Category Archives: Fiction

Short Fiction: “Five Drinks, Five Moments”

October 3rd, 2001

It’s early October in Rochester, and already snow threatens. If we’re lucky it will hold off until November, but sometimes freezing rain is even worse. I’m in a dumpy frat room, back against a shoddy wooden dresser and the smell of unwashed sheets permeating my senses so fully that I can’t be sure if I even notice it anymore, chatting with my former roommate Adam.

He hands me a Smirnoff Ice, while mentioning something about the World Trade Center. It was destroyed just weeks ago and I’d worked in one of the towers all summer long.

But I’m 19 and in that moment I’m more concerned with the drink in my hand, barely listening to what Adam’s saying. Despite having lived with me during our Freshman Year, he has no idea that unless you count Communion wine at Church, I’ve never had a drink before. I turn the bottle around in my hand, condensation slicking my fingers, and then twist the cap, metal points pressing against the soft skin of my palm.

He keeps speaking, alternating angry rants with overly self-aware jokes, wholly unaware what that first taste of sugary, artificial lemon means to me. In a few years I’ll be able to make an honest claim about how disgusting it is, but not yet. I’m still guzzling down soda and candy and chips and all sorts of other tooth-rot on a daily basis, easily forty or fifty pounds overweight and doing nothing to slow the collapse. It still tastes damn fine.

April 24th, 2004

I rush into the bathroom and plow through a stall door, falling onto my knees a moment before 16oz of Baileys Irish Cream rolls up my esophagus and into the bowl below. Today is “Dandelion Day”, the University of Rochester’s unofficial ode to all forms of drunken stupidity. I began my celebration with a handful of friends just before noon, and within twenty minutes I had chugged two beers, had two Irish Car Bombs and then, thinking I was having a third Car Bomb, drank an entire pint of Baileys Irish Cream.

Really, it’s amazing it took this long for it to come back up.

Someone comes in, asks if I’m alright. I’m so out of it that I don’t know if they’re male or female, but I manage to moan something in the affirmative and they leave me be, likely thankful for the escape. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it will be three years until I can smell Baileys again without getting nauseous and another four before I can drink it without flinching.

But as I kneel there with my knees rubbing hard against the tile floor, all I want is for the vomiting to stop so I can get some sleep.

And so I wait and wait and wait and wait.

When I’m ready, I’ll scarf down two Oreo cookies and throw up again before crawling off to bed for five hours. Then my savior will be two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a diet coke, while I walk around the dorm having my humble pie for dessert.

July 25th, 2005

It’s night but it feels like day, my body simultaneously craving sleep and brunch. Seated at the Sky Bar on top of the Keio Plaza Hotel, I watch the gleam of red lights from the Tokyo building tops and swallow hard. There’s no turning back now; in the morning I will be getting on a train to the northern coast of Hyogo Prefecture, in a town with a population smaller than my high school’s.

I should feel homesick but I’m still falling, way way too high above the ground to even imagine the impact. For the first time in my life, I’ve set foot in a city that is bigger and more gnarled than New York, its tight mesh of multi-level shopping centers and circulatory train lines and never-resting lightshows beckoning me out for just one more look. Even more unsettling is the way the city just continues to expand, all the way to the horizon and beyond, like it might circle back on itself if you dared to exhaust those urban limits.

My drink arrives while I’m still marveling at the 500 yen coin in my hand, turning its heft over and over again between my fingers. I’ve never had a Mai-Tai before, but it was the only item on the menu I recognized and so it was an easy choice. But what’s before me is beyond expectation and assumption, a massive glass chalice filled to the brim with tropical liquid and adorned with discs of melon and pineapple, a bouquet of mint blooming off to the side.

It costs 2500 yen, but I won’t know that until the bill arrives. And sure, I’ll wince and let out a sigh of relief that I only ordered one, but it’ll take years for me to figure out that what I really paid for was the moment, the view and the subtle satisfaction that I finally had the guts to do something that completely and utterly scared the shit out of me.

November 30th, 2008

It’s the first really chilly evening of the season, where a jacket, gloves and scarf just don’t cut it. Normally, I’d never agree to head out on a Sunday (much less this Sunday), but there’s something about the girl I’ve been chatting with online that has me optimistic. She’s different, that’s for sure, but she also seems free from the corporate monotony that I’ve so easily fallen into since returning to the States just a year and a half ago.

We meet at the corner of 14th and 3rd. She’s got a luggage bag with her and an insufficient coat. There’s a look on her face that I can’t quite make out. Happiness to see me but something else, too. Disappointment? Total exhaustion?

We walk down the avenue, looking for a place to pop into, her arm interlinked with mine. Before online dating, I overanalyzed these little trills of physical contacte; not so much anymore. She begins to tell me a story about visiting her friend over the weekend, getting worked up without ever mentioning why she stormed home a night early.

“What happened?” I ask.

“It’s weird. Really weird. I need a drink.”

Eventually we come to Telephone Bar, and in an unintentional fuck you to the cultural decor, we have a seat at the bar and order bourbon. American spirits in a London-themed bar in the middle of America. Inception Booze, come two years too early.

She begins to tell me the truth: how she visited her friend upstate, how she was shocked to find her friend’s boyfriend there as well, how she totally flipped out at not getting any personal attention. Her agitation tells me what she’s not willing to speak aloud, and I keep prodding her for more details.

Then, as we finish our second bourbon and move onto the third, she finally says it.

“I thought I was in love with her.”

I nod, not daring to say anything. I know the weight of my next words will be blown completely out of proportion and so I wait. And she talks. When feeling like it’s safe to give my say, I go with empathy and honesty. It’s alright to feel how she feels, completely fine to feel slighted. The way we perceive those around us conflicts with — but cannot change — the way others perceive themselves. Differences are bound to happen.

At some point, on bourbon three or four, she grabs my tie and kisses me. In the back of my had a voice buzzes “No PDA!” but the ethanol lulls it to sleep. The next things I remember are a long cab ride, an uncomfortably warm bed and a surprising amount of snow on the ground.

It takes me a moment to realize I’m in Whitestone and I need to be at work in thirty-five minutes.

September 20th, 2011

The first drink we make is called “The Medicinal Compound”. It’s got an ounce of rye whiskey, a half-ounce of something called amaro and is garnished with an orange twist. I clumsily fill my glass with ice cubes and struggle to stir with the twisted bar spoon; it sort of feels like I’m trying to write while drunk and underwater. With a shaky hand, I strain the drink out into a coupe glass while I listen to our instructor talk about Prohibition. “The Medicinal Compound” is strong and packs a hefty punch, but it’s also good in a way I’ve never known before.

I finish it in little more than a long moment and jot down the recipe on a piece of paper.

Over the next hour and a half, we also make a Scofflaw and a Daiquiri, the latter requiring both a metal mixing tin and a pint glass. Shaking the sealed contraption feels like my body’s been converted into some sort of organic steam locomotive, the roar of the ice rattling back and forth paining my ear. I’ve made highballs and drinks in a three-piece shaker before, but nothing like this. There’s something wholly different about this process and these ratios, something both improvised and meticulous.

I could get used to this, I think to myself.

Later that week, I go out and pick up a whole host of gear from Chelsea Market: mixing tins, pint glasses, measuring jiggers of all sizes. I buy these things even though I’ve got substitutes at home, for a reason I later identify as ritual: starting something new, in some ways starting over. Or maybe that’s just blatant dramatization because, really, all I care about in the moment is having fun and trying something new. The fact that this activity also produces delicious alcoholic drinks is only a small benefit, like the quiet that comes with waking up early in the morning after a full night of rest.

I stuff my bag with my new-found goodies, with no idea that in a year I’ll be working at classes like the one I attended, with a personal bar of my own stocked to the brim (literally) with dozens of bottles, more than willing to experiment with drinks and toss out the failures. Fancy me.

For now, though, all I’m thinking about is the sound of the clinking glassware as I walk down to the subway station and head home.

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Shortfiction: “Sling”

I split my brain into thirds. The first controls one hand cracking egg, grip just tight enough to squeeze the whites into a glass, with other hand pouring out a long count of cognac.

The second does the counting. The second always does the counting.

And the third, my looking mind, stares out into the dimmed crowd. From where I stand, they always look like they’ve just stepped out of the night sea. Regulars in the eastern nook, clusters of weary friends at the other tables. As usual, couples dominate the bar itself. Every seat taken but one, its absence like a missing tooth between a lone man and the wall. He’s fiddling with a coin, twisting it between thumb and forefinger, and in the other hand is a smartphone.

Eggshell in the trash, shaker to glass. Dry-shake for fifteen seconds. Lone man is staring down, attention now focused on the tiny glowing brick of electronics. Inevitable as they are, I hate phones in my bar.

Pop the shaker seal, dump ice in and shake again. Crack that seal and then I’m pouring silky ribbons into a frail chalice. A woman in a summery dress squeals at the show. Smiling, I slide the drink to her and dash bitters on top.

“Can I get you anything?” I ask the lone man as I rinse my hands off.

“Nah,” he says, not looking up.

Less friendly this time, I say: “Waiting for someone?”

“Nah,” he repeats.

I turn around, scanning the room for anyone trying to get my attention but the sea is calm with intimate chatter.

“Listen,” I say, looking back at the man. “You can stay for now, but if people want your seat, then…” I let the conditional fade into silence, hoping he’ll fill in the blanks.

“Then what?” he asks, one crooked finger scrolling through a thick wall of text.

“Then I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

He huffs a laugh and smiles. “You can ask me to leave now to save yourself some time. Just gonna say no anyway.” The lone man chuckles again, shaking his head back and forth.

“You know what I mean.” My frustrating is beginning to show.

“Yes, I do. So why don’t you say what you mean then?”

I sigh, turning around again to scan the room. Still nothing.

“Because you’re a customer and I’m trying to be polite.”

“Technically I’m a potential customer,” he retorts.

“Fine, a potential customer. Same difference.”

“Not really,” the man says, idly. “A customer has already exchanged money for goods and services. They’ve given you the chance to impress them, to lock in more of their money in the future. A potential customer is a wildcard, an unknown. A probability.”

From afar, someone calls: “Excuse me!”

Order for two drinks, my choice. The couple asks for something with whiskey and sweet vermouth in it, stirred. But not a Manhattan. My first mind starts grabbing bottles while second mind dredges up recipes, stalling at the thought of dusty probabilistic formulae.

If the odds of a millionaire winning the lottery are X, and chance of winning the lottery is Y, what’s the probability that a non-millionaire will win the lottery if there are Z% millionaires in the world?

I serve up two Monte Carlos. “Rye, Benedictine, Bitters.” I tell the couple. “Similar to a Manhattan, but different.” I hear them repeat the phrase to themselves: “Similar, but different. Different, but similar.” I step back to the lone man.

“So tell me,” I say to him, noticing that he now has his phone held lengthwise between two hands. “What’s the probability of you actually doing something more than taking up space in my bar?”

“Your bar?” he asks, ignoring my question. “Do you own it?”

My lips fall into a pursed flatline. “No,” I admit.

“Why not?” The question almosts sounds genuinely curious.

“Are you really asking that?”

He nods his head up and down lazily, thumbs twisting to contort some image on his phone’s screen.

“I can’t afford a bar in the middle of Manhattan.”

“Few can,” he says with a summoned sympathy, as if he too once tried and failed. “Let’s say you saved up every penny you made working here. How long would it be before you could even put a 20% down payment on space like this?”

I looked back at the room, keeping my eyes focused on the sea of customers for much longer than necessary. I’d already done the math, just weeks ago; it wasn’t pretty.

“Ten years,” I say, my back to him.

“Ten years! You’d be what, 40 by then?”

“38,” I correct, turning back to face him.

“Still. Yeesh. How old is the owner?”

“None of your business.”

“Bullshit,” he spits out, laughing. “You basically just told me what your salary is but you won’t tell me how many candles the boss man gets on his cake? Whatever, that’s fine. I’m going to guess he’s no older than 35, probably closer to 30. Am I close?”

I stride away from him, running the rounds of the couples at the bar and seeing that the eastern nook wants its check. First mind is in overdrive as I build drinks in a row of pint glasses. Three on the left are sours, middle two pretty much straight spirits and the right two are up to me; I make them sours too. Most customers can’t tell the difference anyway; you give them a daiquiri with aged rum and they think you’ve discovered plutonium.

And why should I bother to do more? I’m here six nights a week, ten or twelve hours a day. When I go home my clothes reek, my lower back feels like a bent branch about to break and my feet swell so bad that my shoes get tight. If I’m lucky, my arms don’t ache so that I can do it all again the next night. All this, for what?

Drinks go out to the buzzed buzzards, their bloodshot eyes trained on me all the way from build to pour. Most of them say thank you and a few just give me an attemptedly sage nod.

“What’s your point?” I ask the lone man in a voice louder than I expect.

“No point.” He shrugs. “It’s just that I’m not taking up space in your bar. I’m taking it up in someone else’s bar that you work at. Go ahead, say it with me: This isn’t my bar.”

“You need to go, now. I’m not going to say it again.”

He slides his phone into his suit jacket pocket and leans back with arms folded across his chest. The look on his face is a half-breed, part sneer and part smile.

“I’ll go,” he says in a quiet voice as he stands up. “But just remember that most bars aren’t owned by guys like you. They’re owned by guys like me. Sure, maybe there are a few notable exceptions out there but that’s all they are, exceptions. You’ll be a lot happier once you admit that to yourself.” He pulls his wallet out from his back pocket and takes out five c-notes, placing them on the bar.

“For any trouble I caused you,” he offers, not waiting for a reaction. The adjacent couple of young 20-somethings look over, eyes fixed on the money.

“At least it wasn’t all bad,” says one of them, a shaggy-haired man in a dark polo.

I give a cursory smile and take the bills off the countertop, walking over to the garbage bin on the far side of the bar.

First mind crumbles the money in my fist, relaxing at the lack of restraint.

Second mind counts how many hours I’d have to work to make this much.

And third mind makes sure no one’s looking as I shove it in my pocket.