She was sitting on the edge of her barstool, with her bright red hair cascading over a tea-light candle, on the bar: Dangerous.
How many poets, I wondered, had lost their minds to a red-haired woman before?
Never a barfly — always a butterfly — she knew how to balance her glorious womanly behind on the edge of the shiny, brown leather-bound seat. No way she’d fall off — from her dignity! Her back had learned the perfect arching, the angles of which made it irresistible to the gaze. Or to the camera.
It’s a fascinating skill that came with the habit of being looked at. I knew that: Beauty and sex were prone to that habit the most.
Perhaps, most civilians couldn’t even pinpoint the hair-thin boundary between the real girl and the red-haired fantasy. Most civilians just found themselves dumbfounded, with her.
But I knew: I knew the game. I used to play it all the time myself, before I got way too tired to keep up with the nuances. Beauty was insatiable: It demanded constant maintenance. And for a while, I began relying mostly on sex.
But then, I got tired of that too, and I settled for truth. Truth — all the time.
Besides, sex was always much easier, for a woman. And in my bedroom, I would keep all the lights blazing:
Fuck it: Truth — all the time!
And if you don’t like it — LEAVE!
We had entered the bar together, that night. Earlier, she had taken me all over the City: Her New York. She hailed all the cabs herself with the flip of that magnificent red-haired cascade. And the green vintage coat off the rack of Marilyn Monroe or Betty Davis was flung unbuttoned, at all times.
“Boo. Put yo’ hat on! It’s fuckin’ freezing, out here!” I scolded her, always a few steps behind.
I was entering my own age of self-awareness: and my most self-aware self, as I discovered, would be maternal. And true.
True — all the time.
But she would just clap her fluffy cashmere mittens in response, and redistribute her lipgloss by smacking her lips. The hair would be flipped again; and as soon as she baited some unknowing cabbie and we’d slide inside, onto the shiny, black-leather bound seats — the mane would be tamed into a low bun: Show over, buddy!
Her New York was very different from mine. She lived on the island, I — right over the bridge. She cabbed her way all over the place. I braved the subways, studying rats playing house in the garbage on its tracks. And when it would get unbearable, I’d come up for some air, in Harlem, and unbutton my jacket: Ay, mami!
She made her living by mixology behind the bar, similar to the one we were now flocking: with her low-cut blouses and perfect lighting hitting the hemispheres of her breasts. Businessmen, cheating spouses conferencing in New York and horny boys from NYU would claim to be her regulars alike; and they would study their fantasy, while playing with the labels of their beer bottles and the hot wax of tea-lights on the bar. From behind the rims of their rock glasses, they would gather their courage to start up a conversation. And their drool would backwash onto the ice inside — if ever she paid any attention to them.
She didn’t have to, though. That’s the thing about bartenders: They aren’t at the mercy of our egos, for their income. It was all up to her: When to lean in, while arching her back. When to cascade the hair, when to pull it back into a bun. And when to tell them — TO LEAVE!
While I settled for bargains, she knew the importance of well-made things. But for the first time in my most self-aware self, I was willing to learn. I was open — to changing my mind.
It was about dignity, I was beginning to suspect, despite my artistic premonition about some artsy suffering in deprivation.
“It’s crucial, for an artist, to be proud,” she said earlier.
Street lights were about to take over from the sun, as she strutted in her high-heeled boots through the shadows of concrete high-rises in Chelsea and red brick oldies in the Village. I followed her, in jeans and flats, with the rest of my life packed inside a mighty Mary Poppins’ shoulder bag.
We were both competent, in our own way. But she could survive on her credit card alone (although a girl like that never paid for her own drinks). And I was spending my youth in a perpetual state of readiness for a take-off.
Our bartender that night would be a model by day. Or an actor. (I wasn’t really paying attention.) To me, he was bitchy right off the bat. With my girl — he was debonair. We hadn’t been at the bar for half an hour, yet he had refilled my girl’s glass at least three times. The petals of her lipgloss had circumvented the thin rim entirely by then, but the only sign of her tipsiness was in the pout of her lower lip.
Despite being seasoned by New York already, he could not have foreseen his purpose that night: He was supposed to comp our drinks.
Which he did — in exchange for her number written on a bev nap and held in place by a tea-light candle. He would even hail us a cab.
Inside, on a shiny, black leather-bound seat, she shook off the snowflakes from her red hair and smacked her lips.
“That number is fake, right?” I asked.
“No,” she answered. “I would never do that, to a man.”
She gave the cabbie her intersection. We were silent.
“But he’ll have one hell of a time — chatting up my shrink at Bellevue,” she smacked her lips again and pulled her hair into a low bun.
Show over, buddy!
Back to truth.