Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive? the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?
Allen Ginsberg, "Sunflower Sutra," Howl, 1955
A verbal by nature, Annie enjoyed a good gabfest; it cleared her brain and left her with a better idea of what she wanted, oddly enough even when she didn't exactly discuss what was on, or under, her mind. She cultivated her gabbing friends with care, listening for a season to one while talking to another, trying to maintain a balance with each over the ages, lest the relationship get out of whack and bore itself to death.
Her favorite gossip at the time was a sweet-natured white-identified gay black pianist/travel agent who had taken the name Sebastian after falling in love with Brideshead on TV. Sebastian was deliciously wicked on men, casually wise on wine and song, and sympathetic on anything with style. He knew everyone and everything he cared to know; he was a serious student of the art of dissing the deserving while schmoozing the special. Specialness was the secret of his charm he had a genius for convincing whoever he wanted that they were uniquely important to him. Anyone who couldn't see through the masquerade was of no interest but anyone who appreciated the performance was rewarded with loyalty and absolute discretion on matters of real importance. Foibles, of course, were fair game, the stuff of trade in the art of tattling.
"What's up, girl?" called Sebastian at Annie's left shoulder as she leaned into the room.
"Oh, hi!" she responded, sharing a delicate hug, then dropping her purse on a chair. "Sorry I'm late."
"Darling, are we shocked?" She looked suitably chagrined. "The day you show up on time is the day I date Madonna and you know how jealous I am about those men she dances with. It's the flaw in your oyster that makes you perfect. I count on it. Anyway the view here is terrific, check it out, honey."
"You're awful," Annie responded primly. "I'm going to get a latte." But she turned the long way round on the way to the counter so she could take a peek, and sure enough there was a beautifully tousled boy who looked about fifteen and was probably twenty, sucking meditatively on a pencil as he bent over a book.
He's half your age, she frowned.
But what fun, he blinked back.
Anyway he's straight, I hope, she smiled, half against her will.
Not a chance, he tittered.
"You want anything?" she said out loud.
"Get outta here".
Coffee has been the conversationalist's drug of choice for centuries. An upper, of course, it lacks both the edge of amphetamines and the completely self-referential egotism of cocaine; it releases inhibitions without the whine of booze or the giggle of grass. A cuppa char goes well with a chat, too, as the English know, but the tea buzz is different, assert the connoisseurs, and the chemists agree. They're both methylxanthine rushes but coffee's is strictly caffeine, while tea fills it out with the sweet complement of theophylline (ah, impurities and poor relations, the bane and joy of the experimentalist's life). Geniuses from Johnson the word freak, not the beer-chugging Texan through Balzac, flying through the night behind the strong black java on which he finally OD'd, and down to Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti in North Beach fueled the fire of their conversation with coffee's bitter blasts. So naturally the coffee house is where the gossips gather.
Annie's fluctuating, and when possible limited, work schedule gave her the room for afternoon engagements. Sebastian simply insisted on the time for elegant living; at the drop of a full-bottomed wig, he'd have adopted lace collars and sedan chairs. He made most of his money booking trips for his friends and theirs, by appointment at any hour of the day or night, and spent a high proportion of it, even at discount rates, investigating vacation destinations. Annie was one of the few who both approved and understood, though their styles were different. She went every year or so for months and stretched it as long as she could, while he went every month or two for days and overloaded his credit card. What they shared was estrangement from the cultural conditioning of eight-hours-onsixteen-off, fifty-weeks-ontwo-off, forty-five-years-onand-atherosclerosis-city. The world, they felt, damned well ought to be their playground.
They went to each other's parties, of course, and knew each other's partners as and when, but these daylight assignations were the time for confidences. When Sebastian wasn't working at night, tinkling the ivories at the Bistro or punching the agency's computer, he claimed to be cruising and if he was half as active as he boastfully implied, Annie would only be in the way. Of all the people who knew Brendan as Annie's, or the other way round, Sebastian was the safest confidant for her, and she as much for him. They were players in games that simply didn't overlap.
"Darling," he said as she settled herself and began to blow on the foam atop her coffee, "Have we been getting our beauty sleep?"
"You're so tactless," riposted Annie. "Don't you know you're not supposed to let a lady think she doesn't look in the absolute pink?"
"Sweetheart, since when did you get ladified? C'mon, dish. What's up? I know something's up."
"A girl simply knows. Is it the brute? Has little Bren been forcing himself on you again? Was it fun?"
"Oh, shut up. No, it's not Brendan. Well, maybe it is. I don't know."
Sebastian leaned back and sipped, fluttering his eyelids over the cup out of habit in a coquettish stare.
"So it is Mr Brennie. What happened? Girl, what did he do? Or is it something he didn't do?"
"You think everything is sex, don't you?"
"Of course. Too much or not enough, that's the human condition, with little spurts of satisfaction in the middle."
He flipped a hand at her in faux-dismay. "Get over it," he giggled. "So which is it?"
"Not enough, I suppose," she admitted, "But that's not really it. I suppose if we had a thrilling sex life maybe I wouldn't be feeling so sort-of old and bored and kind of lost. But then, you know, maybe I'd only be kind of lost and sated at the same time."
"Ice cream fucking."
"When you want a full meal, right."
"But, Annie, what brought this on?"
"Oh, I guess it's been building up."
"Yeah, but something happened. Last week you were talking about going to Costa Rica and getting a tan and now you're all full of this stuff. What's new? When did it start?"
"I guess it was Friday," she admitted, "When we went up to that Berkeley in the Sixties thing on campus. It got me thinking, you know, how I never do anything. I mean, I ... it's like the system and me, we've sort of made a deal, and they don't hassle me anymore and I don't bother them, I guess."
"Ain't that growing up, honey?"
"But I never wanted to grow up."
"What do you mean, 'aha'?"
"Feeling a little old, are we, dear? Creaking in the joints when you get out of bed?"
"Well," she confessed. "But that's not it. I mean, sure, that is it, too, and seeing all those babies..."
"Beautiful, aren't they?"
"...seeing all those beautiful babies, doesn't help, especially with you older guys leching around after all the cute ones..."
"Seriously, Sebastian, they make me remember what it was like when it didn't matter what 'They' thought," waggling her fingers to show the quotes, "Except that you didn't want 'Them' to like you. Know what I mean? It was easy, what you did was, you did what you wanted as far as you could, and 'They' didn't like it and 'We' did and that's sort of how 'We' knew who 'They' were.
"And now, I figure maybe I'm part of Them, or maybe They think I am anyway, and, I don't know, except it doesn't feel right. And then I was thinking about the war, this new one that's coming up, and I don't know, I just ... don't They know I'm against it?"
"That's a peace brooch, isn't it?"
"But, y'know, I never used to have to wear something like this for everyone to know straight off what I thought, well, except for some foreigners maybe who thought all us Yanks were the same. It's cuckoo, that's what it is, They're nuts and I just feel so ... lost."
Sebastian shucked the faggy jive and held his friend's hand.
"I didn't think you were political," he said softly.
"I'm not," she protested. "I never was."
"And you don't really want to be a hippy again."
"No, not exactly."
"So what do you want?"
Oh dear, the impossible question. What she wanted, inevitably, was to know what she wanted, but something so general can be hard to think. She let herself go barreling off on a specific.
"Did you hear that people were going to invade the Recruitment Center?"
"Yeah, next week, week after."
"Right. Now, seems like that could be something."
"Go for it, girl."
"Listen, honey, if it makes you feel good, do it, that's what I say. Anyway, if you're going to find anyone who thought like you then and thinks like you now, that's where they're gonna be, baby."
"Yeah," she mused. Her latte was cool now and she took a long pull and licked the foam meditatively off her lip. "Yeah."
"So check it out."
"How? I mean, is there some way I can find out about it?"
"Well, sure. I know this guy who's in the group doing it, they meet every week I think."
"Sebastian, how come you know everything?"
"I make it my business, dear. Actually, he was talking about it at the Blue Lagoon with this cute little trick, so I didn't catch everything, but the Planet will have it." He got up and stepped round the corner, coming back in a moment with a tabloid and turning to the calendar at the back.
"Here it is, Persian Gulf Peace Coalition, meets every Tuesday, 7 o'clock. There's a number if you want to call."
"Where is it?"
"East Side United Methodist, out near Seabright."
"It's a church?" Annie was shocked, really shocked, to find a religious institution fomenting what she envisaged as a sort of anti-establishment enterprise. She'd heard of radical Christianity but it still seemed like an oxymoron to her, and distinctly off-putting. Except for the occasional straight wedding, she hadn't been in a church since childhood.
"Darling, you're prejudiced!" squealed Sebastian with delight.
"Hmmm. I guess," she admitted. Prejudice has never been hip.
"And I thought you weren't. Well, that is a relief. My favorite little bigot."
"I guess some of them are OK," she conceded, almost seriously.
"Darling, some of my best friends..." He couldn't hide the smirk.
"Oh, shut up."
"Anyway, they just rent out the room, they do it all the time. The pastor's pretty cool but I don't think he actually does anything in this group. He was really good with getting the AIDS project going. Does all kinds of shit. I thought they were at the Resource Center but I guess they had to move."
"So it's not just a bunch of students?"
"Oh, no dear, this is the town one. This is the one for people like you. Here, keep it."
"So you don't think I'm kinda, y'know, foolish?"
"To wanna be a peace freak?" He mimed horror and then smiled. "No, not at all."
"Thanks, Sebastian. Thanks a lot." She looked at her watch. "Oh shit, I've got to go."
"OK," he said agreeably.
"But I haven't even asked how you're doing."
"I'll be fine, honey." He looked suggestively over to the corner window. "With a little bit o' luck, I'll be just fine. I'll tell you all about it next week."
They hugged pleasantly and he backed away and looked her in the eye.
"You sure this isn't about old Brennie?"
She settled her purse strap on her shoulder, flicked her hair back and turned to look at him.
"No," she said. "I'm not."
And she shrugged and walked away.