This week, St. Petersburg has been enjoying the first ever “Sunlit Festival.” The Sunlit Festival has featured everything from honoring the city’s Poet Laureate, Mad Libs in a Bar, A Poetry Night Hike and a Literary Pub Crawl. I was invited to offer my prose to the Literary Pub Crawl. Instead of getting up in front of a group of strangers and friends and reading a random excerpt from my book for 10 minutes, I partnered with two writers from Keep St. Pete Lit for a something a little different. See, we all write fiction, but in different genres. Cathy Salustri writes Romance with a Florida angle (as well as Florida travel), and Shelly Wilson writes… well… if I told you I’d spoil it.
So I wrote Part I, a story based loosely on a friend’s real life experience (I mean, no, it’s totally fiction. It never happened. What am I saying?) Cathy picked up where I left off, and Shelly brought the whole thing home (and crashing down.) We had two readings. The one at Green Bench Brewing (great place) could have been better if this obnoxious guy hadn’t been yammering at the bartender through the 2nd act. The second reading at Bodega on Central had the audience in tears and me considering a career in comedy.
Before we get to that… keep an eye out for Wednesday’s (March 18) promotion of The Grandfather Clock. I promise you will have enough money in your pocket to buy it.
So, here it is. At the end please leave a comment and let me know what you think. Thanks!
Three Writers, Three Bars, Many Bad Decisions:
Part I – by Jonathan Kile
(The audience was instructed to take a drink every time the term “Craft Beer” was used. Feel free to play along at home.)
It actually felt good. Having that drink thrown in my face. Refreshing. Key West in August is an egg frying in the melted butter of the Florida Straights. And yes, it’s the first time I have had a drink thrown in my face. And it wasn’t just like a movie. In a movie, they toss two ounces of water and everyone looks shocked. No, this was a half pint of craft beer. A half pint of craft beer goes a long way. Specifically, it soaked my face and my shirt; the sun-dress of the woman next to me; the bar; and a basket of conch fritters that I hadn’t finished eating. The bystanders? They were shocked. But they didn’t just return to what they were doing when Missy and her entourage walked out the door, stumbling in their completely ridiculous footwear. No, instead, I was in a dueling piano bar and paid entertainers spent ten minutes with some of the best improv material they’ve been handed in a long time. They wrote a song called Southernmost Break Up. It was funny.
I didn’t intend to break up with my girlfriend on my birthday, on the surprise Key West trip that she’d planned. I had been trying to break up for months. First, I thought I’d slow things down, be aloof and see if she got the hint. It actually made it worse. It made me more appealing to her. Then I started disagreeing with her on major issues and minor ones too. I had to prove we were incompatible. It got complicated because I had to remember where I stood on things such as the Pope, euthanasia, and organic dog food.
Oh, before you think I’m a sexist pig, let me explain myself. I started dating Missy when I crash landed back at my parent’s house in the Ft. Lauderdale suburbs. Twenty-nine years old and sleeping underneath my old Dan Marino poster. I was that guy. I knew it was temporary, but that didn’t help in the dating pool. Missy was a friend of my sister’s, five years younger, and didn’t mind dating a guy who lived with his parents and still had a checking account with his mother’s name on it. Okay, you can feel free to think I was misleading her, but that was only supposed to be temporary too.
“Your birthday is coming,” my friend Dave said. “What are you going to do when you turn 30?” Dave was a coworker who, unlike me, had matured, gotten promoted and bought a townhouse. And Dave needed a roommate to help afford 713 square feet of Ft. Lauderdale.
I circled that hot August day on my calendar. I must break up with Missy before my birthday. See, I’d met her on my 29th birthday. Yes, indeed. It was not only my birthday, it was our anniversary. I could not let it come to that.
I’m a procrastinator. I waited until the night before. It seemed safe. Friday night happy hour, big group of people, I’d break up just before the night was over, she’d hitch a ride home with a friend and I’d get to spend my birthday with my family, not answering my phone. You can say it: I get what I deserve.
Dave knew the day was coming, but he didn’t know when. I paid my tab, and he followed suit. “Wait,” I said. “Give me a few minutes.” And I led the unsuspecting Missy into the night air, thick with moths and close thunder. It was ominous. A rain began to fall and the next thing I knew were were sitting in Dave’s car. I was breaking up, but a South Florida monsoon was raging. She couldn’t leave the car. And inexplicably, Dave was pounding at the window to get in.
More inexplicably, Dave took a genuine concern for our conversation and began consoling Missy and asking me if I was doing the right thing. He started weaving a tale of how Missy was trying to be what she thought guys wanted her to be, when that isn’t her at all, and it’s all this big misunderstanding. My breakup was derailed. No one could exit the car and I was feeling remorseful, so we drove home, my work completely undone.
Only Missy could enthusiastically give an anniversary present the morning after an attempted breakup. A watch. What do you do when your girlfriend gives you an anniversary present on the morning after you tried to break up with her? You certainly can’t say you got her a present and you’ll give it to her later. But wait, there was more. My hope of making an excuse that I had to spend the evening with my parents only to go out with my friends afterward was derailed by the big surprise. A two night trip to Key West. Happy 30th birthday.
It was a long day. A long drive. And there was another surprise. Missy’s friend Tanya and her boyfriend were meeting us there. I texted my curses at Dave. I informed my sister that I had been kidnapped. Both were unsympathetic. At one point, we sat on a bridge for an hour without moving. I looked out over the perfect blue water and knew that I was the one to blame for this situation. It was a long way down to the water. Were there sharks?
By early evening, I was beginning to embrace the situation. Key West is a great place to spend a birthday. I had a quick dip in the pool to wash off the drive and I was ready to retrace Hemingway’s path. Surely we’d start at Sloppy Joe’s… or Hemingway’s real haunt, Captain Tony’s. Missy then informed me that no, we needed to start at a bar called Irish Kevin’s.
Okay. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with Irish Kevin’s. It just didn’t conjure images of Olde Key West for me. Missy said it was because I’m Irish and Tonya was meeting us there. This is where it got interesting.
The sun was still high in the sky as we entered the darkened bar. A stage act was doing a musical comedy routine, and some sort of celebration was happening. My eyes could barely adjust. Then I heard it. The celebration was for me. This was not the Applebee’s staff bringing me a sundae and getting back to work. The entire bar was cheering for me. But something was off. A laugh, out of place, almost sinister. A cold chill went down my spine and my eyes dilated. There was Dave and his brother Joe. My sister and two cousins. And that out-of-place laugh, Sam, who must have flown in. Everyone was yelling some version of “Surprise” including the performers on stage. In a matter of seconds Dave gave me a look that said, “I’m sorry I didn’t let you break up with Missy last night.” But it was the look on Sam’s face. And Joe’s, and two or three other of my friend who’d come to “shock” me. They all had these knowing, sarcastic grins that said, “I”m having fun at your expense.” They all knew what had been going on the night before. I could see the flurry of text messages between them and Dave as they boarded planes, and packed bags while he tried to save my relationship for one more day.
I had been punked. Old ladies were commending Missy for the elaborate plan. I know what you’re thinking: “Man, you’re a jerk. You don’t deserve her.”
Our celebrity status in the bar faded quickly as tourists churned in and out the door. But there was one woman, sitting at a booth with a friend. I felt like I knew her from somewhere, but I couldn’t quite place her. We locked eyes once, and I was sure she recognized me too.
At one point I pulled Sam aside. I asked if we might have known her in college. “You mean the hot one with the really straight dark hair?” he said, practically pointing at her.
“Yeah,” I said, knowing that my cover was completely blown.
“She is familiar,” Sam said. “Wait… it’s coming…” Sam closed his eyes and took a swig of watered-down rum. “Beth! Beth Peters! She worked at Po Boys.”
“Oh, man,” I said, memories flooding back. I began to sweat.
“Wait!” Sam said with glee, “Isn’t she the girl that you…”
“Shut up,” I said, cutting him off.
“Oh, man you definitely need to go talk to her.”
I held up my hand to stop him, but it was too late.
Tanya had been waiting for a drink at the bar and overheard us. She was already whispering in Missy’s ear. Sam was still laughing.
Beth got up from her table. My knees buckled. Missy was approaching, and it seemed there was a spotlight on me. Beth passed close to me and said two words as she walked past. “Can’t talk.”
Ten seconds later I was wearing a craft beer.
Part II – by Cathy Salustri
No one ever tells you about the mosquitoes on Key West, probably because the drunk college kids and middle-age cruise passengers are actually so much worse, but the mosquitoes are a close third in terms of “reasons not to live here.”
I chewed on the inside of my cheek as the bartender apparently did his level best to drive home the idea of “Island Time” while getting my drink. I shook my hair, letting it fall over my face. Maybe that way he wouldn’t recognize me.
Look, I’m not that girl – the one who hops from relationship to relationship, always needing a man on my arm. Or, actually, a woman. I grimace and glance quickly at Ingeborg and then back down at the bar. I’d come to realize that as much as I supported equality, I really wasn’t cut out for lesbianism, or even bisexuality. This had been a crushing blow to my sense of enlightenment: The cold reality is, I can’t stand women. Women are too messy. All the talk about feelings and sweet baby jesus, lesbians were the worst, with their endless processing.
I thought leaving Irish Kevin’s and heading to the Orchid –one of the quieter, classier bars on the Isle of Bones – would keep Ingeborg calm. I figured a tiny, craft cocktail bar would be the perfect place to give Ingeborg the talk that started with “It’s not you, it’s me” and ended with the totally meaningless “We can still be friends.”
I never expected he would follow me. He clearly had his own problems. His girlfriend had just soaked him with craft beer. Certainly he had greater concerns than trying to place my face. That memory sent the acid racing up my esophagus faster than Richard Petty around the racetrack.
But I digress; I need to tell this in order of the many, many bad decisions that led to the best bar fight Key West had seen in 100 years, or so they would tell me later. In my defense, I really did try and avoid that fight. You’ll see.
As I said, I don’t need to be in a relationship, but I do like sex. A lot. And so when I was going on four months of abstinence – an unprecedented blight, in my opinion – I started to make less than stellar decisions when choosing a partner. It’s like wearing beer goggles all the time. So about ten years ago, I babysat this kid, Lucy. I was fresh out of grad school and had ideas that I would sit in sidewalk cafes and write. It was a grand plan, and it worked – until the letters from Sallie Mae started arriving. I needed cash and had never learned to bartend, so I worked odd jobs. This kid was one: The mom was a flight attendant, because apparently that’s still a thing, and her dad had a security detail for my dad. I watched Lucy when he had to work a late shift, because she was a teenager on the edge of disaster and couldn’t be trusted home alone. When her dad came home, she’d be in bed and not out drinking with her older brother’s friends, and I’d go home and write. It wasn’t ideal, but I was writing and making money, so it I felt like I was at least pointing my life in the right direction. A good decision, right?
Well, until the morning I ended up in bed with Lucy’s dad. There’s no way to make that sound better than it was, because what it was was pretty damn shitty. We started talking. He’d had a little scotch. So had I. Scotch coupled with my currently-celibate condition led to us making out. We were in the bedroom when we both realized what was happening, and we stopped.
See that wouldn’t have been such a bad decision… if I hadn’t slept with Lucy’s older brother the next morning. Which I totally did. I was tired, and the couch was lumpy and I thought, hey, her brother’s away at school, I’ll just use his bed, even if it meant sleeping under his creepy Dan Marino poster. But then the bastard came home and apparently didn’t realize I was in his bed, so he climbed in and he looked like his dad, and his dad was really hot, and it had been a long four months. He was naked, he was hot, and he was right there.
It may have been the celibacy talking, but it was the hottest sex I ever had, before or since. But then the dad – yeah, the same guy – came home and caught us. Needless to say, I got the hell out of Dodge, learned to bartend, and never looked back.
Except, of course, this guy I’d been having hot dreams about for the past decade was standing, soaked in craft beer – which, to be fair, is the highest and best use of craft beer – staring at me like he knew me from somewhere. Which he did. And I was there with my girlfriend, in the middle of the The Talk, the one where I wanted to break up with her and she wanted to talk about it because did I mention MY GOD LESBIANS LOVE TO TALK ABOUT IT, and I had a twisting feeling in my gut. We’d come into the bar before the dueling pianos started and I’d tried, in vain, to end it. When it became apparent Ingeborg was not going to just let me end things, I moved the party to the Orchid Bar. Certainly, I reasoned desperately with myself, certainly she won’t cause a scene here. I am not good at endings, largely because I’m a wimp. That tingling in my throat and tight misery in my stomach wasn’t a warning, I told myself. It was just nerves. It would be a crappy hour or two, but by the end of the night this would all be a horrible, distant memory.
Turns out I was half right.
If I want to blame myself – and all evidence suggests I should – I could trace it back to this idea that I was something like a three or a four on the Kinsey Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale, even though I’d never looked at a woman and thought much other than “I wish I had her hair” or “I wonder if those are real?” (As I had no breasts of my own to speak of, it was more than an occasional question.) I thought being bisexual was a hip and trendy, yet rebellious and outcast-y, thing to do, and so when I met Ingeborg and she seemed into me, I thought, hey, I can do this.
Turns out I’m even worse at same-sex relationships than I am heterosexual ones. I am a firm zero on that Kinsey scale. Poor Ingeborg. Poor nordic, blonde, perfect Ingeborg. If I were going to be with a woman, I caught myself thinking as I avoided the unrelenting gaze of the guy dressed in Key West IPA, it would be her. I winced as I realized I was: I was with Ingeborg.
I started to worry there was really no way out of this relationship. I wanted to end it, and Ingeborg – tall, blonde, and temperamental Ingeborg – wasn’t having it. I kept trying to tell her it was over, at first gently, actually using the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech, but Ingeborg, having grown up in Oslo, didn’t recognize what I assumed was the universal brush-off line. She kept saying it was OK that it was me, because we could fix me, and putting her arm around me and trying to kiss me, and that’s when I noticed Lucy’s older brother had found his craft-beer-drenched way into the Orchid Bar and, apparently oblivious to the fact that a, I was with a woman and b, in the middle trying to break up with that woman, kept trying to catch my eye. I kept avoiding his gaze. I was suddenly very tired and where the hell was our bartender with my drink?
“Look, Ingeborg,” I tried again. “I think, you know, maybe I might not be attracted to women.”
“Don’t be silly,” she snapped at me, her patience finally wearing thin. “We had sex last night.”
“Well, yes,” I admitted. “But didn’t you ever notice that… well, you know, that I don’t really… you know, that I don’t really respond as, um, easily as you do?”
“Oh, that,” she laughed. “You are older. Older women take longer to get excited.” Ingeborg said this matter-of-factly, as if I were 70 and not 34. I tried not to be offended. The bartender put a glass of Bombay Sapphire in my hand as I organized my thoughts.
“I didn’t order this,” I said. “I wanted a beer. Non-craft. Cheap. Domestic. Nothing brewed with the tears of a virgin or the blood of a unicorn or any of that crap. Do you not have cheap, domestic beer?”
My patience for people was about at its end.
“The drink is from me,” a male voice said over my shoulder. I tensed; Lucy’s brother – Jesus, did I really not know his name? – had a similar drink in hand. Also, he looked even more like his dad, and even though he was marinated in craft beer, I was picturing him as I had last seen him, in all his tan, naked glory. Ingeborg, who just a moment ago seemed clueless as to my imminent heterosexuality, must have finally sensed something, because she put her arm around my waist and pulled me closer.
In retrospect, my next actions were not my wisest. I remember trying to ignore them both, staring at my oysters and, apparently, a lifetime of despair. Then Ingeborg giggled and grabbed at my almost non-existent breast, which is something she’d never done before, and a mosquito landed on my arm, and all of a sudden I had had enough: Enough of the crappy writing and even worse craft beer, of my long-ago Adventures in Babysitting that refused to go sit in the damn corner, of being even worse at being a lesbian than I was at being a writer, and most of all, the fucking mosquitoes.
I looked up at Adventures in Babysitting, back at Ingeborg, then down at the damn mosquito. Then, in a waste of some of the finest gin I couldn’t afford, I downed the Sapphire in one gulp. I slapped at the mosquito, pulled away from Ingeborg, grabbed Adventures in Babysitting, and kissed him. He kissed me back. It was the highlight of my evening.
That last thing I remember was hearing a sharp intake of breath. I broke off the kiss and saw Ingeborg had gone white. Well, she was a Viking, so she was kind of always white. She was just whiter than usual.
That’s when I felt the punch. Adventures in Babysitting’s craft beer hurling girlfriend was definitely not happy. Also, she hit like a girl.
Ingeborg, however, did not. Thankfully, she wasn’t aiming for me. Babysitting got the worst of it.
Part III – by Shelly Wilson
Of course I knew she wasn’t gay. Well, at least after the first few dates. Believe me, no gay woman can resist these hands.
But that didn’t change the fact that we were stuck with each other. Only small tits over here didn’t know it yet.
Back in Oslo, I was a student, minding my own business as all good Scandinavians do, and well on my way to a degree in advanced ski jumping, when I lost a bet. It was a stupid bet, I’ll give you that, but that sort of thing had never stopped me. We were at a state dinner – Norway is very expensive; I was working catering as a side job – and Lars Gundersen bet me I couldn’t pick up the Prime Minister’s wife.
Turns out he was wrong.
Normally Norwegians are more forgiving, but the Prime Minister didn’t find his wife’s interest in me nearly as amusing as I did. I found myself on a plane to Miami as part of a one-person “delegation” to drum up Floridian support for curling. It could have been worse; the Prime Minister was pretty pissed.
Anyway, there was a series of bullshit appearances planned at hockey rinks, even a nice, if confusing, ride on a float in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade – I still think they thought I was advocating “hurling” instead of curling – but as soon as I had my chance, I split. I ended up in Key West with a hangover and a shamrock tattoo, but I was free.
Or so I thought. A month working odd jobs for some Mafioso – I mean seriously, “Fugiddaboudit” and everything – I met Beth. Dark hair, dark eyes, hot Italian type. I could never resist that. At first, I thought everything was great – she was smart, political, she said she liked craft beer. But it soon became clear that Beth was more interested in the kind of panties I was wearing, than getting into them.
I was about to end the whole experiment when a man in a fedora and sunglasses approached me on the street.
Oh, Beth. She really was a sweet girl. Mom a florist. Brother a schoolteacher. Dad an ultraconservative state representative with eyes on the governor’s office. Turns out there were more than a few political enemies ready to pay for dirt on daddy’s girl. And I, Beth’s lesbian lover, was just the one to supply that dirt.
So I did.
Oh, judge me if you want. Do you have any idea how expensive Key West is? Anyway, that meal ticket currently had her tongue jammed down some ag-ed Frat Boy’s throat. Where the heck had he come from?
Things were not going well.
We were at some fancy cocktail bar – I mean, I had a real napkin in my lap, for godsake– and I knew Beth was trying to break up with me in some way that was so classy I wouldn’t notice. Honestly? The oysters were amazing. But when your rent check is on the table, you notice.
I don’t even care if you think I’m a good person.
So Frat Boy and my girlfriend were still at it, and suddenly there was this hum in the restaurant. At first I thought it was me–just the noise in my head I’d learned to tune out right before a ski jump, the one that says “You’re a lunatic!”–but soon it became a high buzzing–a half dozen Minnie Mouses swearing like a sailors – and then a sort of “Whomp!” that pulled me from my daze.
The blond–the frat boy’s girlfriend standing with half the crowd from Kevin’s–had hit Beth right in front of my face.
I mean, hit her! Blood pooled out from her eyebrow, or maybe it was her nose, dripping on the white napkin tucked into Beth’s tank top. I may never have had more than a passing affectionate thought about Beth, but one solemn fact remained: no one hits my girlfriend.
So I decked the bitch. Someone shouted “Missy!” – there were suddenly a lot of people around and I thought: what the hell kind of a name is “Missy”?
I shook my hand – damn! I’d forgotten how much it hurt to hit someone in the face – and leaned over the girl on the floor.
Missy. Shit. She was beautiful. Even on the floor I could tell she was half a foot taller than me. I suddenly felt very bad about hitting her. She looked up, murder in her eyes.
Around us, other punches were being thrown. Tables upturned – I glanced over my shoulder to see Beth rub shrimp cocktail into someone’s shirt – and waiters running around with club soda like it could somehow restore order.
And then a linebacker in a tuxedo lifted Missy, and then me, juggling us over his shoulders like a circus act.
“Everybody out!” he shouted, apparently herding the group of us out the door. I could see only his shinny tuxedo tails as we bounced down the stairs, Missy screeching, “How DARE you!”
I’m telling you, the woman was a spitfire.
And then we were on our butts with half of the rest of the bar, back out in the Key West heat, eyeing each other like caged animals. We were covered in blood and butter and cocktail sauce.
Missy rubbed her jaw. “You hit me,” she said. “In the face!”
“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
I stood up, brushed half a crushed breadstick off of my butt. Somewhere police sirens started up. Most of the crowd was shuffling off and Beth, nose stuffed with napkins, was whispering to Frat Boy. I swear I heard her give him her address. I couldn’t help it. I laughed.
“Well I guess that’s the end of that,” I said to no one.
“What’s so funny?” Missy asked. She had crumbs in her hair.
“Everything is funny, Missy,” I said. “Can I buy you a drink?” She was awfully cute with crumbs in her hair.
She motioned to her jaw like that might be some sort of dealbreaker. “I don’t even know your name,” she pouted.
I extended my hand to help her up off of the ground. “It’s Ingeborg,” I said.
To my surprise, Missy smiled crookedly and took my hand. “What the hell kind of name is that?”