FROM THE DESK OF: Deo
Dan perused through thousands of bottles inside Astor Wines & Spirits, a shop near the East Village. It was late August in New York, and he wanted to pick up a bottle of Chianti on his way to a dinner party out in Bushwick. In the back, a girl wearing a black apron and hat served samples of alcohol in tiny plastic cups.
“Care to try?”
“What is it?”
“It’s a shot of organic root,” she says. “It’s made from birch bark, black tea, and sugarcanes.”
“It was popular during colonial times, but during the prohibition era, they were forced to take out the alcohol—so from there it turned into root beer. Except this one is eighty percent alcohol.”
He took a sip and the sweetness instantly got to him. The girl had just moved to New York from Los Angeles and asked where he was from. He drank another sample and told her he was from San Diego—a fellow Californian. She was laid back and her smile was adventurous. He liked to imagine he was the same way—that it was a trait all southern Californians have.
She continued to talk, but her words had faded and only her soothing voice remained. The second sample made his head spin, so he thanked her and headed to the register to pay for the Chianti.
Outside, it was dusk and the streets were wet, punctuated by scattered thunderstorms. New York, which was unbearable during July, was almost perfect now. Those humid days that caused his clothes to be soaked in sweat had been replaced with dry, warm breezes that made his shirts wave like a flag in the wind.
The sun finally dipped below the Hudson River when he made his way towards Union Square to catch the L-Train. The sky was dark now, but the city had lit up. Red and white streaks of light from cars and taxis hung suspended in the air as he crossed the streets, dodging traffic to get to the subway.
There were only a few sources of light when he stepped out of the Morgan Avenue station: a lamppost at the end of the block, a bulb from the side of a nondescript factory, a few windows lit sporadically. A couple of hipsters wearing boots, denim shorts, and leather jackets were walking and laughing. Bushwick felt completely foreign from the East Village. He looked up and could almost see the stars.
Emma lived on the third floor of a four-story studio apartment building. Dan gave her a call when he arrived at her door.
“Come up dear,” she says.
Emma was from Paris and Dan loved her accent. They met while in graduate school two years earlier. They first bonded over escaping to the beach during the thick of winter, then, later that semester, they realized they both loved the same books.
Dan entered the loft to the smell of chopped onions, garlic, and something boiling. Emma’s place was spacious with a high ceiling and hardwood floors. The bed was on the left and the kitchen on the right. In the middle of the room was furniture made out of wood and a coffee table with magazines dedicated to fashion, art, and literature, neatly spread out. Next to the entrance door was a colorful bike.
“This is my brother Eric, and this is his wife, Anne-Sophie.” They were in town from Paris and had just flown in the week before. Ann-Sophie went back to her cooking—an authentic French meal, Dan thought to himself.
Dan offered his hand and shook theirs and they smiled softly. He took a turn around the room. He liked to observe tiny details of his friend’s places—the books on their shelves, the kind of plates they had, the pictures displayed on their walls. He liked to piece together peoples personalities based on their space. He looked at the fridge and found a picture of Emma under a small magnet.
“Is that Audrey Tautou?” Dan asked.
Emma laughed and hit Dan. She had heard this before, from many people—that she looked exactly like Amelie. It didn’t help that she was French.
They were waiting for one more person. In the meantime, they opened the bottle of Chianti. It was dry and tannic.
Eric and Ann-Sophie found it easier to visit Emma now that she was living in New York. Emma had lived in Beijing for eight years before moving to New York, working as an art dealer. Eric and Anne-Sophie lived on the 4th arrondissement of Paris, right near the Notre Dame. Their apartment overlooked the Seine.
Eric told Dan all of this haltingly, as if he had to translate in his head before saying it out loud. Anne-Sophie was still cooking.
The door rang and they were all introduced to Emma’s friend, Dillon. He was an artist, but a muscular one and into hockey. Within a few minutes, he was already comfortable, sprawled on the couch with his feet on the coffee table. Emma put plates and utensils on the kitchen table and called everyone to sit down and eat.
“We had to have dinner while Anne-Sophie is here—she’s an amazing cook!” says Emma.
The chicken and rice were done, and Anne-Sophie started serving each plate.
“What is this and how did you make it?” Dan asked.
Emma translated for Anne-Sophie, who only spoke French. “It’s chicken bouillon.”
“The secret is to first wash the chicken in lemon and vinegar. Then, you put in the onions and the chicken, then add the cubes and let it cook for twenty minutes. After that, you add mushrooms and heavy cream and some white wine.”
Dan mopped up all the sauce with the chicken on his fork and ate it with rice, then washed it down with the white wine that had just been opened. Anne-Sophie was glad they were having seconds.
“Where is a good place to eat food in New York?” Eric asked.
“Well that depends on what you like. For dessert, there’s this place I go to in Williamsburg called ‘Fabians’. It has the best mousse cake I’ve ever had,” said Dillon.
“You can also get an authentic New York cheesecake,” Dan added.
“Yes, I love cupcakes,” Emma responds.
“No, I mean cheesecakes. It’s a cake made out of cheese.”
“Yes, I love cupcakes. Especially velvet.”
“Yeah, but I’m talking about cheesecakes.”
“Yes, cupcakes. Velvet is so good, dear.”
“Yeah, but I’m talking about cheesecakes here.”
Dan couldn’t keep his face straight. After a pause, they all burst out in laughter.
“So… Is New York similar to Paris?” Dan asked them all.
“It’s different in New York. Everyone is in such a rush. They all want to give an appearance of being successful,” says Emma.
“In what ways?”
“Well for example, you can tell just by their fashion. Everybody dresses really well here. Better than Parisians.”
“You’re saying that New Yorkers dress better than Parisians? I’m not sure I believe that.”
“No, it’s true dear. The Parisian style is to be very understated.”
Dan was a little confused, so Emma explained further.
“The clothes reflect the differences in culture. For example, in Paris, my friend Marie always wears one thing in her outfit that is stunning. Whenever I see her, she has one item that stands out—like a beautiful shirt, a bag, a pretty necklace, earrings, or something. That’s the Parisian style. But for New Yorkers, every part of their outfit stands out. They throw on the best of everything all at once. In Paris, there is an appearance that you didn’t try too hard. Slowly, you get to know somebody, day by day, by that one item they’ve worn. It takes time and investment to get to know somebody because their style is so subtle. It’s understated.”
“That’s beautiful. New York fashion is better than that?”
“In my opinion yes. Walking the streets here is like a fashion show. You see their whole personality right away. It’s exciting.”
After dinner, they continued drinking wine and talked about horoscopes or some other mystical things. Dan didn’t pay attention because he hated that stuff and decided to look through Emma’s bookshelf. He found Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero. It was a book that he had lent her although he hadn’t read it yet.
“You can have it back, dear. It was so good, but so sad.”
Dillon sat on the couch and showed everyone one of his paintings featured inside one of Emma’s art magazines. It was an abstract expressionist piece, you know, lots of splashes and different colored inks, but made to look like an impressionist landscape. Dan had never seen anything like it.
Dan wanted to know more about Dillon’s art, but Dillon just wanted to talk about horoscopes. Sensing Dan’s disengagement on the topic, Dillon apologized.
It was almost midnight when Emma suggested that they go to a bar a few blocks down called Duckduck. Eric and Anne-Sophie were jet-lagged and decided they needed to stay in and sleep; they had a whole day of sight seeing ahead of them.
Emma and Dillon headed out, followed by Dan who had placed Less Than Zero in his back pocket.
Inside the bar, the lights were dim and plentiful, with plastic toy ducks everywhere. Dillon was talking about the moon now. Dan could not believe Dillon was still talking about hippie horoscope stuff. He knew it would continue on like this, so he decided to join in and entertain himself.
“So Dillon, I’m a Gemini, can you tell me about myself?”
“Well, since you’re a Gemini and a guy, I can already tell there many sides to you. You have many different interests and personality types.
Dan nodded respectfully, reserved in knowing that could pretty much describe anybody. That’s what he hated about horoscopes—they were so broad and universal, you couldn’t go wrong. Dillon continued.
“There are many types of Gemini, it’s not just the month you’re born in, but the day, the time, the year.”
“I’ll tell you what, I’m going to do a reading on you so you’ll fully understand.”
Great, Dan thought. He’ll probably say I like to eat and drink water. Maybe he can comment on how funny things make me laugh and sad things make me upset. Dan tried to contain himself from smirking.
Dillon reached out his hands towards Dan like Dan was a campfire.
“I see trees, a lot of trees.”
Oh my god, Dan thought. This fucking guy.
“I fucking love trees!” Dan says, almost sarcastically. Then, dialing down his enthusiasm, he added, “Well, yes, I like being around nature. The city can be too much sometimes. Too much stimulation. I want to be somewhere quiet and peaceful every now and then.”
“Emma, I’ll do a reading on you now,” he says.
Emma pulled back, tossing her hair and shaking her head. “Don’t, I’m scared!”
“Okay, I’ll just continue with you.”
Dillon turned back to Dan. “I sense that you have the ability to approach issues lightly, like you don’t care, but I think it affects you more than you let it show.”
That wasn’t bad, let’s keep playing, Dan thought.
“But that’s what I like about him,” Emma says. “We can talk about serious things and he’ll be light about it. It makes me feel comfortable.”
Dillon put his hand out again and continued. “You were seeing someone not long ago, maybe in the last month. It was going well, but she quickly knew that it wouldn’t work, although you really wanted it to. It was fun and you kept trying and trying until you couldn’t try any more.” He paused, “So, what do you think?”
“That wasn’t bad…” Dan replied, knowing Dillon had had him. “But you know, I can’t really take this stuff seriously unless it’s based on science. Like it has to be backed up by empirical or scientific data.”
“People tell me that all the time. My brother says it’s all bullshit, but, you know, the planets do affect us.” His voice grew more excited, “I mean, c’mon, the moon can cause women to have their periods! The tilt of the Earth affects the seasons, and the seasons affect our moods.”
“That’s so fascinating!” says Emma.
“Jupiter’s gravity is so massive that it pulls asteroids and comets that would normally obliterate life on Earth. If it can do that, don’t you think it’s presence can affect us? The positions of the planets matter, and when you were born, all of these things, it all matters.”
“That’s a bit of a stretch.” Dan replied.
“Okay, you want empirical data? So they have this psychological study that shows how physical objects affect your mood and behavior towards people. It’s this study where two groups of people held a cup of coffee while evaluating strangers. One group held a cup of warm coffee while the other held a cup of cold coffee. Guess what? The people holding the warm cup of coffee rated the strangers as having warmer personalities, while the cold coffee group rated strangers as cold. See, physical objects manifests themselves as psychological traits in our psyche.”
“And how does that relate to astrology?” Emma says.
“Well think about it: if small objects such as cups of coffee can do that, just imagine the effect of planetary objects. Just imagine the effect it will have on your personality to be born in June when the weather is hot as opposed to December, when the weather is cold. Having the mood of your surroundings during those first few months, roll over and magnify through years of your life. It’s like when preschoolers start school ahead of their peers, and because of that, they remain ahead of their peers for the rest of their lives. The seasons of the first few months of life, the planetary alignments, will affect the mood, and it carries over to the rest of your life. There are bigger forces at play here.”
“That’s really stretching it, man. I’m talking like, bikram yoga stretching it. I still can’t take this stuff seriously.”
“Okay then, I want you to read me.”
“Read me, like what I just did to you.”
“I’ve never done anything like that. I wouldn’t even know how.”
“Well, try and pick up my energy, then feel the spirit, then tell me what you experience.”
“You’ve got to be shitting me.”
“Just do it, you’ve got nothing to lose.”
Dan paused. Emma tensed up. Neither spoke. The music and chatter from the bar amplified. The air grew thicker. Dan took a long sip of beer.
“This is hard. I don’t know what to say.”
“It can take a while to start.”
“Okay here goes…” Dan paused. He tried to feel the energy. Nothing. Emma held up her hands to her face as if watching a horror movie.
“Okay wait, here goes… You were lost at one point—“
Dan looked up at him, as if to confirm, but Dillon’s face was expressionless. Dan continued.
“You were completely lost. Something was missing in your life. You tried as hard as you could to search for it, whatever it was. It seemed hopeless and you were so close to giving up. But then one day, you discovered something. It was small at first, but it was enough to let you know there was something there.” After a pause, Dan went on, “So you continued to seek it out, getting deeper and deeper, and as you continued on this path, you realized, okay, this is it, this is what I’ve been looking for. This is who I am and I am fully embracing it. And that was enormously comforting.”
Illuminated in the ambiance was the glow of Emma’s skin and the fascination in her eyes. Dillon let’s out a deep sigh, as if he had been holding his breath the entire time.
“I knew there was an awareness about you.” Dillon says. “Everything you said was true, and I like how you didn’t explain fully what it was, like you just knew the feeling was there. At one point, yes, I was very lost. I used to walk the streets in the middle of the night and talk to lampposts and ask ‘what’s the point of all this? What am I doing?’”
Dan wondered if that was authentic or he had just thrown a Hail Mary. Dillon motioned to Dan to keep going. Emma hadn’t moved.
“Okay,” Dan continued, “you have different states of mind, but you strive to control the one that keeps you sane. Like, you don’t let yourself get down to these other states of mind because you know that if you do, you’ll be stuck in it. Like, you’ll be trapped in it and it will take all your effort to get out.”
Dan became dizzy for a moment. He wasn’t sure if he let himself get taken away by the mysticism of it all or that it was the thrill of connecting with another person in that way, but there was something there that he didn’t understand. Dillon asked him to go further.
“I can’t, I’m too drained.”
“What was it like when you were doing it?” Emma asked.
“I don’t know, I can’t really describe it in a technical way. I guess it felt like I was at sea and there was a wave of feeling that came along and I caught that wave and rode it. If that makes sense.”
“This is too much for one night, let’s tell jokes instead.” Emma says.
They all agreed.
“I have a good one,” says Dillon. “One day a Native American boy asked his father why they had such long names. The father answered, ‘Well son, whenever a baby in our tribe is born, the father will go outside and name the baby after the first thing he sees. Why do you ask, Two-Dogs-Fucking?”
Emma let out a deep and infectious laugh. They finished their drinks and walked out and laughed all the way to the subway. Dan shook Dillon’s hand and Emma kissed Dan’s cheek and they all said goodbye.
On the train, Dan pulled out Less Than Zero and started reading the first lines. People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. He put the book down, realizing he was not sober enough to be reading. His eyes became heavy and he leaned his head back. The sounds of the train disappeared, his vision faded, and he fell asleep.
Dan woke up to the sudden halt of the train. It was the last stop and he was in Coney Island. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. The last time, he ended up waiting for an hour because trains ran slow at this time. It was now four in the morning and he had a choice to wait for the next train, knowing it might take another hour, or walk a few miles to get back to his place.
He didn’t want to wait a possible hour, so he decided to get off the platform and walk. Once on the street, he heard the faint sound of the train approaching.
He didn’t mind his bad timing—there was something else that bothered him. For a minute there, he actually believed all of the things Dillon had said earlier. But now that he had some distance, he was sure there were other things to consider. Dillon was good at reading people—facial expressions, emotional states, body language, the way somebody carried themselves, and he probed until he found something true. He was sure now Dillon couldn’t have been psychic.
The black sky lightened into indigo as the night slowly turned to dawn. In the cool dry air, he walked fast, taking long hurried strides, wishing he were in bed. But as he looked up, in this last hour, he longed to see more stars. He imagined the Milky Way streaming silver across the sky. The universe was vast, almost infinite—and in the grand scheme of things, he understood that he knew next to nothing. He let out a deep breath. With his hands in his pockets, he strolled.