Rick holds his glass of Cutty Sark up to the light.
"I know scotch is, what, a type of whiskey, right,"--I nod in confirmation--"and that whiskey is brown, but seriously, most scotch is closer to clear than it is to brown. But why do we categorize it as 'brown?'"
Rick's not a big man, but he looks like he wishes he was. He's in his late 30s and is wearing a light gray suit over a black shirt so heavily starched it could be classified as a potato. No tie on his neck. He probably thinks he looks like 21st century Sinatra, but his ensemble, especially with the way he carries himself, makes him look more like the world's hippest funeral director.
"Couldn't tell you," I say. "I guess it's more brown than it is clear, and those are sort of the two categories."
"You a scotch man, Andy?"
"Yeah, I like scotch alright. Is that your drink?" I ask.
"Why do you ask it like that? Like it's in italics?" he wonders.
"Well, everyone's got their drink. Other people can drink it too, sure, but it's still not theirs."
As I ask this, Rick looks at me so contemplatively that I assume he's going to pick the question out of my mouth, pour it in his drink, and pound the whole thing down. After about ten seconds of gazing at the face that asked him such a ________ question (I don't know how he's taking it, just that he is taking it somehow), he brings his glass to his lips and takes a draw. He lets it sit in his mouth and juts out his chin with what I first think is satisfaction, but what ends up looking like distaste.
"My friends would probably say scotch," he says, looking like he just admitted to murder. "But I don't know. I've got a weird relationship with scotch."
"What do you mean?"
"I didn't start drinking until I was, what, 25?" he begins. "All of my friends either didn't drink at all or started way earlier, so I ended up being behind the curve on that one. I always heard about scotch. It's what real adults drink, wheat from the chaff, all that bullshit. So I just started drinking it. And scotch--I don't know how much you know about it, but it's got a pretty harsh taste. Since that was all I knew, that's all I ever really drank, so I became 'the scotch guy.' People would give me nice bottles for Christmas, buy it for me when my daughter was born, all that. But now, I come to bars and just order it reflexively."
He stares at the glass like a palm reader looks at a hand.
"I feel like I've outgrown it, I think. I see these people here drinking, you know, gin and tonic, rum and coke, whiskey sour--what are you drinking?" he asks, pointing to my half-full glass.
"...seriously?" he asks. I nod. "Huh."
I sip innocuously and wait for him to continue.
"Yeah, so everyone else is drinking stuff they like. Sweet stuff with tons of sugar in it, or little pieces of fruit. Hell, they put salt on a margarita glass because it's too sweet, and here I am drinking paint thinner just because it's been, like, assigned to me."
"And you don't want it assigned to you?" I wonder.
"It's not really that I want something else assigned to me," he sighs. "It's just that I want to be the one assigning it to me, I guess. It's become less of a drink and more of a nickname."
It's snowing so hard outside. The view of the outside world through the glass front door looks like staring into a TV when the cable's out. A snowstorm is coming through town, and the wind is whipping under the door. Since Rick and I are sitting in the first two seats in the place, we're getting lashed by the bitter cold.
"You want to move seats?" I ask him. "There are a few tables open down there."
"No, that's okay. I like the cold." He sips again. "How many more days until Christmas?"
"I think it's seven exactly, right? Christmas is on a Friday, so yeah, it's next week."
"Oh," he says. "What do you do? You get some time off during the holidays?"
"I work at a software company," I tell him. "I've got all next week off. What about you?"
"I'm between jobs. So yeah, I've got next week off, too." He scoffs bitterly at his own joke. "Got laid off last month. So now I'm the unemployed scotch guy."
He runs a thin hand through his even thinner light brown hair. He's got the kind of haircut that is clearly trying to call attention away from imminent balding, but ends up highlighting it. He's got a pretty boyish look about him, which makes the whole package--the suit, the hair, the scotch--sort of dissonant.
"I like your suit," I tell him.
"I hate it," he says. "I bought it when I got married seven years ago. Wore it at the reception. Wore it when I met the divorce lawyer the next year, too. Felt like that was appropriate."
"What happened?" I ask.
"'We grew apart' is how she explains it. But we were together for nine years before that, three of which we lived together, no problem. She acts like marriage is some magical bean that pushes people in opposite directions if it gets planted."
"Then what really happened?"
"You know that thing that people always talk about, 'the idea of me?' As in 'you don't love me, you love the idea of me?'" he asks.
"Fuck that, man. It doesn't mean anything. Everyone is the idea of someone else. Nobody really knows anyone--they can't--so we latch on to the things that we like about people and ignore the things that we don't. And I don't see why that's such a bad thing, but Adelia--that's my ex-wife--thought was just the worst thing in the world. Kept harping on all the time about how 'you don't really know me,' 'you don't love me, you love what you think I am,' all that shit."
"Your wife's name was Adelia?" I ask.
"Still is, yeah."
"As in, 'I-deal-ya?' Like, cards or something?"
"Yeah, it's a stupid name. Her parents thought they were very clever."
"Do you think you actually did know her?" I wonder.
"As much as anyone could know someone else, you know? I mean, what, ten plus years together? I knew her better than anyone else did. And I was willing to talk to her about shit, you know? That late night, hiding-from-thunder-under-a-blanket stuff. The stuff that only comes out when the walls come down. I thought that was what she wanted. I thought she wanted us to challenge each other, like we were going to grow together."
"And she didn't agree?"
"I don't know. It's hard to say. I've still got no idea what happened." He raises his glass, stops its ascent an inch away from his lips, hesitates, and then pours the rest all the way down his throat without missing a beat. He's obviously well-practiced at such an operatic motion, and for the first time in our conversation, I think I see him do something that matches what he's saying. He surrenders himself to that drink, and you can see it in his eyes.
"But spilt milk and all that, right?" he says. "No point in crying about it."
"I guess so. No harm in talking about it, though," I offer.
"See, there I disagree," he interrupts. "What's the point of talking about it all the time? Talking's what got me into this mess. If I had just kept shit quiet, refused to bring up problems or whatever was bringing her down--which ended up being whatever was bringing me down--I probably wouldn't have to sit in this fucking bar, telling sob stories to people who are going to--wait, what do you do with these stories?"
"I just sort of paraphrase them and put them on a blog."
"Okay, gotcha." He looks back out the door. "So yeah, talking doesn't get anybody anywhere. It's all about what you do with your words, you know? You can sit around a bar with a drink you don't like, talking to a kid you don't know, telling a story that you're not really emotionally settled enough to tell, but that doesn't do anything. I'm just gonna feel worse remembering all of this, you're gonna get some nice little tied-in-a-bow, Meaning Of Life type of bullshit, but it's not going to affect anyone. Because nothing affects anyone. And we don't grow past a certain point."
"Didn't you say that you outgrew scotch?" I ask. He looks annoyed.
"Yeah, but that's not really growth, is it? Because I'm going to replace it with something else. Maybe it'd be real growth if I stopped liking alcohol altogether. Save me booze money and the embarrassment of waking up to a phone call from my ex-mother-in-law, telling me to leave her daughter alone." He looks in his empty glass, as though there might be a few drops left hiding behind ice cubes. "Those are fun phone calls."
Rick sighs loudly and cracks his neck. I hear six distinct pops. It sounds incredibly painful, but he looks like he just ate an 18-oz steak.
"Why do you still drink scotch if you don't like it anymore?" I ask him.
"Because it's too late for me to change, man. Scotch is familiar. I don't even know what's in a Shirley Temple. I'm not a big alcohol guy, just a scotch guy, because everything everyone always did sorta forced me into being one, I guess. It's the devil I know. God only knows what kind of effects gin or tequila would have on my nights. At least with scotch, I know that the worst thing that'll happen is that I'll leave a voicemail for someone that never wants to see me again."
"Why don't you just stop drinking, then?" I wonder. "Is it, like, an addition sort of situation?"
"No, not really. At least," he stops, "I don't think it is. But it's hard to tell. It's just part of the routine."
"Then why are you wearing the suit? Is that part of the routine?"
"Nah," he says dismissively, swatting away the question like it was a fruit fly. "The suit's just to help pick up chicks."
Of course it is.
"You're a good kid, Andy." Rick steps up and puts on his wool overcoat. "You got a girlfriend?"
"'Not really?'" he asks, putting on his black leather gloves. "The shit does that mean?"
I pause, searching for a word besides the only one I can ever think of.
"It's complicated," I say.
"Then shut up about it. Things'll get a hell of a lot less complicated when you just leave it be." He leans toward the door.
"Take it from a scotch man," he says, giving me a brief salute before stepping outside.
I turn my head and look at the ten or so other people in the bar. I count three people drinking what, based on the color, appears to be scotch. I wonder how many of us are just faking. How many of us are just doing what we think we need to do because someone told us so. How many of us are turning things we want away just because other people have told us we have to.
I wonder what people have told you.