I met a fellow from the factory for lunch yesterday. He was coming off an acid trip from the night before. He'd just come back from a vacation trip to Las Vegas and to some mysterious town in Utah where he sought to unravel some of the questions he has about his childhood. We had agreed to meet at a restaurant not far from the apartment where he lives, but as I was driving to meet him, he texted me and said the restaurant was closed. "I kid you not--somebody plowed their car into it." He was sitting at the bar at a nearby Irish bar, he said.
When I got there, he was most of the way through his first margarita.
"Hey bud, how you doing?"
"Good. I'm sweating like a pig. It feels like it is a hundred degrees in here."
He knew it wasn't, of course, that he was still reeling a bit with last night's adventures. The bartender stood in front of me with a beer in hand.
"Is that for me?" I asked.
"Do you like IPAs?"
"Then it's yours."
That's what being clever will get you, I thought. I brought the glass to my lips. Fortunately, it wasn't bad.
"Before you got here, she was talking to the guys to my right." I looked over to see the standard fellows in their fifties, the sort you see at every restaurant bar like this in town, the sort who look like they play golf, vote republican, and tell jokes with a straight face.
"One of them asked her if she went to school here. 'What do you mean?' she asked. 'Where did you go to school?' She said she went to a private Catholic school and then to a state school at the upper region of the state where she graduated two years ago. 'I guess I've been wearing this same uniform most of my life,' she said."
I looked over at the bartender. She was wearing a plaid kilt and a black leotard top. She was more than a little striking. Maybe it wasn't an Irish bar, I thought. The Irish don't wear kilts. No matter, though. I was going to have to focus on not looking at her. The short bar was filled with men who watched her move about her bartender duties with great enthusiasm. Everything she did fascinated them. Me, too, I must admit, but I am very conscious of not wanting to be "them." Still, it was almost unavoidable.
I took a look at the menu. There was really nothing I wanted. My friend ordered a margherita flatbread.
"Do you feel on the spectrum?" I asked him.
"What do you mean?"
"You only order things that are margarita."
"Oh. I hadn't noticed."
I ordered the shepherds pie.
It was lunchtime, and the place was pretty busy. I thought about the bar which I am sure never gets cleaned, about these republican men, some of whom surely have not had the vaccine. It was the first time I'd been in a place this closed in. There are more than just Covid germs, I thought. We've sort of forgotten that we used to get ill pre-Covid. The thought made me uncomfortable, but what could I do?
"Were you alone last night?" I asked my friend.
"What did you learn? Did you have fun or was it something else?"
He thought for a minute. "It was fun," he said. "But I came to a realization, too."
He stopped there, and I felt he was waiting for me to ask the obvious question, so I did.
"I realized," he said, "that I have to quit narrating things in my head. I narrate all the time, and I have to just let that go and just be in the moment."
It didn't sound like something one needed LSD to think about, but I wasn't judging.
"I don't know," I said. "I think turning life into a narrative is a positive thing. Most people just live randomly, their lives just a hodgepodge of events they never try to link together. Once I started writing my life out, everything got more interesting. Suddenly my life was a story, and each day I couldn't wait to see what would happen next."
"No, but I mean like I'll sit here right now and be narrating in my head and I'm not really experiencing the moment," he quarreled.
O.K. It sounded a bit like the LSD talking to me, but it didn't matter. Such a thing was of no consequence to me. I was writing stories about the bartender and enjoying them. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her bend down to pick up something off the floor. My body convulsed involuntarily. She was smiling and joking with the men who watched her like the Super Bowl. She was working them with smiles and eye contact and a seeming interest in what they were saying. She was putting more than pennies in the piggy bank.
"She is really putting that college degree to work," I whispered to my friend.
Over lunch, he told me tales of his trip out west. He is a writer of repute and tells a good tale. Most of them today, however, had to do with his quest to the mysterious town in Utah. There was a mystery he was trying to solve, a gap in his memory, or, perhaps, false memories of his childhood.
"Don't you ever wonder what made you be the way you are?" he asked. "Don't you want to figure out how you became who you are?"
"No," I said. That broke him up.
"I don't see the point of it. I have a hard enough time just trying to be me. I'm not really sure what I've become, so trying to figure out how I got to this place I can't fully understand. . . well, no."
He sat quiet and thought about that for awhile. I snuck a quick peak at the bartender. She was a real pro. It was almost disgusting, but not quite.
Suddenly, a loud voice filled the room. What the fuck was that? It made no sense. The music had gotten louder, and a young guy in the corner was singing the lyrics at the top of his voice. He was sitting with a young woman, and the two were obvious friends of the bartender.
"That guy makes me sick," I said. "That is probably the bartender's boyfriend, or at least occasionally. Have you ever seen the documentary 'Crumb'?"
He hadn't, so I recounted the part where Crumb talks about high school and that he could never understand how the girls always went for the guys they did. I said this was why I had trouble in groups, why I couldn't participate in social media.
"What were you like in high school?" he asked.
"I was an only child. I was used to being alone. Parties made me nervous. When all the cool kids were having fun, I was the guy in the other room sitting with the potted palm and the girl with the lazy eye."
This made him laugh. "Really? I never would have guessed that. Why?"
"You know, I don't get it. But it's like that group text thing from the factory. Everybody will be chatting away, people liking other people's comments, everyone seeming to try to show they like it more. Then I'll post a comment, and the chat ends. I've always been able to clear a room. And like Crumb, I just don't get it. So. . . whatever. I try to be the first one in and the first one out whenever I can."
Lunch done, the bartender wanted to know if we wanted anything else.
"Are you having anything?" My friend had gone through several margaritas.
"I am if you are."
"I'll have a scotch," I said, naming the brand.
"You want ice?"
"No, just a small splash."
"I'll have another margarita."
When she brought the drinks and set them down and had moved down to take some orders, I pointed to my scotch.
"You see that? She's flirting with me."
"I was going to comment. That's a pretty hefty pour."
The glass was half full.
"I didn't really want that much," I said. For Christ's sake. . . that kilt was killing me. I had thought she surely must be wearing boy shorts under it, but I had visual evidence that that wasn't the case. At least, I thought, I wasn't trying to chat her up. That separated me from those laser stare others. Or so I consoled myself.
In a bit, I looked at my phone that had been blowing up with texts for some time. It was a group chat. . . nothing. But the time was surprising. We'd been sitting at the bar now for over three hours.
"I've got to go," I said. "I need to visit with my mother."
The bartender brought the checks. I needed to leave an adequate tip for having taken up space at the bar for so long, but it had to be subtle, too. You know, I wouldn't want to look like those fools. There was a delicate balance here to be struck.
On the sidewalk, we chatted a bit more. It was good, we said. We'd do it again.
By the time I got to my mother's, the exhaustion had set in. We sat outside in rockers with the garage doors open, the temperature cooled by rain, the breezes, the quiet of suburbia, the birds. . . .
"Oh. I guess I fell asleep for a minute," I said.
"I saw. Go inside and lie down."
"No, I've got to stop at the grocery store. I'm going to go."
The day had worn me out. I thought about the upcoming group meeting on Thursday. God, I, thought, I don't have the strength. Really. . . the first one in, the first one out. . . .