All Gussied Up: In Through The Out Door

They’re at a place called Sushi X on the Northern Boulevard, the kind of joint where the “Grand Opening!” sign is never taken down and all the rolls fall apart before they get to your mouth. His name is Troy, and it’s only a few minutes past miso soup when he tells her, “I’ve killed a guy. Just once, but…”

First, Marteki laughs – and when Troy does not, she focuses hard on the pale salmon sashimi below and the splinters of her chopsticks. Muzak abides – it is low monkish sing-song, eerie. His name is Troy and her name is Marteki and they met online and someone else pushed her to do this.

“There’s no stigma at all about online dating! Not anymore!” Smug Sandra had said, while smugly powdering smug baby Lynette in her smug little townhouse. “Before I met Blake, I dated a bunch of great guys from what’s that one? Hey-Oh Dionysus? Plus loads of other places.” SS was the first of Marteki’s friends to procreate, and she’d primarily stayed in touch with her because there was zoo-like glee to be found in having a Together Friend. Smug Sandra, so alien, knew about tipping movers and writing thank-you notes. She knew where to take visiting relatives. The two ladies had met years ago in an improv class – one Sandra had been taking for fun and Marteki had considered a strategic career move.

From the killing fields, Troy:

“Does that freak you out a little? What I said?”

“I feel like it’s supposed to.”

“What if I told you he was a really bad guy I shot? Like a nasty piece of work?”

“Do we think they have fortune cookies?”

“You’re messing with me now.”

“Oh no, friend. I think if anyone’s MESSING with anyone –” and now she stands, victorious! Rage trumping all!

It takes three strides to exit Sushi X; outside, it’s snowing. Glancing windowward, Marteki sees that the formerly promising internet date Troy – Troy with his skaterboy hair, all those quippy things to say about Ghostbusters 2 and Echo and the Bunnymen – why, he looks like he’s always been here alone. Quietly munching solo, making either terrible jokes or widows.

Marteki Pettis moved to Queens five years ago, and now she can’t quite remember why. She does remember her first encounter with a borough lifer, though: a zany old woman with a thyroid condition and swinging platinum pigtails had given her an earful of caution about walking with headphones in past dusk. “You hear of that girl in Harlem? Attacked from behind. Murdered. Raped. You’re a pretty one – why not just listen to the boombox at the house?” The zany old woman had of course turned out to be Mrs. Ostrom, her upstairs neighbor – and this particular neighborhood had proved to be about as dangerous as a merry-go-round (knock-on-wood). Every time she figured she was being followed, it was only some chubby Greek man looking to point out a dropped pen, or something. Queens was clean and full of firefighters. She liked to think it kept her grounded to live here, as if the glamour of her metropolitan life were sometimes just toooooo much.

Before Queens and internet dating, before this winter and the hearty grey slush on the sidewalks, Marteki had been a teacher at Brooklyn Tech SLASH actor. Now she was just a teacher. She’d very recently believed in liberal polemic and the power of a good song, and she used to wax loud poetical about being young, and art, and plenty of dreamy nothing ideology. Only Smug Sandra had scared her, at some recent, adult-feeling lunch cityside: “You’re smart, Em. You want serious things. So stop dating boys, stop screwing around, pick what you want and go after it. Tolstoy,” – bite of endive salad – “Yeah, someone like Tolstoy said that. Follow your head for your heart, and whatnot.”

And Heart had turned out to make a dubious compass in the past; because of love-related conviction, Marteki was in New York, and lonely, and only medium-good at her none-too-exciting livelihood. She felt artsy, but anonymous here. She…well, you know. You probably are, too.

Sliding the key into the lock and shaking slick grime from the bottom of ill-chosen heels, now ascending the elevator, she finds the apartment door open and a one Barney Litchford in her kitchen. Barney with flour covering both sides of both hands, Barney contemplating the sink with a scrunched face, Barney in golf pants. Marteki’s real roommate, Donia, is nowhere to be seen at first – but she bellows from the bathroom once the door is slammed shut: “UH-OH. HOW WAS YOUR DATE?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Barney, still scrunched: “She doesn’t want to talk about it.”

“OF COURSE SHE DOES!”

“Nope.”

ScrunchedfaceMcScrunch: “She says nope.”

The toilet flushes and the sink runs and now Donia emerges, to stand beside Barney. Donia comes up short, because Donia has achondroplasia. Meaning mean little children in the elevator call her Queen of the Lollipop Guild.

“How bad was it?”

“What’s Barney doing here on a school-night?”

“We’re baking a cake.” By way of proof, Donia snaps two ends of a tea towel together. Barney scrunches even more, returning his gaze to the stove. B is also a borough-based neighbor, the resident listless rich boy in the building; his mother is heir to a tampon fortune, or something. Barney’s and Donia’s is a friendship Marteki’s never understood – her most cynical part believes that he’s just the type who can’t tolerate the idea of being boring, and so has deliberately sought out unusual friends. He wears stupid hats and has a key to this apartment.

Donia’s an anthropologist with the Met, in addition to a dwarf. She’s flinty and unforgiving (which makes sense, given all the children in all of the elevators these twenty-six years past) and Marteki mostly likes living with her. They’ve built up a pleasant stockpile of single women habits: leaving champagne bottles by the dozen outside of the Recycling Room, yelling at sitcoms over take-out. She supposes they are best friends, these days. That is, when Barney Litchford isn’t over, contributing nothing to conversations and third-wheeling out the wazoo.

“You look down, sugar,” B says now, at long last de-scrunching his face. So the cake is complete. From her own cabinet, Barney produces her own plate, lays down a slice of dry-looking coconut mush (her own ingredients), hands it thither: “Nothing some calories won’t cure.”

It’s best to give in, right? Donia, now flopped on the couch, nods. She is in a hearing-about-it mood, which is nice. The coconut cake tastes better than it looks. As it snows outside, on Queens, there is the near promise of a futon well-acquainted with her personal contours and a night at home — tomorrow there will be work again. It was all fine and dandy, really. And she’d tried, hadn’t she? She’d really tried! Only hope was a murderer, trying was tricky and plenty of things these days were just horrible, horrible jokes.

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