Rules of Engagement
A short story
by Chris Hibbard
Rules of Engagement
If I was going out drinking tonight, and with two females no less, I would have to begin drinking early. Since there’s no time like the present, right now sounds just fine.
The fact that I am still at work makes little difference to me, for I am an individual that cherishes little more than the moment. Granted, sometimes I might quietly yearn for something that will last an eternity – the misgiving of an everlasting love or merely a perpetual junkie high, but either way, eternity is overrated. This is especially true if one ends up in some Roman Catholic Hell, being tortured without mercy for all time. But I digress. Eternity can wait. It is therefore not worthy of discussion right now. First things first, so they say, and the business at hand requires that I am go out immediately. So I inform my Portuguese co-worker that I’m running across the street to the liquor store and then I am off, through the automatic door with its too cheery chime as my soundtrack, and into the early evening air.
Like most romantics, I am an alcoholic, but that will only get you so far. I have learned from the masters, and also divulge in the filthy cesspool known as substance abuse. As another bell rings and I enter the liquor store, I toy with a thought momentarily, of how nice it would be to say to this shop keep “Yes, a fifth of Bacardi dark and an eighth of Acapulco Gold please.” However, I am not Hunter S. Thompson or William S. Burroughs, so I just buy the rum and head back across the street. I dart into the Schezuan restaurant next door to my photo shop and scoop myself a cherry Coke. The owners always shake their head at me when I do this, but since we are separated by an insurmountable language barrier, I just grin at them and shrug, and then retreat from what I presume is the smell of sautéed Chow Chow. Back at the photo shop I head into my office (the back room with the mop sink) and pour a strong mix, stronger than you would think.
Rodrigo, my fore-mentioned Latin coworker looks on in awe – or is it bewilderment? The first drink doesn’t last three minutes. Often I like to stop and smell the roses along the way, taking my time to nurture such a fine concoction, but this is not a bush full of blossoming buds, this is a rum and coke, and tonight it just doesn’t get that kind of admiration.
The second drink lasts me right up until closing time, all of ten minutes. I check my wallet to see how much cash I have left from the dollars I have previously liberated from their slavery in the register. Not enough. I remedy this situation, ch-ching, bid Rodrigo adios and lurch to my waiting bicycle. My car, the infamous Mustang, is history. This may not be the time to intertwine that tale with this one, but let it be known that the local fuzz, magistrate, and DMV are familiar with my driving habits, and they do not approve. This is fine. My bicycle is built just for me. After remembering my combination, I mount said steed and managing to not get hit by drivers that are more inebriated than I, arrive at my doorway in about fifteen minutes.
I look around my living room, organizing my thoughts. In the process, some of them float out of my head and hover, gently spinning, over the four-foot bong called Shatner that is my kitchen table centerpiece. He is named Shatner, because he was “initiated”, so to speak, during an exciting episode of Star Trek during which Captain Kirk bonds with Sargon, the only survivor of a lost race of beings from a distant planet. To be sure, while it may have just been the moment, it was nevertheless a genius episode to watch while celebrating a brand new bong that has turned out to be excellent. It was almost serendipitous in fact. But I might be getting ahead of myself.
I am tempted to pack Shatner with a quick bowl, but a little voice that I cannot ignore reminds me that tonight is supposed to resemble a date, and I would like to make at least a neutral impression, if not a positive one. I’ll puff it up later I tell the voice.
To up the bar just a little, I touch up the Speed Stick, change into my newest Hawaiian shirt (macaws, I believe) and cleanest tattered Levi’s (are there any other kind?) and slip on my black Vans. I am proud of my Vans. They do not make these low-top models anymore, but I once knew a guy who knew a guy who found a whole crate of them after they fell off the back of a truck. Thanks to the fondness for photography that one of those guys had, I now have my very own collection of out-of-production footwear – becoming more and more rare, collectors’ items if you will. I look at myself in the mirror, lick my hand and pat down an unruly cowlick, ignoring it’s mooing, and head for the door.
Turning the key in the lock behind me, I stroll over to the lift and press the button with my elbow. I am not afraid of germs, but I am afraid of my neighbours, especially the ones in 308. This entire floor is always permeated by a sour mix of smells; curry and decomposing flesh. The curry belongs to my neighbours, a Punjab family of four who sometimes give me their leftovers. The stench of death leaks from the crack under the door of 308. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen the 308 tenants around for awhile and think about that while I wait for the elevator door to open. It does, and I slide myself in.
Once I descend to the lobby I exit out through the back and stroll down the block to the Cadillac Hotel where my party girl Ashley resides and is waiting for me. The desk clerk turns his nose up at me and calls upstairs for her room. She arrives in the atrium in a matter of moments and informs me shortly thereafter that her friend, my “date”, has no money and therefore really doesn’t want to go out. This makes me irritable. Is this the part where I am supposed to call her and say “It’s okay if you’re poor. I’d be happy to buy you a few overpriced watered-down drinks because I was the initial inviter and because your company is a more valuable commodity than my cash?”
Do women really think that I don’t know this game? Don’t they know that my respect level drops by thirty points when they pull this shit? The fact that this “date” is testing my resolve in this way is insulting enough, but when you add the fact that I would’ve been happy to buy her overpriced watered down cocktails all night if she just hadn’t called me out on it…geez.
I am slightly pissed off, yet I am buzzing. There is now a stain on my pride that will never wash out. I have Ashley ring her again from the hotel bar and after they chat, as women do, I take the phone from her, introduce myself, and guess what I tell her?
I tell her, “It’s okay if you don’t have any money, because it would be my pleasure to buy you a few drinks. After all, I invited you ladies out, and your company is worth much more to me than the price of a few mai-tais or whatever it is you drink.”
She thanks me for being “soooo nice” and then proceeds to tell me that she was planning on heading home in about an hour, but that she would love to hang out tomorrow night. She promises me even. How can one stranger make a promise to another? I’ve never even met this girl and she’s promising me things. Alarm bells bounce around the inside of my skull, yet I feel strangely aroused. I go outside and kill a small animal.
Once settled a bit, I ask Ashley if she’s still up for going out, because I sure as hell am. She is, she says, and we lock elbows and skip to the bus stop. Most people forget the simple pleasure that is skipping. Sure you look like an idiot, but it gets you there faster.
By the time I drop a few coins in the lap of the bus driver (“Hey you! There is a slot for those!”) I have tuned my “date” out of range and have begun my transformation into a well-balanced individual. This fails rather quickly, and Ashley suggests that we disembark at a liquor store. We purchase another fifth, of Southern Comfort this time, and then re-settle on a bus bench, taking nips of the liqueur for nearly an hour before the goddamn bus returns. This time the driver glares at me as I delicately and very slowly drop coins into his slot one at a time, enjoying the sounds of Plinko as they find their compatriots at the bottom of the well.
Once we are settled on board, back in our original seats, I resort to the cloak-and-dagger drinking style that I am experienced in. No sir, no paper bags for me, just a loose Hawaiian shirt with plenty of room underneath. After ten minutes, I realize that the only thing going slower than my motor skills is this piece of shit bus. Ashley quiets me down, even taking my hand in hers for a pleasant moment, but my misplaced hostility still lurks underneath the first rule of engagement.
1st Rule of Engagement: Don’t let a woman ruin your night, because they have probably already ruined your day.
We finally reach our stop, the Cuckoo Clock bar, and I have to urinate so badly I think I’m going to split a seamstress. I move towards the nearby alleyway, but Ashley drags me forward. Once we arrive in the bar I make a beeline for the pisser. After relieving myself of the transformed alcohol content ($5 going in, priceless coming out), throw some water on my face and make peace with the previous situation. I am, after all, in a totally new environment and there will be new possibilities to which I can introduce myself.
I walk out into the bar and there are about five people in the entire place. Four are men and the only woman is the bartender. I order a Traditional Ale as Ashley has beaten me to the punch, drinking something that seems to glow, a gin concoction I presume.
The bartender is very nice looking; “cute” would be the right word. Cute is good. Cute is safe. We strike up a conversation and she is lovely, a “goose” as I say frequently (according to Ashley.) I tend to call lovely women Gooses (Geese, I know, I know) because a chick once told me she hated being called a chick. So I called her a goose, and the rest is history. By the way, the reason we are here at the Cuckoo Clock is that this place has Karaoke.
For those of you who are unaware, I am a good writer, a fine cribbage player, an underrated lover and an above average photographer. I have also dispelled the notion that if you don’t dance well then you are not any good in bed. I dispelled that one with a particular vengeance. If any of this sounds arrogant, it should, because it takes a certain amount of ego to be able to do these things at the levels with which I do. I am, after all, famous for being famous, or will be one day at any rate. But my true passion and skill, lies with singing. Singing has brought me more pleasure than anything else in my life (strawberry Tequila not included). When I am in true form, Bono and Sting ain’t got shit on me. Nor does anyone else that you may regard as a top-notch vocalist for that matter. That is why we are here, so that I can sing, so that this miserable, crotchety old lush can step up on that stage and shock the hell out of everyone in the room.
This is exactly what I did with my first song, “Roadhouse Blues” by The Doors. This is an excellent song about completely letting loose, getting shit-faced, only to do it all over again. “The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.” I wish I wrote that, such a great line…
When I come back to my seat there is an untainted beer waiting for me. The bartender smiles and says that it’s on her (“You sound just like Jim Morrison”). At last, forward progress, I have momentum. If only there were more women like this. Somewhere in the back of my mind it registers that she only did it so I would tip her a larger amount. And we all know that me being me, I probably will. Maybe.
Ashley sits down beside me and tries to talk about the latest Bond film. But now that I am in a comfort zone, I have started dreading the moment when it will all inevitably fall apart. This is a bad habit of mine. When things are good, they can only get worse. When things are bad, they can only get better. The troublesome aspect is in knowing when things are good or bad, since life is usually a little bit of both. But it is at this moment that one of God’s better designs walks through the door.
Ashley follows the direction of my eyes, and excuses herself to go play pool. I continue examining the angel that has just graced the Cuckoo Clock. Our eyes meet, and that is enough to enact the second rule of engagement.
2nd Rule of Engagement: Be the guy to talk to her, not the guy that wishes he had the balls to talk to her, before THAT guy actually goes up and talks to her.
Nancy is her name. She turns out to be 22, rather friendly and freshly transplanted from Winnipeg by way of Regina. At one of the many peaks in our conversation, I am called up to sing again. When I am performing for a particular female and not just the general populace, I ratchet things up to another level entirely. I sing “One” by U2, a fine song about the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, and how German people now had to learn to live together again. And I just absolutely nailed it, if I do say so myself. I know that she is impressed because I am impressed.
We chat some more, interrupted once by Ashley bumming some money off of me. (Bonus nice-guy-friend points, sweet; couldn’t have been better timing if it was rehearsed.) Even though I am becoming drunker by the moment, I am in the zone, so it doesn’t matter if my BAC is .002 or 1.27. Nancy tells me that she is going back to Winnipeg for the approaching long weekend to see her family, and that it’s too bad because she would’ve loved to have come to the party that I was having over that weekend. (I wasn’t having a party until I met Nancy – random women make good muses.) We talk about a lot of things. She is a student, studying hard to become a physiotherapist for disabled children or something like that, and I wow her with my knowledge of fine postmodern literature.
After a little while I am called up for another song. This time it is Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”, a fine tribute to music and how no matter what trends are current, rock and roll will always trump. Needless to say, my performance is even better than the last one. So good in fact, that Nancy suggests we sing one together. While I am naturally predisposed to hating duets, I coyly skirt around her suggestions of “Love Shack” and that song from Grease (overrated pieces of musical tripe) and trick her into agreeing to sing “Something Stupid” by Frank Sinatra and his daughter, who is not coincidentally named Nancy. This is key, as it is Rule #3.
3rd Rule of Engagement : Whenever possible, hit her with serendipity. Cosmic timing is a very hard thing for a romantic to ignore.
When our time comes, we take to the stage. It is enjoyable and she’s really not half-bad. We have this eye contact going on throughout the entire thing that makes me realize that things are good, life is good and women are not all heartless demons as I had previously thought. Nope, this little jewel is proof that patience pays off, and that fate has a hand that moves the pawns around swiftly and delicately, providing us with the more gracious and tender instants in life.
We finish and I kiss her on the cheek. Her skin is warm and smooth. We reclaim our table and continue chatting. All the while I am realizing how nice it would be to spend time with her when I am a little more coherent, and can introduce her to my poetry and friends. The bartender (whom I’ve completely neglected) announces that the Cuckoo Clock is closing in ten minutes, last call for alcohol. I order one last beer, a Grasshopper this time, nice and light and smooth, and then I am called up for one last song. It is “Creep” by Radiohead, and it is my swan song (goose song?) a fitting tribute to all those time when the lyrics were more my own than anyone would ever care to know. It is brilliant, I am brilliant, Nancy looks ravishing and I can’t wait to get out of here. We listen to the last song, realize it is Meat Loaf, and opt to leave.
She stands up. “It was really nice meeting you. This was a really fun time.”
My eyes speak volumes but I shift my tongue into gear as well. “Yeah. I had a great time. When can I see you again?”
She looks over my shoulder and smiles softly. “Probably never.”
What? Stop. Rewind. WHAT! I must be freaking gooned or have a damaged sound processing unit. “You are coming back from Winnipeg right?”
“Well then what is it? Did I say something wrong? Is it my Hawaiian shirt?” Bewilderment has taken control of my facial features and clouded my senses.
“I’m kind of involved with someone.”
Ladies and gentlemen this is the captain speaking. Please return to your seats, this plane is going down. QUICKLY. I don’t know how well I am hiding my disbelief and disappointment but I am not even trying, so it’s probably obvious. She apologizes and makes a quick exit.
I slowly become aware of the fact that Ashley is now standing beside me, wearing the same expression on her face that I undoubtedly have on mine, minus 75 per cent of the pain. I almost lose my mind right there, but instead I start laughing, like a hyena or a jackal, the way that one laughs when they know that the only other thing they can do is cry, since there are no small animals within stomping distance. We vacate the bar and are now out on the sidewalk. I still can’t really grasp what has just happened and am a bit punch-drunk from the whole experience. A mixture of disillusion, disenchantment, and shattered expectations slithers up my spine like a serpent and I just continue to laugh.
Ashley assists me down the street, discussing how strange life can be, trying to make me feel better with innocuous trivialities that I am only half paying attention to. We get to the bus stop and wait. After asking a homeless man for the time (he had a Rolex, or at least a Fauxlex), we clue in that it is after 2:00 a.m. and that there is no bus coming. We are condemned to the fate of walking home. This gives me plenty of time to allow the rage to boil over. When it subsides, there is only drunk – with a capital D. I cannot speak coherently and feel empty, spent like a shell casing on the floor of a shooting gallery, just waiting for the janitor to come sweep me up and throw me away – or worse, recycle me to be used up again tomorrow. As we eventually get into our home territory, Ashley bids me goodnight. She seems to be glad to get away from me. I can’t say as I blame her and so I simply wave and mumble something incoherent, eager to be alone.
I get back to my apartment building and crawl up the three flights of concrete stairs to my floor, then fumble with my keys until I manage an insertion. Once inside, I strip down to my boxers, and toast three pieces of whole wheat for a triple-decker ham and cheese sandwich. While the toaster is working, I pack a small personal bowl into Shatner and take a few hits, which I hold as long as I can before exhaling slowly and erupting into a coughing fit. By the time the toaster is done, so am I. I plop my ass on the sofa, watching a late night comedian poking fun at blind people, and eat the sandwich in a dozen bites.
I am drunk enough to be depressed, stoned enough to be spinning, and definitely not sober enough to properly analyze what has just happened to me.
I move from sofa to bed on unsteady ankles and am unconscious before I can even pull back the covers. I’ll tell you about my dreams tomorrow.