Oh Margaret, lost in the parking garage. She couldn’t remember where she’d left the car, though I bet she was putting on. With her, I couldn’t ever tell.
“I swear it was the second floor,” she said, walking through the aisle of cars. She held her hand high above her head, waved it back and forth, pressing the remote lock for her new Lexus. It looked like she was trying to hail an invisible cab. I was following her.
She’d driven down to Cincinnati from Columbus, arrived an hour late. She cursed and blamed the traffic as she landed on a barstool beside me at Arnold’s Downtown. She still looked great in a floral summer dress hanging right down her tall frame and that same platinum blonde hair, cut shorter than ever but refusing to show a single root. She had new knee-high vintage leather boots that she bragged about finding at some hole-in-the-wall secondhand store in Northside. But she looked older now too, as if moving to the Rust Belt had slowed her down, allowed her age to finally catch up.
“You’re drinking gin and tonics now?” she scoffed, pointing at the soda water and lime in front of me. I didn’t correct her. We had our dinner and were supposed to meet people for drinks in the Gaslight District. Already forty minutes late and we weren’t on the right floor of the garage; we’d walked by this row more than once.
She stopped walking and pulled a pipe from her bag. She took a big hit, coughed, and complained about the quality of Ohio marijuana. I wondered what else she had in her bag.
“Next time I visit Brooklyn,” she said. “I’m stocking up.”
We kept on looking and she kept on pressing the remote, stopping to scold me for being too quiet. We hadn’t seen each other in over six months. And I was being quiet, but that’s because I was waiting for something to explode.
See, I know that chaos is a trait of our existence together; she said that years ago and she was right about it. Back in the time when she was the most magnificent fuck-up I’d ever seen. You talk about high functioning, this girl was the embodiment of it. She could do it all. I saw her blow through weekends like a bottle rocket, and when I was coming to sometime around Monday evening, she was already coming back from Midtown with Chinese takeout, where she’d been working all day, impressing the bosses, getting promoted, looking fabulous. No one could hang like her and when I fell apart and got into trouble, she came to visit me in the hospital, between benders and board meetings, the only one in the city who came to see me. She snuck in a flask. And then that time when she slashed the bike tires of the bartender who kicked me out before last call; she never got caught and never felt bad because fuck that guy, she said.
She’d take anything, hit its highs the way you should, then wave off the lows, swatting them down like fruit flies. Everyone else went too far and quit, or went too far and couldn’t come back. But Margaret? She was a career soldier – a lifer, as they say – always moving from one great war to another and not only surviving, but thriving. If fuck-ups like me had more gumption, we would build monuments to warriors like her.
I wondered if she only stuck around with dregs like me because she knew she was better. Margaret, my High Priestess. And I wondered if she knew I was wandering that garage sober. Maybe that’s why she was busting my balls for being too quiet.
“I’m back together with Nathan,” she said. “I didn’t know if I should tell you or not.”
“Yeah?” I asked. “And you’re happy?”
“I think so,” she said.
“Is he going to move?”
“Nathan will never leave New York.”
“So you’ll go back?”
“I don’t know.”
“Nathan, huh,” I said. “I don’t really remember him.”
She sighed but didn’t respond and kept pressing the remote for her car. I said:
“He’s not that fashion guy, is he?”
“No,” she said.
“Stop it,” she said.
“You know damn well.”
“I forget. Remind me.”
“He’s an artist,” she said.
“An artist. That’s vague.”
“Don’t be an ass.”
“Does he paint? Sculpt?”
“No.” A car beeped from a floor that wasn’t ours. Margaret paused and raised her hand like an old hunter that spotted a track in the woods. She pushed her little button in every direction, but no more beeps came.
“Shit,” she said. “It wasn’t mine.”
“Sketches, maybe? It’s got to be a visual art; you wouldn’t just say artist unless –”
“I want to hear you say it.”
“God, you are a child. Yes, he’s Nathan the juggler. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
“And he’s really fucking great at it. He does performances all over.”
“Like Renaissance fairs? Does he wear a costume?”
“Please don’t be an ass.”
“I love the Renaissance fair. I went every year as a kid.”
“Stop it. He also runs this space and puts on art shows and books bands. He does really well.”
She continued walking through the aisles, faster now. Her boot heels echoed loudly around the garage.
“And he bartends, too,” she said. “He makes more money than I do.”
Oh, I am certain she was lying about that. Margaret is an executive. That’s what brought her from New York to Ohio. She works for Victoria’s Secret, promoted now to the corporate office, designing the layouts of mannequins and displays. Every single one of the hundreds of stores across the country has the same layout, whatever she decides it should be from her desk in Columbus.
So she makes six figures and lives in a city that doesn’t cost half as much, and all I could think of in that garage was an ugly, juggling clown, scaring half the kids at a Westchester party, then coming home to find a check mailed from his girlfriend, states away.
She stopped again and turned to me.
“Shit, I didn’t offer you any,” she said, holding out the pipe.
We walked past a few more rows of cars.
“This is why I hate driving,” she said. “Don’t you miss the subway?”
“I like the control of having a car.”
“You never liked New York.”
“I did. I still do. But I was done there.”
“So you came back here. How many times now? And you’re happy about that?”
“Here is home,” I said. “For now.”
“You don’t stay anywhere very long, do you?”
“I’ve been in this garage forever.”
“I know I parked near an exit.”
“It’s not on this floor.”
It wasn’t. I knew it. Eventually, I thought, she’d realize it and we’d go up a floor and beep beep find the car. We’d both laugh about it, and she’d probably have a bottle of warm champagne in the trunk that she’d want to pass between us.
But the search resumed and she started talking about so and so back in Brooklyn, about their new band at some new club, as if I could give a shit at all. The timbre of the sound, her voice coming and going off the garage walls, was large.
Here’s the thing: New York was never right for me. I felt the great, stupid weight of it and it drove me mad. I’d sit in bars and stare at the melting ice of my over-priced whiskey like I was reading bones. I saw my future, somewhere in Brooklyn or Queens, forced to defend my awful apartment and shitty service job and bad credit and a monthly gig hosting an open mic in South Slope to all my friends and family elsewhere. After some weeks, I started to accept that fate as fact and I even felt comfortable with it. See, that’s what New York will do to you: allow you to justify a mediocre existence with a mailing address. And suddenly you belong to it, wholly, as much as Lou Reed or baseball in the 1950s, but with all of the ownership and none of the glamor.
Margaret never understood why I felt that way. And as long as I’ve known her, she’s had a kind of fall-in-your-lap luck, the kind she ironically referred to as living right. I think she heard a sportscaster say it once. That luck is how a girl can swoop in and out of any scene, suck up whatever substance is there and disappear without any kind of consequence. And that luck is how a girl with an unfinished degree in topography becomes a higher-up in a national corporation. She’s always met the right people at just the right times and because of that she talks about every night she ever spent in the city as if she’s Zelda fucking Fitzgerald.
But let’s say that it really goes down like this:
She’s at some party in Greenpoint, and she’s eaten an uncomfortable amount of mushrooms and hidden in someone’s bedroom and she’s watching internet videos of bighorn sheep fighting each other. She’s found out there, alone in the dark, and she’s asked to leave. This is the night you meet, and it’s also the first time you’re trying to get clean. You’re thirty-three days deep and you’re hating everything. You came out to this party only to keep yourself from being alone and sweating sober in your place and you’re smoking a cigarette on the steps of the apartment as you watch her wander down and across the street. She sits cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of a Polish butcher shop. You call out to her:
“You need to go somewhere?”
“I’ve got a car,” you say. “I can give you a ride.”
“I’ve seen you around,” she says. “But I don’t know you.”
“I can call you a car. Cabs won’t pass here this late.”
She hops up so quick it’s scary and she crosses the street back to you. The girl’s not wearing any shoes. Her eyes are giant and clear and her green dress is blowing back around her in the wind in a way that does not seem natural. That’s when one of the girls who lives in the apartment comes out and speaks loud and close to your face. She points at Margaret.
“What the fuck is her problem?” she says.
And you say, “I don’t know.”
“Did she come here with you or what?”
Margaret’s just stands there in the street, looking into the tiny space between the two of you on the stoop.
“She’s fucked up, man,” is what the other girl says to you, and then, “She’s going into people’s rooms, messing with their shit.”
You look at Margaret and she looks at you and she says again, “I’ve seen you around.” But this time she also says: “Take me home.”
So you drive her to Bushwick and she scans the radio and tells you about the mushrooms and the sheep on the mountaintops, existing in super slow motion, each hit shuddering everything. She’s coming down when you get to her apartment and she gets out of the car and leans down and looks back in the window and she says:
“I can’t believe I got into a stranger’s car.”
“You’d seen me around.”
“Seriously, though. You could’ve been some creep.”
“I guess you’re lucky.”
“I must be living right.”
When you go home you think about being high and you don’t sleep.
And the next day when she finds your number from someone else and texts you about drinks all you can do is agree and on the way there, you asshole, you throw your 1-Month token onto the tracks of the subway.
She finally gave up on that floor of the garage, and I followed her to the stairs. She stopped halfway up the flight, looked out the window there. Outside, the neon from that new downtown casino illuminated the entire block in false daylight. Margaret lit the nub of a half-smoked cigarette and kept it in her mouth as she tugged and straightened the hem of her skirt.
“Quit acting weird,” she said. “If you invite me down, you’re not allowed to get all weird on me. It’s not fair.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know I was doing it.”
“What’s wrong with you, anyway?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“I shouldn’t have told you about Nathan.”
“I was just playing with you,” I said. “You can tell me anything you want.”
“I’d like to think that’s true. There’s nobody in Ohio I can really talk to. It’s fucking lonely.” She dropped her cigarette and ground it into the steps with the toe of her boot. We walked the rest of the flight and came out on the third floor. Everything looked exactly the same, everywhere.
“Okay,” I said. “What do you want to talk about? I’m listening.”
“I don’t know. Lately I’ve been thinking about all this shit. Marriage, kids, everything.”
“I don’t like him.”
“The guy is a creep.”
She stopped again and turned to me and leaned on a stranger’s car. The orange light of the garage made her skin and platinum hair look the same color.
“How the hell would you know?”
“I’ve met him,” I said.
“You were in your own cloud back then. You couldn’t see anything.” That is true, and it hurts to hear it said.
“All my friends in New York, the ones who really know me,” she said. “They know we’re good together.”
Then they’re all creeps, too.
“Are you mad at me or something?” she asked.
“Why would I be mad?”
“I knew I shouldn’t have told you about him.”
“I’m not mad, why would I be? I guess I’m mad we can’t find your car.”
Somewhere, a floor below us, a group of drunks were looking for their own car and laughing loudly. Their voices echoed up and bounced around.
And just ahead, a man fumbled with the keys to his Honda. He was quiet and bald and probably a little drunk, too, and when he got the door open he sank into the driver’s seat like he weighed a thousand pounds and couldn’t bear to stand anymore. The door was still open when he started his engine and the chorus of a song from last summer pops and filled up the garage. I stopped walking and Margaret kept on, kept waving that remote around. In the middle of all the sound, there was a high-pitched beep from a couple of rows over.
“Fuck me, finally,” she shouted. “I need a drink.”
I followed her to the car and she tossed the keys at me and asked me to drive to the bar. We went out and met up with other people and I didn’t blow it. At the end of the night, I drove her drunk ass home and she slept on the couch and left early the next morning and I knew that would be the last visit, the last time we saw each other for years, maybe forever.
But words like last time and forever can fuck with your head. I mean, how can that night, in that garage, be the end?
Let’s think about it like this:
Say you spend the evening with her and some pills and coke, and get a cab to drive from Bushwick all the way to Manhattan Beach Park. It’s the middle of the night in the middle of the summer and you’ve got a blanket and a cooler with beer and a liter of bad whiskey and a driver who laughs when you sing loudly along with the slow jam R n’ B songs on the cab radio. Margaret gives him an obscene tip as you climb out into the dark. You sneak onto the beach and lay out a blanket. You’re worried about the cops, sure, but no one is around. I mean, no one. No police, no bums, no other late night assholes. No cars even pass by. Everything is still and quiet, except for the ocean. And right now, you are sure this moment in this spot on this beach is the stillest and quietest Brooklyn has ever been. And when you stand at the edge of the world and the black water, there’s no city at all, no Lower Bay, nothing but the two of you. This is how you exist, happy and fucked up and pure, until you fall asleep on the blanket in the sand.
But you’ve got to wake up and now the summer sun is burning your skin and a skinny beach cop in bicycle shorts is hovering over you, saying, “You can’t camp out. Did you sleep here all night?”
You lie and say, “No sir. We were up all night, but we didn’t get here until after dawn.”
“So you’ve been drinking?” is what he says but you were smart enough to return all the empty bottles to the cooler and close the lid.
“No sir,” you say.
“Uh huh. And what about her?” he asks now, pointing at Margaret, curled up like a puppy on the blanket.
“She’s just tired. I’ll wake her up and we’ll get out of here.”
The cop nods, looks you both over and says, “Get her home safe.”
He walks back to his bike, chained up near the boardwalk. And Margaret whispers to ask if he’s gone. She tells you she still has a gram on her. She says, “Shit, Lee. We must be living right.”
All around, fit people are running in the sand and swimming and families are grinning and spreading out beach towels. One young father looks right at you as he sets up a blue and white umbrella. It’s a sad look and he turns his face back to the task at hand.
On the cab ride home, your brain hits against your skull and your skin aches and Margaret sits so close and puts her hand on your knee.
“We should’ve brought swimsuits,” she says. “To wake up and get right in.” And she lays her head on your shoulder.
She says that you’ll remember next time.
So tell me now: will it tear you up when none of your clean memories ever burn at you like this one does?
When you’re gone in three weeks, retreating back home, knowing there won’t be a next time, will you believe it’s a good thing? Because you know there’s too much dirty shit in your blood. You know it weighs you down.
You know that the next time, you’ll be swept away, hand in hand, from the city and into the sea.