Saturday, October 17, 2015

Quasimodo on His Bar Stool

When people ask me how I met Katie, I tell them she gave me water. I try to say it like Charles Laughton as Quasimodo in the 1939 film adaptation of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame "She gave me water" but it's a reference too obscure for most people under the age of 45, or anyone who grew up with more than rabbit ears on a grainy black and white TV. Of course, I wasn't having anything like the kind of day Quasimodo had, locked as he was in the pillory having endured a sound thrashing and the violent contempt of the fine citizens of Paris, all but one of whom ignored his desperate plea for a simple drink of water. No, I was just a cantankerous drunk sitting at a table alone, glowering at no one in particular over the top of my pint.

Katie was my Esmeralda that night, a brown-eyed, tattooed Maureen O'Hara cheerfully doing her job as hostess and offering to top off the glass of water I'd hardly touched except to idly sip it in the interminable minutes between the last empty beer and the next full one. The first time she asked, I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye and extended literally nothing more than a shrug in reply. I was drinking beer and watching a mediocre Red Sox game at the tail end of a pretty miserable season. I wasn't looking for company or conversation, and I took it for granted my terse response would convey that message unambiguously. Hence my surprise when, scarcely an inning later, I found her standing at my table again, offering me another inch of water. "Sure," I consented this time, more than a little puzzled by this woman who seemed impervious to my withering glare. She came by my table just once more that evening and, without a word, poured half an inch of water in my glass, smiled, then spun on her heel and scooted away before I could even attempt to say a word.

What I didn't realize that night, and wouldn't understand for some time, was that Katie had done her homework. For weeks she'd watched my mostly solitary vigils at the bar, watched me drift outside alone to smoke a cigarette, watched me pass through clusters of acquaintances and relative strangers alike as though they weren't even there. I can't begin to imagine what in that solidly misanthropic behavior she found appealing, but I know one thing: she recognized that this was no time for holding out a fistful of peanuts trying to get the sweet little squirrel to eat out of your hand; no, her best and only option was to offer her weaker arm in hopes the most ill-tempered squirrel in town wouldn't decide to rip it right off. Given that a year has passed (and at the risk of executing a cheap pun), I'd say she didn't overplay her hand.

At the time we met I was nobody's idea of a good time. Most of the friends I'd surrounded myself with the last five or six years had drifted off to other lives, and I was just drifting back into a semblance of a life of my own that consisted primarily of keeping my own counsel and avoiding the sorts of entanglements that might preclude me from disappearing into my hole whenever I chose to. I was alone and, if not happy about it, certainly comfortable. Still, after that first odd encounter when she gave me water, I found my feet leading me again and again in the direction of the bar where, almost without fail, there would be Katie, ready to settle in beside me for drinks and smokes the minute her shift ended.

I could tell you what we talked about those nights sitting at the bar swiftly becoming pals, but it wouldn't mean anything to you because it's the ordinary stuff of two people getting to know each other: music and movies and books, family histories and relationships past and that thing you did in college. For someone like me, it was never the particulars of what we talked about so much as the peculiar sensation of not just enjoying but ultimately seeking somebody's company. Ask anyone who knows her and they'll confirm: Katie is phenomenal company. Or simply consider the fact that this curmudgeon kept coming back for more.

For more than a month those nights always ended the same way: we'd amble down Main Street to the corner and, under the glow of the Care & Comfort sign, we'd say our gradual goodbyes and go our separate ways: for me, just around the corner to my cramped apartment in the old-people apartment building, for her the long walk through the city's underbelly to the end of Water Street. Then one night (finally) I took her home, into my bleak, sparse, dedicated bachelor pad, with its piles of books and clothes and half-fulfilled promises. Part of me expected her to take one look and bolt, but it turns out she was very nearly right at home. A little tidying here, some pictures on the walls there, actual food in the fridge, and it's become a place, a year later, where we're happy to sprawl together on the couch, taking turns cueing up music and expounding on our distinctive philosophies of everything, with the whole rest of the world safely locked away on the other side of the door. The best measure of a partner in crime is whether you want her around when there are no crimes to commit. It's been a year of no crime, and we're still here.

Lest you think this is some naively enthusiastic glorification of Katie, I'll peel back the veneer a little: for one thing, I've never known anyone for whom the physical world is more of an ongoing challenge. I don't believe she's ever held anything in her hands that she didn't drop at least once, usually into or behind the toilet. In the year or so we've known each other, I can say with considerable confidence that she has bumped, banged, scraped or smacked every single part of her body against something: chairs, tables, walls, doors, countertops, sidewalks, parked cars, lamps, display cases. I'm pretty sure she managed to jam a toe against a ceiling somewhere along the line. It's as though her body exercises a deliberate aversion to the fact that the world is oh so imperceptibly turning, which prompted me to suggest to her that she's not actually clumsy, it's just that the world keeps coming up short on her. But I suppose the important thing is that she wears her bruises and scars like a true scrapper: What, this? You should see the other guy.

She's flawed, as are we all, she's more than a little peculiar in her peccadilloes, and there are times when I fear for every breakable object in our apartment (as well as a few that presumably aren't but, well, you never know). But those are the things that make her the strange human she is, the characteristics that keep her grounded while in the midst of also being the kindest and most generous person I've ever met. And all that is good, but none of that is the reason I like her so much. No, my favorite thing about Katie is, oh man, do we laugh. I've had more big laughs with this girl in the last year than I can remember having the entire last five years combined. And that right there, kids, that's the good stuff. Because all the rest of it comes and goes, the stuff of life interferes and twists you up, but if you find yourself somebody who makes you laugh, somebody you can make laugh too, you're going to find yourself with a hell of a lot more good days than bad. And that right there is nothing to take lightly. When Esmeralda brings you water, fellas, you'd better damned well drink it. Only a fool would say no.

So if you happen to see Katie in your travels in the next few days, take note of the fact that she's managed to endure an entire year with this cranky old cynical bastard. Give her a smile and a pat on the back, and please don't forget to point out to her that she can obviously, absolutely, do better.

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