I exhale loud, open the door and there at the bar is my friend, Lola, and her colleague, Michael. I pat my palms down on the oak and greet them, nodding.
“You know Mike, yeah?” She asks. They're finishing steaks.
“Don't think so.” She reminds me one of our friends gave him a blowjob at her birthday party.
“Oh, sure,” I say, extending a hand, “We've not formally met.”
He's wearing a checkered button down rolled to the elbow, has hints of facial hair and Cheshire eyes. He pours me some water.
"So," he’s dipping his head, smiling like he's talking to a beloved or a baby, "I hear you just moved here."
The bartender intervenes and I order a Shirley Temple, ask for fruit in my drink. "Whatever you got, sir, limes, cherries, just pile it on there." I say.
All bartenders ask in a glance and this guy is no different: if you're not drinking, what are you doing here? He's an Aussie with cropped bangs, crackling blue eyes and rubber ankle boots. His name is Sandy. On a chalkboard behind him written in plain white letters: "Ask Sandy To Make You a Whiskey!"
Sandy doesn’t ask out loud what I'm doing there, so I can’t tell him, exasperated, that I don’t know. Instead, I smile and resist a sheepish angry impulse to kick down the custom stool I'm perched upon, douse him with his precious spirits and pitch the beverages of surrounding patrons into the chalkboard with a resounding deadly aim: one, two, three at a time.
Sober, I learn, bars don't look so hot, they aren't that fun. Same with most parties. I go to hang out with friends now and then because that’s what they do. I stand casual like nothing is different, sit around and talk, drink soda, joke, get up to pee every half hour, but it’s all a sham. I can’t connect, I’m just not there, and much as I try to want to be there, I don’t. At 9 o’clock ,we arrive together talking in the same tongue, and by 9:45, we’re in different orbits. They let loose; I’m still here.
Sober in a bar is watching a boat sail away with friends and family on board: "Bye for now, y'all! See you when you get back!" I stand waving. It feels good and solid on land, but as they drift farther from sight, you realize your companions for the evening are a star-pricked night sky and a breeze. Not great conversation.
It’s hard in a new place, too. New York is peppered with people from school or childhood, and not drinking means part of how I lived as a social being is dying and changing. It’s awkward letting it go, not knowing just how.
Tonight, in this bar, I see people leaning close, talk taking place in the small valleys between their mouths. I get the appeal and the habit. A few sips and the Eskimo coats come off, blank faces get easy and the edges file away. Laughter releases looser, it feels fun to be alive, to talk, to touch. Four hours ago you were at a desk eating a peanut butter Cliff bar, and now sex is a real possibility. Intimacy comes easy. Alcohol changes things, we believe it does, we let it.
Later, Michael brings us to a bar down the street, a place he goes to with his girlfriend. There is a group of women clustered outside, looking near exquisite in high-cut cloth shorts and silk, clean lipstick, balancing long cigarettes on a sidewalk that smells solidly of poop.
The bar is new, decor like an early American general store with an atmosphere like junior prom: loud music, a DJ booth and a projector. Lola sees a guy she hooked up with last week and I'm immediately left with Michael.
“What do you want to drink?” he asks, and when I say “Seltzer,” he’s confused.
"I don't drink alcohol," I say, adding, “anymore.”
He laughs through his nose, pauses, "Just trying to process that."
The bartender comes over -- Dave, a friend of Michael’s, who owns the place, looks at me dead-eyed from my waist to my forehead. I smile showing no teeth.
"Can I make you something, man?" He’s wearing a vest.
"Beer and a shot."
"And her?" He looks only at Michael.
I'm right here, Dave.
"Seltzer,” Michael shrugs.
"Right." Dave nose laughs too.
We dance for a bit. Rather, we find ourselves shuffled towards the middle of the floor and Big Poppa is playing. Michael lifts his arms and starts turning, his body revealing he’s tipsier than I’d realized. He looks at me like we’re in on the same joke. Jokes on us, Mike, because I love dancing. I bob my head from side to side and weak maraca-knock my hands. Girls watch him dance, and as they pass between us, he places his palm light, for an instant, on their backs.
When we sit, he tells stories about himself, then asks me questions, runs the gamut: What do you do? How old were you when you stopped believing in Santa? Have you ever had sex with a yeast infection? His disarming charm plays toxically close to obtrusion. He looks me in the eyes, smiling as I talk, like he enjoys hearing me. Who am I to say he doesn't?
He looks at every woman who comes into the place and in the same glance orders me a drink refill. We’re in such close proximity. I can’t fathom feeling farther apart.
Drunk, I’d be touching his palm with my fingertips, whispering, and it wouldn't matter who he was, what he was saying, if he were single. I’d just try to match his energy. Funny, cynical, slow. It’s the attention, heat, obliteration; smashing the compass, feeling fuse or life or pulse or skin.
Now I feel foolish for being there. Knowing I chose this night. Thinking I should know the way to change the course of things, instead of bobbing maraca with half a heart, getting annoyed and squeamish as he talks. I should just grab Lola and go, or just go. But I don’t.
He asks repeatedly, subtly, why I don't drink, waiting for the moment I'll give him something to hold onto.
“You ever woken up naked from the waist down in an empty baby crib? After peeing on an heirloom?”
It quiets even the wild ones and the weirdos.
Lola and I bring Michael back to his apartment where he promises her absinthe and me licorice. His roommate is there. He has strep, but will join us for one or two. He’s on antibiotics, it’s not contagious anymore.
I sit on the couch and Michael moves close to me. His face looks hot and he starts to spit a little when he talks, one drop landing on my cheek.
“Whoop! That’s great,” I say, wiping it off, as he gestures towards a window in a building we can see into across the street, “In there --” (did he hiccup?) “-- is a fancy cunt who won't change in front of the window!” He's joking, sort of, and adds, “I’ve seen hotter girls naked, so I cannot understand what on earth she is withholding.” He laughs, reaches over, tries to tickle my back.
He asks, “Is it hard to be around people who are drunk when you’re sober?” His eyes close briefly, he speaks slow, and now his hand reaches up, an elementary menace, for my bra strap.
I shake like moving off a chill, scoot over and start to laugh right out loud, his hand reaching farther still.
“I dunno,” I say, leaning from his fingers, looking intent at his half-open eyes like is this a joke? “I suppose. It’s. Just. Fine.”
How different it would be if I’d been drinking, too. I laugh again and Lola notices us, Lola laughs too. When we stop she says, “It’s late, will you bring me home?” and I say “It’s late, I should bring you home.”
At Lola’s apartment, she falls asleep on her bed, nice shirt still on, and I'm next to her, eating a warmed-up Saag Paneer. I’m restless, yes, unfulfilled, sure, not knowing still, quite what to do; but I feel good enough eliminating one alternative. Good enough that I am fine here, I am ready to sleep, I am safe on land.