You don’t have to believe that this happened. I wouldn’t blame your skepticism. But the presence—if not consumption—of liquor creates an atmosphere that’s almost supernatural in what it’s capable of.
And just remember: everything’s a story.
This one's for you.
"I'm such an awful person," Anne tells me, looking past her black hair, into my eyes so intensely that I think she's trying to see straight through me to the other side. "I just didn't know what to do."
"Why did you think that disappearing this morning was the best option?" I ask.
"Because...I don't know." She opens her mouth to speak, but says nothing. She stirs her ice with a straw that comes about four inches above the top of her glass. "Because I didn't want to disappoint him."
"What do you mean? Disappoint like how?"
"You have to understand that Johnny thinks the world of me. Thought the world of me, anyway. And marriage is something I take really seriously, you know? I mean, even though we decided to elope, even though we were just gonna plunge headfirst into it and run off somewhere where we could leave all of this town's bullshit behind, it wasn't, like, something I didn't think a lot about before. I woke up this morning and knew that he'd be there to pick me up in half an hour and the only thing I could think to do was hide for the day."
“Do you still love him?” I ask.
“It doesn’t matter. I’ve ruined it. I think I had to. I think I had to disappoint him all in one big way so that I didn’t spend the rest of our lives not being what he thought I was going to be for him.”
“Oh come on, Anne. Give yourself more credit. Hell, give Johnny more credit. After—what’d you say it’s been, four years?” She nods. “—after four years, you think he doesn’t know what he’s getting himself into?”
She lifts her eyes from her glass to the rows and rows of alcohol on the other side of the bar. I can see her blue eyes darken a shade or two as they move left to right, up a row, right to left, up a row, etc. until I imagine she’s examined every single bottle. I wonder if the longing her eyes have played host to throughout this entire conversation are for Johnny or for the idea of evicting him from her brain for a few hours. She even leans forward, just noticeably, toward the libations sitting there, taunting us. She looks at her glass, then looks at mine.
“What are you drinking?” I ask her, pointing to the clear glass and its transparent contents.
“Gin and tonic,” she says.
“How is it?”
“Good.” She jerkily draws it to her lips. Her arm is shaking just enough for me to notice. “What about you?”
“Just club soda,” I tell her. “Nothing exciting.” She looks really disappointed. There’s a silence for about fifteen seconds. With as much of a chatterbox as Anne’s been, with the back-and-forth that we’ve established in the half hour or so we’ve been talking, it’s weird to not see her say anything. It’s like someone draped a blanket of quiet over her. She looks like she wants to say something, but isn’t sure how.
“Johnny doesn’t know my natural hair color,” she says, slightly above the decibel level of a purr, like she’s saying it to herself more than me. “He knows I dye it, but he doesn’t know what color it is when I don’t.”
“He’s never asked. He doesn’t care about these smaller things, the first date-type of things. He doesn’t know that I get scared when I hear leaves getting blown around on my porch. He doesn’t know that I don’t eat salads. He’s got no idea that I want to live in New England.”
“Have you ever told him?”
“He’s never asked,” she repeats. Her eyes sink another ten degrees; she’s not even looking at the bar anymore, she’s looking right at the floor. Staring at her shoes.
“These fucking boots,” she says, pointing to the black leather enveloping her feet and extending to her calves. “I hate these boots, but I wear them because I thought he’d like them. And he does.”
“Why don’t you tell him that you hate them?” I ask. “If we’re talking scheme of things, footwear’s pretty unimportant. And if Johnny loves you, which it sounds like he does, he knows that and wouldn’t care.”
“He’s got this weird view of me in his brain, this bizarro version of me that I’ve kinda just turned into. He hasn’t done it on purpose or anything—I don’t think—but I wonder how much of it is me and how much of it is him, you know?”
Anne stands up from her stool and straightens her back. She drops her hands to her side and looks right at me with pleading eyes. She brushes her hair behind her ears.
“This isn’t me,” she says, pointing to the skinny dark blue jeans adorning her toned lower half. “This hair? I only dyed it because he said that he thought black hair was hot. I’m just what he’s made me and I hate that. Because what if I leave him forever? What if he never talks to me again after today? Then I’m just this thing that he made that can’t stand alone. He does everything for me, Andy. Everything. If he’s gone, I’d have nothing. I’ve given him all of me and now his fingerprints are all over my hair, my clothes, my body, my mind. I don’t even have my fucking mind anymore. It’s not mine, it’s ours.”
She’s gone from wistful and sad to angry and bitter in a paragraph. She’s still looking right at me, her posture demanding a response. I can’t tell if she wants indignation or pity. I can’t decide whether or not to give either to her.
“I gave him everything,” she says, dipping a toe back to wistful and sad, “and the thing I hate more than anything—more than the boots and the hair and everything—is that I’ve never asked for anything back. And I’ve been satisfied with just giving for so long. Giving to this person that only gives back pieces of what he ends up with. And it’s not even like he’s mean to me. I don’t think he told me about hair and boots and stuff like that because he wanted me to change, but the second he did, I felt obligated to, like he’d leave if I didn’t, if I didn’t end up being this thing that he doesn’t necessarily even want, but just something he’s said that he likes. And then where am I? What am I supposed to do then?”
She realizes that she’s still standing up and blushes out of embarrassment. She sits back down and slides her glass a few inches away.
“I’m not drinking a gin and tonic,” she says. “It’s just club soda. Like yours. I don’t even like alcohol. I just figured that I needed to come to a bar and pretend to be drinking to try and complete the picture.”
“It sounds like you weren’t ready to get married and it's probably a good thing that you didn't run off with him this morning,” I offer, immediately realizing how stupid a thing it is to say. “What are you going to do now?”
“I’m gonna put my coat on, have my sister cut my hair off, throw away these stupid boots, and start from scratch.”
“Are you going to see Johnny again?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she says.
“Maybe he wants to know you and just doesn’t know how.”
“I don’t know how to know the difference between him not caring and him being unable to.” She slips her arms into her oversized pea coat. It’s big enough that it looks like she’s wearing a down comforter. While I initially assume that she’ll struggle to walk from underneath this massive dollop of wool covering her like melted ice cream on apple pie, as she glides within it, it’s like watching a person seeing their dog for the first time after a long vacation. What I am witnessing between Anne and her coat is a tender reunion that often occurs between a person and an inanimate object by which they have come to find a great deal of comfort through cold nights and hot tears. Anne is leaping within a shield and the relationship between them would be completely intimidating if it wasn’t so…sweet, I guess.
“I like your coat,” I tell her. “Looks like it would fit me better than it would you, but I think it works. Where’d you get it?”
“Johnny gave it to me last winter,” she says, a smile sneaking its way to her lips. “We drove to Canada—he’s always wanted to go—at the last second one day. He just showed up at my house with a cooler and bags packed and said that we should just go if we wanted to. Spur of the moment type of thing. He had even bought me this coat to keep me warm, and when I tried it on, he was so embarrassed at how big it was. He wanted to take it back and exchange it for the right size, but I kind of liked it. I mean, what’s too big, anyway? And it’s plenty warm for New England, if I ever get there.”
And it’s a good thing that she puts on her coat when she does, because the bar’s front door opens and a thin, wiry guy with messy hair and puffy cheeks steps inside, the green of his eyes highlighted and exaggerated by his scarf that matches them to an eerie extent. There’s a need on his face, and he starts scanning the bar so quickly and so intensely that he looks like he’s about to have a stroke. His eyes leap to Anne’s and immediately rest on her.
This has to be Johnny.
They just stare at each other for a few seconds. There’s a conversation in body language going on here that I can’t translate, that no one can translate except for them. I am witnessing history repeating itself. I am observing a relationship flash before its very eyes. Hypothetical timelines are being considered. Future arguments that will come up are being played out behind both sets of eyes. Discussions that turn to debates that turn to fights are enumerating themselves in light-speed fast motion. After potential years and decades and semicentennials have come and gone just to arrive back at potential, Johnny opens his mouth.
“Are you okay?” he asks her.
“Please don’t hate me,” she says. “I know you can and probably should, but please don’t hate me.” Johnny slowly steps toward her, like a wary child approaching a pigeon in a city park.
“Don’t worry about that. I just want to make sure you’re alright.” The second he’s within arms’ reach, she leaps to him, latching her arms around his neck.
“I’m so sorry, Johnny,” she tells him. “Can we just go home?”
Displaying an amount of physical dexterity and hand-foot coordination that only long-term, Serious Business couples can cultivate, they walk to the front door, still clutching to each other like a nun to a cross. Johnny pushes the door open with his foot—his arms are still around Anne—and they exit. I watch for the next ten feet before they’re out of my line of sight. The bartender and I both give out exhausted sighs as soon as they’re disappeared.
“Well,” the bartender says, “that was dramatic. You gonna write about that, too? Or is it not sad enough for your little project?”
“It’s not like I’ve relegated it to sad stories, dude.”
“Not a lot of amateur writers hanging out in bars every night like you are really all that interested in happy stories,” he says.
“Maybe I’m an exception to a lot of rules,” I say. He chuckles to himself and starts polishing glasses, like he was in a saloon frequented by Clint Eastwood. I think about the winter in New England and wonder if Anne will share her coat with Johnny when they get there.
Because some things aren’t dramatic or oversized as much as they are built for two.