Fitzgerald’s was designed for white-collar people in their late 20s and 30s. It was a Tuesday evening and happy hour had just ended. Quinn ordered a piece of steak and ate about a third, putting the rest in a Styrofoam takeout box at the bottom of his wheelchair for later.
“You can certainly get laid outside Mecklen University,” he said. “We’re at a bar, come on.”
“I don’t know how to strike up a random conversation,” I replied sheepishly.
“You have to have a reason to talk to people.”
“Yeah. You know like I hook up with people from Mecklen, I can hook up with people from work.”
Quinn rolled his eyes. “Come on, I’ll show you how to talk to people.” He rolled up to the bar and I followed. “The bartender is a good place to start.”
The bartender was in his early 30s from what looked like Spanish descent. He had good muscles, very white teeth, all black dress clothes and a diamond earring.
“Hey man,” said Quinn, lowering his voice.
The bartender glared at Quinn as he looked at my ID. “Get your girl some of our spinach and artichoke dip.”
Quinn ordered my food while I smiled at the bartender. I crossed my legs flirtatiously on the bar stool. I reached my hand out to shake his. “I’m Gwendolyn.”
“Hi Gwendolyn,” he took my hand. “I’m Armand.”
“Hi Armand,” I answered. And then Quinn kind of looked at me, and I looked at this hot guy behind the table and I really didn’t have anything at all to say to him. I understood what bars were now. They served alcohol so people could come up with things to say to people they didn’t know.
“So you’re not dating this veteran?” Armand asked me. “That should impress the hell out of you. I know it impresses the hell out of me.”
“Naw, I have a girlfriend,” Quinn cut in. “Gwendolyn doesn’t care that I went over there. You know, they were training Al Qaeda in Iraq. That’s what I told the girls at our hippie college but they said the same thing man, it was killing babies. And that’s what I was telling myself when I was there but now I’d just like it if Halliburton gave me my lumbar vertebrae back.”
“You did what you thought at the time,” Armand said. “That’s all anyone can do.”
Quinn had been born with cerebral palsy. He told people he was a veteran all the time because he got more respect from battlescars.
“So what are you studying, Gwendolyn?”
“She’s a journalism major,” Quinn said.
“I’m a journalism minor,” I corrected, “because Mecklen doesn’t have it as a major, and I’m thinking about being a psych major. I want to be a lawyer.”
“Oh, another lawyer,” he said with a flip of his hand. “Be a journalist. Expose the lawyers. I went to American myself for law school and halfway through I said fuck it and now I’m managing the friendliest bar in Georgetown.”
I hadn’t known back then that pretty young women with autism can have an advantage in bars. I was supposed to be young and not know anything, so I should have said something honest like “I can’t be a journalist because I don’t know how to talk to people” and a man would interpret that as being coy. Then he would explain to me how to get information out of people and tell me how easy it should be for me to do that anyway because I am cute, charming, etc.
“Hey, I might have been doing pretty good with Armand,” I said as we went back to his house.
“No dude, you were awkward,” Quinn replied.
On my way back from Quinn’s house I sat on a bench and looked at the waterfront. I pushed my white sunglasses on top of my head and pictured a Navy officer coming in to meet me from World War II. Blonde, blue-eyed, with a French tan.
“A German officer shot my arm off in Normandy,” he would say, “but I fired up the cannons and blew him up. I think his head’s still sitting with the jellyfish, but his balls could be in Paris.”
“Oh Lawrence, did he hurt you?” Lawrence would have a beautiful carved wooden arm like a pirate captain.
“Not anywhere near as much as it hurt to be away from you, Gwendolyn.” And then he’d take me in his single arm.
I walked past Fitzgerald’s. I figured I could get some of that superb Caesar salad again before I went home. I sat at the bar. “Hey, I know you!” Armand said.
“Yeah, I came in here with Quinn a couple of days ago.”
“What’s your name again?”
“Gwendolyn. Gwendolyn Kansen.”
“That’s a good old-fashioned name,” he said. “Came back here to see me, huh?”
“I didn’t even know you were here.”
“Oh. Well,” he faux-scoffed.
I looked at the wine glasses hanging neatly upside down in rows and all the wine in the back.
“So how long have you been doing this?” I asked for lack of anything else to say.
“Since law school? Five and a half years,” Armand said. “I’m making good money as manager. I get to set my own hours for the most part even though I’m here about 60 hours a week.”
“So, uh, what’s your favorite wine?”
“Hey what are you doing, girl? You know I know you’re 18.”
“No, I’m just making conversation. I’m seriously not trying to buy a drink,” I told him honestly.
“You don’t get out much, huh?” said Armand.
“Hey, I’m the president of the Outdoor Adventure Club at Mecklen. We have a lot of parties.”
“But you don’t organize them.”
He smiled. “Tell you what. I’m a beer guy myself, but I’d recommend a malbec for you.”
“Isn’t beer cheaper than wine?”
“You calling me cheap?”
Foot in mouth. Quinn would laugh. “No, you just…I mean there’s a lot of wine here so I figured you were used to wine.”
“Porter can be just as highbrow. But you want something soft right now.”
“I’m still 18.”
“Could you say that any louder?”
I folded my hands in my lap. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right. You know these DC women are ballbusters. They’re jaded at 18 and wearing Armani power suits by 27. It’s nice to see a girl who still has that sense of wonder.”
I tucked my hair behind my ear. “Thank you.”
“I can’t remember the last time I had to yell at someone for my job and I think I’m a better person for it.”
“You don’t yell at shady patrons?” I asked.
“Naw, that just makes them shadier.” Armand poured me a glass of malbec. I thought about telling him I’d never drank before, but I didn’t want to ruin it. The alcohol was really noticeable the first time, but it was smooth, high-quality wine and I could taste the fruit too. He poured a glass of porter and clinked my glass with his.
Armand told me he’d come from Spain by himself when he was 18 because there were more opportunities here. He’d come from a family of roofers, “real roofers, our own business. Daddy Cortez would have climbed on this roof if it was 15 degrees and sleeting.” I tried to imagine a small European town with a local roofing company and it was about as alien to me as Mars. “Don’t glamorize things you don’t know. It was as provincial as anything,” he said. He put himself through University of Maryland by bartending and living with the nanny for “someone really important.” He wanted to open a bar on U Street called Ché, after Guevara to incite conversation.
“What about you, huh?”
“I’m scared to take action,” I said. He poured me a glass of Riesling so I’d open up more. And now years later I’m drinking Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as I type for the same reason. I’ve made progress opening up to people thanks to Quinn but I still have trouble writing honestly.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well, sexual action I’m pretty good on, but I’m not getting much writing done.”
“Write then,” he said. “Just get it on the page.”
“I have trouble,” I told him, “getting my feelings out. I mean, I think I can be funny sometimes but I don’t know how to write passion or drama or anything people really want to read.”
“I’m not too into the irony culture,” said Armand. “People use double entendres as humor because they’re scared to lay themselves out, you know? Irony can put the true meaning of something on the surface and everybody assumes it means something else.”
“Explain,” I said.
“Well, your friend Quinn came in here one day with a shirt that said ‘I don’t have a drinking problem. I drink, I get drunk, I pass out, no problem!’ But I listen to drunks every day and they all have a problem. I wanna see somebody wear a shirt that says ‘Help me, I’m an alcoholic.’”
“That would make people kind of uncomfortable.”
“That’s the point,” he said.
“Yeah, I guess it is.” I took another sip of Riesling. “See, I have autism, and I don’t know how to reflect the pain I feel about that. It’s easier to just be staid, even if everybody will just think that’s how I am all the time.”
The music was loud and Armand was studying me. He had slight crow’s feet next to his dark eyes and ridges in his forehead where it crinkled. “You think that was a big reveal, don’t you?” he asked.
“It was for me.”
“Not for me. People come in here every day, Gwendolyn, losing their jobs, kids in jail, worried they caught something from a call girl and they don’t know how to tell the wife.”
“Or they’re doing things they don’t believe in for money. That’s always a big one. Man, I respect your friend Quinn almost as much as my father for what he sacrificed for his country but he must be feeling that guilt.”
“He doesn’t talk about it with me.”
“Give him time,” Armand said, and now I was mad at both of them.
“You think autism isn’t a big deal?” I accused.
“No, it is. It’s a huge deal. But everything’s a huge deal. But it seems like you know that already.”
“Which is good?”
Armand nodded. “That’s half the battle.”
Armand brought me into the back when it was time to close up. He put his hand on the small of my back.
“I’m renting a room near the college,” he said. “Come with me?”
It was Friday night and people were pouring out of the bars into the streets. They were in large, Lacoste-shirt wearing groups and had dizzy white smiles. Armand led me to his room in the basement of a white wooden house. He pushed his hand up into my hair and pulled my face up to his.
“You’ve got beautiful hair, Gwendolyn.”
“You have beautiful everything.” I breathed into his mouth as he kissed me. His tongue pushed against mine, tasting like that white speckled gum. He pushed the door to his studio open and picked me up, carrying me over to the bed. There were Picasso replications on the wall adding color to an otherwise white room with brown furniture. It was incredibly clean. Armand didn’t smoke and didn’t eat junk food either from the look of his kitchen counter.
“How does this thing work?” he asked as he fussed with the ties on the back of my blue silk bra. “Tell you what, to save time you unbutton my shirt while I untie this fucker here.” Three minutes later everything was off. Armand had chiseled abs, actually chiseled like my Ken doll and the color of burnished cedar. His arms were layered with muscles and his chin was strong with an artful hint of stubble. His Adam’s apple was in front of my eyes as he kissed my neck and I saw his pulse in his carotid artery, delicate against all the hard.
“Go ahead,” Armand said. “Touch my neck.”
I put my fingers together to poke his skin. He took his linen boxers off as I was kissing his neck and hooked a finger under my panties. “God, you’re so wet, I can feel that,” he said as he slithered his hand down my leg. His cock was hard against the soft of my thigh as he pushed my legs open. My head was spinning with malbec as his cock bulged against me and I was surprised he could fit. He slid his head back and forth at an angle against my g-spot and deeper. He wrapped his arms around my back and I felt small against his protective bulk.
“On top baby,” he murmured, wrangling me onto him. He went deeper inside me as I rode him, angling myself just so and I came hard on his cock. I squeezed him between my legs as he gripped my thighs, my blood pulsing against his hands on my hips as it returned to the rest of my body. I felt him pulsing too as he came.
“You don’t look at me when we have sex.”
“Is that an autism thing?”
“I don’t usually make eye contact,” I said, “but I can. I can look at my friends and my mom.”
“Well, next time you’re going to look at me, okay?”
Armand flipped me on my back. He started blowing cold air lightly across my outer lips.
“Hey, Armand, that tickles!”
He put the bottom of his tongue inside me and the top on my clit and he moved back and forth until I relaxed to focus. I started to come against his quick tongue and each move brought out the next orgasm, breaking like an escalator into the sky. Then he slid into me again. I felt tender after all that but the closeness was nice. I looked up at his eyelashes as he looked down at my lips.
“Kiss me, Gwendolyn,” he whispered. When he moved his eyes up to look at me I looked back. His eyes were comforting. He came slowly and pulled out. I smiled at him and rolled over on my stomach.
Armand got up to make me a cup of tea. I was almost asleep when he came back in. I drank it quickly and he wrapped his whole body around mine for the night.
When I woke up, Armand was lying on his stomach hugging his pillow. I held my head in my hands to shield the soft morning light coming through Armand’s window and bouncing back at us from the walls.
You’re probably going to assume I was uncomfortable with the closeness, but I wasn’t. I love the vignettes of intimacy whether they carry past the bedroom or not. But I was a college student and he was intense, and I was used to playing poker with young assholes and watching Quinn drink and not having to think about anything important. I thought he’d judge me for my closedness and that I wouldn’t evolve at a speed that would please him. But about 90% of it was that Quinn thought I was just a college skank and couldn’t have a real, grownup one night stand.
In my mind, a real one night stand consists of these three things:
1.) You have to confide in each other.
2.) The sex has to be good.
3.) You should not have known the person before the sex, and you certainly can’t keep in touch with them after it.
Armand and I had all that. We always would. It was bittersweet. I tore a sheet from my notebook and scribbled out
Thank you so much.
Good luck with Ché.
before I slipped out the front door.