“Two Gents on a Church Lawn” by Jeff Mark
When it occurred to me that I was to leave on a ten-day vacation at the end of the week, I knew that there was no way I could go without seeing Ismar one last time; the pejorative usage of the phrase “one last time” suggesting that I would somehow never see him again, which isn’t, of course, true. Still, it felt fitting we’d have one last hurrah (again, the sinister apocalypse of the saying) prior to my departure. (It should be noted, at least in parenthetical, that the world was, in fact, supposed to end while I was away, if you are so inclined to believe in evangelical billboard wisdom—retrospective side note: it didn’t, the world, end).
My girlfriend thinks Ismar and I are gay for each other, which may not be entirely untrue, insomuch as we’ve known each other only since last December, and so little a companionship (it now being June) is certainly not a duration suitable enough to establish true romantic jurisdiction. And however straight I’ve always known myself to be, I am not homophobic enough to wholesale cast out any suggestion of the contrary. Ismar is, in fact, the most attractive man I know; and, he had been doing P90X, the latest trend in internet-pirated work-out videos. And, judging by the way we handled the deaf Belgian girls, an onlooker could make certain assumptions. Still, though, we’ve consummated nothing, and as far as I can tell, my jealous girlfriend can consider her relationship safe.
There is something about traveling that makes all days leading up to it feel like terminal ends, so I needed to see Issy, my friend, one final time (Doom for effect).
When I arrived in DC for a late dinner and drinks, Issy said, “I’ve been doing P90X,” and wrapped me in a bear hug that proved it. When he hugs people, he keeps his head close to the huggee, cheek to cheek, which I ascribe to his being from Bosnia (something those weird eastern Europeans must do) but make embraces feel somehow more tender.
“I can see, you look good.”
He pointed to where I could drop my things and had a full glass of water, “I hope you’re hungry.”
“Yes. What type of menu?”
“Are you restrictive?”
Ismar laughed and tilted his head back. His chin was full of dark black whisker seedlings, because it was after five o’clock. “I’m so glad you’re here man.”
“Me too,” I said, smiling, intimidated.
Ismar lives in Adams Morgan, which is a neighborhood more connected than the spotty, upper crust DuPont Circle and is on the fault line of the seedy, police bust area of Columbia Heights. The Italian restaurant was tiny and popular. We happened to get the last available table and as a result (because the kitchen’s operating system was to serve each table fully before moving on) we didn’t get our food until three hours after sitting, which is interesting because our first course was just sliced prosciutto.
Luckily, our house wine came.
We had a full carafe.
“My God, man, wait until you see her. This Ethiopian girl,” he said, shaking his head, which essentially meant that he was saying the same sentence again, “My God.”
“Yeah?” I asked, willing to live vicariously through him.
“I can’t wait until you meet her. Besides, we’ll get free Hookah. But you don’t smoke.”
“Just like in Addis.”
“My smoking temperance?”
“No. The girls. The same.”
Ismar and I had met in Ethiopia, and part of our holding on to it was to be fond of beautiful girls from there, which there are a plethora of living in DC, especially in Adams Morgan. It’s also not too difficult, because they are gorgeous, Ethiopian girls.
I sipped my wine and imagined it traveling all the way down. Ismar just sat back and smiled at me. I can see how my girlfriend would manifest her insecurities in this regard, but you have to know the platonic camaraderie of men. If you’re a man, at least. Or, if you have a brother. It works, just this way. It doesn’t have to be a sex thing, like it always does with women. Okay, maybe I’m generalizing, but I’m not a woman, so I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em. I digress.
Then Ismar, sort of out of the blue, but really, somehow expected, asked me “How did you figure out that Amy was it?”
“I don’t know,” I said, having sat down my wine class on the exact maroon ring it left on the plastic tablecloth. “I think I just exhausted that part of me. That old part. Running around all the time.”
He nodded. He was running around at the moment.
“But it’s not easy,” I continued. “You still have all those same urges and whatnot. It’s not like I can pretend there aren’t beautiful girls around, and it’s not like they don’t shake their asses at me.” Pissing contest. “But I sort of just remember what I felt like, back then.”
“Like this one time. I was sitting at a bar, sort of depressed because I just ended a little affair I was having with a half-Indian girl. . .”
“What was the other half?”
“Sure. Anyway, and I was depressed not because it ended but because I knew it was going to end and, well, I didn’t really like her, you know? But I played it out, because I wanted to like her. I was hoping we could get to like each other. But that never works out.”
“So, here I am at this bar and this other girl is sitting next to me.”
“Get over it. But anyway, she looked as down-and-out as I did. So I said, not even looking over, ‘What do you drink?’ and she said, ‘What?’ And I said, ‘What’s your drink?’ and she said ‘Black and Tan.’ So I said, all fifties casual like, ‘Tender, two Black and Tans.’ When I woke up the next morning, she had her naked back to me and I felt the emptiest I’d ever felt.” Ismar looked contemplative. “I think that’s how I started moving away from that. That early twenties crap.”
He paid for our bill after mock haggling over who would get it. He had taken the check from the table and I didn’t put up much of a fight. I had sort of flung my hand feebly in its direction. I could tell in his eyes that he was truly interested in the question he asked me, and truly disinterested in the Ethiopian girl. If I had one edge on him, it was that he wanted to know how I could be monogamous with one girl. And that’s something all of us gents eventually need to find out. Because we want girls and that’s what girls want.
Next door they were serving jumbo slices, superfluously large pizza slices that had to be folded to be handled. I made a mental note and a verbal suggestion that we return after our evening out.
We sat down at Tryst, an internet café coffee shop that also served mood lighting and whiskey. There was African art on the walls and people with open textbooks studying. There were also people having beer and eating pastries from the front glass case. We sat by the open fourth wall of the café by the sidewalk to get popular vantage of the harlequins going by with their aftershave-sodden fellows. I ordered a Bushmills rocked and explained to Ismar the conundrum of a Northern Irish whiskey drunk by a man with southern Irish ancestry. He had the Irish coffee and said he’d try one of mine in the next round. Booze like a boxing match.
We began feeling very good. My drink cold and his drink warm, the open DC air finding its way to us through the invisible wall. The darkness of the night masking the idiosyncrasies of everyone’s insecurities. We were two chaps, stuck on the planet on which we were born, waiting to see if all those whackadoo preachers had it right: we’d be flatfooted on infirm ground when the volcanoes erupted and the saved rose.
“She always waits on me,” Ismar said, nodding his head toward a pretty waitress when she walked away, “when I’m here alone.”
I don’t want to paint him a chauvinist. The fact is, that waitress really did always wait on him. The fact is, the Ethiopian girl at the Hookah bar really did want his nocturnal attention. Ismar has a confidence and suaveness that is gravity to young women. He is the equation girls are trained to find magnetic: success+confidence+looks=mate. Their carnal urges were evident in those extra split seconds women we’d encounter spent looking at him. It was enough to make a guy feel emasculated, though I chalked it all up to the fact that I was taken. But like I said, he isn’t a chauvinist; he turned them all down.
“She’s hot,” I said, which never sounds smart. When guys get all primitive, we end up sounding like apes. But it always seems okay when we’re together, guys. So that’s exactly what I said.
“Totally,” he said. Same deal with this exclamation. And Issy and myself are educated, but whatever. I digress.
“So why don’t you?”
“I don’t know.”
At the Hookah bar, the Ethiopian girl brought us tobacco flavored with lavender and mint, and she was more gorgeous than Ismar could have hoped to describe. Her hair was the same color as her skin, which made her entire head look like a silhouetted bottle bobbing with wave strides in the middle of a night ocean, when she walked away from us. Whatever we were talking about was left, dissipated like the smoke issuing from the coal set atop our hookah. It was enough for me to take a drag from the hose. I coughed.
Ismar didn’t even question my smoking.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Issy,” I said.
“I told you, man.” He laughed, taking in a great draught of smoke that smelled like what it wasn’t and exhaling it over his shoulder toward the sidewalk.
We exchanged gulps from Belgian beers and ordered more. I experimented with a drag or two more from the hookah, tentative about lung cancer.
The waitress came out and chatted with us. We had the trump card: we had been to Ethiopia. Naturally, two white fellows, having been to her homeland, seemed all-the-more interesting to her. Well, at least it made Ismar more interesting. He told her about his experience there without tipping her off that what he was really saying was, and this is why you’ll sleep with me while adding inflections in his voice to me that said, this is too easy.
She took a drag from our hookah, from his hose.
“So explain to me why you aren’t married to that girl,” I said.
You have to please believe me that we’re not scoundrels. We have other interests outside of women. I mean, we’re a lot nobler than what one night out at bars might present. In fact, I’d say we go to certain lengths to express our chivalry and fidelity. But this is just a weird guy thing. I bet you anything that every once and awhile, Socrates nudged Plato with his elbow after a bit of un-poisoned wine and said, man that’s a tight robe on that Aphrodite.
“I don’t know,” he said again, his tagline.
“What does that mean? You’ve been dodging the question all night. How can you not know why you don’t get with that girl?” Jesus, even writing it feels gross.
“It’s hard to say,” he said. “I mean, I don’t exactly know why per say, or why not. I am just not interested. I think I’m more interested in the fact that I could have her, over actually having her.”
“You still got it.”
“I never dropped it.”
“You’re Cupid firing arrows into himself.”
“That’s a silly thing to say.”
“Because then I’d be the one falling in love.”
I’m not much older than Ismar, but I’m older in that strange hump of the twenties, on the other side of the five. Neither of us is more worldly, but I’ve had the experience of failing over and over again with relationships. Over and over and over. (And this isn’t some huge Gender Studies piece, either).
So I just nodded at him and we went to another bar. One on the other side of town. Far from where the Ethiopian girl worked, leaving the lavender and mint hovering behind us.
There was a hockey game on and between the bottles and taps, one hundred varieties of beer. I told the bartender I wanted whatever they made in DC. We drank whatever he gave us. We did this at what seemed to be every bar down U street. We hopped in taxis, careening our necks in supercilious fashion at girls in new-summer mini-skirts and tank tops, sweat-stained in the back because they’d just been sitting, or at girls walking tiny dogs, their hair free-flowing and almighty as God. We rode buses and looked at our blue reflections in the opposite windows. We stopped in DC’s various genre bars (aeronautic themed, bookstore themed, cellar themed, science themed) and were ready for the beds in his apartment (mine, really, regurgitated out of his living room sofa), if it wasn’t for that fateful jumbo slice.
The little Italian restaurant was closed, but my face was grease-laden as my slice dripped unromantically from its folded middle. Ismar was buying unfiltered cigarettes from a drug store and, feeling emboldened by my earlier imbibition, I walked heavy-footed over to the congregating young men and women on the sidewalk, whimsical as they were with the expectation and eagerness to celebrate life’s less mystical joy.
I am not an adroit drunk, but I am confident as all Hell. It’s often referred to as beer balls, but in my case, we’re talking wine, whiskey, smoke, and beer beer beer balls. I strolled right up to the most suggestively-clad two women, right in front of the corresponding two men who were in mid-discourse with them. This is a terrible and unforgiveable move on the spectrum of men, but I was ablaze with dominance and was charged with the only fool-hearted task a disheveled alcohol-sated late-twenties betrothed man could have: get his single early-twenties good buddy laid. Writing this now, in retrospect, makes me feel really stupid. You’d think, that in advanced years, with maturity, intellect, and experience, such pursuits would dissipate in a man’s psyche. But, by Christ, they don’t.
The two young men whose prey I intercepted tried in vain to regain their catch, but I was drunk, bigger, flamboyantly eating my jumbo slice (I don’t know why young girls dig this sort of thing, but they do), and aggressive. And what’s more, my trump card was just then coming out of the drug store, looking left and right nonchalantly, and packing the unfiltered cigarettes as if he was James fucking Dean incarnate. The usurped lads hadn’t a chance in Hell.
Ismar and I are still young enough to be in that age of folly where we think we’re never going to die. I mean, we know we will, but it’s so abstract that we still call its bluff. Armageddon doesn’t scare us. The vastness of the world doesn’t scare us. Cigarettes don’t scare us (see: him). We collect flags from the countries we’ve visited and make our own little United Nations. We drink and smoke and rely on our livers and lungs. We love so completely that any speculation that life is suffering is cynicism in its lowest form. We don’t subscribe. I digress.
I folded my paper plate over twice and threw it into the nearby trashcan. Ismar asked one of the two girls her name. She was short and pretty with curly black hair and a devious smile. Her friend (who, by Ismar’s approaching the black-haired girl, was my default) had short blond hair fashioned in that way that looked wet and was combed back slickly toward the back of her neck. She turned from me to drop and stomp a cigarette. Her black dress barely found the bottom of her ass and was sliced open from her neck to the top of that very same ass. Along her spine were faded green tattoos that were letters of a language I didn’t know. All and all, they were very pretty.
“What’s up?” I asked, which really isn’t a question, so I suppose, I said.
“Waa?” the blond girl retorted.
“Waa? I spock Flemish et I don uddersan.”
I looked over at Ismar; he was looking back. His black-haired girl was making similar noises. It wasn’t just as if they spoke little English and that they were struggling with comprehending us. Rather, their voices were oddly empty of tonal cadence. As they gesticulated exaggeratedly and wildly at each other with their hands, it became very obvious that they were deaf. Deaf girls from Belgium. That’s when Ismar and I knew that everything was as it should be.
Ismar’s girl looked back at him after her prehensile discussion and said, “Okay foursome?”
The four of us walked down a dark street heavily planted with fine trees. We didn’t have the slightest idea of the time, and what’s more, we didn’t care. Ismar had to work at nine the next morning; I had to drive home to Philadelphia. Those futures were as distant to us as our retirements. Our funerals. Ismar and the black-haired girl walked a bit ahead of myself and the slick blond number. Whenever I spoke, I had to tap her on the shoulder, so she could read my lips in a different language. Then she would shyly respond monosyllabic-monotonally in her best English.
I felt my girl getting shyer as each block passed. The promiscuity of the black-haired girl’s suggestion prompted Ismar and I to nod at each other knowingly, but the slick blond seemed to become more tentative the closer we got to Ismar’s apartment.
I thought they were just crazy European chicks that had curious European sex with crazy American strangers. As we got on, I realized that she was just a young woman traveling, sobering up, and realizing we might be a mistake. Ismar and I, two stuffed animals, with real teeth. I felt awkward when she looked sideways at me when she thought I wouldn’t notice, as if she was calculating the likelihood that I was a rapist, a murderer. Her quiet world presented more dangers than her other female counterparts. She knew she had to be more vigilant. I suppose I really cared for her because of that.
In my mind I imagined romantic things her spinal tattoo might say. Ahead, Ismar and his gal stopped at the appropriate corner, near his apartment, and waited for us to catch up. When we did, he said, “Here’s good.”
Both tried to read our lips but we were too quick.
Ismar stepped into the street and raised his arm. The taxi swerved menacingly into the shoulder and stopped abruptly in front of us. Ismar opened the back door and smiled that goddam smile of his. The one that stops Ethiopian princesses dead. The one that fathers have nightmares about. The one that is the most sincere smile in this entire little world. He held the door with his right hand and ushered the girls in with the left. When they were seated, scrunched to the far door to make room for us, he shut the door. He moved to the open passenger-side window of the cab and said something I didn’t catch. I was bending down, looking at the girls through the window. As the cab drove away, we could hear “Waa?” in the wind.
“The black-haired one told me their hotel,” he said.
We laid there, the grass of the church lawn tickling us behind our ears, looking at the stars that tried to prove they existed through the city’s light blindness. The sun would rise soon, and when it did, we wouldn’t be laying there. But we were just then.
“That was fun,” I said.
“Do you think it was mean?”
“Mean? In what way?”
“I don’t know. I suppose in that we led them to think one thing and delivered another.”
“Like false advertisement?”
“More like fait un-accompli.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. I mean, maybe it was a little mean. But we didn’t take advantage of them.”
“We took advantage of their sensibilities.”
“Do you want to feel bad about it?”
“No. I don’t. And I don’t. I just am thinking, is all.”
“You know, Issy, I really didn’t expect all this tonight. Usually, dinner and drinks is dinner and drinks.”
“But you know.”
We squirmed a little, our bodies matting the grass.
“They were very good-looking though,” he said.
“Of course they were,” I said. “I wouldn’t expect anything less for us.”
He laughed, “Indeed. Good-looking. As if there wasn’t anything more finite. Hey man, you ever wonder where they go?”
“Where who goes?”
“Anyone. The girls, like that, I mean. Or anyone really.”
Of course this conversation was being threaded through the needle’s eye of our inebriation. Certainly it seemed to make more sense then.
“Oh, they go where they go. Like us and everyone too.” And suddenly, but really I knew all along, how much I loved Amy.
“Yes that’s right isn’t it?” he said. He laughed out loud, almost enough to ring the church bells. That close, we couldn’t have been closer. It was okay, then, for me to leave the country. The girls had gone. But lying there on the church lawn, every bit of emptiness began to fill.
Jeff Mark is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at the Community College of Philadelphia. His fiction and poetry have been published in online and print form. He lives in Philadelphia where he fields form-rejection emails from agents who think his first novel, Into the Everything, is “not for them,” and laughs, as it was published in 2011 by Punkin Books.