Swizzle Stick

Swizzle Stick

Nick did not believe in beautiful, brilliant women.  He dated beautiful women, and he dated brilliant women, but never in his life had he dated a beautiful, brilliant woman.  He grouped them with mermaids, fairies, and angels – except, he allowed for the possibility of angels, since so many other people seemed to believe in them.  Nick kept his eyes open, though.  He loved women.

People called him Swizzle Stick Nick, because he held one between his lips to see how long he could go without chewing on it.  His record was three hours, but they only lasted one on the average.  Swizzle sticks cost less than cigarettes, and they lasted longer.  He never went anywhere without a fistful of them.

“Hey, Swistic!”

Nick looked up from wiping the bar.

“I’m Nick,” he said.

“Sure, I know who you are, Swistic.  Say, could I get a beer?”

He turned to the taps with a sigh.

“Thanks, Swiz.”

The incessant nickname caused him much irritation.  He couldn’t keep his dates from hearing it, and they couldn’t keep from saying it.  More and more he bit his swizzle sticks, and the more sticks he went through, the more appropriate the name seemed.  Nick felt sure he’d never be Nick again.

Then, one day, an acquaintance introduced him to three attractive women: a pretty blonde, a beautiful brunette, and an exquisite redhead.  Three times his acquaintance introduced him by name, as though the second two hadn’t heard.  His grimace bent more crooked with each reiteration.  At the third mention of “Swizzle Stick Nick,” Nick stared into the deep green eyes of the redhead, drew the stick from his lips, and said:

“I’m just Nick.”  Then he snapped the plastic stick in his hand, and smiled at them.

“Well, what do you know?” said the acquaintance.

“No more of those, I guess,” said the blonde.

“Hum — dramatic,” said the brunette.

“Your hand is bleeding,” said the redhead.

A stream of blood tickled the underside of his palm and dropped off his wrist.  He smiled, excused himself, and got a bandage for his finger.

For weeks the bandage served to remind people he would not let anyone call him Swizzle Stick, anymore, though he went on keeping them between his teeth.  The bandage also served to keep his finger together, because for two weeks the wound kept open.  It stung him when he handled lemon slices, and ebbed sometimes when he curled his finger too far.  After a month he saw a doctor.  The doctor proclaimed him healthy, though, and he had to go around with a bandaged finger until it closed.

The cut stayed open.  It bled a little when he became agitated, and he would have to change the bandage.  He noticed a pale band around his finger where the bandage kept the sun off.  The pale band recorded how long he had not healed.  It irritated him.  Then he met a woman named Paula, and she had an affect on his blood pressure.  That bothered him, too.

The night he first saw her, he felt sure the ceiling fans had stopped turning.

“Bar’s closed,” he said, watching her stand from her seat across the room.

Paula glided across the floor with legs like scissors in blue jeans, and Nick forgot to look busy as he watched her.  Her swishing ponytail hypnotized him as she passed.  He bit hard on the swizzle stick in his mouth, threw it aside, and took up another without taking his eyes away.  He felt heat coming off her from over the bar, saw an aura, a shimmer around her like the mirage that coats a summer highway.  He followed her to the glass door to lock it, watched her step down the stairs.

A woman that beautiful had to have a mind like a concrete tennis ball – everything he knew about girls depended on it – but he clenched his fists and prayed for a sign, anyway, any small signal to show someone brilliant and creative lived inside that gorgeous person.  Nick laughed at himself as she made slow progress down the steps to the landing.  She’d had a lot to drink.  Then she reached the landing, and something magical happened.

Paula slipped off one shoe, then the other.  Her pointed feet looked tender on the concrete.  She tossed her walnut hair free from its ribbon, draping the blue stripe over the banister.  Nick saw the veil of her tresses shining a deep rust color in the fluorescent light and inhaled.  She grasped her shirt at the bottom and pulled it over her head, dropping it to the landing.   Then, she unclasped her belt and stepped out of those wonderful jeans, proceeding down the stairs in nothing but lace, lipstick, and a bit of eye shadow.

Nick staggered.  Her single action insulted every American convention governing a woman’s behavior.  Sure, she was drunk.  But she had managed to do the most interesting thing he’d ever seen a woman do.  He pawed the glass like he could beckon her back that way.  He opened the door and stepped through it, halted, stepped back inside, keeping his eyes nailed to the pile of clothes and the dangling ribbon.  Starved of hope for so long, Nick decided to fall in love.

He found her clothing still there after closing up the bar.  He hoped she’d come back for it, and, two days later, she did.

Nick and Paula dated often.  When he saw her, the cut throbbed under its bandage.  He hated the feeling.  His heart would hasten when he held her hand, and the blood in his veins backed up against the bandage like a clogged waterway.  The pressure made his finger pulse and beat, which caused him to feel the thumping tension up the inside of his arm and into his chest.  Then Nick would look down and see a brown splotch deepening on the bandage and giggle, shrug, and shake it off.  She would smile at him and touch his arm, and start the whole mess over again.

One day, Paula stayed at the bar while Nick closed up.  When he had almost done, she crawled over the bar and pinned him to the liquor shelves with her boot on his chest, which she rocked back and forth like a lumberjack freeing a hatchet.  She unbuttoned her shirt.  Nick reached up and felt her ankle.  His eyes locked onto hers and tried to take in all he saw.  He made a conscious effort to remember the night forever.  Then he saw his bandage glistening red, felt the pounding in his finger, up his arm, and into his chest.  He saw a wet, ruby smudge on her skin, glanced at the ceiling, and passed out.

Nick dreamed.  He walked through tall grass in warm sun and looked for someone.  He had an appointment.  The sensation of checking a watch ticked in him.  He appeared at a pond with pussy willows on its banks and lily pads floating on its mirror surface.  A waterfall poured into the pond, and a woman bathed in it.  White robes clung to her skin, and fair hair traced her neck, shoulders, and decollate.  She saw Nick and smiled.

She didn’t mind he’d come late.

He walked into the pond and thought it warm.  He found the pond shallow and waded to her, his fingers trailing wakes in the water.  The waterfall plunged and rolled in amber strings and streams of shining gold.  Nick tasted it and laughed.  It was honey.  The woman embraced him, and he kissed her, bringing her to the mossy, slippery ground beneath the falls.  The honey rose as they made love, and it covered them both before Nick woke up.

Paula thought Nick’s blackout cute.  She trilled and chuckled when she told the story to her friends, told how she pegged her lover to the bottles of whiskey and vodka and gin, took off her shirt and caused him to swoon, caused him such anxiety, in fact, that Swizzle Stick blacked right out.  He casually failed to mention how uncomfortable the sight of blood and the sensation of it pulsing in his finger made him.

Nick could not escape the image of the woman under the honey falls.  It caused him guilt, and he drew his eyebrows together and massaged his temples when he thought of her if Paula was around.  Time passed.

The cut stayed open.  He tried ointments, salves, pastes, oils, and jellies, but nothing kept it shut but the bandage.  He saw another doctor, and this one indulged Nick’s fantasies by listening with the patience of a well-paid man and prescribed a tube of antibacterial gel.  Nick forewent the gel.

Considering herself the cause of Nick’s having passed out, Paula felt very attractive.  She dressed more and more provocatively for him, covering her racy outfits with overcoats while on the street.  In time, the overcoats became stifling and she stopped wearing them.  Nick noticed.  His face reddened when she tickled his forearm with her nails, and he smiled and shuddered when she slid her foot up his leg at restaurants.  It wasn’t long before Nick passed out again, the bandage saturated and scarlet.

He met the blonde woman at the pond beside the pussy willows, and made love to her again under the honey falls.  He reveled in the warm, sticky weight of it coating them like a living quilt, and he noticed the blinding white sun made shining patterns of light on their bodies; they flickered as though they were on fire.

Paula worried at first, but she grew to like it after doctors convinced her of Nick’s health.  She enjoyed taking care of him during his spells, during which she held his head in her lap and marveled at the smile on his lips.  Nick never smiled like that.  He always came around with a sweet sigh and a sparkling look at her that first lifted his eyebrows, then relaxed to show the notch in his front tooth, a detail most people never noticed.  She teased him at first, stroking him in secret at the market or at movies, but stopped her teasing as he passed out more and more often.

The more he passed out, the sexier she felt, and the sexier she felt, the sexier she dressed for him.  Paula began to receive attention from men the way streets receive cars.  It turned Paula on.  When Nick and Paula went home, she would come on to him, and he would pass out.  Paula held Nick’s head in her lap and petted him while he made love to the girl in the honey falls.  Paula’s ego inflated, and she smirked and grinned everywhere she went.  Nick smirked, too, but for different reasons.

Paula teased Nick, Nick passed out, Nick made love to the girl in the honey, over and over like this until Nick thought of her at all moments of every day.  Paula faded from his view.  Her dresses looked uniform to him, and he failed to notice other men staring at her.  Then, one day, her hands came from behind him and stroked his chest, and Nick felt nothing.  His pulse neither quickened nor intensified, and the bandage on his finger stayed dry.  Paula shrank away.  Nick went for a walk.

After two weeks he wanted to see the girl in the honey more than anything, but Paula’s caresses moved nothing inside him.  Paula noticed and tried harder, but the more she attempted to seduce him, the less attractive she became.  Nick broke a sweat worrying about how he could see his lover again.  Unable to excite himself over Paula, the woman who lived in the honey falls receded from him like a star in the dawning sun.

Unsatisfied with his inability to love her, Paula chose one of her throng of admirers and left Nick.  Nick retaliated with apathy.  He ignored the blitzkrieg of messages on his answering service, presuming that at least one would be her.  When depression settled on him like mist, nobody thought Paula the cause of it, though she trailed men like the leader of a marathon.  Nick made a conscious decision to feel nothing.  For the first time in weeks, he wondered if his finger would ever heal.

One rainy night, Nick served a handful of diehard regulars.  One of them asked why he wasn’t married.

“Women have a mind of their own,” Nick said.

“Well, wouldn’t you want a girl to?” said the guy.

“Sure, I would.  It’s just I got no handle on them.  No handle on getting a girl, no handle on keeping her.  Even if I want to break up, they run off before I can throw them over.”

His wound pulsed, but just enough to remind him of the woman in the honey falls.  He sneered, scoffed, and stuck a swizzle stick between his teeth without realizing he had.  The patrons said nothing of it.

For no apparent reason, he began answering to Swizzle Stick as though Nick had never lived.  People who knew him a little loved to introduce him to their friends.  People who knew him well saw his slouched shoulders and drooping mouth and pretended to know why he chewed on those sticks like gum, though he never had before.  He sneered at pretty girls, and sometimes grinned at their boyfriends like he knew something.

The bandage reminded him of the girl in the honey, and he tired of it.  It disappeared from his finger.  Weeks had gone since last he felt faint from it.  The wound still broke his skin, but looked neither red nor inflamed.  In three days a scab formed.  In a week, the cut had gone.

Swizzle Stick Nick cried the night the scab fell off.  He considered slicing himself again, snapped three swizzle sticks in the process of trying, and felt stupid and demoralized in the end.  Sadness wrapped him up.  He called in sick to work, but returned the next day.

Few patrons came, and Nick spent a full hour staring at a velvet painting of Raquel Welch in a leopard-print bikini that hung on the wall.  Raquel had nothing on the girl in the honey falls.  He saw the girl shining and sticky, sitting at the bank of the pond among the pussy willows with sun glinting off her auric hair and smiling.  She stood and went to him.  He remembered the feel of her fingertips across his stomach and down his chin.  She excited him more than any woman he knew, more than any woman he had ever known, Nick decided.

He had an affair with her all afternoon.  By the end of his shift, he started keeping track of how much gnawing he did on his swizzle sticks again.  He went through three that afternoon.

He became known for his cold shoulder toward women as much as for the sticks.  Some called him a misogynist, and others said he’d been hurt by someone long ago.  Legends gestated.  Because of his famous disregard of females, it caused a stir about town and shocked many patrons when a homely-looking woman and her indeterminate date went home separately, broke up right there at the bar on account of Swizzle Stick Nick.

“What would you like, Johnson?” said the woman.  She had a voice like a religious greeting card.

“Oh, I’ll have the special.” said her pedestrian date.

“No special,” said Nick.

“Yes?  Oh, then I’ll have what she’s having.”

Nick looked at her.  Her eyebrows sat on her forehead like caterpillars.

“Johnson’s indecisive,” said the woman.

Nick made a spectacular display of disinterest, and the woman frowned.

“Excuse me,” she said as though affronted.  “I’ll have a diet cola with a splash of rum.”

Nick’s lips parted.  His nostril twitched.

“Rum and diet.  Sure thing.”

“No,” she said.  “A diet cola – with a splash of rum.”

Nick’s teeth crunched on the plastic stick between them.  He kept his eyes on her as he combined the ingredients, setting two rum and diets before her.

“Oh,” said Johnson, “I didn’t want that.”

Nick looked straight ahead.  She looked at him.

Johnson repeated himself, adding a small “huh” at the end as if to say, I won’t drink that for anything in the world.

Nick took the stick from his mouth and held it vertically between his eyes a moment.  Then he flicked his wrist and sent it spinning, end over end into Johnson’s broad forehead where it bounced and rattled insignificantly to the floor.  Johnson blinked twice and stared at the bar.  The woman laughed at him.  Johnson left alone.

Nick poured the two cocktails into a large glass with a slanted frown, and gave it to the hackneyed woman.  He had two shots with her, himself, after which she seemed tolerable.  He spent the afternoon belittling the successful romances of others, and she found him charming.  When his shift ended Nick stayed and drank with her, as people fired worried looks at them in anticipation that Nick would do something awful.  When she brushed her fingers along his leg, a gleam entered his face and lodged behind his eyes, as though the world was contained there and he had the best seat in the house.  They went home together.

Nick and the inelaborate woman had a long and fulfilling romance, and when they bedded, Nick kept the woman from the honey falls in his imagination like a candle in a lamp.  The throbbing feeling came back in his arm, this time without the bleeding, and Nick felt capable of truly loving once more.  His partner knew he loved her, Nick thought, and whenever anyone questioned his intentions, Nick would glimpse the flaxen woman in the honey falls, shining with sunlight on her head and on her breasts, waiting for him to wade through the pussy willows to her and slide with her beneath the surface of the pond.  Then he would throw his swizzle stick away, spit, and take up another one.

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