Cheesy pull apart pesto bread. Yes, devourable, but also simple, which was important, since every time Ned tried to follow a recipe it led him straight to hell. There were only four ingredients: bread, pesto, cheese, butter. First, you had to score the bread, slicing lines one direction, then another, resulting in loosely connected pieces. Then you poured the butter between. Then you spooned the pesto between. Then you stuffed the cheese between. And then you baked it at 375 degrees for 20 minutes.
Of course Ned would not be baking it that night, no, brunch was the following day. The prep needn’t have taken very long, but he was drinking an exceptional Vouvray and slipped into a loop, just filling and overfilling every slit of the broken body of wheat with Mediterranean guts. Soon 45 minutes had passed, the bread was a latticework flourishing with basil and he had listened to an entire synthwave album on YouTube by The Midnight.
Speaking of which, it almost was. Hours earlier, at the beginning of an All Saints’ Day party, his friend Sheila had sent a picture of herself in some clownish costume that Ned was too Protestant to recognize. Now she texted, “we are dancing and you are not here.” YouTube’s autoplay suggestions were unconscionable, so Ned kept stopping the dishes and drying his hands to skip the track, and to text back. “How long, oh Lady?” He replied. “How long will you be dancing?” Who would know if Ned left, right now? No roommates, no pets, no guests, even his housemates were gone for the weekend. Sheila countered: “Saul wants to know what kind of a question that is.” It was a name dropped right on his head and she knew exactly what effect it would have. “Listen you smartalecks,” Ned texted Sheila and Saul. “I’m coming over NOW.”
* * *
Sheila’s condo had a front stoop, shared with the neighbor, and Ned could discern two figures on it, but there was a tree concealing them. He had drank enough Vouvray to thoroughly enjoy the sound of his own boots on the pavement and the entrance it afforded, although that meant they recognized him first. One figure was Rudie, basically a feminized version of Ned’s most tenacious anxieties and tendencies. Perhaps this was how Tennessee Williams felt about Blanche DuBois? And the other one, naturally, was Saul.
“Ned,” they proclaimed, with smiles and open arms, pulling him close. “You smell good,” Rudie murmured, and Saul hummed an agreement, and Ned concluded, based on such a reception – or maybe his reaction to it – he was below the suggested intoxication for this party. He could not remedy that without separating from the embrace, so he did, slowly. Sheila’s condo was on the second level, so Ned mounted the stairs in a sort of anticipation, feeling the presence of Saul, seeing Rudie in her toga; all of them ascending, angels along Jacob’s Ladder.
The door opened to reveal Sheila, host of all. Clever and wise, intuitive and inquisitive, the full range of each marvelous characteristic she was. Sheila and Prentice, her husband, cared about what made everyone comfortable and delighted in providing it. There was someone to their left with a gigantic bow and cloak around his neck, who was en route to the exit but nevertheless introduced to Ned. The table was a feast of appetizers that had clearly been attacked several times, but there were still spoils to be had and the guests who were left took Ned’s arrival as an opportunity to abandon dancing and return to nibbling.
As a guest list, it was lopsided with show people in their twenties and thirties; Ned, Sheila, Prentice, Saul and Rudie had all worked on productions together, and the rest looked familiar. As any drama queen, king, nerd or kid will tell you, this crowd knows how to party. The playlist was loaded with the sort of music that can galvanize even guys with two left feet. Ned was one of those guys. He couldn’t dance, but he could drink, and once he had drank enough, he could dance. Assuming you are not an alcoholic, it’s a line of reasoning you should trace. The irony was, in this group of people, even Ned might not have needed the drink: the room was a rainforest, lush, humid, alive. But it wasn’t dangerous. Which is, perhaps, even more dangerous.
* * *
Ned performed some ferocious dance solos, to be sure, resulting in rug burn and disorientation, although the latter had been a constant experience since he was in 5th grade. But the night was advancing, rivers of blood were turning to wine and energy was depleting, so the small group remaining – Ned, Sheila, Prentice, Saul and Rudie – became a nucleus in the middle of the room, arms around each other – in their minds, swaying rhythmically; in reality, shuffling sporadically.
“Is it so crazy to assume we don’t have to talk all day, every day?” Rudie blathered about a relationship, which, within a matter of minutes, Ned, an officer in recovery ops, was defining as codependent, and exhorting that she was only responsible for herself, and everyone agreed. His right hand was curling long hairs behind her ear, as a sister; meanwhile, his left hand was on Saul’s shoulder, the small of his back, his neck, oh brother. Each hand knew exactly what the other was doing, careful to distribute affection evenly, not equally. Rudie leaned her head into Ned’s hand, Saul leaned his head into Ned’s neck and Ned was the Leaning Tower of Pisa, tilting towards a fall without seeming to move at all.
This was not the counterfeit intimacy he had previously trained himself to believe was legal and/or tender. Not like any of the casual encounters, the most obvious symptom of his addiction. No, this was a bewitched bartering, a transfer of energy that did not short out and leave one in darkness. Ned was aware that his actions were not wrong, though his motives were, and yet – it had been ages, oceans, deserts – since he had been touched like this – like – there is no use for simile here, because he was touched as himself.
* * *
“In the improbability you do not already have plans, you should join me for a showing of The Thin Man tomorrow night,” Ned texted Sheila as he ate the leftover pesto bread, which was a disaster of multitasking, the oily fingers and screen requiring constant cleaning to prevent further autocorrecktage. “It is basically the source of my entire lifestyle…” Ned continued. “It is several thousand feet above adjectives.” The Film Society had all of its showings at a church and they decided to meet there.
The next night, walking in the same boots, Ned spotted Sheila a half block away, stepping out of Saul’s car. Immediately he accelerated his pace, nearly galloping, an ecstatic pony, until he had hitched to Sheila’s side. Breathing hard, he tried to greet them casually, but it came out as a giddy burst of “HELLO,” followed by Saul unbuckling his seat belt, climbing out of the car, scooting around it, and moving in for a hug, all as Ned was mumbling, “you don’t have to – ” but he did, evidently. And then Saul was back in the car and pulling out, and Sheila was saying, “I wish he was aware of his physical magnetism,” and Ned was saying, “yes,” but neither one of them wished that, truly.
They were two of maybe a dozen people who attended the showing, sitting in the last of only a few rows of chairs. The film went straight to their heads, as it does to any sensible person, and soon they were giggling and sighing. Eventually the Christmas party scene came, where two guests pop balloons on the tree, a man begs an operator to connect him with mother, some drunkenly sing around a radio, and Norah says to Nick, “I love you, because you know such lovely people.” Sheila leaned towards Ned. “Good heavens,” she remarked, “it’s my house.”
The projectionist sought forgiveness for the print afterwards, which admittedly was rather fuzzy at times, but Ned waved away the apology, declaring, “it was just so wonderful to see it on a big screen.” He and Sheila left then, walking into the night, the clouds as witnesses.