Tower of Babel
A white man in cornrows (I almost said a white man in ridiculous cornrows, then I realized that was redundant) sat at the counter next to me and said: “Turkey is the white man’s chicken.” He didn’t say anything more but we were unusually communicative in a reserved sort of way, and I knew he meant a great deal more than that. I was, of course, paraphrasing Nick Carraway in this regard, which seemed appropriate since I was sitting at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, and whenever I sat at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, I thought how it was likely Nick Carraway sat at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, on occasion, on his commute from his job as a bondsman in Manhattan to West Egg.
“Does that make chicken the white man’s steak?” I countered.
“There’s no such thing as white man’s chicken. There’s. Just. Chicken.”
He had me there.
His name was Reuben Rubin, so naturally I thought of Humbert Humbert, and I wondered aloud if all of my fictional favorites would come into play this day, like some sort of literary multiple orgasm.
“Multiple orgasm?” he inquired. “What do you know about multiple orgasms?” I told him I bet I knew more about multiple orgasms than he knew about multiple orgasms, to which he sputtered some obscenities and challenged me to arm wrestling. But the waiter came by and said there was to be no arm wrestling at the Oyster Bar, so we agreed to disagree. I’d have been fine if it all ended very neatly right then and there, but Reuben Rubin had other ideas. He began to speak, eloquently and at length, about the Tower of Babel and its pivotal role in American politics, positing that if not for the Tower of Babel and its mixing of the tongues of the ancient peoples of the world, folks like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, Richard Nixon and Jack Kennedy, Barry Goldwater and Hubert Humphrey, Mario Cuomo and George Pataki, would all speak the same language. When I pointed out that, in fact, they all spoke English, he muttered something about my being too thick for intellectual discourse of even the lowest level, and then quoted Emerson. Since there was no arm wrestling at the Oyster Bar, we had to agree to disagree. But then I had an idea. After sliding the last of my Blue Points down my gullet, I asked Reuben Rubin to accompany me to the main concourse. He obliged. We arm wrestled on a bench near the big clock, best three out of five. He won the first two, handily, but by his second win I had noticed he had a facial tic that I was able to imitate back to him nearly perfectly, thereby distracting him into a state of self-conscious despair. Having won the battle, he called me a cheat and, worse, an incorrigible horse’s arse. I told him I ought to get something for my victory and asked if he’d accompany me to the men’s room where I would like him to perform oral sex on me. He obliged.
After that, we gladly parted ways, only to find ourselves on the same platform waiting for the number 6 train uptown. We both pretended not to notice the other. But when we both tried to be the first to squeeze through the subway door at 86th Street, the jig was up and we both laughed at our silliness. We walked together to 91st Street and Park Avenue. Reuben Rubin followed me into my building and I accused him of stalking me. He said he lived in the building. On the sixth floor. In apartment 611. I lived in apartment 612. I invited him in.
After a cup of tea, Reuben Rubin noticed on the coffee table the copy of The Sun Also Rises I was re-reading. He said Hemingway was the white man’s Dos Passos. I told him for saying that I ought to punch him in the mouth. And then he kissed me, moistly and passionately. After that, we became inseparable lovers with a taste for the finer things. After a few months, Reuben Rubin gave up apartment 611, shaved his cornrows to a shiny cue ball and moved into apartment 612 with me. In April I caught him cheating with our tax preparer, for which I forgave him. In May he caught me cheating with the Dominican boy who walked our dog afternoons, for which he forgave me and then had an affair with the Dominican boy himself, after which we decided it was best to get rid of the dog. During a vacation in Florence, Reuben Rubin declared the statue of David the finest of Michelangelo’s works, which I took as an unkind commentary on my recent increase in pant size and didn’t speak to him until long after we’d left Piazza della Signoria.
Our collective memory became that we had fallen in love instantly, those years ago at the Oyster Bar; we thought, incorrectly, we were so akin to one another, understood one another so well that we were clearly meant to be together. But after a while we were forced to reckon that we had been speaking different languages all along, and we decided it best if we parted ways. Then Reuben Rubin got sick, then got better, and the discussion of parting ways was tabled and Reuben Rubin said he was transformed from his sickness and decided to retire and live on savings, which were not inconsiderable.
On our tenth anniversary we returned to the Oyster Bar and shared a plate of assorted soft cheeses and a bottle of champagne. I leaned over and said turkey is the white man’s chicken and Reuben Rubin looked at me perplexedly and asked what on earth that meant; I told him I’d arm wrestle him for the check, and he told me not to be silly. Five months later, Reuben Rubin was found to be sick again. In his delirium, he said to me “Jesus don’t save the guys in the Tower of Babel, no, no, no.” Two weeks after that, Reuben Rubin was dead.
I eulogized him by telling the packed crowd at St. Bart’s that Reuben Rubin was a voluminous man with healthy appetites for all things, except for oysters and Winnebagos, which he despised. His mother had flown the redeye from Lake Havasu and said hello on her way to the buffet. After the crowd finally dispersed, I went back to apartment 612 and sat on Reuben Rubin’s papasan and had a good, long cry. I hadn’t a notion in the world what I was going to do now; it seemed there had never been a moment of my life without Reuben Rubin, and I didn’t know if I could go on; quite distinctly I remember saying aloud to myself: I simply cannot go on.
But I did.
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