As the title of the post says, this is an except from my book, The Birth of Prudence, set on St. Patrick's Day, 1998. This is the scene in which Mark and Prudence first meet each other. The significance of them first meeting on St. Patrick's Day? Well, there's a lot of little stuff about it that might, as Leftists like to say, "trigger" someone like Mark, but mostly I chose that night because people are more likely to go out on that night.
They drove north to Division Street, and Troy carried the conversation the whole way there. The topic, himself, was his favorite.
Troy rehashed his problems to Mark. The problems though, which he communicated with a drunken, lustful smile on his face, were the sort that he had already decided, usually concluding that he did not have the resolve to do better. So yes, he simply liked to talk about himself.
“I’m such a poor student,” said the third year community college student, “and I know I don’t have the intelligence to compensate for it.”
That was true. In his sixth semester of classes, he had by then accumulated just over two semesters’ worth of credits.
“Well, I guess change your study habits, because you’re not likely to change your intelligence.”
“I know what I have to do; I just have to do it.”
This line was a Troy favorite, usually uttered with slurred speech during the small hours of the night.
“But anyways, no matter; you’re gonna have fun tonight, I’m sure man.
“You know Mark, I guess maybe you think I’ll sleep with anyone, but that ain’t true! Not exactly. See, I think most guys would say that a girl must be better-looking to j**k-off to, than to have sex with, they dream of the one and settle for the other, but I, I my friend, am just the opposite. There are a lot of girls that I may think of when I am alone, maybe I can appreciate this or that, girls that have something, but quite not enough for the real thing. You know?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Oh c’mon, like you don’t know exactly what I’m talking about, really?”
“No, I get it dude. Sorry if I didn’t ooh and ahh enough for you.”
Despite the flip rejoinder, and a tone of disinterest, Troy was sure that Mark was impressed with his thought. He thought it must be somehow laudable, and also a middle ground between the two of them. He expounded on it the rest of the drive.
They got to the bar district at around 11:00 and found themselves amidst a celebratory mob of 20- and 30-somethings.
“Damn drunkards.” Troy honked his horn, frustrated that so many seemed to be treating the street as a sidewalk.
“And these f’in douche-bags look at me like I’m the bad guy; I’m not trying to be a shit about it, I’m just letting them know that I’m here, and after waiting quite some time for them to notice on their own.... Oh what? This embarrasses you?”
“Ha, well, a little.”
“Tssh, it’s just a retarded thing in society that we’re supposed to wait like half-an-hour before we can even think about beeping at pedestrians, at least when, like, the slightest damn thing is going on. But why? It doesn’t matter; they’re still not supposed to dally on the street. It’s because everyone is too passive, that’s why we got used to this, and why they’re not used to someone like me. So people take it as such an insult.... And then half these *ssholes would do anything to keep someone from merging in front of them on the highway.”
“What other way is there to look at it?”
“Oh, who the f**k cares!?”
“...It, it’s just that it’s annoying.”
“It is,” Mark said quickly in a conciliatory voice; “and I do actually think you’re right.”
“Then fight with me dammit!” The old friends shared a genuine laugh, swelling their souls with sentimental warmth.
Eventually they found a parking space and joined the crowd. Even in the open air, the stench of beer and smoke was thick, and Mark had to mind his step to avoid partially-digested meals. To Troy, this was a promising scene. They walked down the street for a little while and Troy told Mark that clearly, “this is the place to be.”
Troy opened a bar door.
“C’mon, let’s check out this one. I doubt that we’ll find a... oh a table, grab it, quick! Hell yeah! See man, this is our night! Hold it while...hold it because I can’t; I gotta go take a leak.” Another Troy regular, drunk or not.
They sat there and gulped down a few, while Troy, excitedly, laid out a plan of attack. As always, now that he was trapped, ‘stuck with ugliness all-around,’ Mark felt the full weight of his decision to appease Troy, and he burned with resentment. ‘And he’s going to want to stay out longer than usual.... It’s bad enough that these miserable places exist, but that I have to be here. I know how awful it’s going to be, I always know, and then it’s always much worse.... I know what a dumb-*ss he is, and then every time he’s even more of a dumb-*ss. How does he manage to be so f**king worthless!? Such a worthless, pointless, witless, d**k-less, piece-of-s**t! Never again, this time I mean it, never again. I can’t do it. Never again. I won’t... I don’t give a f**k! G*d d**n this a**hole! Why do I care about this idiot? I don’t, I shouldn’t.’
In search of relief, his mind wandered. A man sitting a few tables over had let his shirt ride up so high that a third of his back was exposed. ‘He is like three- hundred pounds, he probably just doesn’t care. But, how can he be comfortable like that? Some people wear their shoes like that too, I guess. And he’s like forty, what’s he doing here? At least he’s not enough of a dumb-*ss to hang out with dumb-*ss Troy. Except everyone here must be a dumb-*ss. Sickening dumb-*sses.... That tool over there’s wearing shorts for f**k’s sake, and he’s probably had that hair-cut since he was in middle school. He might be worse than Troy. I’m surprised Troy hasn’t said anything about those sluts yet. They’re obviously on the prowl—a pack of girls on the prowl, Jesus Christ. How pathetic this all is.’
He thought back to when he was a small child, and he had assumed that it was only when children were around that men and women would talk about their work or finances, or profess to be interested in things like sports and shopping, that they could not really enjoy such small things, that they actually knew deep truths, but kept their higher world secret from all children. A moment later, the image of a gas station attendant that he had crossed a few nights earlier suddenly intruded his mind: a paunchy man in his late forties, with a dead stare and his hair styled à la Elvis, who had reeked of tobacco smoke. A cold chill went through him.
Then Prudence walked in with a group of friends and Mark could not even pretend to pay attention to Troy’s sordid scheming. Her shocking beauty commanded his attention... and the more he looked, the more he liked —an exhilarating break with his past experiences. She was, ‘of a whole different level of beauty;’ there was humanity and probity in her face. She seemed to be having a great time, smiling, and oh, what a smile! It was sincere and intelligent and thus, spectacularly beautiful.
‘She knows...she is so alive!’
Eventually, Troy noticed that he was doing all the talking, so he looked up at Mark and then followed the direction of Mark’s gaze.
“Checking out that hot Asian chick, huh?” Mark paused. “Yeah,” he breathed.
“Ha, ha, see, I told you man, I f**kin’ told your *ss. You gonna go over to her?”
“I have to.”
“Jeez man, I’ve never seen you like this before.” “I’ve never been like this before.”
“Well it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on over there, if any of those dudes are her dude. I don’t think so, though.”
“Well, I have to go over there... I just need to get some feeling back in my extremities first.”
“Ha, ha, but, what’ll you say?”
“...I don’t know.... I’m going.”
He stood up. She was about fifty feet away, sitting at the bar ordering a round of drinks for herself and her friends (she was by far the best endowed among the group for such a task), while her friends stood behind her talking. Every so often she would look back and add or react to the discussion, always gracefully.
“Go man, just go!”
He went; she saw him coming. As he approached, he nodded his head to the rest of the group with an awkward half-smile and a meek wave.
“H-hi, I’m Mark.” His over-eager and trembling voice betrayed an acute nervousness. She had an open- mouthed smile of surprise on her well-formed face (usually at this point some small flaw is screaming out at him, but she was still perfect), and she looked at him askance.
So he stammered, “I, ah, I’m not drunk.” Her friends giggled but also moved away respectfully.
Prudence nodded slowly. “Okay sober Mark, what can I do for you?”
Gasping, his eyes wandered for a moment in search of speech.
“I don’t know...” he mumbled, unable to utter the voice he felt, “uh, a lot, I think. Umm, I wish I could...ah, I don’t know, but right now, right now, I just want you to give me a chance.”
She looked at him closer as he spoke. He did appear earnest; he wasn’t drunk.
“So you deserve a chance?” She was not being mean-spirited; the question was a chance.
“...I-I don’t know,” he answered, agony splashed across his face, and he stared at her helplessly. He started again, frantically; “Yes, well, maybe, I don’t know, I mean, well, we all do...at least a chance... a chance to appreciate real beauty. I think...well maybe, I hope I... and I don’t mean, err, I do mean that, but not just that, and uhh, I just didn’t expect this....”
She stuck out her hand and said, “I’m Prudence.”
He sighed and smiled wide as they shook hands. “Oh okay, awesome; um, I guess I’m not.”
Now she smiled, though she also rolled her eyes. “No, I guess not. Well, that doesn’t matter; please sit down.”
He did, then continued staring at her. She smiled back at him. Eventually, he noticed that she was expecting him to say something.
“Oh ah, so you enjoying your St. Patrick’s Day?”
“Trying to, but you know how it is, what with strangers coming over to bother/ flirt with me.”
“Oh. Well, I can fend them off for you.”
“Ah, that’s a couple of corn-ball jokes now. So you’ve gotten over your nerves, have you?”
“Ohoo, well, no, not quite yet, and that’s not me, I.... It’s good though, man it is!... Uh, if I can say that...” he trailed off.
Again, they stared at each other, he slack-jawed and cow-eyed, she with a more actively pensive look in her eyes, but she was definitely staring, and not with contempt.
“But so ah, so what, I mean, would you say something about, uh, what your hob...or what do you like...to do, and what you like, I mean, you know, what things do you like and what activities too.”
She laughed an encouraging laugh. “Artfully phrased. Ah let’s see...” she tapped the thin fingers of her right hand on the counter and played with her lips with her left hand as she thought. “Lots of things” she said, then returning to contemplation, of his question, but especially of his obvious ardor.
“I didn’t know this was such a tough question. But I guess...”
“No, no,” she laughed again, and this time, touched his arm, “I just wanted to think about what I actually do like, and/or what I should tell you. Well, you know, reading,” she noticed that his artless smile brightened; “You do too?”
“Well, sometimes, yeah. Go on though; what do you read?”
“All sorts, but mostly the classics and histories, and I like the theater, when I get the chance.” She could tell that he wanted to hear more. “And you know, lots of other things; I like concerts, I’ve gotten into Lacrosse the last few years, but I’m not very good.... And of course, traveling... and bike riding...”
“Are you single?”
“Aha, so that’s what this is all about? And here I thought you were just some sort of nervous salesman. Yes, of course I am; what do you think... Anyways, you know, I like the normal things. What about you?”
“I can’t believe anything about you is ordinary. But me...I’m not very interesting, not like you must be. I’d rather hear more about you.”
“Oh c’mon now,” she goaded him, though she actually liked that response.
“...Yeah, alright, but can you maybe talk to me just a little more about yourself first, please. Tell me who you are, some real stuff, just a little more, you know... more, like your truest... or what you really want, what you dream about.”
She smiled gently, and yes, somewhat approvingly, eyeing him even more curiously.
“Jeez, we just met. What kind of a girl do you think I am?”
“Well, okay, I just...” He sighed and moved his eyes off of her for the first time since finding her, staring straight ahead at nothing and sighing as he became conscious once more of his loathsome surroundings. “I say I’m not interesting because I don’t know what to think about those things sometimes, a-and I think you do, at least better than I do. I guess maybe you’re right though. Just tell me as much as you want, though I hope that’s a lot... eventually at least.”
“...Yes, I hope so too. But, well, I’m a student, a junior at U of C, majoring in history and in economics.”
“Wow.... Well, where are you from, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“New York City. Now, Mark...?”
“Oh, uh, Thompson.”
“For now, let me just say that I want to love with someone. About you though, you may not know it, but you have already told me a lot about yourself. However;” she took hold of his hand; “I should like to hear some specifics in your own direct words, just banalities like I told you, because that’s how this is done, it is the first step.”
By then, she had finished her drink and the bartender quickly noticed her empty glass. Prudence was very noticeable.
“Yes... two more, please,” said Mark, nodding, and needing two breaths just to say that much.
“Yo, Mark.” Mark turned around to see Troy with their friend Shawn.
“Oh hi guys; what’s up Shawn? Are you here with Jessica?”
They were both struck by his happy tone and by how much he was sweating.
“Yeah, she’s across the street.”
Glassy-eyed Troy interjected, “I just ran into him a minute ago; we don’t want to bother you, just want to let you know that we’ll be across the street getting some food.”
Then, swaying back and forth, he waved at Prudence. “Hello.”
Mark introduced them to each other. “Prudence, this is Troy and that’s Shawn.”
They shook her hand. Then Troy, wildly grinning, grabbed Mark by the shoulders and jostled him around. “Alright Marky Mark, I’ll catch up with you in a little while.”
“They seemed nice enough.”
“Uh huh.” He stared back at her.
“Now okay Mark, tell me a little bit about yourself.”
“Uh, alright, I’m 21, so I think we’re the same age,” she nodded, “but I must admit that I’m actually in the labor force. I’m not a student anywhere right now, especially not at a place like Chicago. I may go back to school.... I’ve been thinking about it...I’m, tonight, I’m happier than I’ve been in a l-long time, or really ever.” He gulped and looked down.
She smiled knowingly and paused before beginning. “I wish I could stay longer and learn more about you. Right now though, I drank this last drink pretty fast, and I can feel that I am a little inebriated and we...” she tried to gesture toward her friends, but somewhat faltered; “should get going.” To all appearances, and in the opinion of the state, her friends had had more than their fair share as well, and in fact, they had given her the ready-when-you-are signal. “But Mark, I know enough about you to know that I want to get to know you more.”
“Well yes, yes! Oh, I’ll be better...”
“Here, let me give you my phone number.”
“How about this Friday; you want to go out on Friday?”
“Absolutely; definitely give me a call.”
“Okay! I’ll call you tomorrow.... So I guess you guys are off to get a cab, right?”
She smiled, or rather, her smile brightened. Even as she was then, her small mouth could smile exquisitely. “Yes.” Then she kissed him on the forehead and called him sweet.