It was the male equivalent of a baby shower, and I hadn't seen the father-to-be in six years, and even then we were acquaintances at best. For that reason and others, I was kicking around the parking lot waiting for a familiar face to walk in with. Sully came driving up in his candy red Porsche. We nodded at each other, and I waited for him to park.
I hadn't seen Sully since graduation. He'd survived college on the gratuitous donations his father made to the school, but we didn't resent him for it because he'd always been such a genuinely good guy. Still, it couldn't overshadow the fact that he was an unmitigated idiot. I'll never forget that day before winter break senior year when he drank his weight in wine coolers and beer, fell asleep in a mound of snow, and woke up with frostbite. They severed off the three middle toes on his right foot at the Student Health Center. Over the next semester, he trained himself to open beer bottles with his two-toed foot. It became the source of bar bets, the parlor trick of all parlor tricks.
His bleached blond hair was boxed in the sort of flat-top crew that hasn't been seen this side of letterman jackets and the Korean War. We were dressed the same: blue shirt, black pants. He was carrying a thin, children's-book-sized gift in red, Christmas wrapping paper.
"What have you got there?" I asked. He looked down as if he'd forgotten he was holding anything at all.
"A cheese board," he said matter-of-factly.
"Baby's first cheese board, of course."
"It's for Hal. Why—what'd you get?"
I held up the glittery green drumstick in my hand.
"A rattle. Also for Hal."
"I'm glad you came. This must all be pretty weird for you," he said.
Diane, Hal's wife and mother-to-be, was my girlfriend through most of college. It wasn't one of those things where I still had feelings for her or anything like that, but it was strange to be usurped, succeeded. I made an excuse to get out of the wedding and when the invitation arrived for the shower I hadn't planned on responding, but Hal called personally to make sure I was coming. I couldn't say no.
Thank God there were no games. I'd have feigned food poisoning before they had me taking waist and bust measurements. There was a bachelor party mentality. We gorged on New York strips and pork chops and chicken parm. We started with a red wine, drank through that quickly, and moved on to beer and more beer. Everybody seemed to know each other. I asked the guy next to me how he knew Hal. He gave me this look like I should have had all the relationships figured out already. He told me that they worked together but didn't tell me what they did. Computers? Commercials? Bonds? Cars?
We'd just started taking shots when the entertainment arrived: two strippers in diapers, bibs, bonnets, sucking on pink pacifiers. Some of the men whistled.
"Daddy-to-be, right here, me first."
Hal flipped his chair around. The strippers—with their pacifiers in—straddled each leg. Hal was really into the whole thing. I couldn't blame him—bachelorhood to married life was one thing, but childlessness to fatherhood, to me, seemed like an even more sobering transition.
In college, he was the type of kid that made you take off your shoes before entering his dorm. He kept a small hand-held vacuum tucked away underneath his bed and always had an air purifier running. We used to poke fun at his cleaning habits behind his back. He and Sully, who was his roommate freshman year, couldn't have been less alike. I was glad to see he'd grown into himself.
The girls danced up on him for half an hour at least. He got up—his seat was quickly filled by one of his coworkers—and gestured with his hand toward the bar. Half of us followed him to the bar; the other half stayed with the dancers. A car race was playing on the television. The race had an air of importance, but I didn't know the first thing about NASCAR. Hal ordered a gin and tonic. I ordered a scotch.
"So what are you doing these days," he asked me. Through the French doors, I could see the strippers had climbed onto the table and were mimicking temper tantrums, throwing breadsticks across the room.
"I do contracting work," I said. He laid a roll of bills on the bar in front of him, so the bartender would know to keep the alcohol flowing—a funny thing to do for someone drinking a gin and tonic.
"Oh yeah? How's that going?"
"It's not too bad."
"So what was that degree for?"
"I did the office thing for a while. It wasn't for me."
"I hear you. Layoffs can be a bitch. We've had a tough year—a lot of my friends were let go."
I didn't correct him.
"No, not right now."
"Playing the field. Nice."
"So you're going to be a dad. That's pretty crazy."
"Yeah, I'm excited. I'm definitely excited. It's going to be some ride." He turned the paper coaster over in his hands, set it on its side and rolled it down the bar. It made it a few feet before stumbling flat. "I got lucky. Diane made the right choice."
"You know what I mean. She chose the right guy. It took her a long time to grow up, start taking life seriously. She did a lot of sleeping around in college. And let's be honest, she's better off with me. It'd be a shame to see a beautiful woman like Diane end up pinching pennies in some tool shed. You should be happy for her."
I couldn't believe it. It all made sense now. He'd invited me to keep some competitive streak burning. What was he trying to prove? I should have had the strength to let it go, been the bigger man, but I couldn't. I got off my stool; he got off his. We stood nose-to-nose. I felt the hot alcohol on his breath. He didn't blink or shift his focus; his eyes were red and glowing. Behind him, two stools down, I could see Sully set a beer bottle on the hardwood floor. He untied his shoe and peeled off his sock. He contorted his foot so that his two remaining toes wrapped around the top, then twisted suddenly—without counterweighting the bottle—and the cap popped off, a cool wisp of air rising from the neck. Hal turned. Several men in the other room witnessed him open the bottle and came over to the bar. The strippers followed. Someone ordered him second beer. He hugged his toes around the top of the bottle and snapped it open, then hooked his foot around the neck and pulled it up to his hand. It was clear he'd perfected his technique since college. The next beer was on the house. We huddled around him, a few stray diners squeezed in between us. An older woman recorded the feat on her cell phone. Two of Hal's coworkers bought another four beers each. They were making a bet on how many bottles he could open in a row. "Keep 'em coming. I can go all day," Sully said. Waiters and waitresses stopped and watched, set down their serving trays. The bartender smiled, shook his head, and with a damp rag wiped the bar clean.