"Play Berkeley Square for me."
It was a cold night for New York in May. The kind of cold that seeps through your London Fog, crawls through your pores and settles in your marrow like squatters in a crack house.
I'd stepped off 38th Street into the dark-paneled vestibule of Arno's, rain dripping from my fedora to make starburst teardrops on the cold marble floor. The Muse is a fickle tease. One minute she's enticing you with sultry glimpses that promise rapture, and the next she's forcing a smile on you just so she can kick you in the teeth. Writing's no game for wimps, I knew that. But of late, the dice were weighted against me. I hadn't been rejected so much since Spring Break, 1989.
The lounge singer had just put a ribbon on the last notes of her song, and I asked her to sing mine next.
"Sure thing, Joe," she said with a smile as tired as a mining camp whore on payday. "Put it in E-flat, Tommy."
I thought to tell her Joe was my brother, but once she started singing about That certain night, it just didn't seem to matter.
"Double Macallan. Eighteen," I told the barman when I caught his eye. Anything younger would be illegal. "One ice cube."
"Sure thing, Mac."
Again I thought to correct the name, but the anonymity had the warm comfort of that first sip of Scotch. I nodded thanks to the barman and threw down a fifty. The old sot—Grant, that is, not the barkeep—stared at me through bloodshot green-tinted eyes. I raised my glass to him and took another sip.
And then she walked in.
As she shook off her umbrella and the maitre d' took her coat, she looked about the place. Her eyes had that red-rimmed look that might have come from the urine stench of Gotham's alleys, but I knew better. I tipped my Macallan toward her. She gave a weak smile of recognition then took a place at the bar two seats down from me.
"You were the one in the kilt, right?" she said, eyes fixed on the mirror behind the bar.
Sooner than I could answer, the barman appeared before her.
"Champagne," she ordered.
"Celebrating or forgetting?" I asked.
She slowly turned toward me. Her auburn hair was cut short, the kind of style that gives a vulnerable exposure of the neck, but sports a sassiness that makes you check that your keys, money clip and testicles are still where you put them.
She said the name like that of your first lover who promised to marry you once she returned from her mission trip to Sulawesi then wrote to say she was having second thoughts, so you maxed out your credit card and caught the next flight to Jakarta, then sat in coach for two days, knees-to-chin, only to stagger off the puddle-jumper at Donggala to learn she'd flown back stateside, so you wire home for money for the return flight but your parents think you need to learn a lesson, then you find yourself caught in the middle of the religious riots….
She seemed sad.
Noslen's a tough cookie. A sharp broad who knows her stuff and knows what she's about, but pulls no punches with writers she thinks are in over their heads. I closed my eyes, gave a sympathetic nod then raised my glass again. She hesitated but lifted her flute, bubbles streaming through the amber liquid like fireflies on an August night in Michigan.
We drank in companionable silence until a rain-dampened blonde settled in, two seats to my other side.
"Tequila," she told the barman, her Boston accent tempered and weary. "Make it smooth, make it Extra Añejo, and make it quick."
He hurried to obey.
"Backspace?" Bubbles leaned forward and spoke around me.
The newcomer moistened her hand and sprinkled some salt. The barkeep set down Boston's drink and a slice of lime on a saucer. The shot glass barely had time to cool the oak before the dame licked the salt, slammed the tequila and sucked on the lime. She shivered, craned her neck like a wrestler getting ready for a match, then placed both hands on the bar and straightened her back.
"Paulsagh," she said, her voice full of grit. "Says I lack emotional investment. I'll give her emotional investment, right up her—"
"One more on me," I said to the barkeep.
He wiped his face with a towel, nodded, then hurried to pour another shot.
Lightning illuminated the bar like—like—like lightning flashing through the windows on a cold-when-it-should-be-hot night in May in New York. A thunder clap made everyone jump and rattled the bottles of top-shelf liquor on the—well, on the top shelf.
The three of us turned our heads toward the door like spectators at the US Open.
Another blonde—hair streaming with the late-May rain—threw her Alexander Wang on the coat rack, peeled off her slingback Blahnik's and rubbed her heels. She hobbled to the nearest stool and eased into the lime-colored velour's embrace.
"Cab. Oak. Now."
An easy calm settled over Arno's as the songstress wrapped up the tune of London's nightingale.
"Would miei signore e signore care for a table?"
The maitre d' appeared behind us, his hands spread in a welcoming gesture. His smile bespoke the warm invitation of Southern Europe.
The four of us looked from one to another. Bubbles gave a hint of a nod, and the rest of us promptly agreed. Before long we were seated at a cozy table in the heart of Arno's, a plate of bruschetta between us and a bottle of Greco di Tuffo breathing on the side.
"You ordered that just because of the name, didn't you?" Heels looked at me under an arched brow.
I shrugged. "How can you pass up a good Mastroberardino?"
Good-humored laughter bounced off the mirrored glazing.
Bottle chased bottle as antipasti and insalati gave way to primi and secondi. Tales of queries scorned and first pages ridiculed were followed by outlines and tag lines, synopses and tropes. By night's end, bonds were forged and hopes restored. The rain dissolved like our agent-induced angst and we wandered in a round-about path toward the Martinique under a cloud-laced sky.
We strolled past twitching tweakers, snoring drunks and the sleeping lions in front of the Library.
"Our books will be there one day," Bubbles said.
"And we'll come to each others' book signings," vowed Boston.
"And give each other blurbs," Heels added.
I nodded, flipped up the collar on my trench coat and pulled the fedora deeper across my eyes. I fished a Dunhill out of my pocket, flipped it between my lips, then shielded it from the wind as I flicked my Zippo.
"'Til then," I said around the red-tipped fag, its light and smoke tracing my words in the night air, "I'll see you at Arno's, kids."
Editor's Note: The forgoing are the recollections, real or imagined, of the author and may (read, "probably") have zero association with events as they actually occurred. No merit should be placed in them, or any weight assigned to them with regard to historical accuracy. At all.