Last Call in the City of Bridges
By Salvatore Pane
Braddock Avenue Books
It was supposed to be the greatest night of our lives. By our, I mean my entire generation, all those unlucky souls raised on the 8-bit wastelands manufactured by Nintendo, all those boys and girls who watched the Berlin Wall crumble in kindergarten, the Twin Towers in high school. Overeducated, Twittering, viral. We were in the process of becoming beams of light. Too fast. Too quick for the longwinded ruminations of cinema, the sluggish pace of weekly television installments, the painful seconds it took to scan blog entries of celebrities and friends alike. We were a generation of microbloggers. 140 character rants. Election Night was supposed to be our moment, but not all of us were ready to believe. Not people like me, scorned lovers who lost their voting virginity to the 2004 presidential election. By the eve of the Obama age, that loss still burned bright. But we longed to call ourselves whole again, something more than receptacles for networks and terabytes.
I lived in Squirrel Hill on the east end of Pittsburgh. A place with cobblestone streets and Orthodox families, ancient synagogues where Rabbis still cared about the proclamations of an absent God. My old roommate Oz was long gone, but I still clung desperately to his possessions, the apartment transforming more and more into a mausoleum with each new day.
While election results scrolled across the TV screen, I went to the bookshelf where I kept the booze. I liked to run my finger down the spines of Oz's books and think important thoughts while fixing myself a drink. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. By the time I returned to the couch, Obama had already won. I held up my highball in toast. I'd seen Humphrey Bogart order one in a black and white film and had started drinking them while reading articles on the internet that foretold the end of the world: the Large Hadron Collider, food riots, Al Gore and the magic of global warming, nuclear holocaust, the sixth extinction, the collapse of the oil industry, etc. etc.
I knew Obama's victory would be a moment I'd always remember, and to celebrate, I thumped my knee and clapped softly three times. I logged onto Twitter and typed WOOOOOO but was drowned out by the collective noise of a million techno liberals orgasming simultaneously. Someone in my feed tweeted about heading to the Squirrel Cage for victory drinks.
The Squirrel Cage?
The Squirrel Cage!
It had been months since I'd ventured inside that lovable bar just seven blocks away from my home, since I'd experienced firsthand the smoke, rust and charm of a bar that was hip but not too hip. There's nothing about the Cage that makes it inherently unique. There are a dozen places like it in Pittsburgh, a thousand in other American metropolises, a million in the small towns lurking amongst the shadows between Los Angeles and New York City. But the Cage possessed a sour je ne se quoi because my friends and I had grown up there and discovered things about each other we never wanted to know, secrets that prevented us from ever being civil again.
I felt him calling to me from beyond the edge of my staticy television screen, his body shaded translucent blue like Obi-Wan Kenobi. Go to the Squirrel Cage, Michael. Do it for me, the B-Man. Do it for my daughters. They're cute, right? Super cute. And may the force be with you. If I left immediately, I could catch his acceptance speech at the Cage, I could bear witness to something magical with a room of drunken, joyous peers. I buttoned my pea coat and went out, the cold shocking me sober. Cars honked as they sped by. People stood on porches and banged pots and pans. Students poured out of the makeshift Democratic Headquarters amid dozens of red, white and blue balloons.
The Squirrel Cage was packed with twenty-somethings cool enough to name check obscure bands with low run EPs, to wear vintage threads from the thrift shop next door, to recognize that all emotion had turned irrelevant in the rising tide of millennial irony. We valued apathy. Caring about things was beyond the point, the zombie ramblings of generations past. But in this moment everyone understood that it was acceptable to relent, that on this day we would not be judged. We hooted and hollered. We stomped our feet. Someone played "Rock Lobster" on the electronic jukebox. I shoved past the crowd and ordered another highball.
In walked Ivy Chase, a gust of cold air trailing her. She saw me at the bar and stopped midstride. I blinked at her. Once, twice, three times. What did exes ever have to say to one another? The sweet roundness of Ivy's body was hidden by a sweater, overcoat, and three plaid scarves. She rubbed her elbow and looked behind her. I knew she was considering leaving on my account, and because I couldn't deal with that humiliation I raised my glass and waved, a splash of whiskey wetting the lapel of my coat. Behind me on the television, John McCain was conceding the presidency to boos and screams in Phoenix, Arizona: the nuclear desert of the McCarthy era.
Now it was Ivy's turn to blink. Her hair was different. Shorter. It framed her face. She'd always had gorgeous hair—blonde: soft and fluffy when straightened, thick curls otherwise—and I'm not ashamed to admit I was suddenly filled with longing, the old sensations that had blinded us for so long. For the first time in months, my old flame Ivy Chase smiled at me, her girl-next-door grin full of dimples and big teeth. I'd always had a thing for girls with big teeth. Ivy Chase. I should have known!
She came over and rocked back and forth on her kicks. "Crazy isn't it?"
"I haven't been here in months."
She narrowed her eyes. "I meant the election."
A boy in a ratty sports coat squeezed between us, a bottle of beer raised high above his head like a promise. Ivy placed her hand on her hip and smiled again. Her eyes were blue and I kept trying to look past her, to see someone I recognized roaming around the Cage, one of the many graveyards of my fast evaporating youth.
"You want to catch up?" she asked.
I shrugged. She was twenty-two—three years my junior—but still had a way of making me feel like a child. "I'll buy you a beer," I offered.
She called the bartender over. From the way he playfully slapped his cheek at the sight of her, I knew she hadn't been here recently either. I was good with details, which was something Ivy had liked about me once. We headed toward the back and stood between two pinball machines, huddled so that no one would jostle us on their way past. Arcade buzzers and beeps served as the soundtrack, the electronic dissonance of our flat-lined love.
"Have you seen any of the old gang or is everyone still crazy off the grid?" she asked.
"I haven't seen anyone in months."
She sipped through the foam of her lager and bopped her head as some hipster played every song off Born to Run. I held my glass over the wet spot on my jacket and hoped Ivy didn't notice. Her golden cross glittered under the pale light of the bar and shone against her porcelain skin. She turned to the front and gave a great big wave. I bargained with whatever higher power might listen to me for Ivy not to be meeting some guy here, that I wouldn't be forced to have my nose rubbed in her uncontrollable happiness. But no, it was worse. It was Elaine Tedesco.
"You," she said.
She poked me in the chest. "You are absolutely disgusting, Michael. My mother told me what you said to her and I don't buy a word of it. And that thing you made on the internet! What's wrong with you? Are you even human?"
"But but but but but but but-"
"Just stop." She put her back to me and touched Ivy's forearm. "I'll meet up with you when you're done with this..." She paused here to find the perfect word, but it never came. She shook her head, turned on her heels and left.
"Guess she hasn't gotten over it," Ivy said.
"You know about all that? With her mother?"
"Of course. We had a long talk about all things Michael Bishop related."
"You were the one who told me to go see her."
"I told you to be honest."
To Ivy's credit, she didn't look disgusted by me, only a little saddened, maybe even interested, the way people slow down alongside a car crash to gawk at the unthinkable damage. And I suddenly wanted to apologize for everything that had happened. Not just between the two of us, or even our broken circle of friends, but between everyone in the entirety of human existence.
"I'm so, so sorry."
"I know, Michael."
The jukebox cut out and everyone hushed. There he was. President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama, a sea of Chicago awed before him. He opened his golden mouth and made everything beautiful again. If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer. He gave us something to believe in, the tiny shuddering hope that we—the hip, the young, the beautiful and free—could climb out of our media caves and once again see the light we had come to know so intimately in childhood. I watched people clap, watched Ivy turn to the wondrous rays of the almighty television, close enough to smell her perfume, an item she once compulsively hid from me. She used to tell me it was mystery that kept relationships alive. I wondered if she still believed that and tried to envision a parallel universe where we'd stayed together. Would we have made it? Would we have been happy? Obama spoke. He spoke some more. We listened. This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. I touched the small of Ivy's back. That inward swoop was my favorite part of her body, an intimate place only I saw exposed, but innocent enough to stroke in public. She didn't respond. But it was the least and most I could do, a bittersweet moment, something we could fondly remember after an unhappy ending. And when the speech was over, the whole bar remained silent, listening to the commentators discuss the legion of problems the Obama Administration would have to face: the escalating financial crisis, dual wars abroad, the potential death of the planet. Can he do it, the news anchor asked, can he pull us out of this mess? The analyst shook his head, said he wasn't sure, told us to enjoy tonight because there were dark times ahead.