At the bar I order my third or fourth or fifth vodka tonic and a shot of whiskey that I quickly choke down my throat like a snake with its prey. Tonight I am drinking to get drunk. Outside, a hurricane has moved into the city and it’s hurling itself against the windows. The trees flail so wildly that they look like birds flying away, the sky the color of gunmetal.
Inside it’s Karaoke Night, where someone sings softly a slow, sweet ballad.
“Into the microphone!” the bar shouts, a chorus of hecklers.
I haven’t had nearly enough alcohol to feel comfortable. I look sorely out of place, shifting my weight from foot to foot, like I’m the two-headed boy you pay five dollars to see at the local county fair freak show, stalking from side-to-side in his cage. The only thing holding my attention is the bar’s stage in all of its tacky gold and green glory, which reminds me of a Kylie Minogue concert. I’m talking to my friend about a poet who rearranges letters in pop singers’ names to create a phrase. Kylie Mingoue becomes I like ‘em young. I can feel the whiskey working, so I shout out loud, “I like ‘em young! I like ‘em young!”
It’s at that exact moment that I catch the eye of a stranger, who reads it as a cue to approach. He leans into my ear and I can feel the gin on his breath before I smell it.
“Well, hey. How are you? Hey, where are you from?”
“You’re a romantic, aren’t you?”
I’m on a first date and his question catches me off guard. No one brings up romance these days — not in a culture that leans as far away from the idealistic as it can, and unflinchingly toward the realistic.
It’s the end of the date as he’s walking me to my bus stop, and I haven’t given him any impression that I’m romantic. Those feelings vanished after my first heartbreak. Since then, it’s been years of first dates and I’m terrible at them. Fidgety, shy, capable of self-editing to the point of being one-dimensional, and sensitive to a fault, I can’t even fathom turning on the charm until I’m at least two drinks in. Which isn’t to say I don’t get past it and reach a third or fourth date, but as soon as the situation flirts with serious, I self-sabotage. I pick out a flaw and end things abruptly. And it’s a completely ridiculous thing to do, as someone riddled with innumerable flaws himself — flaws that I chip at daily but can’t solve no matter how many resolutions I make. I know. I know and yet—
All my dates boil down to the same interview. What do you do in the city? Where are you from? What neighborhood do you live in? What neighborhood do you work in? Is this where you imagined you’d be? I’m guilty of asking all the same questions, so what I’m trying to say is that I’m sick of myself these days, too.
“I used to be,” I say, “but I’m not so sure anymore.”
“I can tell,” he says matter-of-factly. “Even if you don’t want to show it.”
Outside the rain begins to fall, and a layer of water rises and rushes down the street. I can barely see the city, but I know it’s there. Somewhere.
This afternoon I am alone in a park overlooking the East River. Which isn’t unlike most days, to be honest. Sometimes I walk with no other purpose except to shrink myself down to dust. I play the same game in winter. I like to exhale and watch the cloud from my body disintegrate into the air, a part of me released into the ether.
I prop myself up against a large tree and open my book. I’ve barely read a page before a huge branch crashes down, knocked loose by the wind. A leaf brushes my leg, but otherwise I’m spared any scratches.
“Holy shit,” a man says behind me. “Are you okay?”
Yes, I smile. I’m fine. I’m fine because I avoided the branch, and because a stranger has stopped to ask me if I was okay. I wonder what would happen if he chose to stay, which isn’t unlike most days either.
Lately I have the same recurring thoughts: this is how romance should begin. Two people brought together in some strange way. Not from an online profile and not in a dark bar. An old-fashioned meeting that I know nothing about.
The truth is — the trouble is? — I’ve never given up on the belief that love begins with a serendipitous moment. That love is always waiting around the corner. You roll your eyes together at the same time on the subway platform. You laugh at a ridiculous customer in your neighborhood deli. A branch falls in the park, and someone asks if you’re okay.
But maybe this is why we have fiction. Maybe this type of love is impossible, like catching lightning in your hands.
There comes a time when I should stop drinking vodka tonics, but I’m thirsty or stupid so I don’t. The bar is already a beautiful parade of colors, so why not?
I turn to the stranger. “I’m from a small town in Pennsylvania, just south of Lake Erie,” I finally answer him, filling in the blank. “It’s exotic as it sounds. It took me 18 years to escape.”
“Well, hey. At least you can swim away then.”
“Sure,” I say, then make a terrible joke I regret almost immediately. “If you even want to swim in there. You might grow a third limb in that water.”
I’m drunk, so even I know that doesn’t make sense. But he sees his chance and takes my joke and swishes it around in his mind. Then he smiles real big and his mouth is a white picket fence I want to kick in.
“Well, hey. In that case, wanna go for a swim some time? Come on. Hey, let’s swim.”
He keeps jabbing me with his elbow while I pretend to be the boy-with-no-ears. To my great luck, the same quiet-voiced singer from before is back on the stage with a new song, and everyone, including the stranger, stops talking to see what’s next.
But this time the singer is belting from somewhere so deep inside of him, so guttural, that it’s either demonic or religious. Really reaching for it. Really screaming. The same line over and over again.
With somebody who loves me.