It started with a hook.
Not one of those cute little Command hooks, or a drunk-octopus-wants-to-fight-you hook—a big metal Captain Hook hook; a scary hook.
The night we met, I made you steal it.
We were in the backseat of Dave MacLaren’s car, way out there on Comm Ave. in that no-man’s-land between Harvard Ave and Boston College. The T had stopped running at midnight. There were barely any cars; last call was over an hour ago. Dave had to drop off one of his friends, and he’d promised us both rides, too. We were both a little drunk. And we both had to pee.
We convinced him to stop at Natalie’s Pizza, the kind of hole-in-the-wall place that serves giant slices of thin crust pizza on flimsy paper plates. You’d douse it in parmesan and garlic powder and red pepper flakes, fold the whole thing in half, and use the plate to keep your fingers from getting all greasy. This was drunken pizza, 3AM pizza, pizza that blew your mind when you were shitfaced but horrified you the next morning. The restaurant was tiny and bright, with gleaming laminate floors and floor-to-ceiling windows. No tables—you either had to eat standing up or take your pizza home with you. Above the counter was one of those old-school felt menus with the letters you had to stick on by hand. Dave pulled up right in front, and we put we squinted under the bright fluorescents as a young man—probably our age, maybe younger—in a white apron made his way up from whatever he’d been doing in the back.
We definitely didn’t see a bathroom.
We put on our sweet-girl smiles, and you took the lead—you were always extra polite in these situations. “Hi, sir. Do you have a restroom we could use?”
“Of course,” said the kid. He didn’t say, “It’s for customers only; you have to buy something,” or “Sorry, we don’t have a public restroom.” He just said, “This way,” and swung open a knee-high door and motioned for us to come behind the counter. After a quick glance which said, this is unusual, but we really have to pee—we followed him back through the kitchen, weaving past stainless steel countertops and utensils and more guys wearing grease-spotted white aprons, joking and teasing each other in Spanish. Nobody looked especially surprised to see us. They definitely checked us out.
The kitchen stretched back a lot farther than we’d expected—still no bathroom. Nobody seemed pervy or scary; in fact nobody was acting like this was out of the ordinary… but that almost made it weirder. He’d never said anything about using the staff bathroom; he just opened the gate and started walking like it was the most natural thing in the world.
Then we got to the stairs.
We didn’t really know each other then—not yet. We’d worked together at Maggiano’s for a few weeks, maybe a month, but we’d never really interacted before that night. You didn’t know this until later, but I was actively trying not to make friends—especially girlfriends—because the bar I’d worked at previously was a bitchy soap-opera-love-triangle nightmare. (One of the last things that happened before I quit: A “friend” sat me down to tell me that all my coworkers thought I was a stuck-up bitch. Then, she fucked my boyfriend, who’d been sleeping with his ex—another “friend”—all along. Nice people.) When I got the job at Maggiano’s, I decided to lie low; keep to myself; stay out of it (whatever “it” was).
I was tending bar then, which was kind of isolating anyway, and the only coworkers I spent time with outside work were the manager who’d hired me, the sous chef who was his best friend, and the other bartender—the perverted, twisted, hilarious Dave MacLaren. To this day, Dave’s jokes are the dirtiest jokes I’ve ever heard in my life (and after ten years in the service industry, that’s saying a lot). He spent a lot of time trying to make me laugh, and I loved him for that. I was still entangled in a toxic back-and-forth with my ex; still stinging from the psychotic drama I’d just escaped. I was moody and depressed and lonely; I didn’t have a lot to laugh about. Dave was a boundless flirt, but he was always looking out for me, and he never once put the moves on me, despite ample opportunities. I loved him for that, too.
That night, at Natalie’s? I was only there because of Dave, because he bribed me with a ride home. One of my “not making friends” strategies was to only go out on slow nights, like Tuesdays. On Saturdays, when all the cool kids were on shift, I’d beeline for the train as soon as the manager finished counting my till. But on that particular Saturday night, Dave got the better of me. He’d spent the whole seven-hour shift trying to talk me into coming out. He was wearing me down, and I was using my faraway apartment as an excuse, and then he said the magic words—I’ll drive you home.
At the Irish pub across the street, I deployed another anti-friend strategy: I drifted away from the Maggiano’s crew to crack jokes and do shots with the bar staff. I made small talk with my former coworkers, who were sitting outside chain smoking. I dipped into the little park across the street and sucked on my one-hitter. Then I’d drift back over and sidle in between Dave and the rest of the guys, laughing at their jokes but mostly staying quiet.
It was a good strategy. Here, but not really. Safe.
It’s entirely possible that you and I didn’t even talk that whole night, until we found ourselves in Dave’s backseat at three in the morning. But when you find yourself at the top of a creepy staircase in the back of a deserted pizza place, and it’s the middle of the night, and your only ally is this chick with the frizzy red hair that everyone except you seems to be friends with… it’s time to reevaluate your whole no-friends strategy.
Did you know, the very first thing we did together was to break Horror Movie Rule #1?
Don’t. Go. Down. Those. Stairs.
We didn’t even hesitate, beyond a quick, shared glance—I’m game if you’re game.
We weren’t exactly scared. We were young and giddy and half-drunk—and we really, really had to pee. More than anything, the whole thing felt inexplicably, unbearably hilarious. I elbowed you to see if you were trying not to laugh as hard as I was.
You wouldn’t look at me, and I knew you were.
We emerged into a large basement, with smooth cement floors and dark, empty corners. Restaurant supplies lined the walls. Big industrial packages of napkins and paper plates and plastic utensils. Folded white aprons and clean dish rags stacked on wire shelving. I remember thinking that it smelled good—earthy basement mixed with fresh linen and office supplies and Pine-Sol.
Still, our host said nothing. And still no bathroom.
Finally, we rounded a corner and there it was: a narrow bathroom that also seemed to double as some kind of utility closet. Random junk was strewn all around—a broken broom handle, some old, dried-out sponges, almost-empty bottles of Dawn, one of those rolling yellow mop buckets with a wheel missing.
But the toilet was clean, and there was a brand-new roll of toilet paper sitting on top of the tank.
Holding one arm out like an usher; right this way, ladies, the guy left us there like it was just another day at the office. Like he had drunk 23-year-olds down here all the time, and you can let yourselves out. (Thinking back on this now, he probably did have drunk 23-year-olds down there all the time, and if Natalie’s is still in business, I bet they still do.)
We hustled inside and I locked the door behind us as quickly as I could, partly because we the creep factor had finally gotten to us, but mostly because we needed to whisper-laugh as badly as we needed to pee.
“I totally thought we were about to get murdered.”
“Shhhhh! Those guys will hear us!”
Here’s a thing I learned from you, that I’ve always been grateful for, and proud of— modesty is overrated. Standing there in the murder bathroom, you dropped trou like we’d known each other our whole lives.
I watched you out of the corner of my eye, squatting over the bowl, bunching together the toilet paper in an unwieldy mess. I was fascinated by you. You seemed so at ease with me; so blasé about taking your pants off in front of someone you’d literally just met, so unself-conscious as we chatted and I hopped around waiting for you to finish. I’d never met anyone like you. I remember you wiped from the front.
When you were done, we switched places. You started milling around, opening cupboards and drawers. “You know,” I said, “you can’t really catch diseases from a toilet seat. That’s just an urban legend.” I was too tired to squat, but I didn’t want you to think I was unsanitary. And I was pretty sure I’d heard that somewhere.
But you were only half paying attention. You were in full-on snooping mode.
I peed for a long time. It was one of those never-ending pees, where you think you’re done but then there’s more, and that happens like three more times because you’ve been drinking beer, and because you were holding it for too long.
While I was peeing, you were poking through the nooks and crannies of this weird little room. With your back to me, you popped open the thick, streaky mirror above the sink, and started scoping out the medicine cabinet.
Then, you froze.
“Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.” You whirled around, and I thought your eyes were going to pop right off your face.
(Surely this couldn’t get any weirder than it already was?)
In your hand was a giant metal hook, painted white. A murdery hook.
I didn’t miss a beat. “You’re taking that.”
“You’re taking that. Put it in your purse and let’s get the fuck out of here.”
So you did. You always have the hugest purses.
When we opened the door, no one was around. We scrambled back up the stairs and tumbled into Dave’s car like we’d just robbed a bank—if robbing banks made you incoherent with laughter, and your getaway car was driven by two disinterested and somewhat perplexed coworkers.
We did our best to explain why it was so funny.
They didn’t get it.
I’ve thought about this a lot—why I told you to take the hook, why you did it, and how my no-questions-asked attitude about the whole thing somehow makes it funnier. The best I can come up with is that I knew, sitting bare-assed on a strange toilet with my work pants around my ankles, that we were living in a story we’d tell for the rest of our lives.
You were a stranger to me until the moment you turned around with that hook in your hand. You—with your huge purse and your disarming nonchalance, your wiping-from-the-front and your frizzy red curls, as game for a misadventure as I was to rope you into one…
And that’s why, all those years ago, I made you put that hook in your purse.