Sharp, More

We’ve been strolling for about twenty minutes when we again circle the benches at the fountain.  This time when Sharp raises his brows in the question, I nod in agreement, so we stop and take a seat.  He sighs in contentment as he settles in.

Sharp looks good today – relaxed and even a little dashing in his jacket – so I make the mistake of telling him.  He looks away with a scowl that does little to hide the smile that almost lit on his features.

I squint up into the sky.  “Well, you look as good as a guy like you can look, anyway.  Your hair is at least combed and I don’t see any mustard stains on your shirt.  New lady in your life? Something you’d care to discuss with the group?”

“Some group. Me and some shithead.”

I laugh right out loud.  It’s fun to get his goat and I long ago decided he can’t tell it’s a kind of flirting.  Sharp is a brilliant man but he has his blind spots.  It’s clear he isn’t going to tell me if he’s dating someone.  We sit without talking for a while, studying the other people, listening to the music of three jazz musicians standing in dappled light.

It’s Sunday in Washington Square, warm for this late in October.  Cardigans have come off and are tossed over elbows or knotted around waists.  The leaves are all stained glass and back lit.  This is an impossibly beautiful, Hollywood kind of day.

Sharp taps my shoulder, says, “Look.”

He has spotted a woman and her son arguing near the fountain.  The woman is yoga-and-kale-juice thin, wearing one of those dresses that looks like bicycling clothes.  Her blond hair is short and messy and something about her looks familiar.  She might be an actress I should know about.  Her son has stylishly disheveled hair and wears skinny jeans rolled up to show off striped socks and rugged little boots.  Peeping out from under the jacket he is twisting out of is a vintage-looking Blondie concert tee sized for a five year old.

“What do we think of that shit?” he asks.

“Well, I think it’s dreadful.”

“Dreadful,” he mocks not unkindly. “I agree.  You know you’re a little Victorian, don’t you?”

“Dreadful has been retired?”

“Eh,” he says.  “Looks like mamma wants Timmy to keep his jacket on.”

“Well, Timmy’s winning,” I say. “There should be a rule. Until you are pretty much a teenager, no one gets to dress you up cute and trendy.  You just wear some old shit off the rack at K-Mart.”

He laughs. “Then when you get your first pube, someone throws you a bone and takes you to a J. Crew outlet in Jersey.”

“Yeah.”  I ponder it a moment more. “I guess it’s annoying because you know that kid is going to be such an asshole.”

The boy we’ve named Timmy has wrestled free of his jacket, leaving his mother holding the sleeves with a frustrated and slightly astounded look on her face.  Sharp shrugs. “Looks like he already is one.”

I laugh, warming to the theme, and say, “Timmy’ll be that guy who always knows exactly the right new bands to mention at parties.  Bands you haven’t heard of yet.”

“He’ll quote Camus incessantly,” Sharp says, not missing a beat.  “One by one, his traits will be perfectly fine – almost admirable – but collectively, they’ll make him the absolute worst.”

But now I’m bored with making fun of Timmy. He’s fallen and he’s crying while his mother checks him over.  He’s become just a little kid again and it’s time to let up.  Sharp must agree because he has an old couple in his sights.  They are sitting on a bench on the north side of the fountain.

“You name them,” he says. “I did the last one.”

“But you call all little boys Timmy.”

“Your point?”

I study the old woman, who is scribbling in a Sudoku book with a purple fountain pen.  She is tallish, you can tell, with hair that hasn’t been taking calls since Carter was in office.  It’s flame red and curls stiffly against the popped color of her tweed blazer.  Her slacks look expensive but slightly high-water, as if they refuse to meet her curious choice of huge white tennis shoes.

“She is definitely a Marion,” I say.  “Or else something romantic and feminine that never suited her.  Like Gwendolyn or Genevieve.”

“Genevieve,” Sharp says. “But then he’s given her some big red nose of a last name that totally wrecks it.  Like Rosenblatt.”

“Genevieve Rosenblatt.”

We laugh.  Sharp taps my arm, “You’re not done yet.”

I squint at the man now.  He sits far enough from her that a child or a small person could plop down between them.  His hands are empty, loosely woven together on his lap.  He is shorter than his wife and not just because he’s so old – this guy was always shorter than her. You can tell.  He dresses exactly as bad as Norman Fell on Three’s Company, so I take the easy way out.

“Stanley.”

“Stanley and Genevieve Rosenblatt,” Sharp says. “I can buy that.”

“You know she has a prolapsed uterus.”

“You say that about every woman over sixty.”

We’re silent a moment more.  The breeze has shifted and you can smell food from the neighborhood: briny franks, spicy gyros and something a little like brown sugar and butter, too.

“Let’s get brunch,” I suggest.

As we stroll along, I return to the subject of the Rosenblatts.  “You know, I have this thing where I always imagine older women having prolapsed uteri but being unable to talk about it to their doctor.  Like it embarrasses them so they won’t get treatment.”

“What is this? A fucking PSA?”

“No.”  We step around a small man in Daisy Dukes, tugging the leashes of three dogs. The littlest dog is a shih tzu and the biggest a great dane.  I dig my hands in my jacket pockets, wishing I’d worn only a t-shirt and jeans.  I’m only ever happy in a t-shirt and jeans.  Anytime I try to add another component, I live to regret it.

“Can’t you just see her daughter coming over and saying, ‘Ma, you’ve got to go to the doctor about this.  It’s going to get infected, you know?'”

“Now I can,” Sharp says, wincing.  “How come your version of her daughter sounds like Rhoda?  Whenever you do a New York woman’s voice, it’s Valerie Harper all over the place.  Don’t look, but your suburbia is showing.”

“Fuck off,” I say.  “In my dreams, they do all sound like Rhoda.”

We stop on the corner of Waverly and MacDougal while the traffic moves against us.  He grins at me, saying, “This still about what happened to your sister?”

Sharp remembers everything you tell him.  His mind is a steel cage.  I laugh as I recall the story my sister told me.  She said she went over to our mom’s house to check on her one Saturday.   Mom was in the shower when Julie got there so she made herself a roast beef sandwich and then threw herself over Mom’s bed, looking through a magazine and eating the sandwich.  When Mom got out of the shower, she said, “Julie, I want you to take a look at something.”  Julie got up and stepped into the bathroom, the roast beef sandwich in one hand and the magazine in the other.  Our mother was standing in front of the bathtub, toweling herself dry with her legs about shoulder width apart.

“Look at this, honey,” Mom says.  She lets the towel go and points to herself down there and where her legs meet up, there is something that looks exactly like a huge wad of chewing gum – that weird color called burple – blown into a bubble and then stuck there, half deflated.  “It’s my vagina,” Mom said.  “My insides are coming out.”

My sister said she literally threw up.  She puked the roast beef sandwich right out over the bathroom floor and some of the throw up splashed up on both her and my mom.  Then my mother, now as shocked and grossed out as Julie was, pukes in turn.  And this puke, as Julie tells it, had walnuts and Craisins in it.  “You know,” she added. “Those dried cranberries. But now they were reconstituted, so they just looked like normal cranberries.”  She said it was the grossest thing that ever happened to her and I bet she’s not lying about it.  Of course I called up Sharp at the time and told him first.

That was last year, when Sharp and I were in the thick of our friendship.  We’d only been friends a year or so at that point and, his divorce over and him shy about dating again, we spent a lot of time together.  That was back when I was a little bit in love with Sharp.  The night I figured it out, we were walking back to my place from a bar.  It was two or three in the morning, but we weren’t really that pissed.  We’d been drinking slow and talking all night and we’d never switched from beer to liquor, though we talked about it.

I saw a mirror on the sidewalk someone had thrown out.  It was cracked in one corner, but it had an interesting frame.  Sharp could tell I liked it as soon as I paused to give it a look.

“Want me to carry it?” he asked.  It was a big mirror and he is a bigger guy than me, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t manage.  Maybe he could see I was a little peeved that he offered.  He said, “Or we can take turns. It’s still five blocks.”

“Okay,” I said.  So we took turns carrying it back to my place.  He held it when we got to the apartment door so I could get out my key and let us in.  The hallway is small and its easy to stand too close to someone in it even when there isn’t a mirror pushing the two of you together to get through.  I could feel the heat coming off his body he was so close to my side.  It made getting the lock a clumsy task.

When we got inside, I told him to throw the mirror up on the mantle shelf.  The chimneys have all been bricked up, so the mantles are just relics now.  He put it up and turned to face me, his stupid face a little red from coming up the steps, his eyes shiny and dark, the only bright things I could see at that moment.  He was smiling at me warmly, as friends do in those rare moments of quiet we allow ourselves.  I knew in that instant how much I had come to rely on him for feeling happy and it just kicked me in the stomach. This was a real pain I’d felt once or twice before in my life.  I turned away with a cross brow and said flatly, “Thanks, Sharp. I think I’m gonna go to bed, so you need to go home.”

He left with a scowl on his face and I cried myself to sleep.  But that was a year ago and since then I’ve folded those feelings up until they fit our particular box.  It was that or no Saturdays like this one, where we walk and talk this way, opening up strangers and deciding we know the shape of them on the inside.  We’re very clever, we like to think, and that is how Sharp and I work.

Breakfast with Sharp

Sharp shows up at the diner looking anxious, as always, and a little sleepier than usual.  It’s miserably wet outside and as he peels himself free of his jacket, droplets of rain scatter over the Formica table.  I glance down at the bowl of sugar packets the waitress left and remind myself as I have for ten years that I no longer sweeten my coffee.

“You have the girls this weekend?” I ask.  “You look exhausted.”

“All week.”

He bumps the table as he gets into the booth and my coffee splashes out of the mug.  He automatically reaches for too many napkins but I already have it covered.

“Relax,” I say. “You seem wound up.”

“Oh, well.”  He scratches his head. “Maybe I am.”

I consider waiting until after we eat to get to the thing on my mind, but I’m anxious to know, so I ask, “Did you read my story?”

He looks at me a moment, his expression a study of blankness, then silently picks up the menu and mulls it over with all the concentration of a man taking a test.  I know what he’ll order in the end, and when the waitress comes and he says pancakes and an egg and some grits with sausage gravy, too, I say nothing.

Sharp is a little meaty and red-headed and freckled.  And he’s balding some on top, but he isn’t hipster enough or self-conscious enough to shave his whole head the way a lot of guys do nowadays.  He keeps it old-fashioned barber short.  When it’s combed flat it’s not so bad, but he’s that guy who scratches his head when he’s tired or nervous or excited or thinking.  He scratches his head almost all the time and he does it until the hair sticks up like koala ears.  And then he looks like the goofiest bastard you ever saw.

He notices my silence. “You think I should’ve got the omelet instead, don’t you?”

“I don’t care what you get, Sharp.”

He shrugs.  I notice that his t-shirt is all bunched around his shoulders from pulling off the jacket.  If he were one of my girl friends, I would reach out and fix it, but ever since junior high I’ve been paranoid that anything that physical and intimate will seem like a pass. I know my guy friends now are smart enough to know I’m just gay, not a sex-starved maniac, but it’s just a weird holdover from earlier times.  Instead I say drily, “Your shirts all fucked up.”

“Oh.” He makes my coffee splash out twice more as he tries to fix it.  This time I let him mop up the mess.  He looks peeved. “Who do they make these little fucking booths for anyway?”

I glance out the window.  Even in the crappy weather, the sidewalk has lots of people on it.  The rain can’t empty a street in New York.  The east villagers are moving faster than normal, but they still got things to do.  The weather has greyed all the bright tops and scarves and the assortment of hats, but the taxis only look more vibrant.  They are cartoon cheery; blocks of cheddar coasting through the rain.

“Can’t we talk about your story after we eat?” Sharp says.

I give him a look.  His eyes are scotch brown, easily his best feature, and they usually register a cocktail of worry, concern and impatience.  They are intelligent eyes that carry a weighty sadness even when they’re laughing.  His eyes could make a mother out of anyone.  When we first were friends, I fell in love with him because of those eyes.  Or I thought I loved him. Maybe I just fell in love with wanting to make them happier eyes, which I now know is entirely impossible.  I even suspect he’d be a little less brilliant if he weren’t quite so troubled.  Anyway, Sharp’s not suicidal or anything, just a keeper of gloom.  But he’s really a funny guy, too.

“What’s that?” he says, his brows gathering like thunderclouds.

“What?”

“I asked if we could go over your story later and you give me this long look like you want to fuck me or kill me or spit in my face.”

I laugh at him, but I can feel my face burn with a blush.  “You’re an idiot,” I say. “But if I had to pick one, I think I’d happily spit in your ugly face.”

He scowls and starts opening too many sugar packets, dumping the contents into his coffee.  He grimaces when he takes the first sip.  “Too sweet.”

“I saw that coming.”

We have this thing between us, me and Sharp.  It’s like we could almost be lovers – in different skins, of course – or we could so easily be enemies.  We’d be the kind of former friends who hide in grocery store aisles from each other and when someone brought up the other one to us, we’d go home and get drunk and maybe draw pictures on napkins of people being decapitated.  We’d wake up and not remember drawing it, but we’d remember that someone had said, “You see Sharp anymore?”  And our hangover would be colossal.  It’s good that me and Sharp are friends, because us being enemies would be like cancer.

“So?”

“Yeah, Sharp, we can go over it later. I mean, I’ve waited this long.  I can wait ten more minutes.”

He looks like he wants to argue, to defend himself for dodging the topic for three weeks, but then the waitress is back and putting the plates down.  I see that this time he finally spots the mole on her arm and as his mouth turns down, I look away and hide a smile behind my coffee mug.  She stands back a little ways and puts her hands on her hips.

“Anything else, whiles I’m here?”

“We’re good,” I say for both of us.

She looks at me like she disagrees and her eyes roam the table dubiously.  Pointing to Sharp’s mug, she says, “I’ll come back and top you off.”

“No,” he says. “Thanks.”

I watch her back as she moves off, noticing she forgot to iron one of her sleeves.  One of them is perfect with a crease and everything and the other one looks like she dragged the uniform right out of the laundry hamper.

“You grossed out?” I ask with a smidge of pleasure.

“No.”  He flashes those scotch brown eyes at me.

Sharp doesn’t cut his pancakes, he saws at them like he’s clearing land westward.  He doesn’t spoon up his grits, he shovels them like Fred Flintstone working the quarry.  I eat my omelet in silence.

“You hear anything from that actress?” he asks with his mouth full.  “She still want you to edit that script of hers?”

“That’s what I’ve been doing the last two weeks.”

He shrugs.  “She seems like an idiot.”

“She is,” I agree. “But my fridge is full for once.”

He looks a little interested, then grimaces into his plate.

“In any event, I like editing almost as much as writing so it’s good.  Or good enough.”

The infuriating thing about Sharp is that he’s so opaque at times.  I like to be able to read people.  It makes me feel certain about my world.  When Sharp just gives you a glance, it could be anything.  Some people look at you and you know they’re hurt or irritated or just looking at you to be sure it was you who said their name.  With Sharp, he might be noticing for the first time that your eyes are a little close set or even finally figuring out that you’re not as clever as he thought you were. Or he might be seeing you have a booger.  That bastard would not tell you’ve had a booger until you were leaving a party and then he’d say, “Yeah, I noticed it an hour ago but you were flirting with that guy you’re into and I didn’t want to embarrass you.” I mean, a lot of people would not be friends with someone like Sharp.  Friends tell you about boogers, open flies, toilet paper stuck to your shoe.

He pushes his plate aside with a sour expression on his face.  He finished everything he ordered and now his stomach hurts.  This is how it goes.  Folding his arms and tucking his fingers into the pits, he says, “The story isn’t so bad, but you got that thing about the gift horse wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“You say something like, ‘Never look a gift horse in the mouth unless you want to get bitten. Or unless you want to see a tangle of soldiers…'”

I finish up for him. “‘..Huddled in its stomach, which could be either erotic or disgusting, but I’m betting on the latter.’  What’s wrong with that? I thought it was kind of clever.”

He shakes his head. “But the gift horse thing and the Trojan horse thing aren’t the same thing.  You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth because that’s like checking out its teeth, like taking a gift but then judging its worth.  It’s rude.”

I bite my lip and push away my plate.  Feeling queasy, I reach for my coffee, but then take a drink of my water instead.  The water at this place is always cloudy, but I pretend not to notice anymore.

Sharp says, “The Trojan horse thing is where the ‘beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ thing comes from.  So, you can’t use that part.”

“But that’s the setup and all the back and forth between Ant and Nan comes from that thing.”

He shrugs in a way I think is kind of hateful.  Later, I’m sure I’ll decide it wasn’t.

He says, “Look, you asked me to read it.”

“But I wanted your opinion on the dialogue and things like the characters, not to pick apart some geeky detail like that.”

“Your whole story is built on you not knowing your shit, dipshit,” he says.  Irritated with me, his voice drops down into his chest.  When I used to be sort of in love with him, I found that deep tone arousing.  Even now it makes me feel a little funny.

“Well, maybe if I change that part and make it about something else…”

He is shaking his head, looking bored now and glancing over my shoulder.  In the long silence I land back into the moment, hearing again the murmur of other people talking, the clatter of knives and forks at work, the vague discharge of a pop song from the old jukebox in the front.  He leans forward, dropping his elbows on the table.  Instinctively, I lean in, too.

“The part about how they feel about each other is good,” he says.  “Except you don’t really let anyone know how Ant feels.  Seems a little slanted.”

“But that would make it like Nan knows how he feels.”

He rakes his hands through his hair and there it is, that stupid koala bear head.  This time I reach out and knock the ears down.  He stares at me in astonishment.

I try to pick up the thread again. “Ant is just one of those mysteries that Nan can’t figure out. I mean, that’s how some people are.  They never get together, they never have a happy ending.  You’re supposed to walk away from the story feeling really frustrated about all of that shit in life.”

He sits back, still looking a little shocked.  Folding his arms again, the scotch eyes are almost angry.  Anyway, they’re very dark now.  Coca-Cola dark.  “Well, if leaving them frustrated is what you wanted, then you nailed it.”