The first person I ever met who made a run at New York was a woman named Paula. I was working as a dishwasher in a seafood restaurant for the summer and Paula was the bartender. She had large, sympathetic eyes and wore spectacularly tight T-shirts, which are two ideal qualities for a bartender to have. Customers were forever mooning over Paula. Even after we’d close, men would come to the door and cup their hands around their eyes, peering into the dark bar. “Paula!” they’d shout. “Paula, are you in there? Paula!”
These men became known as “Paula’s Fan Club.” Because I was the tallest kitchen worker, I was the one who walked Paula to her car at the end of night. One night one of her fan club members—a man with a potbelly and a Tom Selleck mustache—lunged at us out of the bushes. “Paula! It’s me, Frank!” he said.
This had never happened before, so I had no idea what to do. I stepped between Paula and Frank and said the words, “Back! Back!” as if the man were a vampire instead of a sad, painfully lonely drunk. Paula got into her dilapidated car and drove away. The man and I stood there in the empty parking lot looking at each for a few seconds. Then he looked down at the ground. “I love her,” he mumbled before staggering back into the bushes.
After the encounter with Frank, Paula warmed up to me considerably. Whenever I went to the bar to collect beer glasses, she began giving me a series of heart-stopping winks. One night, as I picked up the bar bus bin, she turned her back on a droning customer and, facing me, she placed her index finger at the base of her jaw and pulled an imaginary trigger, blowing her imaginary brains out.
I began to study the local real estate magazines during my breaks, picking out the house that Paula and I would live in one day after we got married. There was a Cape Code on Marina Drive listed at $66,000. I drove by it on my way home from work one day, to give it the once-over. Paula would love it, I was certain.
A week or so later, a rumor quickly circulated through the restaurant that Paula was leaving. She’d put in her notice. I asked her if it was true. “Dan and I are moving to New York,” she said. “It’s our dream.” Dan, I discovered much to my chagrin, was Paula’s fiance. Paula’s plan was to take a night class at NYU, then enroll fulltime next semester, once they got their “feet on the ground.”
On Paula’s last night at the restaurant, her Fan Club came out in droves. Even Frank and his mustache put in an appearance, asking Paula for her forgiveness and wishing her luck in New York. Everyone left $20 and $50 bills underneath their empty draft glasses. “Good luck, Paula!” one man shouted. “Kick New York’s ass, Paula!” another said. Paula’s tip jar overflowed two times before the night was through. Once the bar was closed, the staff held an after-party, with everyone saying their tearful goodbyes to Paula. Her fiance Dan showed up for this, to my great disappointment. I did everything in my power to despise Dan, but after chatting with him for a few minutes I had to admit that he was charming and funny and smart and very much worthy of Paula.
During our boozy goodbyes, Paula hugged me tight, bending her elbow around the back of my neck and pulling me close. For a brief second, I thought about our $66,000 Cape Cod on Marina Drive again. “I want you to have this,” she said, handing me a copy of One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which is just about the most terrible book you can give to someone who has a crush on you. Then she was gone.
I reported to work as usual, but things around the restaurant weren’t the same. The excitement was gone from the place. I read the Marquez book repeatedly, even underlining specific passages like a crazy person, certain that there must be some deeper meaning there, some hidden message or subtext that Paula was trying to relay to me. Wait for me, she was saying. I’ll be back for you. Embrace your solitude, even if it lasts for a hundred years.
Then, about a month later, like a mirage, there was Paula again, back behind the bar. It was one of the handful of times in my life that I’ve truly been shocked. “New York didn’t exactly work out for me,” she said quietly. She and Dan had been unable to find a place in “the city,” as she called it. So they’d ended up renting a place a hundred miles north of New York. Their apartment was tiny. She pointed to a spot on the floor about 10 feet away from where she was standing. “From here to there is about how big our apartment was,” she said. Their feet, she explained, nearly touched the front door when they went to bed at night.
Their commute each day was almost two hours long, each way, and involved a bus to a train and, finally, the subway. The class at NYU hadn’t panned out. Tuition was too expensive, so she and Dan had gotten jobs as waiters, to try to make ends meet. In the tiny apartment, worried about money and their futures, she and Dan had begun to argue for the first time in their relationship. Within three weeks of their run at New York City, their relationship had ended. Within four weeks, unable to afford the rent for the tiny apartment on her own, Paula had decided to retreat.
She was still Paula, but something was tired and broken about her now. She had circles under her eyes. She looked pale and drawn. Her spark was gone. In a little over a month, she’d been hollowed out and humbled. And now, here she was—the very thing that I’d been hoping and praying for—cutting limes with a blank look on her face.
A week or so later, as I walked her to her car after a Saturday night shift, I got up the nerve to ask her about the meaning behind One Hundred Years Of Solitude. I braced myself for the explanation. “Someone left it on the bar one night, and I figured instead of throwing it away, I’d give it to you,” she said wearily. Then she let me make out with her in the backseat of her dilapidated car for about 10 minutes before giving me a thoroughly lifeless handjob.
Once the summer ended, I went back to college. I never thought about Paula again. After that, all I thought about for some inexplicable reason was New York.