVING DINNER?!?” like she’s going to be the laughingstock of Bartender High School because her mom is suddenly dating one of her barflies. “Oh please,” Dolores says, “we’ve been fucking friends since Reagan was President.” “And vice versa,” I say. Only Ned laughs at it, but Sunday gets it. She stands up and says, with charming incoherence: “This is all. I just. Wow. Fuck me.” She points at me. “We,” she says, “need to talk.” She kisses the top of her mother’s head. “You,” she says, “I’ll call tomorrow. Ned. Professor.” And she’s gone. Dolores has the decency to wait until the door closes behind her to turn on me like a prosecuting attorney and demand: “Just tell me you haven’t tried to sleep with her.” I look at her with all the condescension of a non-smoker to someone who has a two-pack-a-day habit. “I am a regular,” I declare. “I don’t do that shit.” I let that sink in, and then I add: “Of course, if I was WORKING with her?” And Dolores whacks me over the head with her purse while Ned and the Professor crack up.
She was Liora when I knew her in the 80’s—it was her acting name. “Dolores sounds like your maiden aunt,” she used to say, using two words that would never be in anyone’s dictionary when describing her. But I call her Dolores when, after the Professor has passed out and Ned has headed off to his crash pad, I walk her up to the Chelsea Hotel. She tells me she hasn’t had a drink since New Year’s Eve 2001. She tells me Sunday never misses a chance to bring up her drinking even though she’s still sober, “which is like somebody poking a stick in a wound so it won’t heal. But I don’t blame her.” She tells me she’s spent the last five years correcting the lies and stories she told her daughter, which has only made her daughter disbelieve everything she’s saying now, never mind everything she ever said in the past. I ask her about Max. She tells me he’s on his third wife. “And he’s on her all the time. I’ve seen pictures of her. She’s gorgeous. But he’ll toss her away when she hits her sell-by-date. That’s what he does.” I ask about Mark. “He’s in Austin now; I see him all the time. He’ll play with this group and that group, and now and then he gets a job with someone and goes on tour.” And does Sunday know about all of us? Dolores shakes her head. I don’t blame her. It was me, Max and Mark back then. The joke was that Liora only dated guys whose names began with an M, because that way, no matter who she woke up next to, all she had to do was hum and make a vowel sound and she’d get the name right.
But it was no joke when Max asked her to marry him and she said yes. I know Mark asked her; and I asked her twice. All three times she said no, very nicely, and then added something consoling and teasingly hopeful by saying “But if things were different,” which are the five cruelest words in the language, because if you want them to be different then you’ll make them different—and if you don’t want them to be different, then you shouldn’t fucking bring it up, because all it does is keep a door open when it should be nailed shut and boarded up. But that’s Liora. Always keeping the door open, no matter what.
I can feel my stomach wrenching into a knot with anger and hurt that still hasn’t died in twenty years—Jesus, I think, what’s been feeding it all this time? Besides, y’know, the fact that I still haven’t gotten over this woman—and I have the overpowering urge to ask her if she wants a nightcap, because that’s what we always did back when we were together, we’d have that one last drink that would tip us over the edge, or give us permission to say “Forget the consequences,” and down we’d go into the fuck-like-a-rabbit hole that was our war and peace, our joy and anger.
But that was Liora, not Dolores. So instead of asking her to blow her five years of sobriety on a Manhattan with me, I ask her the only thing I know which will get under her skin—I smile and I say, “So now that you’re not drinking, are you REALLY sure that Max is Laura’s father?” And she whacks me over the head with her purse. “Okay, okay—I’ll change the subject. Have you seen Mamma Mia yet? You’ll love the plot. It’s about this woman who was seeing three guys at the same time, and when she got pregnant—Ow!” I cry, because Dolores has whacked me with her purse again. “Okay okay okay,” I say, “I’m so sorry. Look—why don’t we see a movie after dinner tomorrow? Film Forum is playing Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell. You’ll love the plot—it’s about this woman who was seeing three guys at the same time and—Ow ow ow ow!” I yell because now she’s yanking my right earlobe like a grade-school teacher punishing the class wiseass. But she’s laughing when she does it, and that’s everything I wanted. Because I know that I will die—and I will be content to die—without ever hearing anything that makes me feel happier or more full of hope than this, Liora’s laughter.
Alcohol: Guinness (1)