It was a Tuesday night, and she was drinking by herself, which she found thrilling. She wished she had something to write on, any scrap of paper, a napkin like writers in movies or politicians in legends. She considered asking the bar tender for one, then failed to find a writing implement in her purse and gave up. She cradled her gin and resolved to think writerly things, instead.
The bartender was a frazzled but robust-looking dyed blonde woman and the clientele consisted mainly of men with thick beards and bad teeth who, though they were not old, seemed already to have been beaten by time. There was, however, a circle of fresh faces one table over, young things sporting thick-framed glasses and painfully casual t-shirts, loudly discussing politics. Not too seedy but just seedy enough for hipster tourism.
She found herself looking at her phone often. She was waiting for someone to call, though she wasn’t expecting anyone to, and every time she checked, minutes had been added to the night. It’s young, she told herself, and so am I. Young enough to waste time. And so she sat and drank with no purpose but to drink. Occasionally she glanced over at the hipsters to see if they had noticed her, but discovered that they operated along the same lines as watched pots: if you’re looking at the hipsters, they’re never looking at you. How dull it must be never to boil.
The night skipped on, and when she had lulled her mind into blankness, she paid for her drinks and headed for the door. Some of the real customers were lounging around the entrance, a cluster of chapped hands and nervous faces. Short, efficient smiles. She stopped and asked them for a cigarette. One of them acquiesced and there was a silence while he lit it for her. It was a warm tar night, quiet hum in the air. She considered them and they her, and then one man asked, or maybe stated, “So you were reading in there.”
“Yeah,” she answered. “Yeah, but the take one leave one section didn’t have anything good in it. Big surprise.”
They laughed collectively, short laughs to match short smiles, and she laughed along, in the spirit of good sportsmanship. The same guy asked, “Fiction or non-fiction?”
“Fiction. Always fiction.” She laughed again, but he just nodded.
“Why always fiction?”
Finishing their cigarettes one by one, the men went back into the bar and finally there were just the two of them outside on the pavement, anchored by the orb of a street light and surrounded by gravityless blackness, talking. Like the others, he wasn’t old but gave the impression of age that comes with a life lived at its base, a usedness, a thin, permanent coat of dirt. He knew about literature and had travelled and he spoke eloquently, but there was something in his eyes that was not quite there, that was, she thought, on another pavement, in another city, in front of another bar with another girl. He asked her if she’d like a drink.
They sat at the bar. The bartender, more frazzled than before, served them without registering that they had left once and come back for more, or perhaps just without caring. They talked for a long time, and when the hours became thin and the loud young men were yawning and paying their bills, he inevitably asked how old she was.
“Jesus, that’s young.”
“It doesn’t feel that young.”
“It is. Are you in school?”
“That’s good. Good to have a way in life.”
She laughed. “I don’t have a way. I have no idea what I’ll do when I graduate.”
“Well, sure you do.”
“No, really I don’t. I could do just about anything.”
“But you’ll have a degree. You’ll get a good job, right?”
“So you’ll get a job you like, in a place you like. You’ll get comfortable, try to make yourself happy.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Have a family, maybe. You like kids?”
He nodded, satisfied, and she felt she had something else to say to him, but she couldn’t think of what it was. She noticed now that he had nice arms and a chin that looked strong and soft at once, and for a brief, flirting second, she pictured herself lying next to him and asking who the faraway girl was who had his eyes. But when the moment passed, she thanked him for the drink and got up to leave. He smiled and told her he’d see her again. For a moment, they stood looking at each other and agreeing to believe it was true.
As she unlocked her bike outside, the man who had given her his cigarette poked his head out of the window of the bar and reminded her jovially not to drink and drive. She laughed at him, but then did fall down twice on her way home. The next day, she woke up with a pounding headache and scraped knees. For a few days, she carried an unsettled feeling around with her, and worried that she did not know where it had come from. By the next week it was gone with the scrapes.