When Elvis-Not-Elvis orders a drink, he always orders a gin & tonic, unless it’s wine; in that case, it’s always a dry red wine. When Baby Girl and Elvis-Not-Elvis went into a restaurant around the corner from his job, he ordered a drink as soon as the waiter gave them menus. Baby Girl wasn’t sure what to think, although she felt like she should think it was weird. But she didn’t—or didn’t want to.
“So, you do actually believe in the abyss?” Elvis-Not-Elvis asked abruptly.
“Yes, I do. Aren’t we in it now?” Baby Girl smiled.
“Maybe. Yes. No. I don’t think so. I think life is generally super awesome, honestly. Although I do think about killing myself every day,” he said, then added, “But you know what I mean. You feel it, I’m sure.”
“I do. I know.”
“So, what’s your deal? What do you do? Where are you from? I bet you’ve listened to The Cure since you were like 12 or something, right?” Elvis-Not-Elvis asked, sipping on his gin & tonic without raising the glass to his face, instead lowering his head to the straw.
“Um, yeah, you totally have me pegged. I wish I could say I was joking. I’m from Brooklyn, grew up in Bay Ridge. I’m a gallery assistant, my boss is OK, mostly chill, though drinks a little too much, honestly. That’s kind of it. I feel like a cliché.”
“So, do you make your own art? Or are you just busy selling other people’s?” His question caught her off-guard—she could feel her face burn, a sun melted into her skin—and she had to blink back tears, pretending to look out to the street, as if she was actually watching cars and people pass by. As if she could just pass by him and his remark.
He sipped his drink and fingered the straw, furrowing his brows as if he realized he made a mistake. He looked up at her and saw her eyes dart away, saw her become small in her seat.
“I do. I guess you could say I’m a photographer and painter. I mean, I went to school for it,” Baby Girl said breathlessly, “I’ve had my work shown in some small gallery shows. Not for a while though.” She looked down as she said this, not meeting his eyes, which she had noticed were neither brown nor green, but more like a golden green — the kind of green like a rusted statue.
“That counts. You don’t need validation to be an artist. It doesn’t matter. It just matters what you do… You know I wasn’t being critical, I was just asking. I’d be curious to see your stuff.”
“No, it’s fine. More people should be as blunt, honestly. It wakes you up. At least, it did me. What do you do, besides work at a restaurant?” Baby Girl asked, feeling less like she was giving a presentation in front of her high school English class. He suddenly seemed boyish, unsure of himself—he brushed his hair back, the curls still bouncing back, covering his eyes.
“I’m in a band, you know, like everyone else.”
“Oh, what kind of band? What do you play?”
“I’m playing a show on Friday. Come to it and found out for yourself,” he said, coyly, indifferently taking out a pack of American Spirits. Their food appeared quickly out of nowhere, as if their waiter was a ghost—and Baby Girl didn’t remember ordering anything, only studying Elvis-Not-Elvis’ deep lines in his forehead, the tattoos that made up a sleeve on his left arm, the purple paisley shirt with his sleeves rolled up, his slightly-too-worn Doc Martens.
They ate in silence for a few minutes. Baby Girl would occasionally look up to see him busily dip his fries into the ketchup-mustard mixture he created, and she would take tiny bites of her mac and cheese, not sure she was even hungry, already planning to take most of it home later to eat ravenously on her bed alone.
Her phone vibrated—BJ texting her asking her where she was, if she was still coming, if she wanted to get a drink after. She didn’t know what to say, so she didn’t say anything at all.
“I feel bad, my friend whose art show I’m skipping just texted me,” Baby Girl said, surprised she was admitting to being a flake.
“So, fuck ‘em. How many of their shows have you been to?” Elvis-Not-Elvis asked, looking straight into her eyes, as if he knew she never flaked, as if he knew she needed to be more selfish sometimes. As if he knew.
“Too many, I guess,” she laughed, “but I still feel kind of bad. I hate being that friend.”
“It’s OK to be that friend sometimes, you know. Especially when you get dinner with strangers.” He was smiling. She knew he was right. She didn’t even need to say anything after that. For a while they sat in silence, until Elvis-Not-Elvis went over to the digital jukebox and put on The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” and they listened to the song together, occasionally smiling and nodding their head, until it stopped and he leaned off and asked if she wanted to go.
And so they did. They left together as if they had known each other all their lives, as if they had all of their lives left.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Sirs & Madams, The Gods Are Dead, Marys of the Sea, Sexting Ghosts, Xenos, No(body) (forthcoming, Madhouse Press, 2019), and is the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault. They received their MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is the founder of Yes Poetry and the senior managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Them, Brooklyn Magazine, BUST, and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets. joannavalente.com / Twitter: @joannasaid / IG: joannacvalente / FB: joannacvalente