May and Sam watched the bartender shake the martinis and pour them into the chilled glasses. They had been going to this industry party for years and had never seen such care given to a cocktail. It was a small temporary bar on the deck of a large party boat cruising between the tip of Manhattan and up the Hudson River to the George Washington Bridge. The boat was full of print buyers and salespeople, flowers and bees, cocktail dresses and suits.
May sold printing for Vintage, a small shop on Long Island. Sam bought it for Random House, the glossy covers you see at the end of supermarket check out lanes on romance and mystery novels.
“They don’t deserve this level of art,” May said.
“These swine would drink anything,” Sam said.
“We are these swine.”
“I know it. Cheers.”
Sam needed this drink. Earlier in the day, his boss had called him into her office and asked him to shut the door. After he was sworn to secrecy, she told him that they were laying off his friend and only report, Jo, at the end of the quarter. He would tell her in the morning. Tonight, he wanted to get drunk, to eat too much food, to flirt uselessly with May.
Sam and May moved to the boat’s railing and looked out on the buildings along the New Jersey side of the river. A breeze blew through their hair, and Sam felt the first lift of the martini. He thought back to the summer five years ago when he thought he was in love with May. They had walked around the Village for a month holding hands. She was still living with her boyfriend, a real jerk, and Sam thought she would leave him. She broke it off with Sam, because the boyfriend promised to get sober for her. Sam wondered if he ever did. This party is the only time that Sam allowed himself to speak to her outside of work.
“Show me your apartment.”
“See that building with the red tile roof and the big windows.”
“I lived in that gray building next to it, about half way up.”
Sam knew where it was. He asked her to do this at every Barge Bash. He thought of what the sun must look like in the mornings in that window when she wakes up and how the water must look when the sun is coming down. The martini faltered, and he remembered that her boyfriend was there, too. Seeking another updraft, he took a gulp of his martini and rewarded himself with the olive. He looked down at the water. He tried to see through it to whatever must be swimming below and a word came back to the surface.
“Lived? You moved.”
May paused and turned from the scenery to look at him. “I left him.”
Sam knew that he should say something about being sorry that it didn’t work out, but he couldn’t.
”He lived with me for ten years without asking me to marry him and then I decided I didn’t want to fuck him anymore.”
The ship’s horn let out a throaty roar of warning at a small sailboat that meandered into their path. There were a few people on the deck of the smaller ship. The men were flipping the big ship off. The women were holding wine glasses laughing.
Jo and Teresa joined them at the railing. Teresa worked with May at Vintage Printing. They were all approaching forty. Only Jo was married. They had been doing business with each other for fifteen years. Jo and Teresa were already drunk, and they were each holding a plate of cake pops stacked in a small pyramid like musket balls.
“Look at those idiots,” Teresa said.
The one with a captain’s hat on, lowered his pants and shook his ass at them like a duck.
Jo excitedly held her plate up. “It’s the raspberry filled ones from last year.”
“Hey May, where’s Eleanor?” Jo asked. “She ate so many of these last year that she almost threw up.”
“She had her operation today.”
“Oh shit. I forgot.”
“What’s wrong with Eleanor?” Sam asked.
“Fuck,” Sam said. “We never get good news about anyone. It’s like Death is stalking this boat. Last year, we found out about Ginny and Steve. Now, it’s Eleanor.”
May corrected Sam. “It sucks, but they caught it early. She’s going to be fine.”
“See, Sam. That’s good news. Christ. Have a cake pop,” Jo said.
Sam took one out of guilt.
“What hospital? We can send flowers. That’s the least the company can do,” Jo said.
“She’ll be home tomorrow,” May said.
“Okay. We can send a basket.”
“I don’t think she will have much of an appetite,” May said.
“We can make it a non-perishable basket. Cheese and jam and summer sausage and dried figs.”
“Who eats dried figs?” Sam asked.
“It’s a nice thing. What do you two have against baskets?”
“Put it on my budget,” Sam said.
“Okay. Hold this. I’m doing it right now.”
Jo held up her phone to show Sam a picture of a basket. “Boom. Do you feel like a nice guy now?”
That afternoon Sam argued for Jo’s job but the decision, his boss said, had been made months ago. She explained what Sam already knew, that people were buying their romance novels as ebooks. The print work was drying up and none of the jobs in their group were secure, hers included. She advised him to make sure his resume was up to date. Sam felt like Jo could read these thoughts, that the whole conversation was flickering across his face like a movie.
Sam turned from Jo and looked at May. Her news had made him nervous. His feelings for her were unresolved, but he had whittled them to down to a manageable size. For the last few years, she no longer threw him off balance. But tonight, her face, her long black hair, her bare shoulders, were acting on him like the martini did.
“Who needs another drink?” May asked.
“Appletini,” Teresa said.
“Me, too,” Jo said.
Sam leaned over and whispered in May’s ear, “You can’t ask that guy to make an Apple-tini. It’s not right.”
“Of course. You’re not drinking with the amateurs tonight.”
“Hey, no secrets,” Teresa said.
“We are making fun of your Apple-tinis,” May said. She went to another bartender. Sam was too high to hide that he was watching her walk away.
“We’re going to miss her,” Teresa said.
“What do you mean?”
“She put in her notice three weeks ago. She’s moving home to Charlotte.”
“I don’t blame her. She took Todd leaving pretty hard,” Jo said.
“I thought she left him.”
“No, he left her. For a twenty-five year old barmaid with fake tits. I know you’ve seen her. She works at the Hoboken train station bar.”
Sam knew exactly who she was talking about.
“Are you sure he was the one that left?”
“I’m sure. We went out drinking the night it happened.”
May came back, holding four martini glasses, two in each hand, perfectly balanced, shoulder level in front of her. Her steps were small like a tight rope walker’s.
“How you do that?” Sam asked.
“Three years of waitressing and twenty years of drinking. Cheers.”
“I heard that they won’t do the boat next year. Too expensive,” Jo said.
“But I love this boat,” Sam said.
“What will they call the party?” Jo asked.
“They are keeping the name. I’m on the committee,” Teresa said. “It won’t be on the boat, but we are going to try to keep it by the water.”
The bosses of their bosses wafted through shaking hands. The guy who sold the copper binding dies wanted them to buy a raffle ticket. The assistants that had left and risen above them at other companies walked by, barely acknowledging them. The woman with a glass eye that sold case cover materials. The tall man who designed boxes. What was an indistinct drifting of people, focussed itself when the jazz band put their instruments away and the first thumping notes of bass rose from the dance floor on the deck below.
“Let’s go. I haven’t danced since this party last year,” Teresa said. She finished off her appletini and put her glass down with a flourish. May and Jo followed her example.
May held back and let Teresa and Jo go on without her.
“You’re moving?” Sam asked.
“Teresa has a big mouth. Come on. I want to dance.”
She took his hands and smiled.
“Why did you tell me you left him?”
She let him go.
“It’s what you wanted to hear.”
“What would you do if he texted right now?”
“Oh God, you are really blowing it. Come on. I’d rather dance with you than that creepy guy from the prepress company.”
“I’ll catch up. I need another drink.”
“I’ll be downstairs. Dancing.”
Sam stood unsteadily at the bar. The good bartender waited for Sam to order. Sam saw the dread behind his customer service smile. He didn’t want to make Sam another Martini. Sam put a hand on the bar to steady himself. The bartender was right. The party was over. All that was left was the polishing of resumes. Sam ordered a beer to wind down and put a five in the tip jar. The bartender nodded.
Downstairs, the music was louder. Sam found the last station still serving dinner. On the other side of the room, he could see the women who were his friends dancing. May was whirling in the exact middle of the dance floor under the spinning ball. She was dancing like she hated everyone and wanted them to look at her at the same time.
Sam went straight for the carving station, and the server sliced a large piece of prime rib. He put three spoonfuls of horseradish sauce on his plate and sat at an abandoned table. The rush for the dance floor had been so sudden that the tables hadn’t been bussed yet. It reminded him of a picture he saw from Pompeii. A feast preserved in stone and abandoned, a loaf of bread in the center of a set table. He put a plate of half eaten food on top of another to make room for himself. He set to work with the dull steak knife. At the feast, there must have been people who didn’t run, who finished their food, wiped their mouths and walked calmly into the new world.