Sins with Wine
Twice yearly, M— apartment-sits for a well-off family friend whom he refers to as "The Homosexual." And it is no coincidence that M—'s twice-yearly dinner parties occur precisely when The Homosexual is away on holiday.
So each year, M—, a professor of American labor history, gathers a select group of friends and colleagues at an annual Christmas celebration and then a Labor Day cocktail party at a beautiful Chelsea loft, which he presents as his own. Though he never actually tells anyone that it is his apartment, he can get away with such a ruse because he never entertains friends and colleagues at his own dismal lodgings on Second Avenue, in which I used to rent a coffin of a room for $400 per month.
Decorated as it was with a few shaky pieces of secondhand furniture and a stained futon couch, I wouldn't have taken a room in the apartment at all, if not for the cheap rent—a crucial consideration for a graduate student preparing for a career of translating Russian poetry. Dank and depressing, the living room walls were peppered with holes caused by bookshelf mounts that had been ripped out of the plaster. And it's no wonder: every available inch of space in the apartment was home to some musty tome related to Marxism or the U.S. labor movement. What shelf could support such a dreary weight?
The whole place was slathered in a matte yellow paint, which I'm sure was supposed to make it look cheery, but instead served as a stain and scuff collector. The wood floors comprised a sorry lot of loose boards spattered with the same yellow paint and thin white primer. Across the middle of the dank living room's floor, illuminated by a large maw of a window that opened drapeless onto the building's airshaft, snaked an untamed jumble of extension cords and power strips leading to a large, dusty television set meant to serve as the focal point of the room. But for all his guests at the Chelsea loft know, M— has the perfectly refined tastes of a well-heeled gay man who has experienced no small success as a costumier for the theater industry.
Now one might assume, given the façade of success and good taste on display at The Homosexual's loft, that these parties are staged for the purpose of advancing M— socially. But such an assumption, while perfectly understandable, would be wrong. The sole point of these twice-yearly soirees is to restock M—'s wine vault, a wobbly, pressboard affair — a broken bookcase, really, propped up by a volume from Leon Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution — wedged between an inefficient refrigerator and a perpetually full-to-bursting trash can back on Second Avenue. So when it comes time to invite a new cast of friends and colleagues to one of his fêtes, M— insists that no one go to the trouble of preparing a dessert or side dish; rather, he recommends that each guest bring two bottles of "nice" wine. Because the parties are never billed as large gatherings, guests are led to believe that they are the evening's sole contributor of spirits and that the host will be providing the meal. And since The Homosexual's larder is well-stocked for entertaining, the merry feast around which M— generously gathers his friends and colleagues won't tax his wallet too dearly. In addition, M— puts his faith in the assumption that guests attending a dinner party, especially around the holidays, are inclined to spend a bit more money on the wine they bring to a party thrown in such a well-appointed loft, so a fine assortment can be expected.
Another crucial element of this investment strategy is that he convenes friends and colleagues known, if not for their abstinence from alcohol, then for their low tolerance of it. From the onset it is made clear that these will be gatherings of friends and colleagues from his own academic circles; it is implied that these events are ones of grace and decorum—certainly not drinking parties. Guests are promised cozy and intelligent conversation with others of similar socioeconomic backgrounds and liberal-progressive bents.
Professor M— may be a knave, but he's not stupid. Just after this past Christmas , I was on hand to witness his return home—to his actual, more humble home—from his housesitting with no less than 12 bottles of red wine of varying provenance, two moderately priced sparkling wines, and some holiday-inspired liqueurs: a well-laid, if boorish plan pulled off without a hitch. "Don't let me catch you drinking any of this," said M— gleefully as he added the ill-gotten booty to his rack, already terribly overburdened by the sins of holidays past.
I kept my own supply of wine in my little bedroom, where I usually kept myself when I wasn't at the library studying. "I wouldn't think of it," I said as I got up to seal myself off for the night.
Over the next few days following one of his parties, M— visits various liquor stores and wine sellers in an attempt to ascertain the approximate value of each bottle of wine received from his guests. He notes the year, varietal, and vintner of each one and asks the clerks whether they carry such and such a wine and then price it. Why he doesn't just go online is beyond me. But once the data is secured, he goes home and ranks the bottles on his wine rack by price—the cheapest on the bottom, the most expensive on top. And there they sit.
While not a big drinker, M— does enjoy a single glass of wine with his dinner—invariably a pound of linguine and a jar of prepared tomato sauce eaten in front of the television. Despite his burgeoning collection in the kitchen, each week, M— purchases a jug of discount wine to pair with his dinners, carefully checking and rechecking the amount left in the bottle each day to make sure neither I nor our other roommate, Tanya, has siphoned any off while he was off teaching his classes. So what was all this wine crudely acquired at the parties for?
M— is an avid Internet dater and, in his relentless drive to spend very little money on getting laid, he often arranges dates at restaurants with a bring-your-own-booze policy because it's less expensive than paying in-house prices for drinks. Just before leaving on a date, he agonizes over which wine to choose to take along. "She's hot, and her profile was funny, but I'm not sure about her politics. So I shouldn't bring a nice bottle of wine," he said on one such evening. "Why should I even bring the wine at all? She'll probably expect me to pay for dinner anyway."
"Well, since you did pick the BYOB place because it was cheap, and you do have nice wine on hand that you didn't have to pay for, why not take it and impress her?" I reasoned.
"But I only really want to have sex with her just a few times. Maybe twice, and that's it; so good wine would be wasted on her," he countered. "Besides, I don't know anything about her politics. What if she's a Republican?"
It was always thus. Sometimes he'd decide a woman was worth a second-tier bottle and then he'd storm in early from his date, fuming about how he had just wasted a "great bottle of red" on a girl who wouldn't put out or on one who's liberal-progressive politics didn't jibe exactly with his own. Of course he would have slept with a conservative girl, but she'd be bottom-shelf material.
One night, I was home with Tanya and Olya, a friend from my doctoral program. We were in the living room drinking our own wine, which was free from duplicity, while Tanya, a musician, played us a Russian song on an acoustic guitar. She's got a beautiful voice and we were all drunk, so Olya and I were goading her on and making more requests, when M— arrived home with a timid Korean woman, his date of the evening, arranged recently over the Internet.
Not used to experiencing any sort of pleasure being had in that dark, rundown apartment, he appeared taken aback by our joviality but he quickly steeled his composure. The Korean girl didn't. She looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. Tanya was singing loudly and Olya was goading her on in loud, drunken Russian. It was clear that M— expected to have the place to himself while he had his way with this shy woman.
"Oh...hey, what's going on?" he asked haltingly. "This is...uh...Jun.... Jun, these are my roommates, Kevin and Tanya, and this is...Kevin's...uh...friend, Olya."
Introductions made, he quickly pushed Jun toward his bedroom door, which was right off the living room. "Do you want some wine? I just picked up some really nice bottles the other night," he asked Jun as he closed the door behind her.
"Yes, please," she responded meekly, aware that she and M— would soon be having sex behind that thin door with Tanya, Olya, and myself just on the other side. With Jun locked away in his foul boudoir, M— asked me to join him in the kitchen.
"What's going on here? That's not my wine you're drinking, is it?"
"No, Olya brought it. It's from Moldova. What's wrong?"
"You knew I would bring a girl home! You guys have to leave, or at least go to Tanya's room. Don't ruin this for me!" He sounded desperate as he fumbled to open one of his new bottles, chosen from the bottom shelf. He could afford to be cheap since he already had Jun trapped in his room.
"It's our apartment, too. Besides we're eating." "Alright. Alright, but let me have a glass of your wine for Jun."
"What about your wine?"
"It's too good. I only want to fuck her just this once. I don't want to waste it on her."
"M—, you bring the girl home to sleep with and you say she's not worth good wine?!" Olya was livid, slurring, and very loud from the living room. "You're a pig!" In the background, Tanya continued softly strumming her guitar and singing in Russian.
"Shhh!!! She might hear you!" M— desperately looked at his bedroom door.
"What, she might hear that you are a pig? Good!" Olya continued in the same drunken tone. "She'll probably fuck you anyway because these women you bring home must have no self respect! You and your wine!"
"Fuck it, but I better get laid tonight," said the forty-year-old university professor, as he reluctantly poured two glasses of wine from his own bottle and headed to his room. Tanya, Olya, and I continued drinking and singing in the living room.
Just ten minutes later, M—'s door opened and Jun rushed out, hurriedly putting on her coat as she beat a hasty exit. She looked annoyed. M— was sulking in the doorway. He didn't even walk her out.
"How did it gooooh, Romeooooh," Tanya sang, slipping briefly into English, as M— went to the kitchen and carefully funneled the remainder of the wine from the glasses back into the opened bottle. And for a brief moment, to the accompaniment of a Slavic flourish on an acoustic guitar, women's laughter filled the sad apartment.