Sunday, October 3, 2010

People I meet in bars #20: Michelle (and Jo)

It's 7 PM on a Thursday and I decide that I don't want to read at home. It's a nice evening and it's quiet and calm and not nearly raucous enough for my restless toetaps to feel comfortable anywhere but a bar. The front porch in late September has a beautiful view of the valley, with lights from city and suburb congealing into artificial constellations, the polluted air looking just as gorgeous to my eyes as it's horrible to my lungs.

Home has peace. But I need some noise.

As the car plummets down the hill, each stop sign sends me to a new detail about this place in American Fork that I've never been to. Only a few miles from my new digs, no less. This place isn't much more than a long walk away, and I immediately begin romanticizing the blue-collar contingent that'd been described to me by Jennie, who used to live just a block away. I had been regaled with tales of Keystone-drinking, cowboy hat-wearing men or passion and valor, of barfights and broken pool cues held at throats, of cheap drinks and a country-filled jukebox.

So when I finally arrive, I'm more than little disappointed to count three people in the entire bar.

There's the bartender, whose nametag reads "Jo" like it was a prison tattoo. Her eyes hang low on a dirty floor and she subtly sways to the Dr. Hook ("Sylvia's Mother," for those of you at home looking for a soundtrack) dripping from the jukebox.

There's an absolutely gorgeous girl in the corner booth, clad in a black shirt and black jeans, brown hair accented by golden wheat highlights. She looks like she's on her way to an art gallery opening and she's staring at her vodka tonic like it just asked her to marry it before she was ready to answer.

And then there's me. As the man said: she's alone. I'm alone. Why not go annoy the shit out of her?

I step across the bar like a crowd of smoke, book in hand (it's Ellroy, unsurprisingly), and as I get within ten feet of this girl, she turns to see who's approaching her and the green of her eyes forms a filter through which my bravado and bullshit and I act like I'm walking to the ATM in the back.

And because I'm nothing if I'm not a dedicated man, I make a beeline straight for the cash machine and begin transacting. I get out $40 from a bank account that's already too close to overdrawn for comfort, no receipt thank you, and walk back to Jo, from whom I solicit a gin and tonic of my own.

"Hey," the Pretty Girl in The Corner Booth calls out to one of us. "Come over here." I look around before pointing a self-deprecating finger to my chest and she nods. I take a few slow steps toward her.

"What are you doing here?" I ask, realizing that a man with better social graces would've probably introduced himself. Oh well. Can't win 'em all.

"What do you mean?" Her voice is honey sweet and each word sounds like it's been marinated in it for days.

"I mean, it's, what--" I check my phone, "--seven-oh-six on a Thursday. Pardon the cliché, but what's a girl like you doing in a place like this?"

"What do you mean, a girl like me?"

She's holding her drink in one hand and brushing chaffs of hair behind ears as red as stoplights. And I want to answer her "a girl like me?" question, but it's hard to summarize her in a way that would make any sense.

"A girl like you, meaning, a very pretty girl that looks like she should be on a date. And probably should be on one."

"Funny you should say," she says, lobbing a piece of ice between white teeth. "I'm actually going on one in about an hour."

"So this is the pre-game, is it?"

She laughs like a choir. "Yeah, I'm just getting prepared. What are you doing in a bar on a Thursday night?"

I hold up my book. "Just reading. Needed a place to be that wasn't home, you know?" She nods.

"Too quiet?"

"How'd you guess?"

"What other kind of person--besides, like, a super-dedicated nerd--would come to a bar on a Thursday to read a damn book?"

"So wanting noise makes me a specific type of person?"

"Of course it does," she says, ice chunking apart beneath two rows of pearl. "I'm Michelle." She holds out a hand that I meet halfway.

"Andy." We shake. Her grip is strong without being harsh and her palm is soft enough to be made of lotion, not just an area to which it is regularly applied. "So what are you doing here?"

"I've got a date in an hour or so, like I mentioned. I just came here to decompress before."

"What do you mean, 'decompress?'"

"I don't know you at all, so I don't know if I should really get into more detail than that."

"Oh come on. We're two people chatting in a bar. Don't worry."

She pauses and looks me up and down. Her eyes dart from my head to my toe and back again, and I don't think she's seeing anything for which she particularly cares. "I don't know."

"I promise not to tell anyone."

"No one?" she asks.

"Not a soul."

"Okay," she says, taking deep air into pink lungs. "I'm going out with some guy that's a lot different than me tonight, and I don't know if I can take the pressure of what he may be expecting."

"What's he expecting?" I ask.

She looks at the front door and the back exit, presumably to see if any mixed company is making its way inside. The doors remain shut and her mouth opens like a drawbridge. "Most everyone is Mormon around here, but," she points to her drink, "I'm clearly not."

"Okay, so what? Lots of people aren't Mormon. Even around here."

"Yeah, but this guy probably assumes that, because I live in American Fork Goddamn Utah that I'm Mormon. And not unreasonably."

"What does that have to do with the date?"

"Here's the deal," she says, drawing a breath. "I don't know what I think about the world, but I know that I don't like how my life is going. I don't like where things are headed. I fall asleep alone, I wake up alone, and I don't like it. I've got too much to give to being alone."

"That's a strange way to look at it," I say. "What if you just haven't really found someone that deserves it? Your care, I mean. Or whatever you'd call it, if not 'care.'"

"My skills at being a girlfriend are diminishing. The blade's getting dull, you know? And not that I'd just be with anyone, but this guy that's coming to pick me up in an hour? He's decent. He's good and he's kind and he's a gentleman and he's never tried to do anything that demeans me or made me feel like less of a person than I am or lied to me or fucked around--and trust me, American Fork's a small town so I've done my research on this guy--and by all accounts, he's as good a person as you could hope you find. He opens doors and he pays for dinners and he never expects anything in return."

"So what are you doing here, then?" Her eyes roll at what I presume to be my obliviousness. "What are you doing in a bar waiting for some guy? Why aren't you at home waiting for him?"

"Because I don't trust myself," she says, green eyes falling to plywood table. "I've always had this theory that all that alcohol--" she points to her mostly-empty glass, "--does is reduce people to what they really are, what kind of person they are deep down."

"I always say that nobody does anything drunk that they wouldn't do sober if no one was watching."

"Exactly," she says, bringing an index finger to the corner of her left eye and scratching like she was allergic to platitudes. "And I'm a good person, Andy. I know you don't know me, you don't know anything about me except that I feel like I have to get liquored up before a date with some nice Mormon boy that opens doors and treats me like I'm a human being, but I'm a good person. I'm nice to people. I don't judge them for what they do, unless they hurt other people. I read books and I try to empathize with people I may not otherwise understand. I go out of my way to try and help people that haven't been as lucky as me, those people that life's dealt a bad hand to." She sighs. "So I'm reducing myself to the purest me I can find, and I can't think of a mechanism besides alcohol to bring me to that point."

The left side of my mouth reflexively pulls further left in empathetic dismay. This is a good person, and she's caught in what can only be called The Utah Valley Double Bind, both holding her back and pushing her forward into uncomfortable territory.

"Booze isn't the answer, though," I tell her. "What if this dude, whoever he is, falls in love with you based on some preconception that isn't, you know, accurate?"

"Doesn't matter," she says. "Because if I'm drinking, then it's more 'me' than he'll ever see otherwise. This stuff boils me down to who I am, just like it's gonna boil you down to who you are in an hour or two."

"Who do you think I am, then?"

She stops and takes an inventory. Her eyes dart all over again and she takes her time, like she's got hours and hours to burn. "I'd say you're good," she says, "but I can't tell what it is that you want."

"Neither can I, tell you the truth."

"Then just calm down," she says. "Nobody needs to know what they want. Do you at least know what you don't want?"

I nod. "Yeah."

"Then start with that and move on." She puts the moves on the last few drops of her drink and puts them down like they had insulted her mother. "Find something--someone, maybe?--that doesn't make you miserable and go from there." She rises to wobbly feet.

"Are you okay to drive?" I ask. "I know I just got here, but if you need a ride home or something..."

"No, I'm good." She burps quietly under her breath. "I actually only live about half a block away, just around the corner from the Presbyterian church. There's some irony for you." She slings a small purse around her shoulders and steps one or two paces away from me. "I'm just gonna walk home."

"Okay," I say, re-holding out a hand. "Good talking to you."

"Likewise," she says. "But go home. Noise is overrated. Not everyone can find peace, and you seem like someone who tosses it away because,'s not romantic or something."

"Yeah," I say, "that sounds about right." She smiles, throws me a quick wink, and saunters toward the door.

I lunge toward the front just as she's about to step out.

"Hey, Michelle?"

"Yeah?" she says, whipping a head around like it was attached to a pinata.

"Do you want to get dinner or something sometime?"

She pauses with a hesitancy that sends shivers to my ankles, my temples, and everywhere inbetween. "Why?"

"I just think we might have a lot in common."

She retains her pause. "No, I don't think so. I mean, you're in a bar at, what, seven fifteen pee-em on a Thursday? Not a great sign, you know?"

I get indignant. "Yeah, but you're in a bar at seven fifteen pee-em on a Wednesday."

She smiles. "Yeah, but isn't the whole point to find someone that's better than you?" Her eyes flash me emerald one more time as she pushes the door open and descends into fall moonlight. "I want someone that wouldn't dare step in a bar this early on a weeknight. Hope you figure out that that's what you want, too."

Michelle walks out and disintegrates into dust, but Jo The Bartender steps from behind her station and puts a wrinkled hand on my shoulder, an echo of the conversation that's just finished.

"Don't worry," Michelle says. "She's in here six days a week. She'll be back tomorrow after this date goes to hell."

But I look back out the window, see the sun setting in the west, and realize that I hope she finds what she's looking for.

At least she had her eyes open for it. Most of us can't say the same.

I go home ten minutes later and call you up. Just to say hi. You tell me a joke about something you read in Wuthering Heights and I realize that I want to be there.

A few hours later, I make it to your place, we fall asleep in your bed, and I don't dare kiss you because I'd rather be the man that did too little than the man that did too much.

Dress for the job you want, right?


britt said...

excellent use of the word "platitude.

Julie said...

Thanks for this.

Meg said...

Are there jokes in Wuthering Heights? (I just reread it) <3 this.

Jennif said...

wait, so you don't like that place? I mean, really?