We Tried to Make it Out of the Night
It was early yet. Eight p.m. Eight oh one p.m. But I couldn’t help tapping my foot. My impatience always led to physical manifestations, tapping a foot, drumming my fingers, tying and retying my hair. Mostly not outbursts of the violent sort. Mostly. Annie was supposed to meet me. She had the whole evening planned apparently. It was my birthday last week, and her birthday next week. We always met in the middle. I pulled out my phone, flipping it over and over in my hands. I considered pulling out the iPod, fiddling with my new notes application, but suddenly all the clasps, buttons, and zippers on my purse seemed like too much of a hassle. Instead I flipped my phone, tapped my feet, and leaned against the bricks behind me.
I stared down at the blackened gum on the sidewalk, the graying streets. It never used to bother me, the grime of the city. I was too happy to be alive and moving and new. But now it was normal, and now I noticed. It was eight ten now. I was starting to get annoyed, having to pretend to be busy, switching the backlight on my phone on and off, searching through old text messages, pretending to write new ones. My phone buzzed in my hand, finally, I wondered if she’d be sending regrets. Maybe then I could go home.
“Avenue A and 1st street. Meet me in ten. x-Annie.” Sure, disregard for any previous plans, par for the course with Annie. I should have expected it. But I was tired, so I didn’t. I buttoned my coat and started walking, shoving my phone in my pocket. I wasn’t too far away anyway.
Sometimes I felt like I had a phantom backpack. Like a phantom limb, as if I could feel the weight, as if it was really there when it wasn’t. I think that’s a sign of excessive schooling. I wanted to stretch my arms like a muppet, flail around, just so I could get rid of that feeling. But I didn’t want to be a crazy person. It was only a couple more blocks.
It was that New York type of darkness, slightly ominous, yet also beautiful. The bars were overflowing, lines were forming outside of clubs, it was all twinkling lights, darkened storefronts, and the spilling scents of liquor and smoke. And there I was, Avenue A and 1st street. My phone buzzed again, “the rabbit hole. x-Annie.” Seriously? I scanned the block, no sign of her curly blonde mop. Apparently this was a clue of some kind, despite the fact that she’d already given me the address, or at least the block.
The block was a mess of small bars, jazz clubs, restaurants, and tiny apartment buildings. The restaurants were particularly amusing; one was serving not only $1 a slice pizza, but also hot dogs, and bagels. What a place. And on the corner, a boutique 24-hour café, lit with Christmas lights and storm lamps. That would not be the place. Annie couldn’t stand coffee, even the smell of it, but she loved those stupid complicated tea drinks, sugar and syrup practically spilling out of them. She would stand outside the Starbucks and make me order for her. Most Starbucks aren’t particularly pungent either, but she didn’t want to risk it.
Then I found it. The door was magenta red, and swung wide open, the windows were painted an opaque black. I looked up, a neon white sign glowed the name Alice’s, it was in cursive, so I excused my non-perceptiveness. The door opened into a dimly lit hallway, with thick white and black striped wallpaper. There was a long black bar, two suited bartenders, and an assortment of black and silver stools, and red velvet couches. Then stairs that went too far down to see, a velvet rope stood abandoned next to the railing.
One of the bartenders shouted “Welcome honored guest!” tipping his top hat at me. I almost stepped back in shock. The other spun his hat in his hand, and winked at me, “The show starts in ten minutes. Might want to get going if you want to get a seat.” He smiled and nodded at the stairs. Of course, I thought, down the rabbit hole. I muttered a thanks at the bartenders, and made my way to the stairs. I grasped the railing and stepped down. The stairs were a wrought iron confection, I should have been able to see beneath them, but it was all darkness. A number of candles mounted on the wall lit my way, the excess wax dripped magenta tears on the striped wallpaper. I kept going until I reached the landing, the last candle was ten steps up, and was flickering into darkness. There was another door, this time an intricate silver spiral etched onto basic black, the ornate handle planted directly in the center. I didn’t know whether to knock or just go in.
I pulled out my phone and pressed okay, to check the time. The home screen lit up for a split second, then faded into a glowing silver 8:39. The rest of the screen was dead. I should have stopped. I should have gone back up. I almost did. Instead, I shoved my phone into my back pocket, and pushed the door in.
The place looked like a bunker, an old atomic refuge, or a subway tunneler’s forgotten mistake transformed into something inhabitable. People were milling through the room, chatting, pink drinks in hand. There was a tiny stage at the back, with a microphone, two small desks shoved in the corner, stacked speakers, and burnished red velvet curtains. There were three and a half rows of chairs, and two black leather couches, curving to fit the contours of the room. The ceiling was curved into a half-circle, painted with thick black and white stripes. Another bartender pulled me from my reverie, “There’s a seat for you,” he nodded to the half row of two chairs, “no charge today.” He nodded at a mousy girl, collecting money from the other patrons, big bills. He shook his cocktail shaker, and poured. None of the glasses were the same, from mugs and martini glasses, to tumblers, and shot glasses, but they were all full of the pink concoction. A white paper sign seemed to glow against the black bar, “WE ONLY SERVE ONE DRINK SO DON’T BOTHER ASKING FOR ANYTHING ELSE.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“What?” The bartender replied, “I thought I told you, you could sit.” He gestured again at the empty seat, annoyance flickering in his dark eyes.
“Yeah, no,” I shook my head, “what’s the drink?”
“Try it and find out.” He passed me a beaker, eyes flashing into something sweeter. He smiled too brightly at me. I didn’t want to be drugged, or I at least wanted to know the exact alcohol content before I tried it, so I pretended to take a sip, then smiled back. He nodded and gestured to the still empty seat. “Only a couple more minutes.” I slipped into the black seat, my arm brushing against the red velvet curtains that lined the walls. I was glad my beaker wasn’t a test tube, because I could actually set it down beneath my chair.
A guy sat in the seat next to me. He seemed to be almost a foot taller than me. His hair was such a deep black it looked unnatural, dyed even, he wore huge horn-rimmed glasses. His white t-shirt almost glowed under a black jacket. He seemed to be studiously ignoring me. Looking anywhere but below his right shoulder, where I could be found. I tugged on his sleeve, and he looked down, “Hey, do you know what this is?” I asked. He shook his head slowly. “Do you….do you know Annie?” He shook his head again, then turned away. He was stuck with one of those huge amusement park plastic cups for his drink; the plastic straw was changing colors with the cool drink.
The lights flickered. I scanned the room for Annie. No sign of her, and I didn’t recognize anyone. No one from any of her weird theatre groups, or show friends. It looked like none of my friends either, for that matter, nor even recognizable street-goers. I pulled my phone out again, wondering if I missed the telltale vibration of a text. I pressed ok to light it up, it held at a silvery 8:39. I hoped I didn’t need to get a new phone, and I hoped Annie would get the fuck over here and explain herself already. No matter how likely it was for her to pull such a stunt, I didn’t know if she would leave herself out of it. I pinched myself, a good, solid mark on my arm, and it hurt.
The lights turned a solid red this time, then flicked back to normal, and the empty seats were filled. “Last call for drinks till the show’s end!” The bartender called, shaking two cocktail shakers at once, flicking the caps off, spilling the drink into a number of stacked glasses. The various glasses were passed through the small crowd, filling the bunker. Then, the lights went off, except for a sole white spotlight on the stage.
The curtains parted and a woman walked out, adjusting the microphone. I was surprised she could stand in her black stiletto heels without gripping the mic stand for balance. “Hi everyone,” she breathed into the mic, tucking her orange cropped hair behind her ears, “welcome to the best daily live variety whatever show of your life. Get ready.” The crowd whooped in unison. “Only one whoop? I thought this was Friday! C’mon guys.” Cheers started up louder, it seemed as if the room was shaking. I looked down to see the mild crowd, both sitting and standing, was stomping it’s feet madly. The rumbling wasn’t the subway. Not yet. “That’s much better.” She smiled broadly at us, “now, please welcome your DJ tonight Halle Burnham.” A whip skinny guy popped out from behind the curtains, swept into a deep bow, and slid into one of the desks. He plugged his iPod in and suddenly there was dubstep. It felt as if everyone’s hearts beat along with the bass, until it slowed.
“Give it up for the fantabulous Alexandra Kingston!” He called, letting the music drift into a low hum. The woman somehow managed to curtsy, despite the heels, and her skinny jeans.
She stepped back up to the mic, whispering, “Our first guest tonight. So happy to have him here…Lucky Callaghan.”
“Who?” Halle shouted into the mic. “You’re whispering again! Who?” The crowd shouted “Who?”
“LUCKY CALLAGHAN!” She shouted, sidestepping into the other desk, as The Who blasted out of the speakers, and the first guest stepped up. He pulled the mic out of its stand, and pushed the stand aside.
“Hi everyone. I wore all black tonight, so if the set wasn’t going well I could just stand against the wall, and you wouldn’t be able to see me.” He pressed himself flat against the curtains. “Camouflage, you know?” He tugged at the bright red curtains. “These weren’t here last time I performed. I guess I could lie down on the stage.” He looked down at the scuffed blackened stage, then collapsed, spread-eagled on the ground. “Can you see me now?” He whispered. His face was so pale, and his hands, that this was laughable. He pulled himself into a sitting position, “I considered painting my hands black.” He held them out in front of him, staring, “But then I figured if I did that, I’d have to go all the way.” He gestured at his face, “And I felt that might be a little insensitive.” The crowd burst into laughter. I was just weirded out. What was this place? The set continued, and I started to relax into laughter, I couldn’t help it.
The next guests were ushered on to medieval chants pumping out of the speakers. They were a dual act, a man and a woman, a musical duel between a violin and a trumpet. Then, a magician if you can believe it, who walked on to Taylor Swift. He did indeed pull a white rabbit from a hat, pretty appropriate at a place called Alice’s. There was even a tiny black wristwatch on its paw. There was a monologue contest, between two girls and a guy. Halle and Alex assigned them various pieces from Shakespeare’s most famous plays, which they would first read, then perform as close a recitation as possible without the piece in front of them. They broke into modernized language and giggles, and Halle would not stop interrupting. A guy named Risto tripped over a chair on the way to the bathroom, tumbling into the aisle, and almost the whole crowd yelled “RISTO NOOOOOOOO!” He righted himself, tugged on his curly black hair, smiled sheepishly, and ducked behind the curtain. Everyone applauded.
It was surreal and fantastic and weird, but it was long, and I was thirsty. But not matter how much I was enjoying it, I didn’t trust the drink, I didn’t trust the smiling bartenders. I was almost attuned to the beaker beneath my seat; I could see the sweat dripping down its sides. But I didn’t want to touch it. I gripped the bottom of my black plastic folding chair, holding myself in. The scratchy pattern ingrained itself on my skin. How many acts were there going to be?
They somehow rolled a cart of teacups onto the stage, and two kids blew on them in unison, until it sounded like music. What time was it? And was that even legal? I looked behind me, wondering if I could make it up the stairs without drawing attention. The bartender was staring, rapt at the show, so was everyone else. The door to the stairs was slightly ajar. I saw a flash of white streak past me. No one else seemed to notice. I wondered how to get by the giant of a man next to me. His knees pushed against the chair in front of him. I brushed the curtain on my other side, wondering how much of a way out that would give me.
The next song was a pumping and screeching speed-metal. I almost felt sick, claustrophobic, dehydrated, dizzy, all at once. It all caught up with me in a burst. My tongue felt dry and heavy in my mouth. I pushed against the curtain, almost falling over my chair, and I was on the floor. I felt immensely weak, like it was too hard to even get up, so I crawled back on my knees, inch by inch on the sticky floor. I could barely look in front of me, but just kept moving. I felt a glass crunch, under my right hand, and felt wetness, either blood or the pink stuff. It hurt enough for either, but I kept moving, crawling over tapping feet and half-empty glasses, until I couldn’t.
Two black leather shoes, and legs that wouldn’t budge stopped me. I almost collapsed even further, but managed to turn my head to see up. “No,” he said, “You aren’t allowed to leave yet.” It was the bartender. All three, which one? I couldn’t think, I didn’t know.
I reached past him, for the corner of the door, even to grasp it. He reached his hand down, to pull me up. I shook my head sadly, pulling away. He frowned down at me, and moved back to the bar, pouring a drink. I pulled myself up to my knees, inching forward until I touched the edge of the door. I shimmied it closer, further ajar, pushing my fingers into the silvery grooves on the other side of the door. The bartender returned, holding the glowing pink drink, all as the show continued around us. I shook my head again, and he pushed further. “No.” I whispered. “No.” I coughed. “No, I don’t want it. I didn’t have it. I’m leaving.” I batted the drink out of his hand weakly, but he still dropped it. It shattered on the floor, the pink spreading out until it was lost in the blackness again. “I’m leaving.” I said, grasping the doorknob to pull myself up. “I need to go home.” I said, repeating myself. The bartender frowned again, but I pushed him aside and moved through the door, shutting it close behind me.
I leaned on the iron railing too hard, pulling myself up step by step. I reminded myself it wasn’t a question of if I made it up, but when, one step, one step, one step, it was possible. The magenta wax was spilling onto the steps, it squished under my shoes, a third of the candles had burned out. But I pulled myself up, seeing the faint light grow closer whenever I lifted my head. The noise from below followed me up, the thumping bass, and explosions of almost unnatural laughter.
I stepped, finally, onto the wooden ledge, and into the main hallway. The bar was empty of even the bartenders, and light was struggling to get past the partly opaque windows. I hobbled to the door, and stumbled out, gripping part of the wall for balance.
The sun was rising, and light was growing. I blinked, back aboveground at last, I could see again. I stumbled to the street vendor cart on the corner. “Five waters, please.” I coughed out.
“Five?” He asked, confused.
I didn’t have the breath to respond, only nod and shove him the money. I balanced the bottles in my arm, and hobbled over to the nearest stoop. I sat, unscrewing the cap of the first bottle as fast as possible, pouring the water down my throat. One down. I crumpled the empty bottle, and reached for the next. I felt my phone buzz in my pocket, and between slowing sips I opened the messages. Eleven missed texts, five calls, all Annie.
“Where are you?-Annie” 8:20
“I thought we were meeting tonight?-Annie” 8:30
“Are you alive? God! Text back already. Just tell me you can’t come!-Annie” 10:00
“Mona! WTF” 1:00 a.m.
They continued in this vein, I looked up at the street signs, and texted back my current address, plus the message “I’ll tell you what happened when you rescue me.” Just pushing the buttons felt difficult. I hoped she wasn’t sleeping. I wondered what I was going to tell her.
I pushed ok on my phone again. It was 5:00 a.m. I felt for the broken glass in my right hand, to find a tiny half-crushed watch. I slipped it into my pocket, and leaned against the side of the stoop, waiting again for Annie.