I chose this place because it’s familiar. See that two-person table? That’s where I sat the first time I came here, opposite someone I thought would eventually fall in love with me. I ordered the pulled pork and grits. Two years later, I shared the same table with another guy; one I thought would stay in love with me. The menu had changed, by then. Steak and eggs that time. And over there, by the window? My parents and I, we sat there on my birthday. I drank three Bloodys as my mom looked on in dismay, right before she joined in.
But here? I sit alone. I come here to read, I tell you, because at home there’s a television and a computer and rooms to clean and naps to take. Subtle distractions that sidetrack me in ways that the shriek of silverware kissing stoneware and the din of empty conversation don’t.
You never distracted me much either, especially not the first time. Asked how the book was, asked what it was about, asked why I chose it. You replaced my drinks before I had to ask, filled my water glass after a sip or two had gone missing. And despite sitting in a busy restaurant on a barstool, I was comfortable.
So I continued to read here, at the bar. And we continued to make small talk in between chapters. After a few of these encounters, small talk became big talk, or medium-sized talk, maybe. We learned that we’d lived in neighboring counties as teenagers, so I told you about this abandoned insane asylum we’d lived close to. How my friends and I would trespass to explore the buildings and their contents, all frozen in 1996 – the year the campus closed for good. All that was left behind were shells of buildings, a time capsuled tribute to the failed institution. In one room, I told you, there were these thick silver chains affixed to the walls, the type you’d find in a dungeon. The type meant for prisoners. These chains restrained patients on their worst days.
The conversation turns to you next: the Master’s in psychology you’re pursuing and what you do when you’re not here. Everything spills out easily, and I like you for it. I want to hear your stories, not read the printed ones that lay in my lap.
We, you and I, only exist in finite parameters, at this bar, on certain days of the week. You have a life outside of these walls that I know nothing about, relationships and hobbies and a family and of course I knew that, but hearing those leaked bits of your life made me realize how little I know you, how well you know me. I think of the countless hours you don’t spend here but elsewhere, places I’m not invited to. And then there’s me, no one’s paying me to be here, I’ve chosen this seat and this bar and this book. Here’s your invitation to my places.
I don’t dig for more, instead I imagine how you spend your Sundays and how your Thanksgiving was; I picture your hypothetical girlfriend and the silly nicknames you call each other. She’s great; I know this because guys like you always have girlfriends I can’t help but fall in love with. She doesn’t go to bars alone.
I choose not to humor this camaraderie because, comfortable as I am, I know you’re just doing your job. Driving conversation, keeping my glass full, making me feel at home. As a bartender, as a psychologist. This is what you do. We’re both playing a part here, each of us reading from a script no one has written. You: the charming, the intrigued, the attentive and I: the patron, the patient, the tipper. I begin to wonder what my real motivation is in eating, reading, drinking here regularly. Maybe I come here alone not to read, but to have someone ask what I’m reading.
In my short-lived fantasies, you joined me on this side of things. We had a conversation that didn’t culminate with me signing my name on a dotted line. But in reality, I’ll sit on one side of the bar that separates us and you’ll stand on the other, and we’ll continue to play our roles. Everyone’s got chains to wear.