Chris and I had nothing in common last spring. Only our aspirations were aligned, and somewhat odd given the time of day when we first met: it was not yet noon and we both stood outside Greenwich Treehouse, a neighborly West Village dive, staring into the darkness beyond a sign that read ‘Closed.’
This was my third trip to the Treehouse in 24 hours. The night before, some college friends had decided to meet for dinner at The Meatball Shop, a block away. Jordan would be among them. She and I had a few classes together when we attended college in Georgia years ago, passing each other in the halls, stopping to chat and discuss what books we were reading, recent projects we were working on, the once-in-a-while coffee date.
One night, after a fight with her then-boyfriend, Jordan invited me over to her apartment. I half-listened, hoping that once she stopped crying we’d crawl into bed, snuggle close and fall asleep to the hum of cicadas outside.
That never happened. She moved to New York; I eventually would too. This dinner, I imagined, would be our fresh start.
An hour before dinner, I slinked past the restaurant hoping to get a drink and mull over whether or not I should even bother going. It seemed easier to stare and drown at the bottom of a glass than make eye contact with the girl I crushed on throughout college and hadn’t seen since.
All this came to mind as I walked up the flight of stairs that night and into the Treehouse, where NYU students sat around the bar and on stools overlooking Greenwich Avenue.
And there she sat: giggling, drinking with another friend. She’d come to settle her nerves too.
This was a different kind of drowning, a rising of my heart into my throat, suffocated by anxiety. Drinking would help with mitigation.
We chatted awkwardly until dinner, when I ordered the classic beef hero with mozzarella. I talked about work. Maybe she’d be impressed. Maybe we could go for more drinks at the Treehouse after. We did. Last call came and so did the admission of my childish love for her. But I stopped and said it wasn’t true, correcting myself to say it was the idea of her I loved, the idea that having your wants will satisfy your needs: a fallacy.
“Guess they’re closed,” Chris said, descending the Treehouse stairs the next morning.
I’d returned thinking maybe, through sheer serendipity, she’d be walking past, reliving the night that went so well until it didn’t, and we’d see each other, have a drink, hop the subway. Only this time it wouldn’t end with her leaving before my stop, not inviting me to come with her, leaving me to my thoughts and a half-written text message begging to see her once more.
I retired the phone to my pocket and followed Chris, a new friend when I needed one most. We turned down Greenwich Avenue in lockstep, that odd cadence shared between strangers.
“Where’re we going?” I asked.
He looked at me and smiled, put out his hand and we shook.
“I know this place on 14th that has great specials throughout the day. The burgers, my god. And cheap!”
When we got to McKenna’s, we sat at two open stools near where the bar curves and terminates at the front wall by the entrance, in the thicket of conversation with an easy way out.
Chris removed his forward-facing Kangol cap and scratched his salt and pepper hair. I placed my wallet in front of me. He slid it back and threw down a bundle of $20 bills.
He’d been working tirelessly and although it was Wednesday, he didn’t want to go to back to his home, where he stayed with his mother; where his stepfather would become irate over the fact that he’d forgotten to pick up the milk after work, or that he was late and worried his mother and how could he do this, the inconsiderate bum.
After a few drinks he’d head back, he supposed, as there was no other place for him.
“What about you, what do you do?”
I avoided the answer at all costs and asked if he wanted another martini or something different. I ordered us another round and the cute bartender with the long legs placed wooden chips in front of us that we’d use to redeem more drinks later.
Chris met a girl online who works for McDonald’s – the corporation, not the drive-thru. Somewhere in the Bible Belt, below the Mason Dixon, she’s waiting for him. His phone vibrated and it was her. They exchanged text messages. His phone didn’t have a QWERTY keyboard, so it took a while. Then he turned to me with swollen eyes.
“It’s a really difficult situation for a forty-something, you know? All of this, my ma and all. Figured by now it would be over. Especially the stepfather, the prick. It ain’t always easy. But I’ve been here my entire life, and I don’t plan on leaving New York. Nope, never. Not today, not tomorrow.”
He shot back a fifth cranberry vodka and looked down at the bar. Red, black, white wooden chips emblazoned with “McKenna’s” in gold lettering were strewn across in front of us. The sun dipped below the horizon, a streak of light shimmering across the counter before disappearing. Halfway off his stool, Chris waddled and placed his arm around me. His eyes were blurred.
“Better get that milk, huh?”
The wad of twenties sat on the bar as Chris made for the door. Chips were everywhere; my phone still in my pocket, the draft message unsent. I stacked the chips neatly. They wobble, topple, skitter across the counter, like watching expectations crumble.