WINE OF YOUTH
The pigeons are as loud as airplanes – this is my first thought of the day. Then I hear Patty in the bathroom with the water running. She is brushing her hair. She drags the comb through her wet, brunette locks and it sounds like breaking tree roots. I count each knotty brushstroke and stop when I hear her cough.
“Are we still going to the park today?” I ask. I wait but Patty doesn’t answer. I say it again louder and I hear the faucet shut off.
“What?” Patty says. Her voice is monotone, high, pigeon-like.
“Do you still feel like going to the park today?” I say more firmly but soft in tone.
She appears in the bedroom doorway nude apart from mesh panties. She wipes her nose and mouth with a towel. She folds the towel then dabs her chest and neck. Her eyes are closed. Her silver nipple rings perk-up. Her skin looks plastic it’s so wet.
“I dunno,” she says. She opens her eyes, sees me, and averts them. “If you still want to,” she says.
Patty is younger than me, still in her twenties, more energetic, and hard to please. In the two years we’ve lived together, I’ve spent most of my time alone. I’ve never met anyone in her family – most notably her mother, who I know doesn’t know about me or her daughter’s nipple rings.
“I thought you wanted to,” I say. “The park was your idea.” She sprays her hair with hold from a white canister and a synthetic odor fills the bedroom.
“Oh yeah,” she says. She shakes the canister and sprays some more. She drops the canister on the bed. It rolls off the bed onto the floor. I watch her go through each motion avoiding my eyes. She wipes facial cleanser around her nose and lips and her face becomes distorted.
“That’s right,” she says. “I forgot.” She turns around. At first glance, her brie-white skin is without one imperfection. I stare through the beige mesh of her panties and picture small cellulite dimples on her ass three, four, or five years from now. There’s a scar on the bottom of her hip where her leg was cut and the scab was prematurely picked.
“I think we still should,” I say. I roll over on my side and look out the window where telephone cables make black stripes across the sky. Suspended above the neighbor’s backyard a birdfeeder swings from an old clothesline which serves as a makeshift landing strip for every species of local bird. Loud as airplanes, the pigeons reiterate.
Patty uncaps, recaps, and clicks several different bottles things over and over again.
“When did you get back last night,” I say. I roll back over and see her grooming her lashes with mascara. She stops every-so-often to blink her eyes.
“I think like one-thirty,” she says.
I know this isn’t true because I was still up then awake in bed staving off sleep lying down and trying to understand.
“Is your boss’ new apartment nice?” I say.
“Is what?” Patty says. Her body faces further and further away from me now.
Patty was a temp at an advertising agency. Now she works full time in the same office on Madison Avenue across the street from a small park with a fountain. We used to meet there on sunny days and have lunch anywhere on the lawn. Now it seems were a lot closer then on those impromptu picnics people-watching like nothing could go wrong.
“You said your boss was having a house-warming thing for office people,” I say.
“Oh,” she says. “I know.”
Patty stayed out late the first night we lived together. I helped her move her things in and unpack, and then she left to meet old friends. “From school,” was what she said. “I’ll be back by ten.” When she finally did return it was well past four a.m. and there was loose piece of plastic saran taped around her bicep where a fresh tattoo was incised in the shape of a colonial cannon. “It’s about my mother,” was her explanation, but I didn’t ask why then or thereafter. At the time, I was just happy to have her back.
“We all went out together instead,” Patty says. “I sang Van Morrison at karaoke.”
“Where was that?” I say.
“On the Lower East Side,” she says.
“I mean where?” I say.
“This place,” she says. “I can’t even remember.”
I think and think. Hesitate. Hash my thoughts. Fight my pride. There is the truth but there are always ways around it. It is, in itself, another truth – but how can you define or defend it?
“How much did you drink?” I say.
Her eyes meet mine in the mirror. She looks at me and she smoothes her makeup. She narrows her eyes as if to rebuke me, but her stern expression gradually shifts, and she tries to play it off.
“I don’t know what to say,” she says rolling her neck. “I told you karaoke.”
I picture her in a dark bar singing to a room of drunk and able-bodied women. I picture her inviting visage contorting with slurred Van Morrison lyricism. I become jealous for no concrete reason, but I smile because there isn’t anything else I can do.
“It’s supposed to rain tomorrow,” I say musingly turning back to the window. The birdfeeder swings. A pigeon swoops down and lands on a nearby railing. It hoists its wings upward awkwardly as if it has an important question to ask.
“It is?” she says as if interested – but the adultered rhetoric is still present in her voice. “Then is a picnic even a good idea?”
“I said that’s tomorrow,” I say. “Do you even want to go?”
“I can’t find my contact lens case,” she says. “Have you seen it?”
I have – on the metal shelf beside the sink in the bathroom beside our toothbrushes.
“Not recently,” I say. “If you want to go, we should go.”
Patty walks into the kitchen. I can hear her shoveling through her purse for her contact lenses. All of this is in vain. She is blind and she is starting to see it.
“Fine,” she says from the kitchen. “Let’s get it over with.”
Patty and I walk together towards the bodega without holding hands. On the subway, we sit beside one another, talking randomly and sometimes touching. Above ground, Patty avoids all signs of affection. At a crosswalk we kiss, but only as two sisters would.
We pass young couples drinking coffee. Small dogs and strollers are their accessories. A queue of people aligns beside a small kebab stand outside a Methodist hospital. In café windows, people read books, tap alphanumeric messages into cellular telephones, and make firm faces as if carved from wood.
At the bodega, Patty says her belly hurts. She touches her stomach with both hands and pretends she doesn’t know why. I offer her some water producing an unopened bottle from my purse.
“No thanks,” she says.
“So what should we get?” I say.
“I don’t care,” she says. “Just get something and I’ll eat some if I can.”
“Some what?” I say.
“Anything,” she says. “I’m going to snoop around for free samples.”
She peeks down one aisle and disappears. I walked in the opposite direction and fill a grocery basket with random confections: crackers, fruit, and a jar of baby gherkins. At the cheese section I whiff a disk of brie. Dimples, I think and drop it onto the basket. I ask a man in an apron at the delicatessen for turkey on rye with sprouts and field greens. I have him slice it into small pieces to make miniature finger sandwiches. I ask him politely for honey mustard on the side. “Yes, ma’am,” he says. He smiles and I sigh.
I watch a young black girl at the register reload the laser printer that issues receipts. The girl says something to another cashier and starts laughing. She is unattractive at first glance, but as I study her I find her more and more interesting – small gleaming eyes, a gap between her pearl front teeth. When she laughs, I begin laughing.
“What’s so funny,” Patty says. She walks up beside me grazing my elbow with hers.
“Nothing,” I say. “Look at what I have.” I hold up my basket but she doesn’t even look.
“I have the best ideaâ€¦” she says.
“What?” I say.
“I saw this liquor store around the corner with wine,” she says.
“Wine?” I say.
“For the picnic,” she says.
“What kind?” I say. “I mean – What time is it?”
“Any kind,” she says. “White or red. You can pick.”
I think I don’t want to pick. I think about Patty and wonder if she’s depressed, or even sick. I think I’ve been thinking this a lot lately. I think she thinks about her mother consciously and unconsciously in unhealthy ways. Sometimes, I think something detrimental could be happening between us and neither of us realizes it. I think she wasn’t out with people from her office last night. I think and think and think it doesn’t matter.
“White, I guess,” I say. “But we don’t have any cups.”
“I’ll find some,” she says. She smiles mischievously. “Meet me in five minutes outside.”
For a moment, it’s quiet and there’s no traffic in the street. The noise our feet make together on the sidewalk sounds increasingly out of step. For an entire block I try to match my strides with Patty’s but it’s no use.
“It’s supposed to rain tomorrow,” I say. I look at Patty and see her yawn.
“What’s that?” Patty says. She points at arch-shaped monument erected in the middle of a plaza. Each eve adorn with a corroded, green copper statuette posed in victorious vogue. People stroll back and forth beneath the arch where the park entrance spills walkers, joggers, and cyclists onto the confluence of two intersecting avenue.
“It’s a memorial for the Civil War, I think,” I say. “Or some other war.”
“Not that – I know that,” Patty says. “What’s that stuff on it?”
As I focus my eyes I can see each statue cloaked head-to-toe in transparent metal chicken wire. It’s speckled with the shed of down feathers. Through it I see expressionless statue faces flushed with the white stain of bird shit rolling down each cheek like creamy white tears
“It’s for the pigeons,” I say. “So they can’t roost.” I say this not entirely certain of what I means.
“Everything’s covered in shit though,” Patty says. She looks at me and begins laughing genuinely, and I laugh to, mostly with her and not at her, and it feels good.
“I know it is,” I say. “I can see it.”
We’re both carrying purses and bags and our arms become tired.
“This is fine right here,” Patty says. I take a final look around set my bags down in the grass. A pick-up soccer game plays out beside us. Others throw baseballs and Frisbees nearby.
“Get the blanket,” Patty says.
“I brought a beach towel,” I say. “Like you asked.” I take the towel from my bag and lay it across the grass. The towel is very small and when I look at Patty I feel embarrassed. In three different places, bleach has left sizeable stains.
“A blanket would have been best,” she says lowering herself onto the ground.
I say nothing and sit beside her. We watch the soccer game of hood kids playing shirts-versus-skins. The ground is uneven and the ball bounces unpredictably when kicked across clots of dirt.
I watch Patty watching and I wonder what she feels. She touches her hair and her lips and her hair again. She is a beautiful thing made from a thousand different beautiful things.
“Damn it,” she says.
“What?” I say.
“We don’t have a corkscrew,” she says. She opens her bag and takes out a bottle of red wine. The label is dark blue and marked with bold roman numerals.
“That doesn’t look like white wine,” I say.
“This was a better deal,” she says. “But it’s no use anyways without a corkscrew.”
She peals the plastic away from the cork and sets in her lap. Her fingers twist around the bottle’s tip with palpable craving. She picks the cork with her finger, presses down, and then takes a rest.
“No luck?” I say as if I haven’t been watching. Her face pouts as she exhales trying to conceal her exasperation.
“Do you have a knife?” she says.
“A knife?” I say. “Why would I have one of those?”
Without an explanation, she doesn’t respond. I open a sleeve of crackers and set them between us on the towel. I eat a couple and stretch my legs out in the grass. Patty sees me stretch and pulls her legs in from the grass onto the towel where she sits Indian style.
“Let me have your key,” she says. “I think a key would work.”
“Where is yours?” I say handing her my apartment key.
“They’re in my purse,” she says. “But I’ll never find them without my contacts lenses.”
She takes the key and saws with the jagged edge on the end of the cork. Piece-by-piece, she removes small bits. I watch her work patiently in silence feeling oafish, ramose in thought, and uninvolved. I wonder if she can even see me.
“It’s supposed to rain tomorrow,” I say.
“I know,” she says. “You’ve said that like a hundred times.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “Are you hungry? We have plenty of food.” I watch her hands struggle with the nose of the bottle. The key slips and her knuckles flare white. She moves her lips up to the spout and blows, and when she does tiny bits of cork shoot out.
“Not until this is over,” she says.
I eat three crackers with three piece of cheese. I take a large gulp from the bottle of water I offered Patty earlier. I cap the bottle and read the label for several seconds before setting it down. A Dalmatian runs by with its leash in its mouth. Its owner follows in leisurely pursuit. I take two bites of a Macintosh apple but find a brown spot of bruising so I spit it out.
Patty sticks her thumb into bottle and it makes a pop sound.
“Finally,” she says. The bottle is now open but small chunks of the cork float inside the flute. Patty opens her purse and produces two wax paper coffee cups.
“Where did you get those?” I say.
“From the diner next door to the liquor store,” she says. “I flirted with the guy behind the counter and he handed them over.”
“Don’t be so vain,” I say sarcastically.
“That’s not vain,” she says, giggling as she pours one cup of red and another. She hands me a cup. Small pieces of cork float on the surface.
“Just pick them out,” she says. “Cheers.”
“Cheers,” I say.
I watch her take a sip and immediately she become more natural. I watch her smiling and laughing and touching her knees together. I think about what it means to with someone like her and my thoughts conjure a hundred reasons of disagreement. She begins telling me a story about the brother I’ve never net, but it ends when she comes to a point in the story where she has to tell me what her mother said. “I forgot what I was going to say,” she says. I nod and wonder what she thinks in her head, if she really means what she says when she says she’s happy. I offer her a finger sandwich, brie cheese, and bruised fruit but she declines it all.
“Then we should eat a big dinner,” I say. I sniff the contents of my cup and take a small, obligatory sip for Patty’s solidarity.
“Let’s do that,” she says, prosting her paper cup. “Let’s eat a big dinner.”
The taxi’s wipers screech one way across the windshield and groan like a horse in another.
“I thought it was raining tomorrow,” Patty says. Her bangs are wet and make brunette fangs across her forehead. I can see her mascara has begun to leak and run down her cheeks.
“That’s what the weather man said,” I say. I look out the window at idling cars in a traffic jam. “Don’t give me any grief.”
For several minutes nothing is said. The afternoon becomes evening and gradually the sky grows dark. The city begins to glow and I look over at Patty shivering and clenching her teeth. I reach my hand over and place it on her knee.
“I’m sorry,” I say. I slowly lean towards her and see her sad, dreary eyes peering out the window vacantly.
I move my thumb across her thing and leave it there resting against her goose-pimpled skin. I can sense through my fingers she is only tolerating this unsanctioned display of affection. Nothing about her is aroused – inside or out. Eventually, the cluttered street of cars and buses begins moving and we progress down the avenue past the side streets of the neighborhood towards our apartment a few blocks away.
In front of our building, Patty looks at the dollar amount on the taxi’s register and pulls her leg from my grip.
“Here,” she says to the Indian driver outside our building. When he stops, she hands him a small wad of soggy cash. “Keep the tip.”
We climb out of the car and half-jog to our door through the drizzle. I feel wet pieces of cork still sticking to my key as I slide it into the building’s exterior lock. Patty scurries in before me and does the same at our apartment door. She struts directly into the bedroom to change from her sodden clothes. I walk into the kitchen, open the pantry, stand, and stare for several minutes not thinking anything.
Soon Patty emerges from the bedroom barefooted in her pajama top. She curls a lock of hair around her finger and smells it.
“I’m going to bed,” she says. She hasn’t even washed the makeup smear from her face and the skin around her eyes is blue.
“I thought we were going to eat something for dinner?” I say.
“I’m not hungry,” she says.
“You said, Let’s eat a big dinner,” I say.
She doesn’t say anything.
“You didn’t eat anything all day,” I say.
“Yes I did,” she says.
“Besides wine?” I say.
She makes a tyke-like sound and look at me like I’ve lost my mind. I shrug and she turns towards the bedroom, closing the door behind her.
I fill the tea pot and set it on the stove. I watch the purple flame ignite and I picture the white streaks of bird shit streaming from the eyes of statues of Civil War soldiers. Looking across the room, I can see Patty has the bedroom light off from the crack of black between the floor and the door. I stare into the crack and I sip my tea. I wonder who she thinks she is and where she thinks she’ll be three, four, five years from now when she’s my age without anything else to do, when her hair thins and dries-out, when her skin begins to dimple and blemish, when the bunions on her feet begin to crack and swell, and when her monthlies eventually become sparse and more intermittent than her fountainous of youth before.
Ten minutes go by. Twenty. Thirty.
My tea is cold and I pour it out in the sink without even finishing. Patty is asleep on her back when I enter the bedroom. I pull the sheets off her, and, as I do, she can only slightly move her thigh. I apply my tongue immediately and sift it around before I even begin to think. At first, I feel her fingernails in my hair and on my face, but eventually her arms relent and her legs hesitantly curl around neck as I lash softly against her splayed pubis. My mouth and nose fill with her furious ferment Duracell tang flowing like the wine of youth. I don’t even stop to breathe. Patty flexes her arms around and makes muted, infant-like moans into her pillow. Just as I begin to cramp I feel her stomach tighten then quake, and all her pores begin to pucker and expel cold perspiration, and one of her legs straightens, and the other begins to curl, and a bulb of mucus inside her begins to dangle then falls – everything else tingles vaguely as if unsure of itself.
I pull away and brush my sleeve across my face. Patty lies there for several moments sort of breath. She slowly rolls one of her ankles around and I hear a faint tendon snap. I watch her with my maladjusted eyes in the dark room, smelling her touch still on my chin.
I take off all my clothes and fall into bed beside her. Even then she refuse speak or stir. All she can do is clear her throat, swallow, and gently exhale.
I reach for her and take her wrist, and I lay next to her holding it. Her weak pulse tweaks softly against my fingertips and I can feel the slick of rain and grease on her skin being absorbed by the salt of her cooling sweat.
After a while she rises and leaves my grip. I hear her bare feet against to the floor as she walks through the hall into the bathroom. She closes the door behind her and the faucet begins to bubble. I picture staring into the mirror with tears falling into the run of the sink and she franticly rinses her clit. I think I hear her make this sound, but it’s nothing. But I fall asleep waiting for it.
The pigeons rouse me with frenzied sound. The heat from Patty’s pillow is gone and I wonder how long I’ve been lying here alone. I say her name aloud once, and then a second time more inwardly. I think I hear something brush against the window glass, but it’s only the wind.
I stand up, draw the curtain, and look outside where the birds maul the neighbor’s feeder. It swings like a pendulum from the clothesline like there’s an earthquake. I watch it rocking to-and-fro, drawing me into a hypnotic, dawn trance.
It’s supposed to rain today is what I think in the bathroom as I brush my teeth. I can see Patty’s contact lens case is gone. Her toothbrush too. I say her name to myself several more times wondering if can still feel my deft touch against her. I shave my legs. I check and change my Kotex. I decide today will be a day I find a new hobby.