Quint Hadley was an expensive friend. We were on the subway, where most of these journeys started, as Quint rambled to me about things he’d gleaned from his world travel.
“Amsterdam allows you to carry weapons. So imagine everyone high out of their minds, running through the canals with samurai swords.”
“Thai whores always keep a bit of this fungus under one of their pinky nails. If you disrespect them, they’ll scratch it into your back. You’d better realize you’re infected before you come home, Western medicine doesn’t have shit on those tribal remedies.”
As we hit 49th street and he was explaining his nuanced approach to the coffee trade in the Côte d’Ivoire, a bum hobbled into the train car and started his spiel. He’d just had a terrible accident involving some bacon grease and a Dominican window washer, and if anyone could just spare a bit of change, he could catch a bus to South Jersey where his cousin’s godfather ran an urgent care. Quint’s clenched jaw announced his displeasure, though he would have kept talking had I appeared attentive. Instead, I practiced my best form of evasion as the bum limped along the aisle.
The others on the car did the same. The girl across from me ran a finger along her iPod to turn up the volume. The tourists with the bags from the gift shop at the Met took an immediate and frantic interest in the subway map. I looked down at a mysterious liquid that snaked nearer to my feet with every drift of the track. But Quint did nothing.
As the bum drew close enough for me to make out the density of his dreadlocks, Quint stared at him, unflinching. Like he was daring him to beg. The bum didn’t speak, he just stared back, confused. By then the visual duel was making my face hot. I handed the bum a couple loose singles, and he walked away pocketing the bills. Quint’s vision moved off the bum and onto his reflection in the subway window.
“Why should it make me uncomfortable? They’re the ones begging.”
The bum left the car with a passing thanks and a “God bless” to all passengers. “I’ve made it twenty-four years without His blessing,” he said with pleasure. “I certainly don’t need it now.”
We came out at a stop a few blocks from some club with a foreign name where a distant relative of Quint’s had a table. It looked like rain, so we’d both brought our long coats, though between the wool and the whiskey I felt flushed. Quint’s coat hung off his lean frame and was probably worth double mine. He came from a family of means, though it was never clear how much help he received. He was the product of sophisticated breeding and coarse parenting, like a fine slab of marble sculpted with dynamite. And he was all I had. He had about a foot on me and leaned down as he spoke.
“Tomas is supposed to be bringing a few of the girls from that thing in Williamsburg last week. Tonight we legitimately get on the road to recovery and forget all about Alexis.”
Her name was Alicia. She had asked me to move to New York with her four months earlier and hadn’t anticipated the ways in which her new job would help her grow “into her own woman and apart from me.” Wanting to maintain a relationship, she still teased me with friendly lunch dates at restaurants only she could afford. I always left her feeling worse and I always said yes the next time she asked.
We got in without issue, though the bouncer took more time with my ID because it’s from Ohio and was taken on my sixteenth birthday, my current face retaining only the boyish cheeks. As was often the case with Quint’s clubs, I handed over half the contents of my wallet for cover. Once inside, I followed him through the crowd, a forest of torsos and limbs, slinky black dresses and half buttoned oxford shirts. Tomas was at a table in the back with three girls. The one closest to Tomas was some exotic mix with a sculpted face that was as beautiful as it was inaccessible. Next to her was a waiflike blonde whose hand was damp from her sweating drink. Closest to me was a cute, if oddly shaped girl named Melanie or Melody, the last syllable lost to a bass line that pounded my sternum.
The volume only allowed for close talking and it wasn’t long before Quint had his mouth at the Waif’s ear. I assumed her toothy smile to be the result of his jokes or tongue. As a courtesy he would look back at me every so often and bob his head to the music before returning to the Waif. I couldn’t blame him. I occupied my time with drinks, various cocktails and shots that oiled my slide into inebriation. At Quint’s urging, I bought a round for everyone and then the exotic girl spilled hers, though it’s probably best we didn’t have to see just how sour the SoCo and Lime made her look. At some point I took a cue from Quint and began to talk up Melanie/Melody. When I leaned in to speak, I noted that she had attractive ears and pondered that the upside of ear allure is really quite low. The prettiest ears in the world were probably only eights out of ten. Hers were sevens.
I know that her and I went to the bar to get beers, but I couldn’t say how her face ended up in my neck, how she nuzzled me like we were old lovers or house cats. I remember that we hovered near the dance floor for a time, while I explained my nuanced approach to the coffee trade in the Côte d’Ivoire, butchering the pronunciation because I’d taken Spanish with Alicia and not French like I’d wanted. Then Melanie/Melody moved her body on mine with shocking rhythm and grace, perhaps the first time in her life that her mismatched parts moved in concert. It was she who placed my hand at the small of her back, in the process of which I grazed her underthings through the material of her dress, in the process of which I considered her underthings and what she might look like in them. I fell in love by the second chorus.
At the end of the song she threw her arms in the air and let out a shrill scream, as some girls are wont to do. During all this, her beer bottle, half-full, caught the beam of one of the club’s red lasers. It reflected and refracted through the glass and a halo appeared around it, all starbursts and solar flares. I fell in love with that too.
On my way to the bathroom I ran into Quint, who was somehow strapped for cash and needed a drink for the thirsty Waif. I gave him what I could, though had the good sense to save enough for a drink for myself. While I washed my hands I appraised my reflection. Drunk, I studied it, really studied it, every line and curve, every follicle and abrasion. I looked tired and sloppy, my eyes rimmed with pink and my face glistening with sweat. Why did it have to be like this, to start the night looking our best in attempt to attract someone who could help us look our worst? But I was not above it. There wasn’t much below me then.
Melanie/Melody said she would wait at the bar. She wasn’t there. It was on the second lap around the club I came to this conclusion. On the first, I still held out for the possibility I misunderstood her or that she had gone to the bathroom or was lost in that forest of people. I went to the bar and ordered a straight whiskey because I wanted to feel it and expose it for what it was and tell it that it couldn’t hide behind Coke any longer. I went back to the table and sat alone. Quint could be seen among the mob, shoulders shifting and dropping to the beat. I caught glimpses of the Waif, albeit fleeting, as gaps opened and closed in my eye line. Occasionally I could see her hair flipped up into view as she twirled around and against him. He was surprisingly skilled, flowing with the currents of the song like some waterborne plant. I watched as he surveyed the crowd and thought for a moment he might catch my eye.
But I really didn’t want him to see me. When you’re a mess and with a girl, they call it having fun. When you’re alone, it’s pitiable. Some part of me pined for the nights with Alicia on my arm, when she’d introduce me to her numerous acquaintances, when she’d lose herself to the booze, when she’d love me carelessly.
Quint glanced down at the Waif, taking in her latest move, though only for a moment. He continued to crane his neck and I knew he wanted to see if anyone was watching. People were always watching. In many ways it was unfathomable. He was not classically attractive in any sense, a hodgepodge of Old World features that ended with a weak chin bordering nonexistence. Most of what he did was rude and deplorable. And yet he drew people to him. He knew how to have a good time and forgot his indiscretions with an assuredness that caused everyone else to misremember. I watched him with a mixture of envy and annoyance, watched as the Waif snapped a self-shot of him with his head on her shoulder, knowing I had seen that same picture taken at countless other clubs, with countless other girls. Quint approached every situation like it was his: never a matter of how, only a matter of when. I wanted that, by osmosis or other means.
We left without the Waif a bit later. I peeled myself off the plastic seat while Quint muttered something about an aborted handjob near the DJ booth. It had rained and the City smelled sour, the grime of eight million people bubbling to the surface of everything. We walked across the slick pavement in relative silence. Quint was always quietest when he was most drunk, probably because it was harder to lie then.
We ambled through Midtown. Maybe it was our way of giving the night one last chance at redemption. In a matter of hours, the landscape would be transformed, bankers and traders and taxis would flood the streets, stocks would be bought for millions, souls would be sold for pennies. It was a last gasp for the three of us.
We came across a fountain lit by street lamps and lingering fluorescents from office windows, giving it a restrained glow. The water frothed and hummed, bubbles collected in corners along the push of the ripples. Quint lay along the edge, traced a finger through the pool, and stared up at the sky, no care for his coat on the damp concrete. I hated the sky in New York, a pall that hid the glitter of stars. The City didn’t afford anyone the luxury of infinity. I needed that vastness, to leave this prison of 23 square miles, to escape this Island of Everything.
I patted at my pockets for change. I had a penny from 2003 and a nickel from 1985, the last bits of currency on my person. I reflected on their journeys. Metal in the ground. Mined, melted, molded, pressed. Traded for candy and coffee, passed through cup holders and spin cycles. Now to drown here, for a wish I knew the City wouldn’t grant me. Still, I gave Quint the penny, kept the nickel, and considered the purpose of its sacrifice.
I wished for Alicia, that she would take me back. I wished for her prolonged misery, for an unsatisfying life, for adultery and dumb children. I wished to be more successful than her. I wished for peace. I wished for money, for enough to get by, for more than I ever needed, for $2.50 for a slice of pizza. I wished to be like Quint, I wished to be Quint, I wished to never see him again, for the fountain to flood and swallow us both. I wished to see my family. I wished for my parents’ happiness, with each other or otherwise. For my brother’s recovery, for my dog’s worms. I wished for Melanie/Melody. I wished to see her tomorrow and the next day, to wake up next to her. I wished for one hundred girls as vapid, for a line to form outside my door, for no strings. I wished for the City, for everyone in it, for it to sink into the Hudson, for its high-rises to scrape the stratosphere. I wished for stars.
I didn’t throw the nickel. I just opened my hand and let gravity finish the job. I knew that five cents, for all those things, for even one of those things, wasn’t enough. Quint sat up and flipped his penny off his thumb and in. I broke the rules and asked what he’d wished for.
I thanked him. And then we moved on, to roam among spires of steel and glass, and I did not regret my empty pockets.