11th Street

     You enter the bar, propelled by the wind of a hasty commute, slap a fiver down on the counter and look to see if you know anything there. Not yet; the bar is empty and you were wrong in assuming that the bartender was familiar enough with your face to remember what you drink. She asks you what you’d like and you order a Genessee. It’s cheap, but a good water of a beer and you smile, leaving a two-dollar tip just as she darts off towards the other en of the bar.

     In walks an older man, at least fifteen or twenty years older than you, all high-fives, wisecracks, and backslaps. Everyone knows him and loves his arrival, as it signals the start of the night’s actual drinking. He smiles in your direction, all teeth and gives a thumbs up, but you assume it’s for someone else. You respond with a sip of your beer and a glance at the jukebox; right now would be an opportune time to cue the music. It would have to be some 80s song, or perhaps a late 70s party anthem with a cliché hook and two lead guitarists trading solos until you’re piss drunk and vomiting in a corner. Instead you get the Cure. Not that fitting for the situation, but before you can go cry your eyes out in the restroom, someone hits you real hard and you turn to see a familiar face.

     “Hey, man!”

     He seems too excited to sit, but does so anyway, pushing some girl off the stool next to yours, sending her huffing and puffing to the opposite side of the bar, glaring back in your direction while ordering another drink. You glance back at her, maybe you had a chance to get her number, perhaps more, but most likely offer a few drinks while you still had control of your words.

     “Whatcha drinking?” His eyes light up.

      “Genessee, what’d you think I was—“

     “Could I get two shots-in-the-dark and a couple of brews? Your call, amigo.” Licking his chops, he pulls out his wallet and thumbs through a small wad of fives and ones. He always called bartenders “amigo,” probably some pent-up western film fantasy where everyone drinks whisky, drinks often, and carries themselves with a slight air of genial passive-aggression.

     “We’re starting fast tonight,” he says turning towards you, “you and me, man.” He slaps you on the back again, looks up at the bar, curious about his order, and flags down the bartender on a whim.

     “Could you add a whisky to that, amigo?”

She shrugs. He places a couple singles on the table in gratitude.

     “What’s got you all sparkly tonight, Ben?” you ask, half caring, preoccupied with scoping out the people seated at the bar.

     “I don’t know, man. I’ve just been on this insanely great kick all week and don’t want it to stop.” His voice grows progressively more animated, but he suddenly stops and looks at you with the utmost seriousness. “If it stops, I’ll die.”  

     You don’t know how to react and the silence lingers like back row dust particles in the light of an old projector. The bartender places the assortment of Ben’s order on the counter. He snatches the whisky, downs it in one gulp, and slams the glass back on the table. You take a sip of whatever is in the closest glass and sit in silence, not quite sure if you want to talk or just let time pass. A quick glance at the wall clock doesn’t help either, as the bar is always stuck at four-twenty and the only indicator of time is the conversation volume, the amount of people per square inch, and how much food is being served. The windows are all tinted and covered with various inscriptions and etchings—remnants of previous ownerships and relics of a chocolate city— with the only light being a couple of orange lamps, one thrown in a corner above the only sizeable booth and the other giving the bartenders just enough light to see ho much they’re pouring. It’s an amber darkness, the kind that welcomes everyone with open arms and whispers sweet goodbyes before sending you out into the cold. Inside, there is a warmth that radiates off the wall paneling and rises from the aging tiles, the stains of a hundred beers forever giving the grout a blackish-brown, caked-on layer of grim. Though the seats are too small, tables too crooked, and barstools too tall and awkwardly arranged for anyone to rest their feet, you’ve never felt more comfort anywhere else.

     Ben looks over at you, “Why so quiet tonight, man?”

     You shrug. He directs his attention to some girl sitting a few seats away nursing a half-empty beer, fidgeting with her hair.

     “Hey,” slapping his hand down on the bar counter, “How about you come over here and break this fucking tortoise outta his goddamn shell—“

     You sigh and try to think of a way to mitigate the damage.

     “—And then we’ll boil him. Yeah! Like the fucking turtle he is!” he slaps you on the back and takes another shot, “You see man, all you gotta do is re-fucking-lax.”

     “I’ve never heard that before.”

     “Hey, fuck you.” He punches your arm, “I’m going to dance.”

     As he saunters over to the jukebox, you accidentally make eye contact with the girl; he gaze seems expectant and you try to find an escape. The bartender seems to notice and asks if you’d like anything else, in response to which you order an apologetic drink for her and pray she leaves you alone. You look back over, but the view is blocked by a sizeable group of twenty-somethings, staggering through the door marking their presence with wide-eyed gapes and looks of confusion. The move towards the bar a fair amount uncertain of what to do next and, as they get closer, you can feel their breath of the nape of your neck. Its warmth makes you shiver uncomfortably, but just as you try to move, you feel a hand on your shoulder and turn to see the girl from three seats away move into the seat Ben had just given up.

     “Whatcha drinking?”

     “I think it’s a whisky.”

     She looks at the bartender, “I’ll have one of those,” ordering with a wink and a smile that cuts through reddish-brown of the bar like the polished keys of the old piano that’s been collecting dust in far corner of the room. She’s sitting on her hands letting her feet swing freely.

     “My name’s Jenny.” she frees up a hand and thrusts it in your face; you shake it with veiled indifference and, but with enough enthusiasm to prove that you might have some sort of interest.

     “Do you come here a lot?” she continues.

     In the background there’s a loud thud and the shatter of several glasses. Somewhere Ben yells another order at the bartender.

     “This is my favorite place in the city, “ She crosses her legs and takes a drink, refusing to wipe her lips, letting them shimmer like a fresh new car in a dealership parking lot, “It’s just so inviting and unassuming.”

     She pauses, drawing in a deep breath, her chest slowly rising in sync with the music. “It’s like, you can be yourself here, you know?”

     Now you can tell she’s putting on some sort of act, yet you don’t mind. She fixes her hair into a loosely formed bun and that’s when you realize you could possibly fuck her. You’d split enough rounds until you stumble onto the dance floor where you take turns groping the air and each other in a spastic dance of awkward infatuation. She would almost falls, but you’d catch her, slyly sliding your arm around her lower waist and pulling her closer towards you, holding her tightly against your body, heaving with exhaustion. There’d be a kiss; she’d pretend to be surprised, but play along, through the cigarettes you share outside the bar and the cab ride to your place until you wake up in the morning to find your wallet missing and her underwear on the floor. Yes, you could have her; all you’d have to do is say the word; she’ll know.

     She throws her head back laughing and takes another drink.

     “So what brought you out here?”

     “My girlfriend is out of town and I have nowhere else to go.”

     “Oh,” She shifts uncomfortably, looks around for an exist, and finishes her whisky before abruptly standing up. “Maybe next time you shouldn’t go buying drinks for strange women, you piece of shit.”

     Her hair slices through the space between you and the bar as she turns towards the door, her hips dividing the crowd of patrons as she walks. Kicking yourself for not even attempting to nestle up between those thighs, you order another drink just as Ben returns from the dance floor.

     “Whoa, man. I see you’re breaking hearts all over again?”

     "Why’d you have to do that to me?”

     “What?” He sits down and finishes your whisky. “I wasn’t the one that bought her a drink.”

     Someone squeezes into the spot between you and Ben, attempting to flag down the bartender, making some comment about how busy it’s been. The door opens up and suddenly the place is swarming with people. The temperature inside has risen to an uncomfortable level and the volume of the room has been turned up just enough to keep you from thinking. That’s the only part you like. The door swings open again and more people pile in, collectively pushing closer towards you. Everyone is breathing down your neck, awkwardly brushing up against you arm as you try to squirm your way into some personal space. You look at Ben, but he’s lost in the crowd, enthralled by this sudden uptick in excitement. He tries to make eye contact with anyone and everyone; head darting to and from, moving in ways one  wouldn’t consider possible or healthy. And then his eyes find you.

     “Fuckin’ yeah!” he wheels around again and again, finishes your drink, and orders two more, “This what I love about this place, you know?”

     You pretend to agree and try to look for a possible escape. You see two: one costs five dollars; the other is free. You sigh and pull out your wallet.

***

     You don’t see Ben for another hour or so, until he reemerges from the chaos disheveled and incoherent. He smiles are you, but looks forced and pained; you ask the bartender to fetch him a glass of water and scope out a booth where  both of you can sit and recuperate. Taking the bus would be a bad idea, as you’re too drunk to safely make it home. At this point, people are starting to file out of the bar, couples falling over each other, new acquaintances awkwardly deciding whether or not they should hold hands while they wait for a cab, and it isn’t long until the bar regains its familiarity. There’s nothing worse than aimless waiting and you greet those waiting for a ride home with a stare of hatred and an innocent plea of “take me with you.” Your hands start to get cold as the outside air saunters2 sit’s itself down, so you thrust them into your pocket. It’s then that you discover the notebook inside your jacket. You take it out and toss it on the table.

     Ben tries to sit up; even his movements are slurred. “What’s that you got there?”

     “I..I don’t know, man.”

     “Why don’t ya’ open it and figure out the fucks ‘is about?”

     You hesitate at first and the creaking of the book’s cover makes it seem as if it would like to remain closed. Ben, impatient, takes the book off the table and thumbs through the pages before throwing it back on the table and pointing at you to read a paragraph.

-- Andrew thought the show was pretty good, but I was just happier to be out of the house; nothing quite like the sense of relative independence and besides, any excuse to do something is a good excuse, right?

     “What’s an Andrew?” Ben looks at you as if you know, but you stare back, not quite sure of what exactly he means by that. You turn back through a few pages and read a bit more.

-- It’s not like Saturday wasn’t enjoyable, it was just so long and not as much of a day off as it could’ve been. First, I’d rather not be woken up at six in the morning for anything, especially on a weekend; let business be business, but don’t let it interfere with my Saturday. Second, I was woken up by the boyfriend saying that I’d promised to do something or whatnot. Not that I ever remember making that promise, but I distinctively don’t recall agreeing to anything like that in recent memory. They say that spontaneity makes relationships exciting, but I can completely argue that that’s a load of bullshit. Spontaneity is selfish; I’d rather be warned before going to do an all-day activity.

All in all, though, I probably shouldn’t complain about going for a hike. I mean, he drove so I was able to sleep a bit in the car; but then he decided that he wanted a cup of coffee and set out to find some random shop somewhere. We found one on the edge of the town just before the State Park and it wasn’t half bad either. But he was definitely hitting on the barista, not maliciously, or at least I don’t think that. But at least I got in a few words with the guy sitting at the table next to us; I rarely get to talk to strangers so this was a good time to do so, I suppose.

After coffee, the boyfriend got lost. A bit of a stereotype, but he missed the turn into the State Park and then refused to go back so we ended up spending another hour driving completely aimlessly through the woods until I finally took the wheel and got us to the trailhead. By that point, I was in no mood to go for a hike, let alone with him. He went. I drove by to the coffee shop and ended up chatting with that guy some more.

     Someone crashes into the table and spills beer all over your left arm; the notebook has fallen to the ground and you quickly pick it up, checking to make sure that there’s no visible damage. Ben is slumped over in the booth, but still awake – barely. You ask the bartender for more water, trying to hide the fact that your not as sober as you’d like to be. At this point, it’s nearly three in the morning and the bar is clearing out more rapidly than before, evolving into a ghost town of empty glasses and lost scarves.

     You gently kick Ben in the shins to try to get him to sit up.

     “Hey man, what was that for?” His words trip over themselves.

     “You know why…”

     “Ugh, don’t pull that shit. Also, I think I figured out what the book is.”

     “Yeah?”

     “It’s like a journal or something.” He’s swallowing his sentences, washing them down with desperate gulps of water. “Yeah… probably your girlfriend’s or something.”

     “You don’t say…” You check your pocket a cab fare, but find that your wallet is empty.

     “Yeah man… That’s some fucked up shit you got there.” He grabs the notebook out of your hand and flips to one of the first pages.

--I am completely alone in the house for the first time in a while. It’s fantastic! I never really thought about it before, but I don’t think I’ve had a moment purely for myself in about six months, which seems a bit too much to actually be true.

     “Shit!” You wait for the realization to hit you, but you’ve had too much to drink to notice it.

     “I’m drunk and you couldn’t figure it out?” Ben says, slowly siting up, a slight smirk upon his face.

     “The thought never really occurred to me.” You say, fidgeting with your fingers, not quite sure how to react. “Allison’s never really come to mind as a word person, let alone a diary person so I just ruled it out all together. I thought it was some piece of crap I found on the street and stuck in my pocket.”

     Ben laughs, “I guess it isn’t.”

     You look back at the notebook.

--The boyfriend is out again so I’ll try to maximize the free time I have. He’s been out and about a bit much lately, but I guess that sort of time apart is healthy? I mean, it’s not like we were smothering each other or detracting from each other’s personal lives—  or lack thereof— so what’s there to complain about? I just feel like I haven’t done anything interesting in a while and I’m starting to get that insatiable itch not necessarily for excitement, but for something different to happen…

     The lights in the bar have been turned up, with the bartender hustling people out of the door so she can finish closing. Ben stands up and then falls onto the table, trying to coax you out of your. You head to the bathroom, telling Ben to wait by the door, but aren’t surprised when you return and find him absent.

     The cold of the night greets you with a sinister handshake and a punch to the gut. You stagger down the sidewalk, distant yells of merriment echoing off the faded brick of aging row houses; the kind with rotten grout and unkempt front yards. A delivery truck is idling at a stoplight, with, one working headlight illuminating the street with a dejected iridescence. You take the long way home accidentally, as it’s too dark to read the street signs and the lights that are usually on are broken. You make a mental note to report this, but two police cars careen down the street just as you figure out what you’d say, speeding through the intersection and taking your train of thought with it.         

***

     You wake up at the kitchen table, glass of water in one hand, and the notebook placed next to a neatly folded piece of paper. You open the paper:

     I’m out with friends tonight, be back in the morning. Are we still going to the market tomorrow?

     You crumple up the paper and put it in your mouth before throwing it into a corner. The notebook begs to be opened, and you satisfy this urge by turning to a random page further along than any previous excerpt:

--I had lunch with Andrew again today; his idea, not mine, and I did feel a bit bad for bringing my work with me. But, we’d already seen each other a few days ago and he didn’t seem to mind anyhow. I guess me being the one with the guilty conscious allows me a bit more freedom to do as I please? Isn’t that a perverted sort of logic! I told him how the boyfriend had gotten sick and had taken to a diet of assorted broths with rice and had repeatedly refused to see a doctor. I can only help him so much and am definitely no sort of nurse. But it was nice seeing Andrew and to have at least someone to spend some quality time with.

     You stop reading for a moment. Allison rarely, if ever, told you about her work colleagues and you can’t recall her introducing you to anyone named Andrew. A quick glance at the watch reveals that it’s nearly five in the morning, yet you’re too invested in the diary to attempt to make it to the bedroom. You turn forward several pages and read on.

--It’s been several weeks since I’ve last written anything, but what a trip that time off was. I’m sure that I won’t be able to fit everything into one entry so I’ll probably end up spacing it out a bit. Apart from tat piece I’d been working on being delayed for publishing—again—and the boyfriend being out of town for the week on account of some “business”, it was good to have some free time. Andrew and I got a drink after work and I told him all about the empty house and how, even though we’d just moved, the whole furniture situation could’ve been thought over real quick. He didn’t seem to mind my rambling and complaining about the boyfriend dragging his feat getting everything organized. He knew well ahead of time that I had a deadline to meet and, given how accommodating I am with him, I guess I thought there’d be bit of reciprocity. But I digress, after we got a drink, Andrew proceeded to ask me out to dinner. I told him I was to busy that night, which was a partial lie, but I had to cover my bases here. I figured leaving the door open if anything changes might be a good idea, but I haven’t done anything like this since college so it felt a bit strange and new. I guess time will tell. Thankfully, the boyfriend has never met any of my coworkers so at least there’s a bit of breathing room about this.

     The streetlight directly outside your window begins to flicker and soon cuts out, leaving a pocket of darkness on the empty street. There’s some sort of commotion, faint shouts, the squealing of tires rounding a corner making a fast getaway. At this point, you’ve been living in the city long enough that you’re desensitized; it’s early in the morning, those things tend to happen. The notebook seems to be making a similar noise and you yell at it to shut up. Nothing happens; the noise begins to grow louder until you pick up the book and skip forward a few more pages.

--I’m trying to find ways to be subtler, but I find that subtlety in these circumstances is really hard to come by. But the boyfriend either is getting the hit or is so indifferent and clueless that it doesn’t matter. He’s rarely home at this point and half the time I’m not able to tell anyone where he’s going because I just don’t know. I mean, I haven’t really cared about that for a really long time, but it’s the thought that counts, right? Supposedly so, but I’ve taken his newfound independence as a cue for me to seek out my own. He’s gotten quite erratic and this makes it impossible for me to have people over. I mean, we live in the same house, but I’m usually the only one that’s around. I do have my visitors though; definitely some close calls, and Andrew was supposed to stop by tonight, but apparently had to stay late at work so I’m stuck in this fucking house with this fucking notebook trying to find something to do…

     You feel sick. You drop the notebook on the ground and scan the room for a trashcan. The ceiling fan appears to be moving, but you don’t remember turning it on and it seems that the noise from the street has grown to a loud, incessant drone. Outside the window, a light turns from blue to red and, suddenly, your presence in the room feels unbearable. The phone rings, but you ignore it, stumbling over to the living room and passing out on the couch just as the first morning’s light emerges through the window

***

     Everything is quiet when you wake up the next morning, except for the occasional hum of a passing car. You find the plainness of the faded living room paint comforting, and you’re glad you talked Allison out of repainting. A look down makes it apparent that that you’re still wearing the same clothes from the night before, and feel your phone vibrating in your pocket. Immediately, you recognize the number as Ben’s, but you let it go to voicemail, figuring that you can ask him about it at the bar later on.

     But you couldn’t explain why you were late to work that day and why your focus seemed to be lacking. You can’t find an excuse to avoid seeing Allison other than by saying you were meeting up with Ben, and after she asked if something was wrong, you quickly deny it, hanging up the phone in frustration. The weight of the notebook pulls on all strings and demands complete focus; so consuming you that by the time you’re about to leave work, it’s the only thing you can think about.

     Today, the bus isn’t late and traffic is light. It would’ve been easy to get home, yet you choose to go to the bar. Ben still hasn’t called you back, but you’d rather drink alone anyway. The bar is empty and you order a beer to help think things through. Someone staggers up to the seat next to yours and sits down just as you pull the notebook out of your pocket.

            “You read it, didn’t you.”

     You turn to find Ben sitting next to you, his whisky-laden breath heavy in the space between. The jukebox is skipping and someone kicks it in a vain attempt to get it to work. You take a sip of your beer, as you know that he knows the answer.

     “That’s the problem man,” he says reaching for your beer and finishing it, “That’s the mistake you made. That shit’s too powerful—“

     You keep your silence as Ben orders you another beer. You look around the bar and notice someone taking a seat at the other end. He seems familiar, but you can’t figure out why. You stare down at the notebook and it stares back; its dotted-I’s, crossed t’s, and tightly knit paragraphs overpowering you, pulling you head down. Someone finally manages to get the jukebox working and the empty silence is once again filled, but there’s a strange and unfamiliar coldness that you can’t quite explain. You take one glance at the entrance and suddenly, a familiar face appears, blond hair haphazardly rearranged by the wind and her eyes straining towards the corner of the bar. But it’s not your corner, and she sits down next to the man at the opposite end. Stashing the notebook into your pocket, you dart towards the back exit and out into the pinkish haze of dusk, jacket still stretched over the barstool and your feet pounding the pavement while you figure out your next move.