I did not think the VFW was the place to meet a woman. I thought it was a place for pancake breakfasts or dinner served from disposable plates, meals that you could easily make from home, a place out of someone’s distant memory of being seven years old and surrounded by old people that cough and make obscure crafts like woven baskets or caterpillars made from egg cartons, tanks tethered behind them, smoke issuing from the U-shaped hose smile above their mouths, wheelchair wheels supporting bodies that fought for their own versions of justice. I did not think this was a place for music, dancing, palpitating lights that work better than some hearts, that you could be young and ensconced by other young people who were there to dance and talk and smoke with fresh lungs. Decisions weren’t made for us there. They happened somewhere else in the distance. It was a place for veterans of being young and under the influence of unending invulnerability. I guess we had to do something to fight another generation’s unfulfilled promises.
My friend sent me a text at work that said a friend was DJing this place. I took the bus to his apartment and we talked about the vague shapes of our novels. We talked about relationships. We criticized and we laughed. We bought Rachels and Reubans at a sandwich shop.
He said This town is full of beautiful women.
I said This town will be the end of us.
I saw a beautiful woman on our arrival, outside. She was waiting for someone. A recently divorced friend said that whenever he goes into a bar now he talks to the most attractive person there. This is an admirable habit.
My friend and I walked into the VFW. He turned to me and said this place smells like whiskey-piss, this place smells like a horse barn. We signed fake names in the guest book. Later I would say I should have written Charlie or Ho Chi Minh because I am insensitive to war and what it does, I will never fight, I will never go, it is so safe to ridicule things we do not know, it is almost better if we tear down things people care about, ideas for which others would die. Our hands were stamped with a red circle. I had the urge to make mine disappear, to lick it or wash it away. I will wear this mark for days. The ceiling of the bar looked like a grandparent’s basement, unending white and brown squares. The bartenders were the oldest people in the place. It was a wood themed bar. Maybe all of them are when we are passed out or not paying attention. It was two-dollar tap night.
I left to put my bag in the trunk of my friend’s car. I did not want this between me and a woman. I have joked that this bag contains my life’s work. That may or may not be true. I placed it in the car. I have enough hidden away in a different container of matter. There are bags that cannot be carried. There are parts that cannot be removed.
I saw her again outside while the set started. I don’t see her go in but I do see her go out. When I go out I try not to obsess about one person in a place. I try not to have any kind of hope since all of the women I have ever talked to in bars are either in a relationship or leaving the next day, at my finest, both. I thought about a soliloquy. Hi I am free of baggage, which is back in the car. That is gone now. I am new now. I am free of all flaws since we started talking. I am the blank slate of strangers. Mattresses can easily discard impressions. I don’t want to think about the Venn diagram ghosts of women in my bed. They are as tangible as time-lapse. Our ideas of each other never hurt anyone. A philosopher once posited the world rescinded when eyes were shut.
My friend saw someone and pointed and said, That girl is beautiful. He pointed to a woman dancing with the one I had seen. We were at the far side of the bar, the old men tending the bar were slow as hell, flashback slow. You could read about battles in the time it took to order a beer. You could fight battles in the time it took to order a beer.
What followed was this surreal two single friends meet two single friends, this is either a movie scene or real life, pick one. They walked up to the bar. I said Now’s your chance, go. I didn’t follow right away, adhering to a blind self-sacrifice. Then I followed close behind him in an almost drunk friend-tether, a social leash, and there I was standing with the girl I saw. Certain things are severed when our thoughts collide with life. We were no longer fiction.
He was already engaged in conversation with her friend, like they had been talking the entire night. He had many social graces. He turned and said Oh, my friend would like to buy your friend a drink. We stood behind them like hanger hung paper targets, the kinds with high points for vital sections. I bought drinks.
She said Oh you don’t have to.
I said I am, here it is.
She said I have three jobs. I work a lot.
I said I have a full time job.
She said I want to start a blog about bad first dates. Yeah, this one guy brought me to his company party and yelled at his boss, threw up all over the bar, me. I want to write about one night stands, I mean, no offense or anything.
I told her I write sometimes.
She said Oh that’s interesting.
I told her what I write.
She said I hope you don’t write about me.
I said I won’t.
Let’s dance, she said.
We were awkward. We were flimsy. I looked like that flailing plastic man that tries to dance in front of tire stores, the kind that looks like the retired 90s logo of cool. I flailed like that. I told her I flailed like that. I was close to her when I said it but in the midst of music words only add to the music. She did the nod that looked like listening. She said yeah and she smiled. Others danced around us. At one point my friend dragged out a chair, pointed at me to sit down for a mock lap dance, motioned with these Icon Jesus hands. I shook my head no. I said Not tonight. We laughed.
Outside, again. The cirrus clouds were grey thatched I-beams above our heads. I lit her cigarette with a hushed palm. We talked about family, about my sister’s upcoming wedding, about her unplanned wedding plans, about middle names. Who talks about these things to a stranger? Who talks about these things to someone temporary? It wasn’t banal, it wasn’t about the weather. She had eyes the color of things that take down ships. I asked for her number after a group of men walked by holding their shoulders out and above their heads in an eternal bench press. I can’t ask serious questions if strangers can overhear. I don’t want to be in someone else’s story.
Yes, we should do that, she said. We danced again. The DJ played songs that are probably best heard through headphones. She said she had to work early. I told her I would walk her to her car. Alcohol makes for one fine tuxedo and top hat.
We shared a hug. I waited until I bathed in her taillights. The bar door was locked. I would wait for the bar door to push open exposing everyone without a number, without a chance, without the now implanted smell of someone else, without the chance to break and be broken, to say that you did, to say that you tried to live. She texted that she received my number, that she was home safe. There would be more invincible nights. I could walk across the street without eyes and only a heart and cars would pass through me like exhaust, like the clouds above could construct things beyond their fleeting made-up shapes. Maybe I built something that outlasts the night.
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Try something today. Count how many times someone brings up some sort of mental illness in normal conversation. Add that number up and tell me it doesn’t strike you as kind of weird how many normal people walk around with the belief that there is something wrong with them.
She assumed it was jewelry. Every year he gets her a charm for her gold chain or a pair of dangly earrings.
Fall if you will, but rise you must.
You may lose what would have been the joy of the experience had you not been so focused on some fabricated idea or unrealistic expectation you had of how it was going to turn out.