Ten years ago I was still under the delusion I was a fiction writer and I was working on a short story that would eventually be titled "We Vanish Like Breath." It was about a successful young investment broker whose life comes apart for no apparent reason. The story opens with the broker dead, a suicide, and it's told by a friend of his, another broker from his firm, who's trying to figure out what happened. I have no idea why I thought I had any business writing about this world. It was a period piece even then. Cigar bars, AOL chat rooms, no housing bubble, just scads of money wafting through the air and adhering to anyone smart enough to go stand out in the right breeze. It's the tail end of the Clinton boom years but the characters' attitudes seem more out of the Reagan era to me. Or they did, until we started hearing about what's been going on in the banks.
The story's not about money or business though. It's about what too many of my stories seem to be about. Guilt and unhappy sex. On this date in history, then, I wrote this in my notebook:
The bar where we all usually met after work is called Bumpers. It’s down near the Waterfront, in a new building that’s one floor of storefronts and three floors of parking garage. The name derives from the billiard tables—Billiards, not pool. Three balls, no pockets.—in the back room, but it’s attached itself to the fat Victorian gentleman in gaiters leering drunkenly from the menus and the sign out front, and it’s been adopted as a signature by the waitresses, who make their way through the crowds by bumping customers out of their path with their hips. So picture it. The back room at Bumpers. All dark mahogany and red leather, backlit stained glass panels in the false walls, the figures in the glass boars’ heads and rampant stags, castle turrets and unicorns, blushing bar maids with deep cleavages and winking Robin Hoods. Drinks served by flirtatious cocktail waitresses in gauzy blouses unbuttoned to the middles of their chests and skirts slit up to the hip so that they can reach the holsters attached to their garters and draw cigars, lighters, and clippers on command. And there we are, commanding. Apprentice masters and mistresses of the universe, all of us making obscene amounts of money but nothing compared to what we expect to make by the time we hit thirty when we’ll all be worth a unit a year at least, celebrating the great good luck of having been born us. If we live in a knowledge-based economy now, like the President says, then we must be the most knowledgeable bastards on the face of the planet.
And smack dab in the center of our center of the universe, Holly, nine dollar Naturale uptilted in her teeth, hand outstretched to the admirer bringing her her third chocolate martini, surrounded by men, seven or eight of us, smoking, getting drunk, and vying for her attention.
Maybe there’s another woman at her elbow, a lady in waiting, either trying to be a good sport or doing some competitive flirting. Any other women who show up keep their distance. They stake out other booths off to the side or take over the nearest billiard table, chalking up their cue sticks and lining up shots with pretended indifference but all the while sneaking these sidelong glances full of envy or disgust. The men around Holly are presenting masks of every emotion guys can wear around a woman they’re crazy in lust with. This guy’s pining, this one’s jealous. This guy’s a poet, this guy’s a comedian, and this guy is so tongue-tied and stupid he can’t remember his own name when she looks at him. Here’s Lechery. Here’s Anger. Here’s Embarrassment, Humiliation, and Pride. On any given night I am any one or all of these. And Danny?
Danny’s there. At the table, but at the far end, sideways in his chair, legs thrown out in front of him, holding his Don Diego in his right hand, his elbow propped on the back of his chair, wearing never another expression but that of a guy who’s enjoying a good cigar.
If Holly’s doing anything interesting, if she’s worth a tenth of the attention the rest of us are giving her, you’d never know it by him. For months this goes on. Holly calls her court together, Danny withdraws to his own private estate at the far edge of the kingdom. The only way I know that he even noticed her is that once on our way out of there he complained about her smoking technique.
“She overheats it, puffing all the time like a steam engine, and she chews it to bits. And you see the way she twirls it between her fingers? We’ve all got these nice clean hands these days, we wash our hands half a dozen times a day. All that soap leaves residue. When she twirls her cigar like that she smears soap all over the wrapper, just destroys it. What are you laughing at? You do the same thing.”
She noticed him though. His indifference mainly. At first it made her dislike him. “What’s with Mr. Smug over there?” she kept wanting to know. Then it became her mission to make him notice her back. A lot of the stories she told were for his benefit. She told them to make him pay attention, even if it was only to sneer. She pretended to be trying to annoy him, acted as if everything she said was in defiance of Danny, but at the end of another one of her stories she’d look down the table and see Danny standing up, asking if anyone wanted a drink, he was going to the bar, as pleasant and friendly and as inclusive of her and as condescending as if she was somebody’s kid sister who had just told us all about the pep rally at her junior high school. Drove her insane. “Asshole,” she’d say, before his back was turned. “Creep.” Whenever he wasn’t looking she made faces at him and gave him the finger. Strange way to flirt. Both of them.---from "We Vanish Like Breath," a short story by Lance Mannion. Copyright 2009.