This piece was one of my first experiments with First Person. It is the piece that kind of led me there as a writer, one of the first to insert itself into my sleep, and evolve in my mind as I did other things that, to my 22-year-old mind, were more important.
My favorite anecdote about this piece is that my mentor wrote on my workshop draft that this is a typical young-writer story, but he said “you save it a little at the end by making it a moment of real emotion.” He gave me other suggestions, which I employed and now don’t remember, preferring to think of them as my ideas; but I have always been one to focus on the 1/8 of a good thing, and motor through the other 7/8 discouraging.
Not that my mentor was discouraging. He was not. He remains unbelievably positive and encouraging. Even now, 8 years later, his persistent belief that I’m the real thing–as writers go–is one of the things that keeps my nose to the grindstone. That, and legitimate obsession. Perhaps a measure of delusions of grandeur. Still. What do we have if we don’t have our dreams?
I look miserable. I look miserable and I’m at a bar. We at bars look miserable. We obsess. We drink because we’re miserable and we obsess. Sometimes I wonder about the correlation between miserable people who obsess and writers. Writers are miserable, obsessive people. They go to bars to get attention for looking miserable. They go to bars to obsess. I am miserable, obsessing at the bar and writing.
Yesterday, my mother told me she’d like me better if I weren’t a writer. She said, “You’re so condescending all the time. You think you know something because you write about nothing.” I said, “Thanks mom,” because I know that is the point. There is nothing, and so I write about nothing. Nothing is why we exist. We exist because we have to: because of the clash of atoms and particles in matter. Matter needs more matter to interact with. It’s like the law of supply and demand. Matter demands something to do with itself, and so we exist.
Today I obsess about the couple a few tables in front of me. They are twenty-somethings. I hate them. I hate them mostly because they are together and I am alone, being miserable and obsessive. At least they are together being miserable. They look obsessive about each other in that horney, alcohol-induced way. He is bald and has a tattoo of Popeye on his neck. Her fingers cover Popeye’s forearm, and so it looks like Popeye-the-amputee. She looks like she was beaten as a child, and so accepts his groping. I would be humiliated if I were her.
I get up to get another beer and leave my notebook on the sticky table. I look forward to the brown spots over the letters when I read it later. It will make me feel dirty like the bar is dirty. It will also make me feel clean because I will not be at the bar when I read it. I do not want to be clean. I want to be dirty. That is why I am at the bar.
They could be anybody, the Popeye couple. They could be neurologists. This is not a classy joint, but they might be slumming it. They are not dressed like neurologists. They are dressed like hicks. Maybe they are incognito. Maybe they want to be like the people here for the night: the people who drink, then cry and rub on each other — desperate for connection, for empathy.
I bet the bald guy is a stock-boy at Wal-Mart. I bet he got the tattoo of Popeye because his father was a Marine who made him play football, even though he was obviously too skinny. Skinny people are gross. My mother is a skinny person. She used to be fat. Now she drinks Slim Fast and smokesNewport100’s.
Once, my father smacked me so hard I had black and blue on my butt. My mother told him if he ever did it again, she’d leave him. She was serious, because he did and she did. I have a therapist. I will tell her about the Popeye couple, and she will tell me I am projecting. I think she is full of shit, but my mother pays for it, so I keep going. My mother pays for it because she feels guilty about leaving my father. I tell her that was fifteen years ago, and that I am over it. I tell her that I would rather not have a father than have one who beats me.
The couple is sitting on the same side now, and they face me. I can see them both in profile. Her face is much shorter than his, but this does not seem to present a logistic problem. It seems to work in nose-bumping favor, because her nose presses his upper lip, and his nose presses her eye. They do not tilt their faces to kiss like normal people. They kiss with their heads upright. I think it must be awkward, but they don’t have any trouble. I am not disgusted because I am a little buzzed. I am not excited because I don’t care to be. I have tremendous control over my libido.
I get bored watching the Popeye couple, and I shift my attention to an attractive older man sitting alone in the corner. We are sitting alone in opposite corners, and because of this I imagine kinship. I think he looks like Kenny Rogers: stocky and white-haired, leathery. Because my eyes start to sting and water, I look away. My eyes start to sting because of the smoke lilting from the top of my lit cigarette, but I do not want the attractive older man to think I am crying because of him. I am not crying. I push my fingertips under my glasses and rub both eyes.
It seems harmless, so I imagine Kenny Rogers Man as my father. I am a little girl with blonde ringlets even though my hair is brown, and he pushes me on a swing. I fall off and cry, and his thumb presses into the flesh of my bottom when he picks me up and strokes my hair.
The Popeye couple are whispering in one another’s ears now. They both grasp the thighs of the other, and there is urgency. I think they will get up soon, and so I hum “Let’s get it on” to myself. The last time I was at the therapist, she asked me about sex. Her office feels like a non-place, and I am uncomfortable there. I wonder if she would meet me at a bar.
The first and last sexual encounter I had was three years ago with a boy I graduated from High School with. I call him a boy because I was a virgin and knew more than he did. He was not a virgin. We were both very, very drunk. He was so drunk he couldn’t finish. I don’t know if I did. I don’t care. I didn’t plan to see him again. My therapist said I have “intimacy issues.” I told her that intimacy issues are good material, and that I’d like to keep them. I didn’t tell my mother about that. She would have blamed herself, but it is my fault.
I glance to the other corner and Kenny Rogers is back. He winks at me, and I can’t help but smile. We make eye contact, and when I think he might guess what I’ve been thinking, I look away. The room is full of smoke, so everything looks grayish, like on a rainy day. I wish the bar smelled like rain. I get another beer, and I can feel Kenny Rogers watching me. I notice the blue carpet.
I return and Popeye couple is gone. Kenny Rogers man has moved to their table, and is grinning. I notice his teeth are yellow and stringy. I stare into the notebook and pretend to write furiously. Unfortunately, people in bars don’t get subtlety. He continues to grin, and he reminds me of a recurring nightmare I had when I was young.
I dreamt that a tall, skinny man who’d wrapped rubber bands around each of his joints, and had gone rotten and turned stringy, wore a scary rubber mask and chased me through a rubber mask store. The store smelled stale-rubbery, and the shelves were as tall as I could see. There were two feet or so of space between them, and they were made of two-by-fours, each shelf tall enough for a row of rubber masks. The dream was monochromatic in shades of brown. I always woke from the dream sweaty and scared.
I had that dream because I asked my father what would happen if I wrapped a rubber band around my wrist so tight that there was no blood circulation. He told me, quite simply, “It would rot.” My mother didn’t know my father told me that.
Kenny Rogers has passed out, and his head looks like a gigantic cotton ball resting on fat, stacked hot dogs. I am startled because standing next to the table I’m at is a boy my age with longish, curly, brown hair who nods his head at Kenny Rogers and says, “Heh, old guys.” I am repulsed, and pretend I did not hear him. He is one of those people who thinks that being a similar age as someone gives you something in common. He talks and I don’t listen. I nod my head, and he seems encouraged. I wonder what he is saying. I would not like it if I knew, so I don’t listen. He sits down next to me and nuzzles me.
I notice that it is getting late and that I am drunk. I am drunk because I came here to be drunk. I am not drunk because I wish to lose my inhibitions and sleep with this boy sitting next to me. I tolerate his touching because sometimes it is nice. It is nice when you don’t have to be involved in it, really. It is nice when you can accept it and not offer much in return. It is nice when you doubt you will ever see the person touching you again.
It is nice when you don’t know anybody and they will not give you a hard time about it over the next night’s beers, like “so, who was that guy last night?” It is nice when you don’t have to blush and say, “Eric,” and not know when they ask “Eric who?” It is nice when the person touching you is drunk and you know they are as miserable as you are. It is nice, and I am just sitting here.
There is somebody to my right watching the drunk boy nuzzle me. It looks unusual, I am sure. I sit here with my hands planted on the tabletop at either side of my notebook. He swishes his nose on my neck and cups my breasts through my cardigan. The person to our right probably thinks I am sober. The person to our right probably thinks I have low self-esteem. Self-esteem is bullshit. What difference does it make if I like myself, but nobody else likes me? I hate myself, and so people can like me or not like me and it wont matter, because my self-esteem is sitting this round out. Self-loathing is good material.
Kenny Rogers is still asleep, and I wish that Popeye couple were here so that they could watch me. They are probably home, rolling sweaty in the sheets by now. I wish Kenny Rogers would wake up sober and tell this boy that he’s had his fun. He is trying to weasel his hand into my jeans, but my jeans are tight. They are tight because I have gotten fatter. They are impenetrable because my belly obscures the button, and this boy is sans coordination a la drunk. He will give up soon.
I think about my mother, and I miss her. I want to hug her like I used to. I want her to stop feeling guilty about my dad. I want her to stop paying for therapy because of it. I would do better on my own. I think about what my mother would say if she saw this boy pawing me. I do not know what she would say. We have never talked about boys. We have only talked about my father. My mother says my father bruised me twice, but that he was an all right man. I think that is impossible. If he were an all right man, I would know him. We would talk. We do not talk. I hate him because we do not talk.
I cannot help myself and I begin to cry. The attractive boy next to me stops making out with himself on me. He feels drips from my face and gets up. He is so anxious to get out, he trips on a chair on his way. I take the last sip of my beer and pick up my notebook. I watch tears darken circles of the tile in my path. People will think the circles are beer drips.
I feel the damp, cool air on my face through the open door of the bar. I am shocked that curly-hair-boy is waiting outside. I am dizzy, and I do not remember where I put my car. He asks, “What’s your name?” I do not answer. I keep walking. I do not know if I am going in the right direction. He follows me. He says, “Sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry.” I pretend not to hear.