He had just killed his roommate’s cat. Watching Aaron Judge hit a homer off of Craig Kimbrel to break a 2-2 tie in the ninth, thereby completing a Yanks three-game sweep at Fenway, he stomped the ground and shifted the recliner by the window backwards. Magna Cata jumped on the sill to avoid getting squashed but then was hit by the high back of the chair. Ironically, her tail was pressed between the chair and open window sill, and she only fell three floors after he leaned forward again. He didn’t even know what had happened until he went downstairs to catch the Green Line and recognized the three silver stripes on her black tail shining in the streetlight glow with none of its former luster. So that was the start of his workday, at 8 PM.
Friend Chiang was a bartender at the Wily Chameleon on Lansdowne. He had taken a bartending class during college, and when he graduated two years ago from Williams, he still had nothing to do so he decided to try it out. His parents named him Friend because his father’s first boss, a generous white man at the Antonio’s in Quincy where he washed dishes, always addressed people with “Hi ya, friend!” Friend always thought his parents were idiots, giving him such a strange unprofessional name, like that of his other Chinese-American friend Jimmy Wong, whose parents didn’t know that Jimmy is the affectionate, immature-sounding form of the regal James.
At first he hated Dave Hudson’s cat, always tearing up his shirts and pissing in his shoes, but after three years of Dave’s training and Friend’s severe verbal threats that broke the human-feline language barrier, the violence and urination stopped and he liked having her around. He would gently stroke her black fur with one hand and toss back a Qing Dao in the other hand while watching the Sox get their asses perennially kicked. He dreaded how to tell Dave what had happened. Dave was on vacation for the weekend to visit his parents in Hackensack.
Prince’s “Purple Rain” on the jukebox welcomed him as he entered the Chameleon, a bar/club that had a reputation for being an Asian hotspot. Friend didn’t know if it was because of him or not, but he liked to believe it was. His boss joked, at least he thought he did, that he hired Friend so that he could get “Those drunk-ass Asians to pay their bill. Sometimes you gotta let ‘em know in their native tongue that it’s time to fork over the money.” Friend thought this affirmative action was generous.
“Hey don’t forget to change the clocks and close an hour earlier after daylight savings tonight,” his boss Tony said as he left the club. Tony Miranda was a burly man of forty who reminded you of a Soprano, especially when he got drunk and started telling you about his shady past. You really didn’t want to hear the shit that that guy did. One time, plastered as a fresco, he sobbed, “When I was drunk last week, I hit an eighteen year old kid with a shovel cuz he touched my cah, he was bleedin and all I did was jump in the truck and almost ran ‘em ova.”
Beneath the buzzing euphony of Prince’s guitar over his howling crescendo of “hooos,” Friend tried out different ways of telling Dave about Magna Cata. Dave was a history major at school with Friend who somehow had a fetish for pre-Revolution English history. He mouthed, “Dave, I killed your cat.” Too blunt. “Dave, I don’t know how to tell you this...” Too clichéd. “Dave, you know that many sacrifices were made when the settlers first came here…” None of them sounded heartfelt enough. He felt useless since he was an English major, but he never finished any of his books and wrote papers with his ass as the source. Still, he earned a B.A.
As he whispered to himself, “Dave, you know how it’s bad luck for a black cat to cross your path? Well buddy, you don’t have to worry about that anymore,” laughed, then felt bad about it, the midnight crowd shuffled in. Prince always brought out humor in him. Saturday nights were always the most packed, and in the spring the girls wore the same sparse clothing as in the winter, only they didn’t have to bring jackets. It was unusually cold tonight, and it was raining, so he had hoped that maybe there wouldn’t be that many people to serve. One group of revelers, mostly Chinese but peppered with a few white people and even a Latino and a black girl, bee-lined to the bar.
“Hey bartender, get miss birthday girl here two Long Island Iced Teas and a screwdriver to start,” one of them said.
He didn’t card them because he could tell that the guest of honor was 21 from the self-satisfied aplomb in her eyes at the prospect of drinking legally for the first time since she started at 17. He heard the Latino call her Alesha. She was a Chinese girl with fire-red highlights in her otherwise Chinese black hair. He had seen thousands of attractive girls in his line of work, especially Asians. But whenever he thought that one of Boston’s finest was single, hoping that the server-customer relationship would go beyond the bar, some white guy or the less common muscular Asian always rebuked him. He didn’t discriminate in his desire for women, but Alesha would actually make his family happy too. He could hear his mother now, “Don’t go chasing those guai nu, bring home a Chinese. What can I do with a girl who can’t speak my language? Stare at her American breasts?” And so he went in.
“There you go, free of charge. Happy Birthday.” He said in his coolest Sam Malone bar voice. It was bar policy to not give the first drink free for 21-year-old bar virgins, but his boss was gone and he wanted this girl. He was amazed at her beauty, not only in her hair, which he would have to ask to dye black again if they were going to meet his parents, but her eyes. They looked like some manga comic book characters’, round and inviting you to explore inside.
“Thanks,” she said, as she looked not at him but her drinks. Her eyelids fluttered like butterfly wings when she took a sip of the Iced Tea and reeled back. He made them pretty strong. She sauntered back to her friends with the guy who ordered for her and he noticed her frame for the first time when she took off her silk wrap. She was 5’4” and proud of it, with a silver dress that clung to her body like a mercurial statue cast. Her fingers left vapor trails in the dimly lit table area as she laughed with her friends. The guy didn’t look like her boyfriend because he didn’t put his arm around her as they walked. Guys always do that to show false ownership to all the other guys. Thank God for predictability.
In between serving the usual lowlifes and asshole rowdy college students, Friend kept a circumspect eye on Alesha, getting more vocal and snake-like in her movements as the alcohol worked its magic. Her face was red after the first drink, not breaking the Asian low-tolerance stereotype. He laughed at her, but he knew he was fire-engine color after two sips of Bud.
She came back and ordered a few beers, which he took as her taking interest in him. Of course she only ordered and then left, but to him the waft of her scent made him think otherwise, like in those cartoons where the perfume became a seductive hand caressing his chin to follow. Only after the third round did she say, “I’m Alesha by the way, if you’d like to know the lush who you’ve been serving.”
Whom, he thought, whom you’ve been serving. He did learn grammar in school, and always corrected people internally. But he shook his head free of that inane practice and said, “I’m called Friend. Don’t ask me why. Nice to meet you.”
He had hoped that maybe she would one of those aggressive women who flirted so overtly that it would be a crime worse than death not to ask them out, like Minnie Driver in Good Will Hunting at the Harvard bar. But Alesha was not British and he found out she was a senior at B.U., not Harvard.
Friend was not what one would call a playa, not a ladies man in any sense. He had had only one girlfriend and she was his across-the-street neighbor Mary Brigham, who broke up with him after he ripped off her teddy’s arm in a quarrel over what is better, the Transformers or Rainbow Brite. So he had been working in a self-created paradigm of approaching women that had garnered surprisingly decent success. It involved self-deprecation and ethnic jokes of his own heritage, and then if they date a second time, he would go into self-aggrandizing humor mixed with subtle-to-extravagant romantic dialogue, hoping that somewhere in that mess of overinflation, she would believe that he was partially as good at everything as he said he is. But Friend’s companions usually didn’t find anything that lasted more than three dates. His hours were not very conducive to dating either. Nevertheless, he would go with his system until a better one came along.
“So what’s your major, math, medicine or Asian studies?”
“Very funny,” she grinned with teeth clearly impacted with tartar control with extra whitening. “No, I’m an American history major. Specifically focusing on the Sixties.”
“Raspberry Beret” blared on the jukebox. A Latino man and a Chinese girl were grinding awkwardly.
“Wow my friend was a history major. He named his cat Magna Cata. I killed her today.”
“Hey slow down there. First, that’s cool about the cat’s name. Second, what?” She had a gushing cascade of laughter as she said this that made him think a Beach Boys’ song he heard a lot with the line “If every word I said could make you laugh I’d talk forever.”
Friend was glad that she got the nice nomenclature joke. And he thought the deadpan talk about death would make him seem cool. When it came out, he knew it was just wrong. “Um, I sort of accidentally knocked her out of my apartment window today. I’m struggling with how to tell my roommate.”
She swirled the straw around the ice cubes of her fourth Long Island Iced Tea and shook the glass. She then tipped it up and juggled a cube in her mouth, saying, “Damn, that’s a tough one. I once ran over my next-door neighbor’s turtle. I was riding my bike as she was in her driveway playing with it and, being too slow to avoid me, was flattened. I hit the shell and went careening into her fence, training wheels flying.”
Some spiky bearded white guy tossed his coaster and nuts at him in a drunken haze. Friend blocked it with expert timing. He thinks she was impressed.
“How did she take it?” he asked, incredulously marveling at such a commingling warped mind.
“She was traumatized. I felt really bad too. My parents brought us to Dairy Queen, but it didn’t help too much. My mom bought her a new one. Too bad she watched it happen or else I would have gotten an identical one. Like in sitcoms. Hey, you should do the same thing. Is your friend home?”
“I didn’t really consider that, seeing as how in sitcoms, the owner always finds out. I considered giving him a cute new puppy, hoping the sheer cuteness would overshadow the whole death thing. I don’t know, maybe you could tell him. The cuteness of a girl might take the edge off. Another drink?”
“Sure,” she said with an eyebrow raised and a smirk, “make it a margarita, extra salty.”
As he gave it to her, he said, trying to use the ethnic joke technique, “Hey, do you know that in Chinese, ‘salty’ means ‘raunchy?’”
“A body like yours oughta be in jail/cuz it’s on the verge of bein’ obscene!” from “Little Red Corvette” boomed to the stomp of Eighties-loving head nodders.
“Of course. That’s why I wanted it. Glad you’re a jook-sing with a decent Chinese vocab. Or else I couldn’t bring ya home to meet Ba and Ma. We jook-sings have to stick together.” Jook-sing means Chinese-American, usually young and inept at Chinese language and custom. She had met his lobs of love and volleyed back. He didn’t tell her he was Chinese, but jook-sings recognize each other when they see one.
Stunned, Friend was silent for a while. He looked back at her table of friends, glancing over periodically at the eccentric game at the bar. They probably think she’s way too good for me, he thought. They were probably right. He was a cat-killing, Prince-loving bartender working the night shift five days a week at an Asian bar.
“Hello,” waving her hands, she said, “you finally catch me with your intriguing story and you fall flat?”
He was mute. He could not muster the strength to force anything remotely considered speech-worthy to say. It was like a flaccid old man trying to masturbate. He looked over at the clock and it said that it was past 3 AM, and that he should turn the clocks back and close soon. He ignored her momentarily and served the last call. The exchange would soon be over too. Then Friend turned to her, trying his best to channel John Cusack in Better Off Dead or High Fidelity, and frantically exhaled, “OK. This place is about to close. I still have to tell my friend about the cat. I have a shitty job and it’s your birthday and I forgot to change the clocks, I’ve never gone on more than four dates with anyone…”
“Look, my friends and I are going home. Aren’t Chinese people supposed to be action-oriented? Or do you fit the other stereotype of the effeminate Chinese male? Now you can come with us, marveling at the Chinese hippie chick that you’ve just met. Or you can stay here and promise to call me.” As she said this, she stuffed her number into his shirt pocket, the napkin smelling like her hypnotizing fragrance. If there was ever a sexy way to stuff a napkin in someone’s pocket, she did it, tapping his chest a few times to make sure the napkin stayed.
Then in the buoyant chorus of “I wanna be your lover,” (Who kept popping quarters for Prince?) Friend just took her hand, tossed the bar keys to a waiter, and walked down Lansdowne, nestled next to the warmth of Alesha’s skipping body. The number blew out of his pocket, but he’d hoped to get it from her another time. He knew that the missing hour would be made up with the memory of that night. Their shadows strode the street, lithe with possibility, like the long limbs of the cat that wasn’t going anywhere.
Tim Mak: "I am a Boston transplant in New York and a former book editor turned marketer."