Miriam McQuinn came to town several years ago on an early October night. I remember that it was a rather sultry evening, and that I was standing in the parking lot of my dingy brick apartment complex next to a rusty Honda Civic, shouting, "Let's go! I'm wasting gas!"
My roommate, Lorelei Lynch, poked her tiny head out of the window and scrunched her nose. "I'm coming!" she yelled back.
Ten minutes later we pulled out of the parking lot.
"You're so slow."
"Oh, don't bitch," Lorrie snapped. "It's not like we're missing anything, just people stumbling around, breathing their rancid liquor breath everywhere and feeling each other up."
I smirked at my brown-haired, mousey faced passenger. Within an hour of getting there she would transform from the sweetly snarky girl next door to a hilarious drunk who recited the Latin alphabet and burped incomplete verses of Gilbert and Sullivan. All the regulars in our group of acquaintances knew that when she started belching "I'm very good at inter-gral and diff-eren-tial calculus" that it was time to help her locate a toilet lest they found themselves in the splash radius of something particularly grotesque.
"Shut up, Mikhail," she said, leaning over to punch me in the arm as she often did when her wit failed her.
"Did you take the trash out?" she asked when we were halfway there.
"It's your turn."
"No, it isn't."
And so it went, bickering about cleaning the apartment and whose duty it was to feed our pet turtle, Behemoth, until we reached our mutual acquaintance's apartment at the edge of town. Portsmith was a rather small Jersey town. It had an unbelievably large number of college graduates per square mile, most of them living in apartment complexes with names like Oak Wood Apartments and Sundale Living Quarters whose landlords—to the chagrin of the older residents of the town—committed no discrimination based on age. After all, cash was cash.
The drinking had already started when we walked in. The host, a savage young man who had ruined his teeth with soda and as a result always smiled with closed lips, ushered us inside and pointed toward the table with the drinks. Most of the good stuff was gone; I contented myself by grabbing bottle of Yuengling while Lorrie poured herself a shot of rum, drank it, and repeated the process.
I found an unoccupied corner and took up my post as watchman, observing everyone and recording mental notes to use later for the novel I was working on at the time. Every once in a while someone would stop by, say "Hey, Mikhail," and shoot the shit for a couple of minutes before wandering off.
My real name, if you're curious, isn't Mikhail. It was simply something I started telling people when I moved to town. I figured it was going to be a new life for me and that I should have a new name to commemorate the occasion. That's how I was when I was that age: a naive and adventurous young man with his head shoved so far up literature's asshole that he couldn't tell the truth from fiction—but there were instances of clarity. Moments when I realized that I would probably never finish my novel but that it wouldn't be the end of the world, moments when I knew that none of the people I called my friends were going to matter when the discontent set in and I decided to try and blossom into a responsible, cantankerous adult; moments like when Miriam McQuinn walked in the room for the first time.
I still remember watching her step through the door. All the heads of the men in the room swiveled on their necks as they turned to watch her, and you could almost hear the spring of erections as they collided with the fabric of tight pants. Miriam McQuinn was the type of woman you wrote beautiful love poems for but never ever had the balls to show her; she was the kind of woman who could pluck your heartstrings by staring at your chest; she made good men bad and bad men good. Her hair was fire and her eyes were ash.
She wore tights that ran the gauntlet between the interior of knee high boots and the inside of her shorts. She also had on a grey cardigan over a white dress shirt and a brown belt that hung around her waist just above her belly. Her hair was orange and her face retained some cherub fat that made her seem like she was in a perpetual state of pouting even when she was smiling. She reminded me of Molly Ringwald.
Everyone else began slowly moving toward the new arrival, orbiting around her like she was some kind of magnificent celestial body. Eventually even I left my little corner to investigate, turning my ear to the curious conversations of others. No one seemed to know anything about her he other than her name. They had never even seen her in Portsmith before, but in those days it didn't matter. You could crash a party as long as you were gorgeous or bat-shit crazy enough to bring the whole shindig to a screeching halt.
The hiatus was only temporary. Soon everyone began to return to drinking, and the host set up the karaoke, which was always the best part of the evening as far as I was concerned. The regulars went first: partygoers who were confident about their singing because they had been in bands or choir or what not. The majority of them sang alright, belting out tunes by the Pixies and Madonna. It wasn't until those whose anxieties had been beaten unconscious and stuffed into large burlap sacks by alcohol took a hold of the microphone that things got really interesting. They would forget lyrics, sway back and forth, burp in mid-song, start singing a different song, and embrace the mic stand as though they were sailors clinging to the mast in the midst of some great tempest.
For some reason or another, perhaps she had drunk more than usual or the stars had aligned, Lorrie took the microphone and began to sing a couple of songs. I remember her seeing me at one point and waving as though she was a superstar performing at Madison Square Garden and I was simply a beloved fan in the crowd. I smiled in reply. Memory has no doubt made this moment more significant than it probably was at the time.
After Lorrie finished attempting to sing "Don't Think Twice That it's Alright," Miriam McQuinn joined her at the microphone, and asked her if she could share a song. My roommate nodded politely, drunkenly, and they began to sing "Son of a Preacher Man." It wasn't harmonious by any means, but there was something transfixing quality about their union that kept those who were still clinging to some semblance of their senses in silence. Mirriam winked at Lorrie; she blushed in reply.
"Looks like she's got your girl, Mikhail," someone said, nudging me playfully.
"She's not my girl."
The two women swayed back and forth their shoulders bumping into one another softly; they would place their faces against one another as they leaned over the microphone. At times they seemed like one body, a kind of weird and sensual Vishnu. When they were finished they let someone else take the microphone and they went to get more drinks. I watched as the two of them had a lively conversation that I couldn't hear over someone's rendition of "Hollywood Nights." I considered going over and introducing myself, but thought the better of it. Instead, I grabbed another bottle of Yuengling and headed for the door. I had work in the morning; Lorrie would understand. She would probably fall asleep on the floor or get someone to give her a ride home.
The ride back to the apartment (in those days Lorrie and I called it the Bungalow) was uneventful and quiet—I didn't feel like listening to the radio. When I got back, I took off my collared shirt, slacks, and put on a T-shirt. I fed Behemoth, opened the bottle of beer, and went to bed. I lied on my hole filled mattress for an hour or so, taking sips and thinking about my life. I considered how much longer I could stick around Portsmith before it drove me crazy; I wondered about how well I might handle the bustle of a lively city like New York or DC. I thought about Miriam and Lorrie singing, and I got cold on the inside and forced myself to go to sleep.
When I woke up the next morning, Lorrie wasn't there. I left the apartment, assuming she had slept over at the host's apartment. I fed the turtle and drove to work where I spent the day editing pieces for the local paper The Portsmith Herald. I was the assistant to the copy-editor, which meant that I actually edited all the poorly written articles on baking contests and minor league baseball while he downloaded pornography on a dial-up modem. I didn't really mind. He left me alone while I did my work and didn't complain when I took breaks to read my books, and I made sure never to come around his desk. It was a mutually satisfactory work-relationship founded on the premise of leave me the hell alone.
I remember getting off early that day and making a trip to the grocery store on the way home to pick up some eggs and milk. I was going to make dinner-omelets for me and Lorrie. A squeal of surprise greeted me when I unlocked the door and stepped inside my apartment, grocery bag in one hand.
"Lorrie?" I called out.
I heard rustling in the living room and waited a moment.
"Mikhal! You're home early," Lorrie said.
I turned the corner. Lorrie was standing up with her hair frazzled, buttoning her jeans quickly, while there on the couch sat Miriam McQuinn, her eyes narrowed at me and her lip curled into a frown. I had come at a bad time.
"Mikhail," Lorrie said quickly in an attempt to dissolve the awkward silence. "This is…."
"Miriam McQuinn," I said interrupting her. "I overheard people talking about you last night."
The woman's annoyed expression remained unchanged except for a raised eyebrow, "Oh," she remarked. "What did they say?" she asked in a tone that signified only partial interest.
"Nothing, really." I stepped inside the kitchen and placed the groceries on the counter. "So," I said, peering into the living room and directing my gaze at our guest, "are you staying for dinner?" Miriam looked up at Lorrie who nodded in reply.
"Yes," the red-head replied.
I went to work, and began cracking eggs and slicing tomatoes. I heard the two of them talking in lowered voices but couldn't make out what they were saying. Lorrie joined me a moment later and tied an apron of her mother's around her waist; it read "HAPPY HOME" and had a faded, smiling bumblebee beneath the text. She started battering the eggs in a bowl.
"Sorry about that," I said to her.
She shrugged. "It happens."
I couldn't resist. "So, is she good?"
"In the sack."
She smiled and punched me in the arm.