In life and sex, compassion goes a far way.
The first time my wife and I tried the latter, I was nervous. We’d just had the greatest conversation of my life, she was unlike anyone I’d ever known, we could see the sunrise outside her window. Name your cliche and it would probably fit.
And yet, life, a poem, is not. Let’s leave it at a euphemism and say the sun was the only thing rising.
She didn’t kick me out. She didn’t mock me. We sunk into the mattress together and talked some more.
Morning grew legs. All she had for breakfast was sugar cereal with a cartoon bee on the box. No milk. In time, I’d learn her sweet tooth. Our goodbye at the door turned into a second attempt. The kind of joyful fumbling sex that allows for laughter.
Afterward, we were on the floor, out of breath, me fully satisfied and her a near-miss. We skipped classes for the day and learned more about each other’s bodies. I bought her animal crackers at the corner store. She bit their heads off.
Now, it’s years later. Instead of a cramped bedroom, I’m in a Michelin star restaurant. My companion for the night is the age my wife and I were then. A girl with compassionate eyes.
Fiona orders the strangest dish on the menu — a bottom-feeding fish with citrus reduction and horsefly tempura.
“Never had anything like it,” she says joyfully. “Would you want to try that wine from Iceland?”
We order a bottle, it tastes like feet. She scours the menu for an alternative.
When I was a teenager, I used to wonder how adults could be so cut off from their emotions. Nothing changed their minds and nothing cued a reaction. I couldn’t fathom not wanting to learn things, not wanting to experience. I went through life like a loaded gun. They were empty shells on the ground, long-ago fired and rusting.
And yet, time makes fools of us all. I cannot remember now what it was like to enjoy the not-knowing, to flirt with new information, to wave my curious heart like a flag. Now, everything is caution. Everything is pretense. The paychecks outnumber the honest reactions. I’ve become the adult I once pitied.
Oddly, for all the joy Fiona brings to the hunt, she eats only a morsel of food at a time, the smallest of sips. I am near done with my dinner before she’s even made a dent. I ask if her food turned out to be a disappointment, if she’d like to get something else. She responds that everything is delicious. It’s the way she’s always eaten.
She smiles broadly when she speaks. She laughs without pause and touches my hand. Part of me reasons that it’s only because of my money. So what? the rest of me argues. Her body is a rubber band.
The courage hasn’t come by the time we leave the restaurant so I suggest we grab a nightcap.
“How do you think they get those trees up there?” she asks, pointing to the roof of a building strung with Christmas lights. “And how do they survive like that? Their roots have nowhere to go.” She studies my face. “Aren’t you curious?”
“Honestly?” I say. “It never crossed my mind.”
“How is that possible? There’s an entire life going on over our heads.” She kicks a bottle cap. “No one looks up in the city.”
“That’s because, look up long enough, chances are you step in dogshit.”
“Thin argument, but I’ll go with it.”
“Oh, you’ll allow it, will you?”
“I’ll allow it.”
We start to cross the street, I pull her back as a truck runs a red light.
“Still,” she says, “looking up lets you know when it’s going to rain.” She steps off the curb. “So you can wash that dogshit off your shoe.”
She leads us to a basement speakeasy with velvet curtains and silent buzzers in every booth. A waitress glides toward us. Her expression changes when she sees our age difference. I have not become an outlier, however — I have become a cliche. Before long, our small wooden table is covered in appetizers and aperitifs, sparkling water instead of still.
I refuse to be the old man. I am determined to live in this moment.
I point to a cocktail on the bar’s artfully curated menu featuring a Scotch I can’t pronounce. The waitress’ eyes light up as though I’ve discovered forgotten treasure or the secret to unlocking her first multiple orgasm. The drink is spirit forward, she says, and carries notes of this and that and the cocktail apothecary on staff had a grand ol’ time discovering the right eighth-ounce measurements and doesn’t it sound incredibly wonderful and inevitable that I should order this drink and never forget the moment I first tasted it flanked by velvet curtains and a girl half my age who professed to like my playing but whose neck looks awfully lonesome without some new jewelry?
I order the drink.
The speakeasy’s layout affords customers privacy from one another but a clear view of the bartender. Watching him measure and stir and sample our drinks from the end of a straw, one would think that the weight of the world were on his shoulders.
Twenty minutes later, I take my first sip. Nail polish and citrus. Wonderful indeed.
[To be continued]
This piece appears as part of a serialized fiction experiment by Nathaniel Kressen for At Large magazine. New installments are published weekly, each based around a different liquor.
Nathaniel Kressen is the author of two novels — Dahlia Cassandra (named Best of 2016 Fiction by Entropy & Luna Luna Magazine) and Concrete Fever (Bestseller, Strand Book Store) — as well as the co-founder of Second Skin Books and the leader of the Greenpoint Writers Group.