We sat cross-legged on the floor of her apartment in Bloomfield, watching A Fish Called Wanda on the TV again. We've watched the same film over a dozen times before, ever since college when we were in the Smartfood popcorn and Gallo wine stage of our relationship, where weekends were nothing but Wanda and sex and pancakes at a local diner the next morning. Yet here we were, 15 years later watching Kevin Kline throttle John Cleese all over again with comic perfection. There's something about that movie that makes me laugh; the writing, the cast and the overall greatness of that comedy is like an elegant meal cooked and served with utter precision.
The Portuguese ribs and rice she bought from the takeaway down the street were quite filling, and the last splash of zinfandel trickled from the bottle and into her glass.
We laughed in unison as Kevin Kline's character Otto torments Michael Palin and threatens to swallow Palin's pet goldfish. We mouthed the dialog we've memorized.
Later she asked me if I'd like to move in with her. She volunteered to support me, to pay the bills and take care of me while I struggle at writing in New York. She has contacts and knows people. It would be difficult at first, a Sisyphean struggle of drudgery and head-pounding futility, yet if I persevered, I could carve a niche somewhere - in some literary market - in the Big Apple.
At first I balked. I was unsure and thought this woman was out of her head.
"No," she reassured me. "I'll take are of you. You don't have to worry about anything."
She could take care of me: she worked as a medical editor and pulled in over $60,000 annually compared to my salary as a local journalist of $100 and a bag of unsalted peanuts.
She would do this for me and I'd share her seven room apartment. We'd struggle, we'd argue, yet we'd be together.
"I'll take care of you. You don't have to worry about anything."
* * *
A year and a half later, I'm sitting at a dive bar in Somers Point. The pretty blonde bartender leans close and asks me what I'm having.
"Scotch on the rocks," I reply.
She pours me a Glenlivit and the amber whiskey swirls warm in my mouth, a toxic cleansing me, making me more alive.
"You wanna see a menu?" she asks.
"Not tonight," I say, and drink in her weary eyes. "I can take you away from this place, Jen."
"Really?" she said with a wry smile. "Where would you take me?"
"We'd go to California and make love on the beach in Big Sur. We'd see the waves crashing and see the moon bounce off the Pacific and nourish ourselves in the salt air."
"We have beaches and salt air here."
"True, but the Atlantic is different than the Pacific. The Pacific is wilder, more alive. it has a roguish temperament."
"Now I know you're drunk," Jen teased.
"Come on, don't you want to be free? You don't want to be cooped up in this place forever, serving beers to commercial fishermen and crabcakes to tourists from Philadelphia. There's a big world we can explore," I said, and swallowed another mouthful of Glenlivit.
Jen didn't know what to make of my proposal. When you're an attractive woman working in a dive bar, every guy hits on you. She's probably heard more bullshit pickup lines than a sorority girl on a Friday night. Yet Jen wasn't a prissy girl; she was working class all the way - a tough as nails, steely-eyed realist who gave her customers what they ordered and exchanged small talk like a bartender should.
Like any good bartender, Jen was trapped behind the bar and she listened to me spew my saga of unrequited love while the scotch flowed and Warren Zevon played on the jukebox.
"So why didn't you just go and live with her?" Jen asked as I wrapped up my story. "She loved you enough to want to support you."
I thought about it for a while as Warren sung "Searching for a Heart".
"I guess I choked," I finally said. "I was too afraid to take that chance."
Jen put her hand over mine tenderly, an empathetic gesture that told me she sympathized.
"You know, opportunities are like waves - you can ride the wave and see where it takes you or you can let the wave roll right past you," Jen said.
"Is that a surfing metaphor?" I asked glibly.
"I think you know what I mean," Jen said. "Nothing is certain in life and you don't always get another chance to ride the wave once it leaves."
"Now I am depressed," I muttered. "More whiskey, please."
Jen begrudgingly poured me another glass. The last thing she wanted to deal with was a mopey writer soused and about to have an epiphany.
"Why the whiskey kick?" she asked. "You never used to drink this stuff before."
"What's wrong with whiskey?"
"It's not exactly what the clientele drinks. Not unless you're 70."
"Ugh. Sarcasm." I said. "I expected more from you, wise sage."
"I'm just saying," Jen said "That's an unusual choice."
"Don't be hating because I'm different," I said.
"You used to drink soda, then Guinness, now Glenlivit."
"Next week I'll order a bottle of absinthe and a shotglass filled with heroin. I know. I'm getting worse," I said. "I can't help it. I need to self medicate in order to deal."
"That's pretty fucked up," Jen said.
"Welcome to the world of me," I said, and swallowed another satisfying, medicinal mouthful of scotch. "All pretentious writers drink scotch, are deeply self-loathing and have unprotected sex with strangers. In my case, two out of three ain't bad."
"Have you talked to this ex-girlfriend of yours?" Jen asked, combing her blonde hair away from her face with her fingers.
"Christ, no," I said. "We haven't spoken in over a year. She could be running an orphanage for Parsi children in Bangladesh for all I know."
"Why don't you talk to her?" Jen asked. "Drive to her apartment and talk to her."
"That's kinda stalkerish, don't you think? She might get a restraining order," I said.
"I think it's romantic that you would care enough to see her," Jen said.
"What do you think my name is, OJ?" I asked. "I won't stalk my ex-love and grovel."
"But you want to, right?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I do."
The last call bell rang at the bar and Jen asked if I wanted anything else.
"No, I think I'm done," I said, and handed Jen a fistful of wadded bills. I tipped her extra for her wisdom and just hanging with me on a slow night.
She smiled and said, "Don't worry. Things usually happen for a reason. You might not see it now, but one day, it'll all make sense."
While I don't think Jen fully grasped existential truths of the universe, she was correct with this piece of fortune cookie wisdom. Not unlike a zen koan, her words rambled over and over in my head as I put on my jacket and left the bar, the night air unseasonably warm, the stars flickering and bright above me.