“PLEASE TELL ME THAT POPPED MY TIRE!” I yelled at the dashboard after driving over a screwdriver. “THAT’D BE REAL GODDAMM IMPRESSIVE!” It didn’t pop. I kept driving along.
It was Thanksgiving. The day before, I received a letter, a civil suite against me. Two years prior, I was rear-ended by some Marylander idiot lady while driving to Philly. The collision pushed my car into the back of some prick driving a black late-model Lexus. My car was totaled. I wasn’t hurt. I didn’t think anyone was hurt. That idiot lady and I are now being sued by Mr. Lexus for 50 grand. Two years later! Two years later, he sues for back pain and psychological damage.
Melanie called me and told me to meet her at The Great American Pub. I had space in my gut for beer since I hardly ate my turkey dinner. Family members wondered why I took such tiny portions and tiny bites. I was too hung over to cram my face like usual.
I got to the bar first and took a seat. I feigned interest as I watched the Packers and Lions battle it out on the widescreen TV above.
“Yeah?” asked the bartender. She was a lady in her 50’s with bleached blonde, spiky hair.
“Arrogant Bastard,” I told her.
“You got it.”
I sipped at the ale and went on watching TV until Melanie walked in wearing a Euro-trash black leather jacket and hefty purple scarf. She rubbed her hands together. Her cheeks were bright pink.
“Where the hell’s your coat?” she asked me.
“I like the cold. I sleep with my window open in the winter.”
She sat down.
“You okay, Russell?” she asked.
“Last night was supposed to be low key. You were shitfaced,” she said.
“Bullshit. I wasn’t the only one who got drunk!” I snapped.
“Russ, you were sitting on the floor with your back on the wall, and you were singing kill me to the tune of Kiss Me by Sixpence None the Richer. You don’t remember that?”
I laughed. “Guess I was only there in spirit for that part.”
She wasn’t laughing. She was damned serious. “Russ, do you really think you might have HIV?”
I didn’t actually believe I had HIV. Around that time, I was sleeping with two girls and I wasn’t being safe. I had blood work done because it was the responsible move and I wanted assurance. I was simply waiting on results. Still, the anticipation eventually drove me out of my mind.
“Look, Mel, I know I don’t have HIV. I recently got tested and now I’m just waiting on the results. Last night, I was being a drama queen.”
“Then you don’t know for sure,” she told me.
I got impatient. “I know I don’t know for sure. What, you’ve never gotten tested?
“Then you should know waiting for the results blows.”
She talked to me about her fancy new PR job and how living with her boyfriend in Manhattan is a blessing. She asked me when I was coming to visit. I told her I hate New York. It’s full of people throwing away their money just to claim they live in the greatest city in the world. It’s all bullshit. Not that life with my folks in the suburbs of Philadelphia was better.
“I’ll introduce you to my friend! She’s cute,” she said.
“Who is she?”
“Her name is Flora.”
“Flora?” I laughed.
Flora. I pictured a Bohemian dress-wearing communist who has never left Brooklyn, never seen mountains, yet believes herself worldly.
“She’s into losers,” said Melanie, but noticing my stricken expression she tried to backpedal. “No, no, Russell,” she said in an apologetic tone. “You know I don’t mean that. I just meant she likes taking care of people.”
We used to be reckless, Melanie and I, but that was back in college. Hard and mighty was our mantra from Wednesday to Sunday night each week. One night in particular, we played beer pong and were too drunk to even hit one cup. The other team swept us clean. When a team loses without hitting a cup, they remove all clothes. We didn’t care. Rules were rules. Soon enough, we were two young, radiant spirits running naked through the parking lot as Mel screamed at the apartment complexes, “I AM BATHSHEBA! FEED ME PILLS!”
“Whatcha need, babe?” asked the bartender.
“Yuengling this time. And whatever she wants,” I pointed to Melanie.
“The same, please,” Melanie said.
We sat in silence. We were now only acquaintances. I was a cook at Denny’s, she was on the up and up in The Empire State.
“You don’t need to work at Denny’s,” she told me. “You have a degree!”
Just then, a scene from the Simpsons popped into my head. Dr. Hibbert told an injured pro football player that his playing days were over: “But you can always fall back on your degree in—Communications?!”
I started to laugh. Melanie leaned in close for a better look at my open mouth.
“Is that a chipped tooth?” she asked.
I shut my lips and looked away. She asked me how I chipped my tooth. I wanted to tell her it was from bumping it with a beer bottle when I was drunk. Instead, I told her the truth: “I’m not sure how it happened. I grind my teeth a lot in my sleep and maybe I did it too hard one night.”
“So go get it fixed.”
“I can’t go get it fixed. I don’t have insurance. I don’t have insurance because I don’t have a career. I don’t have a career because I’m afraid to go on interviews due to a chipped tooth, ya dig?”
Melanie started to rant. She called me a coward. She called me a waste of potential. She told me I’d be living with my parents until I’m 40 if I keep it up. “It’s a big world out there full of real problems and beautiful things,” she told me.
“Did you invite me out so we can measure dicks, Mel? I get it. Your life is better. So let’s finish our brews and go our separate ways.”
“Russell, I know you. You think I became this yuppie bitch because I have a decent paying job and live in a good city. You should know something. Life has gotten better since we graduated five years ago! After work, I meet my boyfriend for a drink and then we go home and cook dinner together and I’m in love! I’ve been to Europe twice. I’m sorry if I like my life!” she snapped.
I pretended to tune her out halfway through by looking down at the wood-grain bar-top.
“I invited you out tonight because I care about you. I’m probably the only one who does. I don’t know why I do. You’re wasting your life here and you’re miserable!”
I said nothing. She threw enough money down on the table to pay for our drinks and then left. I was numb from the cold as I walked on out the door. That night, Melanie gave up on me. She was out living a beautiful life and I was wearing a long and sad face for months.
Russell. The asshole, the fool, the dog, the skunk, the loser. But I thought of her words every day. They became as essential to me as my kidneys or heart; they often raced through my blood up into my brain and gave my body a good jolt. I was better than a boy living in the basement of his parents’ and I tried harder from then on.
She was a gem, honest, real, a confirmation that wisdom is a woman. She was my lifesaver. My problems weren’t problems and it was time to become a better human.
I moved jobs a few times since Denny’s. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted out of life so instead of sitting around and wondering what my next career move should be, I bought a one way plane ticket to Rome and travelled to Avellino, Italy. I worked on a vineyard for seven months for free room and board. I read book after book, practiced speaking Italian, and wrote.
I never was positive what I wanted to do with my life. But I found a job where I was able to use my talents to help others. I taught language arts classes at night to a number of different people—at-risk youth, probationers, immigrants who spoke little English—all trying to earn GEDs. All people who were trying to turn their lives around.
I was living in Brooklyn. I was happy.
New friends came and went out of my life, as they say happens, but Melanie affected me the most. I knew if I ever wanted her back as a friend, I’d have to show her I wasn’t just some poor bastard she could so easily cut from her life. I was Russell, a man of value, a positive guy, a forward thinker.
“What can I get you?” asked the bartender. I was sitting in a pub in Bushwick. It was fall and the weather was brisk.
“Arrogant Bastard, please.”
Bells on top of the heavy wooden door chimed as a girl wearing a tan trench coat walked in. She was wearing a hefty purple scarf and rubbing her hands together. Melanie. She took off her jacket, put it on top of the barstool, and sat down next to me.
“Yuengling, please,” she told the bartender.
“Long day?” I asked her.
“Not as bad as yesterday, but still long,” she told me. “I thought you would have had my beer waiting for me!” she joked.
“I wasn’t sure when you’d get in. I guess it slipped my mind,” I explained. “Forgive me?”
“Of course,” she smiled.