One: Good Night Marty
It was a good night, the night my cousin Marty died. Not a great night, by definition: a great night would see me in bed with Laura, sated and sleepless and sublime. I didn’t have great nights. By definition. A good night, though. That, for sure. Good night, bad bad morning.
Actually we’d been on a rage that evening, pre-arranged: Rick and Angie, Dermot and Vanessa, Colin, Laura dark and lovely and me. Two medics, two linguists, one lit-freak, one agric and one fine artist, not necessarily in that order. Not necessarily in any order, rarely the same order from one term’s end to the next. Always something of a group, though, always coming back together at the last, however often or however violently we might fall apart betweentimes. Just then we were a peaceable kingdom, two steady couples and three singletons and not a quarrel among us, not a bone to be picked, seemingly no tensions: only my own long hunger that I’d long since learned to hide. To tell truth I was never sure if any of them even remembered, these good close friends of mine.
It was Laura who’d phoned that day — or at least had phoned the upstairs neighbour, who’d come down to fetch me and then unashamedly listened in, her perk for the service — Laura who’d set this particular ball to roll. “Coming out to play, Ben?” she’d said; and not a question, that, it was a command. Not allowed, to say no to that particular invitation. Impossible, in any case, to say no to her.
So I only asked when, and where. Where was Albuquerque, a glossy, glitzy video bar, far too pricey for every day but Laura didn’t, wouldn’t talk to me every day and this was a rage anyway, we wouldn’t be there long; when was six o’clock, cocktail hour. “If you’re going to mix your drinks,” she said, “which we are,” she said, “you might as well start with a mixture. Don’t be late.”
“Would I?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “you wouldn’t. Not you,” and for a moment she sounded wistful, almost, and I thought that maybe one at least of my good friends did remember. She ought to, she of all of them, she had most cause. She was the cause, damn it (but never damn her, never that; all unwitting, it was none of it her fault), she was the be-all and end-all, she ought at least to remember that.
I was early and she was late, and that might have been deliberate but probably wasn’t. We spent enough time on our own together, no need to get paranoid about this, Macallan. Except that love is paranoid, it has to be, that’s how it works. She doesn’t want to be alone with me, my sweetly treacherous mind was telling me, she’s hanging back to be sure the others are here. And maybe she was, but there could be other reasons. She always liked to make an entrance, Laura.
And she certainly did it that night, she swept in like a star, a constellation of one. Dark star, all in black tonight and radiant, pulsing, dangerously electric. Touched us all where we stood at the bar, a pat on the bottom or a squeeze of the shoulder; I got a fist in the ribs, when I passed her the drink that stood waiting.
“Don’t get clever, Macallan,” she said, growling, scowling, sipping.
“I know what you drink,” I said, and what you like best to eat, and to wear, and to dance to; I know your shoe size and your bra size and the size of your slim, slim waist. “What’s your problem?”
Which was tempting fate, perhaps, she just might be in the mood to answer that; but no, she let me off easy. She only said, “Don’t take me for granted, right?” as if I ever would or could or had the grounds to, and clinked her glass privately against mine before she drank again.
Too many messages in that, too complex to work out in company; or else there was nothing at all, just a brief light-hearted interchange between two friends in a bar at the start of a long light-headed evening. I smiled, toasted her silently, more with my eyes than my glass, and turned to talk to Angie; and if Laura didn’t know how hard that was for me, to turn those few inches from one friend to another — well, it was only one more small entry in the very comprehensive lists of things that Laura didn’t know about my sad life, the long sad years before I met her and every sad and solitary hour since. If she didn’t know.
It’s a short step from Albuquerque to Milan. Or in this case il Milano, which is the best Italian restaurant in town, and therefore the one that knows us best. We got our regular table and our regular waiter, young Gino with the big eyes and the cherubic smile, the party soul and just as well his mother’s in Treviso, she wouldn’t want to see what we’ve made of her cute son or what he does for fun these days. She really, really wouldn’t want to see it.
Two litres of the house red to get us started, orders for gamberoni — “shells on, for Christ’s sake, Gino, I shouldn’t need to tell you that, where’ve you been, sodding Treviso?” — and antipasti and sardines; and the cigarettes came out while we were waiting, and already the lights were starting to shine a little brighter, we were sharp and witty and laughing loud, we loved ourselves and each other and too bad if the rest of the world didn’t love us, what the hell did they know?