“Hemingway drank these, you know,” said the first artist – Samantha, toes curled inward, hunched against the post of a too-long, too thin dorm bed in some run down, converted hotel, in some run down, converted part of Manhattan, made over with the sheen of desirability and little else.
“It’s called Death in the Afternoon. Champagne and Absinthe,” she cooed through a half smile as she poured a spurt of bubbly into a red solo cup.
“Drink three to five slowly.”
“Yeah, but it’s midnight,” said artist two – Nathan, hoping for a laugh among these new pretenders to Bohemia. “Doesn’t have the same kick when it’s midnight.”
“The RA’s awake in the afternoon.”
“So if she caught us, we’d be dead…in the afternoon.”
“Are we gonna drink, or just verbally jack off all evening?” Artist three: Alli.
“Jacking off was an option?” Said Artist four, Sean: throwing what was ostensibly a joke to an exclusive audience of one: Alli.
She bit her lip.
“Not much for witty repartee, Alli?” Samantha hissed through her half smile.
“I’m about ready to pull a Hemingway and shoot myself in the mouth.”
“…Key West will do that to you…”
“…Death in the Afternoon?”
“…Drink three to five slowly.”
With that cheer, Samantha passed out the last of the solo cups to the group of two or three or four artists who drank their petit deaths in one long, slow, uninterrupted sip, grimacing as the absinthe and sparkling wine swam together in a gurgling slime of confusion and unfulfilled expectation.
The cups went down, and four, yes it was four, sets of eyes blinked around the room, unflinching, unrevealing, each hoping to glean some insight from the others before being the one to trip the silence and admit disappointment.
“Tastes minty,” said Sean, his face reeling from the alcohol on his own breath.
“That’s the anise and wormwood,” – back to Samantha, artist one. She pushed her geriatric glasses passed her Pillsbury doughgirl cheeks, burrowing them into her basket of black hair as if to somehow shield herself from the damning faint praise for Hemingway’s poison. “It’s only been legal in the states for a couple of years…”
“…It’s like…belle époque.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” Alli huffed, her fingers drumming against her cup. “I just feel drunk.”
“That’s what you wanted, right?”
“The fuck is wrong with that? Your Hemingway was an alcoholic.”
“and La fée verte is a complete lush,” clapped Nathan: his gaunt face grinning at his second application to this Algonquin Round Table Redux – no new members being considered at this time.
“That’s a myth anyway,” snapped Samantha.
“That Hemingway was an alcoholic? He said drink three to five slowly!”
“No,” seethed Samantha, “la fée verte. It’s just the high alcohol content.”
“Not high enough,” replied Sean, helping himself to another pour.
“Easy on that, that bottle was sixty bucks!”
“Sixty bucks! I could have gotten twice as drunk on a ten dollar handle of vodka.”
The air in the room fell fat, stagnant with the smell of a cedar wood candle and the hot breath of an awkward silence.
“But Hemingway didn’t drink cheap vodka,” artist Samantha quietly conceded. “And he was an artist.”
“I’m not an artist,” said the third artist: Alli.
“But you’re in art school.”
“To be a writer.”
“Hemingway was a writer.“
“Hemingway blew his head off. If being an artist means killing my liver and then shooting myself in the head, then no, fuck no, I’m not an artist.”
Artist Samantha seethed, her Pillsbury cheeks snaking dark red, her eyes twitching at the fastly-becoming unwelcome third guest.
“This room is for artists only.”
“Ok Sammmmmantha,” sneered Alli, “if you’re such an artist, make us some art. Show me why you deserve to be here.”
The first artist never answered her. Instead, she staggered to her feet, snatching the bottle of absinthe as she made her way over to her particle board desk – sticky from the humidity and underclassman anxiety. She hunched over her desk, pen in her right, absinthe in her left, swigging the booze – willing la fée verte to bless her with inspiration.
“But really, do any of us deserve to be here?” tossed in Nathan, the second artist, “It’s a big dice roll – life. A ship tossed on the waves of fortune.”
“Pussy.” Alli again.
“I’m gonna go real quick,” drifted Sean. “I got a fifth of rum I could bring back. My room’s just down the hall. Any takers?”
And that’s when the pen struck the desk itself. Samantha slashed through the wood, leaving a wake of ink and sawdust with each penstroke.
“Uhh…” Alli glanced at Sean.
“You can’t leave now!” – Artist Two. “It’s getting good! Pass the champagne.”
No one made a move, so Nathan crawled over behind maestress Samantha, and palmed the bottle.
“Freixenet.” He murmured. “Doesn’t sound French.”
“She’s pretty intense,” Alli whispered over to Sean. “Needs to get laid.”
“That’s the absinthe talking,” he countered.
She smothered his hand with hers before bearing straight into his eyes: “Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder.”
“Fuck that was clever,” Nathan silently muttered.
Alli held Sean’s gaze in a burlesque seriousness, until Sean’s face broke, a smile washing over him in waves of blush, and the two of them collapsed into a heap of giggles.
“What’s so funny?” Samantha shouted, not bothering to look over.
“This is Cava!” Artist two.
“This…is art!” Samantha threw her pen against the desk. “Bitch.”
Alli pulled Sean up by his hand, and led him over to the desk. Nathan didn’t bother, turning the bottle around, tracing its kitsch script, burning with the embarrassed realization that he had been had. This was not Champagne. He had just drunk a knockoff Death in the Afternoon.
A real Death at Midnight.
There was no forgiveness for this.
“You do know Cava is not Champagne, right?”
“Jesus what the fuck?” Alli snapped.
“For obsessing over artistry, you could have at least bought GH Mumm.”
“Not that, you douchebag. Look at what she fucking made.”
“I made art.”
“You made a fucking enemy.”
Nathan tottered to his feet, brushing past Sean – “sorry bud” – “no prob man” – to see the offense: a scratchy, viciously inked, somehow angular drawing of a magnificently fleshy vagina – labia billowing underneath a cloud of pubic hair. Titled: Alli: Twat.
He stared, enraptured by the porno-graffiti, his brain firing off internal half-formed, half-clever retorts, as he scrambled to trump, to button this insult art with the perfect riposte.
Nothing materialized. It was unbeatable. There stood “Alli: Twat,” victorious. In resignation, he simply handed the bottle of Cava over to Alli, who took a swig and spat it on the desk.
“There’s your goddamned golden shower, ass hole.”
Samantha grinned, “art provokes.”
“C’mon, let’s get the fuck outta here,” Sean offered, “I have rum.”
“Just rum. And a tv.”
“Fucking deal.” Alli said, grabbing his arm, and leading him out of one run-down dorm room into another.
Samantha stared past Nathan, watching the two not-quite-artists until the door clicked shut.
“She took my champagne.”
“It was Cava.”
Samantha rolled her eyes, then pulled a cigarette and a lighter out of her pocket.
“Why are you still here?”
“He’s my roommate.”
“So I don’t want to cockblock. Or worse…be there to see it.”
She lit her cigarette, holding the smoke in her lungs until she had opened the window by the desk. She exhaled into the city night.
“You’re the only one who has any.”
She pointed her foot to the bottle on the desk. He propped his ass on the wood, paying attention not to smother the art exhibit next to him.
He poured the absinthe into a stray red solo cup that may or may not have belonged to him. In a more sober state, perhaps he would have fretted whatever bacteria or viruses may have been present as he had fretted each line and each quip he had carefully constructed over the course of an evening which had left him locked out of his room, surveying the wreckage of what was supposed to have been the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Bohemia, zip code 10003.
He, the second artist, took a shot of absinthe. “It’s better than that rum Sean’s been hawking.”
“What’s he do again?”
“He’s a musician.”
“He got in here, didn’t he?”
“So did she.” Samantha spat.
“She’s a talented writer.”
“She’s an insult artist.” Artist one.
“And you’re not?” Artist two.
“She fucking deserved it.” The end of her cigarette glowed orange as she sucked in smoke through a face of contempt, then exhaled a manifesto:
“Didn’t you want to come to this city to escape the townie asses that you grew up with? The ones that stifled you, told you art was worthless, mocked you for taking part in the high school play? The play where you got to have the whole world – school – transfixed by you as you fell in love three nights in a row with the cutest boy – or girl… or boy, I don’t know you – and you got to be someone. Didn’t you, didn’t we all come to New York to be that person we were for a day a year, every day for the rest of our lives?”
She gobbled up the smoke again, “So why the fuck is she stifling us? Stifling me?”
Artist two stumbled to a thought, “He hit on women in front of his wife.”
“Hemingway,” Nathan said, taking another gulp of absinthe.
“He hit on women in front of his wife –”
“I’m not finished!” He grunted, trying to tie down his thought, “He hit on women in front of his wife, left her, married three other women, fell into alcoholism, lost his mind, was treated with shock therapy, and killed himself. Scared and alone.”
“What’s your fucking point, Nathan?”
“I don’t think I know.” He admitted, the absinthe interrupting each attempted insight, “I guess, if I did, it would be that it’s all horseshit. And being an artist doesn’t stop it. The horseshit. It just…spreads it around, so everyone can see it…”
Samantha slumped to the floor. He handed her the bottle.
“Thanks for handing me my absinthe.”
“That’s what I’m here for.”
“You’re here because you have nowhere else to go.”
“How Bohemian of me.”
“A sexile at midnight?”
“Drink three to five slowly.”
Nathan Dennis is a Manhattan based playwright and poet of Floridian extraction. A graduate of NYU Tisch Department of Dramatic Writing, he served as a Rita and Burton Goldberg Fellow, and was awarded Outstanding Writing for the Stage in Spring of 2015. He received the Magnolia Review Ink Award for his poem “Meditations on the Creation,” in January 2019. His most recent play, Circle of Shit, was presented by Dixon Place in March 2019.