Cherry Coke, Part 1
I stop by a street market flower shop. Hunt through lillies and tulips and roses. Uncover a crimson orchid still in the pot. A thing of austere beauty.
Esther looks paler than usual when I arrive. Wearing her same embroidered dress.
“You look beautiful,” I tell her.
She takes the flower, smirks. “First date talk?”
We kiss lightly. I notice she’s trembling.
“I’ll put this by the window.”
I remove the guitar case strapped to my back. “Drink before we go?”
She stiffens, peeling the bedsheet back from the window. “I’m trying not to, actually.”
“I’ll make you one.”
She tilts bottles over a glass and stirs. Her hands are visibly shaking.
“What made you not want to?”
“I thought, if we were really going to try this, I shouldn’t have a fog over everything. I shouldn’t need one. Here,” she says, presenting me with my drink.
“That sounds like a good idea,” I say, setting it down.
“No.” She hands it back. “This is my thing, not yours.”
“I’m okay if you are.”
Sip. Floral as ever.
She kisses my cheek. “Thank you.”
I put down the glass and steady her hands in mine. “You don’t have to do it all at once.”
She leans into me. “It’s important that I can.” She gestures to the case. “So that’s your guitar.”
“It’s filled with grilled cheese sandwiches.”
We sway a moment, she releases a short exhale. “We are really doing this.”
“We are,” I say.
She feels frail, in my arms.
“Do you want to stay in?”
“No,” she says, lifting her chin. “Let’s go out.”
It’s a beautiful night for a walk. Hot and thick and brimming with energy. We tear through block after block together. Neighborhoods change, people change, traffic rises and falls. Her skin glistens. Streetlights drip with color.
I lead us to the polar opposite of the other night’s restaurant — a simple burger joint with a long sit-down counter open to the sidewalk. We grab two stools, I turn to order.
“They have a veggie burger,” I tell her.
“Feed me some meat,” she says, “or you can consider this date over.”
Grease plus salt equals happiness.
We chat about the lives that were formerly off-limits to conversation — her growing up in Massachusetts, coming to the city for grad school, taking her first job at a Big 5 publisher. I tell her about the time I went fly-fishing with my father although neither of us had ever done it, standing waist-deep in water, allowing true silence to overtake us and linger. I finish my burger first and put an arm around her. She crosses her legs toward me. Picks at her fries. Sweat forms on her brow and her breathing grows labored. Every so often, she stares across the street as though someone’s sparked road flares.
“Please let me buy you a beer or something,” I say.
She shakes her head and pushes the tomato across her plate.
“Do you need to go back?”
“I want to see you play,” she says.
“What can I do?”
“Alright,” I say. “They have ice cream sundaes.”
“I can’t eat.”
“How about a cup of hot fudge?”
“I can tell them it’s your birthday. Convince the staff to come over and sing. When is your birthday, by the way?”
“February. Okay. Not bad.”
She groans, rubs her temples.
“Does that make you a fire sign, or —?”
“God, this sucks,” she says.
“It’s okay,” I say, rubbing her back, looking outside for salvation. On cue, a man saunters into view. “Hey, you see that guy sitting on the fire hydrant?”
With effort, she looks. “Mustache?”
“Yeah, mustache. Tell me he’s not a porn star.”
She checks my expression. “He’s fat.”
“Okay, ex-porn star.”
“Are we talking 70’s porn?” she asks. “Because he has the hair for it.”
“Not only that,” I say, “the carpet matches the drapes.”
She sneaks me a grin. “Say…”
Her tone, pure mischief.
“Why are porn conventions always held near the zoo?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Why?”
“Because the male stars like visiting the giraffes.”
I stare at her.
“Long throats,” she says.
“That is terrible,” I say.
“I’m a terrible person,” she says, taking a straw into her mouth. “What do you think our friend’s name is?”
“Porn name?” I think. “Likety Smacket.”
She sets down her Cherry Coke. “That has to be the worst porn name I’ve ever heard.”
“Or, the best you’ve ever heard.”
“No,” she says. “That honor belongs to Curt Cumming.”
I choke on my black and white milkshake. “Certainly gets to the point quick enough.”
“He does not take his time, no.”
“How about Lena Horneblower?”
She levels her eyes.
“Capable of satisfying movie buffs and jazz aficionados simultaneously.”
She says, “I’m over jazz, at the moment.”
I ask, “More of a metal fan?”
“Read my mind.”
“What about old movies?”
“Do nothing for me.”
“Nothing?” I ask.
“Nothing,” she says.
“So that’s a pass on Lena Hornblower?”
“What are you, her agent?”
“I was, until this conversation.”
“See this face?” she asks. “This is the face of reality.”
“Reality looks good,” I say.
She covers her heart with her hand, truly taking the compliment. “Thank you.”
We watch our muse rise from the hydrant and pull his shorts out of his butt.
“I saw this porn once,” I say, “the star’s name was ‘Tits’ — no last name.”
“Like Cher,” she says.
She chews on the scattered remains of her meal, a glint in her eye. I steal a bite and she pinches me.
“I don’t know,” I say. “When I did porn, we brought a little more grace to it.”
“You did not do porn,” she says, shock overtaking her face. “Me, too!”
“I mean, an English degree gets you one of two places.”
“Walk of fame or the gutter.”
“Get out,” she says. “Walk of Shame was my first straight-to-video! Except it was called Stalk of Shame because it was set in a corn field.”
We finally break. Laughter cues hiccups. Pornstache eyes us from afar. We hold onto each other to keep from falling over.
[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. He was commissioned by At Large magazine to publish his third novel in serialization — now available, with new chapters publishing weekly — titled My Life on Rye. And, as one half of the wife-and-husband team Grackle + Pigeon, he recently published the perfect gift for the young and young at heart with Blanket Fort: Growing Up Is Optional (HarperCollins/Morrow Gift). You can find his work at nathanielkressen.com.