A friend I'll call Doug goes to California on business a lot, and he met his new boyfriend in a leather bar in LA. After months of back and forth, Chi--pronounced "sky" without the s--sold all of his furniture, shipped 25 boxes of miscellanea to Chicago, and moved in with Doug a few days before Christmas. I called them on New Year's Eve and suggested we meet for an early drink, mostly because I wanted to check out the new boyfriend.
I also wanted to give Doug his present. His three favorite vices had been sex, cigarettes, and television, which limits one's holiday gift options. I'd wanted to make him a big ashtray, but he'd quit smoking December 1--Chi, being a Californian, doesn't smoke. Fortunately I found out the night before I headed to the ceramics studio. "Make me a candy dish instead," Doug said. "Now I'm addicted to Jolly Ranchers."
The original idea of making an ashtray had been perfectly suited to my limited artistic skills. The uglier the better. An ugly ashtray can be funny. There's nothing amusing about an ugly candy dish. But Doug's got one now.
"Let me get you guys a New Year's drink," I said. "What'll it be, Chi?"
Chi said he didn't drink alcohol, which would explain, in part, the healthy glow and buff body. Doug ordered a vodka and grapefruit juice. I ordered a pint of stout.
"Your name is pretty unusual, Chi," I said. "What does it mean?"
"What does it mean?"
"Is it a Native American name?"
"OK, let me start a new line of questioning. How do you spell 'Chi'?"
I turned to Doug. "Great-looking parrot you got here, but can it do any other tricks?" I turned back to Chi. "Is 'Chi' short for something, like kiyoodle?"
"Kiyoodle? What does kiyoodle mean?"
"I asked you first."
"My name is the Greek letter chi."
"Oh, chi. Now we're getting somewhere. You'll have to excuse me, I'm a borderline idiot. And I never made it into a fraternity. How exactly is that spelled?"
"You spell chi X?"
"Our letter X is the Greek letter chi, but when people see it written down they pronounce it X. I have changed the written spelling to C-h-i, but now I find that people are starting to mispronounce it 'chai,' like the drink at Starbucks. So I may have to change the written spelling again. But my legal signature is what we call the letter X."
"Fascinating. Think of the repercussions this could have in Appalachia. Is your family Greek?"
"No. I changed my name in California for professional reasons--when I got my massage therapist's license."
"What's your last name?"
"I just use Chi."
"Oh, I get it. Like Cher or Mr. T. Catchy, catchy. I like it. But don't you worry about somebody getting ahold of your checkbook?"
"On your driver's license, does it just say X?"
"I don't drive."
"You lived in LA and you don't drive? Doug said you were one in a million."
The waitress arrived with our drinks.
"Well, boys, here's to a happy New Year," I said. I repressed the impulse to pull out my cigarettes. "You know, Chi, you're never going to get a gut like mine sipping 7UP the way you do."
"I'm thinking about giving up 7UP for New Year's, except that we still have half a bottle in the refrigerator."
"If you put your mind to it, you could probably knock that off by midnight."
"And you?" Chi asked me. "What are you going to give up?"
"Me? Ask me when Lent comes around."
"No, come on. Think about it. There's nothing you'd like to give up?"
"Are you still smoking?" Doug asked. Before I could answer, he told Chi, "He's one of those smokers who can go days without a cigarette. I wish I could do that."
"No, no, no," I said. "Filthy, disgusting habit. Curse the day I ever started--and you should too."
"You could give up smoking," Chi said.
"I could, but I probably won't."
"How much do you smoke?"
"Not even a pack a week. I smoke when I drink."
"You're not smoking now."
"I'm being polite."
"I'm thinking about giving up CO2 completely, not just 7UP."
"All pop?" Doug said. "Everything? What are you going to order when we go to a bar?"
"Mineral water. Why not? CO2 is poison. You could think about giving up Dr. Pepper. You drink way too much of it."
"Are you crazy? I couldn't live without Dr. Pepper."
"CO2 is poison, Doug, and so is sugar."
"Unless you're a tree," I said. "Speaking of trees, what did you guys do for Christmas?"
"Went to my mom's," Doug said.
"You've got to give up something," Chi said.
"I already gave up smoking."
"That was a month ago."
"I told you that was my New Year's resolution. I just happened to get a four-week jump on it. I'm not giving anything else up."
"We could give up CO2 together."
"I don't eat that much sugar."
"All the Dr. Pepper you drink?"
"It's Diet Dr. Pepper."
"That stuff's even worse than sugar."
"I'm not giving anything else up."
"What about caffeine?"
"Caffeine? You want me to give up caffeine the same year I give up tobacco? No way."
"It's a lifestyle choice, not a life sentence," Chi said. "You shouldn't think of it in terms of giving things up."
I bit my tongue.
"How about I give up sex?" Doug laughed and put his arm around Chi. "How's that for a lifestyle change?"
"Droll," Chi said. "Very droll."
Doug turned to me and asked, "Did you get in touch with your family over the holidays?"
Chi's eyebrows went up at that.
"As you've probably just surmised, Chi, I'm not exactly tight with my family. I'm a misanthrope pretty much all year long, but I really blossom around the holidays. You tight with your family?"
"Tight?" Chi said, looking at Doug.
"You know, close. Are you close to your family?"
"I'm not sure I know what that means."
"Well, I consider Doug as someone tight with his family. They see each other all the time, even between the holidays. He takes his mother shopping, goes to the movies with his sister and brother-in-law, buys stuff for his niece whenever she comes in from college. That's one end of the spectrum. Now I'm at the other end of the spectrum. I haven't talked to anybody in my family for years. I would imagine that you, Chi, like most people, fall somewhere in between."
"Are you asking me if there's drama in my family?"
"No. I was making conversation. I just asked if you were close to your family. I didn't mean to get personal."
"'Close to your family.' I'm not even sure if we know what that means anymore."
I really wanted a cigarette. "Doug, you look great. Are you still working out?"
"Every day. Twice a week with my personal trainer."
"You know, Chi, a year ago Doug was as big as the QE2. He gave me all his fat-man clothes when he got skinny. In fact, these pants I have on today are one of Doug's burnt bridges."
"My trainer wants me to start training for next year's Chicago marathon," said Doug. "I'm trying to talk Chi into doing it with me."
"Oh, that sounds like fun," I lied.
"Not to me," Chi said.
My turn for the eyebrows to go up. "Really? Why not?"
"No way. It's too cold."
"We could wait to start training until March or April," said Doug. "That would still give us six months."
"No way. It's too cold even then."
"We could train indoors. We could start on the treadmill and work our way up to the indoor track at my gym."
"I don't think running is good for you," Chi said. "You hear about people bleeding from running."
"Bleeding?" I said.
"From internal injuries. To the organs. And running is very hard on the joints."
"I've heard that, about the joints," I said. "How long is the marathon?"
"Twenty-six miles, I think," Doug said.
"Oh, forget it," Chi said. "Haven't you ever seen those pictures of people at the end losing control? You know what I mean--of their bodily functions."
"Why would someone take a picture of that?" I said.
"And most of them bleeding internally and not even knowing it. It's very dangerous. But they're obsessed with crossing the finish line. It's all they care about. That's not for me. That's not about good health."
"Well, that does it for me too," I said. "I'm giving up ceramics and marathons."
"I never heard of people bleeding internally from marathons," Doug said.
"It happens," Chi answered.
Nobody said anything for a minute. I finally broke the silence. "Chi, you're lucky to have the kind of job where you can set up shop anywhere."
"It's not as easy as you might think," he said. "In certain parts of the country it's very hard. Texas and Oklahoma, for example. When I lived in Oklahoma City, people would call and say, 'Well, my regular guy only charges $30 an hour, and then at the end of the massage he does all this extra stuff.' Thirty dollars? That's like giving it away. You can charge way more than $30 an hour in LA."
"And here in Chicago too," Doug said, putting his arm around Chi again.
Doug offered to get a second round of drinks. But I was dying for a cigarette, and Chi was worried about getting to the grocery store before it closed.
"What have the two of you planned for tonight?" I said. "A quiet, romantic meal in front of the fireplace?"
"No," said Doug. "We're getting fajitas fixings and going over to see friends."
"Tofu fajitas," Chi added.
"Want to join us?" Doug said.
"I knew the answer even before I asked the question," he said.
"Misanthropic me," I sang, stealing a few notes from an old Streisand song.
"No is a nice word," Chi said.