I ask for one last Budweiser. And my bill. I’ve had what three beers? Surely, no harm in a fourth. It’s a Friday night. My voice breaks a little, the pause hanging over the pot-scented bar, humming like some force. The signs stare at me from the dull mahogany-colored walls. Bud. Coors Lite. Fat Tire. Red and white lights, mixed with piercing blues flicker over the bar, over the floors covered with napkins, possible vestiges of puke.
“I’m cutting you off,” the bartender says, the words precise, sharp, instant, rushing through me. He has thin eyebrows, close-set hazel eyes, and a glimmering bald head, reminding me of a more youthful Kojak, although Kojak is a vestige of my mother’s childhood. He reeks of sweat, Old Spice, or so it seems, and elegance.
“Did I do something?” The words fall from me before I can catch them. This isn’t me.
“I just think you’ve had enough,” he says, drawing each word out, his gray eyes assessing me.
I hang my head. What did I do? Did I give some cute girl the dancing eyebrow routine again? Did I nod too long, like I often do when I’m drunk? I thought I just lingered in my little seat in the corner beside the jukebox, looking out onto the crowd of strangers. Friends and lovers all mingling, bodies bumping into each other, laughing, exchanging their own secrets and talking about whose party they went to last week, the week before. I just stole little glances one by one, absorbing backwards baseball caps, skimpy tank tops, things my so-called friends are probably wearing, wherever they’re at tonight.
“I see,” I say.
“I can get your bill,” he says.
I tried so hard not to tell jokes to strangers, which ballooned into obnoxiousness. No jokes about drunks, Hitler, or the emptiness of friendship. I thought I didn’t drink more than one Budweiser in a half hour period. Didn’t I take nice, elegant sips?
I didn’t want to be that drunk, the drunk with the tiny apartment and the friends who the world has taken. Friends who keep using words like “busy” and “deadlines” when I know full well there are parties they’re still going to and the invitations get lost without reasoning. Friends who laugh with ease, carry themselves with perfect gait and don’t talk about their feelings.
“I’m sorry,” is all I can say. Bodies move around me at the long counter, marred by time and blemishes. A trail of PBRs and cans of Coors Lite are sprawled across the expanse, like Hansel and Gretel got abandoned, went out for drinks, and disappeared again.
The bartender just nods. I look into his eyes, hoping he sees the real me. The me who doesn’t drink this much. Who didn’t, anyway, back when I had my weekly movie nights with friends. When we hit up these bars ourselves and crammed into booths and talked about how we got to grad school, the future. I wait for something, for a nod, a glance, something that says I know. It’s one of those nights, isn’t it? You needed a beer. No harm done, pal.
He just turns away. I pull out my wallet, a cracked leather entity, fumble through cards.
The jukebox is playing the Eagles, “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” and some swarthy brown-haired asshole in a Big Lebowski T-shirt is shaking his ass to it, his sweatpants slipping, revealing a patch of ass and too much hair. He’s an idiot, but I admire the fact that he finds some joy in this moment, a moment others will mock. He’s alone too, that much is evident. I can see it in his broad smile, something that wavers, but doesn’t collapse, in the way he shakes his body, letting it all loose with each motion.
Yet, he still dances. I nod and smile in his direction, but he’s too busy shaking his ass, turned back toward the pink and purple of the jukebox.
The bartender punches buttons on the register. Cue a cold, hard rip. He hands me the check, waiting, eyes fluttering. The clock above reminds me it’s near midnight and this is the fourth night in a row I’ve been out late.
I know tomorrow I’ll wish I just stayed in. Watched something. The Big Lebowski. Or just an irreverent comedy. Happy Gilmore, even. But some nights, you have to go out. You can’t just pace the expanse of floor from bedroom, to living room, to kitchen, and back. You can’t watch your email waiting for the inbox to change from nothing to something.
Now, I sign the bill with as much grace as possible, scribbling with what reminds me of a Humphrey Bogart-like motion. If he got kicked out of the bar in Casablanca, that is. The cursive actually looks pretty good, a series of graceful loops, connected. Nothing shaky or fragmented on the surface.
“Good night,” I say, trying to give my voice some semblance of confidence. Normalcy. It sounds even more cracked.
For a moment, he nods. I think. It’s a fleeting, brief gesture. But I feel like there’s a small acknowledgment. Thanks for going calmly and not making a scene. Come back some other time.
I smile a little. I don’t want to overanalyze, in case I’m imagining.
“Good night,” I say again, and nod to a crowd just coming into the bar. More tank tops and baseball caps. Surprise, surprise.
Outside, the long path home beckons, the downtown parking lots replete with Subarus and Toyotas, a few white trucks. Don’t know the models. The railroad tracks bisect town, the bars and laughter on this side, my apartment and everything else on the other. I take a step, another towards the crossing, the laughter dying with each bit of distance. I hold my head up, but try not to look into the expanse of steel-colored stars, the vast black sky. One step, another. I almost trip. A train whistles and I take another step. I don’t look back, where the laughter rises for a moment, before fading into a murmur, eaten by the train whistle.
I cross the tracks. The train whistles again, still distant, the laughter drowned out, a light breeze nipping. I almost trip again, but right myself. A step, another step. The moon emerges from a cloud, a crescent, but something, small and beautiful. Her light spills out onto the sidewalk, something shimmering and for the moment, the shadows disperse. I’m still going.