Once upon a time, back in the day, which was before the virus, I use to enjoy going out on the weekends to various clubs in the mystical, far away fairytale land known as Manhattan: particularly the comedy clubs. One such place, The Comedy Cellar, would bring in some pretty big-name comedians as headliners. Prior to the night’s star taking the stage for their set, there’d usually be three of four unknown acts, known as the show-openers, whose brand of humor was intended to warm up the room for the closing joke jockey. It was there at The Comedy Cellar I first saw Rita.
Please forgive me as I appear to have forgotten my manners, gotten a bit ahead of the story, and have somehow neglected to introduce myself. My name is Thomas Fulton, but everyone just calls me Tommy. During the weekday I work at a job I have no interest in and can barely tolerate while seven nights a week I sleep in a cramped studio apartment I rarely want to be in and can hardly afford. It’s tough when you’re just starting off in a city like New York. That’s why it’s good to get out to the clubs to blow off a bit of steam every now and then. Okay, that’s enough of me going on about me. Now, let’s get back to Rita, shall we?
It was on one such evening early last February at The Comedy Cellar, soon after the time when the Luna calendar marked the beginning of Chinese New Year, yet before whoever it was that I’d paid the mandatory twenty-dollar cover charge to see, and consented to the unspoken agreement that I’d consume a minimum of two overpriced alcoholically weak beverages during the course of the show, and then remember to tip the wait staff, had at last hit the small, spotlight lit stage. While I don’t recall the name of the big-name comic, I do remember four no-name standup artists (the use here of the term “artist” is done more out of kindness than from cold critical consideration) and that none of them were really that funny; especially the only female of the four and the first one to face the slightly contentious crowd that night, Rita.
Her skits were overly long in respect to the poor payoff of the punch lines. Rita’s comedic timing was far from fine-tuned for the cantankerous early audience. She also seemed to get lost with some lines and had no talent for handling the inevitable growing number of hecklers in the room. Before the laugh-less lady made it to the conclusion of her show, mercifully, they’d began flashing the gel filtered stage lights to signal it was time to pack it up and quit. For good measure and to ensure she clearly got the message the sound guy cut off the volume of The Comedy Cellar’s stagnant beer and bad breath scented microphone.
Rita was undaunted. Standing alone on the darkened dais with a muted mic in hand she simply spoke louder as she meandered through to the last words of her routine while most of the cranky club-goers mocked and jeered. Then after a few fumbled attempts to return the dead mic to the mic stand’s mic clip, the woman who was now being booed left the stage, but not the building.
Moments later the house MC halfheartedly encouraged The Comedy Cellar patrons to give it up for her before hurriedly introducing the next act who allegedly needed no introduction. Yet, instead of retreating from the establishment whipped, with tail between legs, Rita wandered over to the abandoned end of the bar to occupy an empty barstool. She may have wanted to order an intoxicating beverage to numb the pain of defeat, but we’ll never know since the bartender ignored her as he went about filling other orders.
For a few minutes, I watched her from my table at The Comedy Cellar. Maybe it was out of pity, although more than likely it was merely the possibility of hooking up with someone in order to break a long dry spell (at least for me) I’d been experiencing for the last few months and to not leave another venue by myself yet one more night. Admittedly, I wasn’t sitting that close to where she’d bombed out while running her routine, but from what I saw from where I sat, she looked kind of attractive in an off kind of way. Now, mustering up all the liquid courage provided by the two drinks I’d imbibed, Mother Fulton’s Little Boy (that’s me!) made the seemingly endless trek to where she was sitting at the bar to nonchalantly ask, “Do you mind if I sit on the stool next to you?”
A noncommittal shrug of the shoulders was the only reply. So, I slid my butt onto the perch next to her and said, “I enjoyed your set. You worked some good material tonight. Have you done this a lot?”
After an awkwardly drawn-out patch of silence, she shrugged her small shoulders again and answered, “This is my first time.”
“Really? Well, you certainly have potential.”
“Potential for what?”
“I guess to be a stand-up comic.”
“So, are you going to buy me a drink?”
Finally catching the barkeep’s eye, we ordered. I had another vodka and tonic and she wanted peppermint schnapps. While waiting for the beverages I introduced myself, “I’m Tom Fulton, but everyone just calls me Tommy,” as I extended a hand which she left hanging by itself in the air.
By this time the barman had returned to place our drinks on the bar in front of us, serving me the schnapps and her, the V&T. While remedying the botched bar order I said, “May I ask your name?”
“Puddin-N-Tain. Ask me again I’ll tell you the same!”
To which I pretended to find funny. My faux-chuckle brought a slight smile to her somewhat pretty face and thus the ice had been broken.
“No, it’s really Rita.”
“Well, Just Rita, it’s nice to meet’cha!” This time I neglected to extend a hand, least again it would be left dangling in the dark.
“You’re a poet and didn’t even know it.”
“Well, that sucks!”
Once more I feigned an appreciative laugh and so it went for the next hour or so. Each time I said something, Rita would crack back with some stale simpleminded one-liner retorts. It was really annoying, but the longer we talked the more we drank, and I’ll confess, the better she looked so the more I liked her. When I felt the time was right, I suggested we leave The Comedy Cellar and go somewhere else. To this, I received another shrug of her shoulders as she silently gathered her things, hopped off the barstool, and I followed her out of the club.
My cracker box-sized apartment was close by so we ended up there for the rest of the night; smashing it like there’d be no tomorrow. In the morning we knocked boots again then went out to pick up a couple of eggs-n-bakey-n-cheese sandwiches at the bodega across the street, which we returned to consume back at my claustrophobic cubby hole of an apartment. After eating we again formed the beast with two backs anew. We didn’t converse much and when we did her responses were always lame one-liner attempts at humor.
The day turned to the evening and Rita remained for another night, and then stayed the rest of that week, and on through the next one until now it was almost the middle of February, the day before Valentine’s Day. She apparently had no place to be and nowhere to go. When I’d be off to work during the week, she’d just stay behind at my place doing God knows what, because it certainly was never any shopping, cooking, or cleaning up. In the almost two weeks we’d been together I still knew little of who she was, not even her last name. There were many ways in which I found Rita annoying, but hey, when the light hit in the right way, I found her hot as hell. Then we’d also been getting increasingly more creative in the sack. And that was no joke.
Perchance it was the oncoming occurrence of Valentine’s Day that got me thinking, but I began to feel that understanding the relationship with Rita was now necessary, and a need to attach a name to it. It was almost certain we weren’t in love as of yet, but we were unequivocally deeply in lust. Thus, the next day, February 14th, while at the job I absolutely hated being at, I decided to take a stand and commit. From the office which I despised I called to make reservations tonight for two at the fanciest French restaurant I knew of in The Big Apple and that offered what I’d been told was the best Valentine’s Day prix fixe dinner menu in town.
Stopping at an ATM after work I just about depleted every dollar I’d managed to scrimp and save since my arrival in the city that never sleeps by withdrawing the maximum daily amount of my own money allowed by my bank. I did own one credit card, but I hardly ever carried it on me and was usually left at home to avoid the temptation of buying stuff I really didn’t need. Hopping a subway, I got off at the Rockefeller Center stop to make my way over to the Tuescher Swiss Chocolate shop to purchase a heart-shaped gift box of their devilishly delicious and extremely expensive chocolate truffles. Then it was off to Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Seventh Street to Bulgari Jewelry to pay way too much, in my humble opinion, for a much too simple plain gold ID bracelet that had some kind of gemstone set to one side of the nameplate. Paying extra, I had them engrave ~ RITA ~ on its face and then ~ Happy Valentine’s Day – Tommy ~ on the other side. Next was the pit stop at a liquor store for an imported bottle of vintage champagne to enjoy with the truffles. Last but not least along the way home I paid a visit to a florist to buy a dozen long stem red roses wrapped in white baby’s breath. I didn’t even know if Rita liked French food, jewelry, Swiss chocolate (who doesn’t like chocolate?), or flowers for that matter. I had already spent a lot of cash and hadn’t even footed the bill for dinner later tonight. Damn, I didn’t even know if she celebrated Valentine’s Day!
By the time I got back to the confining quarters I called home, I’d rehearsed a dozen or so speeches, of which I’d choose one to convey to Rita just how it felt to have her present in my life and thoughts about our future. Usually returning from my soul-sucking day gig I’d find her quietly watching TV while nursing sips from a 1.75-liter bottle of peppermint schnapps I’d bought for her the day after we began to shack up together. Tonight, the tiny place was dark and silent. Flipping on the wall switch the sole ceiling light illuminated my stuffy studio apartment. It was then I saw the note taped to the refrigerator door. Still carrying the roses, heart-shaped chocolate box, bubbly, cigarette pack sized gift-wrapped case containing the recently purchased and engraved piece of jewelry for her, I read what she had written:
“Taking my act to the west coast, so if you’re ever out that way look me up. It’s been real—Rita. PS: Used the credit card I found to book my flight. Sorry if that’s not OK, but will pay you back one day.”
Muttering to myself I said, “Well that sucks!”
“Sucks what?” I’m sure she’d respond.
Sitting down on the uncarpeted dirty floor of my pricey residential rental I popped the cork from the recently bought bottle, broke into the box of Swiss chocolate truffles, and commenced to dine alone on the two delicacies. I didn’t even bother to call the French restaurant to cancel our reservations for their Valentine’s Day prix fixe menu. What would be the point of that anyway, my unfunny little valentine? It was at that moment that I realized once again the joke had been on me all along.