One winter, I moved to Brooklyn to figure myself out. I was escaping a situation I didn’t understand, by which I mean a job and a lover and an apartment that when they were all together left no place for me. As I had made my life into something that I couldn’t fit inside of but was for me, this meant I didn’t know what I was, not even close, and this seemed like a problem literally the size of my whole life. I wanted to go somewhere I couldn’t hurt anyone while I fixed this, so I took a small apartment with a single window on the very last street in Park Slope, where the neighborhood was less gentrified by the middle of the block. I got a job waiting tables, work that wouldn’t bother me at home or call me or email me with last-minute changes. And I picked as my bar a small gay bar almost no one knew, not too far from the apartment or the restaurant, with dark wood and old-fashioned mirrors and a crappy pool table out back usually surrounded by plain-spoken lesbians playing for keeps. I never played pool, so this was fine. I left my phone off for the first month, as I didn’t know what I would say to anyone who would call me, and eventually was afraid to turn it on. But this also seemed fine as the only person I really needed to speak to was me.
I told myself I was only here until I figured out my next move, and the bar was where I figured it out, or thought I did, after my shifts at the restaurant, though I think I drank more than came to any particular decision. I didn’t know it yet, but I hadn’t changed anything about myself, just my location. I’d thought that if I could just get away from everything that was in the way of what I really wanted, who I was would appear like an old friend long missing, and we’d leave together for whatever was next.
When I finished at the bar, I’d walk the eight blocks back to my apartment in the pre-dawn dark, go to sleep and wake up with the anticipation that I’d gone further with my deliberations, but really I had made no decisions, only felt better because of the alcohol, and so soon I was drinking heavily, and when I woke up, I found myself missing most of the money from my shift, having spent it the night before.
I then made the decision to stick to a single beer, sometimes two. This behavior amused the bartender, Billy, who took a certain pride in breaking a dry drunk. He kept a sign behind the bar that said TRADE YOUR AA CHIPS HERE FOR DRINKS. He was forever trying to get me to stay for a second or third beer, and on the times I ordered it, it was a triumph for him, and he cheered like a kid whose dad agrees to stay home from work.
I didn’t think of Billy as a bartender as much as someone I was watching turn into a bartender. He’d been a quiet gawky sous chef from Tennessee who used to sit in the bar and read quietly from this or that tattered paperback, talking very little, if at all, and while he wasn’t a writer, or wasn’t a writer that I knew of, he was always reading. I remember I was startled on the first night I came in to find him behind the bar.
I know it is usual for customers to confide in bartenders, but for me it has always been the other way—bartenders confess to me, and Billy did in particular.
He had pale blue eyes that glittered like tin foil in the dark and candles, and a smile like he was thinking something a little dirty. He wasn’t a particularly handsome man but behind the bar, he glowed with some new power. He was soon one of those bartenders who drank with his customers and sometimes went home with them, though not me. When I came in, Billy usually kept me company. I sat in front of the taps, and he would walk away to take care of the other customers, the few there were. He would always come back to where I sat and we’d talk for a good part of the night, or he would talk, at least.
I know it is usual for customers to confide in bartenders, but for me it has always been the other way—bartenders confess to me, and Billy did in particular. My initial reluctance to speak to anyone made me a good listener, or, at least, a convincing imitation of one.
He had a boyfriend, Colin, who began as one of the customers he’d gone home with, a dress-maker trying to get his company off the ground and working as a design assistant in the meantime. Colin was handsome, a pale, black-haired man-boy in his 20s who looked like he belonged to New York in the ’30s. He came in to the bar often now to be with Billy while he worked, sometimes sitting and knitting in the bar, which made him adorable to me, and soon I kept him company on the busier nights when Billy didn’t have time to talk to either of us. So this was how we knew each other. He eventually confided in me, too. And so I heard about this conversation between them, about Justin, from both of them.
Billy went first. Did I remember that boy, I did. Did I think he was hot, yes. He had told Colin he was going to have sex with him, wow, OK, did Colin think that was fine?
It wasn’t going to change things between them. It was just going to be a thing. A short, short thing. He wanted permission from Colin, who gave it. This was the first time this had happened.
I’d been in the bar when Justin, the one in question, had arrived, sitting in my usual place in front of the taps. He sat down next to me. I watched as he and Billy took each other in. It was like watching a play about what was happening, in that way where you know what will happen before the characters do.
We were at the end of winter, when you think you can’t bear for it to go on one day more, and then it does.
Justin seemed to get more interested the more he knew Billy was interested. And when Billy walked off to take an order from a new customer, Justin turned his attention to me. He told me he’d just arrived from Los Angeles for six months in Brooklyn, during which time he was to get inspired. His words for it. He did not mention any particular art form. We were at the end of winter, when you think you can’t bear for it to go on one day more, and then it does, so that February starts to feel like a long fight you won’t win—the shortest month that always feels like the longest one.
Justin was a beauty in the normal modern white-boy ways: a well-made face, blue eyes framed by long, dark lashes, blonde hair falling forward a little here and there as if someone had just messed it up. The literal golden boy. He looked like he was once athletic. A friend of mine would say he was everybody’s type. Maybe. Something about him made you want to tease him a little, because it was clear it would be fun to make him squirm.
When Billy told me the next day about the conversation with Colin over Justin, it felt like a letdown. I never wanted the things I knew were going to happen to happen. It was no longer like a play, or, at least, a good one. Now it was like when the playwright does the obvious thing, and when Colin arrived, he seemed to feel the same way, like a disgruntled actor in a show he resents.
Colin sat down, and as he reached for his knitting bag, winced.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“No,” he blurted. “But what was I going to tell Billy? What if I’d said no?”
It was clear to me Billy had lied to himself extensively as to whether this would change things. I thought about what to say to Colin’s question and saw there were no possible responses. And then he said, “Most open relationships are open because one wants it and the other doesn’t want to lose the one who wants it.” And with that, he gave a hurt look down the bar to where Billy stood, polishing a beer glass and talking to a customer.
I said nothing to this as well. Silence being my only way to show my allegiance to both of them.
I didn’t know myself very well, but I was good at knowing about other people. I was pretty sure I knew what Justin was, but, to be sure, let myself become friends with him. It happened quickly.
The first part of what I knew was that Justin had been “abandoned” by the friend hosting him (his word for it). Justin’s idea of abandoned meant that he still stayed with this friend, calling him only “my roommate,” though he didn’t pay rent. He needed someone to hang out with as a result.
We started when he came in one night, and after a beer asked, “Do you want to go to a party with me?” It was a party for the release of A Dirty Shame, the John Waters movie about swingers. John was a childhood friend of Justin’s, apparently, something I wondered about as only one of them would have been a child at the time. We wandered a room that gave off the appearance of a garden maze of people, people clumped into decorative hedges of conversation. Justin looked around briefly and then went directly to a small woman in a bright slip and black dress, her hair tri-colored, some of it blonde. “Hi,” she said. It turned out to be Debbie Harry. “You look great,” she said.
I was dazzled to meet her and had no idea what to say. I remembered once trying to pick up an aerobics instructor who had a tattoo of her signature on his arm. I asked if she remembered the friend who’d gotten her to go to a tattoo parlor in order to sign a flash, so the tattoo could be authentic, and her eyes went so wide I could see the whites all the way around the pupils. She nodded and then she laughed, and then she walked away.
“Unless three members of Blondie are together, they can’t perform as Blondie,” Justin said as Debbie left us, her making a wide arc across the room. I didn’t know why he said this. I was sure I’d frightened her with the story and felt bad, but there was no taking it back.
The actress Parker Posey slunk by wearing a jump-suit and enormously high heels. She was surrounded by a trio of beautiful, vaguely familiar-looking women. Her eyeliner bent up at the outside corners of her eyes in a way that made me love her. She came to a full rest in front of what turned out to be Willem Dafoe, leaned forward, whispering, and then her head shot back as she laughed at something she’d just said; and Willem grinned, licking his lips.
I met a group of new novelists there, none of whom I knew, and all reluctantly told stories of adaptations, options from Dreamworks or Miramax, as if something terrible had happened but they would bear up. John Waters looked great, and everyone said so, and as the party ended it seemed like maybe a few people had gotten work. We went back out to Brooklyn, and Justin, fairly abstracted in the car, became more animated as we walked through the doors of the bar. He glided into place in front of the taps, sliding his hips onto the stool and coming to rest. Billy walked the length of the bar and came to a stop to smile in front of him. He hadn’t looked at me yet. We ordered our pints, and Billy poured them, Justin watching the beer falling into the glass.
By now I felt pretty sure about what Justin was. He was a not quite a hooker, but something more agreeable, a courtesan. He would never ask you for money, and whether or not he expected you to pay for things, whether or not he had sex with you, he did not expect to pay for things. Someone would, though, somehow. Somehow the door would open, the apartment would be available, the meal, the beer. Before the night was over, there would be something he would need me to do for him.
Billy thought I’d beat him to what he wanted, and this was why he wasn’t looking at me.
“I wrote to Debbie Harry when I was 9,” he said to me. “I loved her more than anything in the whole world. And there was someone who knew her, my uncle I think, who told her about the letter and so she wrote back. And it turned out she was passing through Baltimore, where I grew up.” The beers came. Billy stepped away almost immediately. “She came to the door while I was asleep to give me the letter, and my mom didn’t wake me up. I was so angry at her after that.”
I couldn’t imagine a childhood like his. Billy returned, meanwhile, his tinfoil-blue eyes glittering. He looked at us over a candle, like a boy telling a Halloween story. “Where you been?”
“A party,” I replied. I knew Billy was suspicious of how I’d become Justin’s de facto companion, and wanted to know what was up. Billy thought I’d beat him to what he wanted, and this was why he wasn’t looking at me.
Here’s what sometimes happened to me: I’d leave the bar with someone I found acceptable or even interesting. I was unavailable, as this was part of the figuring out of my next move; and so I told them all up front, and this was when I discovered that telling someone you are unavailable often meant you had great, unrestrained, even epic sex. Sex like I’d never had in a relationship, sex that went on for an entire day and night. It was as if it allowed each of you to be someone other than who you were in your regular lives, because you would never see each other there, and in the morning you left each other more or less peacefully resigned to this. But lately I had been wanting to try to see someone there.
I was not resigned, or, I’d resigned being resigned. Increasingly, I wanted to live in that other place, the place that existed briefly between me and whoever it was I’d just brought home and didn’t know. I was prepared to demand that it become more, as it seemed like whoever I was in those hours wanted to be out in the rest of my life, to take over, to make the decisions for me now. And whoever it was that was just too embarrassed of this other self, that person, that version of me had to go, not the person I’d just had sex with. But for this to happen, I needed to meet someone who also felt this way as well, and on the times I let someone sleep over, I woke up and was disappointed to see the person from the night before already gone, not visible in the features of the person asleep there. Where is the beautiful devil from last night? I wanted to ask, and, How do I get him back?
I saw Billy as the luckiest of men, for having Colin, who I thought was maybe the best boyfriend anyone could want. Colin struck me as someone I would never let go of. I didn’t like what Billy was doing, so I didn’t let on the truth about me and Justin being uninvolved. If he was going to screw things up with Colin, I wasn’t going to make it easier for him.
And then, almost immediately, I did.
I watched myself as if from the bar ceiling as I stood up and acted distracted, heading to the bathroom to let them have the conversation they wanted to have. I both didn’t understand what I was doing and was entirely deliberate, as if under someone else’s control. I waited an appropriate amount of time inside the bathroom, fought feeling stupid, and then walked back. When I returned, they looked up at the same time, Billy as if caught, Justin smiling dreamily. I wondered briefly if he did heroin or would even need to. Would you need drugs if Debbie Harry came over at night to hand-deliver a letter to you as a child? I wanted to think the answer was no but maybe after something like that happened only drugs could make life exciting enough.
As the night went on, his face took on a softer, pillowy look, Billy moved back down to the other customers but returned always to where Justin sat, and I remembered that Billy had paid me the same attention once. I understood our friendship now differently. I got my beer from where Justin sat and stood back, by the jukebox, where I almost never stood, and watched them get quiet together. Soon there was nothing more for them to say. I closed the bar with them, and when we left, shared a car home. Billy was first, Justin lived near him, and so they got out together. As the car drove me away, I watched as Billy took Justin to his front door.
All of the plot points for this story between them were too obvious and it felt terrible to watch.
The next day found me at the bar again after work. My coat was on, like an audience member preparing to leave a bad play. I hadn’t quite decided to stay, but was drinking my one beer all the same. Billy came in and walked toward me. He smiled a little as he sat down.
“Yes or no,” I said. I made it sound as if I were some sort of frat guy, like we would high five if he said yes.
“Maybe,” he said, with a short bitter laugh.
He’d had too much to drink, and hadn’t been able to get it up.
Continued on the next page …
Photo by Cesar Bojorquez/flickr
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On creating the feeling you want the reader to feel…
“Do you think writers have to feel what they want the reader to feel when they’re writing?” I asked my friend Alex Chee in email this weekend, after reading a new story of his that powerfully evokes the kind of moony, depressive, sick…
What a beautiful writer you are. The scene, the feelings…you capture it, and you captured me, right off the bat!
Laura, thank you.