The Midwest |

The Narcissist's Dilemma

by Robert James Russell

Six PM. Thursday night. Jack’s Café Bar. Usually called Jack’s. Sometimes The Jack. College crowd hasn’t come yet, which is fine. There’s a special on pitchers of beer that ends in an hour, so I’d think it would be slamming in here, but finals are going on right now, so I assume they’re all studying, hiding. Worrying. Doing things that those titans of genius do at about this time. I’m tired, really tired, popped in for a drink. My bar of choice, when I’m in town. Showing some prints at a gallery nearby called Urban Slum, the sort of pretentious gallery name that you’d expect to find in the junkyards that are most college towns, lecherous and bloated with scrap heaps of coeds. Too pontiferous for their own good. I’m quite bored, and I have no idea why I brought my notebook in here, why I thought that would be a good idea at all. Take a drink of my vodka tonic and it feels cool, deliberate, so I finish it. I look around and my head feels numb, buzzed, not drunk. I have a body-buzz, actually. Feet going numb, fingers nearly there. Hands to follow shortly. Empire of the Sun’s “Walking On A Dream” starts playing, which is great, because I figure it won’t be long before this indie music is replaced by wailing Eighties tunes drowned out by drunk buffoons, which I’m not looking forward to. Listen: “We are always running / For the Thrill of it, thrill of it / Always pushing up the hill / Searching for the Thrill of it.” I try to stay up-to-date on the music that college kids listen to, if nothing else so I can identify with them, seeing as I’m often showing my work on or near college campuses. I actually follow quite a few music blogs and I often buy Rolling Stone or Spin or Q. Empire of the Sun is an electronic duo hailing from Australia, although I forget which part, probably Sydney, and the song “Walking On A Dream,” from their first EP, has been a fairly successful hit, even in America, with its danceable beats and glam-rock vibe. I’m at a high-top by the bar and I can see pretty much the whole place, which is great, my lofty perch, because I really don’t necessarily like being here, but I enjoy, quite enjoy, in fact, leering around, studying the people in the dim light, and I imagine what I must look like sitting here, my features obscured by the shaded fixture hanging above me, my devilish smile outlined in the lamplight. It would make a great shot, but I’m not one of those egocentric photographers who puts themselves in their own work, so I quickly try to forget that the idea entered my brain. I drink again and see a college boy across the room with three frat-like buddies all sharing a pitcher. They laugh and playfully hit one another and are all wearing baseball caps with logos for teams from Detroit to San Diego, a hodge-podge of affiliations. They drink and talk, look around the bar for girls, drink again. I see one of them wave to the waitress, a cute girl who smiles back then comes toward me. I clench my jaw, if nothing else to show her that I have passed on to manhood and am no longer one of the university rabble thumbing cheesy compliments in her direction. A man with purpose, some might say. She comes, taking tiny steps, her hair in a pony tail and her shirt tight on her torso, looking at the ground as she shuffles, meeting my eyes only at the last possible minute. She stops in front of my table and sees the notebook and I cover it with my hands instinctively as if I’m protecting a child. “Are you a writer?” she says. “I’m a photographer,” I say drinking. “Really?” “Yup.” “Are you…famous?” “Depends on your definition of famous, doesn’t it?” “Oh, uh…I guess.” “I have a following, yes,” I say trying not to sound smug, which is hard when you say something like that, even if it’s true. “Nice. So do you, like, have a camera with you everywhere you go?” “I prefer shooting city scenes. Burned out houses and buildings, dilapidated structures, that sort of thing. There’s a lot of those in Michigan, so yeah, short answer, I do. Never know where you’re going to end up.” “Yeah, good point. You could be just driving to the store, or whatever, and find something totally amazing, then you’re like, ‘Damn, I forgot my camera!’ That would suck, right? I bet it’s happened before, huh?” “Not often, no,” I say matter-of-factly because I’ve learned that the main difference between men and boys is the amount of bullshit they spew. Women her age, probably twenty, maybe twenty-one, appreciate frankness like this. “Well, that’s good. It would suck to miss like the best shot of your life.” “Ah, see, now you’re getting into philosophical territory. There is no best shot, is there? Anything can be a best shot, depending on light, and mood, the situation at hand, on the contrast of the scene, on…well, depending on a great deal of things. Implying there’s a best shot would mean there are no further shots to be had, and there’d be no point in me doing what I do, which is a thought so depressing I can hardly stand it.” I pop an ice cube in my mouth, watching her look around the bar. “Oh, okay. Yeah,” she says playing with her apron, then a strand of hair. “I’m showing some prints at Urban Slum, down the street. You should come by and check them out. They’ll be up until tomorrow.” “Oh, uh…what’s the place?” she says looking at me again. “I haven’t heard of it.” “Urban Slum. It’s like a block away, on Collins.” “Collins Street?” “Um…yes. Do you know Collins Street? I mean, you do go to college here, don’t you?” I say, laughing, joking, clearly trying to lighten the tension between us. “I’m just teasing.” “Well, yeah, I just get confused sometimes, you know? I’ve never heard of that gallery before. That’s why.” “It’s not bad, as far as small-ish college towns go. They do a good job with lighting, actually.” “Did you go to school here?” “Nope. I’m self-taught, actually.” “Oh, well, you seem real smart.” “Well, thank you, m’dear.” I run my hands across the tabletop in a flirty manner. “I’m assuming you go to school here? Yes?” “Yeah.” “What’s your major, if you don’t mind me asking?” “Uh…communications,” she says like it has no meaning to her, just a word. “Ah, communications,” I say, cracking my knuckles. “You could go a variety of routes with that degree, huh?” “Yeah.” “Any ideas which direction you’re leaning toward?” “Not really,” she says biting her lip, looking at me then around the room and back to me. “I kinda just want to graduate and get out of here, you know? Maybe move to New York or something.” “Ah. What a great city. I live in Chicago, myself, but I go to New York often on business. You’d love it.” I smile, waiting. It looks like she might say something, but doesn’t. A pause settles between us so I take the opportunity and sit up straight from my slouched position so she can get a real good look at me, at my outfit: brown corduroy blazer, white Oxford shirt, dark straight leg jeans and brown boots. Nerd-type glasses, black frames. I see how she could mistake me for a professor, although I think I have too much gravitas for that. “How long have you been doing it…taking pictures?” she says finally and I see her check me out fairly obviously. “In some form my whole life, but professionally…for about ten years. Do you like photography?” I say leaning back again, comfortable, swirling the ice in my glass in a way that suggests I’m a relaxed and casual man that’s down for listening to a woman talk, rather than just talking myself. I remember that I think she’s cute, this waitress, so I say, “What’s your name?” “Oh, I’m Sarah,” she says, fumbling the words, then, “Are you going to want another drink?” “In a bit, yeah. I’m Paul.” “Nice to meet you,” she says looking around. “I have to check on my other tables, but let me know if you need anything.” She takes off, bolting, looking back twice as she beelines for the booth where the frat-type guys are sitting, one of them excitedly cheering as she approaches, his arms thrown in the air in mock-salute. It seems they have some sort of rapport, but I’m not worried. I watch her ass as she walks away, then, as if someone in here would actually know me, or know Kate, a wave of guilt rises in me and I look around the room at the beady eyes of the debauched youth permeating the place, looking for familiar faces but finding none. Safe again. I look up again and catch the waitress’s ass as she leaves the booth and heads for the bar, her legs short but lean and fitting for her small frame, and she begins flirting with the bartender, a muscled kid in a polo shirt one size too small. She crosses her legs, taps his arms, he finds reasons to flex, and she laughs. I catch her say something which causes him to look over at me out of the corner of his eyes and she smacks him playfully as if to say “Not so obvious, pal,” all the while I’m just sitting here, sans drink, hoping she’s a freak deep down. One of my closest friends, Jeff, he’s always saying, as cliché as it sounds, that it doesn’t matter, cheating, until you’re actually married. I don’t know if I buy into it, but people, being what they are, well…I guess it’s more forgivable before marriage, no matter how technical we’re getting here. I mean, cheating is deplorable, I know that, we all know that, but it’s something we think is saved for the perverts of society, the un-savable wretches who can’t just grow up and come to terms with adulthood. I don’t believe it’s that black and white. Can’t be. I look at my empty glass and smirk to myself as I look over the bar again. I see a guy and a girl enter, looking nervous and awkward. A first date, maybe. She’s plain, doughy, he’s decent-looking, both look a bit too hipster for my taste. They sit in a booth, looking around, then finally at each other. I assume they’ll drink beer, flirt, go back to his place and have awkward sex, maybe date for a while, then break up. I wonder if she’d think I was cute, if I walked by at just the right moment, give her a knowing wink. I wonder. The frat guys wake me out of my stupor, cheering loudly at a joke, I think, then I see Sarah come back toward me, drink in hand. “Here you go,” she says setting it down and turning to leave. “Thanks,” I say, trying to get her attention. “Just in time, right?” She stops, turns, looks at me curiously. “Huh?” “No, nothing, just…you brought it right in time, right? Just finished the other one.” “Oh…yeah,” she says looking behind her, toward the bar, then back at me sheepishly. “Okay, well, just let me know if you need anything else or something.” “Sure,” I say, and she’s off again, back to the bar, to the bartender, his muscles. I’m smiling, drinking my new drink, cold and refreshing, watching everything. Studying it all, this scene. Then I see this guy come in the entrance, looking right at me. Then past me, back at me, like he knows me, like he’s got something to say. Figure maybe I’ve met him before, maybe he was at the gallery today. The gallery owners, two lesbians whom I know quite well, put on this little soirée with champagne and wine and some hors d'oeuvres, so perhaps he was there, although he doesn’t look familiar. But then again, I didn’t meet everyone who showed up, so who knows. He’s tall, broad, dark with foreign-looking features, and has at least three day’s worth of stubble. He’s wearing a brown striped Penguin polo shirt and some dark slim-type jeans, black boots, and he’s walking through the bar with bravado, with confidence. Clearly, he’s not one of these measly coeds. Can’t be. And as he grows nearer, a pang of panic washes over me, like I should know this man from somewhere, this hulking figure parting through the throngs of beer-soaked twenty-somethings. My heart races and I drink and look at him out of the corner of my eyes and imagine a tapestry of scenarios where he and I make small talk, on how he’s seen my work and must hire me for his special project. On how he’s going to make everything alright. On how, with him as my backer, I’ll finally be able to make it happen the way I always knew it would, the way I told everyone it would, because it has to. And with him helping me like that, me and him versus the world, all those people who said no to me, they’ll want me now, but I’ll look past them, tell them it’s too late, that they missed their chance, and they’ll watch me as I rocket to the top, leaving them all behind staring at the smoldering ruins of what used to be. And I continue, watching him, drinking, smirking in his direction, sitting up straight with my chest puffed out, then, suddenly, he stops at the bar, scans the room and makes eye contact with me again. I feel my heart beat out of control, an almost rhythmic thumping, the drink cold in my hand, stinging, and then, just as I feel like I should wave him over, introduce myself and take some sort of high-ground approach, the waitress, Sarah, runs to him from seemingly out of nowhere and wraps her tiny arms around his thick neck, kissing him. Hugging him. They laugh, she introduces him to the bartender, and they laugh some more. I slouch again and take a big drink and now it tastes sour, bitter. I pull out my phone and see if I have any missed text messages, which I don’t, so I text Kate I LOVE YOU <3 <3. I feel good, and even though Sarah and I did have something going on, albeit briefly, whatever you want to call it, what I have with Kate is far too good to throw away. I imagine her at home, missing me, sitting on the couch with a book, head tilted back, her hair, her blonde, perfect hair fanned out over the couch cushions, daydreaming about me. Us daydreaming about each other at the exact same moment. It makes me smile. I finish my drink in two large gulps and, realizing I have to go to the bathroom, I stand, stretching. I leave my coat on the chair and my notebook’s still on the table and I think, briefly, about taking it with me, but decide against it, at what it might look like, a guy like me bringing a notebook into the bathroom at a place like this, lugging it across the bar like some asshole. I don’t want people to get the wrong idea of who I am. I walk past Sarah and her beau who are still hugging and touching and into the adjoining room which is starting to fill up with students, pitchers of cheap beer dotting every table, shot glasses clanking down on the tables in intervals, almost melodic. I smile at a table of average-looking girls, one of whom smiles back at me as I pass, then I catch a guy at a table of dudes look up at me, like he might know me, then quickly back at the table, back to their dejected conversation, whatever it may be. There’s a Circus Voltaire pinball machine in the corner and a change machine next to it. To my right there’s a little inset area with some dartboards set up, a pair of fratty-looking guys playing Cricket and high-fiving whenever they can. They look at me then away. I enter the little wood-paneled nook in the corner where the bathroom is, tattered posters of various city-wide events from the past decade hung on the wall in mismatched frames, and I turn and make a final sweep of the room before I enter the bathroom. I see the students, see remnants of their lives on their faces, their various miseries and day-to-day shortcomings, and I suddenly think I must look very out of place, a guy like me in a place like this.