By the end of the night we could love each other, even if we just met. That’s not the hard part—love. It just happens. Week nights, slow nights, any in-between night. That’s what you need to know if you’re looking for love in the city—it can get lost in the crowds. Friday nights, Saturday nights—those are not our kind of people. Our kind of people are stuck behind the bar, slinging coffee, busing tables, heaving the security gates open in the morning and locking them up at night with a clang, keys jangling, the click of the heavy padlock. Our people are the inbetweens, the early mornings, the afterwards, the ungodly late.
A boy was buying me drinks and he didn’t want me to leave, which was more than I could say about myself most of the time. The minutes trickled on sip by sip until they turned to hours and it all began to taste bland and too sweet. We sat at a table together like his friends were my friends, and then they were. The girl they called Tits had sharp, crystal-blue eyes and a tight, rosebud mouth. She smiled rarely, but when she did it involved her whole face. As a waitress she was slightly intimidating but you also trusted her completely. Just when you thought you had been forgotten, you would starve to death, your food would never come—you caught her eye. She was watching you and watching the kitchen, too: a dark angel at the order window, a hovering shadow.
At the bar, at our table, she sat next to one of her line cooks. “Good job in there today,” she said. He looked about seventeen but his tattoos implied otherwise, covering every visible inch of skin from his knuckles to his neck. When he stood up she said, “Buy me a beer, Buffy.”
“Me?” He curled his lip into a sneer. “Where’s your fuckin’ tip money?” She blinked at him and he brought a bottle back to the table for her anyway.
The boy I was with kept handing me his icy glass of tequila and juice—I never had my own. I kept saying no, but I kept finding the glass in my hand anyway. It was unclear to me who, if anyone, was actually paying for anything; I only knew that I was not. Our tab remained open hour after hour, shared among seven or eight or ten of us. The bartender was a beautiful boy from Boston with an affable shrug. That shrug saved him from our hatred—he was too handsome otherwise. That shrug, and his lack of concern about us, our tab, or the girls at the bar shrieking with laughter to get his attention. There was an important football game on TV and cable kept going out, but he didn’t care. A table near the front of the bar was the only one paying attention. Buffy squinted at them, owl-like behind his horn-rimmed spectacles. “They seem miscast for the film we’re in,” he said.
The game we were watching instead took place at the other end of the bar, where our friend Carlos was drinking with a girl in a sweater-vest and a long brown ponytail. Every few minutes, one of us would get up and say hi to him, like we had just noticed he was there, interrupting whatever conversation he was trying to have with the girl. We couldn’t figure her out. Naïve or ironic? Maybe she was foreign? “Is she ordering coffee?” somebody whispered. “What does that mean?” I asked. “Game over,” said the boy I was with. “Total party foul. He’s still drinking and she ordered a coffee? That’s just rude.” He shook his head. I sipped his drink. He got out his phone and started typing. We saw Carlos look down a second later, open his phone, and put it back in his pocket. The girl said something and he cocked his head to the side attentively. The boy I was with slapped his forehead. Then Carlos got out his pack of cigarettes and excused himself. They went outside together, the two boys, in wordless unison.
Meanwhile, a man entered the bar with a baby in his arms. We were transfixed by the baby’s curly hair, his round eyes. He was transfixed by a shiny balloon bouncing along the ceiling of the bar, trailing a sad tendril of curly white ribbon. He reached his fat fist towards it, but he could not grasp the ribbon; it was too high. We stared at him over his father’s shoulder. The father had no idea.
“Buy me a baby, Buffy,” Tits said and punched him in the shoulder. He pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose and said, “You know I read that when women look at babies it releases the same chemical in their brains as when men look at porn.” The baby was free now, tottering near the father’s knees. Tits and I nodded.
When the boy I was with came back inside, there was some kind of seat exchange and we ended up sitting at the bar near Carlos. We ordered another round of beers: cans of Tecate with lime. I met more friends. Ray owned a motorcycle shop and was so completely like a person named Ray that I’m surprised I didn’t make him up. Leather jacket, leathery skin wrinkled up around his eyes, a big silver skull on his littlest finger, white hair and beard: what Santa Claus would look like if he rode a Harley. He smiled like a proud father when the boy I was with showed him his new tattoo. Jess was the only girl who worked in the bike shop. She had long, straight brown hair parted in the middle and a gold front tooth I could not stop looking at. I was more than a little afraid of her and her loud voice and big laugh. When he touched my face in the way that he does sometimes, the boy I was with, sweeping his palm over my face like a veil, like shutting a curtain, which always leaves me a little confused, disoriented, Jess said, “Whoa! I want to try that.” I took a breath and she brushed against my face gently, my eyelids closed beneath her hand. “That’s fucking intimate, man,” she said. “You have no idea what I’ve been doing with my hand, you know? You got to have major trust.” She laughed and turned away before I could come up with anything to say to that.
Next to me, Tits kept getting out her phone, forgetting why, and putting it back in her bag. She was supposed to be at a party but she didn’t know the address. “Look it up on your phone,” I said. “Oh yeah,” she said. But every time she got it out, there was something else to look at. The boy I was with was still texting—some to Carlos three seats away at the bar. He looked up at Tits and said “Text Castle and see if he writes you back.” “Ok,” she said, and did, and he did, and the boy I was with said, “What a dick!” He composed a new message to Castle, part of which read BROS BEFORE HOS DUDE. Tits showed me the text she had sent to him first, which said I want to suck your castle teeth. “That melts my heart!” I cried, suddenly near tears. “I know,” she nodded somberly and put her phone away. Then, “God damn it. What time is it? Where am I fucking going?” She got out her phone again.
Communications were happening outside of my knowledge all around me. Or better yet, happenings were happening without communication at all, like a bottomless glass refilling itself magically. Each of us sat next to each other but also connected invisibly to places and people in other rooms, pressing the same buttons. In this room, the man and the baby were long gone—we missed their exit. The balloon had drifted into the long dark hallway by the bathrooms. Buffy left—his glass was empty—but he gave me his last cigarette before he went, extending the night ahead by some small amount of extra minutes, static minutes in the stillness and dark before decisions get made that can’t be unmade.
A row of shot glasses appeared, stretching from one corner of the bar to the next. Patrick, the bartender, held up a bottle of Jameson. We booed and hissed. He turned around, still smiling, and picked a tequila instead. We cheered. He poured generously, though not carelessly, glass after glass. Tits looked up from her phone then, smiled, and said, “Can I have whiskey?” The bartender shrugged, poured two shots of Jameson. We raised our glasses, slapped the bar, slammed them down. The lime burned worse than the liquor, like it had been the victim of some chemical experiment involving bleach and sand. I spun around on my bar stool until I stopped coughing. Jess was there behind me, with her hands in the air. “Brando!” she yelled. “BRANDO IS PERFECT, MOVE THE SET!” I had missed some part of this monologue. “Jess,” she continued, “you’re PERFECT but you’re fucking up the shot!” She was visibly thrilled, arms swinging, gold tooth gleaming, that sheet of silk-straight hair rippling over her shoulders. Her smile squeezed around her eyes until they sparkled like dark water at the bottom of a well.
It was getting dark outside too. Tits put her hat and her coat on again, like it was serious. “I have to go,” she said, and we all booed. “Don’t do it,” I said. “It’s so cold out there!”
“Sit back down,” said the boy whose foot kept dragging my bar stool closer to his. “Patty wants to buy you a drink.”
“Sure,” the bartender shrugged. “What do you want?”
“No,” she said, closing her blue eyes. “I can’t.”
He opened another can of Tecate. She opened her eyes and sat back down. “What happened to that guy who was here last week?” She took a sip. “The one who sat over there? He said he’d be here again this week, but he’s not.”
That’s the thing about living like this, living in public; we depend on the context. We belong to a certain point in space and sometimes it’s the right one.
“The guy with the crazy hair?” Patty said.
“I don’t know,” Tits answered. “He always sits right there.”
Being a regular is the only way to be remembered, which may be the only way to be sure we exist. Routine is what saves us from chaos—the pour of Sunday’s bartender, the long pull of Wednesday’s barista versus Tuesday’s—but routine falls prey to the slightest outside forces. The boy I was with: we knew each other entirely through the restaurant where he worked. The first time I saw him standing without a counter in between us I was surprised by his shoes, by his height, even his legs. It wasn’t that I thought they would look different—I hadn’t thought about them at all. They had not been things to think or not think about. And tomorrow or the next day or some other day, I would see Jess or Tits or Buffy somewhere at the park or on Manhattan Ave or the train—and would we know each other then? Jess with her hand on my face, my eyelashes against her skin—would she remember that or not? Even if she did, what would it matter, what would we say.
That’s why we write some things on our skin in ink, even stupid things; that’s why we sit next to each other and text each other at the same time—to make things exist in the world outside of us where they can be seen by someone else. Toss enough of these things into the wind and some of them might land somewhere.
Or that is what I do. When I let him kiss me against the wall, hard, and bruise my wrists in the grip of his hands, and lose my underwear somewhere under his bed, when I steal his t-shirt in the morning, it’s because then it becomes something real that has happened. An event. A thing. Real.
For him, maybe these are things you scatter to the wind like you toss a cigarette butt from a moving car, out the window to bounce away behind you, ashes turning to dust, sweat disappearing down the shower drain—something you rid yourself of.
What will happen tomorrow? Or the next day, or next week, or whenever one of the waiters moves back to the Midwest and fucks up the whole schedule? Will I ever see him again, the boy who buys me drinks, if Patty’s not there to pour them, if someone else is sitting in our seats at the bar?
I keep leaving my house every morning and I keep walking down the street where everyone else walks, to the train we all ride, where I am living seen or unseen, a thing in the world, waiting to stick to something or melt like snow, depending on the weather. Depending on who’s watching me.