In the first fifty-six years of his life, Mr. Lloyd assembled a media empire with the tenacity and humility of Xerxes. And so, at the dawning of his fifty-seventh year of potential conquests, he threw himself the kind of party the gods would envy from the heavens. Among the guests were various A- and B-list celebrities and every New Yorker on his payroll. Most of the latter showed up to hobnob with the former. I showed to hobnob with the open bar.
Etiquette demands that attendance at these kinds of gatherings be a desperate race to show up last, yet my tardiness, while impressive, could not compete with that of the upper crust. That left me alone with an open bar, an inattentive bartender, thumping speakers, and nothing to do. I spent the first half hour attempting to drink the place dry and praying for a familiar face.
And that's when, through the dense musical fog, I heard a tapping. I knew that tapping. It was the sound of fingernails--slightly too long to be practical; slightly too short to be inconvenient--rapping on the bar. I froze.
Next time I prayed, I'd make sure to be more specific.
The scent of chewing gum stung my nostrils as I listened to molars squishing it, over and over. This stopped long enough for air to stretch the inside of the bubble being blown. It popped, the noise stinging long enough for me to be mesmerized by the sound of it slurping back into the mouth from whence it came. This was followed by twenty-eight knuckles cracking, one by one. Until finally ... that laugh.
I pondered the idea of making a break for it, but there was an open bar behind me, and I'd be damned if I let that gum-chomping, knuckle-cracking, braying banshee deter me from that. I inhaled, exhaled, and steered my attention to the fingernails and the gum and the knuckles and that laugh.
All of the life drained from my voice as I said their name: "Gretchen."
With earnest, exuberant eagerness, she squealed, "Hey, Max Fuentes!" It wasn't a flirty eagerness, either. I knew when I was being flirted with, and this wasn't one of those times. She seemed genuinely happy to see me.
That was half the problem. From what I could discern, she had not a single malicious bone in her body; she was just really annoying. She was far from the most annoying person, I knew, either. The reason I couldn't stand being around her was the tension between my head, which had little patience for her type of simplemindedness, and the rest of me, which wanted to copulate with her, like, a lot. She couldn't help the way she looked, with her face that was roughly 50 percent teeth, framed by grinning, cranberry lips and garnished with a delicate nose and bright, emerald eyes. Her hair came straight out of a shampoo commercial, and her body straight out of a men's magazine.
She was gorgeous, and she knew it. That much was apparent by the way she perched her glorious body on the barstool next to mine, squinted into the mirror behind the counter, and tossed her hair. "What are you drinking tonight?"
"Nothing." I kept myself from looking at her, and that took work; it wasn't often one got to see a sight like that.
"I can't get any service here."
"I can help!" She leaned over the counter, and waved.
The bartender appeared out of nowhere. "What can I get you?"
"What'll you have, Max Fuentes?" she asked.
"Scotch and soda," I replied, "hold the soda."
"Funny," the bartender replied in a voice that indicated that it really wasn't. He returned his attention to Gretchen's blouse.
"That sounds yummy!" she said. "I'll have the same thing, only with the soda! Do you have buffalo wings?"
"Coming right up." He brought the drinks right back, and I didn't leave a tip.
I put the scotch to my lips and accidentally noticed that her bra was black satin. I swallowed the remainder my drink and tried to change the subject. "Is that you I smell?"
"Is it awful?"
Actually, I kind of liked it.
"I put something in my hair," she continued, "something that's not supposed to go in hair!"
She laughed and punched my shoulder. "Lotion!"
"Really?" I asked, hoping she was being sarcastic. Then I remembered: Gretchen is vapid. "Lotion?"
"Yeah!" She leaned closer and suffocated me with her hair. "Smell!"
I needed to be more careful how I prayed.
The bartender returned with the chicken, and he asked her, and only her, "What else can I get for you?"
She replied, "I think Max Fuentes needs another drink!"
He groaned and walked away with my empty glass. I reluctantly returned my attention to Gretchen, only to discover her lips and tongue wrapped around a wing, cleaning off the buffalo sauce that coated it. After returning the bone to the plate, she dabbed her chin with a napkin, sucked on her fingers, and asked me, "Want any of this?"
I saw that the bartender, carrying my scotch, was equally hypnotized.
"I need two more of those, pronto," I told him, dropping a wad of cash into his tip jar. "And get one for yourself."
"Right away, sir."