Out shopping a couple of months ago, my wife and I came across a sinister item: a black t-shirt swirling with skulls and burning buildings, and bearing the baleful message CHICAGO: WHERE THE WEAK ARE KILLED AND EATEN. We knew instantly we'd found the perfect gift for our old friend Stan.
Stan cultivates a reputation for being a wild man. That's not so tough to do, in his circumstances: he lives in the tame wilderness, and works with white-bread computer people. He needs only mention he's coming into the big city to visit friends, and they all roll their eyes in alarm. The effect of the t-shirt on them was dramatic and gratifying. But it also had a less predictable effect on Stan.
Stan's a sweet and charming man, but he's subject to certain pressures. Ten years ago, he really was wild -- running amuck on booze and speed. He got into a program just before his vices killed him. He's been clean and sober since then: he now has a loving, very conservative wife and two heartbreakingly beautiful children; they live in a big old house, imposing but dilapidated, that affords Stan endless opportunities for burning off nervous energy. He's thrown himself into home improvement with the same fervor he used to bring to partying. In fact, he looks about the same, sweaty and wild-eyed, with the rock music blasting and a litter of non-alcoholic beer bottles kicking underfoot. But he is the first to admit that it just doesn't feel the same. He still misses his wild days. When the pressure is on, he misses them a lot.
It's been a hard year for Stan and his family. He and his wife had once been so compatible it was scary -- they were both handsome, aglow with erotic energy, and ideologically committed to mathematics and technology as the only worthwhile fields of human endeavor. Recently, though, she's lost her faith in her old rationalistic worldview. It happened after she became seriously ill -- and her doctors were unable to offer a diagnosis or a cure. Since orthodox medicine is failing her, she's begun exploring alternatives. These days, she's a passionate enthusiast for the occult theories of Rudolf Steiner.
Stan is not an admirer of Rudolf Steiner. While his wife puzzles through texts teaching how to rise out of the evils of the material plane into a realm of pure spiritual essences, Stan devours cyberpunk science fiction, and spends every free moment plugged into the Internet -- where he and his nameless, locationless friends debate old TV shows, special effects movies, and the imminent supplanting of ordinary life by virtual reality. He despises his wife's new friends: Steinerians who actually visit the house in the flesh, and sit around the living room discussing Steiner's theory of child rearing -- according to which, video games, TV, and even literacy are banned in the name of the child's unimpeded spiritual development. Stan refers to them as "Luddites," out to smash the technology he still cherishes. The atmosphere at home has become very tense.
We thought it might be a good idea to give them both a break. So we invited Stan to spend a vacation week with us. He jumped at the offer -- or else his wife pushed very hard. Her own patience was wearing thin: no matter how much he may still love her, he's never been any good at hiding his scorn.
On the drive in, Stan started thinking that he needed to do something for himself this week. He'd been conscientious for so long, he was about due for a spree. Not that he wanted to go back to his old vices, even for a night -- but there had to be some symbolic gesture he could make to his bad, free days: some bit of safe drama available to him, one that might even upset the people back home more than the T-shirt did.
By the time he'd gotten stuck on the Kennedy, he'd decided. He was going to get a tattoo.
My wife and I know nothing about tattoos, but we made some calls, and came up with a recommendation: a tattoo parlor on Belmont. The plan fell easily into place. The next Saturday, Stan's last day in town, we'd hit the buffet at Moti Mahal, then mosey down Belmont to get Stan his tattoo. Who knew, we might see something we liked for ourselves.
Stan had a tough time relaxing that week. Normally he hurls himself into some household project we've been putting off -- fixing a sluggish drain, rewiring a closet: that's one reason we're always glad to see him. But this time, he couldn't focus. He started one or two petty repair jobs, and then wandered off to watch TV. His conversation, which usually buzzes around a hundred topics like a maddened housefly, swooped down and circled around one obsessive theme: his dream of starring in the movie version of the archetypical cyberpunk novel Neuromancer.
At first I thought he was revealing a side of his past I'd never heard of before: a passion for movie acting. But I gradually realized I was wrong. Stan had never acted in so much as a high school play. He was just desperate to be swallowed up in that novel -- to be the doomed keyboard jockey in a future industrial wasteland, who risks everything by plugging his brain directly into the computer network. He had it all worked out: he even knew a real producer, somebody who'd made a couple of movies I'd vaguely heard of, who was even now bidding for the rights. The only part of his reverie still unresolved was the casting of the actress who would play the punked-out murderous sex object Molly. Stan was leaning towards Janine Turner of Northern Exposure.
I had read Neuromancer once, at Stan's urging, and I did like it, but found its conversational possibilities ultimately a little thin. By a massive effort of unfeigned boredom, I managed by Saturday to get Stan to change subjects: what kind of tattoo was he going to get? Neuromancer didn't offer any good graphic images. So what about a tribute to his personal hero, Keith Richards? Stan was intrigued -- "Expensive winos!" he suddenly announced, with a tone of surprise, like a man beginning to recover from amnesia.
Belmont woke him up. The peculiar conglomeration around the el stop struck him as a revelation: yuppies, decadents, and gangbangers colliding in an impacted slum, just like in Neuromancer except with less neon. He stared at every person we passed with rapt enthusiasm, until a block away from the restaurant when he stopped as though in a trance. Coming at us out of the crowd, he pointed out to us, was a vision: his Molly. Should he try, should he take a chance, should he introduce himself to her? He didn't have to, my wife told him. We knew who she was.
Nadia is a Russian emigre who's been living in Chicago for four or five years now. When you think of your archetypical image of an Eastern European refugee, you are not thinking of Nadia. She isn't sullen, isn't timid, isn't looking for a better life, isn't escaping persecution or the disintegrating economy. She's young, beautiful, idle, broke by choice, with rich parents to fall back on; days, she works temporary jobs in downtown offices and nights she does other things.
Nadia knows everyone in Chicago. The waiters recognize her at every restaurant; the doormen wave her in at every club; she can walk into a German butcher shop on a run-down street in a somnolent neighborhood, and the withered old man behind the counter will suddenly light up and cry, "Nadia, why haven't you come in for so many years? Here, have a present, fresh-cut, my best pork." And Nadia will have to refuse delicately the bloodstained package, and graciously accept instead a jar of expensive imported honey.
She herself is always giving things away. The first day I met her, she offered me a microwave oven that a temporary roommate had abandoned; my wife inherited a magnificent aviator's jacket that Nadia's date had given her the night before because he had thought it would look sexy on her. Nadia was always trying, she said, to make her life pure. No belongings, no attachments. Sometimes she dreamed of retiring to a non-sectarian nunnery, where she could cut off her hair, wear a plain shapeless shift, and devote her life to spiritual contemplation -- and her fellow nuns.
Today was one of her lazy days, and she was herself on her way to the Indian restaurant. She was delighted to join us -- her lunch companion was a little less so. He was a courtly, handsome Egyptian architect, with whom, it developed, Nadia was currently staying. But they weren't -- she quickly made clear to us -- romantically involved. Well, actually, they had been involved once, briefly, before she'd moved in with him. In fact -- she had the courtesy to wait until he was almost out of earshot to tell us -- the only reason he was putting her up is because he thought he had a shot at getting her back, but that was of course completely out of the question, a disgusting idea really.
Nadia was enchanted by Stan. She loved the Chicago t-shirt, which he had worn for the occasion; she was enraptured that he wanted to get a tattoo, and heartbroken that she had something else she had to do that afternoon and couldn't come watch. I suddenly remembered her once telling me a theory she had, that the more tattoos a guy has, the sweeter he is in bed. And Stan, as it happens, is a handsome and charming man anyway, who loves flirting with any woman he sees.
Towards the end of lunch, she suddenly asked him if he knew anything about stereos. She was having some trouble getting hers to work. "Listen," she said brightly, as she and the architect rose to leave, "I've got a party to go to tonight, but it's going to be horrible and I'm cutting out early. What if I call you afterwards and you can come over and help me fix my stereo?" Stan thought that was a great idea.
When we got out on the street, Stan stood for a long moment without saying anything. Time for the tattoo parlor? my wife asked. Stan shrugged and shook his head, and started drifting towards the el station. Clearly he now had a different symbolic gesture in mind.
He spent the evening pacing around our apartment, picking things up off the mantle and the bookshelves, examining them without noticing anything about them, and putting them back out of place. Towards midnight, it started to rain, and he at once turned on the Weather Channel to monitor the storm's progress. He wanted the time-lapse radar track, as though that would tell him how the rest of the night would develop.
After my wife had gone to bed, I finally asked Stan what he thought was going to happen.
He didn't exactly smirk -- he isn't that kind of person. He said, "I'm just going to go along for the ride and find out."
"You don't understand who you're dealing with," I said. "When she calls, I'll say you've already gone back to your wife. I'll tell her she ought to be ashamed of herself."
"I know what I'm doing," he said. "There's nothing she can throw at me that I can't field."
The phone rang: it was Nadia. I passed her to Stan. Uh, listen, she told him, the party's still going on, and I don't know how much longer I'll be here. So it's no good tonight. Let's do it next time you're in town, okay?
I had to admit, I underestimated Stan. I don't know what I would have done in his place -- but he went onto the next level. He was impassioned. He was flirtatious. He was enticing. His last night in Chicago, he was up for an adventure no matter how late it was, and she knew the city. He was going to be up till dawn anyway: so call him, no matter when.
Nadia was impressed. She said she'd call him back in half an hour.
He hung up and looked smug. I put on a pot of coffee; he began excavating a pint of ice cream. By then the storm had passed, and we went out onto the front porch to see how the night was going. From here, we could take in a wide view of the city. It was a landscape of dark gleams, of wet roofs and treetops silhouetted against the underlit, faintly spectral clouds. The sight had a certain air of mystery to it; the city at that hour didn't look like an abstract grid of lurid trends but a trackless mass of overgrown stone.
After a minute, I said, "Stan, you're not actually going to go through with this, are you? Surely you see you're just going to screw yourself."
He said, "Let me tell you something -- I've played these games my whole life, with all kinds of women. And whenever there's any sexual energy involved, I am a total master."
"Stan," I said, in a fit of exasperation, "in this world, there are the hustlers and there are the suckers, and the hustlers don't talk like that."
"Oh, will you lighten up," he said. "It's just ..." He made an expansive gesture with the ice cream spoon. "It's just a weekend in the big city."
Nadia called about an hour later. Was he ready?
"Rarin' to go," he answered, and winked at me.
Me too, she told him: I'm really into this. There's just one little thing -- I'm at this bar.
"That's okay," Stan said. "I don't drink, but I don't have any problem being in a bar. I'll meet you there."
Wonderful, she told him. Here's the address. But that's not exactly the catch. It's just a little thing. It's a lesbian bar. I mean, they'll let men in, but only if they think you won't be a nuisance. So -- well, it would really be easier if you could kind of act like you were gay. How soon can you be here?
After Stan hung up, he sat for a moment. Then he said to me, "Well, I have a long drive in the morning. I think I'll turn in." He strolled down the hall to the guest room, and closed the door softly.
I gathered up the plates and took them to the kitchen. I wondered if I should move the phone into our bedroom, in case she called again. But I had a guess she wouldn't. As she told me later, she'd already met a woman at the bar. It turned out to be a good night for her -- the only problem was, the woman hadn't been able to get the stereo to work. Women are rarely any good at hooking up stereos.