Hungry at the cafe but you check your account and decide it’s probably safer just to stay hungry for a while, ’til Happy Hour, at which point you head south to the usual bar for a halfprice beer and a halfprice appetizer, big enough to work as a meal, and to read for a bit before heading home.
At the cafe when you were hungry the barista got up from behind the counter and came over and sat beside you at the communal table, bored in this lull between busy patches, and without mentioning her son she says she might have to look for a new job soon. This sudden candor. Talks with spotty eye-contact, unprompted, about how she’s only just barely meeting her expenses. She refers your eye to the counter where, a few minutes ago, that empty and red-stained Tupperware was full of pasta and she was doing damage to it.
“Made that fucking pasta two nights ago, big pot like a witch, and I’m still eating it now and I’ll probably have it again tomorrow. Like…” Her breath catches and she shakes her head, closes her eyes, sighs. Opens up and looks immediately more flippant and cool. Says, “I feel like it’s fine in the end cuz I’m, what?, I’m twenty-eight. I’m just starting out, like, in life. So I know it’s fine, that this is like my Struggle Period and that eventually shit’ll be good cuz I’ve got like the work ethic, the brains, whatever whatever. It’s just…” mouth agape, pawing for a word, she finally just laughs, “it fucking sucks right now.”
And a cuple hours later you’re here at the bar, finally getting your Bliss, and you’re thinking of her life and of yours. Her attitude and yours.
You’re comparing, which people say not to do.
You’re about to go for a walkthrough at an efficiency in a convenient part of town and, being too excited, you get here an hour early.
Can’t go knocking on the door right now. Gotta be punctual, make a good impression.
So you go to kill time at a bar about five blocks away. Bring a book.
The bar tender walks up to you with this head-tilted squint, and so you start squinting right back at her, and bending your own head. She does seem familiar…
Then she calls it, smiling. For eight or nine months she tended bar at a big corporate chain next door to the nearest movie theater to your house. She saw you every Friday afternoon back when you sustained that six-month habit of catching a show on your day off.
You ask why she left the big chain.
(You have to stop asking this.)
She closes her eyes and tilts her head again and shrugs, like no big deal. “It was a shitshow there. Got fired on a technicality. It’s a long story.”
You ask for the story.
She tells it.
You drink two beers in the time it takes her to say that she didn’t card somebody. The customer was clearly of age, maybe mid-thirties, but rules are rules.
“I don’t really mind, though.” Again with the closed eyes and the big shrug. “This place pays me just as good. And we don’t have roaches here.”
Only other guy at the bar is thirtysomething and says to the bartender, tall woman all frecklespeckled with red hair, he’s surprised by how relaxed it is in here. He says this is his first visit.
“Place looks so fancy,” he says, “everytime I get near it I feel like I gotta book.”
She shrugs, wiping the counter in fast circles, “We’re not so fancy.”
He asks where she’s from.
“Virginia. What about you, you’re Cuban?”
“Yeah but I was born in New York.”
“I lived there for a while.”
He grins and does some clicking thing with his mouth. “It’s the best, I miss it.”
Bar tender puts a tender hand on the small of her back while straightening, and tossing the rag into the liquor well, exhaling. Strain of work written in her posture, her breathing, sweaty face. “Ahdunno.” She shakes her head slowly and looks either tired or defeated. “Wish it wasn’t so expensive.”
The two of them, off now by themselves, came in as a group of six, probably straight from the office, and even though they’re still sitting with the group you can feel how they’ve kinda removed themselves.
The other people in their party have turned inward toward their new grouping of four. It’s the kinda scene where you can tell that the other four have been trying to get these two together. Maybe it’s the whole reason for the happy hour outing.
He’s explaining something to her, longwinded, and at the end of it she seems more curious than impressed when she says, “You know a lot about bars.”
Lifting his beer he says, “Yeah.” Coy in a way that might or might not be sincere.
“Were you a waiter?”
Sets his glass down. Beer from the tap. Pausing to swallow. “That’s the part I actually don’t like to talk about so much.” He clears his throat and makes a gesture with his shoulders like he’s a guy with a troubled past or something. “I actually…” dramatic pause for a weary sigh, “I used to have a business…”
Wouldn’t have thought college basketball was this popular but there’s a game on between Duke and some other school and everybody’s pretty tense about it, focusing on the massive TVs over the bar, even the servers and the bussers pausing to look, trade remarks. Everytime somebody’s closing in on a basket you’ll hear a chorus of muted “come on come on come on” and two bussers pause right beside you and one of them’s gripping his hair and sighing and talking about his bracket.
Whenever somebody makes or misses a basket the reaction is explosive, disappointment or joy, and all the tension along the bar melts off in a loopy uneven way. Like ice cream in a microwave. Then it all picks up again, just as slow.
It’s 7 on a Sunday and you’re only halfway through your first beer but you feel like this’ll be the only one and then you’ll go. Nothing to do with the game or the shouting. This just happens lately, in a way it never did in your early twenties. You’ll look at the remaining half of a beer and something in your stomach, some vague overhead cloud with mixed-up silent words about sleep and the next day’s responsibilities, tells you in no unclear way that you’re done. It’s time to go home.
And so that’s where you go.
You find a safe behind the painting.
04 left, 24 right, 91 left.
Pull the door open and you’re transported to the Thousand Movie Projects.
Three bar tenders having fun tonight, it’s not that busy for a Saturday, and after you’ve ordered and been here reading for a few minutes one of them comes and sets a bowl of ice cream in front of you and says, “Here’s the ice cream you ordered.” She’s wide-eyed. You’re supposed to go along with it.
Touch the rim and pull it toward you. Say thanks.
She walks away.
Don’t eat it. Keep reading.
Couple minutes later she comes and takes the ice cream and starts eating it at a crouch, grinning. “I went and scooped this cuz my boss was outside but when I came back up she was right there. Had to pretend it was for a customer.”
You smile back and nod, tell her it’s no problem, decide not to rhapsodize about how flattered you are to be considered dependable. Just drink your beer and keep reading.
Be sure to check out Thousand Movie Project