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The Real Truth About The Way They Love Paul
By Alexis Quinlan

June 2009

     Two white women at an outdoor cafe in Providence, Rhode Island. Each points her sandaled feet at the street before her, crossing her smooth, lean legs at the ankles. Each toys with a brown ceramic mug, tapping its chipped base on the wicker table between them. The oval tabletop is also strewn with two pairs of sunglasses, two sets of keys, and a half-gone napoleon flanked by two cream- and lipstick-smeared forks. A small navy blue purse perches in the center of the mess.

            One of the women juts her red lips upward and furrows her dark brows down. Cynthia. Cynthia has asked what she feels to be a simple question and is only waiting.

            Beth rests her mouth on her fist and frowns. At last she pulls her hand away and says, "What was I supposed to do?  He was here, I was in New York. He was too far gone to hear anything I had to say."

            Cynthia relaxes her squint. "Nothing, obviously. Nothing you could do. I'm just glad he called me, that's all. It was noon in Prague--much easier to think. I called here, found Carl, and sent him over to get rid of bottles, give him some aspirin, put him to bed."

            "I'm sorry I didn't think to call Carl.”  Beth nudges her keys along the table, angling toward the far edge. "Oh, Paul. Paul, Paul -- I guess he should never drink."

            "Never," says Cynthia. Then: "You know, when we spoke, he was crying."

            Beth scoops the keys back. "Yup. He started when he was on with me. Poor boy."

            "He's not a boy."

            "I know. Forty-one."

            "And we're --"

            "Don't even say it."

            "Thirty."

            "Since your wedding. You got in under the wire, didn’t you?"

            Cynthia’s response is lost to the roar of three cars hurtling down Angel, a chase approaching, then passing, the cafÈ. Or almost passing – the third car, a battered gray Cadillac, brakes suddenly and squeals into the empty lot across the street. The women shift in their chairs to take in the car rattling to a halt beneath a sign whose once-red letters read “For Customers of Isabella’s Martinizing ONLY.” Beth sits up straighter; Cynthia adjusts her hips.

            Cynthia runs a hand through her bronze hair, looping it to one side. "I think -- I mean, he told me he started drinking again after my wedding. I know it was hard for him."

            Beth shrugs. "Moving back here didn't help."

            "Bethie. Providence is our home."

            "My home is New York, and it was Paul’s, too, and yours, I might add, before last year."

            "Where we grew up."

            Beth frowns. "Okay, okay. Anyway, you're right. I've seen it a couple of times since then. Since your wedding. Since you left us high and dry."

            A rap rises from the lot: rhyming belligerent voices, stark back beat and the yowl of a record being scratched beneath a needle. Cynthia stares slack-jawed at the Cadillac until Beth catches her eye with a raised brow. She grins sheepishly, returns to her mug, then snaps, "Wait a minute. You’ve seen him drink?  More than once?"

            "Once was Christmas Eve-eve. I was in town and we were going to Scott's tree-trimming thing. On the way he told me he'd had a scotch. He'd been to a museum party with his mother, and he said he picked up a glass someone had left on a table. I asked him if he was all right and he said yes, said he just felt heightened. That was the word he used. He looked it too. More handsome."

            "More handsome?"

            "Something. We went to Spat's because we were early for Scott's. I figured he'd have coffee, like always. We ran into Jennifer's little sister, the one who used my Rhode Island ID for a couple years. She was coming on to him."

            "Just like Jen. Wants a rich husband."

            "She's right in his age range."

            "Probably too old -- isn't she over twenty-one?"

            "And that's when, well, he had two beers, big ones, Foster's, and a lot of scotch, and we never made it to Scott's."

            The driver of the Cadillac, a shirtless boy of about sixteen, leans from the open window to check out the street. His thick jaw rises to sharp cheekbones and his eyes, surveying Angel north and south, are straight dark swaths beneath his broad brow.

"You let him?"

            "The other time he was in New York for Melissa's opening. He was staying with me so we went together, and to the party at some loft afterward. On Vesey. But Carl was in town, too, so I talked to him and to some strange guy who was following me around. Said he was a shaman, I think I wrote you about him. I didn't see Paul for hours. Then all the sudden he dragged me to the middle of the room and insisted I square dance. Or some country dance, I don't know. We were the only ones out there, he was spinning me around under his arm, reeling me back in. He was spinning too, he was so light. I'd never seen him so light. I thought it was charming. I didn't realize till later, when we were leaving the party and he poured about half a bottle of vodka into a plastic tumbler. I tried to take it away from him, actually. Spilled it."

            Cynthia shakes her head just once, back and forth. "He never dances."

            "I'd never seen it. But I didn't – well, obviously -- I didn't make the connection."

            "Melissa let him drink?  And Greg?" 

            Beth rolls her eyes. "Then we went to that old bar at Prince and Wooster."

            Cynthia turns from the boy in the Cadillac. Her lashes are thick and black with mascara, the dark gray of her eyes pales in comparison.

            "Don't look at me like that. I thought he needed to talk, I thought there was something he wanted to say."

            "And was there?"

            The Cadillac revs its engine, backs quickly from the lot and hurtles down Angel. Cynthia straightens in her chair, recrosses her legs. "Was there?"

            Beth sips from her coffee, now quite cold. "There were a bunch of things. He said that whenever he thinks of what makes a woman womanly he thinks of me. I was laughing at him, then he asked me to marry him, but not right away, in five years. Then he changed it to ten years. Then five years, five years again.”  Beth pauses and sneaks a look at her friend, but Cynthia is only grimacing at the boarded storefront across the way. "He talked about Walt Whitman for a long time, called him a randy old fag, said he couldn’t have gotten it much since he was writing all the time. And God--he said he wished he could believe in God. He said he knew God was invented to cover the sadness in souls. He said there was so much sadness that he didn't know how to deal with it. He said he didn't know where it began and he didn't know where it ended. Then he started crying, a little. Teared up, kept saying he was so sad. Then he got back on the marriage thing and asked if I liked being sucked."

            "God!  He gets so gross when he's drunk."

            "Then he said he lent you and Steve eighteen grand when he was in Prague."

            Cynthia reaches for her sunglasses and spins them around on the table. "Oh, that."

            Beth regards the Ray-Bans, her friend’s dainty hands, waiting. She adds, "I haven't seen him since.”  After another moment, she rises, offers to get refills. Cynthia checks her mug, flings the remaining coffee into the street and hands the mug to Beth.

            When Beth returns, the Cadillac is also back, its engine sputtering fitfully beneath the faded sign. The boy's elbow hangs out and he rests his head on his shoulder. Beth sets the mugs on the table and drops a fistful of plastic half-and-half containers between them.

            "The weather," says Cynthia, gesturing vaguely toward the sky before peeling open a half-and-half.

            Beth falls into the wicker chair with a sigh. "It's hard for me to believe that a person actually cannot, can not, drink. I mean, where's the line?  Look at us, at the way we used to be."

            Cynthia gasps. "No. No. We never made strange phone calls in the middle of the night, threatening our friends. We never fought with bartenders. We never got in car accidents.” 

            “Cyn. That Thanksgiving on 91. And other times, lucky.”

“One accident. And we never proposed to our friends for the hell of it.” She blows on her coffee to stir in the cream and glances sidelong at Beth, impassive. “We never drank in the morning.”

            "And there's something about him, when he's drinking. He speaks the truth --"

            "The truth?"

            "-- after so long. It's comforting."

            Cynthia sits up, cocks her head to the left. "Comforting?"

            "I don't know, I just don't mind it."

            Cynthia points her finger at her friend like a gun. "You should mind it. But you like guys to get all gushy about you – you want to play femme fatale. And you love to hear people talk about sadness.”  She drops her hand, shakes her head. “But Paul's not sad unless he's drinking. He never thinks about the soul when he's sober. If I called him up right now and asked him about his soul, he'd laugh me out of Providence. His drinking isn't philosophy, it's suicide. You don't mind suicide?"

            Beth shrugs.

            "You ought to mind suicide, after what you've been through. It's a terrible thing."

            Beth winces, and a screeching salvo rings from the Cadillac. Again the street pounds with a bass beat as the boy resumes his pose, elbow out, head resting on his forearm. His eyes droop as if he were listening to a lullaby.

            Softening, Cynthia lowers her jaw to her chest. "I hate that it's been such a rotten year for you. I wanted Paul to look after you when we left. Now he's the one who needs looking after."

            Beth looks down, as if studying her arms crossed at her waist, and begins to cry. Cynthia looks at Beth's arms, too, for a moment, quickly comparing them to her own. Sighing, she reaches to the blue purse for a gold-banded lipstick and a mirror and smiles. “At least you’re not starving yourself this time.”

            Beth rolls her eyes.

Pointing the lipstick toward the boy across the street, she adds, "He must be waiting for someone."

Alexis Quinlan is a writer and teacher in New York City. Her poems have previously appeared in journals including Denver Quarterly, The Paris Review and online at Drunken Boat and The Salt River Review.

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