On raw winter nights when the old snow and sky formed a tent of gray around our restaurant on the harbor, Jamie McDougal and I would escape, five minutes at a time, for a cigarette. We would shiver beneath our coats, our thin black uniforms leaving us vulnerable to the sting of frostbitten wind swirling in from the Atlantic, all for the fugitive high of tobacco. We would talk a little, the fewer the words the better we understood each other, and inhale deeply until all irritation subsided.
Most nights we closed the restaurant together. We wiped down counters and booths, put up chairs, and dried and stocked glasses. We left with our cash in hand, our lower backs in boat knots, our minds clear from a day’s labor.
On slow nights when we had no more than a table at a time, we took our cigarette breaks early and often. Once our smokes felt more like compulsion than luxury, we would give away our tables to the bartender, close out early, take off. Free at last, we clutched our coats to our bodies and walked into the wind towards a dark, humid bar.
Usually we took refuge in the basement of Papagayo’s where we sipped our margaritas with the mischievous grins of middle schoolers playing hooky. The dim, mildewy basement accommodated commiseration, unlike our refined dining room where all conversations adhered to a template. The bartenders, familiar with our customs, brought us round after round of Dos Equis, leaving the empty bottles on the table as trophies for our victory over drudgery. For a couple of hours, maybe less, liquor stretched out the time, elongated our subterranean reprieve from responsibility. Each minute of the night was the slow crawl of precipitation down a bay window.
Jamie’s boyfriend, Derek, a bartender in the area, worked the early shift at a sports bar catering to finance types who lived in seaside condos nearby. Around nine or ten, after dispensing hundreds of corporate-sized beers, Derek would come to our bistro to abate the inventory of unopened Coors Light. He would flirt with the chubby white bartender from Dorchester, asking about her black son’s future in basketball, football, or who knows, hockey. And after last call, when Jamie would cram her apron into her purse and yank Derek out the door by his wrist, he was sure to pinch her in such a way that she would shriek, catching all of the regulars’ attention.
On the nights that Jamie slipped out early, though, Derek would swing by, register her absence, and polish off some hard liquor to catch a sudden and thorough buzz. With the raging focus of an addict, he would roam from bar to bar looking for her, texting and getting no response, a lumbering force of low self-esteem in the night.
I would feel the vibrating as if it came from my own seat, but I would continue to talk nonetheless. Jamie would stare into her lap and nod as if she was listening to what I was saying. She would look back up at me with a smile as she slipped the phone into her pocket pretending that I never noticed her divided attention. Her hand would come back up glued to a pack of cigarettes.
“I’m going for a smoke,” she would say, and leave and never return.
My girlfriend, Anna, lived in the historic brownstone community, Beacon Hill, where she rented a third-floor apartment at a discount from a screenwriter in her family. An easy transfer from the Silver Line to the Red Line could get me there in twenty minutes. So with my hands lodged in my pockets and my body disabused from the cold by the alcohol streaming through my veins, I would walk the fifty minute walk to her apartment.
Along Seaport Blvd. the smell of raw fish clung to my nostrils and the unfinished condominiums loomed like massive headstones towering high above the graves of affordable rent. Once over the bridge and across Atlantic Ave., I passed through the desolate Financial District where the near homeless and white-collar cronies gathered in dive bars to slake their grim thirst. Reaching Cambridge St. the cold settled into my bones, so I lengthened my stride for the final stretch, maintaining a pace that burned my lungs until I reached MGH. There I slowed my gait to a stroll and crossed over into Beacon Hill.
After buzzing me in, Anna would unlock the front door, scurry back to her room, and scrunch up on the inside half of her bed. Not too far behind, I would plod in, shed my work clothes, and climb into the cocoon of warmth she had been fostering with sleepy anticipation. Anna liked to turn over then and whisper one of the many pet names she had for me in my ear. She would squeeze two or three of my fingers, look up at me from the nook between my arm and ribs, and turn away. I knew that she had fallen asleep when her squeeze softened to a hold. I would lie awake processing the alcohol, bitterness collecting in my mouth, my heart straining to pump blood, my mind occupied by images of the night gone. The way Jamie held her cigarette with the steady loose wrist of a seasoned smoker. How, on those slow nights, our glances met from across the dining room and a nod would understand a grin. Thick as thieves for another six months until turnover descended with the reliability of circadian rhythm.
I would turn my body over on its side to conform it with the subtle arch of Anna’s softly pumping back.
Max Ildari is a writer and computer programmer. Currently, he works as a Software Developer/Analyst for the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas. This is his first publication. When not in front of a computer screen, Max enjoys playing soccer and tennis, reading novels, and having a long game of chess over a glass of whiskey.
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