"Is it really true? Could you save yourself for someone who could love you for you? So many times, we just give it away to someone who you met in a bar, or the back of a car. And for a moment you felt important, but not in your heart."
[Sense Field, "Save Yourself"]
"The smell of hospitals in winter, and the feeling that it's all a lot of oysters, but no pearls. And all at once, you look across a crowded room to see the way that light attaches to a girl."
[Counting Crows, "A Long December"]
The Cold Light of Day
by Emmanuel Go
I met Vanessa at the cast party for a show neither of us had anything to do with. I was friends with the director, and she was friends with one of the actors.
No, that's not right. The first time I saw her was just after the show let out. The crew and I were striking the stage - taking it down - and putting it all back into storage in an adjacent building. This required carrying each piece over, pushing it through, or otherwise negotiating it past the slush that covered the short span between the buildings. Even though it was eleven at night, the light-polluted Worcester sky had retained a pinkish tint. Almost like twilight.
Five feet tall, with copper red hair in a boy's cut and twin smears of freckles under her eyes, Vanessa stood right in the path, wearing a blue and white windbreaker. For a few trips back and forth I read one more word on the windbreaker; these words eventually came together into "Tufts Ballroom Dance Team". After spending a couple minutes staring at her and wondering what a girl from Tufts would be doing here, I stopped myself short of obsessing, shrugged, and kept running equipment back. Just one of those random people you see once and never again.
"It's you and her and nobody else. The lights are low, and she's so ready. You're already on your way to the door. You're at the bar; the tender gives you a free drink and winks. She's perfect. You sweat bullets, spill the drink and you leave. Everyone leaves the party except a gorgeous twenty-something. You turn and run."
[Eve 6, "Jet Pack"]
So at the party, I'm drinking and having an all right time; as good a time as I can possibly have in an apartment filled with overdramatic people, I suppose. People are still trickling in every so often. Eventually, Vanessa comes in with her actor friend and some girl. Being the defeatist that I am, I jump to the conclusion that she has a boyfriend, and that it's this guy from the cast. Talking to my director friend about her confirms my conclusion. Someone else sitting nearby overhears us talking and disagrees. I seem to have unwittingly triggered a dispute over whether or not Vanessa has a significant other.
The argument escalates far out of proportion with its importance, as people tend to be more vocal when intoxicated. Anne, a friend of mine, decides to go straight to the source; she leaves the living room for the kitchen, where Vanessa's mingling. After a while, Anne returns and announces that no, Vanessa doesn't have a boyfriend. Both Anne and my director friend encourage me to "go for her". Noticing Vanessa entering the living room, Anne then pushes me in Vanessa's general direction. Since I don't expect this, and because I've had a few, I end up nearly falling at Vanessa's feet.
When I manage to recover, I see that she's taken off her jacket and is now in a bright orange and black striped t-shirt. I can't help but imagine her as a tigress. Somehow I make some self-deprecating apology for almost landing on her. As I stand there flustered, bumbling, she must take pity on me, because we start talking. We bond over not having taken part in the play. The conversation's going well.
I must be focusing all my attention on Vanessa because I fail to notice someone coming up behind me and undoing my pants. They then flick their wrist, and my pants fall down. This is slightly embarrassing, although it's made less so by the guy who's running around in only his socks and boxer shorts. Naturally my first move is to pull up my pants, but after that I can't think of anything witty or charming to say in order to recover from this setback. Instead, I note my empty glass and walk off to the kitchen.
"'Open the whiskey, Tom,' [Daisy] ordered, 'and I'll make you a mint julep. Then you won't seem so stupid to yourself... Look at the mint!'"
[F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby]
Standing at the makeshift bar - a table populated by bottles of all shapes, sizes, and contents - I'm at a loss. It's just so beautiful. Almost brings a tear to my eye. Channeling Daisy Buchanan, I decide to try and make myself a mint julep: sprigs of mint, sugar, ice, and bourbon. There's just something about the sour and sweet. Somehow, the sour bourbon and the sweet mint oppose and play off each other to make a pleasing flavor sensation.
There's not really much of a demand for real mint at the party, so the table is void of mint sprigs. But I don't let this hold me back; I use some green crème de menthe instead. I add the sugar and think about the ice... Nah; I don't need ice. Now, the bourbon. The ingredient I'd most expect for them to have is nowhere to be found. But it's too late; I'm not to be denied my mint julep. I guess whiskey'll do instead. What's the difference? Whereas bourbon's made from predominantly one grain, whiskey may be made from any grains in any mixture.
One grain's as good as another... Right?
Looking into the cup, I'm surprised how much it looks like NyQuil. The original, green kind. I'm reminded of all those times my parents had to trick me into taking medicine. I stare into my full, sixteen-ounce Dixie Plastic Party Cup and exhale sharply in preparation. It's like with a Band-Aid; one, swift pull is the way to go. I close my eyes and knock some back. Expecting something smooth, I take a nice, big gulp and sputter like a kid's sprinkler. All grains are not created equal, it seems. There's enough whiskey to overpower any other flavor, so it's just like taking a big swig from a bottle of Jack Daniels. I almost catch a hint of the crème de menthe, but it's overpowered by the intense burning in my throat. I remember now that a mint julep is only supposed to have two jiggers of bourbon, as opposed to the six or so I poured. Also, you're supposed to fill the glass with ice beforehand. Oops.
I'd throw it out, but that'd be a waste. So I shamefully begin nursing it and turn back towards the living room.
As I turn away from the table, I almost spill my deep forest-green whiskey on Vanessa. I excuse myself and try to sidestep away. She says she'd like a fuzzy navel, but doesn't know how to make one. A fuzzy navel? I could do that. That's just two jiggers of peach schnapps, one of vodka. Fill with orange juice. As I'm explaining to her what I'm doing, she seems to be nodding in a way that says she'll never remember any of this later.
It only takes a minute or two to make the drink. She thanks me; I respond with "De rien," which means "It's nothing," but in French. I don't know why. She smiles and cocks her head to one side. I just shrug, because there's no good explanation. Then she turns and heads back to the living room, but not before snatching my Mariners cap off my head on her way out.
"If I'd given Marie a questionnaire, she wouldn't have hit me with it. She would have understood the validity of the exercise. We have one of these conversations where everything clicks, meshes, corresponds, locks, where even our pauses, even our punctuation marks, seem to be nodding in agreement."
[Nick Hornby, High Fidelity]
I stand there a few minutes and let my drunken mind put together what's just happened. Following her into the living room, I see her sitting in the middle of the couch, wearing my hat. The guy who I previously thought was her boyfriend is next to her. And on her other side is... no one. Hmm. Anne's boyfriend magically appears, as people tend to do when you're focusing on something, or someone, else. He's violently jerking his neck towards the couch, his glares spelling out the message God damn it, go sit next to her.
"Something wrong with your neck, Joe?" I ask. Might as well draw it out of him.
He just sighs in frustration and continues to motion in the direction of the couch. I roll my eyes, but I go and sit beside her anyway, because, well, I'm not always an idiot. She takes off the cap and places it back on my head. I know I'll keep wearing this cap until it wears down to nothing. She thanks me for the drink again and says it tastes good. I tell her she's welcome and muse out loud that not everything I make turns out so great, putting my poor excuse for a mint julep down on the table. Intrigued, she picks it up to taste it. She gets as far as smelling it before she abandons that track.
"What possessed you to make that?"
"I don't know. I was thinking of The Great Gatsby."
"'The invitation to Miss Myra St. Claire's bobbing party spent the morning in his coat pocket, where it had an intense physical affair with a dusty piece of peanut brittle.'"
"What?" I ask, completely confused by this non sequitur.
"F. Scott Fitzgerald. This Side of Paradise. It's my favorite quote from a book." Her smile's contagious.
We're talking about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bret Easton Ellis and J.D. Salinger when the boxers-and-socks guy comes running up, scaring the hell out of Vanessa. She burrows into my arms and asks me to protect her from him. What else could I say? I tell the boxers-and-socks guy to go away, using just those words.
"Hands down, this is the best day I can ever remember. I'll always remember the sound of the stereo, the dim of the soft lights, the scent of your hair that you twirled in your fingers..."
[Dashboard Confessional, "Hands Down"]
The stereo's playing a strange mix of classic rock and old pop. So we go off on a musical tangent, talking about the Get Up Kids and Counting Crows and Phish. About bands we've seen live, and what's in the media player.
The night seems to be winding down. Everyone who's still at the party is in the kitchen. Everyone, except us. We seem to notice this at the same time; one of us stops in mid-sentence. It's a perfect kiss-me-you-fool moment. Jim Morrison's chanting "city of night" over and over. Her lips taste peachy.
"I said I'd walk you home, after our last round of pouring whiskey down the barrel of our guts. And I grabbed hold of your hand. We're up, and we're out, and we're yelling through the streets. And I'm out of my fucking mind."
[Saves The Day, "Firefly"]
Vanessa mentions that her friends have left. I ask her how she's getting home. Apparently she was supposed to stay with her friend, Rich, and her stepfather would pick her up in the morning and take her back to Tufts. We try to call Rich at his dorm; there's no answer. Vanessa says she could call her stepfather and ask him to pick her up now. Jokingly, I say she could sleep at my place. I'm expecting her to laugh and politely decline; after all, we met mere hours ago. She closes her phone in mid-dial and turns to me. Uh-oh. I'm going to get slapped.
"Okay," she says, looking at me and rendering me speechless. I just sit there, blinking dumbly.
I finally manage to stand up and retrieve our coats. We try to find the party's host, but he's since gone to bed. Checking the time makes me do a double-take at my watch. Four in the morning. The weight of the evening hits me all at once and I suddenly feel tired.
"Ready to go?" she asks, interlacing her fingers with mine. I'm recharged.
"Yeah. Let's go."
"The world slows; a clock shows a wrinkle in the flow of time. She steps close, her eyes glow, lips pop open like a bottle of wine. And she'll love like it's thirst, like she's never been hurt. She's dancing just like nobody's watching. Is this love? Is this cursed? It feels like the first time falling. Nobody's watching."
[Ellis Paul, "Maria's Beautiful Mess"]
It's lightly snowing, so everything's blanketed with a fresh layer of pure white. I always like going out into the snow in the middle of the night, being the first person to walk on it. No tire tracks, no footprints but your own, no piles of black slush on the curb. I'm saying all of this out loud. Maybe I'm talking too much. Vanessa squeezes my hand to make me stop and kisses me. Maybe I should talk more.
Back at my sparsely furnished apartment we sit on my bed and talk. But it's now past four in the morning and I don't want to keep her from sleep. She could be staying here because she likes me, or because she just doesn't have another choice, or simply because she's drunk. So I say I'll go sleep on the couch in the living room. She pulls me back down onto the bed, which answers that question in my mind. A whole new conversation starts, this time about limits. I'm not a believer in sleeping with someone on the first date. And Vanessa and I haven't even had a date yet. She agrees, so we stick to kissing and eventually fall asleep. I'm holding her like a kid who won the brass ring on the carousel.
"One night doesn't mean the rest of my life."
[The Get Up Kids, "I'm A Loner Dottie, A Rebel"]
I wake up to my downstairs neighbor loudly playing his guitar. I have a moment where I wonder how I of all people came to be where I am, lying next to Vanessa. We'd set the alarm for nine, as her stepfather was coming to pick her up at ten. We dress in the same clothes as the previous night, her out of necessity and me out of convenience, but it just doesn't feel the same. We eat in relative silence; there's not much conversation. I can't think of anything to say.
It's Sunday morning, but the road's got four parallel lines of pavement showing. And what hasn't been scraped down to asphalt black by the tires of cars has been painted dull brown by their undersides. The sidewalk's also been hit by heavy traffic; the snow is tramped down. I can't make out any individual shoe prints.
"This was all so much nicer last night," she notes casually.
"... Yeah," I force myself to respond, poking at a piece of black slush with the toe of my boot. I try to convince myself she's talking about the snow.
Vanessa and I walk on in silence, until she mentions that her stepfather would be angry if she walks up to the car with someone he doesn't recognize. So we say our goodbyes out of eyeshot of the designated pick-up point. She kisses me one last time and I watch her walk away.
Once Vanessa's out of sight, I turn around and start back for home. Her stepfather's car shoots past me, creating a gust of wind that pushes my pants against the back of my legs. Instinctively, my eyes trace the path of its rear bumper down the street until it turns at the corner, heading for the highway, eastward, back to Tufts. She'd be riding off into the sunrise, if the sky weren't so grey. The few hours of sleep aren't enough to keep me from yawning. Covering my mouth, I smell mint and whiskey.