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Once again, Diego was right. Actually, Jake thought blearily, these days Diego seemed elevated to frickin' oracle. Who knew? When they were at NYU together, the doofus was far less into books than pranks, from cute-but-harmless to dangerously dumbass. Like the time - a decade pre-Occupy - he'd sent out a press release from “the Coalition to Arm the Homeless” and the resulting brouhaha snowballed until their dorm was besieged with reporters from CNN, the Post, AP, even the London fucking Times -- for almost a week it was like living with some cen-21 version of Kato Kaelin or Ken Kesey. All through their undergrad years, Jake had observed his roomie’s antics from the sidelines, bemused, occasionally amused. But he always kept the other 99.87 percent of his attention squarely on the ball: editing the college paper (though what great copy sometimes, that Diego), dating Amy the student council VP, assiduously attending to his 3.8 GPA. Yay, him.
And yet, a decade later, here they both were in glamorous South Beach on a velvety winter night, sprawled @ half-past midnight on a fancy mattress next to the Raleigh’s glowing curlicue pool. All around, poseurs partied while America skipped sullenly to hell. Ambient techno throbbed and purred and slithered hypnotically from amid stylish nearby jauntily tropical traveler palms and Jurassic-looking crotons, their reddish, fossil-like leaves glowing bloodily through the lanterns and ground lights. Now whose life was set, with a rip-roaring business, a great home life, and work for causes he believed it? And whose was turning into an increasingly pointless and puerile dead end, skittering frantically on the shiny gerbil wheel?
Jake rubbed his goatee, shot the cuffs of the ridiculous blazer that his publisher at South Bitch magazine made him wear. Ad sales was currently in bed with a hot new local boutique where this twerpy designer was the supposedly hip flavor of the month. Made of some kind of lycra blend in three garish colors, it flaunted all stitching and seams on the outside, made him feel like some kind of haute-couture clown at Cirque du Soleil. Coming in earlier with his own personal Brazilian bombshell, chicly tricked out in some shiny black-and-red outfit, the two of them probably came across like refugees from a samba school (which, he reflected, in her case might not be too far off).
He glanced down at his half-swilled mango mojito, the fifth in two hours. Yeah, Diego was right again, he was hitting the booze a little too hard -- and the buzz wasn’t even what it should be. He was so sick of these constant issue-launch parties. More and more it was dawning: he’d bailed out of the bullshit of Manhattan only to land in warmer bullshit -- OK, with palm trees, oh yeah, yippee. It sure wasn’t doing much for his de-cynicizing campaign.
“Oye, if you insist on getting hammered, at least lose the foofy drinks!” Diego semi-yelled across the mattress to be heard over the hubbub; next to him, Jason snickered. “That’s all I see you with lately, stupid saketinis, chocolate chais, and pomegranate margaritas. And especially that thing,” with a wave of the hand at Jake’s glass.
Jake roused himself. “Whatchoo talkin’ about, Willis? I thought you people invented these things.”
“Not that, bro’,” Diego said. He raised his own mojito. “The real deal is Havana Club silver, pure cane sugar, club soda, crushed mint. Y basta.”
“Dude, it’s Bacardi. As in, Miami, Puerto Rico...”
“The point is, no place on the island are you gonna find this puppy made with mango, coconut, watermelon, vanilla-ginger, all that too-too crap. I mean, c'mon, m' hijo.”
“Hey, it's SoBe, what do you expect?”
“Whatever. But head over to my side of the causeway. Try ordering a ‘mango mojito’ at any Latin joint in Little Havana -- Versailles, Ayestarán, La Carreta -- that's flaming maricón territory”
Jake racked what was left of his gray cells for a clever-mag-editor comeback, but his train of thought was idling on a side rail. Where the hell was Odete? It was, like, 20 minutes already; how long does it in fact take to powder her nose, or pee? And... what were they talking about, again?
“You cool, papo?” Diego asked. Apparently expecting some kind of answer.
“Ah, sure thing. A little beat, that’s all. Thinking.”
“Wow, no kidding. Now, you’re supposed to be here for work, aren’t you?” piped up Diego's blond-twink boyfriend Jason. “Last I noticed, the Red Hook Rangers didn’t pay you to think.”
Suddenly humid palms clapped over Jake's eyes. He’d been wondering when she’d make her entrance; he could tell who it was from the scent of Amarige de Givenchy that bloomed like a gardenful of gardenias on a megadose of Miracle-Gro. “Hiii, Jake…” cooed that familiar husky voice (no joke, this broad actually managed to pull off stuff like that, putting him in mind of an aging vamp cartoon come to florid life).
“So the gravy train makes a whistle stop at the Raleigh station tonight, I see!” he declaimed into the darkness with a bluffness he hoped didn’t feel too forced.
With her signature rat-a-tat-tat chortle, Pickles released him and plunked down on the bed with an air kiss to each cheek. “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-HA! You are too funny.”
He winked. “Hah, you should talk, countess.” Indeed, a bigger piece of work than the Comptesse de Cornichon was frankly hard to imagine. Back in the 80’s, former co-ed Larissa Mandelbaum had parlayed a whirlwind wedding, a move to the count’s kinky kastle in the Loire, followed by his subsequent pre-divorce sex scandal and suicide, her aggressive erotic availability, and generally more chutzpah than talent into a Hollywood-optioned memoir and something of a career writing about art, wine, and travel. And sex, naturellement. Still pretty and petite though “of a certain age,” she’d been after him for a good couple of months after they’d first met, strenuously trying to get a Mrs. Robinson thing going. Finally they’d made the transition from predator/prey into pals, but to this day there were times he still found her just too exhausting.
“Have you seen?” Pickles leaned into him conspiratorially -- leopardskin-print top unnaturally tight and eyes, Jake thought, unnaturally bright. “I’ve already got a fix on who’s here. Lindsay, Kanye, Selena, Varvatos, and the guy who played the crooked cop on “South Beach.” And even Uma, can you imagine? I just caught Lindsay giving her room number to the back bartender -- you know, that muscly Haitian studpuppy who slipped it to Paris last week. Oooo, package delivery! I suggest getting a photog over asap.”
All completely dizzying, per usual. Jake never quite knew when she meant it or just being casually catty, but at this point he felt too tired to be more than noncommittal. “I’ll bring it up with Angie. Hey, where’s your sidekick tonight?”
A pissed-off look skittered across her face, leaving a little moue. “Hunter? Busy.” Jake raised an eyebrow, waited for it. “Oh, all right, I’m punishing him. The prick slept with Natasha.”
“OK, so what do you care? You two haven’t been an item for years. Plus, didn’t you drop Natasha? Too much of a whiny downer to be a decent friend, you said. And letting herself go.”
There was that look again -- as if Jake were slightly dense. He'd've been more offended if lately he all too hadn't often felt exactly that. “Oh, I don’t really care what he does -- everybody cheats in South Beach anyway. And she’s most definitely dropped. But the bastard didn’t tell me about it himself. I had to find out through Ajnneke, of all people. How do you think that made me look? ”
Jake strove to summon, um, outrage or whatever on her behalf, couldn’t quite. “That does suck,” he agreed. “Hey, you remember my friend Diego Villegas? And his boyfriend Jason.”
“Why yes, of course, from the Art Basel soirée on the Gansevoort roof. Hello, boys!” Pickles oozed. “Having fun?” Over her shoulder, Jake spotted a platinum helmet cruising their way: sure enough, the formidable and inimitable Angie Stronzini, editrix (dominatrix?) in chief of South Bitch, the less charming half (to him, at least) of the Red Hook Rangers. There went the neighborhood.
“Back in a sec” he muttered, and scooted over to intercept; she and Diego (and Pickles, for that matter) had never cottoned to each other, and he wanted to keep tonight’s tense moments to a minimum. Angie greeted him with a smooth, arch “Enjoying yourself, Jacob?” “Sure,” he lied. “You?”
She gave him the eye. “I’d be so much more if I saw my senior editor getting off his ass and mingling for five minutes.” As usual, he noticed, she was tipsy (another giveaway was the slightly vulgar use of the word "ass"; usually she made more of an effort not to come across so obviously like her pal Snooki) Then again, he should talk.
“Sorry, Angie, I’m just feeling a little under the weather tonight.”
“You look OK to me. So buck it up, capisce? We toldya, part of this job’s flying the flag. If you can make it in the door, you can put it out there instead of spending the whole night hanging with your loser friends. Look, Kim Kardashian, poor thing, she's over in VIP, we’re going to be doing pictures for the Herald in ten, and since you did the cover interview, I want you there. Can you handle that?” Without waiting for an answer, she spun on her Jimmy Choos (despite it all, shit, he hadda admire those skill on stilettos) and headed for the velvet-roped-off cabana on the far side of the two-story Art Deco pool bar and its faux-nautical portholes.
Feeling a real whopper of a pressure headache blossoming behind the eyes, Jake waded through the crowd to the lobby and made for the bathrooms, accosting a blonde hoving out of the ladies’. “Hi, sorry to bother you, but did you see a girl in there, about 5’11”, long black hair, dark skin, two-piece-red-black outfit?”
She glanced at him, shook her head, winked. “Sorry, honey. If you don’t find her, I’ll be over toward the end of the pool bar.” Gave his chest a tap, glided away. Oh yeah, headache now humming and dinging.
Jake shoved open the men’s-room door. Some middle-aged lawyer type pushed out past , but that was it. Oops, wait. Sounds floated over the last stall, the big one for the crips. Normally he’d assume it was a couple of horny twinks who’d just picked each other up out at the party. But there was definitely a higher pitch to a few of those giggles, snorts, whispers. A little queasy, he bent down -- and sure enough, two of those tangled-up feet were clad in the gold-black Santini Mavardos he’d helped pick out at Claudio Milano just last weekend. He pulled open the door and beheld his girlfriend, parked on some greasy asshole’s lap, one of his hands doing the cha-cha up her Donatella skirt and the other holding a spoonful up to her nostrils like a pedo dosing a distracted toddler.
“Odete, what the fuck…?” She and the guy both looked up; her eyes were glazed and not quite registering under those dark bangs he’d always thought were so hot. She’d already been buzzed when she left the mattress, but this was definitely la-la-land-plus. Disgusted, Jake slammed the stall door and stalked out to the lobby, leaving the jerk jabbering some damn thing -- in Portuguese, maybe? Yeah, another Brazilian. And not even halfway good-looking. It was the toot, simple as that -- Jake didn’t, and this fucker did. Bizarrely, that old 80’s warhorse he’d re-read not long ago popped into his head. Brazilian marching powder, they should call it, not Bolivian. He couldn’t even believe that was going through his mind at a time like this. What the hell was wrong with him?
Well, whatever. Right now he was madder at himself than at Odete. He, the complete and total asshole. He should get the Asshole of the Year award, he should write a book called The Total Asshole. Yeah, a blow-monkey model, serves him right. Fine, he hadn’t known she was into that, but WTF, she was a SoBe model, he should’ve seen it coming. In any case the banana was sure out of the bag now, and just as well, before he really fell for the bitch. Fucking Brazo marching powder…
Still wound up and ears burning, he started back to the bed where his friends were hanging, then stopped, fished out the Crackberry. “Hey, Diego? Really sorry, but I gotta run, something came up. No, don’t worry, I’ll call you tomorrow. Sure thing, bye.” Screw Angie, he thought as he made for the exit. And almost achieved escape velocity.
“My dear Mr. Novacek, where are you off to? They’re looking for you!” He really couldn’t catch a break tonight; those professionally jovial, vodka-marinated pipes belonged to Susie, South Bitch publicist. Another party gal she, but one who distinguished herself with cat glasses and her own trademark platinum coif (albeit significantly less imposing than Angie’s -- can’t outdo sugar mama). Jeez, was she lurking there all along, waiting for him? “I just had to, ah --” he started, gave up. “OK, let’s do it.” Defeated, he toddled after her to Kardashianland, rubbing his temples.
Finally free (god, what a vapid, self-indulgent bitch, even for South Beach) and finding himself out on Collins Avenue, instead of heading downtown for some reason he sailed right across 18th Street, head galloping, and made a right instead of a left, going around in circles till he hit the Jackie Gleason theater and finally got on the right track southbound past the new symphony building toward home. Along the way, crossing Lincoln Road around 2 A.M., he passed Sushisamba Dromo and noticed a big crack in the window that hadn’t been there that afternoon. Peace.
Next morning, Jake popped his Percacet and trudged his hung-over ass from dumpy little Sunbrite Apartments up the five blocks to the chic little cubicle farm, successfully avoiding Varnishka Vera the meshugge old Jewish holdover as he slipped out the front gate. And fortunately he managed to dodge the meshugge not-so-old boss lady at work, keeping head down and door closed as he tried to move along the Winter Music Conference promo copy and the piece on the yeshiva-boy-turned-hip-hop whatever-the-fuck-he-was. He let two calls from Odete go right to voicemail (“Djequi, tesão, where you are? Why you leave without me?”), but took one from Juan Carlos, who sounded just a little off with his “Yo, meet for lunch? I need to talk.” God knows Jake had his own problems, but he liked J.C., a Venezuelan around his age and sometimes gym buddy from Ironworks. Cool, fun to be around, reminded him of Ricky Martin but with bigger guns. Even feeling like shit warmed over, he decided a little distraction couldn’t hurt.
They met on Lincoln Road, of course, at one of the outdoor tables at Pasha’s, the retro-mod Middle Eastern eatery at the corner of Jefferson where Jake liked the mezze and kebabs, the Euro-pop soundtrack, and the prices (the disco ball in the john he could do without). While Eros Ramazzotti did his thing from a speaker above, at the table the chitchat was about work, politics, music -- the usual. Jake figured J.C. would spill whenever he was ready, and finally, after they’d ordered, out it came: “Well, I went to the doctor yesterday. Yeah, so turns out I’m poz.”
Jake sat back with a thump. He’d imagined several possibilities, but for some reason -- well, not that he should really be too, like, shocked. He’d met a few people in this situation, it was no big deal these days. But then why did his stomach give a lurch that threatened to send his chicken kebabs surfing back up on a wave of baba ganouj? “Uh, wow,” he managed. “They’re sure?”
Apparently so. Panic rose, but he pushed it back. The “messing around” between the two of them had never gone past a certain point. He was safe, right? Immediately, he felt a little ashamed that his first thought wasn’t for J.C. but actually himself. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry…” he started, and they got on with the whole thing about T-cell counts and viral loads and drug cocktails.
Then, a biggie: “Um, how’s Mariela taking it?”
“Yeah, well.” J.C. paused. “I’m keeping this to myself for now. No need to stir things up with her and the kids just yet, right?”
Though he thought he'd heard it all, Jake was floored. Bad enough the fucker was playing around on his wife -- and with dudes, no less. But now he was going to keep the poor clueless girl in the dark about something this life-and-death? Beyond inconsiderate, it was criminal. “Look, man,” he protested, “this totally changes the picture, you can’t not let her in on this. Are you crazy?”
J.C. wouldn’t hold his gaze. “No, I will, sure, completely. But first I need to figure out how -- it’s a lot all at once, y’know?”
Hmmm. "Just don’t wait too long. And in the meantime, at least you're using condoms with her now, right?”
To this, little more than a shrug, as Carolina the cute waitress from (as J.C. quickly determined) Mendoza, Argentina brought their iced teas. Jake couldn’t help noticing that the patient wasn’t too bummed out to flirt. It made him wonder. Could the whole story be some sort of ruse, or a screwed-up mind game? At this point, nothing would come as a surprise.
After that, the conversation petered out awkwardly and his probable ex-bud headed back to his office at Sony Latin America, Jake sat alone as Carolina cleared the plates, staring ahead slightly unfocused as a pair of shirtless rollerbladers whooshed past and a group of girls on lunch break stood chattering on the corner, all clutching gelatos from Parmalat. Around him, the breeze blew soothingly, the sun shone, palms swayed. He picked up the Blackberry.
“Yo, Diego?” he said. “Hi, I'm really sorry about last night. I’ll explain later. Yeah, I know. But listen, first l need to ask you something: That place next door to you still for rent?”
Check out the next installment: Bye Bye, Brazil
This is an excerpt from a novel in progress. Longtime travel/lifestyle writer and Miami resident David Paul Appell is director of Tripatini.com and CEO of its parent company EnLinea Media, as well as author of Frommer's Miami and Key West. You can also contact him via Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
photo: Thomas Hawk