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TYLER'S SALIVA DID two jobs. The wet kiss on the back of my hand held the flakes of lye while they burned. That was the first job. The second was lye only burns when you combine it with water. Or saliva.
"This is a chemical burn," Tyler said, "and it will hurt more than you've ever been burned."
You can use lye to open clogged drains.
Close your eyes.
A paste of lye and water can burn through an aluminum pan.
A solution of lye and water will dissolve a wooden spoon.
Combined with water, lye heats to over two hundred degrees, and as it heats it burns into the back of my hand, and Tyler places his fingers of one hand over my fingers, our hands spread on the lap of my bloodstained pants, and Tyler says to pay attention because this is the greatest moment of my life.
"Because everything up to now is a story," Tyler says, "and everything after now is a story."
This is the greatest moment of our life.
The lye clinging in the exact shape of Tyler's kiss is a bonfire or a branding iron or an atomic pile meltdown on my hand at the end of a long, long road I picture miles away from me. Tyler tells me to come back and be with him. My hand is leaving, tiny and on the horizon at the end of the road.
Picture the fire still burning, except now it's beyond the horizon. A sunset.
"Come back to the pain," Tyler says.
This is the kind of guided meditation they use at support groups.
Don't even think of the word pain.
Guided meditation works for cancer, it can work for this.
"Look at your hand," Tyler says.
Don't look at your hand.
Don't think of the word searing or flesh or tissue or charred.
Don't hear yourself cry.
You're in Ireland. Close your eyes.
You're in Ireland the summer after you left college, and you're drinking at a pub near the castle where every day busloads of English and American tourists come to kiss the Blarney stone.
"Don't shut this out," Tyler says. "Soap and human sacrifice go hand in hand."
You leave the pub in a stream of men, walking through the beaded wet car silence of streets where it's just rained. It's night. Until you get to the Blarneystone castle.
The floors in the castle are rotted away, and you climb the rock stairs with blackness getting deeper and deeper on every side with every step up. Everybody is quiet with the climb and the tradition of this little act of rebellion.
"Listen to me," Tyler says. "Open your eyes.
"In ancient history," Tyler says, "human sacrifices were made on a hill above a river. Thousands of people. Listen to me. The sacrifices were made and the bodies were burned on a pyre.
"You can cry," Tyler says. "You can go to the sink and run water over your hand, but first you have to know that you're stupid and you will die. Look at me.
"Someday," Tyler says, "you will die, and until you know that, you're useless to me."
You're in Ireland.
"You can cry," Tyler says, "but every tear that lands in the lye flakes on your skin will burn a cigarette burn scar."
Guided meditation. You're in Ireland the summer after you left college, and maybe this is where you first wanted anarchy. Years before you met Tyler Durden, before you peed in your first creme anglaise, you learned about little acts of rebellion.
You're standing on a platform at the top of the stairs in a castle.
"We can use vinegar," Tyler says, "to neutralize the burning, but first you have to give up."
After hundreds of people were sacrificed and burned, Tyler says, a thick white discharge crept from the altar, downhill to the river.
First you have to hit bottom.
You're on a platform in a castle in Ireland with bottomless darkness all around the edge of the platform, and ahead of you, across an arm's length of darkness, is a rock wall.
"Rain," Tyler says, "fell on the burnt pyre year after year, and year after year, people were burned, and the rain seeped through the wood ashes to become a solution of lye, and the lye combined with the melted fat of the sacrifices, and a thick white discharge of soap crept out from the base of the altar and crept downhill toward the river."
And the Irish men around you with their little act of rebellion in the darkness, they walk to the edge of the platform, and stand at the edge of the bottomless darkness and piss.
And the men say, go ahead, piss your fancy American piss rich and yellow with too many vitamins. Rich and expensive and thrown away.
"This is the greatest moment of your life," Tyler says, "and you're off somewhere missing it."
You're in Ireland.
Oh, and you're doing it. Oh, yeah. Yes. And you can smell the ammonia and the daily allowance of B vitamins.
Where the soap fell into the river, Tyler says, after a thousand years of killing people and rain, the ancient people found their clothes got cleaner if they washed at that spot.
I'm pissing on the Blarney stone.
"Geez," Tyler says.
I'm pissing in my black trousers with the dried bloodstains my boss can't stomach.
You're in a rented house on Paper Street.
"This means something," Tyler says.
"This is a sign," Tyler says. Tyler is full of useful information. Cultures without soap, Tyler says, they used their urine and the urine of their dogs to wash their clothes and hair because of the uric acid and ammonia.
There's the smell of vinegar, and the fire on your hand at the end of the long road goes out.
There's the smell of lye scalding the branched shape of your sinuses, and the hospital vomit smell of piss and vinegar.
"It was right to kill all those people," Tyler says.
The back of your hand is swollen red and glossy as a pair of lips in the exact shape of Tyler's kiss. Scattered around the kiss are the cigarette burn spots of somebody crying.
"Open your eyes," Tyler says, and his face is shining with tears. "Congratulations," Tyler says. "You're a step closer to hitting bottom.
"You have to see," Tyler says, "how the first soap was made of heroes."
Think about the animals used in product testing.
Think about the monkeys shot into space.
"Without their death, their pain, without their sacrifice," Tyler says, "we would have nothing."
I STOP THE elevator between floors while Tyler undoes his belt. When the elevator stops, the soup bowls stacked an the buffet cart stop rattling, and steam mushrooms up to the elevator ceiling as Tyler takes the lid off the soup tureen.
Tyler starts to take himself out and says, "Don't look at me, or I can't go."
The soup's a sweet tomato bisque with cilantro and clams. Between the two, nobody will smell anything else we put in.
I say, hurry up, and I look back over my shoulder at Tyler with his last half inch hanging in the soup. This looks in a really funny way like a tall elephant in a waiter's white shirt and bow tie drinking soup through its little trunk.
Tyler says, "I said, `Don't look."'
The elevator door in front of me has a little face-sized window that lets me look out into the banquet service corridor. With the elevator stopped between floors, my view is about a cockroach above the green linoleum, and from here at cockroach level the green corridor stretches toward the vanishing point, past half-open doors where titans and their gigantic wives drink barrels of champagne and bellow at each other wearing diamonds bigger than I feel.
Last week, I tell Tyler, when the Empire State Lawyers were here for their Christmas party, I got mine hard and stuck it in all their orange mousses.
Last week, Tyler says, he stopped the elevator and farted on a whole cart of Boccone Dolce for the Junior League tea.
That Tyler knows how a meringue will absorb odor.
At cockroach level, we can hear the captive harpist make music as the titans lift forks of butterflied lamb chop, each bite the size of a whole pig, each mouth a tearing Stonehenge of ivory.
I say, go already.
Tyler says, "I can't."
If the soup gets cold, they'll send it back.
The giants, they'll send something back to the kitchen for no reason at all. They just want to see you run around for their money. A dinner like this, these banquet parties, they know the tip is already included in the bill so they treat you like dirt. We don't really take anything back to the kitchen. Move the Pommes Parisienne and the Asperges Hollandaise around the plate a little, serve it to someone else, and all of a sudden it's fine.
I say, Niagara Falls. The Nile River. In school, we all thought if you put somebody's hand in a bowl of warm water while they slept, they'd wet the bed.
Tyler says, "Oh." Behind me, Tyler says, "Oh, yeah. Oh, I'm doing it. Oh, yeah. Yes."
Past half-open doors in the ballrooms off the service corridor swish gold and black and red skirts as tall as the gold velvet curtain at the
Old Broadway Theatre. Now and again there are pairs of Cadillac sedans in black leather with shoelaces where the windshields should be. Above the cars move a city of office towers in red cummerbunds.
Not too much, I say.
Tyler and me, we've turned into the guerrilla terrorists of the service industry. Dinner party saboteurs. The hotel caters dinner parties, and when somebody wants the food they get the food and the wine and the china and glassware and the waiters. They get the works, all in one bill. And because they know they can't threaten you with the pp, to them you're just a cockroach.
Tyler, he did a dinner party one time. This was when Tyler turned into a renegade waiter. That first dinner party, Tyler was serving the fish course in this white and glass cloud of a house that seemed to float over the city on steel legs attached to a hillside. Part of the way through the fish course, while Tyler's rinsing plates from the pasta course, the hostess comes in the kitchen holding a scrap of paper that flaps like a flag, her hand is shaking so much. Through her clenched teeth, Madam wants to know did the waiters see any of the guests go down the hallway that leads to the bedroom part of the house? Especially any of the women guests? Or the host?
In the kitchen, it's Tyler and Albert and Len and Jerry rinsing and stacking the plates and a prep cook, Leslie, basting garlic butter on the artichoke hearts stuffed with shrimp and escargot.
"We're not supposed to go in that part of the house," Tyler says.
We come in through the garage. All we're supposed to see is the garage, the kitchen, and the dining room.
The host comes in behind his wife in the kitchen doorway and takes the scrap of paper out of her shaking hand. "This will be alright," he says.
"How can I face those people," Madam says, "unless I know who did this?"
The host puts a flat open hand against the back of her silky white party dress that matches her house and Madam straightens up, her shoulders squared, and is all of a sudden quiet. "They are your guests," he says. "And this party is very important."
This looks in a really funny way like a ventriloquist bringing his dummy to life. Madam looks at her husband, and with a little shove the host takes his wife back into the dining room. The note drops to the floor and the two-way swish-swish of the kitchen door sweeps the note against Tyler's feet.
Albert says, "What's it say?"
Len goes out to start clearing the fish course.
Leslie slides the tray of artichoke hearts back into the oven and says, "What's it say, already?"
Tyler looks right at Leslie and says, without even picking up the note, " `I have passed an amount of urine into at least one of your many elegant fragrances."'
Albert smiles. "You pissed in her perfume?"
No, Tyler says. He just left the note stuck between the bottles. She's got about a hundred bottles sitting on a mirror counter in her bathroom.
Leslie smiles. "So you didn't, really?"
"No," Tyler says, "but she doesn't know that."
The whole rest of the night in that white and glass dinner party in the sky, Tyler kept clearing plates of cold artichokes, then cold veal with cold Pommes Duchesse, then cold Choufleur a la Polonaise from in front of the hostess, and Tyler kept filling her wine glass about a dozen times. Madam sat watching each of her women guests eat the food, until between clearing the sorbet dishes and serving the apricot gateau, Madam's place at the head of the table was all of a sudden empty.
They were washing up after the guests had left, loading the coolers and the china back into the hotel van, when the host came in the kitchen and asked, would Albert please come help him with something heavy?
Leslie says, maybe Tyler went too far.
Loud and fast, Tyler says how they kill whales, Tyler says, to make that perfume that costs more than gold per ounce. Most people have never seen a whale. Leslie has two kids in an apartment next to the freeway and Madam hostess has more bucks than we'll make in a year in bottles on her bathroom counter.
Albert comes back from helping the host and dials 9-1-1 on the phone. Albert puts a hand over the mouth part and says, man, Tyler shouldn't have left that note.
Tyler says, "So, tell the banquet manager. Get me fired. I'm not married to this chickenshit job."
Everybody looks at their feet.
"Getting fired," Tyler says, "is the best thing that could happen to any of us. That way, we'd quit treading water and do something with our lives."
Albert says into the phone that we need an ambulance and the address. Waiting on the line, Albert says the hostess is a real mess right now. Albert had to pick her up from next to the toilet. The host couldn't pick her up because Madam says he's the one who peed in her perfume bottles, and she says he's trying to drive her crazy by having an affair with one of the women guests, tonight, and she's tired, tired of all the people they call their friends.
The host can't pick her up because Madam's fallen down behind the toilet in her white dress and she's waving around half a broken perfume bottle. Madam says she'll cut his throat, he even tries to touch her.
Tyler says, "Cool."
And Albert stinks. Leslie says, "Albert, honey, you stink."
There's no way you could come out of that bathroom not stinking, Albert says. Every bottle of perfume is broken on the floor and the toilet is piled full of the other bottles. They look like ice, Albert says, like at the fanciest hotel parties where we have to fill the urinals with crushed ice. The bathroom stinks and the floor is gritty with slivers of ice that won't melt, and when Albert helps Madam to her feet, her white dress wet with yellow stains, Madam swings the broken bottle at the host, slips in the perfume and broken glass, and lands on her palms.
She's crying and bleeding, curled against the toilet. Oh, and it stings, she says. "Oh, Walter, it stings. It's stinging," Madam says.
The perfume, all those dead whales in the cuts in her hands, it stings.
The host pulls Madam to her feet against him, Madam holding her hands up as if she were praying but with her hands an inch apart and blood running down the palms, down the wrists, across a diamond bracelet, and to her elbows where it drips.
And the host, he says, "It will be alright, Nina."
"My hands, Walter," Madam says.
"It will be alright."
Madam says, "Who would do this to me? Who could hate me this much?"
The host says, to Albert, "Would you call an ambulance?"
That was Tyler's first mission as a service industry terrorist. Guerrilla waiter. Minimum-wage despoiler. Tyler's been doing this for years, but he says everything is more fun as a shared activity.
At the end of Albert's story, Tyler smiles and says, "Cool."
Back in the hotel, right now, in the elevator stopped between the kitchen and the banquet floors, I tell Tyler how I sneezed on the trout in aspic for the dermatologist convention and three people told me it was too salty and one person said it was delicious.
Tyler shakes himself off over the soup tureen and says he's run dry.
This is easier with cold soup, vichyssoise, or when the chefs make a really fresh gazpacho. This is impossible with that onion soup that has a crust of melted cheese on it in ramekins. If I ever ate here, that's what I'd order.
We were running out of ideas, Tyler and me. Doing stuff to the food sot to be boring, almost part of the job description. Then I hear one of the doctors, lawyers, whatever, say how a hepatitis bug can live on stainless steel for six months. You have to wonder how long this bug can live on Rum Custard Charlotte Russe.
Or Salmon Timbale.
I asked the doctor where could we get our hands on some of these hepatitis bugs, and he's drunk enough to laugh.
Everything goes to the medical waste dump, he says.
And he laughs.
The medical waste dump sounds like hitting bottom.
One hand on the elevator control, I ask Tyler if he's ready. The scar on the back of my hand is swollen red and glossy as a pair of lips in the exact shape of Tyler's kiss.
"One second," Tyler says.
The tomato soup must still be hot because the crooked thing Tyler tucks back in his pants is boiled pink as a jumbo prawn.
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