Once, just once, just one other time has Wesley looked at me this way.
The timing of the previous occasion could not have been more fortuitous since it was the first time both he and I had seen and met the other.
First impressions are, for better or worse, from a rather fickle and capricious lot. Often causing misconceptions and unfavorable or, even, untrue judgments. Ending early what could become burgeoning relationships, plucking them from the ground, terminating the potential and opportunity to develop into something tall and beautiful. We analogize relationships to plants that need frequent and adequate waterings in order to grow; yet, we forget that in addition to water and nutrients often these plants just need the time to root and mature. Therefore, we should and must think twice before displacing what appears to be a weed because it may indeed be the sprout of an oak tree or the stem from which bespeckled and brush-stroked petals flower.
Wesley’s first impression was while I was tending bar and he ordered a round of drinks for his friends. I had seen them enter but never made out any faces, only noting the slight distinctions of which group member was which. He was dissimilar, but he was also just one of five. Just another guy coming to a bar on a Wednesday evening with his buddies.
As a bartender, one becomes immune to the starry-eyed infatuation from uninhibited intoxication, but his was slightly different. He looked at me as if he had known me, as if I were someone important. His eyes had that one-too-many appearance, looking as if they could cut glass. However, the way he watched me wasn’t the way his fellow ravenous, predatorial males size up a girl they hope to convince to go home with them so their nightcap can be carnally inclined. He looked at me as though he could see through the artifice we construct for a very public world. As if he could see me under the disguise: peel back my mask and speak to the innocent girl underneath it all.
He was and is someone who looks guiltless enough, allowing you to relax around him, but not too guiltless resulting in boring days and evenings and no late nights. In effect, someone with an unspoken, uncommunicated wild and impulsive side, a sharpened edge to keep things dangerous.
“And what can I get you?” I said as he approached the bar, doe-eyed and confused. The look you usually card unless they appear old enough to have graduated high school with your parents.
“Suddenly I forgot what I was coming to order,” he said.
It’s easy to assume this the lead in to a pick-up line; yet, he didn’t look the wolf: no fur, no fangs, and no bite.
“What was your last round?”
“Not very good.”
“That may be so,” I said, “but what was it? I can’t help if I don’t know.”
“Manhattans. The brother of one of my co-workers—the co-workers, I went to college with; the brother, I just met tonight—is visiting New York for the first time and he thought he was being clever—manhattans in Manhattan.”
“That you’re not a whiskey man. And I was the bartender who made those five manhattans.”
He dropped his head as though he were naturally inclined to care for the feelings of others. However, after that departed as quickly as it arrived, he regained his learned disposition.
“Maybe you should practice a little more,” he said, smirking.
Taking me by surprise, his willingness towards playful hostility made me smile. “Okay, asshole, what can I get you?”
“Before ordering, I think I need to defend myself.” He leaned an elbow on the bar top. “First, I am a whisky man. I just prefer the island kind—Scotch and Irish. And, second, I’m a simpler man than one who requires a sweetener and a cherry in their drink. I like things as they are. And I don’t like things as they’re not. You know, when they’re all dressed up. Give me substance over style and I’m happy.”
“You must be rich.”
“Are you asking?”
“No need. I know you are.” He nodded, asking me to expound. “It’s a slow-ish night tonight, so I noticed you and your friends. The friends you’re with—the ones you referred to as co-workers—all waited for you to sit before they did. When you volunteered to get the next round, every one but the out-of-towner offered otherwise. Since you went to school with them—they’ve known you a while and spent enough time to establish a hierarchy—thus, you must be loaded, making you the alpha. Which you reject—of course—and out of necessity, not by choice. Substance over style has served you quite well.”
He looked confused. He still didn’t understand.
“It was the way you looked at me. Alphas don’t do that. You’ve seen things but you’re still innocent. You could own the world, but you chose to come up here and order drinks for the table. You can’t hide alpha and you can’t hide innocence. You, my friend, are a lost boy wearing a gator suit. And if I listened intently enough, I bet I’d hear the clock.”
I paused, waiting for him to interject, banter with me, but he stayed silent.
“So, what’ll it be? Neat and clean Scotch for the five of you?” I said, mildly disappointed at a seeming missed opportunity. The ones with promise that are as rare as the others are frequent.
Removing the bottle tops, I slid them one by one across the bar. He stayed silent.
“Put it on his tab? Or open another one?”
“His will do.”
He grabbed the bottles and stepped away from the bar. Another step, he stopped and returned.
“You’re smart and observant, but you’re wrong,” he said. I leaned forward. He had my curiosity. “I didn’t come over because I’m a diffident and humble rich guy. I came over because I thought you were one of the most alluring women I’ve seen in this city for quite some time. And, since you’re smart and observant, you understand the type of women a guy with money attracts. Yet, it’s you. A bartender with beauty and brains that has intrigued me. It’s hard to find style with substance nowadays. But here I am. I’ve stumbled upon some.
“And, a bit of advice, this is New York. Wolves don’t walk around in their fur and bare their fangs. They look like me. May even act like me. Be careful, sweetheart. We bite.”
He left the bar without another word but returned three days later, grinning as he ordered a manhattan, asking about me, gasping, smiling, and laughing in all the right places, and leaving shortly after finishing his drink.
This happened again, twice more, and, finally, the sixth time he ordered a double Scotch, neat, drank it as though he had nerves to ease, and asked me if we could go out for dinner sometime.
Initially, I thought it was going to go the way of other rich-guy, poor-girl stories. The rich and capable guy swooping in to save the poor and helpless girl, but he was good at reading me. He knew I would have rejected him the moment I became his Pretty Woman or Fair Lady. The way he looked at me that first meeting informed me of his interest in the person I was and not about the superficial. He was as he said, a man who preferred the substance to the style, the product regardless of the advertisement.
However, that was two years ago and, until just now, he hadn’t looked at me that way since. I suppose us women don’t expect people to look at us that way and don’t demand it either, but when it happens we can’t help but wonder why they don’t always. The reverse of the I love you. Saying it because it is something you say. The mandatory exit phrase of phone calls, texts, days and nights, and when signing their birthday cards. It happens so frequently as to not even remember saying it, but when they tell you they love you in a deep-seeded, genuine, I-know-you-mean-this way, during those stripped down moments when your immediate environment fades and you only notice the person who just stated that you’re worth stopping for, you’re worth risking heartache for, you’re worth sacrificing for, that you’re redeemable, unfallen in a fallen world, that you’re known yet still appreciated, and that you’re worthy of the single most important utterance within our language, you begin to wonder why each time hearing I and love and you isn’t the earth-shattering, end-all, and be-all experience it deserves to be. Those I love yous and those looks are the second-glass-of-wine moments making life’s hardships and stressors endurable.
In the lobby of our building, the elevator doors are plated in gold. For a girl from Queens who was orphaned at thirteen, gold-plated doors aren’t décor touches classing up a place, but gross misuses of money. I struggled to avoid homelessness and these people rode up and down in elevators wrapped in gold. Yet here I am, stepping out of a gold-plated elevator in a high-rise complete with apartments priced by the million. Life’s weird.
The doorman, Kyle—a twenty-two-year-old who smokes pot on his breaks and drowns the earthy smell of marijuana with the gold-plated elevator of cologne, Drakkar Noir—pulls open one of the front entrance double doors and greets us with a smile only achievable post break.
“Good evening, Mr. Alter and Ms. Rose,” he says while trying to hide a piece of gum on the side of his mouth.
“Good evening, Kyle,” I say.
“Good evening,” Wesley says. “Why do you always wear so much damn cologne, Kyle?”
I chuckle. Wesley doesn’t know of the extracurriculars among the staff at Westington Tower. Kyle’s cheeks flush a tad but he remembers that Wesley is a member of his generation. That he isn’t a baby boomer with an incongruous, opposing set of morals. Therefore, he won’t lobby for Kyle to be fired just because it is unbecoming for members of the highest class to be in contact with people who consume such lowly drugs. If it isn’t white—that kind of thing.
“I’ll remember to use one or two fewer sprays next time, Mr. Alter.”
“How about just one or two, period, not fewer. And for the last time, don’t call me Mr. Alter. Call me, Wes. I’m not my father.”
“Very good, sir. Wes, sir.”
Wesley rolls his eyes and Kyle smirks and winks at me as our driver opens the door for us.
Climbing in the back seat, Wesley continues what he started with Kyle.
“Why must he continue to act as though I am somebody for him to fear. With all the ‘Sirs’ and ‘Misters.’ I’ve never once—”
“I think,” I say, cutting him off, “he is messing with you, Wesley. That’s all. You’re the one who started it with the cologne. Don’t be so sensitive. You are in New York.”
Wesley shakes his head. “Don’t remind me.”
He removes his phone from his jacket’s inside pocket to begin reading the emails he’s received since leaving the office only a couple of hours ago.
Don, our driver, enters the car and turns onto Fifty-Third in midtown, taking us to Enrique’s Place, a new restaurant on Twentieth Street. Most avoid Seventh because no one avoids Seventh, but Wesley likes it. He likes the tourists and Times Square. He likes the flash of cameras memorializing a trip to the City with the bright lights and glowing streets. He likes the billboards advertising Broadway shows and Hollywood blockbusters. He likes the American materialism blinking and shining because it makes him feel as though he isn’t quite a New Yorker. He’s close enough to the glitz and the glam to feel like a vacationer yet far enough away not to idolize a city he considers having engineered the greatest modern marketing scheme.
He hates New York for the restrictions it imposes on its populace. But he’s from a rich family with severe and limiting expectations, so he doesn’t understand the liberty a city this size in a country this free grants its people. In a way, he hates New York because he’s rich but also indulges New York because he’s rich. Thereby making him a proper New Yorker: a contradictory life form, a unique species of being genuine and not, sincere and not, uncommon and yet just like every other New Yorker accepting the imposed perception of what it means to be a New Yorker.
A child of privilege is one of paradox: the world is theirs for the taking, anything and everything they desire can be theirs, as long as it’s what they’re allowed to desire—only that which will continue to build upon their privilege. There’s no class movement for the rich. If you want to be a teacher or a police officer or someone who isn’t ruled by the compulsion to chase dollars, you can’t. Or, at least for him and his father. Wesley lives a life he doesn’t want while understanding that it’s a life to be wanted. This is his New York.
Tonight’s dinner at Enrique’s Place is with a friend of mine from college. She’s visiting the City from Albany. There, she has a child she raises and, there, her husband is a pediatrician. This is their first night away since having their daughter three months ago.
Last year, before she ballooned and birthed a beautiful baby named Sofia, Allison and Evan got married. A springtime woodland wedding with a wildflower bouquet and a simple, flowing white dress. Lanterns hung from the overhanging branches and “Somebody to Love” by Queen was the processional song. It was very Allison and Evan. Non-traditional, no “Wedding March,” no chapel, no historical, religious overtones of marrying under God, and they, bride and groom, walked down the aisle together.
Her father was the one who suggested the idea of straying from the custom of being given away because she isn’t his to give away. “My daughter’s a woman and that means she decides, not me.”
Their first dance was as night fell and the moonlight splintered through the trees. Straight out of Salem in the late sixteens—without the heat and hysteria—people danced and drank, delighting in the “ancient art of love.” At least that’s what their invitations promised.
It’s sentiments like that which make me think maybe, just maybe, I’d want to get married. However, not likely. For me, I enjoy the idea of a life partner, not a husband. No legality. No impositions. Just love and commitment because we choose to love and commit. Not remaining together to avoid the taboo of divorce, the stigma associated with not being able to make it work with a person you once loved enough to vow your life to. Marriage, for me, I’ll pass.
Maybe that’s why Wesley and I work so well together. He doesn’t want marriage either. I doubt he’s ever even thought of proposing. Or given it a second glance. He’s probably never said or heard those words—will you marry me—without cringing or laughing at the concept.
Marriage and proposals, not Wesley. No way.