Obviously, I don't remember exactly what was said in this conversation, but--and you can disbelieve it if you like--it more or less happened like this, although I take full license to fill in the gaps that memory fails to recall. But it comes from reality, including most of what he said, if not his statements themselves.
When I take a seat next to Jay at the bar, he's halfway through a scotch and soda. I can tell he's looking at me out of the corner of his eye, but he can't be bothered to pay more attention than that.
There is something on his mind.
He's staring into his drink like an art aficionado stares at a Pollock. I notice that most of the ice in his glass is melted, so he's been here for a while. He looks like the small-town version of Rodin's Thinker, one massive hand formed into a fist under his chin, the other sliding the drink back and forth in front of him.
"How's it going?" I ask him.
"I'm in a bar, aren't I?" He doesn't bother looking up.
"What do you mean?" I ask. I point to a guy at the end of the bar that looks like he's fighting back tears. "Where do you fall on the spectrum? That guy's in a bar, and he's totally a wreck. I'm feeling okay."
"Why do people like us come to bars?" Despite the up-turning inflection his sentence takes, this is clearly more of a statement than a question. "We come inside here because it's better than out there." I look out the glass front door and onto the street.
"What's so bad about out there?" I ask.
"You're in here, too. You tell me."
He pours the rest of the glass's ice into his mouth and chews dishearteningly loud. He looks over at me, challenging me to question his manners.
"You know," I tiptoe, "there's a theory that chewing ice is a symptom of sexual frustration." Jay laughs bitterly, like he's commenting on laughter more than actually laughing himself.
"That explains it, then," he says, without bothering to stop chewing. "You ever been rejected by brown liquor?"
"Yeah, but only after a particularly rough Thanksgiving."
"Heh," he chuckles. His shoulders visibly loosen up under his weathered brown leather jacket and he calls to the bartender.
"I'd like to get this young man a scotch," Jay tells him. "Cheapest single malt you have. I'll take one, too." The bartender nods and goes about her business.
"You know why I like drinking?" he begins. "A lot of people--bad alcoholics--will tell you that it makes the pain go away, that it makes you forget what drove you to it in the first place. Like they really want to forget, anyway. But those jerk-offs, those people that give us good alcoholics a rough time, wouldn't know a good reason to drink if it poured them a shot."
The bartender brings us our glasses, both of which Jay raises.
"Changed my mind," he says. "These are both mine." He drips them down his throat and I wonder if this is what Lazarus looked like when he came back from the dead. Jay's eyes light up like replaced light bulbs and a hazy smile drifts across his lips.
"Drinking doesn't make the pain go away. It doesn't make anything leave you besides money and women. What it is is a shield. When you're half a fifth into a good bourbon, nothing else matters. It focuses your attention and puts blinders on you and you can safely--" he burps before continuing, "--you can safely ignore everything else."
His scotch-induced joy is short-lived. He's back to being sullen.
"My wife left me because I drank too much," he says. "I know you asked a while ago and I ignored it, but that's it. That's why I'm here. And I know that being here, drinking, is, what, ironic or something. But I'm still here. And I'm still drinking and I'm looking at those rows of booze and wondering which one was the final straw. Which drink it was that pushed her too far away, that made me someone she had remove herself from. Which one made me a cancer in her life."
His hands are wrapped around one of his empty Collins glasses, and I notice that he's wearing a wedding ring. It's a solid black band. Shiny. Obsidian, maybe? Black gold? I know there's white gold. Is there black gold? Wait, that's oil. Nevermind.
"And the thing is," he continues, "is that I knew she was going to leave me. The first thing I thought when I saw her was, 'I'm going to love that girl.' The second thing was '...and she's going to leave me.' I didn't know why or when or how or any specifics, but I knew she was gonna jump ship because I wasn't good enough for her. She was too pretty. Too smart. There was too much light in her and I was holding her back and we all knew it from day fucking one." He takes another deep breath.
"But she tried really goddamn hard to make it work, but I wouldn't let her because I knew I didn't deserve the effort." His next blink takes twice as long as a normal blink lasts and I wonder if he's about to tear up. "I drank to give her a reason. She had an out. Everyone knew I had a problem because I smelled like an Irish sauna. So when she wanted to go, she knew no one would blame her."
"Do you love her more than you love drinking?" I ask.
"Yeah," he says, staring thousands of miles away, right through the walls. "But I think I love the sadness more than either of them."
"Thanks," he says to the bartender, rising from his seat with a groan. He leaves a fifty on the counter and nods his head to me. "Good luck, what's-your-name."
"Jay," he offers. "Go home, Andy. You don't belong here on a Friday night."
He steps out of the door and, standing on the sidewalk in 18-degree weather, mouths something desperate-looking to what looks like no one in particular.
I hope it's a prayer. And I hope someone hears him.