A BAD LOVE STORY
by JACK TOM
We were crawling backwards on aching knees, priming new baseboards in a single bedroom unit off West Chester Street. The owner lady, some failed but wealthy architect from Germany, had graying black hair, thick black-rimmed glasses and a whine in her voice that made me want to stab her in the neck with my putty knife when she pointed to tiny imperfections in the wood and said, “vut about zeeeese? Vill you corrects zeeeese?”
Jose, like me, would nod to her and then walk off and do something else, leaving her to become either frustrated or confused but never satisfied. Then, as soon as she left Jose would peer from his knees over the window sill and study her scrawny backside as she walked cautiously across the sand lot and went into another one of her nearly finished rental buildings. After she’d gone far enough Jose would turn to me and shout, “CALLATE!”
“you fucking CALLATE!” I yelled back. “Callate your fuckin’ face! It’s Friday and it’s almost quittin’ time and I need a beer!”
“oh!” Jose yelped. “I can’t wait to jrink! I wanna jrink! I’m gonna go out and get jrunk tonight. JRUNK!! Joo here me?”
With two last strokes I finished the board I was working on and straightened my back, stretching it out. It hurt like a bastard from bending down all afternoon. I really hated that job and was always looking for some reason to quit.
“jrunk!” I laughed back, looking at Jose. “JRRUNNK!”
“that’s what I say, jrunk! My girlfriend and I, we break up last night. So tonight I go out, get jrunk!”
“hahhh!” I shouted, getting to my feet. My whole body ached. It always did. Laboring away the days and in the nights numbing the pain with bourbon, which only brought about a different misery in the morning.
“you two break up every week. Every Thursday, ha! I know you bring it about, too, just so you can go wild all weekend, ha!”
Jose sat back on his feet and surveyed the piece of baseboard he’d just finished with mild satisfaction. He turned to me with a big, guilty smile and I could tell the thoughts in his head were processing what I’d just said, which again prompted him to shout, “CALLATE!”
But that was the game he played. All week long he behaved well towards his old lady, charming her and conning her into thinking he was finally through with his drinking and his bouts of madness. But every Thursday night he would bait her into an argument. Maybe he’d mention that he’d like to go out for a drink with his work buddies the following night and how he needed some excitement. Something more than the domestic boredom in which he’d been living all week long.
There would be yelling and screaming and finally this old lady of his would raise her fist and stomp the ground and pledge that it was over, that this was the last time. Jose would go out and sleep in his truck and come in to work on Friday morning with sore limbs and a crick in his neck, but a devilish, excited little grin on his face.
According to La Viajita, an old El Salvadoran on the crew who’d told me all of this, it had been going on for longer than he could remember.
“Jose,” I said, “que es el nombre de tu chica?”
He stood up and walked towards the can of paint where I was already using my brush to wipe out the last few smears from my pail.
“her nombre es Silvia, gringo. Why-joo care?”
I mashed my brush against the lid of the can to get out as much of the paint as I could before dipping it into a bucket with a small amount of paint thinner at the bottom.
“por que, if you two are broken up, maybe I could have a go with her.”
I turned up to him, giving him a moment to understand. But it didn’t even take him a full second before he said, “ey, fuck joo, pendejo! I keel joo!”
He glared at me with his ferocious Dominican eyes.
“hey, calm down, Jose. I was just joking, just fuckin’ around, right?”
“no! no right. Joo no say shit like that to me!”
“si, si. Comprendo. Lo siento, sorry.”
But I wasn’t sorry. I wasn’t sorry at all. Jose could go to hell for all I cared. What I was interested in was his old lady, Silvia, and if she was the same Silvia whose ass I’d grabbed and whose mouth I’d kissed at the Muse the previous Saturday night.
When I told her that I painted houses, she’d said something about her boyfriend, ahem, ex boyfriend being a painter like me. But hell, there were over a thousand painters on that little island. I recalled her mentioning something about a breakup, though, and that if they ended up getting back together she’d only give him one more chance. And I figured Jose had used up that one chance.
“so, Jose, where are you going tonight? Maybe I’ll join you. I’d like to buy you a beer.”
I was slapping my brush against a dirty rag to get the thinner out. He looked at me and maybe thought I was kidding him. And I was kidding him, but he didn’t have to know.
“no se. Probably La Cantina.”
“it’s good place, gringo. Cheap beer.”
I knew it was a good place and I knew they had cheap beer, too. I’d only been on that island a month and that was plenty of time to learn a little about every bar.
“well, then. La Cantina. I’ll probably make it out around ten.”
I finished slapping out my brush and wrapped the cardboard cover around it and tucked it into my bag.
I glanced back for just a single moment and saw that he was pondering the little conversation we’d just had in that wild brain of his. I stepped out into the sandy construction site but before I closed the door Jose called to me.
“Yack!” he said, failing to pronounce my name correctly.
I turned and looked back inside. He was smacking his brush on the same dirty rag I’d used.
“yeah, whatever. Remember to close the door.”
That night I didn’t go out to the Cantina. I knew Jose would be there and I didn’t want to see him. Working with him all day wasn’t that bad, but I couldn’t spend the whole night with him too.
After shooting a bunch of whiskey, I went to the Muse, hoping that Silvia would be there. She wasn’t there when I got there, but that’s because I went very early, in order to get a seat at the bar. I don’t like it when I have to stand at bars to drink. I could stand in my kitchen if I wanted to do that, or in my basement. I also went that early so that I could look nonchalant, like I just happened to be there again, not that I was purposely looking out for her.
She came in around ten thirty and she was looking good. Better than good. For a moment I wondered why the hell Jose ever broke it off with her, never mind why he did it purposely every week. But then, every man gets tired of the same piece of ass, day in and day out. Some won’t admit it, but they do.
Silvia had on a pair of jeans and a white blouse and her hair was in a pony tail. Her body was nice. Latin and curvy, but it was her face that destroyed me. She had one of those faces that was so beautiful it actually hurt to look at, like it could drive a man insane. I wondered, for a moment, whether Jose had always been the way he was, or if this Silvia chica had somehow broken his mind.
But I kept trying not to think of Jose. It’s never nice to think about a man who has done the things that you want to do with the girl you want to do them with.
As soon as the doorman handed back her ID I turned away and took a sip of my drink, watching her out of the corner of my eye. For a moment I thought she was alone because she took a few steps towards the bar while glancing around, but then she spun around and smiled as two of her friends dealt with the doorman.
“of course,” I muttered to myself. “it’s not too many girls that go out to the bar alone.”
I took the opportunity to give her a long up and down and decided that she looked just as good, if not better, than she looked the previous weekend. Maybe it was the blouse. It came down almost to her jeans but the way she had it tied in front you could spot just an inch of smooth, brown skin.
I clenched my teeth and looked away at the television. There was a baseball game on. There was almost always a baseball game on, and if there wasn’t, they were showing the highlights of past baseball games.
In one of the mirrors behind the bar I snuck a peek at Silvia. She and her friends were making their way towards the ladies room.
“chicks,” I snorted. The first thing they always do after getting into any bar is to go straight to the bathroom. I always wondered what they did in there. Were they looking at themselves in the mirror? Taking a piss? Snorting lines off the toilet bowl?
I decided right then that as soon as she came out I’d go up to her and say hello. If I didn’t some other fool would and I didn’t want that.
When they came out they approached the bar opposite me. It was perfect. She looked over and I gave it a second and then smiled like I’d just noticed her. She waved me over and I nearly fell off my bar stool because my body had started moving before my legs had left the rungs.
“Jack,” she said to me, pronouncing it how it should be pronounced. “como esta?”
“Silvia! Hello. How are you doin’?”
“I am good, thank you. These are my friends, Esmeralda and Gloria.”
I loved Hispanic girls. Their names, their faces, their bodies, their attitudes. They had something there which I’d never found in other girls.
“nice to meet you,” I said, shaking their hands and leaning in to give them each a kiss on the cheek. “can I buy you a drink?” I asked Silvia, nodding to the others.
I didn’t want to buy them all a drink but in that sort of situation you can’t just offer to buy a drink for the one girl you’re going after. For a split second I wondered how many drinks I’d bought for how many girls in that same way.
All three smiled and said, “thank you.”
“well, what’ll you have?”
They discussed briefly what each wanted and then Silvia said to me, “Bacardi and coke?”
“three Bacardi and cokes?” I asked her.
“bien,” I smiled. “tres Bacardi y cokes.”
The two bartenders were watching the television and swapping stupid comments with each other. The bastards. Couldn’t they see I needed some service? After a moment I said to Silvia, “why don’t you guys go sit down at a table, and I’ll bring the drinks over.”
She smiled and said, “yes, thanks” and they moved off towards a table near the outdoor smoking deck.
As soon as they were gone I leaned in and said, “excuse me,” but the bartenders were the type that did everything on their own time. They’d tasted the power of their position, the ability to choose when to administer drinks to the desperate, pleading customers. I hated them for this.
“hey!” I finally shouted. “could I get some drinks over here?”
One of them put on this severely annoyed face and moseyed over to take my order. He mixed up three Bacardi and cokes. Afterwards he poured me a Budweiser draft.
“twenty five,” he said to me, like it was nothing.
I handed him a twenty and a fiver, left a couple bucks on the bar and carefully grasped the four drinks to head off to the table and the girls.
Esmeralda and Gloria were dolls just like Sylvia. I sat there sipping at my beer and thinking how lucky I was to be sitting there with three Latin beauties. Sylvia asked me enough questions to keep me in the conversation but for the most part I just sat there and nodded and divided my time staring between them.
I made sure to take it easy on my beer at first so I didn’t hit bottom before them but these girls were clearly not big drinkers. Instead of waiting around for them to finish first and offer to return the drink, I decided to really suck mine down so that they each still had half a drink left when I asked if anybody needed a drink. But when I did they all glanced at their glasses and said, “oh, yes, thank you.”
I felt nauseas for a moment. That would be another twenty something bucks. Why had I even asked? I remembered I was trying to get laid, and how I always did stupid things when I was trying to get laid. Probably most of the stupid things done in the world are directly due to a guy trying to get into some girl’s pants.
“okay. Well, I’ll be right back.”
They all smiled and I got up and walked to the bar. From behind I recognized the thick, sturdy frame of La Viejita, that old El Salvadoran who worked with us on the crew. I wondered what the hell he was doing there. I didn’t even think he ever went out to bars. After a moment’s consideration of whether or not to try and dodge him I said, “fuck it,” and went right up to him.
“La Viejita,” I said to him. “que pasa aqui?”
“oh, Yack,” he smiled. “I here to drink beer, si?”
“si,” I said. It did make sense. “pero, no para, uh, meet chicas?”
La Viejita laughed into his beer and shook his head. It was like the idea of going after chicks was a dirty thing to him.
“por que?” I asked.
“no more woman, no for me. Too many woman, all bad. I feel like slave when I with woman. No more. No for me.”
I glanced back at the table. Sylvia and Esmeralda and Gloria were all talking and laughing. I stared at them for a full minute until I caught Sylvia look towards me, probably wondering where their drinks were.
“fuckin’ a,” I mumbled. “I know what you mean.”
I stood there, waiting for the lazy bartenders to notice me. I knew since I’d left them a meager tip last time that it would take even longer this time. I’d probably be there for fifteen minutes.
“so,” said La Viejita without moving his head. “who are the chicas?”
I looked at him out of the side of my eyes, wondering if he’d ever met Sylvia. But he had this simple, old poker face that portrayed nothing except a mild satisfaction with the mixed drink he was sipping.
“just some girls I met.”
“hmm. Latinas, si?”
“yeah, they’re Latinas.”
I turned towards him again and he sucked the rest of the drink out of his glass and slowly rose from the stool. After checking his pockets to make sure he had everything he’d come with, he bent his head and said very softly, “joo be careful, Yack. Muy cuidado.”
With that cold warning he reached out his hand, shook mine and headed towards the door. As soon as he was outside I began to kick myself for not asking what he meant by, “be careful.” Or rather, who to be careful of. Did he know?
“yeah?” asked the same bartender who’d served me earlier, still completely disinterested.
“I’ll have another round. The three Bacardi Cokes and a Bud draft.”
He mixed up the drinks and then poured a draft, leaving nearly two inches of head on top. The bastard.
“I know,” I said, sneering at the beer. I gave him two twenties and when he gave me my change I left a dollar and walked away. Fuck him.
I brought the drinks back to the table and sat down.
“thank you,” they all chirped.
There was this DJ setting up his equipment in one of the dark corners of the bar.
“so,” I said, looking at Sylvia. “do you girls dance? Bailar?”
She flashed her eyes and smiled this great big smile. “of course. And you?”
“yeah,” I said, snorting. “sure.”
I really couldn’t dance unless I’d had a lot to drink, and then I couldn’t really dance either, just thought I could.
“well, kinda. You’ll have to teach me some moves.”
Sylvia seemed to welcome my pathetic advances and that made me pretty happy. I kept sneaking glances at the line of dark skin below her shirt, hoping I’d soon be seeing more of it.
I took it easy on that second beer, wanting anything but to buy another round for all three of them. Soon the DJ had set up all his stuff and the music started. In a bold move which I’d never made before, I asked Sylvia to come out onto the empty dance floor to dance with me. I’d taken on this kamakazi mindset about the night, like it was the last one I’d ever have. After enough drinks, that’s how I usually felt about every night.
Once the DJ began to play the music I looked over to Sylvia and gave her the nod.
“we finish our drinks, first?”
“yeah, yeah. Sure.”
She took her time with her drink and I began to wonder whether she was stalling of if she was just a real slow drinker. Some girls are.
I listened to them speak and tried to pick out words and phrases.
“okay, Jack. We dance?”
She led me out onto the dance floor, showing no signs of self consciousness. I wished I’d had a few more drinks, but at the same time I knew that of the two of us, anybody watching would be looking at her rather than me.
Some sort of contemporary salsa club music came on and she began moving in this terribly sexy way. I immediately regretted suggesting that we dance because next to her I had nothing.
“okay, can you show me some moves?”
She smiled and kept dancing, probably not having heard what I said. Then she took one of my hands and began to kinda guide me along and it felt nice to be touching her hand.
Nobody else came out onto the dance floor until the second song began but I didn’t mind because I was just looking at Sylvia’s handsome face and sneaking peeks at that line of dark skin. She was very good at guiding me through little shuffles and hip moves and halfway through the second song I said to myself, “shit, I’m not half bad.”
When the third song began a few other couples came out onto the floor and as soon as that happened more and more jumped in and suddenly we were having to be careful of knocking into other people.
“you are not bad dancer,” she said, leaning her head back and in towards my ear.
“tsss,” I said. “it’s because you’re a good teacher.”
“no, no. You are very relaxed.”
I laughed because it wasn’t true but decided I’d go with it.
“well, it’s relaxing being around you.”
“aw,” she said, patting my shoulder.
We took a break after that song. Her friends were talking to two guys who’d bought them drinks so I turned to Sylvia and said, “another Bacardi and Coke?”
She hesitated for a moment, deliberating whether she should have a third.
“I’m not a big drinker, Jack.”
“okay, but I’m gonna go get another beer.”
I left her at the table and strutted off towards the bar, hoping that no other guy moved in on her. I wasn’t looking forward to going through the process of ordering another beer but the place had picked up and the bar was full and the bartenders had adjusted their speed accordingly. I went around the bar to where the other bartender was working and ordered a draft. He poured it quickly and poured it well and I paid him and left him a buck.
Back at the table Sylvia was listening to one of the guys who was telling some story about a big fish he’d caught earlier that day with his buddy. I felt like whispering into his ear, “dude, these chicks don’t care about your fuckin’ fish. Scram!”
But instead I slurped down my beer and looked forward to hitting the dance floor again.
Although it was nice not being the center of attention anymore, it was much harder to dance when we returned to the floor. There were tons of people moving around, either dancing or just walking in circles and squeezing between the dancers.
“Sylvia,” I said, in between songs. “I really like dancing with you.”
“well, thank you. I like dancing with you, too.”
I hesitated for a moment and then thought fuck it and said, “maybe we could go out sometime, the two of us, get a drink or some dinner?”
“aw, I’d like that.”
My body surged with this electric happiness and a big smile came onto my face.
“all right!” I said, laughing.
And then suddenly I was relaxed. I was probably the happiest guy out there on that dance floor, maybe even the happiest guy in the bar.
But the happiness didn’t last more than one more song because as she was slowly turning us in a circle I looked away from her pretty face towards the door and noticed Jose at the entrance. The bouncer was checking his ID.
A small part of me maintained the hope that this wasn’t the same Sylvia but deep down I was sure it was. I considered my options. I could quickly make up some reason to have to leave and then hope for luck on the date. Or I could go up to him and have it out right there.
I decided on neither, instead just ignoring him. I wanted to see how Syvlia would react so I held onto her and kept dancing away, while carefully watching her eyes to see if I could notice when she saw him.
“oh!” she said, her grip tightening on my hands. “oh, no.”
She kept staring at him for a few moments, not acknowledging anything I said.
“this, this will not be good.”
She’d stopped leading us around so that she could keep her eye on Jose. I turned my head to get a glimpse and right when I did he looked over. At first his face portrayed absolute shock and then I could see rage growing in his eyes. I turned away.
“Sylvia, what’s wrong?”
Her dark eyes settled on me and she said, “it’s my ex boyfriend. He’s, he’s crazy.”
When she looked back I saw her eyes dart around to find him again and then they became wide with terror. I turned to look behind me but before I could I felt a fist land hard on the side of my face.
“awww!” I yelled, falling against Sylvia and taking us both down.
“ay,” she screamed, hitting the concrete floor.
I looked up. Jose was standing there glaring down at me, snapping glances at Sylvia but mainly keeping his eyes on me. His nose and mouth were all mashed up like he’d just smelled the worst smell in the world. He was speechless with rage.
Sylvia shouted something to him in Spanish, something so fast and vicious that I couldn’t catch it. The two of them exchanged these terrible looks. I thought for a moment about what to do. I had to get up and fight back, but I had to help Sylvia up, too. In a moment I decided on neither. Instead I just turned to her and grabbed her face and jammed my tongue into her mouth. I had no idea what the hell I was doing and neither did she, but she reciprocated and as we began to make out. I was having a hard time really enjoying it at first because I was waiting to feel Jose’s foot slam my head. But it didn’t.
Instead, the strangest thing happened. We kissed harder and harder and then she rolled over onto me and I leaned back and we just had this great kiss that lasted nearly a minute. When I opened my eyes and saw Jose, still standing over us, socking his fists and screaming, “SYLVIA!!”
She didn’t turn to look at him and didn’t even let up kissing me. God, she had these wonderful lips.
“Yack!” Jose screamed, taking a step towards us. “I fucking keel you!”
Immediately a few guys in the crowd grabbed him and held him back and then two bouncers showed up and began to drag him out as he swung his fists and cursed at me.
After another minute I helped Sylvia up and her friends, who’d just now realized what had happened, came up to her and held her and asked if she was all right.
We returned to the table and I ordered a whiskey and water and Sylvia said she’d go for anther Bacardi and Coke. There was a pleasant silence for a few minutes before everyone began asking questions about the whole ordeal which Sylvia shrugged off like it wasn’t that big of a deal. She really could play it cool.
I was wondering if she would bring up the fact that Jose had yelled my name, and therefore obviously knew me, but she never did. We just drank our drinks and left that bar and after giving her a ride home and arranging to go on a date the following Tuesday, I said to her, “I can’t wait.”
My face hurt a bit but it didn’t bother me much that Jose had decked me. Maybe it was deserved. Besides, that was reason enough to not show up at work on Monday, or Tuesday, or ever again for that painting job.