It was a straight path from the Shrieking Llama’s entrance to his preferred spot. The jacket he wore was constrictive in the shoulders, with metal attachments suggesting he wasn’t giving out free hugs anytime soon. He could hand out granola bars from one of its many pockets instead, if that was his aim. The lapel was a hot spot for pictograms that seemed like opinions but weren’t—contrasting-color pins symbolizing War or Death, a target, a label that suggested he was known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm, a crossed-out red circle that upon closer inspection wasn’t prohibiting anything but rather represented the general concept of No. The bling makes the jacket dry-clean-only. Also notable: a necklace, because he once heard someone say necklaces make any man look hotter; a pair of sunglasses that hid his wandering expression from anyone who chose to look.
He was alone. He wasn’t supposed to be; it seemed his best friend had misunderstood his usage of ‘accompaniment,’ since every new patron crossed the threshold to a snippet of ‘Angustine Suite,’ and you could catch a hint of violin through the door if you were listening for it. If Xiyuan was playing an actual song and not a fiddly warm-up, it meant he was fine where he was and wasn’t making it through the door anytime soon. This was okay. It gave the man at the bar time to listen for other patrons talking shit along the lines of who the hell stands outside a bar and plays violin. A legend, that’s who, jackasses. But no one was actually saying anything, possibly because you don’t want to start a fight with a weirdo—a guy with a violin probably isn’t going to hit you in the head with it, the violin, but his maverick interpretation of ‘going to the bar’ suggests that he maybe has a lax interpretation of common law and isn’t above playing by street rules—or his own personal favorite theory, that the regulars were on a first-name basis with this guy’s bizarre habits, so there was a silent understanding that it’s just Xiyuan and he does that.
The bar’s air, so warm as to be stagnant, carried the earthier, darker varieties of juice, and a detoxifying early-summer breeze snuck in each time the door was opened. He looked over his sunglasses to make out the different shades of brown. Behind the bar, several juice bottles or mixers were near-empty and had lost the pristine visual appeal of factory-fresh ones; there was no helping that unless they opened a new bottle every time someone ordered a Dim & Gusty, he guessed. Reflected in the mirror was that same abandoned sunhat against that same horrid wallpaper they were too stubborn to change. Mandy was working today. She’d laugh at his jokes but never sought him out, including to greet him, which he found a bit rude.
But the other patrons, being in constant unpredictable flux, more or less obliterated interest in the other things one could look at in a bar. Of the regulars, he recognized only his ex, who sat behind the dividing wall to ignore him. A grey-haired man in a waistcoat ordered a Silent Film. It would make that man’s entire life if someone walked up to him right now and called him a silver fox. Two girls had the same haircut and hair color and it only worked for one of them. The man to his right was the most intriguing: the guy dared to wear a tie to the bar, uniform of The Man, stiff collar, top button buttoned, inviting an advocate of the people to speak up.
Observation was the first step. There’s an art to being a good humorist. His heroes, all comedians, the highbrow to the lowbrow, the slapstick artists to the wordsmiths, agreed on a single detail: humor comes from truth. The humorist’s role was to cast aside illusion, panning through obfuscating dirt of human intention for pure nuggets of truth, and to refine them into dense fragments that hit their audience between the eyebrows with soulful brevity.
Observation was the first step, but not the key. We’re a cursed species. We watch our neighbors walk around with blemishes we aren’t allowed to pick, but have to look into a mirror to fix our own. And if you can’t fix them? Break the mirror. If you can’t see them, there’s nothing to look at. Humor is a way to pick up these shards and let the light dance off of them in tantalizing glimmers, so that when you gaze into it, the illusion is broken and you finally see yourself as a red-faced mess, which is of course the first step toward fixing what we alone have the power to fix.
Humor is the kind of truth that can change itself.
The rules of comedy are the rules of the hunt. A good humorist could look a man in the eye, assess him, and pick him apart so cleverly they had no choice but to laugh. A great humorist could spit in the face of a king and be applauded for it. And that difficulty, the clash of pleasant illusion and foul truth that was the soul of bathos, is what he found so rewarding, precisely because it was so rare to pull off.
Mister stiff-collar realized he was being watched. Time to act. “Nice tie. Are you gonna show up at my door with a pamphlet that explains why I’m going to hell?”
The man sighed and walked off. This is how people reacted to information they weren’t ready to hear. It could’ve also meant the joke fell flat, but in that case, common courtesy was that he still deserved a laugh for his efforts; by walking off, the man was breaking social rules and probably wasn’t aware of it. But this is where timing came in again—don’t push, give them some time to think about it. Maybe he’s one of those people whose brain turns on at 3 A.M. and does all of his social processing then.
‘Angustine Suite’ was audible again. He swiveled to make a face at Xiyuan, only to notice a powerhouse of a woman standing between him and his friend.
It struck him that she probably wasn’t here to drink; rather than heading to the bar, she’d occupied the seat closest to the entrance and scowled at the air. She wasn’t jittering like someone with a tardy friend, either. He watched her from the bar station mirror so she wouldn’t catch him staring. But what the hell was she doing—did this woman ever leave the gym? Is the bar where she goes to practice her death glare alone? He snorted; if that was indeed her intention, a death glare’s more precise with a target to focus on. That target might as well be him.
She wasn’t staring into space anymore. She was, most likely, trying to collect her feelings about the rando who used her title.
“Hey, Miss Universe!” She watched him plop down in the seat across from her. She watched him with her head rotated to one side the way proper herbivores do, the kind with pivoting ears and no binocular vision.
“Hey, I’m that guy from the gym the other day?” Given her job, he had to narrow it down. “I’m the space wizard guy?”
As if a puppeteer flicked his wrist, her face widened in both directions to accommodate her fast-onset wide-eyed wonder. “The space wizard guy!” Watching her demeanor change felt like lying down after a storm and feeling the first wave of sunlight wash over your body, if it happened unreasonably quickly—suppose the sky is symbolically crying to play along with a movie protagonist’s angst party, but someone comes along and clarifies that her parents aren’t actually dead, stop self-loathing please, so the sun plonks itself front-and-center, instantaneously, like any other set change. The Sun is a large star that is also known to the State of California to cause cancer.
“And here you’ve shed your mystical regalia to mingle with the common folk.”
“You know, no offense to space wizards, but I don’t get the robes. I wouldn’t be able to fight in those things. I wouldn’t be able to go up stairs.”
“Yeah. I bet Luke Skywalker’s got an angry seamstress following him around at all times, screaming at him to gird up his loins, and he’s whining about how it wouldn’t look as cool. And white? During an intergalactic war? You’d be watching your parent die in your arms but also praying they don’t bleed on your tunic ’cause you’ll run out of bleach. Like, what are you trying to do, make enemies stay six feet away because you smell like a chemical spill?”
“And the sweat! It’s like kickboxing in a winter coat.”
“Maybe everyone’s just full commando under the robe. They’re hoping for a nice breeze but also hoping it won’t pick up too much.”
“That would make the movie so much better! I would actually watch it.”
“And then it’ll make sense for everyone to be weird about sand!” She was laughing. She had this, he couldn’t think of a better way to describe it, jolly aura about her, and might just laugh genuinely at everything, but he was surprised at how rewarding it was to make her laugh. “I don’t want to give away your secret identity. But does Miss Universe have a first name?”
“Yes! It’s Claudia. And a last name: Espinosa.”
“Interesting pronunciation. So I bet you’ve heard every stupid pun with the word ‘cloud’ in it.”
“Not really. I moved here from Simpeche a few years ago. No one here’s thought to do that yet.”
“You don’t know it? It’s beautiful!” She felt the cleansing heat on her face as soon as he said the name and reached out her hands to trace the lapis-lazuli facade of the building across the street from her childhood home. “People say cities are alive, like San Myshuno. It’s alive like a hornet’s nest. Simpeche is alive, but it’s like a beating heart! There are places that even imagining them makes you want to smile, no matter what else is happening. You can’t help yourself. Buildings the colors of candy bracelets. It’s not drab like this.” The sweeping gesture she made indicated her actual surroundings this time. “But I’m here now. And what is your name?”
He started to introduce himself. As he spoke, Xiyuan stole another table’s chair and spun it one-eighty degrees so that it was oriented towards the full two-person table. The way he was seated, he was almost blocking the door even with his ribcage inches away from the table’s edge. “Ah, so you decided to join us. You done playing already?”
Claudia recognized the guy from outside, as if anyone walking in could have missed him. “Why is a man with a violin following you around?”
“I don’t think we’ve been introduced. I’m Xiyuan.”
“My name is Claudia. Hi… Shee-wen?”
“Don’t worry about it. That’s as close as anyone around here’s going to get.” Take the guy wearing sunglasses indoors at night, who made Xiyuan introduce himself so he wouldn’t look like a dumbass. Claudia’s face went slack as she devoted her headspace to remembering exactly how he’d said the unfamiliar phonemes and trying to decide how embarrassed she should be. “Look, if it’s too much, you can call me David.”
“Please don’t drag nicknames into this. The poor woman’s inundated with possibilities as-is.”
“Which do you prefer?”
“However you want to pronounce ‘Xiyuan’ is fine, but it doesn’t really matter.”
“For example, you can pronounce it Davey! Davey Jones’s Locker! Dave & Busters!”
“Fantastic!” Claudia was speaking loud enough for both men to hear her over her hand-clapping. “You guys are hilarious! You guys are perfect together!”
“Yeah, the Davester’s what we in the biz call a classic ‘straight man.'” He made a scare-quote gesture for the last two words. No one understood what he meant by the scare quotes.
“Entertainment business.” If dropping six syllables was too jargon-y to sound cool, dropping the definite article had to do. “I just finished up my distinguished degree in Drama from U-Britechester. Just doing a couple open-mics every week, been the opening act for a couple local stars—you know, Corey Albright, Slim Jimbo—by the way, that’s where I met Xiyuan. He was my roommate back then, too. We were in the same year. Now we’re two guys trying to make it big: he plays violin for the San Myshuno Philharmonic Orchestra, and I’m but a simple joke man.”
“Oh, so you met in college and you’re still friends?”
“Best buds. Roommates.”
“That’s so adorable!” There was that Miss-Universe glow again. “I never went to college, so I don’t know what it’s like. But it’s adorable that you work together and you’re still so close.”
“I majored in Fine Arts, if you’re wondering.” Though also a distinguished-degree holder, Xiyuan failed to mention it, not because his value system was different but because he thought the alliteration sounded clumsy.
If she responded at all, it lasted a split second before she faced forward again. “So what’s it like, being a comedian?”
“You’ve already heard some of my material.” Rule of charisma: don’t answer the question they asked, answer the question you want them to have asked. “Right now, I’m trying to work on more improvisational stuff—replying to hecklers, you know, roasts. You’ve gotta be quick with the one-liners or they’ll eat you alive.”
“‘They’ being ‘the audience’ in this context.”
“Ooh! Can you do Xiyuan?”
“Y’see, it’s actually impossible to roast Xiyuan. You know what I could say that’s better than some of the stuff he pulls? Not a damn thing. I could say ‘this guy’s idea of a night out is standing outside a bar and playing violin,’ but that’s not funny.” He used the same modified pronunciation Claudia did. She got the impression that the man honestly and truly didn’t care about how others pronounced his name, because if he did, he’d have developed a facial tic by now.
“Please; your being unable to come up with something doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Trying to convince her otherwise is nothing short of preposterous.”
“See? You just have to let him talk.”
“Oh, do me, then! Do me!”
“Hmm.” Miss Universe’s vibrancy was getting to him. He felt a tinge of panic as she watched him, uncertain now if he’d be able to come up with anything at all. “How ’bout this. You’re so easy to impress, you’re going to laugh no matter what I say.”
She laughed, thank god. “It’s true!”
“Ah, you are fun.” He wasn’t chuckling at his own joke but at this sunny goofball of a person, is what he told himself. “It’s refreshing to meet someone who can take a joke.”
“That’s good to hear. The first thing I look for in a man is a good sense of humor.”
“Oh, really? The most important thing I look for in a woman is that she thinks I’m funny.”
The conversation was shifting to exclude one person, who was avoiding his friend’s gaze instead of shooting him a look of awe like a proper wingman, or an apologetic look for intruding. Xiyuan dug his heels into the ground to push his chair back. “I’m going outside.”
Claudia reached for his sleeve before he pulled away. “Oh, don’t—you’re not—“
“—No, it’s fine, I just want to go outside for a bit.” The door closed behind him. His half-full, half-empty, what-have-you drink was still on the table.
The mood being broken, Claudia couldn’t figure out whether the front door, the unfinished drink, or the remaining dudebro was most worthy of her attention at the moment. “What was that about?” Though muffled by the front door, they could hear that he’d settled on indefinitely drilling this one aggressive eleven-note pattern.
“Don’t worry about him. You like stories?” Rule of charisma: ask questions that there’s really only one answer to. “Ok. So picture this—“
“—and then he just came out of nowhere and slapped me.” She waved her arm, but not in a way that suggested a slap. “This is after we broke up! We weren’t even dating anymore!”
It struck him that that’s why, that other day, she was sneering like a bishop at a strip club. “Sounds like a winner.”
“Where’s Xiyuan, by the way?”
“He doesn’t follow me every time. It’s not really his thing.”
“But anyway, yeah, that’s my bastard ex.”
“Miss Universe, you surprise me. I didn’t think you had it in you to rake someone over the coals like that.”
“Oh—nobody’s perfect. Everybody’s unkind sometimes.”
“Yeah, and not many people have the stones to admit it. The world would be a much better place if everyone stopped and thought about their actions. Everyone’s doing something wrong, they just don’t want to believe they are.” He nodded to Mandy, who was handing him a napkin with his Dim & Gusty. “You know, you surprise me in other ways as well. You’re an interesting person.”
“Oh, really? I thought you were the more interesting one, with all these stories.”
“Nah, it’s just like, I’ve met a lot of people, but no one like you. Everyone else seems like they have something to hide, and you have to squeeze it out of them to find out what they’re really like. You’re totally genuine. You’re just true to who you are. That’s rare.”
“I mean, what other way is there to be?”
“People think that sort of energy, going about life with a smile, is naïve. There are going to be people who take you for an idiot and try to exploit that. But the way I see it, if life can throw all this shit at you and you can come back with that sense of wonder still intact, it must have been strong to begin with.”
“Thanks for saying that.”
He took on the affectation of the voiceover for an unforgivably terrible movie. “People thought her body was strong, but the real strength… was in her heart.”
“Yeah.” He knew she was watching him take a sip of his drink. He knew what it meant.
“—love languages? I’m not sure. Is there a quiz you can take?” Claudia was about to take out her phone.
He pushed her hand down. “No, don’t do a quiz. You have to actually think about it. Look, if you don’t know what makes you feel loved, there are two other things you could think about instead. The first one is, what do you do when you get angry at someone? Do you push them? Yell at them? Take things away?”
“I’m not sure. I’ve never really been angry at anyone.”
“Alright, fair enough. The second one is, how do you show affection?”
“Oh, that I can do! I usually end up cooking for people if I like them. What’s cooking? Is that ‘acts of service,’ or ‘gifts’?”
“It depends.” He wagged his finger. “It depends on what you think the important part of the cooking is. Are you doing it so they won’t have to, or do you want to make them something special?”
“I guess I’m trying to show I care enough to pay attention to what kind of food they like. That’s ‘gifts,’ right?”
“That’s ‘gifts.'” An alright hypothesis, but she was scrolling through the basic descriptions on her phone again. This is real shit. This is like trying to figure out your Hogwarts house, where any disagreement usually starts an anonymous argument chain over whether someone’s a Ravenclaw because they read Tolstoy or a Slytherin because they’re being a dick about it. He smiled at her, tilting his head downward so that his puppy-dog expression would peek through his sunglasses. “Claudia. Do you know what kind of food I like?”
“We’ve never talked about it. But I pay attention to drink orders, and you usually order a Dim & Gusty.”
“Very good! But I don’t think I know yours. I’ve never actually seen you order anything.” And there’s his segue. “Come to think about it, what’s a fitness nut like Miss Universe doing at a bar? Doesn’t juice have a lot of sugar?”
“Oh, I don’t really drink.”
“Not a bar person, huh?”
“No.” She was looking up and to the right, which if you buy into the left-right brain simplification suggested she was trying to come up with something. “But Xiyuan isn’t, and he’s here anyway.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m not in charge of how you want to spend your time.” He smiled again, slowing down his words for emphasis. “If this isn’t your thing, why don’t we just go outside?”
It was a week before the leaves would turn. Windenburg’s air had time to cool after three sunless hours; the cobblestones were once again safe to touch, and standing outside in a leather jacket wasn’t a death sentence. Stepping into the night only highlighted how suffocating the atmosphere inside was, heat mixed with sweat and juice and noise. The breath of the grass stroked their faces.
He stepped forward. “I think I know why you’ve been coming here.”
(This was a rough one to get out on time. On-time-ish. I think the quality suffered for it. Case in point, it’s 3:45 A.M. and I didn’t spell ‘quality’ right on the first try. So please excuse me if there are blatant errors or if the flow is sloppy in some places.)