Brick and Moose stood at a tall narrow table comparing the size of the lime wedges in their gin and tonics. Moose’s wedge was bigger.
“That is a weak wedge, dude,” he kept saying.
Brick was good-natured about it. “Yeah, but I bet you he’s got a little bit of juice in him still.” He took his wedge off the rim of the glass and squeezed it into his drink. As he did so, Trevor lurched back from the bar. He also held a gin and tonic. He stepped around Moose and lost his balance, knocked against Brick just as he was raising his glass. A finger or two of clear liquid spilled down Brick’s shirt.
“Dude!” said Brick and Moose in unison.
“My B, man, my B,” said Trevor, righting himself.
“Your B Day, bro!” Moose said, and all three laughed.
Because it was, in fact, Trevor’s birthday. This was our third bar of the night. We were celebrating. By now it was beginning to show.
“Yeah, old man,” said Brick. “If you weren’t turning the big three-oh I’d make you get me another GT!”
The bar, called Shot Put, was on Orchard Street. It was Friday night, crowded. At a dozen other narrow tables like ours stood groups of well-dressed white people, blonde women in shiny blouses and young bankers in banker gray suits who looked to have been drinking since they’d gotten off work. SportsCenter played on muted televisions scattered around the bar. The Black Eyed Peas played from the speakers, at standard loud bar volume. The air smelled of neutral spirits, and, faintly, of bleach.
I sipped my gin and tonic. It tasted a little like bleach, too.
“Looks like you got a little dandruff there, Mitch,” Brick said. He reached over the table and pawed at my shoulder. “You wanna be part of the crew, gotta do something about them flakes.” Moose laughed. “Brush your shoulder off, man, brush your shoulder off.”
Moose was Trevor’s brother. His real name was Winston. He and Brick had announced at the beginning of the night that from that point forward they’d be using their “party names.” Moose/Winston’s girlfriend Jennifer had gone to college with my girlfriend, the two of them were visiting from out of town. Brick was a friend of theirs from college, he lived on the Upper East Side. I hadn’t met Brick before tonight. I couldn’t remember anymore what his real name was.
Winston and Jennifer got in two days ago, right in the middle of a long simmering fight between me and my girlfriend. It was the kind of fight that stretched out over multiple acts, each as illogical and unamusing as the plot of a bad sitcom. There’d been strings of angry late night text messages, which were followed by serious discussions, which in turn led to a period of tentative calm, a few mellow evenings at Kate’s place watching movies on her laptop and eating take-out bánh mì—a brief détente just waiting to be shattered by some stray comment I made while we were out grocery shopping. Kate had a way of walking two steps ahead of me down the pasta aisle that made it clear the worst was far from over.
Into this mess stepped Jennifer, Kate’s best old friend from school, with the out-of-towner’s perfect blend of unrealistic expectations and complete ignorance of New York City geography. Jennifer and Winston were staying at Kate’s, in Gowanus. Kate was staying with me, grudgingly. We’d spent the first night schlepping from north to south Brooklyn and back trying to meet up with various old college friends of the couple, then depositing them back at Kate’s place, and finally heading down to my apartment in Bay Ridge. At the end of the night I’d argued for taking the subway instead of a cab, to save money. We waited in silence on the platform for over half an hour. “It’s so fucking stupid that you live in Bay Ridge,” Kate had said.
Something had happened on one of the TVs. Trevor, Brick, and Moose all looked up to see the replay again. I looked down at my shoes. The floor of the bar was slightly tilted, as if to make it easier for waste to run off, like in an industrial hog-raising operation.
The original plan for tonight had been for all of us—Kate, Jennifer, and some more of their friends from school—to celebrate Trevor’s birthday together. After last night’s train ride to Bay Ridge, these plans had changed. The girls were out with some of Kate’s co-workers. I was stuck here with the bros.
“Hey Ya” by OutKast came on the bar speakers. One of the bartenders whooped. Around the room, women in various groups started to kind of shimmy in place. They wore concentrated facial expressions, lips slightly pursed.
“Dude, this song’s never going to get old,” Brick said.
“Naw, man,” said Moose. “This is some like middle school dance shit. Like some Bar Mitzvah shit. You gotta give me some of that nasty old Andre.”
“Hey come on, man, this song’s got some nasty lines.”
“Dude fuck you nasty lines.” Moose smiled at Trevor and me, eyes wide in mock-bewilderment. “Nasty lines—y’all hear this guy?”
Brick persisted. “What about where he’s like, ‘Don’t want to meet your momma, just want to make you come-uh’? They’ve gotta censor that when they play it on the radio.”
“Dude, no.” Moose grew serious. “I’m talking about like Southernplayalistic Andre, like before he got all into being a vegan and shit.” His head was tilted thirty degrees to the left and as he spoke he held his right index and middle fingers together and brought them down in the air for emphasis—a gesture he must’ve picked up from watching black people on television. “You talk about nasty, man, he’s got some verses on that album that are plain ugly.”
Brick and Moose had been talking about hip hop all night. These conversations seemed to be the central feature of their friendship; I didn’t get the impression that they were particularly close otherwise. I will admit, though, they seemed to know their stuff. More than I know, anyway. Earlier that evening, when we’d first met, Brick had tried to get me to settle an argument about whether Indo G was a good MC in his own right or simply a decent Tupac imitator.
“All I’m saying is ‘Remember Me Ballin’’ is a hell of a song,” Brick had said.
Moose was unimpressed. “See, and that’s what I’m saying. Indo G: ‘Remember Me Ballin’. Tupac: ‘Picture Me Rollin’. Same fuckin’ shit.”
The tenor of this argument was rigorous, despite all the bluster. A disagreement between scholars. We were at a tiny dive south of Delancey called Moishe’s Mini Storage. I’d picked it; Kate and I used to go there sometimes. Trevor and Brick had come from work to meet us. Both had jobs in what they called “casual finance.” “Not as intense,” Trevor explained. “We don’t wear suits.” Moose had bought the first round of gin and tonics―“GTs? You guys all cool with GTs?”―and we’d all settled into a booth by the entrance. The little daylight that remained filtered through the grimy window and seemed to cloud the liquid in our glasses.
“Mitchell man,” Brick said, turning to me, “back me up here. Ask this purist motherfucker how he’s gonna say that ‘Remember Me Ballin’’ is not a good song.”
I said, “Um.”
“Ask this tiny insignificant distinction-makin’ motherfucker how Gangsta Boo’s verse on that song is not a killer verse.”
“Ask this goofball, dumbass, doctrinaire-about-shit-that-was-recorded-when-he-was-like-six-years-old motherfucker how that beat on that song is not a kick-ass beat.”
It was Trevor who rescued me. “So, wait, what’s the deal again? Are we meeting up with Kate and Jennifer and them later?”
Moose/Winston looked at me. I couldn’t imagine he hadn’t noticed that Kate and I were having issues. If he hadn’t picked up on the tension between us when we were all hanging out the night before, the change of plans tonight must have tipped him off.
“Yeah, maybe,” I said, “they’re having dinner someplace in Greenpoint right now, I think they’re going to call us when they’re done.”
“They better not think we’re going to Brooklyn,” said Brick.
I didn’t actually know what to expect. I figured being cooperative meant not asking questions. I assumed that Kate wasn’t planning for her, Winston, and Jennifer to all stay in her small studio apartment, and so she’d have to be calling me at some point. Then again, if her plan was for her and Jennifer to stick together all night, then I might have Moose on my hands till morning.
Trevor, for his part, didn’t seem to care much either way how his birthday was celebrated. His equanimity was oddly comforting. He’d finished his drink before the rest of us and sat hunched forward, stirring the ice cubes around. Brick and Moose seemed determined to make up for his lack of enthusiasm.
“You need another drink, birthday boy?” Brick said. Trevor nodded.
“Man, let’s get out of here, this place is dead,” said Moose. “I thought this neighborhood was supposed to be happenin’. Y’all are the New Yorkers, take us someplace fun.”
“It’s early,” I said.
“I’d be down to hit up a new place,” said Brick. “Matter of fact, I know a spot nearby.”
We left the bar and started heading up Essex. Brick strode confidently up ahead, the shirttail of his un-tucked polo flapping in the breeze. Behind him, Moose walked with his arm over Trevor’s shoulders. Both wore faded, boot cut Levi’s; Moose wore a shirt like Brick’s, also untucked, Trevor a striped button-up. He don’t wear jerseys; he’s thirty plus. The evening was warm, there was still a faint purple tinge left in the sky. Taxis crept leisurely up the street. There were people out on the sidewalk, but not yet the weekend late night crush of bodies. It was early still, the night was just getting started, and we were four guys out on the town. There was no earthly way of knowing which direction we’d be bro-ing. We stopped at a pizza place on Stanton next to a storefront that sold gravestones. “Look out, Trev,” Moose said. “Pretty soon you’ll be in the market for one of them.”
The place Brick had in mind turned out to be a bar on Ludlow called the Rec Room. There were a few ragged sofas and a pool table. Old lamps with beat-up shades cast a hazy reddish light around the room. Creedence Clearwater Revival played on the stereo. The crowd was mostly, inexplicably, female.
“Nice pick, Brick,” Trevor said.
“All right, boys, it’s time to get!” said Moose, taking quick steps to the bar.
Brick, Trevor and I grabbed a spot in a back corner. Brick and Trevor took seats on a couch against the wall. I sat down on a purple chintz pouf. Moose came back with four shots of clear, fragrant liquid.
“What’s this?” Trevor asked.
“Sambuca. Gotta do Sambuca shots on your birthday.”
We each picked up a glass.
“And you also gotta do the Sambuca call.”
“Huh?” asked Trevor.
Without warning, Moose leaned his head back and let out a loud shrill cry. “Sambuca Sambuca Sambuca!”
He took the shot and we all followed suit. Brick said, “Ugh, man, that tasted like a warm Twizzler.”
I got up to go to the bathroom. While I was in there I checked my phone. No word from Kate. I typed a message―“Hey, how’s dinner? Are we meeting up later tonight?”―but then deleted it. Silence seemed the better plan for now, give Kate time to seethe, if that’s what she was doing.
I opened the bathroom door still looking down at my phone. A woman waiting on the other side caught me off guard. “Were you guys just doing kombucha shots over there?” she asked me. I mumbled something and hurried off. I got a beer at the bar and walked back to the bros. Neil Young’s “Vampire Blues” was playing. A disillusioned hippie doing a drunk, half-hearted nihilist act—I could sympathize.
Brick and Moose were arguing about whether Nas had ever made a decent album after Illmatic. Both agreed that he hadn’t, but Brick averred that there were some good tracks on Stillmatic; Moose said that didn’t count. Trevor had started up a conversation with a group of women sitting next to us.
“So what do you do?” he asked the girl closest to him.
“Um, I work at a start-up?” she said.
“Oh, cool. Wait, like a start-up what?”
The woman from the bathroom came and sat with the group.
“Man, you were looking pretty spooked back there,” she said to me. “Did you have a hard time with the paper towel dispenser or something?”
“Ha, yeah, sorry. It was a trying experience. I’m recuperating still.” This, I realized sadly, was me flirting.
She laughed and introduced herself. Her name was Sophie. Across from her, her friend was telling Trevor about the app that her company was developing, which allowed you to type in the name of a cocktail or craft beer and receive a list of bars that offered it, organized by price, user ranking, and proximity to your current location.
“‘Cause the thing is if you’re out drinking and you’re looking for a place, you don’t want to just have to walk into whatever bar and not know what kind of drinks they have, you know?”
“Totally,” Trevor said.
We got another round. Brick and Moose were now laughing about the “Hate Me Now” video. “Fuckin’ crucifixion, man!” Moose said. “How do you not know that’s a bad idea?”
Brick was diplomatic. “See, now I always blamed Puffy for that.”
“It’s always the same story man, he just strayed from his roots. When he’s still comin’ out of Queensbridge it’s all good, but next thing you know he’s standing on a rooftop with fuckin’ P. Diddy and thinking he’s Jesus.”
I wanted to say something but thought better of it. When I thought of Nas I thought of last summer. Kate had been subletting a place in Astoria, we’d just started dating. Most days I’d get off work and take the N to meet her out there. You’d come out of Manhattan and cross over the river and it’d still be really bright, still a few hours till sunset, and the first thing you’d see coming into Long Island City were the Queensbridge housing projects just north of the bridge. The buildings are dull and squat, but at that hour, the sunlight sort of slanting through them, the river behind… By then you’ve hit the last track on the record, “Represent,” where Nas says, “This goes out to everybody in New York that’s livin’ a real fuckin’ life,” and problematic as it is you feel like that group includes privileged indifferent you, at least for that brief moment—at least more so than now, out pounding beers with Brick and Moose.
“So are you guys friends from high school?” Sophie from the bathroom asked me. “You give off this vibe like you’ve all known each other a long time.”
“Kind of…” I said. I explained that Winston and Trevor were brothers, that they had all gone to college together and that it was Trevor’s birthday.
“And what about you?” she asked.
“Wait, it’s your birthday?” Before I could answer, another woman in the group turned to Trevor.
“It’s my birthday,” Trevor said. He held his drink on his knee and leaned back into the sofa, looking relaxed.
“Wait,” said the app woman, “I’ve got a present for you.” She rummaged in her purse. “At work we get all these free samples that people send us. I took this one today ‘cause I thought it was funny.”
She pulled out a mini bottle of liquor and set it on the table. “It’s bacon-flavored vodka. Isn’t that sick?”
Brick said, “Dude!”
Sophie said, “Gross.”
Trevor leaned forward and picked up the bottle. “Ok, boys, who’s gonna try it with me?” Brick and Moose nodded that they would. “Mitchell?”
I shook my head.
“Gonna leave your boys hangin’, Mitch? That how it is? All right, just the three of us then.” He took three of the empty shot glasses on the table, twisted off the cap and poured a bit of vodka into each. There were little flecks of black and red floating in the clear liquid. Moose looked uneasy.
“I don’t know how I feel about this. I mean, I am a hearty supporter of bacon, but even I have limits.”
As the three of them sat contemplating the greased liquor, the bar back arrived and began to clear the table. She spotted the mini bottle and snatched it away, along with the three shot glasses. “I can’t allow this,” she snapped.
We all looked up and watched the woman as she headed back to the bar. There we saw her speaking to the bartender and waving her hands around a lot, the two of them glancing over in our direction.
“That was weird,” Sophie said.
One of the women looked up from her phone. “Wait, what just happened?”
Just then the bartender came over. “Okay, c’mon guys. I’m gonna have to ask you to leave.”
“Wait, why?” Brick asked.
“No outside liquor, sorry.”
She walked away. We all sat silently for a few moments. Brick shook his head. “Now we’ll never know what it tastes like,” he said sadly.
“Dude, this is bullshit, I just bought, like, twelve Sambuca shots,” said Moose.
Brick turned to the women. “Well, y’all want to go someplace else?” This didn’t get any response.
Trevor put his hands on the table, palms flat against the surface. “Gentlemen,” he said calmly, “it would appear we have been kicked out of the bar. I suggest we depart.” He stood up. “Ladies,” he said, tilting his head slightly and folding his hands out from his waist. I was impressed at how courtly a gesture it was.
Brick, Moose, and I stood up and followed Trevor. On our way out we walked past the bar. The heads of the bartender and bar back turned in our direction and followed us out the door. They hate it when we leave, but they love to watch us bro.
It was full dark now. We walked a few steps away from the bar’s entrance and stopped, forming a loose circle in the middle of the narrow sidewalk. A constant stream of people walked around us on either side.
“Man, fuck those fucks, man,” said Moose.
“They’re just doing their jobs, Winston, it’s not a big deal,” said Trevor.
“Dude, call me Moose.”
Trevor ignored this. “Mitchell, I bet that’s the first time you ever got kicked out of a bar, huh?”
I shrugged. “Yeah. They were surprisingly calm about it.”
“I could smell it, man,” Brick said. “It was mostly just pepper, but there was something else there. Something substantial. Like, filling. But then she just took it away! And now I’ll never know!”
Trevor clapped Brick on the shoulder. “You just gotta get that app, bud. Then you can track that bacon shit down.” He turned to me. “All right, what now? Mitchell, any word from your girl?”
I knew there hadn’t been, but I made a show of looking at my phone. “Nothing from Kate,” I said, and looked at Moose. “Have you heard from Jennifer, Winston?”
“Yeah, she texted me like a half hour ago, said they were still in Brooklyn and she’d give me a call in a bit.”
“All right,” said Trevor, “onward, then. I know a place,” and set off down the sidewalk.
When we got to Shot Put, Moose had paused in the entrance, surveying the crowd. He looked over at Trevor. “Man, Trev, you got all these guys here on their suit and tie shit. Makin’ me feel underdressed.”
After the OutKast dispute, there was a lull in the conversation. Trevor, Brick, and Moose looked up at the screens and now and then made a comment about different women in the crowd. I was staring down at my drink. My vision was starting to blur at the corners; it helped to have something to focus on. That’s when I felt my phone vibrating in my pocket, and knew it had to be Kate calling.
I headed for the door, trying to weave my way between the tables. I was listing a bit from side to side, I couldn’t help it. How you stay sober in a room full of bros?
I answered the phone before I got to the door, worried I’d miss the call otherwise.
“Hey!” I yelled over the bar noise.
Kate said something I couldn’t make out. “Hold on!” I said. Finally I got outside.
“—ever going to call me?” I heard her saying.
“Hey, sorry, it was really loud. I can hear you now. What’s up?”
“I said I’ve been waiting for you to call me. What are you guys doing?”
“Wait, what? Sorry, I didn’t know I was supposed to call you. We’re on the Lower East Side. Winston, Trevor, and a friend of theirs. Do y’all want to meet us or should we meet you?”
“I’m not going into the city, it’s too late.”
More and more people kept walking past me on the sidewalk. Across the street, a guy in chef’s whites plopped a garbage bag on the curb.
“Okay, well maybe we can meet you, where are y’all?”
“I’m at home. Jennifer went out with friends of hers.”
“What are you doing with those guys, Mitchell? I thought you were going to call me.”
“I didn’t know I was supposed to call you.”
“So instead you just decided to hang out with some guys you don’t know? What, are you part of the fucking crew now?”
A lot of private, embarrassing things get done on city sidewalks―from strangers making out in front of a bar to a guy changing his shirt and shoes before a job interview. One morning I looked out my window and saw a guy throwing up―not bent double over the curb, hand on a lamppost to prop himself up, no, this guy was just walking down the street, vomiting, didn’t even break stride. Outside the bar that night, I wondered vaguely what that guy would have thought of me, pacing back and forth, shoulders slumped forward, a finger stuffed in my left ear and a cell phone pressed to my right, yelling at the person I love.
It’s not important what I said to Kate. I imagine it was something like, “It wasn’t my idea to hang out with your fucking friend’s boyfriend’s friends,” because Kate’s response was to point out that it was entirely my idea. Truth is, I don’t really remember the conversation that well. When I called her the next morning, I basically accepted her version of things. Cooperate, cooperate. It’s good to have something solid to apologize for.
At some point I’d hung up and walked back inside. The bros were where I’d left them.
“Hey, how’s Kate?” Moose/Winston asked.
“Huh?” I said.
“I got a text from Jennifer, said Kate wasn’t feeling well. She’s out with friends of ours from school, we’re gonna crash with one of them tonight. I’m about to go meet up with them in Brooklyn.”
“Oh, cool. Uh, where?”
“I don’t know, somewhere in Bed-Stuy, she said.”
“You can count me out of that shit,” said Brick. “No way I’m going all the way out there.”
“I think I’ll pass, too,” said Trevor. “Like y’all said, I’m getting old, can’t be jetting all around the city this late anymore.”
There was a silence, we all finished our drinks. “Well, shall we?” Trevor said, and we walked out.
The three guys all hugged and said goodbye. Winston was on his phone trying to figure out which train he needed to take. Brick and Trevor were offering suggestions. Winston looked up at me.
“You headed to Kate’s, Mitchell?”
“Um, no,” I said. “I think I’m just going to go home.”
There was an awkward pause, then Brick said, “Didn’t you say you live in Bay Ridge?”
“Yeah,” I said.
Brick smiled and clapped me on the shoulder. “That’s pretty fucking stupid, bro.”