This is Rent's ideal drinking night. It's just him and his martini at the Basement Pub bar. He isn't looking to talk to anybody, he isn't looking to flirt, he doesn't care about what's on television or about the Radiohead music playing on the jukebox or about the other drunks at the bar. For three years, that's the way he has done his drinking. This is status quo.
Except that this time, he watches her approach the bar, how she leans over the stool next to him, how she wears a tan dress that drops on her more like a slip, how her fair skin goes red as it gets closer to her breasts. She presses her hand against the front of her neck as she squints up at the top shelf of liquor. He expects her to order a cosmo, a fuzzy navel, some schnapps, but then, in a squeaky little voice, she orders a Bombay Sapphire martini neat with a twist. He can already tell that he is drawn to the way she can say big things with her little voice. Her fingers are long and skinny and she carefully drops a twenty-dollar bill on the bar. The bill is folded up into a small strip and it reminds Rent of when his brother used to make twenty dollar bills disappear into his own ear. That was twenty-five years ago, when they were just kids, but the memory is still so strong, of Marcus the Magician in that stupid pointy cardboard hat with the little golden stars all over it.
When her drink arrives, before she can walk away from the bar and return to the table with her girlfriends, Rent picks up his own Bombay Sapphire martini. He looks her way, he brings his glass closer to hers, he takes a deep breath, and then he says, "A su salud."
Julie figures that he's not going to call. It was just a drunken hour at the bar. He was probably just looking to get laid by the nearest drunk. But he had an intense stare that she liked about him, it didn't waver, and she saw in those greens that he was sad about something, but maybe also that he enjoyed being sad, who knows if she was just making all this up, but she wanted to know more about it as she drank those three martinis with him. Their talk stayed on the surface, talk of gin and bartenders and their mutual hatred of cell phones, but the words felt deeper than the words.
The only reason she ordered the martini in the first place was that she always loved the color of that Bombay Sapphire bottle. She was drawn to drinks because of bottle shape, even better if she could touch the bottle, feel the curves of the glass. It was a fluke that Rent was drinking the same thing—for different reasons. She thought that she hated gin, that it tasted like medicine, but now she wants that taste again, citrus, juniper, and the blue burn on its way down.
The sheet of paper with Julie's phone number is crumbled up badly by now. It isn't that Rent really planned on throwing it away, but that gesture kept occurring to him, as a reflex, he'd crumble the paper and toss it towards the trash can, always missing the can, and then he'd go get it. Uncrumble.
Rent's brother died in a car accident three years prior. He was a bartender in Spain at the time. Their last phone conversation was of Rent telling Marcus that Marcus needed to get on with things, that he was wasting his life. Rent hated how he did that to Marcus, but it kept happening that way. And this time, he had no chance to apologize, to tell his brother that he was a beautiful human being, the way he could smile and tell a story to make anyone feel better, the way Marcus always helped Rent with women trouble, the way Marcus understood people. Three years dead and now Rent sees that Marcus as a bartender in Barcelona is perfect. Was perfect.
Rent reminds himself that he and Julie did have a great hour of conversation before her girlfriends took her away. That they did drink three martinis together. She did say that it was "refreshing to chat like this." After she said it, she took in a deep breath, he remembers that clearly, and he never saw her let it out. But the next morning, he began to doubt.
He doesn't know what kind of drinker she is—the type that allows alcohol to bring you closer to truth, or the type that allows alcohol to bring on a loneliness that makes you willing to be refreshed by any fool in the vicinity.
When the phone rings, Julie has forgotten about him. She is looking through a book of Picasso's art. It's that self portrait that she can't stop looking at. Her mother gave her this book before the Crohn's disease started getting the best of her mother. They once spoke often about Picasso, about Paris, about poetry. Now the medication is no longer working, her mother stays in bed all morning except when she has to run to the bathroom; the doctors just give her more poison; Julie's father doesn't know how to help. Her mother cries on the telephone every time they talk, she says, "the whole world tastes like shit and blood."
When the phone rings, Julie's first thought is that it's about her mother, that something has happened, this is always her first thought, even when the phone rings in someone else's house.
"Yes," she says on the phone. "I do remember a guy named Rent who likes martinis and hates cell phones." His voice is all trembly and even though she is glad that it isn't about her mother, she doesn't know whether she is glad to hear from him.
They're in bed. They've been drinking. She's lost the taste for gin. It's medicine-tasting again, now she's into white Russians, the sweetness on her lips, but she still drinks martinis with him, still a romantic ritual between them.
But he is elsewhere when they fuck, his eyes are opened wide and they look through her, and he digs his nails into her back even when it is too much for her, and she closes her eyes, the smell of their sweat and their insides, but she still enjoys the too muchness of it, even as she wonders if something is missing, or if something is there that shouldn't be.
And that is when she gets the call. Her mother is in the hospital. She leaves Rent in her bed, she puts on sweats and a t-shirt, she tells him, "I'll be back. You can stay here."
The way she barely even looked at him when she said, "I'll be right back," the way he couldn't even offer her a ride, the way she wouldn't let him go along, the way she ran out of the house without a goodbye, the way she didn't come back all night. She had every reason to do those things, he knows that. A call like that can be terrifying. He has no right to ask for her attention at a time like that. He knows that. But it still burns in him -- that look of hers. That non-look look.
"Come here," he tells her. "I've got a surprise for you."
She's not sure she exactly wants to go into his dark bedroom with that twisty smile on his face. Sometimes he is too pushy about sex, he pushes her into his fantasies when she doesn't want to go. Handcuffs and peanut butter is not her thing. But this time, something is different, that look on his face is not familiar. Maybe worse, maybe better. But he begs. And she finally agrees to sit on the bed. She agrees to close her eyes. She keeps her body rigid, her eyes shut tight, ready for a storm, she has known this man for four months, surely she can relax with him. But she can not relax as she sits there with him hovering around her.
"Ready?" he says.
She nods as best as she can nod.
"Here it comes," he says.
He slips a piece of paper in her hand.
She looks down at the paper, she can't tell what it is in the dark, only that it is an envelope.
"I can't see," she says.
He turns on the light.
"What's this?" she says.
She opens it in a rush, she somehow senses that it is bad news even though that doesn't make any sense with Rent sitting there with that goofy smile. Her mother has been doing better lately and she's positive that something is going to destroy that good fortune. She's even willing to believe it could come by way of an envelope from Rent.
Inside the envelope are two flight tickets to Paris, two hotel reservations for one week in Paris. "What's this?" she says.
"You've always wanted to go to Paris," he says.
She hears him, but she has trouble understanding what he is saying.
"So," he says, "I got you two tickets."
"What?" she says. She has no idea where he found this kind of money.
"A trip for two to Paris," he says. "For you and your mother."
He misses the crush. They're so accustomed to each other. Now that they live together, it's not exciting anymore. It's all mixed in with the mundane. When they kiss, it is familiar. She no longer sneaks her fingers up his sleeve, under his shirt. He knows this is what is supposed to happen. But still, he misses the crush.
Marcus used to help him with these kinds of things. He'd give absurd advice that, in the end, would help Rent figure things out. Once Marcus convinced Rent to get a hotel room a mile away and stay there for 72 hours without talking to a soul, and with only eating cereal, in order to make sure Rent didn't care for the woman he was seeing, a woman Rent had been living with for two years.
Rent goes out with the guys from work more than he used to. She stays home, she doodles in a sketchpad. What started out just as a way to occupy her mind when she got upset about where he was has turned into a serious hobby. She can draw these patterns that pull you in and don't let go. Thousands of drops of rain, that's her thing, every drawing is like that, but if you squint at them, you'll see two people in the pattern, you'll see something amazing, what they're doing inside the drops, different every time.
She knows that "going out with the guys" also involves that Melissa with the red hair.
Julie drinks bourbon these days. Neat or on the rocks, she doesn't really care.
Her doodlings are displayed at Beanies Coffee Shop. They sell for one-hundred dollars a piece and she's already sold five of them. Some people have bought them without even knowing what was under the surface.
When Rent comes home, hours too late, his breath is also of bourbon. But the similarity only adds to her sense of the difference. When he's drunk, he talks to her like she is the only one in the world for him. Julie doesn't complain. She lets him apologize, she accepts, she says, "We'll talk in the morning."
She can't stand to sleep in the same bed with him and his bourbon breath, so she sleeps on the couch, she already has an image in mind for her next doodling.
She starts taking art lessons from a man named Toby. He teaches out of his studio apartment. The place smells like oils and acrylics and canvas. He has long black hair with streaks of gray hair that almost look like highlights. The man has no sense of humor but smiles like a little boy when he sees a good painting. "I will teach you," he says, "to use whatever medium you want to use."
Acrylics, canvas, she likes to paint pictures of fruit. He shows her a better way to hold her brush, his hands are always warm in the way that her hands are always cold.
The man drinks butterscotch schnapps as if it were manly.
When Julie arrives, Rent has forgotten where he is, he has forgotten what he is doing, that he is just sitting in the living room in the dark waiting for her to arrive, waiting to accuse her.
She turns on the light and he doesn't squint even though his eyes burn from the light. She gasps at the sight of him, she puts her hand over her chest as a reflex.
"Toby is quite a teacher," he says. He makes a fist. He never cries—that is what he once told her.
She sits on the opposite side of the couch. She looks ahead, not at him. She blinks a lot but doesn't seem to be upset. He envies the clarity he thinks he sees in her.
All those hours in the dark, he thought hateful things about her, images of fire and blades and blood. But now, watching this woman next to him with such a peaceful presence, he simply says, "Can we save any of this?" and he points up at the ceiling.
She makes all of the reservations and plans for the beach weekend. He brings her flowers, buys her poetry by Baudelaire even though he's never read the man. She buys him that Tom Waits album that has the song he loves about the hooker at Christmas. They slide the mattress off the bed, pull it to the balcony so part of the mattress is outside and they lie arm in arm with their heads six stories above the ocean. He says sorry. She says sorry. There are candles. There are pomegranate seeds. It is beautiful, the sound of the waves.
He stays home more often. He looks at her with the look of someone who knows how close he was to losing her, scared to look away. He takes careful steps on their hardwood floor. He should have never gotten involved with Melissa. That girl was bad news—but she sure knew how to bite.
It can be saved. Julie's giving him another chance. But he still feels lost, he walks the house without direction, he misses his brother, he forgets why he walked into the kitchen in the first place.
She tells Toby, "No, this has to stop." She says that it is only the art that she wants now. Nothing else. She doesn't want his fingers to slide over her breasts. She doesn't want him to unzip her dress. She doesn't want to feel his hard-on against her ass as she paints.
"Then go," he says. "The lesson is over."
She takes one more gulp of butterscotch schnapps, grabs her painting, and leaves the apartment.
She sits in her car in Toby's driveway. Her painting is in the backseat of the car. She doesn't want to go home. She misses her mother. She doesn't know what lesson she should have learned.
She decides to drive. She doesn't drive home. She just drives.
The paint is not yet dry. It is a drawing of two pears on their sides, and the green from one of the pears is dripping down the canvas.