I’m alone at a charity event in Patricia Yeo’s new Midtown eatery. Shirtless, chiseled busboys and lanky, large-breasted servers run lightly about the restaurant, carrying trays the size of manhole covers. The place is gold-trimmed and supported by Roman columns but a terrible place to have a party. Not enough room. We’re ass-to-hip in here practically.
I meet gazes with Celine about ten minutes after I arrive. She approaches me without hesitation. I actually don’t think she’s ever hesitated a day in her life. “Uh-oh,” she says. “Lazarus Fucking Cooper. Is that you?”
“Last I checked.”
“Well, there’s no telling what’s going to happen now.”
“We’ll have to be careful.”
“Yeah, you attract bad energy. I’m a lily caught in the rapids with you.”
“I see you haven’t changed.”
A hyper-paced metal song begins growling from heightened speakers, a surreal contrast to our elegant surroundings. A tailored man of fifty-something nudges me. A handlebar mustache like two slugs kissing.
“You’re a stupid asshole,” he informs me. “Honestly I would piss on your head if I were tall enough.”
“You have an excellent evening as well, sir,” is all I can think to say.
“Happy with yourself? Is it a good feeling to be so famous? That’s what you wanted, right?”
Celine lands her arm around me and leads me away. “I assume that’s happening to you a lot lately?”
“Yes, I am solely responsible for our nation’s descent into shallowness and depravity.”
Celine is the U.S. president’s niece. Few months ago, we caused a national scandal by making love in the White House and getting caught by Secret Service in the Lincoln Bedroom. Turned out we were doing it on the very same bed Abraham Lincoln’s son died from typhoid on. It wasn’t a good look.
What can I say? We were drunk, married, horny morons. Probably not in that order, but I didn’t know about Lincoln’s son. Now, thanks to social media and the 24/7 starving beast that is cable news, I’m a rich, spoiled dickhole who should be loathed until I die, hopefully sooner than later. (If only the president truly knew how much I loved him and that golden helmet of hair! My father practically funded his initial campaign…)
“You wouldn’t want to get out of here, would you?” Celine asks me. A bead of sweat descends her temple, leaving a question mark.
“Still have your townhouse in Soho?”
“Tribeca. Yeah, let’s go there.”
We leave through a lightning storm of camera flashes.
A rotund, bearded paparazzo yells at me: “Have you heard about the online petition to have you deported though you’re not an immigrant, Mr. Cooper? They’ve got over twenty thousand signatures so far! Can you comment?”
I give my ticket to the valet while Celine looks around us, exhilarated by the attention, the sudden photo-op. She rests a hand on her hip and plants her right leg forward.
I first met Celine at a high school party. We were juniors. A mutual friend from Miami Country Day School was throwing it, this girl named Gwynn who later became our valedictorian. Everyone knew Gwynn. Her grandparents were out of town and they had asked her to watch their house for them. It was a three-story castle in Kendall, which was an extravaganza of subdivisions and strip malls just west of Miami. The house itself was white with half-barrel Mexican tiles on the roof, a high arch over the front door. A coral-brick wall lined a semi-circular driveway.
I remember I was in the kitchen. I’d just gotten a bottle of Chateau Marguex from the fridge, and was talking with Mary, this girl I’d once dated.
“Have you decided what you’re going to do after graduation?” she asked me. “I’m pretty freaked out, to tell the truth.”
“What is there to be scared of?” I asked her. “You’re beautiful.” But actually, I was more busy working a corkscrew into a bottle of Chateau Marguex, watching the cork crumble. I didn’t understand how this was possible with four hundred-dollar wine, but there I was.
“Well?” she asked.
“Well what?” I picked at the loose bits of cork, doing my best to keep them from dropping in.
“What are they? Your goals…”
“Oh, I don’t know. Everything.”
“Everything, meaning what?”
“Just everything. What about you?”
She answered, but my attention became drawn by another girl entering the kitchen. She was square-jawed and stick-skinny with black hair cut to her shoulders. She wore a Brooks Brothers blazer with shredded jeans and red heels.
The girl searched through a few drawers before taking something out of one. She went to the fridge, held it open while applying something inside of the fridge’s door. She giggled while holding onto the door for support. I couldn’t help myself. I walked over, leaving Mary in mid-sentence.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
Celine stood and shut the fridge door fast. Caught! That’s when I recognized her as the new girl from New York. Her mother was now the weatherwoman for Channel 7. Her father owned his own law firm in New York but was relocating. Her uncle hosted his own reality TV show but wasn’t president yet. I’d heard the girl’s name was Celine, and that she’d been super-quick to make friends. Somehow our paths had simply never crossed yet.
“I’m, uh, I’m supergluing the refrigerator shut, so that no one can open it,” she confessed.
“Why would you do that?” I asked.
“Because that’s what you do with superglue. Are you going to help me?” She sounded urgent, concerned almost.
I’ve always owned a weakness for mischief, especially when under the influence.
We navigated stealthily around our fellow students who remained oblivious to us as we superglued ashtrays to various tables. We glued lamps to their nightstands. We glued beer cans to the wall. We later snuck upstairs and glued pillows to their mattresses, shampoo bottles to the shower shelf. We didn’t stop until we heard a flare-up from the kitchen. A muscular kid in a tank-top was trying to get a beer out of the fridge, his face getting good and red, muscles straining. A crowd had formed around him. He was a football player named Mitch from Miami Gardens. Finally, Mitch yanked the fridge door open, but the superglue held, ripping out the magnetic lining with a loud shraaaaaaap!
“Hey, holy cow,” I heard someone say from the next room. “This beer can, like, won’t come off the wall.”
I invited Celine to go for a drive with me.
Honestly, I offered to take her home, but she said that she’d prefer just driving around, so that’s what we did.
“Parents get you this car?” she asked me. I drove a red Porsche 911. Red with removable roof.
“For my eighteenth birthday, yeah.”
“Know what my dad got me for my birthday? He told me to make a wish, then he flicked a cigarette at my head.”
Celine rolled down her window and spit out her gum. “Someone once asked this Buddhist monk what the shortest prayer was. Know what it is? He said it’s two words: ‘Fuck it.’”
“No, it’s five words: Life is a gift.”
“That’s four words.” She laughed. She sat back in her seat, considering me as if my head were on fire. She ran a hand through her hair, so that her bangs stood in a comically angled bundle. “I like you. I need a person like you. Keep me out of those dark places.”
We were on I-395 now, crossing the bridge which would carry us over a tangled nest of streets and highways. Miami International Airport laid spread out on our left, a blanket of blinking lights, the orbiting howls of airplanes surrounding us.
“Dark places?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’ll be showing you some dark places.” She wagged a finger between us. “This is meant to be. Us. For whatever reason. It’s destiny.”
After graduation, I went to college in Malibu while she toured Europe. She came to visit me my senior year and Malibu caught on fire. During the dry season, fires were a fairly common occurrence, yet this one was especially huge. While the majority of campus huddled, scared witless, in Pepperdine’s only auditorium, Celine and I decided to make a run for it in my new, black, convertible BMW M3.
“Slow the hell down!” Celine glanced nervously out the rear window.
I did the same. Distant fires singed the distant PCH hills, a landscape of pulsating lava, boiling the sky even. Ahead of us, more hilltops zigzagged against a blood-red sky filled with clouds like the swirls in a marble. Down the cliffside, orange waves thrashed against orange boulders, creating great, arching sprays of orange foam. It looked like the world was ending. I accelerated.
“Seriously, please, Laz, slow the fuck down!”
“I’m not going that fast,” I said. And I wasn’t. Ninety tops.
“My God, look at those fires.”
“We’ll be fine.”
“Would you, please, watch the road? You’re not even watching the road. And look over there. Straight drop!”
The further we raced, the closer the flames crept towards the road. Without saying it, we both understood there was no turning back, even if things got too scary up ahead. By then, the fires would’ve reached anywhere behind us as well.
Visibility dropping, I had to slow down. My headlights became little more than narrow cones cutting against a black wall of smoke.
“Are we going to die?” she asked me.
A panicked deer bounded into my headlights. My split-second choice was either the metal railing or the opposing cliff wall. Or nail the deer. Or flip the car. I cut the wheel, but I was still doing sixty. The car went onto its side. There was a terrible sound of breaking glass and whining metal. As the car skidded still, I could hear tiny objects – pebbles of glass and asphalt maybe – rolling to a rest around us. We sat there upside-down. Something inside the engine ticked and I could hear fluids dripping.
“You okay?” I asked, touching her.
A fat yarn of dark blood made its way down Celine’s forehead. “I’m fabulous,” she said.
She repeated this joke to the paramedics when they found us.
A year later, on the east coast, and we’re now in my cherry-red 2006 Ferrari f430 Spider. Celine has her hand down the front of my pants. I suggest to her that perhaps we should wait until we get to her place since I’m already a tad tipsy and having a hard time keeping Sixth Avenue in focus. She ignores me and I can’t help but laugh. I stomp the gas and the car surges. Streetlights zip by. Streetlights smear.
Keeping one hand on the wheel, I feel for the Patròn bottle beneath the passenger seat, a procedure made clumsy from Celine refusing to stop what she’s doing. When I finally get the bottle out, I uncap it, take a hard pull, way back, like a marathoner with a water bottle. The burn catches up, and I cough. I offer the bottle to Celine anyway.
“No thanks,” she says, still stroking me. “I’m busy.”
“You’re making me swerve.”
“So, let’s swerve.”
I’ve been arrested twice in the last two months. Plus, the White House scandal. Last thing in the universe I need is another D.U.I. I replace the bottle under the seat, then use my elbow to nudge Celine onto her side of the car. She looks at me, fairly hurt.
“What?” she asks.
“You’re going to make me crash.”
“I am. It’s inevitable.”
I make a left onto Broadway, instantly cursing myself. With so much distraction, I forgot that we were right above Forty-Seventh. We’re now trapped in the bright-lit, tourist-choked frenzy of Times Square.
I stop at a red light, let my hands fall into my lap, caught in a trance by an immense plastic lobster, big as a B-movie monster. It clings to the outside of a two-story Red Lobster, a glaring testament to Time Square’s theme park makeover.
“Listen,” I tell Celine. I hold her hand. “I can’t fool around with you, okay? I’m married now.”
“I know.” The light changes green, and I’m driving down Broadway. I look at her. Her red hair flutters in the wind. She bats her eyes and tilts her head. “Don’t you feel this energy of connection though? It’s so explosive!” She smiles, showing her tongue.
I have an inner discussion with myself about how I absolutely must straighten out, stop doing things that cause more trouble for myself and the people I care for. My family is already annoyed with me. Epically. I keep swearing to them that none of the publicity is on purpose, but they never seem convinced. I must do the right thing from now on. I must change. I have to stop screwing up.
Celine goes down on me, and I’m enjoying it until I lose control of the car and crash, nearly killing us both. I also nearly take out some bystanders, including children apparently. No one is hurt, but I spend three days in jail.
The following week after my release, I’m with Celine at Mediterreano, my favorite Upper Eastside restaurant. I not only adore the place for its food, but for the simple fact you can sit outside, soak some sun while you watch the tidy, Coco Chanel-suited women high-heeling it to some social appointment or the other. Stupid bitches.
The owner of the restaurant is a rotund man from our old neighborhood in Venezuela. He saves my favorite table for me every morning, the one outside on the corner, facing Second Avenue. There’s a small tree there that keeps me from getting too hot.
“Are you drunk?” Celine asks me. She pushes her Dolce & Gabbana shades up on her nose until they fit her eyes like goggles. She frowns. She wears a wide, pink band-aid on her temple, a leftover injury from our last night together.
“What in the world would make you ask that?” I ask her.
“Your breath. And I can tell you haven’t been to bed yet.”
“Yeah, and my voice is scratchy, too, right?” I rub my throat. I motion the waiter for another water.
She sits back and I can see my fish-eyed reflection in her shades. I wish she would take them off suddenly. “I saw that you were mentioned this morning in Page Six, Laz,” she says. “Apparently you pulled your pants down and waved your dick at a room full of very high-profile people last night?”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“I just told you. Don’t pretend you’re appalled.”
“Whatever. It’s cool.”
“I don’t think we should see each other anymore, ever.”
The sentence hangs there like a banner. I swallow audibly, which makes me squirm. “I’m being knighted,” I say because I can’t think of what else to say.
“You’re being who?”
“The Knights of Malta. It’s an ancient Catholic charity thing. Very prestigious. It’s a huge weekend for me.”
There’s an ear-piercing screech from behind us. A black town car and a yellow taxi avoid crashing head-first by centimeters. The collision is averted mostly by the taxi coming up on the curb, then missing a second collision with a parked car. Afterwards, both vehicles continue on their way and the event is over in seconds. Still–another couple of feet over and the taxi would’ve plowed right over us, flattening us under the table with our eggs and potatoes.
There’s a moment of standing around and head-scratching while everyone murmurs about the close call.
Finally sitting down again, Celine removes the Dolce & Gabbanas and narrows her almonds at me. “I have to get away from you.” She shakes her head, eyes even smaller.
“Relax. It was an accident. Nobody’s hurt.”
She rubs her eyes. “No, it’s not that.”
“You’re not getting serious on me, are you?”
“No, I’m just bored.” Celine gets up and she walks away.
I take off my blazer. Getting too warm. I wave a busboy over, this Mexican kid with shaved temples and a ponytail. I give him twenty bucks to fetch me a copy of that New York Post. I want to read the article Celine mentioned. I don’t remember doing any such thing as exposing myself anywhere. Or wait–Yes, I do. Uh-oh.
I’ll be fine.
Lee Anderson has written for The New Times – Miami and Ocean Drive Magazine. His short stories have been published in a multitude of small and large press magazines, including Fiction International, The Citron Review, The Broadkill Review, and The Miami Herald’s “Tropic Magazine.” This is his first feature on The Fictional Café.