Meryl took a seat at a small circular table by the window. The café was one that she had frequented with him years ago. Now the place felt like an old album once much beloved, but played too frequently by the admirer. A dust covered, faded album retrieved from storage and finally played again. It was simultaneously fresh and nostalgic. Only albums don’t really change and places do. The furniture was arranged differently with several new additions. The walls were painted mint-green; they were once grayish purple. The art on the walls, which was always changed out monthly, was a particularly poor exhibition. Meryl felt a bit disoriented and a little sad. She began starring out the window, obsessively searching for a face that matched Will’s in the mix of passersby. At one point an elderly black man with wild Cornel West hair walked by, who did not even slightly resemble Will. After starring at the man for a moment or so, Meryl shook her head back and forth sharply as if she were snapping out of slumber. She became aware that it had taken her at least a split-second to register the stranger in her mind as “not Will”. As she glanced at other pedestrians it dawned on her that she was placing Will’s face in the visage of each and every person. She quickly felt silly after realizing that the various people walking by looked nothing like her ex-fiancé. She didn't have that clear of an image of him in her mind. She’d been with Will for four years, yet somehow she remembered his qualities more than his face and his face more than their experiences together. It was a bizarre and unsettling sort of awareness for Meryl. Things were blurry. Her mind tried to focus in on the past, but instead she found herself thinking about the subjectivity involved in human recognition. How for someone to be “not Will” took far longer to register than it would have three years prior. What made Will himself, for Meryl at least, was the array of characteristics that subconsciously comprised her view of him. But Meryl didn’t really know Will anymore. So she was morphing the facial structures of passersby to fit her recollections of his. She wondered if he had changed, and figured that he probably hadn’t. She started to feel uneasy and a little bored. “Where the hell is he?” she thought to herself.
Then all of the sudden she jumped in her seat with the realization that she was making direct eye contact with him through the window. He was facing her, waving eagerly with a big goofy grin on his face. She gave an embarrassed half smile, waved back and quickly diverted her glance to her feet.
He entered the café and walked towards her table. She leaped up to hug him and he picked her up off the ground and spun her around a few times. This was an unexpected greeting for the both of them. As he did so he said,“It’s so good to see you Meryl, sorry for the delay”
“No worries Will, I’m just glad you didn’t stand me up!”
“Never” he replied.
They sat down across from each other at the small table Meryl had picked out. They made solid eye contact and Will sank back into his boyish shy self. Meryl was so goddamned beautiful and intimidating. Those intense fiery green eyes did crazy things to many a rational man. And he knew that she was aware of it, that she even liked it. She was a terrible person and wonderful all at once. Her hair was long and ironed stick-straight. It was dyed dark-brown, nearly black, with bangs cut straight across her forehead just above her brow line. Will thought back to her natural dark blond, wavy hair, how soft it had once felt on his chest. His mind flashed back to images of her when she briefly forgot about her appearance; like a time when she was wearing his Dinosaur Jr. T-shirt and some thin boyish panties. She was sitting on their sofa painting her toe nails on top of a book of Diane Arbus photographs while listening to French Rosetta Stone tapes, repeating words with an adorable attempt at an accent francais. At present she was wearing dark eye makeup and sporting a tight fitting skirt that came up high on her waste with a lacey sleeveless button-down snugly tucked in. She looked professional and artsy, like someone straight out of
SoHo. As preppy and clean-cut as Will had become, he was surprised to find himself drawn to Meryl’s unnatural, edgy look. She was too skinny though, and he wondered if she was still smoking cigarettes and surviving off of granola bars and spinach salads. In their college days she proclaimed that she led that lifestyle out of necessity. Now, thought Will, her only liable explanation could be pure vanity. He figured she was probably sad too. He knew just from the first meeting of their eyes that she had seen a lot in the past few years, but that she had not found love. Her air was still too sexual; there was nothing docile or sedentary about her.
“Good God Meryl, how the fuck do you live with yourself? You’re just as brutally gorgeous as ever.”Meryl laughed and took notice of the complete abatement of her nervousness. She was not the slightest bit uncomfortable around the gentle-hearted Will. She replied, “Oh Will, doll, you know that I’m in love with myself and you also know that I worked hard to look this good for an ex-fiancé I haven’t seen in three years.”
Will grinned, remembering how blunt Meryl could be. She always laid the cards on the table, always gave off an impression of transparency. It never really fooled him; he knew she was thickly layered and that the rawness was simply a defense mechanism.
“Come on Meryl, you know you don’t have to put effort into your appearance for me, but I guess that’s exactly why you do it.”
Meryl replied, “Ha! Well William, darling, you’re not looking too awful yourself. Although I do miss the ridiculously unkempt beard. You really had me convinced you were a man when we first hooked up. And now you’re cleanly shaven…You’re all grown-up Will, who woulda thunk it?”
(Will was younger than Meryl. He was nineteen when they met, Meryl was twenty-two. They met the way a lot of college people meet, at a party. Will was quiet-natured and for the most part just stood around awkwardly nursing a warm beer. Meryl saw him and thought he was good-looking. He had big brown eyes, chiseled cheek bones, a huge beard and short sandy colored hair. He looked kind, pensive, not like your average "bro". She approached him and said “Hey there Wallflower, what’s your deal?”Will responded a little defensively but also flirtatiously,
“What kind of question is that? I don’t have a deal. What’s your deal?” Meryl laughed hysterically and Will felt uncomfortable, noting in his mind that this beautiful girl was far more intoxicated than he.
She responded, “Let’s just make-out and I’ll tell you later.”
Then she pulled him in and kissed him with sloppy aggression. His timidity often inhibited him from these sorts of encounters, so he didn’t stop her. He drove her home after a little while and spent the night at her place, but didn’t take advantage of her state, just laid there next to her. Meryl could not believe his level of respect and grew fond of him quickly. She liked him because he listened with a tad bit of aloofness; it motivated her to sound interesting. Will had no idea he came off as aloof and loved to hear her perceptive musings on life. The fact that he was younger and Meryl had an ego made it impossible at first for Will to detect any insecurity in her, thus he felt diffident. Still, he was good with his words and he was also terse. He spoke with concise clarity and came across far more stoic than he actually was. Meryl had sought stability in all the wrong places and things in the past, but Will felt safe without being dull. He was a physically large guy, tall and broad shouldered. What he lacked in emotional availability he made up for in his engulfing physique.)
"Well working a nine to five does somehow make me feel all grown up, sometimes in the worst sorts of ways" Will responded."And what are the worst aspects of adulthood would you say, Willy Boy?"
"Oh you know...being too exhausted at night to do anything but fix a strong cocktail and watch the news....Oh and selling yourself to a highly specialized job title, slowly but surely accepting your occupation as your identity. I guess the worst part is that I can sit back and watch myself change. Sometimes I wish I could truly accept things. Instead half of me is embarrassed by my conformity, tries to escape from it, while the other half kind of loves the security, repetition and even competitive element of it all. And Meryl, I'd be lying if I said I didn't care about how nice my paycheck is. Talking to you about it makes me feel a little ashamed."
"Oh come on Will! Look at me! I'm not exactly shopping at the thrift store these days. We've grown up, I'm sure there's still a bleeding heart-liberal tucked into that suit somewhere."
Will laughed and looked a little insecure, as if he was searching his inner being for his old self. Meryl could not believe how open and talkative Will was being. She knew that it was abnormal for him to be this way, even if he had changed a good deal. It seemed as though he had been repressing a lot. She wondered if this was a sincere confessional, if he really felt guilty, or if her presence was swaying him to feel that way. He was clearly trying to give off a certain impression of himself, but Meryl was a bit put-off by his self-deprecation.
(Will was in internet advertising. He was an old-fashioned guy, a lover of the outdoors and an advocate of simplicity, but was somewhat paradoxically computer savvy. Back in school he had been a fairly politically active, socialistic fellow. Meryl was more self-centered than he, but she was sharp as a whip. She hated materialism and the sense of entitlement rich white college kids had. She was able to socialize superficially while always maintaining an emotional distance. She was a cynic who knew how to play nice and be a chameleon. Despite Will's optimism, he found her criticism of the modern world appealing. Her outlook was more satirical really. She made fun of circumstances and society with a fragile light-heartedness. Fragile meaning that breakdowns were not necessarily uncommon for her.
Will came from a wealthy, surprisingly normal family. Meryl was raised in far less fortunate circumstances. Her father left her mother when she was pregnant with Meryl. Meryl's mother remarried when she was three and her stepfather adopted her immediately. He was a wonderful man, too kind and unassuming for Meryl's perpetually discontented mother, who abandoned the two of them when Meryl was twelve. Her adoptive father slowly slipped into alcoholism but managed to keep it under control while Meryl was still under his roof. When she moved into the dorms on the campus of the local university he grew terribly lonely. He had never really forgiven Meryl's mother, never really fallen out of love with her either. He shot himself in the head not long after Meryl's nineteenth birthday.
Will had grown up in such a sheltered suburban world, and Meryl's history was unlike that of any other person in his life. It humbled him greatly.)
"Now that I've set myself up for all sorts of criticism, can we go order coffee?” asked Will.“These sweaty palms need the security of a mug handle."
"I know one thing that hasn't changed Will…You still cope with your anxiety issues kinesthetically. Let's go get you that mug."
They walked towards the counter and got in line behind a couple of people. Meryl told Will to hold out his hands. She grabbed at his fingers and inspected them.
"Just as I suspected, all chewed up to hell! Maybe you should order decaf buddy!"
"Let's just go to the bar Meryl. I don't even drink coffee."
Meryl always considered it a character flaw when people didn't drink coffee, mainly because she was a total addict, but also because she knew that most people who didn’t drink coffee were still addicted to caffeine, and consumed it through much more repulsive beverages like diet Coke and energy drinks. Will had a weakness for diet Dr. Pepper and Meryl found that nearly intolerable.
"Fine" Meryl said, "but I think that's a bad idea."
"Oh don't flatter yourself Meryl. You know Sarah and I are very happy." Meryl did know that, and she believed it too. She had kept up with Will through letters and email and he always spoke so fondly of his wife Sarah. Occasionally Meryl wondered if there was an ulterior motive behind his very candid expression of feelings. Meryl would twist it in her head and convince herself that Will was trying to make her feel bad about herself and their past. Deep down she knew that was her own shit, and far from his intention. Looking at him now, she understood it all. He was good to Sarah, he loved Sarah. His love was the love of a smart, stable man. He valued the security of having a good person in his arms every night over the impassioned, rocky sort of relationship he had once held with Meryl. He didn't find a sick sort of pleasure in the misery of instability like Meryl did. It infuriated him and it hurt him.
Will was thinking of Sarah, how she wasn’t crazy about him meeting up with Meryl, but let him go anyway. Sarah was kind; she had a Jackie Kennedy sort of appeal. Yet she was bossy and feisty enough to keep things interesting. Will needed his mate to have a slightly domineering edge. After leaving Meryl, however, he reminded himself that bossy and bat-shit crazy did not have to come as a pair in a person, nor were they synonymous. Looking back at his relationship with her he thought it was all pretty stupid and futile. She and he had both distorted reality so fantastically, and he didn't like straying away from his grounded nature. However, he did not know that he was capable of being a romantic until he met Meryl, and a part of him still held onto the highs of their time together.
Meryl agreed to go to the bar and they went back to their table and gathered their things. Then as they were walking towards the door she got out her wallet and veered over to the counter. She handed the pretty, tattooed barista a ten dollar bill and apologized for taking up a table without ordering anything. It was kind, spontaneous gestures such as this that had always thrown Will off, always kept him convinced that deep down Meryl wasn't as misanthropic as she conveyed herself to be. They headed towards the exit again and Will quickly jumped ahead of her a few paces in order to get the door. Meryl secretly appreciated chivalry and didn't always find it chauvinistic unless the person holding the door had gelled hair and overwhelming amounts of man-whore cologne on. She thanked him with a mild tone of flirtation and they proceeded to walk down the sidewalk several yards in silence, both trying to figure out where the conversation had left off. Finally Will asked Meryl about her visit."So you're in town for business?"
"Yeah I'm meeting up with Ben Rotunda to get some pieces from him for the gallery. He hates the West Coast. I'm surprised he's even letting his stuff grace the walls of a
Will laughed, but felt a panging sensation from images of Rotunda and his crew of philandering drunken old artists who Meryl used to go around town with. He had known that she was fully capable of handling her own; slap a man if he made advances, kick him in the groan even, but Will had always struggled with trust. The funny thing about Meryl was her paradoxical virtuosity. She never once cheated on him. That actually made the end worse. It wasn't like putting Capone behind bars for tax evasion. She hadn't done anything to spur on his decision; he had no accusations against her. Sure she was a flirt, a God-awful flirt, but she wasn't a liar. She never even tried to be. The honesty is what made him leave. She was a caged bird, never afraid to express her hatred of captivity. So one day he finally set her free. He could never be the key-bearer to a woman's cage. He was a good guy.
"So I guess you'll be seeing that whole artist crew then, huh?"
"Well of course Will, but what does it matter? I have to take them out, pay them back for all my youthful free-loading. You know they never got what they really wanted in exchange for all the free booze over the years. I at least owe them some good bottles of red."
Will gave a half-assed laugh. "Okay, okay Meryl, let’s change the subject. There’s no ring on your finger and you seem unattached, though you come off that way regardless. Tell me, are there any decent fish hooked on your line these days? Or are you still the same paradoxical lone ranger who is surprisingly skilled at social mingling?"
"Ha! Will we haven't reached Zelda's and you're already taking on a berating tone with me. I'll have you know that I've fallen in love once since we split and had several decent affairs aside from that. It's been fun, but you of all people know that I’m totally neurotic. Happiness comes my way and I run from it. It keeps me going Will, keeps me fresh, keeps my gallery running and my own art above mediocre."
"Yeah, well, I could preach to you about the contentment and simplicity of settling down, however I'm just as dissatisfied as you for different reasons. Reasons I cling to instead of run from. Really though Meryl, I'm happy. I'd like to travel more, take more risks, spend money a little more recklessly, but ultimately life is good for me."
"I believe you Will. I'm just glad you still think, still crave. You're not empty."
They reached the outside of Zelda's, a small dive on the outskirts of downtown that they both loved. Meryl managed to grab the door handle before Will and as they were entering said "Oh Will, you know that I'm terribly envious of you"Will gave a half smile and followed Meryl over to the bar. She was clearly eager to order something, Will could sense her edginess, he was actually starting to make her feel uneasy.
"Two shots of Jameson and two Pisgah Porters to chase please."
"Sure, can I see both of ya’lls ID's?" asked the bartender
"Ha! Will did you hear that?"
"Oh come on Meryl, they're supposed to card anyone that appears under forty." Meryl gave Will a smack on the arm.
"Shut up Will, it's the bangs, they make me look young. Now let’s take some shots for old time’s sake."
The bartender poured the shots.
“Sure Meryl, I believe I’ve already told you that you look great...God I think the last time I took shots of whiskey was at my bachelor’s party.”
“If I was a bystander to this conversation and took note of both of our left ring fingers, I’d think that comment was some ironic foreshadowing for the evening” responded Meryl
Will’s face twisted with annoyance and a tad bit of sexual frustration at her joke. Meryl handed him his shot:
Meryl took a quicker shot than Will and reached for her beer far lees hastily. She was growing tired of the unnecessary weirdness between them. She had a hard time considering other people's emotions; her boldness often inhibited her from having empathy. She knew she had hurt Will many times, but it was so long ago. She could sense an undertone of hatred in his behavior, an odd sort of loathing rooted in a stale love he hadn’t overcome entirely. She had long been over him, had long lived far away from him. She never even stopped to think that he was probably sitting in the
Meryl’s routine had been so far less monotonous than his since they split. She was unable to have the same level of vividness in her recollections. Plus she was the admired and he was the admirer, the latter person in those sorts of relationships always suffers far more when things are over.
“So is this still commonplace behavior for you Meryl?”“I own an art gallery Will. Being able to hold my liquor while I booze up others is part of my business. My best sales come from people who are three or more glasses in. I have to keep up a tolerance so that I can drink right alongside my clients and never reach their level of intoxication. Maybe I could just sip throughout openings, but that’s just not as fun! We’re not in my gallery right now though Will, and as far as I’m concerned you’re not a potential client. Going to the bar was your idea anyhow. I thought the coffee shop would be far less threatening.”
“Lord Meryl you’re a sly-ass entrepreneur. Never thought I’d see the day. So I guess you’re throwing some real classy parties over there, huh?”
“Oh yeah, Will. Networking is the name of the game. It’s pretty disgusting really I guess, but unlike you, half of me isn’t skeptical of my own behaviors. I’ve probably lost a good bit of integrity over time, but looking back I wonder if I really ever had any. Not to play the victim card too strong, but I feel like I deserve this. The death of my father really embittered me, I can’t enjoy life authentically, so I at least have the right to throw a great fucking party, Will. Jesus Christ, I didn’t exactly get handed an easy lot in life. It’s not like I’m at the top of some massive conglomerate laying people off for every minor dip on Wall Street.”
Will put his arm around Meryl. She grabbed his wrist and thrust his arm away from her.
“I’m sorry Meryl, I wasn’t trying to be insulting. Life’s twists and turns are just funny I guess. You’re different, but if anything, it’s impressive. You’ve done well for yourself. I’m happy for you. I’m proud of you Meryl.”
Will’s heart sank. He had held such high hopes for Meryl. He had idealized her so much. Despite the emotional hardship she had put him through, he had always felt that her future lay in some sort of philanthropic, low-paying career. Maybe the Peace-Corp or random non-profit work like painting murals in the ghetto or something. She’d always gotten so emotional about the circumstances around the world. A memory flashed through his mind of a time when Meryl painted a sign on poster board and nailed it to the wall next to the television. It read “THERE WILL BE ABSOLUTELY NO NEWS BROADCASTS PLAYED WHILE MERYL IS MENSTRUATING. CONSEQUENCE: THE NEAREST LARGE OBJECT (I.E. HAIRDRYER, STELLETO HEEL, ETC.) WILL BE THROWN AT SCREEN.” She wasn’t all that toughed-skinned really. Meryl exemplified that a woman can be both incredibly strong and easily affected by the world around her. It took getting close to someone like her for Will to really get that.
“Thanks Will. It’s not like it’s been easy. I’ve worked my ass off.”
“Yeah I know. I’ve received letters from you from what feels like every state in the union, most of the E.U. and from what I recall, several Asian and African nations. I think it’s incredible that you’re exhibiting art from all over. That in itself is doing something for the world.”
“Yeah, I’ve had so many amazing experiences, and some difficult ones too. I’ve made a point to seek out artists that are only big in their region, and some artists that are barely known at all. I’ve held several exhibits which exclusively displayed the work of poor craftsman from developing nations. Sure I get some of the proceeds, but I’m not a total neurotic businesswoman on a power trip. I still feel William.”
“Okay, okay I crossed the line. That all sounds incredible Meryl.”
He ordered them two more beers.
“I’m going to have to go break the seal Will. I’ll be right back.”
Meryl grabbed her obnoxiously large purse and went to the bathroom.
Will sat there, sipped on his beer, and took notice of the spinning sensation in his brain.“Jesus I’m such a light weight now.” He thought to himself. Meryl didn’t make him feel nervous in a romantic tension sort of way nearly as much as he had expected. Her presence made him feel boring and insecure, but was relieved to really know for certain that he wasn’t in love with her anymore. He had clung to his good memories of her over the years; he had created a Meryl in his mind that was totally distinct from the Meryl presently taking a leak.
She took a while in the ladies’ room but finally returned with an unlit cigarette between her fingers. She got a light from someone at the bar and then sat back down next to Will. “Want a cigarette? I was trying to hide the habit from you, but, damn it Will, I still haven’t quit, I haven’t even really tried. I figured you had cut the habit by now.”
“Sure I’ll take a cigarette, I sneak one here and there, but I gave it up about a year and half ago.”“When you met Sarah?”
“Yeah, well when we got serious I did. She hates cigarette smoke. I sneak a smoke when she’s off at book club. Geez, I’m such a married man. Ha. Wanna hear the best part?”
“Everyone in the book club uses a kindle. God it makes me nuts.”
“Wow that’s a great mental image. The Stepford Wives of the 21st century.”
“Oh she’s not that bad Meryl. She’s very bright. They’re not reading Twilight or anything, I think they mostly read American Classics.”
Meryl ashed her cigarette and simultaneously reached for her beer. She took a big gulp then rubbed her nose in a suspiciously furtive way. Will noticed a new redness to it that hadn’t been there earlier in the evening.
“Yeah, yeah. Anyway who are you trying to keep your figure so tiny for? Be real with me. What’s going on? Are you depressed? Have you fallen for one of those foreign artists you exhibit?”
Meryl rubbed her nose again a little and responded,
“Ha! Right! Oh I’ll admit I’ve found myself helplessly infatuated with a few of them here and there. But the same thing always happens. Their work never transcends into their being the way that their being transcends into their art. It’s like they can only really be what I convince myself they are when they’re in production mode, when creativity consumes them. Outside of that, they’re surprisingly uninteresting and usually egotistical. It’s as though I like what people represent, but I don’t like who they are. God that doesn’t even really make sense. Even when someone is absolutely amazing I don’t stick around, I get scared the veil will be drawn, or maybe that mine will.”
Meryl all of the sudden crossed her arms over the bar and put her head in them.
“Meryl what’s wrong?”
Meryl perked her head up a little, but remained hunched over the bar and said:
“The gallery is failing Will. Not because I’m not selling art, the mega rich still buy art even when the economy sucks. It’s because I’m mismanaging money. I’ve blown more cash than I can make up for in sales. I owe my rich uncle a ton of money. I have a sensation, a yearning for “home.” But that means nothing to me Will. This town is full of bad memories. Where do I go to find home Will? I hardly have any family. I don’t speak to my mom. My Uncle and I only talk business. I have no one.”
“The gallery is your home. You love that gallery, you love your life. Stop fucking up. And why the hell are you doing coke? You’ve been rubbing your nose ever since you got back from the bathroom. I’m not a fool Meryl.”
“I’ve met so many people Will, I fraternize with hundreds of different elite fucks all the time, it’s part of the game. I’m so lonely. So terribly lonely. So goddamn alone. I’m always with people Will. Twenty-Four Seven, Three-six-five. I threw a party at my gallery on Christmas with all the Jews I know so that I wouldn’t have to be alone. That would’ve broken my dad’s heart Will.”
“A lot of it’s your fault, you know? I mean your loneliness. You don’t let people in. You don’t give people a chance. Los Angeles is a huge city, there have got to be some good people somewhere. Stop being such a bitch Meryl. Stop hating so much. It’s unattractive. Get yourself cleaned up. This is just ridiculous.”
“You never really understood me Will.”
“I understand you perfectly Meryl. More than you understand yourself. Now stop being a dumb ass and clean yourself up.”
“God I hate you. You’re younger than me and a male, yet somehow you’re always fucking right about everything.”
Will sort of grinned.
“I’ve slowly managed to get over you Meryl, but I still care. Don’t stick around town too long. L.A. is fine and you know it. Get your books in better order and stop throwing away money. And seriously, find yourself some real people. Coke-head neo-aristocrats are generally bad, selfish humans. Meryl, please find your heart again.”
“Okay Will...Look it was great to see you, but I’m ready to walk myself to the hotel. Please don’t try to walk me there. Here’s forty bucks for the drinks. My treat.”
Will put the money right back in her purse.
“Don’t be absurd.” He hugged her and she reciprocated with a cold, distant embrace.
“Great to see you Meryl.”
“You too Will”
“Oh by the way Will, I didn’t come here to buy paintings from Ben Rotunda. He’s not even in town.”
She walked out of the bar and he didn’t follow her.