By Betty Underground © 2008
When in New York, pretending to be a New Yorker comes easy. I like that when I walk fast, no one asks, "Why you in such a hurry." That when I jaywalk, I am part of a crowd—I do not stand out like someone disrespecting the law. And when you go out at 11:30 p.m. on a Monday for a cocktail, no one judges you. In fact, you are an early bird.
We left the hotel and headed east to the Village. We didn't have any particular destination, but in New York, you don't need one.
We made it a few blocks before the wind chill factor had cut through our layers and we reverted back to whiny Californians. We were in search of a quiet place to drink and chill and the amber lights from the bar across the street looked warm and welcoming. That and the crowd was sparse enough so that we could actually sit. Close to empty was more like it.
Sparse was also how we described the service. We sat at the bar and waited. And waited. I saw movement in the small kitchen off the right side of the bar but couldn’t catch the guy's attention. There was a waitress out back having a smoke but other than that it was just the two of them.
The interior was decorated with what looked like a pile of garage sale cast offs. License plates. Bad art on the walls. Pictures that resembled the ones that come with the frame and some old photos you might see on a college dorm wall. A pair of antlers hung over the bar, slightly off center. I chuckled, I would have totally hung those antlers slightly off-center too. There was a jukebox and a rusty old gas station pump tucked in a corner. Eclectic. A wee bit cluttered too.
We gave it a little more time but got annoyed with waiting so we decided to duck into the place next door instead.
Reaching for the door handle, we heard a voice.
"Sorry to keep you waiting ladies, first round is on me."
My friend turned to me with an ear-to-ear grin and it was easy to see, we were willing to forgive and forget. We were easy to win back.
I turned around and approached the bar with my friend in tow.
You know when you see someone and maybe it is the job you do or the frequency you travel to the same places, but you sort of recognize them and for some reason you can't put them in the context of where you are right then? Like when I had trouble placing that totally hot guy in Chelsea yesterday so I stared until I realized it was noted fashion photographer, Nigel Barker from "America's Next Top Model." This was sort of like that, but this person wasn't famous. I was having a hard time getting a solid look at him as he restocked the liquor bottles behind and under the bar. Chatting us up, pulling our Blue Moons. Friendly enough bartender, but it was nagging at me. Who was he? My friend was talking to me and I was completely ignoring her, fixated on trying to get a head-on view of him.
Then he turned around, put the drinks in front of us and said "On me." He couldn't have been more spot-on. I proceeded to knock the entire beer in his direction. Yep, I do that sometimes when I am nervous, or a few seconds before I get nervous. I think at the same second he looked up at me, laughing at the beer streaming down his front, we both realized it. We knew each other.
He froze. I shook my head back and forth, half laughing, half wanting to shoot myself right there.
"Of all the bars in this city, did I seriously stumble into the one where you work?"
"I own this place. Mondays are usually slow so I give most my staff the night off. I work the bar and one of them takes the wait shift, but we close early so no one has to work too late. I used to just close up on Mondays but with football and all, I thought this was as good a place as any to watch the game and get a beer. Most my friends come in and hang out, but since the game is over, it has gotten quiet. I was just in the back putting away stock when you guys came in."
He was rambling. It is what he does when he gets nervous. Always the one with nerves of steel and here he was, drenched in beer, wearing his fingers down to the nubs trying to get a firm grip.
"I am going to run in the back and put on a fresh pair of jeans," and off he went.
I sat there, rather dumbfounded. I thought about leaving, but curiosity kept me there. That’s when I was struck by one of the pictures behind the bar. It was a guy in motorcycle leathers hugging a girl. He was facing the camera looking down as if he was listening to what she was whispering to him. All you could see was her back.
The waitress came around the bar. "Let me get you a fresh beer. He should be right back, he just lives upstairs."
She poured the beer and asked how I knew the bartender. My friend answered, "We don't, do we?" She was puzzled at my odd behavior.
"I know him."
"Really?" the waitress asked.
"I am the girl in that picture," I pointed.
"You guys must go way back. That was taken years ago."
That cold December wind had blown me in to his bar. The Reason. The reason I came to New York so many years ago.
Now, he was upstairs changing and the only thought in my head was remembering how he used to go commando, sans underwear, and that he was just upstairs probably standing butt naked digging around in the clean laundry pile for a fresh pair of jeans. He never hung up the laundry--just left it in a pile and dug out the day’s clothes as he needed them.
My friend brought me back to the present when she asked how I knew him.
"I was engaged to him."
"That is him?"
"Seems like it is."
I heard his steps down the back stairs. Those heavy steel-toed boots. When he entered the room, he came around the bar to give me a hug. Like an old habit, my hands slid up under his t-shirt onto his bare back. "Your hands are freezing," he said, but didn't flinch. He just squeezed me tighter. My chin strained to rest on his shoulder. He was just a stitch too tall, so I tucked my gaze into the curve of his neck, and inhaled. Irish Spring®, just like I remembered. He joked that he showered with it to try and wash away being a Scotsman around my mildly disapproving Irish father.
I moved away from his neck, "Don't let go yet," he whispered. I pushed the tips of my fingers into his back. Arms wrapped tightly around him. The nerves rushed out of my body and I felt exhausted. His hair, blonde with those waves barely contained in a red rubber banded ponytail. I could have fell asleep, right there in the curve of his neck with the beat of his heart thumping against mine.
I felt a gust of wind and when I looked up, my friend was at the door, smiling. "I think I will head back to the hotel. I didn't realize how exhausted I was."
There was a couple at the end of the bar, him trying to convince her to come home with him and she caved. They left. It was a quarter past midnight. He followed them to the door and locked it behind them. The waitress went about her closing duties and he finished restocking the bar. I chugged my beer and asked for a refill and a side of whiskey. He poured two, neat. Our glasses raised, clinked together and the toast was a silent glare we shared. Squinting a bit at each other with an acknowledged nod. Like old friends with a history.
He was in and out of the back. Doing whatever you do when you close down a bar for the night. We exchanged no words, only looks each time he poured another shot, always two. His waitress turned the stools up on the bar to mop.
"No need to do that. I will take care of it. You can head out."
She said it was nice to meet me and although I never got her name, something told me she knew mine.
She went out the back and he pulled the bar stools around me back down. Pulled one up next to me, held his glass and waited for me. Our glasses met and hovered together for what seemed like forever.
"Here's to the wind," he finally said.
He told me a little about what he had been up to in the five years since we had seen each other. I shared a few of my own tales. He was holding my hands, playing with the ring on my right hand, snapping and unsnapping the leather band around my wrist. He was completely attentive. Actively listening and engaging and yet slightly distracted. Fidgety. I wiggled the tip of my finger in a hole on the knee of his jean and alternated that with spinning the silver ring around his thumb. He scratched my ring finger and felt the void that his engagement ring once filled. He took my hand in his, stood up and led me off the bar stool. I followed behind him, both his hands wrapped around mine, through the kitchen where he paused to turn off all the lights, and up the back stairs.
I hesitated. Anxiety. Panic. Resolve.
Betty Underground is a writer who currently resides in Montana.