A Night at Dorian's
by Andrew McNabb
My choices, thinks Jay Garvey as he looks around the mostly empty room, got me all this: nothing. He reminds himself, but that was the point. Kneeling down to pray, bare knees exposed to the wood floor, he closes his eyes to forget the world, to move to another place. But it doesn't come, prayer. His mind strays. The people in the community house in which he lives-permanent members, visitors, guests-overwhelm his ears with the sounds of real life. It is one of the things he loves about this place, that noise; but seeping under his door now, it is jarring, preventing him from descending, bringing his mind to what he was desperately trying to forget: her face, her fragrance, the recurring vision of the top of her blouse unbuttoned.
It has been just a few days since he met her. The hours have passed slowly, anticipation of their next meeting coloring his mood, making the little jobs around the house more difficult. In his room, he seeks solitude. But privacy is unhinged when the door to his shared room opens, bringing him out of his thoughts. "Oh -- sorry, Jay," says Colby, seeing Jay kneeling. "No, no problem." Jay stands, and Colby waits an awkward moment, to see what Jay will do.
Jay knows why Colby is there, but he turns his back, rustles papers on his bed. Finally, Colby speaks. "Listen, man, food delivery's late. I think they may be cutting us off."
Jay is surprised how little the words rouse him. Just another crisis: mouths to feed, ends to meet, somehow. The words he would normally utter to himself, to others-The Lord will provide in substance, and if not, in strength-do not come. After an extended moment, he says, "Be right down." He slowly turns to watch Colby close the door.
Standing on the subway platform in Brooklyn, Jay looks down at the patch of white shirt adhered to the top of his stomach. He plucks it with two fingers, pulls it back and forth to circulate air. Mid-August heat. Dropping the shirt, he watches it stick once again and attempts stillness to prevent more trickles. He is late to meet her.
She'd set the place: Dorian's. He'd heard of it, he thought, or had maybe read about it, but anyway he needed not a first hand account because he was able to picture it clearly, glittering even in dimmed lighting, bursts of laughter above the hum, and food, almost an afterthought, arranged artfully on oversized plates. On occasion, when his brother, successful in business, came to town they went together to places like it.
His brother didn't like eating at St. Joseph's House, and always said, "You could use a good meal." Jay enjoyed those meals -- eating out like that wasn't against the doctrine of voluntary poverty he'd adopted, but was simply impossible given his means. St. Joseph's House paid only in room and board and gratitude. Its financial situation was always as precarious as his own, chartered to subsist on donations from the public, supplemented occasionally by meager grants from one source or another, whose next year's contribution was never certain.
And though his brother wouldn't be there to pick up the tab, he was going to Dorian's tonight to meet her. Looking down, now, at the bulge in his pocket from the two hundred dollars -- mostly ones -- he'd taken from the house-fund to pay for dinner, he shakes his head at this dubious usage and moves the lump with his hand, as if to make sure it is benign.
Gazing down the track toward Coney Island, where the train will come from, he calculates time to mid-town, fifty-first street; with all the stops, an hour. He thinks of Naomi, in her apartment somewhere in Manhattan. She steps from the shower onto a cool marble floor, walks through her apartment unclothed, her skin tingling in the air-conditioned air. A new stream trickles down his forehead. He cranes his neck and looks at his watch, then down the track, unable to reconcile his urgency. His two years at St. Joseph's have been quiet calm, despite life having been anything but easy. "St. Joseph's," he says, now, looking across the tracks and down the street to the boxy, smog-stained building. How ugly, he thinks, and not a house of saints; those serving, those served. The poor who come are often slothful and uncaring. Men are men, he thinks, and life is circumstance, the card you draw. Reward should be handed down based on how you deal with what you've been given. So many poor are not poor because they wish to be, because they desire to be close to God-mere poverty won't bring you that-but because they are stuck there, through their own fault or someone else's or no one's at all. And the men and women he works alongside; idealistic, radical, their outrage tempered by a devotion to religious orthodoxy, to a commitment to live a non-violent life, a life of voluntary poverty. But they are human, and things that take place in the house are less than adherent to scripture. He thinks how at night, alone in bed, he often stares at the ceiling and hums to keep the resonant noise of illicit love-making from his ears, and how during the day, he observes -- even engages in -- the in-fighting among the staff, the arguments, the pettiness, the jealousy. For the first time, the word leaving seeps into his mind. There is no sin in leaving, he tells himself. Life is full of little callings, and sometimes big ones. How big was his calling to be? The humming track startles him. In the distance the train appears, silver and drab, and so far away that its movement is measured in inches. He stares into its two front lights, white and penetrating, cutting through the city heat that rises in translucent, vaporous fumes. He thinks of Naomi, wanting just to be beside her. To touch her. When his vision takes on a dimension of force, he shakes his head, hums, concentrates on the train rattling into the station, bringing with it fetid subway wind.
He looks out the window of the subway car, at a street lined with tough old trees, their summer plumage thick and green, branches reaching, fighting back at the city. It is a moment before he realizes the train isn't moving, stopped between stations. The engineer's staticy voice over the p.a. system announces, "Stopped by the traffic coordinator momentarily. The transit authority thanks you for your patience."
They've only gone three stops. Eighteen more to go. He will be late. Anxiety swells, and this, in itself, is disturbing. He stands and then sits. The subway's air conditioner drones and struggles. He runs his hand along wet forearms, feeling dirty in his skin, but knowing it is not water and soap but self-sufficiency that will change his hue. A beggar and a burden. He vows: no more checks from his mother for airfare home; no more regret at sending only a card on birthdays; no more struggling for necessities. Emitting a breath of air that draws the eyes of fellow passengers, he thinks how the serving of a hungry mouth, the wrapping of a blanket around cold shoulders, a crisis defused had always been enough. So what had changed? What had changed? His mind is drawn to thoughts of Naomi. He wants their encounter to have been serendipitous, a storybook start to true love, rendering him powerless to stop it. He knows it wasn't, but what had it been?
Against his will, he returns to the night he met her. His urge had been different that night. Where an unspoken need ordinarily brought him to Harper's Pub around the corner, that night he headed instead for the subway, desiring something only Manhattan could provide. Nights at Harper's had always been for rejuvenation, and not to satisfy bodily thirst, but spiritual-renewal coming not from the alcohol crackling at the back of his throat, but later, the next day in the form of pounding temples, of sickness and hazy memories, reminders for him of the deprivation of a life of excess: the life of the world beyond his barren room.
He shakes his head now at the thought that it is this way, that the world to him is an absolute, because he knows that good lives are lived-better than his-within the context of the "real" world. God called not everyone to live without means. So why does this have to be his way? He looks for evidence that it doesn't have to be. He thinks of his family, always supportive, but who, he knew, never quite understood the logic behind his vocation. During each phone call home, he sensed their anticipation of that message, those words, "I've decided to move on." On a recent visit, his father had suggested, "Not all work that benefits society has to go unpaid, Jay. Maybe you can work for social services." And looking over the top of his glasses, he'd added, "At least you'll get a pension." Where was the conviction now that had been so strong he needed not respond to his father, knowing in his heart it was exactly not about that. It was about having no pension. Of having no salary. Of ridding himself of the snowball of life's concerns, of leaving his fate in Jesus's hands, and perhaps most of all of feeling true poverty because in that there is grace. He'd always thought they would have better understood had he taken vows for the priesthood, gone into a religious order where a vow of poverty was required but, he knew, rarely meant going hungry. Holy those men were, indeed, but always taken care of. That was not his calling. But is this?
The train is rolling once again, slowly. He pushes down on the floor with his right foot, as if pressing the gas to go faster. It seems to work. The world cascades by, the dull brick of the buildings blending with the green trees, the white sky, the gray city. The colors change as they pull into the next station, skin and clothing, colorful and tightly wound, alert Jay to the crowded platform.
The doors open, and on they rush, the quicker bodies filling the last few seats, others packing into the aisle. Before he is able to revert to thoughts left dangling, the familiar smell of urine fills his nose. A man stands, precariously, a short distance away. Other bodies avoid his, a circle of air around him. Jay knows this man-the shirt tucked into underwear pulled high, the mumbling lips-despite this being the first time he's laid eyes upon him. It could be any of the men who come to his house, seeking. The man begins to address the passengers, but Jay looks away, to keep the man's rote plea from his ears, to be unburdened by that which he is trying to forget, and to retrieve other thoughts-thoughts of the other night, when he'd emerged from the darkness of the subway to the bright lights of midtown. He'd let his feet lead him, surprised by their decisiveness, by their bringing him directly to the bar at the Carmella Hotel, where two drinks were a night at Harper's. In a comfortable chair, in an elegant setting, he realized it was comfort he sought. And it was beauty. Seeing it, and surprised by his brazenness, he approached her without hesitation, surprised again by the words coming from his mouth, "Can I buy you a drink?" She'd smiled, and he'd sat down. He steered the conversation toward her, drinking in her details, watching the words move through red lips. He inched closer, fighting back a desire to reach out, touch her, somewhere, his eyes nearly tearing from her sparkle; he was mesmerized, yet unable to stop thinking of the women he worked beside at St. Joseph's House, so different in their drabness, their lack of make-up, their worn clothes. It was an unfair comparison-to both, he thought-but really not a comparison at all. This woman before himwhat she offered the world was different. "But enough about me, Jay," she'd said. "What do you do?"
"Writer," he'd replied, without hesitation. It wasn't a lie-a half-complete novel and a dozen rejected short stories sat locked in a box in his room-but it was merely an unsuccessful sidebar to his main job, which, under this light, evoked in him something nearing shame. Before she had a chance to ask, and heartened by her seeming delight at his profession, he said, "I live in Brooklyn." This last bit adding a piece to the romantic puzzle that he thought he saw her completing. His slightly frayed clothes, which she'd eyed, had taken on a different dimension, a hip manifestation, perhaps, of his creativity.
They talked, sipped their drinks that Jay had paid for with the last of his money. She was waiting for friends, she'd said. And Jay watched for them, nervously, studying each person coming through the door.
Now, as the faces of her friends come to him, feet that kick his jostle him from his recollection. An older woman stands above him, snarling. "Oh, sorry," he says, rising. "Please." He waves his arm at the seat. She says nothing but sits, as if he'd never been there at all.
And he reaches again for memories of the other night, suddenly anxious, his anger growing. But the memories don't come. He has risen into a different, crowded existence of arms holding poles, bodies swaying back and forth with the brakeman's intentions. The money in his pocket surges to the front of his mind; he feels it pulsing, as if flashing red for the world to see. He grabs onto it with his free hand, knowing how crushing it would be to lose it. Thinkingof the other night. "Arnie," her male friend had said, squeezing his hand tightly. "And this is Dee."
They retreated from the bar to a table, a booth in the shape of a half moon. As Arnie talked about a life in Manhattan of which Jay knew little, Jay watched Naomi's reaction, noticing her delight at the story of the doorman in Arnie's building, of the vicissitudes of a recent trip. Dee was ebullient but said not a word to him. And Jay sat, nervous, quiet, thinking of a way in, to engage but to prevent the uncovering of his secret: that he was an impostor in that setting, that his pocket was empty, that he had no credit card, no ATM card, that he would walk the miles back to Brooklyn that night lacking even the change for a token.
But now his pocket is full. Screeching through the tunnel's darkness with lights flickering on and off, the train slows sharply, without warning, sending bodies into each other. Losing his feet, Jay stumbles, a wall of bodies stops him. But there's weight on his pocket. The weight of a pulling hand? He thrusts his hand in his pocket, holds his money tight. Looking around at the faces, young and black, his distrust alarms him but fails to abate. The veins in his neck tighten along with his fists as he steels himself for the next attempt to humiliate him. The faces around him turn into the faces of the other night. "So, Jay, what do you do?" "Jay's a writer," Naomi replied for him. Arnie's reaction portended many questions. To divert possible disaster, Jay added, "And I work at a house in Brooklyn." "A house?" "St. Joseph's House." Jay looked to Naomi for a reaction to information withheld. She sipped her drink, seemingly not surprised. "Oh," said Arnie. "And what do you do at St. Joseph's House?"
"I run it. It's a -- shelter, of sorts. I live there."
The three looked at each other, as if to gauge reaction. And Arnie finally said, "That's great, Jay." "Yes," said Naomi. And they moved on to other things. Jay breathed relief, sweat dotting his forehead. They had another drink. The sparkling lights of the chandeliers overhead diffused the good humor Jay found himself in, lightly drunk. He added comments to theirs, looking to Naomi for a reaction to him, for an indication of her desire, a glance, a touch, a smile, but they were not forthcoming. When they ordered another drink, he realized it was his turn to pay. As they talked around him, their conversation light, warm, he sat frozen, studying their ease, resentful that such an obligation was perfunctory for them, but beyond reach for him. As the clock ticked, his nerves pulsed louder; he wondered what he'd do. Voluntary poverty, he said to himself, to hear how the words would sound. I've taken a vow of voluntary poverty. But Naomi's neck, smooth and thin, and ringed by creamy pearls prevented him from saying it aloud. He frantically considered a way out, a solution not coming until the waitress was several tables away; he rose, to excuse himself for the bathroom, to escape the bill's handing down. But his movement had been awkwardly timed. The waitress was directly before him, he was standing, hesitating, realizing that it looked as if he was standing to take care of the bill. The waitress's arm stretched toward him. He fumbled, didn't accept it, felt the bill in its sheath pressed against his biceps, felt Naomi's eyes upon him. When his denial was certain, Arnie reached up and said to Jay, "I'll take it, sport." "Oh," said Jay. "Yes. I guess." And he hurried off to the bathroom, to splash water on his reddened face.
And now, as the lights flicker disconsolately, he curses himself, holds on tightly to that money, squeezes it as if to make it a part of him. He pushes back at the crush of swaying bodies, returns to Naomi's face.
Back from the bathroom, there was a change. Sitting, he looked alertly for any sign, studying Naomi, scrutinizing her from the side, her lips, her hair, her throat, feeling in him a boiling heat that grew with each moment passed in which she ignored him. Her interest in him had vanished, had it not? He interjected an unworthy comment, attempting to engage in their conversation. They politely complied, which was worse to him than if they outright ignored him.
"I'm just short tonight," said Jay. Their conversation stopped. Arnie asked, "What's that, sport?" "I'm just short tonight." "No worries," said Arnie. "It happens." They drank their drinks; no more orders were made. Jay excused himself from the table, to go to the bathroom, hoping that when he got back Arnie and Dee would have left, and that she would still be there. In the bathroom, he paced nervously, wondering how he should phrase it, "Would you like to see each other again?," or if he should phrase anything at all. Their backs were turned as he walked across the lobby. Jay stopped within hearing distance. Naomi said to Dee, "Friday at Dorian's, right?" "Ooh, wouldn't miss it," said Dee, and Arnie nodded. "Eight o'clock?" "Yes," said Naomi, just as Jay emerged from behind them.
His watch shows eight-thirty. He's standing outside the restaurant. It is as he pictured it: dark, with little spots of brightness. Music and laughter can be heard through the glass door. The sun has nearly set, casting the city in yellow light. Jay's mind reverts to one last vision.
"It was nice to meet you," he'd said. "Yes," she'd replied. And though he'd looked into her eyes pleadingly, his mouth dry from desire, they went their separate ways, no mention made of seeing each other again.
He knows they'll be surprised to see him. He doesn't know yet what he'll say. He opens the door, and passes through, squeezing the roll in his pocket.