Seth Werkheiser CC
In early December, a gig-notice email from Meredith showed up in my inbox: she was having a CD-release party the weekend before Christmas at the Fez, a basement club on Lafayette Street.
The attached flyer included a reproduction of the album cover photo—Meredith in an oversized letterman’s jacket, sheltering from a downpour under a convenience store overhang, looking up from a fold-out paper map that is just enough in focus to make out the word “Virginia.” Although it’s probably daytime, all the gas station lights are on, and you can see the quivering reflections of neon beer signs in deep puddles alongside the gas pumps. The photo had been taken with a Polaroid, and there is an authentic unguardedness to the look on Meredith’s face as she takes in her surroundings—like a time-traveler just waking up to the ticky-tack shittiness of 21st century America. The album title, Land of My Baby, is scrawled across the top of the photo, like lipstick on a bathroom mirror.
I knew that the album was imminent, and Meredith had been playing rough mixes in the salon since the summer. But finding out about the release party via email felt strange, and it made me realize how little I had seen of Meredith since I started spending so much time uptown in early September.
To my email, Meredith had added a personal note:
Be there if you ever expect to get a halfway decent haircut again.
You’ll be on the list +1 so you can bring one of your random bar hussies.
See how sweet I am?
I mentioned it to Willett later that night. It was freezing out, so we were holed up at her apartment with two bottles of a good French Pinot Noir. I was flipping around the cable channels, and she was reading quietly in her dad’s old recliner, looking rather prim with her hair up and her glasses on, wrapped in a blanket of worn gray wool.
“Man, I haven’t seen a band in months,” she said, rubbing her nose and stretching. “What night is it?”
“A week from Saturday,” I said.
“It just so happens I’m free that evening!” she said. She was smiling and holding out her wine glass for me to refill.
When the night of Meredith’s gig arrived, it had been snowing since mid-afternoon and was still coming down hard after dark. Willett was in a foul mood.
“We’re not still going out in this shit, are we?” she asked, lying on the couch, as I began getting ready around 9pm. I don’t think she had started drinking yet, but she had been reading and dozing all day long in her underwear. Her hair was a ratty tangle and her eyes were heavy—under the glow of the table lamp, she looked washed-out and insubstantial.
“Meredith is expecting us,” I said.
“Meredith is expecting you,” Willett corrected me.
“I thought you were looking forward to this.”
“That was before…”
She shook her head and made a noise of disgust, as though it was completely beyond the pale for me to request elaboration, however vague or deflective her utterances.
“You said, several times, you were curious to finally meet Meredith,” I said. “Remember? You liked her old record…? You kept playing that one song…?” Willett continued to squint back at me, slack-jawed and disengaged. “Oh, come on, it’ll be fun,” I said, pressing on. “We never do stuff like this.” I went to the window and held the curtain aside, and we observed frenzied whorls of snow streaming past the streetlights on Amsterdam Ave. “Look—it’s a winter wonderland out there!”
Willett rolled her eyes at me and mimed throwing up, but she rose from the couch and stomped off to the shower, letting me hear the heroic effort in every painful step.
For someone who didn’t want to go out, she sure spent a long time getting ready. Sitting in the living room with my coat half-on, I started yelling at her to hurry up, that we were going to be late. Willett yelled back that I should hold my horses, take a chill pill, and when I persisted, shut the fuck up already.
Finally, I heard her coming out of the bedroom. It was close to 10:30, the show’s official start time, and I was well past the point of losing my temper. I got up from the couch, striding aggressively into the hallway, ready for confrontation. But upon seeing her, I literally lost my balance, and with one hand on the wall, as she advanced, I had to step back in retreat.
She was wearing a cream-colored cable knit Shetland sweater and tight jeans, knee-high snow boots with pom-pom tassels, and a vintage tangerine overcoat with a faux fur-lined hood. The hood was down but encircled her head like a wreath. She had blown out her hair so that it fell in waves and ringlets, and her face was made up in an atypically dramatic fashion: the eyes shaded black and the lips bright red.
“Fuuuuuck,” I said, looking her up and down.
“I’m hoping to get lucky,” she said, licking her lips and pulling on a pair of purple reindeer mittens.
Outside, the city had that muffled snowstorm feeling, and big white flakes were still floating steadily downward. Without saying anything to me, Willett went into the liquor store on the corner. I watched her from the street, peering through the neon window sign, as she slid a twenty through the slot in the bullet-proof partition, and the man behind the counter passed her back a pint of peppermint schnapps and some change.
“For the cab ride,” she told me, stepping back out onto the snowy sidewalk. I took her by the mittened hand and led her to the curb.
In the taxi, Willett set to work on her pint, as if serious money was riding on whether she could polish it off before we got downtown. Still wearing her mittens, she was taking big gulps of schnapps and exhaling loudly, hunched forward breathing through her mouth to catch her breath after each gulp. I was uncertain whether to be amused or alarmed. I tried to stay out of it, but in the end I had to say something.
“Is there some special technique for drinking peppermint schnapps that I don’t know about?” I asked her.
Willett turned her head and squinted at me, congenial in affect but also a little out of it, as if I had broken her concentration in the middle of a taxing cardio routine.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“We’re just cutting across the park—look.” We were driving east through Central Park along the 96th Street transverse. The cab went under an arched stone overpass, after which we wound through wooded areas. Everything was blanketed in white and glowing eerily with reflected light.
“Wow,” said Willett, pressed against the window.
We rolled silently through the enchanted landscape and emerged onto Fifth Avenue: stately pre-War apartment buildings with brick and limestone facades. As the Guggenheim went by on our left, out of nowhere, Willett said, “So tell me everything about Meredith.”
“What?” I said. “Really?”
“Like, how’d you two meet?”
“Ummm…” I said. “I’m not sure, actually. I think we had a few mutual friends in bands…Mostly we were just hanging out in the same bars, going to the same shows…”
“Come on!” said Willett.
“Well, I can tell you the first time that really sticks in my mind…” I said, and Willett nodded vigorously. “So, there was a guy back in the ‘90s who worked at WFMU or something…Or he ran a recording studio…? Maybe both? Anyway, his brother died of AIDS. And his family had this big old Victorian house in Midwood, Brooklyn, out near Brooklyn College. It was like you were in the country. And so every summer he would throw a kind of mini-music festival in his family’s backyard, you know, to raise money for AIDS research.”
“Brooklyn Woodstock!” said Willett. “I remember those.”
“And one year, I saw Meredith’s band there, and I kind of knew her, and they were…they just blew everyone away. You know, you could tell…they were great. And then I was watching some other shitty band that was just going on and on forever, and it was hot, and I was sick from drinking too much beer in the sun and I just wanted a real drink.”
I paused, looking over to make sure Willett was still paying attention.
“And…?” she said, flexing her eyebrows impatiently.
“So,” I continued, “I wandered away from the music area, just kind of snooping around, and I went into the house itself, looking unsuccessfully for the liquor cabinet, and I was poking around in the kitchen, and anyway, eventually I came out the other side into the front yard, where I almost literally tripped over Meredith—you know, intimidatingly cool, lead singer of the day’s most popular band—high as a kite, lying all by herself in the grass clutching a bottle of Malibu rum.”
“Your kind of gal!” said Willett. She elbowed my side in a gesture of cartoon confidentiality. “Did you guys, like, do it right there in the grass?”
“What? No,” I said.
“You ever sleep together?”
“No!” I said.
“Liar!” she said, laughing.
“Not liar,” I said. “We may have gotten drunk and made out once or twice, but I really don’t remember. And if we did, it was a long time ago. We’re not each other’s types.”
“So, what is her type?”
“Meredith likes burly men—bikers, bouncers. Big, strong guys with muscles and facial hair…”
Willett looked at me side-eyed and burst out with more laughter.
“All right,” I said. “Get it out of your system…”
“I just think it’s funny,” said Willett. “‘Types.’” She snickered. “What does that even mean? Like, what’s your ‘type’?”
“I think you have a pretty good idea what my type is,” I said.
“Yeah, maybe, but…I can’t see myself through your eyes. Who knows if the person you see when you see me even exists?”
“What?” I asked.
“You know,” said Willett, “projections. Maybe what you see is more you than me.”
“Is this what schnapps sounds like?” I asked. “Because if it is, I really think people should start drinking more of it.”
“Ha-ha,” she said. “No, it’s just…Since I was fourteen, men have been telling me that I—” Her eyebrows scrunched, and she bit her lower lip, seeming to have second thoughts about completing the sentence. Instead she took a big, syrupy swig of schnapps. We rode again in silence for a while, and Willett occupied herself drawing smiley faces and hearts in the window condensation with a mittened knuckle.
“Ooh,” she said, wiping the glass clear with her palm. “Salvation Army Santa!”
We were going past Saks and Bergdorf’s and all those places. I turned too late to see the Santa but could hear the ringing bell as we drove by. Despite the late hour and the heavy snowfall, the sidewalks thronged with holiday revelers, and tourist families clustered around the lavish window displays. Everywhere you looked, the avenue was hung with colored lights and oversized ornaments, bright banners and boughs of holly.
“I think we see each other pretty well,” I said.
Willett responded to that by offering me the schnapps bottle, and I took a drink. It tasted disgusting, but the day’s first infusion of alcohol into my nervous system felt good. Willett was beaming at me as I drank, crackling with electricity.
“Projection or…interconnection?” she said. “Maybe our individual identities aren’t completely self-contained within the material limits of our brains and bodies. Maybe we’re constantly spilling over and mixing with the essences of other people!”
“How strong is peppermint schnapps?” I asked, pretending to scan the label. “80 proof?”
“And if that’s true,” said Willett, ignoring me, “then the people who observe us, with whom we interact, may actually carry bits of our identities inside of their heads, in their memories and perceptions of us. So that certain elements of our identities don’t actually belong to us. They’re held in custody by other people and can only be manifested by us in the presence of those specific other people.”
“It sounds like you’re saying that the person you are in my presence is dependent upon my being present for her existence…?”
“Yes!” replied Willett.
“Isn’t that circular reasoning?” I asked. “A tautological argument?”
“Pfff…” said Willett, flexing her mittens. “Let’s say the spiritual essence of me—the essential Mary-Kate-ness—exists, like, maybe…75% inside my own brain and body; but the other 25% of everything that makes me ‘me’ is widely dispersed. It resides in your head and Dave’s head and Betsy’s and Wally’s and my dad’s…” She began to laugh again. “And don’t forget, Michael, it works the other way, too: the man you are in my presence would literally cease to exist if I ever ceased to exist!”
“What?” I said.
“Because you wouldn’t be you without the parts of you I have in here!” She tapped her forehead a few times with the curve of her right mitten and gave me a half-wink. I needed a second drink, but even as I tilted back the schnapps bottle, Willett was grabbing it out of my hands. “Don’t finish it!” she cried.
“Jesus,” I said.
“Mine, mine, all mine!” said Willett, tapping her forehead again and laughing uproariously.
We exited the cab on Bleecker St., alighting carefully onto a patch of shiny black pavement between two parked cars entombed in snow. Falling crystals glistened the fur trim on Willett’s hood. I stuck my arms inside her unbuttoned coat and around her waist, lightly gripping her hips under the overhanging sweater and pulling her close.
“Are you going to be like this all night?” I asked.
The copper spokes in her eyes had taken on a reddish tinge, diffusing through the emerald irises like blood in water. She was smiling gamely but uncomprehendingly, like a non-native speaker determined to be agreeable.
“Yes!” she said.
“Please, Mary Kate.”
“Whatever you want!” she said. “You want me to be with you, right? And act nice in front of your friends?” I nodded. “You want us to have a good time together?”
“Yes, of course…”
“Then I promise, that’s what we’ll do—” She made devil’s horns with her left hand. “—scout’s honor.”
I looked at her hopelessly.
“Oh, for god’s sake,” she said, leaning in for a kiss. Her mouth was sticky from the schnapps and tasted like candy canes. “See?” she said. “Everything is fine.”
Philip Shelley is co-editor of Whiskey Tit Journal, an offshoot of the Vermont-based small press, and his writing has been featured in publications from Pitchfork to Sad Girls Club, in the anthology Ungatherable Things, and in performance at Howl! Arts in lower Manhattan. He came of age as the guitarist and principal songwriter for influential NYC all-teenage art-pop band Student Teachers (Ork Records). The first chapter of his forthcoming novel Willett received the Andre Dubus Award for short fiction. He lives in Midcoast Maine.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.