Saturn Return by Thomas DeMary II
I used to work five nights a week as a bartender at The Grove, a middle of the road pub that teetered between cosmopolitan and dive. The clientele was cool: worker bees looked to the sky for riches and drunken artists lamented about pop culture. I made good money. Not a whole lot in way of flat pay, but tips made it possible to make my rent every month and stack for a new car. I bought a used Scion with fog lights, a spoiler and a body kit, all coated in crimson paint. I always parked it on the far end of the bar’s lot so no other car could rest next to it.
A lot of people proclaim a need for independence, for space. And while I could attest to that, more than anything, I was a tiger dying amongst the sprawling jungle. I longed for a cage of my own. My apartment, a two bedroom overlooking the gentrification of Philadelphia, had a décor of my design. I picked out the furniture, including the Ikea futon I dubbed “death trap,” and gave every trinket and knick-knack their designated spots: high school diploma and Bachelor’s degree over my black computer desk, novelty shot-glasses along the top of my bookcase and various Buddha figurines, from flea markets in South Jersey, on my dresser and nightstands. And of course, my vinyl collection, a two hundred piece of my heart that took me to the dustiest, most allergenic music stores on the East Coast.
And I had one rule when I got the place. No live-in girlfriends. Sharing a rental home with my ex-girlfriend back in Boston was a mistake, but I don’t know if that was because of her or the situation itself. However, a roommate was fine, if needed, because the relationship in of itself is business; this is your side and this is mine. No attachments to space and things because of vested emotions. Never mind liking the individual. Just pay your share of the rent and bills.
Nova moved in with me about a year after we started seeing each other. By this time, we spent most nights and weekends together. I feel as if I should say something on my own behalf here. There’s a well-kept secret held by those of us who live alone. See, living alone can be many things: liberating, carefree and cathartic. It’s the ‘alone’ part that gets old after a while. No other voice or physical presence there to drown the silence. It’s up to the individual to dictate the rhythm of his days. A futile notion when one’s music seems stale, monotonous and predictable to his ears, thirsty for a new sound.
When I wasn’t with Nova, I sat at home on my off-nights, playing my records, looking out the window, bearing witness to the unease of natives and transplants learning to co-exist. Moving from Boston after college, Philadelphia was a complete stranger and I found that as I got older, the schoolyard methods of making friends were becoming antiquated. I didn’t want to be that guy who depended on co-workers for companionship and when I’m at a function, I’d rather chill, play the wall, so to speak, as opposed to working the room. And forget about the friends I made at UMASS. Everyone gets awkward after school ends. Old drinking buddies get up and get married, chase careers and move halfway across the world, penning emails to me from France about the Louvre and Estelle, the bi-sexual model that sings with her knockoff Portishead band. Meanwhile, I was here, serving drinks to Maude, the bag lady who trashed the counter with her pennies for one shot of Jamison.
Nova lugged a new color into my apartment when she moved in with me. She’d visited countless times before but as she dropped the first of thirty or so cardboard boxes in the living room, her eyes stripped my walls bare. All of my trinkets and knick-knacks shifted about. She asked, “How long ago did you live with a girl?”
“Your place or hers?”
“Neither. We picked it out together.”
“Oh. Who did the decorating?”
“Both of us.”
“Your place looks like a sad old man.” I didn’t quite know how to respond to that. Instead, I watched her bend over to open the box; the turquoise shark tale of a thong peeked from her jeans’ waistline. Above it was a back tattoo of a comet or meteor streaking downward. She stood up with a lime green ceramic bowl, something she made herself at some night class down on Broad Street. Her hair was cropped short to her head, a young Angelina Jolie from “Hackers,” but the breadth of its black color, with its depressive depths of a universe unknown to me, remained. Looking down at her bowl, she bit her thin bottom lip and smiled, as if her white teeth would burst through the skin and stain themselves with red. She turned around, with bowl in hands, and said, “You need colors.”
The transformation took about another two months. After work one day, I scaled the steps leading to my apartment and when I entered, I shuddered at the alien feel of my home. Its satin hand, dripping lilac and lavender, reached out to greet me. The fingers, branded with brand names I couldn’t pronounce, wrapped themselves around my body and pulled me into an ice cream colored spaceship that faintly resembled my old colony. The couch used to be against the far wall, facing the windows. Whether by telekinesis or this foreign hand, it instead faced the television. The ashtray I left on my computer desk was moved to the coffee table and in its place was a small Venus Fly Trap. Whenever I sat to check my email or steal music, I could never stare long at the monstrosity, fearful that it might tire of bugs and want human flesh. Naturally, there was no such plant, or animal, in Nova’s former home, to which I asked, “What made you buy this?”
“You need life in here, Mike.”
Business at The Grove slowed down a little bit. People got stingy with their tips, so money became tight. One night after work, I sat on the edge of our bed and felt her eyes beam some type of guilt-laden heat ray into my flesh. I said, “It’ll pick up in another month or two. Summer’s coming.”
“Hmm.” She flipped through her Rolling Stone pages and wagged her foot back and forth, its tick-tock motion made me nervous. “Have you thought about using your degree?”
“Not really. A Bachelor’s in Business is kinda worthless without the MBA. And the MBA is just a degree without solid work experience. You know, the type that doesn’t involve beer bottles.”
Her eyes smiled at me as she said, “You could start now. Put a few feelers out there, see if an entry-level position is available.”
“That’s a pay cut for me, though. After a good week, I can clear more than some people’s monthly salaries.”
“But they have benefits, Mike. Like, savings and retirement plans. You don’t even have an IRA.”
“I like bartending. Stress-free gig, damn good money, flexible hours…”
“You don’t have job security, though. I never heard of a bartender living off a pension.”
“We live in a country of drunks. Bartending is as bullet-proof as being a doctor.”
“But you see what’s going on. People ain’t going out like they used to.”
“Well, what makes you think some office in Center City is hiring right now? This isn’t exactly a buyer’s market.”
“True. But it wouldn’t hurt to try.” I didn’t know how to respond to that. The Grove didn’t offer health care plans and I had to choose between buying my own coverage and saving for a car. And she was right about the IRA. I had a little something in the bank, but nothing building interest for a long-term plan. As she said, it wouldn’t hurt to try. So I got my one black suit dry-cleaned, vacuumed the beer nut crumbs off my resume and tested the waters. A month later, I ended up at Blue Cross as a claim representative.
After two years with Nova, a year of living together and six months wearing slacks, white shirts and ties, I thought about needing a change. I took this idea, a perfectly reasonable thought, and ran with it. If I could be free, I considered, I would parlay my business degree into my own bar. I’d cut back on household expenses, maybe trade in my car for a SEPTA pass and save the proceeds. It would take another year or so to get it going.
I found a spot along my route to work. Between Montgomery and Cecil B. Moore, there’s an old firehouse, vacant and condemned. Outside, its red bricks are covered in a beautiful mural of black children playing behind a backdrop of trees and a clear blue sky. I’d leave the mural, keep it as ambiance, and renovate the insides. I pictured myself going there everyday, cracking open a bottle of Guinness after a long, sweaty day of removing the asbestos and old sheet rock. Beer in hand, I would walk inside the gutted firehouse, my future dream, and imagine the stage over there.
At the dinner table, I watched Nova bat a pea around her plate with a fork. Her eyes weren’t smiling. I was ambivalent about the desire to read minds; I still wanted to know more about her, but I didn’t care to learn what it was that yearned inside her. She asked, “Would you like to fly out to LA with me in a couple of months? I want to visit my family.”
I chewed on a piece of my dry chicken breast and said, “Sure. I’ve never been out west before.”
She asked, “Are you committed to Philly?”
“Not really,” I said without a need to gather my thoughts. “I like it, but not much keeps me here.” I quickly added, “You aside, though.”
“I know what you meant.”
“What’s wrong, Nova?”
“I don’t believe you.”
“So talk to me.”
“I want to go back to school. Maybe part time, just to start.”
I remember smiling when I said, “That’s a good idea. What do you want to major?”
“You can draw?”
“Besides the paintings on the walls and the tattoo on my back? Yes Mike, I can draw.”
“It’s just…you never told me you were an artist.”
“I shouldn’t have to tell you.”
“But I’ve never seen you paint. I just figured you went out and bought the pictures.”
“I thought one day, you would ask me who did the work. Then I would smile and say, ‘I did them, honey.’ But you never asked.”
“I’m sorry. I just assumed.”
“You’re into music. Not just collecting, but you used to make it. At least you wanted to.”
“I never told you that.”
“I can tell. You fret over how an album is mixed, the same way I’ll frown when someone’s painting is all heart, but no technique.”
“Wow, I…haven’t thought about making music since high school.”
“Maybe you should get back into it. Were you in a band?”
“Yeah. I sang a little bit. We did covers mostly, but I wrote my own songs. Never performed them, though. Didn’t have the balls.”
Nova sighed and said, “Neither did I.”
“Why did you ask me about Philly?”
“I want to do something else. I’m not really married to this city. I was curious, that’s all.”
“You want to go home.”
“I’m thinking about it. I don’t want to leave you, though.”
I scoffed and asked, “You really want to stay with someone who didn’t know you were a painter?”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t love you, Mike. You still feel the same way about me, right?”
“Yes.” I stared at that dried piece of chicken, cold and smothered in a bland marinade, and thought about myself. I couldn’t understand how I missed such an important part of Nova’s life. My eyes darted inward, looking for any answer or explanation to the oversight. I found none. It seemed pointless because, at that moment, I had to address the question in front of me. But I didn’t know how to respond to that, at least with a statement.
I started singing. It was awful; my voice cracked like some pubescent kid on his first date. The words were as juvenile as the person who wrote them: myself, back when I was fifteen or sixteen. It was the first song that came to mind and it had absolutely nothing to do with the situation at hand. The lyrics were a poorly cryptic ode to my first time having sex. Nova laughed her ass off; one of those feminine laughs that’ll make a man sing harder. She gave me a beat, started clapping on time with her hands and I struggled to stay in tune, my musical ear rusted out over time, my own voice bounced around like the innards of a tin cup. When my eyes weren’t closed, they were focused on her. Nova smiled, laughed, and allowed her face to become iridescent with life. I wanted to cry all of a sudden, or finally. I didn’t know why. But I felt the color inside of me undulate and transform. I trusted her enough to witness it.