Into the Arts District
“Here,” Patricia said, placing a liter bottle of Stolichnaya on the table in the darkened front room of the apartment. “You’d be doing me a favor.” Then she went into the kitchen and, after running the tap, reappeared with a small glass ashtray and a shot glass shaped like a miniature tumbler. The glass soaked up the table’s darkness. Tarlow switched on a muted lamp and injected the glass with small daggers of reflected light. “You go ahead,” she said, and, before she made herself scarce, asked, “You don’t want anything with it, right?”
“I’ll drink it raw,” Tarlow said.
Chips of ice detached themselves from the frosted surface of the nearly full bottle. As he filled the small shot glass, he could hear the sound of running water hissing through the pipes and tapping against the shower curtain, as though the sound of pouring vodka had been amplified. Under the cover of the noise, he got up from the chair and, drink in hand, wandered around the room.
Everything was neat, as though she’d prepared for a guest, or else did not spend much time there. The furniture was nice, and, more surprisingly, new—he couldn’t identify a secondhand piece in the room. The lights on a fancy stereo receiver glinted red and green. He turned up the knob for the volume, half-expecting to hear Sade come over the speakers—everything seemed to be calculated to produce the effect of a romantic meeting: the cleanliness, the nice drinks, the unannounced shower and its accompanying interval of solitude and waiting, although she couldn’t have known that he’d come.
Maybe she would have a nightcap, he thought. The kitchen was as clean but not as organized as the living room, as though Patricia actually used it. The fuzzy glow given off by the clock on the range was like a slice of light pollution removed from the night sky. They had left shortly before closing time, and from the open window Tarlow heard the shouts and laughter from the departing bar crowd. He imagined himself as someone with responsibilities, including maintaining this nice apartment. He smiled as he pictured himself here, complaining to himself about the noise.
“Everything copacetic?” Patricia said from the doorway.
He stepped toward her, lured by the scent of soap and shampoo and the slightly flushed look on her face.
“Now that you’re here, baby.”
Patricia went away and looked back over her shoulder, exaggerating the act of looking at the bottle of vodka.
“I see,” she said, “why you’re up to calling me baby.”
“I thought you’d join me in a nightcap.”
“I thought you’d tell me tales of your recent past.”
“You got a deal,” he said, and banged around the cabinets, looking for a cup.
They sat down. Patricia moved the bottle from one end of the table to the other, as though she were handling a valuable vase.
“Okay,” Tarlow said, with a guilty grin on his face. “So I went to Arizona with this girl, Charlotte, you never met. That’s why, if you tried to call me, I was out of touch.”
Her expression seemed to demand further explanation, although she really seemed to want to be amused by whatever tale he would have to offer.
“I don’t know. It was a confusing time. I thought we would live together or something, but really it turned out she was just some coke whore, and she wanted me to help some other guy collect a debt in Phoenix.” He said this only slightly ruefully, since he believed that all women who were potential lovers secretly liked to hear the man speak harshly of a former lover.
“And she recruited you for this project.”
“She might have got the impression that I was some kind of tough guy.”
“She was powerless to resist your charms.”
“You’re doing a good job of that,” he said, meaning to be provocative, although an unpleasant edge had found its way into his voice, and he found himself bringing the small glass to his lips, as though to prevent himself from saying anything else.
“Tarlow!” she said.
“Anyway, she was a nobody. God knows why I got mixed up in that whole mess.” He leaned back in the chair with a drunken half-smile trembling on his face. “It feels great sitting with you here, though, Patricia,” he said, as though it were an experience he had somehow anticipated.
“I’m glad you feel that way. But don’t get too comfortable, because I want to show you my studio.”
“Studio?” Tarlow said. “Is it here?”
“Of course it’s here.”
Tarlow followed her down the hall that attached to the main room. He saw a bathroom with a nice tiled floor and the closed door of what must have been her bedroom. The room where she took him was dark except for the gleaming lights of various electronic gadgets, but these lights illuminated nothing, like the light of iridescent insects. Her shadow turned on a fancy, angular desk lamp which threw a tight circle of light over the desktop, revealing two thin laptop computers and other more obscure gadgets sprouting wires that neatly came together and draped themselves over the desktop’s far edge. Patricia was contemplating these things, her face half-lit, clean and fresh-looking from the shower. On the other side of the spacious room there was a large machine that looked like a photocopier.
“Can I smoke in here?” he said, wanting a cigarette in the nervous way he experienced whenever he wanted to assert himself in a foreign environment.
“Sure. So, I bought most of this with this state grant I won last year—”
“Was I around then?” Tarlow said.
“I guess you hadn’t left yet, but you never came to the party, and I haven’t seen you since I got it. Until now. Anyway, I got all this stuff, but the only thing I use it for is Web design, which is basically hack work. Not what I want to be doing. Isn’t that ironic?”
That last word made its way more clearly into his brain than anything else she had said since they’d entered the studio. Her tone suggested that life was full of ironies, and that there was some victory to be had in recognizing them.
“Tarlow?” she said, moving closer to him, seemingly materializing out of the shadows that were both real and brought on at the edges of his vision by the alcohol he’d drunk. “What do you want?” she whispered, and, mistrustful of anything he might say in response, he stepped forward and kissed her. She kissed him back and clasped her hands at the back of his neck under his ponytail. She rubbed her face against the stubble on his own. Over her shoulder, he saw the machines in the studio, and pictured Patricia seated at some Mount Vernon café on a bright afternoon, working on her laptop and, every so often, absently taking a drag on one of her white-filtered cigarettes.
“I want to take you into the bedroom,” Tarlow said, feeling that he had managed to suppress the anger that came from thinking of her someplace where he wouldn’t be.
Leaving the scent of shampoo behind to mingle with the acrid smoke, she slinked off while he returned to the front room to put out his cigarette.
Suddenly self-conscious, he decided on one last drink. He tried to identify the scent of that shampoo—honey, that was it. He pictured her in one of the upscale boutiques, sampling products. Unfortunately, he then pictured himself walking past the boutique on the way to work, the image wrecking his mood. He’d rather be angry than demoralized. He tried hard to recall how he’d felt when he had seen her in the Rendezvous, seated in the back, independent and knowledgeable—and shapely, looking taut and warm. But since there was nothing to do for it, he got another last drink and went to join her, despite the feeling, which he was nagged to test, that if he had stayed in the living room drinking, she never would have called to him, but would have fallen asleep with an enigmatic smile on her face, as though in broad daylight she had accomplished a hidden plan.
“A four-poster bed,” Tarlow said when he went in, the phrase muffled by his shirt as he pulled it over his head, rather than unbuttoning it. “That old futon you used to have always killed my back.”
“Lie down,” she said.
It seemed to him that he was shredding her sheets as his legs writhed; he wouldn’t have minded laying waste to the whole apartment, not only the bed, anything to make it more familiar. He was searching for a place on the mattress to brace his heels as he arched his back. His body didn’t seem to belong to him anymore. He was reminded of one of her old idiosyncrasies, the way she put her hands on his face whenever she came. Once in the course of the night, she slapped him, laughing at, he guessed, herself.
“Do that again,” he said, but she pretended not to hear.
When they were through, without turning on the lights, she produced an ashtray from somewhere on the other side of the bed and made him go get his cigarettes. For a while the silence was broken only by the soft noise their lips made when they parted from the cigarette after a drag. He realized that he only ever noticed that sound after sex.
“That was fun,” Patricia said.
“You unwound?” Tarlow said.
“Oh, nothing. Something you said earlier, at dinner, about needing to unwind.”
She gave a short laugh and rolled over onto her side, as though nothing she’d said earlier had been meant to be taken seriously.
His sleep was dogged by bad dreams. In one nightmare, disembodied, he watched a small barren stage with a sense of dread that was terrible in the certainty of its premonitions. The audience was Patricia alone. From somewhere, or nowhere, Tarlow went on watching. The heavy purple curtains on the stage had the look of one of Patricia’s paintings. When he awoke encased in a film of sweat that glinted in the moonlight, he looked at his and Patricia’s entwined bodies and, still in a terrified state of mind, noted the resemblance between their sleeping selves and one mangled corpse: a leg here, an arm there, everything at odd angles.
He rolled over, snatched up his clothes and fled stumbling toward the front door, where he dressed. He told himself to stay, but he knew he would leave. The warmth of a sleeping female body, something that never failed to entice him, undoubtedly something that drove him to approach strange women in a bar, here was transformed into the stifling heat of a greenhouse, where unseen growth was taking place.
“Where are you going?” Patricia said, as though she were still dreaming.
By way of a response, he made a lot of racket putting on his shoes and banging around the bedroom.
“Be careful of my paintings,” she said, still dreamily, which somehow had more of an effect on him than if she’d turned on the lights and screamed at him.
Patricia had no way to reach him—he would forget about her, and the whole incident. With each step he tried to drum away his shame as he walked quickly past all the workers clustered at the bus stops along Charles Street; the fact of the workers shamed him again, and reminded him of his own shift at the bar and grill later on that day. Crossing North Avenue in the first signs of soupy daylight, he saw the little banners that fluttered at the necks of street lamps and proclaimed the area an “arts district.” Apparently that referred to the metal sculptures placed here and there on the median strip.
In his apartment he collapsed onto the fold-out sofa that was his bed and squirmed around until he no longer was uncomfortable, and then fell asleep, dry-mouthed and curled up, but he couldn’t stay sleeping for long because he worried he would end up bailing on his shift without a word to anyone. He knew it was something he’d been liable to do in the past.
To convince himself to move, he pictured Patricia mocking his inertia, and finally he called Roy, the swarthy manager, and said he needed the night off.
“Been here, what, three weeks, and then you get your first check and now you can’t make it in tonight?” Roy said.
“Look, man, my mother’s sick, and she lives all alone in Pasadena, and I’m going to have to spend the night out there. And I don’t even have a car. Trust me, I’d rather be at work. Ask what’s-his-name to double. He wants the hours anyway.”
There was a muffled noise while Roy went to talk to Felipe, or else was putting his hand over the mouthpiece of the telephone, just to let Tarlow stew.
“Yeah, it’s all right,” Roy said. “See you in here tomorrow, okay? You’re on at night.”
When Tarlow woke up that evening, everything was turning blue in the fading sunlight, and he went to the window to look outside. The asphalt had taken on a soft look and the patches of grass here and there against the curb were teal. It was an easy light, no pain to his aching eyes, although his mouth felt as though he’d been chewing tinfoil in his sleep.
Aware that the surest cure for a hangover was a cold beer, he headed to the Rendezvous, sure that he would not see Patricia.
Instead he saw Panda and Michel at their usual wobbly table toward the back, against the wall. Their skin was an unnatural color, soaking up the red neon of the tubes that spelled the names of brands of beer along the walls. Panda’s colorless lips and soft jaw were moving in a way that meant he was either speaking or chewing his tongue with his mouth open. He paused and nodded at Tarlow, who got a glass of beer and made his way over and sat down, taking care as he handled the bar stool from the nearby unoccupied table, because the cushions of the bar stools there had a tendency to become separated from their wooden legs.
“This guy,” Panda was saying, “he stays on my couch past two, three weeks—he’s a fuckin’ junkie, right? Passed out on my couch. I kick him, he don’t move. Again and again.”
It wasn’t clear to Tarlow if the guest had been kicked again and again, or if the whole scenario had taken place several times.
“So I say, hey, you like needles? I got one for you. Novocain.” Panda bit his waxy teeth and made the motion of pressing down the plunger of a syringe. “Now get the hell out. He couldn’t even walk. Threw his ass out to the curb.”
Michel laughed, filling his face with deep wrinkles. It was the nearly silent laugh of someone who had heard similar anecdotes many times before.
“So how come you had Novocain just lying around?” Tarlow said into the mouth of his glass of beer.
“So what? I had a surgery I was doing on myself. Thing on my arm, if you’re so interested.”
He began to lift the sleeve of his black T-shirt, but Tarlow waved his hand. His skin was sallow and fatty and to see some kind of abnormality would be more than Tarlow could bear.
“So, where’s your woman?” Panda said, as though Tarlow’s grimace were his cue to ask.
“Forget about that,” Tarlow said. “I had my fun. That girl’s nothing but trouble in the end.” He thought for a minute, and the others, perhaps still sober, were silent.
“Good-looking trouble, though,” Panda said, and Michel nodded in agreement.
Michel was giving him a sidelong glance, with his head cocked, as though he were avoiding a bad smell.
“What?” Tarlow said. “What’s up?”
“Why do you look so sad?” Michel said.
“I ain’t sad. Just fucking hungover, that’s all.”
In truth, his mouth was warped, as though he had dragged on a filter. There was nothing he could do about it but wait for fresh alcohol to rejuvenate his spirits. At least they would not press him, whether because of the distancing etiquette observed between acquaintances, or lack of interest. Later on he would try and piece together why, as a grown man, he had fled Patricia’s apartment as though she’d had a husband.
“Our friend Linus is meeting us here tonight,” Panda said to Michel. “You in?”
“That’s just the thing to cheer you up, Tarlow.”
Michel pressed the knuckle of his forefinger to one nostril and raised his eyebrows.
“Oh, no, man, I can’t get into that.”
“Ah, come on, sure you can,” Panda said, narrowing his eyes. “Don’t be a wimp.” There was something especially scornful in his use of the childish term.
“Fuck off, will you?” Tarlow said, slightly raising his head from where it had been hovering just above the sticky surface of the table.
“He will come around,” Michel said.
Tarlow’s hand went for his wallet.
“Yeah, you’ll come around,” Panda said.