Old Vine Zin
[Continued from last week]
Conor takes my hand again. Is this just a thing men do in Ireland? “Agree with yeh,” he says, eyes locked on mine. “Kid’s a piteous fecker for running off his da. But we’re building something, you and I. Understand that, don’t yeh?”
We’re close enough for me to smell his cologne. Woodsmoke and earth.
He runs a thumb over my knuckles. In a soft lilt, he says, “Not anyone told about me wife. Bleeding American ways, rubbing off. Irish don’t show emotion.”
Past him, I see Esther enter the restaurant. She’s wearing a long flowy dress embroidered with wine-colored feathers. I extricate my hand and wave her over. Conor downs his wine.
No sooner have I introduced them than Conor reverts back to his salt-and-vinegar self. “Country of Ireland, personified,” he proclaims.
“My family’s from Hungary,” she says, shooting me a look.
“Hair and freckles like that, matter’s open for debate.”
He proceeds to fetch an extra wine glass from the bartender. I scarcely have time to explain his presence to Esther before he’s back, topping her off. A second bottle gets ordered. Then a third. The men pair it with whiskey, she opts for vodka. Awkwardness be damned, we are all souls who enjoy our spirits.
“Have yeh seen him play guitar like?” asks Conor.
“I haven’t,” she says, eyeing me.
“Like God on high, coming out.”
“You haven’t either,” I say.
“Aye,” he admits, “but yer enthusiasm lugging around the case like, can only imagine the real thing.”
The table laughs.
“Whole life, kept secret. Divine inspiration, all that.” He takes my shoulder. “Learn to mingle, Champion. Here to celebrate yeh.”
At some point, he and Esther go tête-à-tête reciting dirty limericks, motivating a young but plain couple to move their seats. It strikes me that these two intelligent, irreverent people have somehow found me, somehow chosen me, helped me feel again.
When Conor goes to fetch our fourth bottle, Esther puts her hand on my arm. “This is nice.”
The conversation turns to books, and I take my best shot recalling the ones she’s working on — the gender-specific spiritual journeys, the cookbooks, the lone novel about the girl who goes missing.
“No suspense like,” says Conor, pointing his finger. “Do they find the girl or not?”
Esther downs her wine and pours herself another. “You’d be surprised,” she says, “how pathologically young writers cling to a happy ending.”
The late dinner rush disperses. I suggest we order food. The concept strikes Conor as something altogether new. “Let’s try it,” are his words. The hostess sits us near the kitchen. We’re served canapé and bone broth, burrata and tuna tartare.
I rise to use the restroom. Pause to look back. “Can I just say…” My voice catches. This could be my life. They could be my tribe.
“Same to you,” says Conor, raising his glass.
Esther and I share a smile, she shrugs drunkenly, and I take care not to trip while passing the other tables.
I piss long enough to count the bottles we’ve expired. Rounds of liquor remain a mystery. Facing the mirror again, I shake off the outlier moments from earlier, grateful to my core for all that tonight has brought.
Esther’s chair is empty when I get back. I drop into my seat and toast Conor with the last of our wine.
Kitty turned me onto Old Vine Zin — its charcoal and burnt fruit decadence, the elegance with which it lingers on one’s tongue.
A waiter brings the check, Conor beats me to it. “Bar nearby, been recommended,” he says, “now that that foolish experiment of eating’s been tried.”
“Hey,” I say, catching myself when I lean too far over. “I really am sorry about your wife.”
Conor looks at me blankly, as though he’d forgotten all about it.
“Not for nothing, but things do get better.” I place a hand on his forearm. “You’ll be under somebody new in no time.”
He nods by way of acknowledgement. “Absinthe’s their specialty, believe it. Never gave the spirit much thought, beyond cocktails.”
“Sure, maybe,” I say, overlooking that his recommendation came from Pompadour. “Let me check, though. She may want to head back.”
Conor hands his card to the waiter. “That sniper’s nightmare took off, Champion. Moment yeh left.”
I blink, trying to get his face in focus.
“Bad manners like. Couldn’t be bothered waiting for yeh.”
“Did she say anything?”
“Bit knackered so a blur like. Bent as a bob note, she.” He signs his name. “Do wager she’s got some Irish, though.”
“I should find her,” I say.
He fixes me with a stare. “Do what? Chase after a blade, leaves like that?” He slides his platinum card case into a platinum case. “Good for the scratcher but something she’s not telling yeh.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say, flush with anger.
“Telling me she’s sound, just the pair of yeh?” He reads my face. “Thought as much.”
He stands with remarkable ease, considering how my world’s tilting.
“Stall who yeh like but be wary where yeh place yer heart.”
Exiting the restaurant, I look closer at the couples and friends who have been dining all around us.
“Bar’s that way or the exact opposite,” says Conor. “Know, soon enough.”
“What really happened?” I ask, not moving.
“Told yeh.” Eyes on me. “Nothing to gain by lying.”
“I’m not sure I believe you.”
He glances back inside, toward the bar. “Mind explaining what yeh mean by that?”
I consider the gridlocked traffic.
“Nolan,” my boss says, stepping closer.
“I should go,” I say. “You’re dealing with a lot right now, and I don’t want to say something I’m going to regret.”
After a moment, he nods, and I leave.
There’s a humidity that descends on New York in the summer. It threatens to burst but holds true, leaving one pining for a release.
I push through the broken downstairs door and climb the five flights to Esther’s apartment. Along the way, I notice that someone’s tried to clean the stairwell.
Knock. Slice of light. “I know you’re there,” I say.
[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.