I tried to stifle my growing tension and fear with a piss-poor excuse for wheat beer, and bought Jean a Midori sour so I could escape the stigma of drinking by myself. One of the young turks broke away from the crowd, and occupied the vacant space to my right. He ordered a bizarre mixer containing a viscous substance that looked like Italian dressing, and shoved the high ball glass in my direction.
"This is weird, aye?" he said, gesturing toward the strange liquid. "It's tasty as, though. You want to try it?"
Never one to turn down free alcohol, I obliged and took a taste of the concoction. It sat heavy on my tongue, but had a pleasing citrusy flavor.
"It's good, aye?"
"Hot damn! That is good! What is it?"
"I have no idea," he said.
This raised an entirely new conundrum. How had he ordered this beverage? He seemed to have no clue what it was called, how it was made, or even its most rudimentary ingredients. How had he asked for it? Had he just told the bartender, give me a drink, any kind, but make damn sure there's Italian dressing in it? What manner of savage madman would issue a request like that? My mind boggled at the possibilities of such an exchange. Why, that impetuousness would get you killed at a bar in the States!
"My name's Louie," my new friend said, extending his hand. I introduced Jean and myself, and we launched into mundane particulars. Jean and I were friends in the States, lost touch, randomly moved to Auckland at the same time, were here semi-indefinitely. Louie was a university student. Electrical engineering, or some such nonsense. Anecdotal evidence led me to believe that he was quite brilliant, a trait belied by his somewhat vacuous demeanor. After no more than five minutes of stilted introductions, Louie sprang an invitation on us.
"I'm going to a party after this. It's a friend's going away party. Do you guys want to come?"
Merciful heavens, here it was! This was the stuff great epics sprang from! An innocuous invitation that led to a grand, Kerouacian journey! I looked for affirmation from Jean, but she seemed unconvinced. Come on, Jean! Keep your eye on the ball!
"Maybe. That might be fun," I said, remaining noncommittal out of deference to Jean. Louie's phone rang, and he excused himself to go outside. This was my chance to sell Jean on the idea.
"Jean," I said soberly. "We would be irresponsible not to ride this bizarre train to its terminus. We must go to this party."
Shockingly, she immediately agreed. It was settled, then. We would follow this strange young man to parts utterly unknown. That was the grand beauty of it all. Why, we could be walking right into the heart of some foul, pagan coven celebrating a long-forgotten rite through the sacrifice of wide-eyed Americans. Or a roving gang of bandits who seduced unsuspecting foreigners into their homes, violated them in every possible fashion, stripped them of their belongings and then beat them to death. There was a better than average chance that we were following this innocent-looking youngster to our doom, that no one would hear from us again until they dredged a lake for our bodies. This is what I had come here for. The dangerous and dizzying uncertainty of new experience.
When Louie returned, we told him we'd be more than happy to come to the party with him. Hell, we'd even drive. The three of us beat a hasty retreat and headed to the car.
As we drove through town, Louie began asking about American culture, making vaguely discriminatory comments about black people. Good God! What kind of weird mutant had we picked up? Fortune had smiled upon us for sure. With any luck, we were being led to some kind of white supremacist meeting full of shaven-headed malcontents brandishing axe handles and pool cues. My appetite for weirdness was growing, and this seemed just the situation to satisfy it.
We arrived at our location. Sadly, not a flophouse full of villains and vagabonds, but a bar I frequented. Utterly pedestrian. Still, maybe there was hope for the evening. A drunken brawl, a raving, midnight excursion with strangers to a deserted beach, hell, even a chance encounter with a lonely and desperate woman. Anything to inject the evening with eccentricity. Auckland has as much strangeness per capita as any other large city. All one has to do is walk down Karangahape Road on a Saturday night to tell you that. The drag queens and drunkards spill onto the sidewalk from the pulsating madness of the bars and charge the air with a preternatural electricity, their freakishness drifting down the street like steam from a manhole. I once saw not one, but two transvestites dressed as Wonder Woman lilting down the road, high on pure methamphetamine, screaming obscenities at passing taxicabs. It's a beautiful, orgiastic circus on any given weekend.
But we were far from K Road tonight, in the safe confines of Mount Eden. There was little chance of such a display here. I was determined, though. Tonight had to be a night of stories to remember and ponder, the kind that make you reexamine your fundamental grasp on reality. All it would take was priming the pump a bit. We left Louie talking to a brace of lusty but dull gingers and headed into the bar's crowded back room.
Mingling about, we came to find out that this was a farewell party for a young man named Rob, but no one we talked to knew where he was going, or why. Evidently, a man of many acquaintances and few friends. Jean and I got stuck talking to a wild-eyed accountant who weaved, bobbed and gesticulated crazily as he spoke with electric enthusiasm about the most prosaic topics imaginable.
"My firm actually just offered me a position in their office in Italy," he said.
This was it. My opening. I would fabricate a story so ridiculous, so utterly unbelievable that it would stun and amaze the entire room into submission. They would gather at our feet as we spun yarns of epic proportions. The whole crowd would gaze in awe at these peculiar Americans and their tales of wonder. Then we'd run up an enormous bar tab and slip out the back door without paying, cackling like lunatics all the way back to the car.
"I lived in Italy for awhile," I said nonchalantly. Not only had I never lived in Italy, I hadn't even been anywhere close to Italy. Nevertheless, there it was. The trap was laid.
"Oh, yeah? What was it like?"
Ha! The poor, dumb bastard had taken the bait. Now all that was left was to pull the trigger.
"Well, you have to take into account that at the time I was homeless, strung out on coke and drifting from bar to bar trying to pick up women just so I'd have a place to sleep that night."
He leaned in for more. It was working!
"I remember one night in particular, I went to a dance club in Firenze—you may know it as Florence—and I was there all night, drinking shot after shot of Frangelico while being eyed by a transvestite on the dance floor. After a bit, I decided to make a show of it for my friends. I went down to dance with the transvestite, and I really played it up. Hands on her hips, dipping and grinding. I knew my friends would get a good laugh out of it. But suddenly, I looked up and they were gone. This was unfortunate for two reasons. One, I had arranged to stay at one of their flats for the night and they were my ride there. Two, I had no money to pay my bar tab. So, I ran for the door. I went to the train station, but at that time of night the trains were only running once an hour. So, in my drunken, impatient haze, I wandered back into the town square, curled up on the side of a fountain and fell asleep. I woke up shortly thereafter to someone sitting on my chest, slapping my cheeks and yelling, 'Bello, bello! You cannot sleep here!' Sure enough, it was the transvestite. She was straddling my shoulders, her horrifying male reproductive organs mere inches from my face. In the momentary confusion, I thought I had gotten so hopelessly drunk that I'd gone home with her, and that from that moment on, I'd have to rethink everything I knew about myself. And that was my impression of Italy."
The accountant stared at me dumbfounded. "Wow. Well, I'll stay away from dance clubs." He turned to talk to someone else. Complete failure on all fronts.
"Let's go," Jean said, and we headed for the door. I'd never felt so wholly defeated. The evening had started out with such promise, yet here we were heading for the exit without a hint of fanfare. I had formulated an ironclad plan, executed it to perfection, and received nothing in response but a stare that insinuated that I might be the vilest human being ever to walk the Earth. How had it come to this?
As we left, we saw Louie in the corner with his tongue down the throat of one of the gingers, his hands feverishly exploring her ass in full view of the entire party. At least one of us had a memorable evening. Jean and I drove home, talking about what could have been if only the night had taken a different turn. She dropped me off, and I headed to my bedroom for another boring evening spent in the droning oblivion of the internet.
A few minutes later, I heard my flatmate Lex enter. He came into my room wearing a sheep costume, a hula hoop slung across his chest like a bandolier strap. We chatted for ten minutes or so, Lex never offering an explanation for his get up, and me stubbornly refusing to ask. As he walked off to go to bed, I smiled with the warm satisfaction that the evening wasn't a total loss.
*Portions may have been exaggerated for dramatic effect.