• By J. Matthew Smith and Liza Frenette

Messageless in Rochester

Updated: Dec 26, 2019

She was a lifelong resident of upstate New York who spoke as if she were born and raised in South Boston. That always intrigued me as much as it drove me nuts.

“Welcome to Rochester,” she said the day we met. “Home of sinus congestion and despair. If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.”

I asked her where I could find the nearest bar. She told me to follow her.

“Today is Wednesday,” she said. “Wednesday is vodka day.”

“Vodka day? What was yesterday?”

“That was vodka day, too.”

“And tomorrow?”

“Vodka day.”

“I see a pattern,” I said.

“Keeps things easy,” she replied.

She was a beauty. Well, at least she was once. The bottle had taken its toll on her. Not extensively, but enough. Still, she had something. You could see it and you didn’t need to look too hard. So let me put it this way: the car was still in good shape but there were a lot of miles on it. But I was hardly fresh from the showroom myself. There were a few dents on the body, and there were problems with the clutch.

We walked down East Main in the shadow of the Kodak Tower. Everything in Rochester is in the shadow of the Kodak Tower. Kodak: once the living embodiment of this city, and now its ghost. Nothing lasts forever.

While I was checking her out in some sideways glances, my ears were on overdrive trying to figure her out before the vodka waiting down the street had any influence. It’s my version of speed dating. I call it speed listening. I read once that people reveal most of their character in the first half hour of conversation, even when they say things jokingly. I believe a lot of what I read. I love to read.

Surprisingly, I realized she was doing the same thing. No easy mark.

“So, what did your last girlfriend complain the most about when it came to you?” she asked as we headed toward High Falls.

“Hmm. Well, that’s easy,” I said. “She said I was OCD because I couldn’t get dressed in the morning unless I made the bed first.”

“That’s it?”

“No, no, she said it reflected my main character flaw. That I had to have things neat and tidy, whereas relationships are messy. That I can’t move on unless everything is neat and defined. She said I couldn’t stand messy.”

“Is it true?”

“Well, maybe. But she was a gambling addict. So there’s that. A little more mess than I wanted.”

“Hmm,” she said, buttoning up her coat as we turned a corner and into the wind. “I don’t gamble. Although sometimes I take a chance on going to a different bar. Or meeting a different kind of guy.” She hip checked me gently with that comment. I wasn’t sure people over 40 still hip checked.

“No really, I have a good job. One of the few in Rochester. Don’t be fooled by my love of vodka,” she said.

“What the fuck?” I stopped, holding my arm out to keep her from walking forward. “Look. There’s a fucking rat walking down the street. Coming up from the river. Jesus. Rochester has gone to the rats. This is worse than I thought.”

She squinted. “Oh, that’s just Noble.”

“Noble? You know this rat? You named this rat?”

She reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a pack of crackers, the kind you get in a diner when you order the Italian Wedding soup, which for some maddening reason always comes lukewarm. After tearing the pack open, she broke up the crackers and threw them onto the sidewalk a few feet away. We stood there then and watched Noble approach. Instinctively, I stepped in front of her. I chalk that up to societal pressure, because if I’m being honest, I much rather would have hid behind her.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“What do you mean? Those fucking things have rabies. It gets any closer, I’m gonna kill the goddamn thing.”

“I don’t need you protecting me. And you ain’t killing shit . Noble’s harmless.”

“Ain’t no such thing as a harmless rat.”

“Rats are OK. It’s men you have to watch out for.”

The rat came closer, stopping at the pieces of cracker on the sidewalk, which it shoved down its pie-hole with its tiny rodent mitts. She smiled and made this clicking sound with her mouth, as if she were sitting on a park bench feeding bread to a squirrel.

“Don’t call that fucking thing over here. What are you, insane?”

“Oh relax, you big wuss,” she said.

Noble finished the pieces of cracker and then rested on its hind legs and stared at us for a moment. This is it, I thought. This fucking rat was going to leap at me and tear out my jugular. I thought again about pushing her in front of me. Noble put his front feet back on the ground. Here it comes, I said to myself. I could feel my heart drop to the pit of my stomach. But right then, the rat turned its head and scampered away across the street.

Without saying anything, she continued the march toward the bar.

“Told you Noble was harmless,” she said.

By now I was about eight feet behind her and trying to catch up.

“You’re fucking crazy, you know that? Who the fuck makes friends with a rat?”

“It ain’t so crazy,” she said. “It’s just the difference between women and men. Woman love. Men destroy.”

I stopped chasing after her for a brief moment. Maybe she was right: I’ve destroyed everything I’ve ever loved.

She turned around and looked at me. “Don’t worry. It’s nature’s way.”

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