Not so Romantic Fiction by Nancy Scott
The low-slung cinder block building on the highway north of town is painted glowing magenta, a chartreuse neon swirl breaking its bare façade. A partially-hidden sign nestled in the shrubs near the entrance to the parking lot identifies the place as Marico’s. Tony Marico purchased an abandoned warehouse about ten years before and transformed it into a family restaurant on one side, circular bar and dance floor in the larger section. When the family restaurant floundered, Tony decided to expand the entire place into a singles bar, not anticipating that he would increasingly attract the gay crowd. Eventually Tony lost his hetero customers, but business had become so profitable Marico’s opens only on Friday and Saturday nights.
When Harry invited Linda to join him and his new girlfriend for the evening, Linda hesitated, wondering what Harry was up to.
“Why would I want to meet Judy?” she asked, retaining the right to back out.
“She’s a nice person. We could have a good time,” Harry replied, matter-of-factly.
When the three arrived around eleven p.m., the parking lot was jammed. A stream of men flowed in and out of the building. Inside, the noise was deafening. The recessed lighting filtering through a haze of cigarette smoke cast a phosphorescent glow over the throng milling around the bar. Fake greenery crept up the flocked wallpaper, leftover from the family restaurant days, and dripped from the ceiling in great boughs. There were no empty tables, no other women in sight. Harry went for drinks, leaving the two women standing alone. This gave Linda a chance to take a good look at Judy whom she’d met for the first time tonight. When Harry had picked Linda up, he introduced Judy, who said, “Hi,” then slid into the back seat and disappeared into the upholstery. Harry turned up the music on the radio and focused on driving, ignoring the two women.
Judy was slim and blonde, in her late twenties, with a vapid look one could either attribute to the hour, the unflattering light, or the fact that she was involved with Harry.
“How long have you known him?” Linda asked.
“Since April. No, that’s not right. I think I met him about a year ago when he was working a deal with Claridge Realty. I was their receptionist.”
“You still work there?”
“Yes.” Judy smiled wanly, then turned her head in the direction that she’d seen Harry disappear. “Have you ever been here before?”
“No,” Linda said. “It looks like a third-rate movie set.”
“We were supposed to go dancing, but I don’t know about this place.”
Harry returned with drinks, found the only unoccupied table, and began methodically scooping up cigarette butts, dirty glasses, and crumpled cocktail napkins. Unable to find a wastebasket, he neatly stacked the debris in a trough rooting one end of a gigantic plastic grape arbor. As Linda watched Harry cleaning up, she realized how compulsively tidy he could be at times and how misleading that was when you knew how he lived.
“It’s a zoo at the bar,” he said as he slid his lanky frame onto a rickety chair. “Cheers.” He took a long gulp of his drink. “Damn, they’ve watered the booze.”
“Come here often?” Linda asked him.
“Once or twice,” Harry said. “Mind if I dance with Judy?” He put down his drink and taking Judy’s arm, pulled her out of her chair.
Linda nodded, but not wanting to be stranded at the table, she followed them to the edge of the dance floor, where she watched, mesmerized, as strobe lights fragmented a sea of dancers, creating a pastiche of sequins, boas, leather, and disembodied limbs. There was no gender on the dance floor, only blaring, strident music, staccato movement, bizarre and incongruous like a burlesque of staid light and sound shows of the past. The mingling of cologne and tobacco, the sweet pungency of pot was overwhelming. Those men not wanting to watch elbowed past her anxious to become part of the spectacle. Others pressed into corners to touch one another. She became an invisible trespasser who’d wandered into a surreal landscape.
Having lost sight of them, Linda returned to the table to finish her drink. A young man in leather jacket and skin-tight patched jeans approached the table, carrying a drink. His dirty blond hair was cut very short in the back, but a hank of it flopped over his right eye. Although he kept brushing it back, it wouldn’t stay put.
“Hi,” he said, “Do you mind if I sit here? There aren’t any other tables and the bar is full.”
“Fine,” Linda said.
“Do you come here often?”
“Hardly. How about you?”
“This is the first time. I thought this was something else. I mean I didn’t know it was like this.” He pushed the hair away from his eye again.
Linda felt a little sorry for him. Maybe he hadn’t been here before, but he didn’t drop in by chance. She wanted to pin back the hair that kept covering his eye. She disliked talking to only one eye.
“Are you alone?” he asked.
“No. I came with friends. They’re dancing.”
“Are you sure you don’t mind me sitting here?”
Linda shook her head. The young man sat quietly, looking around, his drink untouched. His silence was beginning to bug her, but she wasn’t sure how to ask him to leave. Then he picked up his drink and said he worked on the line at a refrigeration assembly plant.
She said she knew the place. She’d passed out leaflets there during a political campaign. The guys coming off the night shift were hungry and bleary-eyed. They took the leaflets because she blocked their way to the snack shop. When the snack shop emptied out, she collected the leaflets from the trash can and took them to her next stop.
The young man laughed, then told her he’d quit school at seventeen and had worked there ever since. He made good money, but had heard the plant might be closing. He hoped not because he was thinking about getting married.
Judy came back alone. “Harry’s dancing with some guy who’s completely wired,” she said. She looked at the young man hunching in his leather jacket. He smiled sheepishly, got up, and edged his way toward the dance floor where he leaned against the wall. A tall, dark-haired man came up to him, spoke a few words, and the two make their way onto the dance floor.
“Who was that?” Judy asked.
“Haven’t the slightest idea. Claims he wandered in here by mistake.”
“What do you think?”
“Guys are snapping vials all over the dance floor. It’s kind of spooky,” Judy said.
“Want to leave?”
Their escort returned to the table, shirt opened halfway to his navel. He was dripping with sweat and grinning.
“New style?” Linda asked, pointing to his chest.
“It’s hot as hell out there.”
“Want a handkerchief to wipe off?” Judy offered.
“No. I want to dance. Come on.”
“I think I’ll sit this one out,” Linda said.
“Don’t do that.” Harry took her by the arm.
As he guided both women onto the dance floor, he developed a swagger, a perfect hip roll that signaled ‘on the prowl’. Linda would have preferred just to watch, but Harry wouldn’t let go of her arm. The strobes were making her slightly nauseous and the music was unrelenting. Maybe if she were stoned or drunk, she wouldn’t give a damn about being out there. It was difficult to avoid being drawn into the pulsating rhythm, the vibration of the beat. She felt her body lurch away from her. She was afraid of losing control, of get sucked into the oppressive male sweatiness that eddied around her.
The three of them patterned in and out of an impromptu dance with a fluidity that seemed unnervingly natural. Then Judy suddenly excused herself and disappeared. Harry pulled Linda to him, pressed her close, and started a slow glide across the floor in counterpoise to the music. She grabbed onto him for support because everything around her was dissolving. Harry was the only solid object within reach.
A steady blue light appeared, replacing the fractured strobes and the music slowed. Two men jostled Linda as they carried a frail, unconscious boy off the dance floor. Moments before she’d spotted the stricken boy huddled in a corner, his arms shielding his face. She looked up at her partner. Harry shrugged and stopped moving, but hooked his arm around her shoulder so she couldn’t leave. He scanned the dance floor, catching the eye of a man in a red velvet vest standing off to the side.
“If you want to dance with him,” Linda said, “go ahead. It’s okay with me.”
“Right now,” Harry said, “I want to dance with you.”
The live band finally took a break. Feeling giddy, Linda excused herself to go to the ladies’ room, which was filled with men, primping before the mirror, touching up eye shadow, adjusting pantyhose, and gossiping. “Hi ya, honey,” someone called out to her. As she waited for a free stall, someone else puked on the floor. She decided she didn’t need to go that badly.
By two a.m., the crowd was beginning to thin. Linda had had enough. Sitting across the table staring into space, Judy said little, except to make quick, sarcastic comments about the characters that edged past the table. If Judy had any misgivings about Harry, whom neither of them had seen for nearly forty-five minutes, she wasn’t sharing it.
Linda thought about saying something to Judy about Harry, but, surely this young woman must have caught on to his game by now. He had no boundaries. He was always broke and knew how to play vulnerable women. And to warn Judy would be an empty gesture, because Linda still slept with him from time to time. She wasn’t sure why she’d never cut him out of her life forever, but at least she didn’t feel responsible for him anymore, which was a relief.
“Let’s get him out of here,” she said, breaking the silence.
Judy stopped shredding a cocktail napkin. They headed toward the dance floor, where they found him lounging in a doorway, engaged in conversation with the man in the red velvet vest whose right hand was loosely draped on Harry’s hip.
“Do you think we could leave now?” Judy asked, pouting.
“Right away,” Harry replied, and made a perfunctory attempt to introduce the women. The man in the red velvet vest nodded and slithered away.
Linda decided Harry was too drunk to drive and argued the car keys from him. She and Judy loaded him, still protesting, into the passenger seat. He promptly dozed off. No sound from Judy in the back seat either. Driving felt like flying as Linda sped along the nearly deserted road, letting the cool air clear her head and restore her balance.
By the time they arrived at Linda’s apartment, Harry had sobered considerably. He insisted on coming in, uninvited, for another drink. When Judy whined about how late it was and they really should be getting home, Harry became adamant, climbed out of the car, and headed up the steps to the apartment as if he owned the place. Once inside, he went straight to the cabinet where Linda kept the booze and began pouring a round of scotch.
“Did you enjoy yourself?” he asked Linda.
“It was different,” she said, glancing over a Judy, who looked as if she was about to cry. Judy refused a drink, planted herself on the sofa, and idly thumbed through a copy of Newsweek.
Linda took her scotch and poured it down the sink. She was dead tired and wanted to get rid of both of them. Then for no apparent reason another encounter crossed her mind. Months before, Harry had invited her and Paul, whom she had never met, to have dinner at an expensive restaurant. She had wanted to dine there for a long time. Harry had money to blow then; he also had a key to Paul’s apartment, where he said he occasionally crashed. Maybe he slept with Paul. Linda didn’t know for sure, but she didn’t really care either. After she met Harry at Paul’s apartment, Paul called and said, “Terribly sorry, but I’ll be late.” Killing time, they made love in Paul’s bed, finished neatly rearranging the covers just as Paul’s key turned in the lock.
The restaurant was first-class. The fettuccine Alfredo and fine Cabernet almost made it worthwhile listening to Paul drone on about the trouble with the local art scene. At one point Paul interrupted his monologue to ask what she did. It was the first time he’d acknowledged her since they’d been introduced. In hushed voice, she explained that she was not at liberty to discuss her work, which pissed off Harry because he kicked her shin under the table. She stifled a giggle as she leaned down to rub the tender spot.
Now, tired and annoyed, Linda wondered why she’d ever slept with Harry in the first place, though he was a good lover, attentive and confident. Sex was never an ordeal as it had been with her ex-husband who couldn’t keep an erection for more than two minutes. “Please, don’t move,” Ben would plead, trying to hold off, but it was never any good, and Linda grew to hate her husband and avoid the sex. When she’d first met Ben, she noticed that gay men seemed to be attracted to him, but she’d married him anyway. Linda never understood why she’d stayed with him for so many years. After they got divorced, Ben came out, and Linda faulted herself for making it possible for him to pretend he was straight. The fact that Harry swung both ways didn’t really bother her; she wasn’t married to him.
Judy perked up again.“It’s awfully late,” she said. “I really want to go home.”
“Soon, babe,” Harry said. “Let’s have some music.” He started stacking and restacking CD’s.
“It’s time to go,” Linda said quietly, when Harry came up behind her and gave her a hug, nuzzling against her dark, thick hair. “I know where this is headed and I don’t want any of it, neither does Judy.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Harry said.
“Sure you do, but we’ve all had too much to drink and the sun will be up soon.” Linda picked up his jacket and handed it to him. “Don’t forget to take Judy with you,” she whispered.
“I’ll call you tomorrow then,” Harry said, gulping down the last of his drink.
“Please don’t let him drive,” Linda called out to Judy who ignored her, opened the door on the driver’s side, and helped him in.
The next week Linda saw Harry on the street, and tried to avoid him, but he followed her into the lot where she’d parked her car.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, coming up to her. “Are you angry at me for something?”
“No,” she said, not wanting to get into with him right then.
“Let’s grab a bite to eat at the deli,” he said, taking her arm. Linda didn’t protest, and let him lead her from the parking lot.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve,” she said, as they sat in a booth and glanced through greasy menus.
“Talk to me.”
“If you and Judy are into a threesome, that’s your business, but don’t include me.”
Harry leaned back against the slick vinyl of the booth. “Besides,” Linda slipped the menu into the stainless holder on the table and looked directly at him, “Judy doesn’t impress me as someone who’s into that, unless she does it to please you.”
“We’ve tried it before and she said she liked it.” Harry smiled.
“What will happen if she says she doesn’t want to do it again?” Linda pressed on.
“I wouldn’t force her to do it.” Harry flipped open a pack and took out a cigarette.
“Probably not, but you’d be screwing someone behind her back.” Linda arched her eyebrows and shot him a knowing look.
“Look, you don’t have to get all upset about this. I wanted the two of you to meet. That’s all.” Harry pulled a lighter out of his pocket, lit the cigarette, and looked around for a waitress, then leaned across the table and ran a finger along the side of Linda’s cheek.
“I especially enjoyed watching you make an ass of yourself at Marico’s,” Linda said, pushing away Harry’s finger. She knew she’d gone too far. She’d promised herself that when she ran into Harry again, she’d control her mouth. He was never going to change. She had been free to turn down his invitation to go to Marico’s.
Harry didn’t take the bait; rather he pulled a twenty out of his wallet and dropped it on the table. “Order whatever you like,” he said. “I just remembered I’ve got an appointment.” He snubbed out his cigarette and strode out of the deli, leaving her wondering how she would respond the next time he appeared. Perhaps then she would tell him to go to hell. www.nancyscott.net.