Aftertaste (Brunch at Nathan’s)

Nathan had always been slightly averse to the much talked about, much famed Nathan’s Hot Dogs that greeted the mass exodus of subway riders as they poured out to encounter its signature, soothing green and yellow logo tones from the end of the line at Coney Island.

Though he had lived in New York for roughly four years, he had never permitted anyone to cajole him into that rite of passage known as the impromptu journey to Coney. He had seen The Warriors, and that was enough as far as he was concerned. He abhorred the “light-hearted digs” about how he should love Coney, hot dogs–the whole pastiche–as a result of his name. He was so irked by it during his early days of college that he even tried going by Nate for a time–but to no avail. This epithet just didn’t suit him. Like when you try to call someone named Jennifer Jen and it feels somehow as though you’ve entered an alternate dimension in which she’s become a fatter version of herself. Anyway, you get the drift, he was a Nathan not a Nate.

It wasn’t until he reached his senior year at SVA, majoring in perhaps the most idealistic and impractical art of all, cartooning, that he found himself in a moment of weakness after his girlfriend of a year, Priya, a 21-year-old of half-Indian descent, decided that she still had plenty of other dicks to try before she settled solely for his. But to Nathan it came as a severe shock, he thought they were going to move in together, somewhere the size of a small tick near Minetta Lane and start their true era of power coupledom together (she was an animator–in conjunction, they could conquer the illustrated world). Priya had other notions as she sat him down in her dorm room and said simply, “Nathan, I think we’ve come to the end of our romantic potential, don’t you?”

He sat there for a moment, his hands folded, his mouth vaguely ajar. She pat his shoulder and assured, “I’m happy to remain friends if that’s something you’re comfortable with.” It was certainly not something he was comfortable with, and he could never fathom those cold-hearted exes who wanted to act as though nothing cataclysmically amorous had happened between them. No, this was the last he would see or know of her, and it pained him. They would never be close again; he would not call on her for help of an emotional or creative nature; he would not turn over in the morning to catch a glimpse of her as she woke. It was over, kaput–as his Jewish roommate, Mitchell Mendel, would say. And so he looked at her, kissed her one last time and left in silence. You can’t argue with people when they’re done with you. It’s what’s known as pathetic.

Forlorn in a way he hadn’t been since age six upon learning of his parents’ intent to divorce after overhearing their straw that broke the camel’s back argument when they thought he had gone to bed, Nathan sought a drinking companion in Mitchell, who wasn’t feeling very inspired to finish work on his final project for a photography class he needed to complete in order to graduate. Mitchell was a longtime convert to the Coney Island scene. He relished any opportunity to go there not only to troll some of the women in the freak show, but also in order to take photos he would spend hours in the dark room with, soaking and manipulating them to the point of fiendishness. And, because of Nathan’s vulnerability and susceptibility to suggestion at this moment in time, he instantly agreed when Mitchell suggested a jaunt to the Freak Bar.

It was there that Nathan began his binge drinking mission, sucking down any alcoholic material offered, purchased or found to the point of obvious excess. He was not impressed or interested by any of the infinite signs of kitsch that surrounded him, practically sporting blinders as they first exited the F train. He was here only to forget, not to remember. Mitchell was, of course, a bit more discerning and parsimonious (in part due to his semitic background) when it came to inebriation. Pacing himself in an almost superior manner, Mitchell listened faux intently to Nathan as he lamented the loss of Priya, a girl he thought he would be with forever. Mitchell balked at this, questioning, “How can you, as a child of divorce, possibly believe that anyone is capable of staying together forever? It’s not what humans were meant for–especially as our lifespan increases.”

But Nathan tuned this out as his eyes met those of a raven-haired pale girl, the kind with a pinup physique and the aura of someone who has seen it all (at least sexually). Slurring and stumbling toward her with no distinguishable opening line, Nathan simply grabbed her breast and hoped it would seem boldly charming rather than what it actually was: perverse. But Elaine, as he later learned her name was, did not act surprised or scandalized. She merely removed his hand like it was a fly to be shooed away and guided him out of the bar, Mitchell too preoccupied with his own flirtation to notice or care.

In the cool breeze of the night, Nathan suddenly felt more normal than he had in awhile–an irony considering Elaine was taking him to the freak show, where the last thing he recalled seeing was a woman swallowing a sword before waking up in Elaine’s hoarder-inspired apartment, where she seemed to live alone. Nathan wondered if this was a hobby of hers: collecting men as conquests for sport, never giving any personal information about herself beyond the knowledge of her pussy.

As he scanned the space for signs of life, it appeared as though she had vanished. The floor around him was jam-packed with piles of clothes of the costume variety, sequins and lamé popping out at him like intermittent mirages. He knew he had to get out of there as soon as possible before Elaine returned. Or perhaps she had only left in the first place to allow him the merciful opportunity for escape. None of that awkward post-one night stand talk about getting together again with no real intention to. She was clearly a seasoned pro at this whole thing. And it suddenly made Nathan want to get an STD test.

In the pre-noon sunlight (he guessed it was approximately 11:30), Nathan was forced to take a harsh look at his life. He was about to graduate with the intention of making a living as a cartoonist, which was never going to happen; a girl he had loved deeply told him he wasn’t worth sticking around for; his so-called best friend fed him to a potential member of the Coney Island freak show. This quick appraisal of the facts was interrupted by a rumble in his stomach, followed by the sight of Nathan’s. Since he felt convinced this was going to be his last time ever coming to Coney Island, he decided to quell his hangover symptoms with the order of two hot dogs and a side of fries.

At first, Nathan was briefly convinced that the hot dogs tasted fine, at least, by hot dog standards. But by the last bite, he was practically forcing it down, using the fries as a chaser to forget about how gross the content and texture of what he had just ingested really was. The terrifying sight of more people populating the streets as the day advanced toward afternoon spurred Nathan to shove a few more fries into his maw, toss the remainder in the trash and speed walk to the subway.

No one else was leaving “the island” for the city, the train an empty abyss that allowed Nathan to sit wherever he wanted. He chose a two-seater near the end of one of the cars regardless. At some point early on in his childhood, his parents had ingrained in him the sense of etiquette to never be imposing, and this particular seat selection was a manifestation of that.

Unwittingly, Nathan began rocking back and forth in his seat, a sheen of sweat enveloping his face. The unpleasant aftertaste of the hot dogs couldn’t be ignored, conjuring recollections of their foul consistency. Throwing up in the corner of the train, Nathan thought how this would later make a great cartoon strip, his wretched life boiled down to a less than twenty-four hour period at Coney.

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