The drink that Meyer is handed is tinted red with maraschino cherry juice and he’d be alright with it, with the swirls of syrup gliding over the ice, if that was what he’d asked for but it was slid into his fingers as soon as he and Charlie had walked in by a woman who was nothing but flashes of bright red and gold, as if she’d been told to dress to match the alcohol she’s serving. He thinks that maybe she thought that he was someone else but there’s a nearly identical woman on the other side of the foyer (a space that was bigger than his and Charlie’s apartments put together but it was possible it just seemed that way and later, when he thought back to this, standing in his room, he’d realize it really wasn’t all that large); she’s got a metal tray balanced in a hand, her other hand holding her thin wrist like she’d been at this for hours and she’s giving a full crystal glass to a middle-aged woman who’d just glided in behind them.
So that’s just how it was, then: welcome to our home, here’s what you’ll be drinking tonight, don’t track mud on the tile.
There are about a thousand different voices, all carrying on hundreds of different conversations with their mouths and another hundred or so with their bodies and Meyer feels someone brush past him, an elbow hitting the crook of the arm holding his drink and he’s about to give the figure a look that meant something and hope the back of his head could feel it until he sees that it’s Charlie.
He thinks about catching up to him but Meyer’s been trying to prove for some time now that they don’t walk around with their pant legs sewn together, they weren’t like those twins fused together that he’d seen at a carnival freak show tent when he was ten, brought there by neighborhood boys willing to pay a nickel out of their own pocket because they wanted that badly to see Meyer scared. He’s not sure who he’s been attempting to convince, since nobody’s said anything about it to him. Maybe he’s just assuming people were saying things. Or maybe it’s something else.
(Meyer would say who knows but he feels like this is something he does know. It’s just a thing he’s not particularly interested in digging for right now.)
There’s music, too, just under all the rest of the noise; a low sort of sound, every now and then a swell breaking through, the lift of trumpets, rolls over the chatter before it hides again. Muffled like this, it’s impossible to tell where it’s even coming from. It feels like it’s everywhere—the walls, the high, curved ceiling, somewhere roiling under his feet.
He holds his glass up, looks at the chandelier through it, turns the white into orange and he wonders if the hosts were truly brazen enough to serve real alcohol right by the open doors or if they were just teasing, handing these out with a wink wink and a we can pretend, can’t we? The only way he’d know is if he took a sip but Meyer had never had a drink that he hadn’t ordered himself and he wasn’t about to start tonight. If AR had been there, standing right beside him, he might have but the man had disappeared like a shadow the second they stepped inside. There wasn’t anyone here to grandstand for. This place was full of people but there might as well have been nobody here at all.
It sounds petulant just having the thought go through his head but he didn’t even want to be here in the first place. They’d struck a deal, made headway into a new business and, as they walked out, AR had said let’s celebrate and then I’ll give you gentlemen a ride. He’d all but kidnapped them, had them driven right to the doorstep, put in a position where they couldn’t say no.
Meyer watches a couple sail past, the woman leading, an insistence to her movements, sweat on her husband’s brow as he’s being dragged to a conversation he didn’t want to have. A man standing alone by the entranceway to the lavish and dimly lit living room makes eye contact with Meyer and, for a brief moment, he senses a kindred spirit lost somewhere in there. Laughter erupts from the figures draped over a deep purple couch. Two women, arms interlocked, come down the staircase, their jewelry glittering. A ring falls from one of their fingers and they don’t even notice. It sits there on the bottom stair until a man with a shock of white hair steps on it and, once he’s gone, it vanishes.
Meyer wonders how much it was worth and if it was worth less now that it was stuck to the bottom of a shiny black shoe or, if to her, it was never truly worth much of anything at all in the first place. Maybe, to her, it was just a bauble. She could get a new one tomorrow. The thought nearly gives Meyer heartburn.
“Everything alright?” Someone’s finally noticed he hasn’t moved since he’s walked in. Meyer turns towards the voice, sees that it’s the same woman who’d handed him his drink. Her tray is empty. He tries to read her, her round face, wide eyes. The set of her red-painted mouth. She seems earnest. She seems like she really wants to know.
“Never been to a place like this before,” Meyer admits, says it low, like it’s their little secret. She offers him a small smile.
“Me neither,” she says. “I just needed the extra dough.” She glances at his glass, the ice melting, condensation rolling down the side of his thumb. “You don’t want that? Something wrong with it?” There’s no antagonism when she asks. Just curiosity. Meyer lifts a shoulder, tilts the hand that’s not holding a glass in the facsimile of a shrug. “I’d take it back but I’d get in trouble for having a full glass on my tray.” It’s a weird thing to get in trouble for and Meyer doesn’t ask why. She opens her mouth to say something else but then a man in a white shirt, lop-sided bowtie that he’d probably get in trouble for, too, is coming up to her with a tray of six identical drinks, trades it off with the woman and spares a parting glare at Meyer before he leaves. Pushing up the right side of her mouth apologetically, the woman walks back to where she’d been standing earlier. Duty calls.
Absently, Meyer wonders where Charlie is, wonders if it’s worth wading through the bodies, the perfume, the cigars, the schmoozing, to try and find him.
There’s a lull where all the voices quiet at once and there, hovering like smoke, is a fractured piece of a song:
—ain't got a barrel of money, maybe we're ragged and funny; but we'll travel along, singin' a song, side by—
Meyer swallows a laugh and then goes outside.
& & & &
The front steps are wide, made of chipped and pock-marked stone and he stands off to the side, the only light illuminating from behind, the warm glow of a bright house spilling across his back, rolling like a carpet down the stairs. The people inside have turned into a murmur and Meyer sets his drink down on the wide swoop of carved stone that rose up and followed the staircase to either side of the front door. It was probably in poor taste to leave it there. Probably. Maybe. Very likely. But he wasn’t concerned.
He fishes in the pockets of his jacket until he finds his pack of cigarettes, taps one out and then replaces the pack with a matchbook in his fingers. It’s got a name etched into the cardboard, the letters gold-painted and curled, and he leans sideways slightly to read it better but he doesn’t recognize the place. Charlie must have slipped it in there when he wasn’t looking, during one of those times where he stood too close, close enough Meyer could feel his warmth. He was always so warm. A furnace. A man constantly on the move even when he was standing still.
Fwit. Sshh. Fire.
He lights his cigarette, drops the still-lit match into his glass and listens to it sizzle out. He’s halfway through, blowing smoke against the wind, when he feels a figure step up beside him. A sigh escapes him and he flicks ash at his feet.
“Got a light?” The figure asks, the feminine voice breathless, almost whispered, and Meyer turns his head to stare at the woman next to him, a band of silver wrapped around her forehead, her green dress hanging to her knees, her shoulders bare and goosebumped. No, he thinks. He takes his matchbook back out, lights the cigarette for her because it’s what he figures she expects. An eyebrow quirks when she leans in, pulls back, rests her left hand in the inner crease of her right elbow as she smokes. “You have a dog, mister?” It’s a bizarre question to ask and Meyer feels his eyes narrow. He’s somehow stumbled into a spy dropping a code phrase at his feet. She doesn’t wait for an answer. “My sister and my brother-in-law? They got a Chihuahua but couldn’t keep it. Didn’t know that their landlord doesn’t allow pets. And why wouldn’t you check before you paid for a dog? But they didn’t. She never did have the brains in the family. She said I have a ‘soft heart’ and gave it to me. Whatever that means. So now I have this damn Chihuahua.” She pauses, as if she’s giving Meyer a chance to contribute to this while she takes a break to inhale, exhale on her cigarette.
He gives her nothing but she keeps going.
“You ever spend time with a Chihuahua?” She asks a lot of rhetorical questions but Meyer can’t help it, feels himself shake his head. He wonders, idly, how shitty it would be if he just walked away right in the middle of her talking, just up and turned around while she was mid-sentence. Charlie would have, if only to be able to say you should have seen the look on her face later when telling Meyer about it. “They’re horrid little mutts. All she does is yap and tear up my furniture. You know how much that Follot cost me?” Meyer did not. He finishes his first cigarette and takes out another one.
She’s still going by the time he finishes his third.
“—and I’m trying to walk her, dragging this Chihuahua to the groomers because, if I have to bring to Honey’s party, at least it could look good and this woman says to me—”
“Hey,” a familiar voice says from behind them, deep and rough, and the woman immediately stops. Meyer doesn’t turn around, feels a smile tugging at his cheeks, feels a ball of tension he hadn’t realized he’d been keeping in his chest loosen. “Beat it.”
His knight in a cheap suit.
“Excuse me?” The woman questions. Pure disbelief.
“You heard me. Scram.” She scoffs when Charlie says it, hesitates, eyes resting on Meyer as if she’s waiting for him to tell this man off for speaking to her that way but Meyer doesn’t say a thing. With a huff and a grumble, curls hands into fists, stomps out her cigarette and marches indignantly back inside.
“Christ,” Charlie says, taking his place on the stair just above Meyer, “I only caught a few seconds of that and I wanted to throw myself off the roof. How long she been going like that?”
“Three cigarette’s worth,” Meyer says. “Where’ve you been?” Charlie snorts.
“Mingling.” It’s Meyer’s turn to laugh when he hears that. “What? I can mingle.”
“Sure,” Meyer says, “And I can tap dance to ‘It Had to be You’.” There’s a loud noise from inside the house, something heavy hitting the floor. It sends a jolt up Meyer’s spine and he watches out of the corner of his eye as someone opens the window closest to the front doors. A head leans out into the cool night air, a voice saying I didn’t hire him for his brains!
“I’m starvin’,” Charlie says, apropo of nothing, after he and Meyer had simply stood there for a few seconds. “I found the kitchen while I was wanderin’. They’ve got this bread they’re serving around, stuffed with cheese. You try any?” I didn’t even make it past the foyer, Meyer thinks. I haven’t even had a drink yet. “You should. Probably the only good thing here.” You should. Like Charlie knew. Of course he did.
The tips of fingers on his sleeve and Meyer finally swivels, looks at Charlie. His hair is unsettled, his hand having pulled through it at some point, the crease of his jacket on his shoulders crooked. There’s a flush to his cheeks, a line between his eyebrows as he furrows them but it disappears when he sees Meyer staring up at him. A smile creeps on his face and he nods his head towards the house.
& & & &
Nobody stops them. Nobody pulls them into a discussion because, right now, to these people, they don’t matter. They’re just faces in a crowd. They aren’t stopped, either, when Charlie pushes the kitchen doors open and Meyer is slapped in the face by the warmth of an oven, the flicker of fire on a stove. There’s minimal activity in here, just a tired chef and a few harried waiters and Meyer expects them to demand that they get out , this isn’t a place for guests but none of them make any noise about it.
Meyer eyes Charlie, waits for an explanation (turns out I know the cook from the neighborhood or I chatted with the waiter and now he’s got a sparkle in his eye so I figured I’d milk it or they recognize we don’t belong here and will cut us some slack or, even: they just don’t give a shit) but he doesn’t utter a word, picks up a tray of what must be the food he’d mentioned on the stairs—tiny spheres about the length of his pinky, the bread deep brown and shiny, curling into pale yellow, an off-white cheese dotted with something green oozing out from cracks in the dough—and hops up on the marble counter, leans back against dark wooden cabinets and balances the serving dish on his knees. He picks up one of the pieces of bread, pulls it apart and the cheese stretches. Charlie’s fingers glisten with oil.
“Alright,” Meyer says, is aware Charlie is putting on a show, as if he had to convince him and he walks over, picks up one for himself and bites down. The bread is surprisingly sweet, the crust breaking under his teeth, welcoming steam and salt from the cheese on his tongue.
“See,” Charlie says with his mouth full, as if he reads a look on Meyer’s face that he wasn’t even aware he was making. He kept his mask on so much, so tight the strings were leaving a permanent mark around his head but Charlie… He was good at getting his finger underneath and lifting it up. Meyer wonders if he knew he was doing it or it just was a thing . It just happened because he’s him and they’re them and it’s what they do: see inside each other, underneath what they’ve learned to present to everyone else. “I told you.”
“Charlie...” Meyer says after he swallows, trails off and Charlie is already on to his second one, could probably clear the tray on his own in a few minutes if Meyer let him and he raises his eyebrows, an expression settling on him like he knows what Meyer is going to say, as if he’s been waiting for it. How could he know, though? How could he know what words were sitting in the back of his throat? He could only know if he was thinking the exact same thing and maybe they were birds of a feather, maybe they were those freak show twins in that tent, but to have the same question, the same phrase running through both of their heads just wasn’t feasible. “You’re gonna choke if you keep eating that fast.”
Whatever it was is broken, both by what he says and the rattle of a metal bowl slipping from the chef’s grip for a moment, hitting the counter they were working at on the opposite side of the room.
& & & &
They sit there for half an hour, maybe more, just eating, picking up trays and plates and Meyer has a feeling that, at some point, the chef is feeding them on purpose because they’re the only ones who were actually going for it, appreciating the effort, and each time Meyer thinks he’s done, he couldn’t put another piece of food in his mouth there’s something else—a tart with ground meat and smoky spices, a pastry filled with soft berries, the seeds crunching between his teeth, toast with smoked salmon, a puff of something light and syrupy, loaded with finely diced nuts—that a pair of hands are offering him and he can’t make himself say no thank you.
The napkin draped over his palm is stained with crumbs and grease and he coughs as he laughs at something Charlie’s said, feels heat across his face, down the back of his neck. Charlie’s collar is slack, open at the neck, his tie sloppy and he has crumbs of his own on his thighs. Meyer’s stomach protests, whines and grumbles. There’s another joke dripping from the corners of Charlie’s mouth but it never spills out because the doors slide open and there’s AR, staring them down, mouth curled disapprovingly.
Meyer’s unsure of how he knew they were in here, but it wasn’t doubtful he’d asked and asked, his voice low and threatening. About yea high. Dark hair. They were most likely together.
“We’re going,” he says, with the tone of voice of we’ll talk about this later not being said.
They go with him because they may be drunk and lethargic on food but they aren’t stupid. As they pass through the foyer, Meyer glances to the side, sees the woman with the drinks tray still there and she waves as they go by.
His abandoned drink is still outside, unattended, three burnt matches floating in cherry juice and melted ice.
It’s a five minute walk to the car and Meyer wants the cold air to make him feel better, to help with the regret his body is currently feeling after what he’d just done to it but it doesn’t. He needs to lie down. He’s had to put on a brave face too many times to count in his life and he hopes he’s holding one up now. Beside him, feet hitting the pavement too hard, Charlie groans.
“Shouldn’t’ve eaten that last pastry,” Charlie mutters.
“Hold it together,” Meyer says quietly. Sit down. Deep breath. Twenty-five minutes to Meyer’s apartment. Charlie could stay over, like he usually does when they’ve had too much to drink. It’s a useless thing to say because you can put the words out there but you can’t force your body to obey them.
Charlie manages to get most of the puke on his own shoes and he spits and curses, shakes his feet, wipes at his mouth and, when Meyer looks to AR, already sitting in the vehicle, he sees nothing but disappointment.
“You’ve made your point,” AR says, as if they had done this, all of this, the avoiding and the refusal to drink and whatever Charlie had done when they were separated on purpose just to make some sort of point that they were apparently successful in making. Maybe they did without even knowing it.
Meyer rolls the windows down, feels the prickle of cold against his clammy skin and listens to the party still going on from down the street and wonders how long it would be until he ever found himself invited to some place like this again.
You’re an idiot, Chucky, a woman shouts from the sidewalk.
But that’s why you love me, a man replies.
Meyer turns his head just in time to see Charlie mouthing something to himself, lips moving, whatever it was dying long before it came out. He catches Meyer staring, his face faltering and then slipping into a grin. His breath smells awful and he taps Meyer’s knee with a knuckle, like that means something.
“You’re an idiot,” Meyer says, aware of how he’s echoing what he’d just heard but it felt appropriate. Charlie opens and closes his mouth like a fish and then shrugs, leans sideways towards his window and doesn’t say a thing the entire ride home.