I guess that was the turning point, where things started their downhill sleigh-bell ride into breakup. The party at that place in the West Village, the one with all the candles lit up red and the stainless steel bar that was supposed to be sleek and modern but instead looked like the slab where they do all the embalming. It was a birthday party for your artist friend but it was Christmastime. I remember because my feet were cold and we took a cab back even though neither of us could really afford it.
I didn't know anyone there. Maybe that's not true. There was that painter who came into the art store, the walleyed lady with frizzy gray hair who was rude the way people get when they know they're not where they should be and take it out on everyone else. I started calling her Flounder, as in, “Flounder complained again because we're out of the cheap canvas,” and, “Would you rather kill your own grandma or make out with Flounder for an hour with your eyes open the whole time?”
Well, anyway, the week before the party, Flounder came in demanding star treatment and then told me it didn't take a rocket scientist to understand what she was asking for. I thought it was presumptuous to assume my dreams began and ended with Art Supply Retail Store Manager, and it made me defensive of my own hypothetical career path, because even though I'm not a rocket scientist, how would she know? Maybe I was trying to make ends meet in an economic rut by selling acrylic paint to cross-eyed, demanding old bags when the lab closed and all the other scientists went home.
Flounder left her professor ID on the counter when I passed her off to someone else. My hand twitched a little as I reached for the enamel pen under the register and drew a Charlie Chaplin mustache on her frowny, washed-out photo. I felt warm inside and hypothetically avenged until I realized it wasn't going to come off. Then I panicked and looked under the counter for turpentine, but decided I didn't care and went on break instead.
So anyway, Flounder was at the other side of the long table, looking homeless and crazy the way artists sometimes do, eying me up because she knew I had sullied her faculty ID. I was talking to some other guy, the authoritarian figure with a dignified gray mustache and matching drill sergeant crew-cut. He had a book, too, and was telling me how I should plan my tour.
“Radio,” Mustache said, holding a small glass and looking into the ice like he was reading tea leaves. “Yes. Radio. And if you can get the Times to review it, it can't hurt.” He summoned the waitress over by snapping his fingers and pointed to the empty glass. “Scotch.”
I looked around at everyone at the party, holding wine glasses the way I do when I'm drinking water and pretending to be old and monied. Mustache began talking to someone else and the conversation turned to vacations, or really, world travel. There's a difference, because world travel seems to take a certain willingness to combat flies and incurable stomach trouble, but I bet you already knew that.
“Machu Picchu,” Mustache said. “It's a hike to get through that South American jungle, but it's the dawning of civilization, you know. You really must go.”
Mustache held his glass like a gold chalice. Flounder burned a hole through me with her one good eye, and with the other intensely looking somewhere to the left of me. I watched as the snow piled up against the window outside and thought about how I would rather spend a week in jail with ten friendly strangers than pass one second in Machu Picchu with anyone identifying themselves as an artist.
I looked at you, and you smiled. I smiled back and held my glass of water gingerly, a protege of Dali, a broke Mona Lisa, a friendly stranger who was about to get fired from an art store.
“Yes,” I said. “Machu Picchu. We really must.”