There was the winter we all cleaned up just to find our addictions weren’t to blame. Then there was the day Reno toppled from a balcony and shattered both legs. Then there was the summer Elise started skipping work to stare out the kitchen window while the radio mumbled reports of wounded soldiers. Sitting at the table, lips pursed as if waiting on a kiss, dressed in her work suit but not budging. She’d scratch her wrist and say, “I just don’t know, Gray, I just don’t know.” And I would ask what didn't she know, and then her shoulders would slump and then she’d shuffle to the bedroom and put her arm over her eyes, the back of her wrist red from her nails. But before all that, high times!
High times usually meant The Bliss. Reno demanded we keep frequenting, even though we should have long outgrown it. Graffiti on the walls, open dealing by the bathrooms, the edges of the floors gummy with residue. When we left we took the bar, its odors, its filth, with us. The bar itself was a cocktail of the sublime and grotesque: Maddie the bartender, neck scarred and eyes dead from God knows, handed out buybacks and kisses on the cheek to regulars and strangers alike; the grizzled men, beards wet with well whiskey, the ones who had come to town after the earthquake wrecked their old places, rooted themselves to the corner stools and were unapproachable until late at night, when they grew weepy drunk; the blind boy, Elk, propped himself on a railing by the door and sipped vodka and ground the heels of his hand into his eyes so he could force signals to his brain.
We didn’t fit anymore. We lived in the neutral zone between ages, graduated from the craziness of youth but unwrinkled, unscarred by the real world. If we rolled down our sleeves to cover tattoos, we could have looked as respectable as the politicians on the t.v., the ones who rolled their sleeves up to seem like regular folk – Regular, Reno would say, I mean, who actually believes in regular? We did, though, or were starting to, because we were regular, but not. Respectable, but not. Adult, but not.
We had real jobs by then, too, or, really, as Elise liked to point out, quasi-real, semi-real, good, convincing imitations of the real – Watch as I look professional while reading the comics! See me field phone calls with a hangover. And now, with my glasses on, I will enter data with only a few errors. But we’d filter in, hair cropped to respectability, and the crowd at the bar would ash at our shoes until they realized Maddie knew us, and then they’d just turn their backs, let us blend with the smoke. The Bliss gave me the feeling of trespassing into my old apartment, a feeling Elise admitted she shared, but she always had a greater flair in her description; she said it was like receiving all the kisses of your life at once: the kiss on the forehead from the creepy uncle; the quick peck goodbye; the first French kiss you ever had, crouched in the neighbor’s tree house with the kid who just moved in down the block. She said things like that.
Then Reno would come in, and The Bliss’s pulse would quicken. Reno performed magic tricks; Reno bought rounds with no money to support it – ether credit, he called it; Reno appeared with feather boas and the drag queen who had just been wearing it. Reno. His volume made everybody else increase theirs, until The Bliss was a cacophony of shouts and arguments, heated wagers and threats, and only with this accomplished would Reno turn his attention our way, bringing us into specific relief, placing us in the now, as if until then we’d been moving underwater, visible only in distortion. “Gray,” he said. Kissed me. “Elise,” he said. Kissed her hand. It was impossible for us not to smile even at his most obvious pandering. Reno obnoxious, Reno wired, Reno doing tricks – If you look closely you will see that the cigarette is actually levitating. When co-eds came into The Bliss to take up a dare or to take home somebody who wasn’t their boyfriend, Reno was always that dare, always that somebody.
“I wish you two wouldn’t work,” he said. “Work is for stupid people. Offices, ties—” He reached over and rubbed Elise’s skirt. “These things make you look like morons. And for what? Some shitty apartment that looks like every other apartment in your building? I’ve been there, I know. I’ve seen your neighbors with their lousy kids. This, this, this!" He shook his hands by his ears in agitation. "This is what you get for putting on those clothes.”
Behind him, a teaser flashed for the late news: a woman standing in front of rubble, wailing. She looked like somebody that could easily have been stationed in front of The Bliss, shuddering in the aftermath of a drunken lover's quarrel, but at the same time she was far away, her image squeezed tidily into the screen for a few moments, twists of cigarette smoke wafting in front of her to remind us that everything was in some far-off land, distant as a fairy tale – Once upon a time, in a village whose name is forgotten, there had been an age of great sadness.
“You work, too,” Elise said. “Don’t pretend you’re showing us the way."
“Do as I say, not as I do, Elise. Don’t you know I’m here to save you?” He paused to eye a girl who had just entered, watching her hesitate at the door as she squinted through the smoke. “I can’t save myself, so saving you is the only worthy thing I have left in this lifetime. On this planet. In this dream.” He trailed off, eyes on the girl.
He winked at us and then drifted toward the girl, drawn to her as if in suspension, not even in control of his own steps.
“Shut up, Reno,” Elise said as he walked away. He put his hand to his lips. The kiss you never feel, mourners pressing their lips to your cold hand.
Elise and I drank. I saw him do the trick where he drew a lily from behind her back and the trick where he made the shot glass disappear, and by the time that was over she was already leaning against him with her hand pressed to his chest. I understood, later, that nobody was ever really with Reno, that even if he called us his best friends that was only because he would occasionally see us in daylight when he’d come over to nurse a hangover and watch movies while we made omelets and coffee. But he was forever a free agent, and though we’d always talk about Reno – Did you see Reno convince the bouncer to dance? Did you hear Reno crack back to the cop? – we never really spent much time with him at The Bliss, and the whole night was spent watching his drama unfold, his quick fluctuations between comedy and faux-tragedy.
I was tired that night and shuffled my feet back and forth on the floor, hoping Elise would notice, but she’d cleared her attic in the bathroom. It had become a theme with us – my fatigue, her desire for one more drink, one more line, one more hour. It is an empty feeling to know, even as you stand beside someone, that they are slipping away from you, and it is a curse to glimpse into the haze of future and see a clear space carved out marking the absence where they once stood.
On the television, the president appeared, his eyes narrowed in an approximation of resolve as he fielded questions. The Bliss seethed collectively, which coaxed a growl out of Elk, who hated it when people paid attention to the television instead of the music. The kiss of someone returning home, the public display at the terminal, the tongue-tip laced with restraint. Elk was, slowly, going insane, having been fed free pills from the patrons for years, but it was the kind of insanity that Elk, with his last bits of sense, fully realized even as it was happening. It was Elk, in a burst of clarity, who told me that the thing everybody at The Bliss had in common was that they all wanted to kill each other.
Elise said that every word he said made her embarrassed to be alive. I assumed she was talking about the television, but she was looking square at Reno, who was already getting a kiss on the cheek. I suppose, if I had looked closer at that cloudy image of the future, I would have two cut-outs, Elise and Reno, their silhouettes of absence hand-in-hand.
Reno came back to say good-bye and that he and his friend were moving on for a night-cap, and I felt Elise deflate, any momentum she had for the night gone. Kiss of betrayal as old as the kiss itself. “We didn’t meet your friend,” Elise said, but Reno was already whisking her away, monologuing.
“Well, shit,” Elise said. “He never even talks to us anymore.”
“He’ll be over in the morning,” I said.
We finished our drinks and talked vaguely about the images on the television, though Elise was always bored by anything deemed officially newsworthy. While I had begun to pay attention – not something I was proud of, for it had seemed to begin by mere accident – Elise detested anything that qualified as news, though when it was on she couldn’t look away from the images on the screen.
When we left, Elk was breaking into song, and his falsetto haunted the cab ride to the apartment, a thin coat of gold over the wet and dirty streets. Elise came down by pacing our apartment, and I stared mutely at the television.
Elise couldn’t shake the war images we’d seen in the bar, and when I lingered too long over a 24-hour news station, she sighed. “It’s not like it used to be,” she said. “It’s just this thing we know is there, this little place inside all of us that we refuse to tend to.”
“Our inner child war?”
“Our baby war,” she said. She turned off the television. “Nighty-night, Baby War. Sleep, cute little Baby War.” She made a laughing sound, but there was nothing in it.
As we undressed, she sighed. She stood by her closet, scratching the back of her wrist. “Reno isn’t right.”
“No shit,” I said.
“No, I mean, really.”
I was too tired to get into anything. If I could have known then, though, I would have told her: Months later at a magazine stand, I saw the girl Reno left with, and while I tried to pretend not to recognize her, she kept staring at me. She wanted to talk about Reno. “We got to his place, and I was like, okay, here we go,” she said. “But then he just opened up, and before we got anywhere he was fighting back tears. All he kept talking about was you.”
Elise turned out her closet light and crawled into bed with me. On either side of us, the neighbors were quiet, and the only thing we could hear was the purr of traffic. When I closed my eyes, I could still see The Bliss, Maddie’s face lit in dim neon, errant drops of vodka glimmering on the bar. If I never saw it again, it would have kept a tainted beauty in my memory. Elise put her hand on my stomach, moved it slowly back and forth, her signal that she wasn’t ready to sleep yet. The kiss of someone pretending they’ll never leave, wild in the darkness, their arms pulling you tight as if to say: this, only this, will last. I brushed Elise’s hair back from her eyes. After a few touches, we began, slow and wordless, trying to wring some pleasure from that night, trying hard not to moan or sigh, trying not to interrupt the world that was frozen around us. One sudden move and somebody would have heard us, one mistake and we would have had to admit that the hideous world beyond our room was already with us, touching our shoulders as we moved.