My ex-girlfriend, Jaz, is surrounded by cool guys in cooler shoes. My shoes are less cool, disintegrating Vans, and I’m standing over here, in the corner of the Ace Hotel’s basement, starving, wondering how the bartender might taste.
I am obviously not a cannibal, but lately I’ve been thinking about eating people a lot. In client meetings, at the gym, whenever my father calls to talk about my dead sister. The fantasizing calms me down. It’s not malicious—no screaming or killing or hurting—and for some reason everyone tastes like ice cream.
The bartender didn’t even look at me when he handed over this Stella Artois. I’m not sure where he was looking because he’s got corpse eyes, the sexy blank kind that see nothing and everything, soul-type shit. He’s also pale like a dove, but I bet he tastes more like strawberry than vanilla bean.
I suck down my Stella and prepare myself for another approach. This time, I will get the bartender’s attention. I will discern if he has a significant other. I will seduce him into the bathroom via my somewhat-limited genderqueer charms.
Jaz invited me here, to her art show, before we broke up. She was lounging in my bed after dark. I was running my hands over my flannel sheets and itching my ankles, searching for fleas, because Jaz lives with garbage girls who own garbage dogs. She was being super quiet, so I asked what was wrong, as one does when one is the one who is desperate. She said Don’t get jealous, but I’m having an art show in July, and I immediately got pissed because I felt, to say some shit like that, was super uncool. Voicing her assumption of my jealousy gave me no choice but to feel jealousy, incepted me with toxic energy, anxiety-spiral, etc. I lay awake thinking about my career, my dreams, my lowkey-no-big-deal-semi-maddening desire for fame. Professionally, I am an Art Director, and Jaz doesn’t even have Art in her title. She’s a New Business Intern. I was dating an Intern. I am thirty years old. There are other things wrong with me, but that’s a pretty solid summation.
This Ace Hotel is fairly swank—really nice, very fancy, great job Jaz—but I’d also like to point out that there’s black mold in this damp corner where I’m standing. It looks like chocolate syrup, and it makes my nose hurt because I’m allergic to things that can kill you. Black mold is something that can kill you. Other things that can kill you are trans fats, vaping, and jumping in front of the Redline L train at Fullerton.
Okay, here I go, back to the bar. Godspeed. May my penis—evil organ—fly straight and true. May the bartender melt in my mouth and not on my face and especially not on this dry-clean-only Off-White sweatshirt that I bought specifically for this event.
The worst thing is: I swear to God Jaz woke up one day and decided to be an artist. Just like that. Six months later she has an exhibition. Average days, I wake up and decide I’m gonna make breakfast, but it’s a fifty-fifty shot I get too high and order twenty-dollars’ worth of McDonalds. I wish I could say this is a recent phenomenon, mourning-related, the convergence of a breakup and a death in my family, but you could carve Got Too High and Ordered McNuggets onto my gravestone, and it would be accurate. You could carve it next to the words Freelance Nobody, the words Died in the Arms of an Intern, the words Not Really an Artist.
My sister didn’t get a gravestone. She was cremated. She was twenty-two. There’s not enough room on this planet left for gravesites, anymore. Not enough time for funerals, either. I skipped her funeral for an important client presentation. My dad said it was Okay. He Understands. I wanted him to scream. I want someone to scream. Maybe me?
On my way to the bar, I hesitate near one of Jaz’s artworks: a TikTok video portrait of her mother staring at the floor. The composition is nice, but Jaz’s art project is subverting TikTok’s rapid content face-fuck by, instead, using the medium to document life’s moments of stillness and boredom, and I only sorta get it. Something about anti-influencer culture, life-above-the-influence. Each portrait is displayed on a vertical LCD screen. Her mother, her father, her sister, her other sister, her other sister, her brother, her other brother. Jaz has a massive family. I have a father I didn’t speak to for five years until he called to tell me my baby sister had jumped.
“What do you see?” asks a short, well-tanned man, materializing next to me without a sound.
I blink at the man, the sprinkles of mustache on his upper lip, the full-length Nike cloak obscuring his torso and legs. I can tell by his cologne that he’s one of Jaz’s buddies: a Soho House person. The kinda guy who designs his own streetwear and throws edgy parties because he doesn’t need a real job. Jaz isn’t like him, but people like him like her. Because she’s awesome.
“What do I see?” I glance back at the faintly moving video-photo. Jaz’s mom is wearing a faded Life Is Good t-shirt with bleach stains down the front. She’s holding a spatula in her dirty kitchen. The point seems to be that: life is not actually good. Or maybe: I don’t know if life is good. Or maybe: I don’t care if the eggs burn.
“Yeah.” The man says before I can actually respond. “Why are you here?”
I frown. “That’s a different question.”
The man shifts on his feet, slides around in his Yeezy slides. “You used to date Jaz, no?”
“Yeah,” I say. “You know her?”
The man nods. “She wants to talk to you.”
“No you’re not. Go talk to her.”
I stare at the man’s face, squeezing my empty Stella bottle. Sometimes, when I fantasize about eating people, it is actually about the violence, a little bit about the blood. I recently skimmed a Reddit post that claimed the average human has the jaw strength to tear out another human’s jugular. One bite, straight through, very clean. Isn’t that interesting?
Anyway, I stroll over to Jaz because I’m not actually a psychopath, and I’m not afraid of her streetwear friends or the garbage girls who are now arriving, of course, two hours late.
“Thanks for coming,” Jaz says as I guide her away from the cool-shoe crowd. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Cool. Glad your glad.”
Jaz frowns, looking small inside a simple black dress, a dress which is wonderfully devoid of logos. “I’m really sorry about your sister.”
“Your condolences are appreciated.”
“Why are you being so weird?”
“I wish I knew.”
“You’ve been standing in the corner like a creep.”
“I don’t know anyone here.”
“This is my party,” Jaz whispers. “This is for something I made.”
“I’m aware.” I stare at her forehead and try to remember what she tastes like: sour cream and cocaine and raw chicken and red wine. Never ice cream. My sister was barely twenty-two. She and Jaz are the same age. It’s hard to imagine them friends, much harder than imagining a scoop of ice cream falling through space and time, exploding on L tracks, food for rats.
Jaz leans close, close enough to kiss me. “If you can’t act cool, please leave.”
“I’ll be cool,” I do my best to sound sincere. “Let me get another drink.”
Jaz nods. She smiles a little. “Okay. Thank you.”
Now, finally, I make my approach. In my mind, I am sexy Dracula, sucker of boys. I strut up to the bar, and the bartender looks half-bored, half-angry. He’s leaning on the bar cart, radiating a frightening energy that I absolutely love. I haven’t been with a man since before Jaz, but I want to try again. I want this strawberry bartender to be my friend.
“Another Stella?” he grunts, staring into space.
“I’m not sure,” I say, stalling for time. “What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?”
“I don’t know. Rocky Road. Are you an artist?”
I shrug. “Why?”
“Because everyone here keeps asking me stupid questions like that—and then telling me they’re artists.”
“You don’t like artists?”
The bartender laughs, once. He rolls his gazeless eyes. “I like real artists.”
I step back and reappraise. There it is: A Portrait of the Art Student as a Young Bartender. The oversized vintage smock, the dangly red earrings, the generalized smugness. I should’ve seen it before.
“You seem like a real artist,” I lie. “I bet you have the gift.”
Finally, the bartender looks at me, focuses, appraises my stupid sweatshirt, and smirks. “I don’t know if I’m real or not, but I know I have something to say.”
“Cool,” I offer, though it isn’t. Faking a smile, I gather my courage and focus on the bartender’s potential mouthfeel. “Well, if you’d like to tell me all the things you have to say, maybe we could go somewhere after this?
“No thanks.” The bartender hefts a bottle of Bacardi 151 from the bar cart. “But I could use your help. Will you help me?”
“How?” I ask, frowning because the bartender is trembling, now, hands shaking, the 151 sloshing inside the bottle.
“Watch the bathroom for me. Don’t let anyone inside until I come out.”
I consider this. Then, I try to be coy: “How about I watch the bathroom as long as you give me your phone number when you’re done.”
“Sure. Fine. Just please don’t let anyone in there.”
“Totally. I gotchu. No worries.”
The bartender nods, turns, and strides to the men’s room located just outside the exhibition room. I follow him. I stand guard near the door. More garbage girls wander in with their makeup tastefully smeared, their faces ironically glum, and their knee-high socks unintentionally infested with fleas.
The stairway leading out of this basement is directly across from the door to the men’s room. I could leave, now, forget the bartender’s possibly delicious body and devour McNuggets until sated. But I don’t really want to be alone, and I should stay here for Jaz. She deserves to have someone here who cares as much as I do, even if my actual level of affection is impossible to properly demonstrate.
So, I wait. I wait a little longer. And when the bartender finally exits the bathroom, I’m obviously the first to see what he’s done. He is remarkably calm, given that he is on fire. With careful steps, he proceeds back into the exhibition room, and I follow. He is very ablaze, but the fire—blue, red, white—is mainly contained to his head, shoulders, and arms. I guess because he only had enough Bacardi to immolate his upper half.
In the exhibition hall, people are shouting, cool shoes are retreating, and the bartender is screaming in a deep, strange voice: “Remember me. Remember me. Remember me.”
I fight my way through the chaotic mass of frightened socialites. Jaz is huddled in the corner with the black mold, and I rush to her aid. I put my body between her and the flaming bartender, though he clearly poses no real threat—collapsing to his knees, still screaming, now melting, voice breaking.
I look around, and almost everyone is holding their phones out and up, filming the dying man, but Jaz holds my arm instead. She squeezes. She gasps. We are perfectly still. The two of us, not falling, not jumping, just breathing, tasting the air, scorched meat, hamburger maybe, not strawberries.