Page 9 of 13A few Tuesdays after her first Tuesday, Jack asked Claudia to dinner again. This time she said yes. She quickly realized it wouldn't be just the two of them. Others had gathered. They were headed to a diner. It was already a ritual. It was just past twilight and the sky was stained a deep cool blue, like something you'd press against your forehead during fever. It felt good to be with other human beings on a sidewalk.
Everyone ordered hearty meals, tuna melts and bacon burgers, with elaborate drinks: milkshakes and egg creams, as if compensating for the other drinks they wouldn't have. Claudia was surprised by the way Jack ate his scrambled eggs in evenly portioned bites, with precise dabs of ketchup. His hipster frame and outfits had suggested he would eat messily, or not at all.
It seemed like a regular set. The large woman who was always impeccably dressed—today, a belt and striped skirt—sat across from Claudia. Her name was Glory. She looked middle-aged but she had the life and energy of a younger woman. People had been aged by their drinking, Claudia noticed—their faces slack and weathered—but their demeanors were spry and hopeful. It seemed the world wanted things from Glory, and she was excited about the prospect of providing them. She worked as a personal assistant for a powerful producer and her vibrating cell phone worried her purse like a series of tiny earthquakes. The Budweiser guy was Paul, and he seemed to have a thing for Louisa, the paper umbrella woman—a yoga teacher and struggling actress—and it seemed to Claudia that everyone should have a thing for Louisa, she was so lithe and graceful. She seemed happy living in her own skin. It made you want to live there too.
They were all nice to Claudia, laughing at her anecdotes in a way that felt honest and unforced, or nodding seriously when this was called for. But she could tell they'd heard all her stories before: The One About the Girl Who Passes Out in the Park, The One About the Attic Full of Bottles. Claudia told them that she'd vomited on a boyfriend's dog before passing out once, which was true, and that she sometimes woke up in the middle of the night and drank, which wasn't. Not only was it literally untrue, it also seemed spiritually untrue. It ran against the psychic gist of her drinking, which aimed to court the sweet relief of unconsciousness rather than interrupt it.
Jack and Claudia stood outside the diner after dinner, fumbling for cigarettes. They were the only smokers in the bunch.
"I guess this crowd has already heard every sob story under the sun," Claudia said.
"Yeah," he said. "That used to get me down too."
"Now it helps me feel free," he said. "I'm not here to impress anyone."
Claudia nodded. She dropped her cigarette on the pavement and crushed it with her toe, though she'd only taken a drag. All of a sudden, she wanted out—of this talk, this night, all of it.
"Getting up in the middle of the night, just to drink?" he said. "That one I hadn't heard before."
"It was a lie," she said.
"Yeah," he said, nodding. "I've done that too."