Dispatches from solitude
I have become used to solitude. I can spend a lot of time in my own company, happily choosing an album that reminds me of sunny mornings in university, sitting on the front porch with a coffee and a cigarette and the easy, languid hug from my roommate as he takes a sip from his mug and gently takes the cigarette from my fingers and raises it to his own lips. These days I like to clear a space on the kitchen counter and measure out the flour for scones, sometimes making sure it’s level with the measuring cup and other times being more wanton and reckless with the measurements, having earned the confidence through years of making chocolate chip cookies because Dad wouldn’t buy Oreos when we had all the ingredients to make something better right at home.
There is something, however, in seeing your best self reflected back at you from another human being. It can happen in small ways: on the sidewalk maybe, an unexpected laugh with a friend when a man picks up his dog and holds him upside down so that he stops trying to launch his tiny body into the spokes of passing bicycles, or in a café where you’ve come to know the barista and they lean over to tell you in some roundabout way that they’re tired from the interactions demanded of them and you smile with them as you drop a loonie into the tip jar and they hand you your coffee.
Before these strange days of social distancing it was easy to take for granted the value of those small moments. It was not long into the pandemic when I quipped on Instagram, “if anyone needs me, I’ll just be over here realizing I need far more validation than I thought I did.” It reminded me of how it felt when I went to law school and finally stopped bartending and waiting tables.
I spent two years trying to get into law school. Late weekday mornings I would drag myself out of bed, mouth dry from pints after work, and walk up to Java Blend, the coffee roaster and café near my house. I would spread out my LSAT prep test work on a small table by the window, the strong, rich smell of coffee roasting, the low-voiced conversations and the quiet shriek of the espresso grinder enveloping me as I sipped a silty americano and leaned over the first problem on the page.
In the evenings, I would lean across the bar, hands clasped, candles flickering warm against the finish of the wood or off the copper at the brewery. I liked to look straight into the eyes of whoever I was talking to, maybe a regular like Dr. Drinky or another server who had just finished work and had come by for a drink on their way home. Dr. Drinky was a doctor who found all of us bartenders quite clever and intimidating until I told him once how many books I read in a year, which to him was laughably scant.
Dr. Drinky only came in once a month. He would sit on a bar stool near the door with a book. His eyes would dart from around the pub and he would seem uncomfortable until I would set down the first pint, the amber hued salve and he would quickly drink it. His shoulders would settle down his back a bit and during his second and third pints he would hold his book open in his lap, gazing contentedly around him at the groups of friends having a late lunch at the tables by the high windows in the sunlight. By the fifth pint he would fall asleep at the bar. I would gently wake him and he would stumble over to the debit machine to pay, his face light with a dopey smile or sometimes angrily embarrassed. I strongly suspect, without knowing for sure, that he abstained from drinking completely in the rest of his life. He lacked the ruddy, doughy, exhausted pallor of someone who drinks regularly, but he also so obviously lacked the self-control to have one or two. I recognized in him the needy thirst for heady oblivion.
I liked chatting with Dr. Drinky. He liked to read fiction, a rare quality in most people, but particularly so, it seems to me, amongst the scientific community and it was validating that he wanted to talk to me. When he was on his last couple of pints, before he fell asleep, his eyes would narrow and follow me as I moved behind the bar, grabbing a lime and running it over the rim of a highball glass, dipping the glass into celery salt for a caesar. I used to joke with my coworkers that if I ever went missing, it would be because Dr. Drinky had me in his basement and was forcing me to read James Joyce with him.
On Wednesdays I worked trivia night at the pub, at first because I was the new girl, and later because I had quit and come back and trivia night was my penance. When trivia starts, the participants lean in conspiratorially over their sheet of paper so they can whisper debate their answers before feverishly committing pencil to paper. Sometimes I would help out and give answers to my preferred regulars on the sly, whispering, “The Pixies” or “William Blake” and giving a little wink. Usually I pretended to know nothing.
One of my tables was a band of misfits. I can’t sort out exactly what brought them all together. One guy was sober and I would bring him endless soda waters. The others drank Raspberry Wheat beers and sometimes a handful of them would split a basket of fries. They weren’t a big bill table but they were there every week and I just tried to make the best of it. One night when they were hovered over their answer sheet whispering a debate about whether the answer was Chichén Itzá, I came up to the table, large silver tray loaded with pints in my left hand and my right hand holding a full pint. I said softly, “I’ve just got to punch this through here,” smiling as I moved the glass across the table to the person sitting furthest back. Sober guy looked at me, up and down my body in a way I didn’t like, my scuffed red chuck taylors and my bare legs in a jean skirt and the tight pub t-shirt with a scoop neck. “Oh, you could punch me anytime,” he said licentiously. “I’ve actually thought about that a lot,” grinning now, he leans back in his chair. The air leaves my body, my mind blank with rage, a dull familiar ache behind my eyes.
“I don’t know why people think they can just say whatever the fuck they want to me!” I half shout, surprising myself, turning on my heel and walking away towards my other tables. I silently pass out the rest of the drinks from my tray to tables 6 and 11 and head back to the bar where Jamie is lighting a candle, which he sets on the bar. It casts a near sensuous glow to the bronze coloured bottles lining the narrow shelves.
“I’m going out for a cigarette,” I say to Jamie, slamming my change counter on the back bar, a few regulars raise an eyebrow. “You ok?” Jamie asks softly. “Yeah,” I breathe out. “I’m fine,” my shoulders inch down a bit. “I’ll be right back,” I say, with a half-smile for Jamie.
When I went to law school I happily quit bartending. I was tired of being condescended to. The charming half conversations with witty near-strangers wasn’t enough of a silver lining. I wanted to be taken seriously and I wanted, more than anything, to be respected. When I finally was able to quit, I found myself in a new city, uncomfortable in my body, which had changed considerably since I stopped waitressing and quit smoking. I felt terminally uncool in my suddenly ill-fitting clothes. I found it difficult to relate to the other students at law school. I tried to make charming small talk but people there had just finished grad school or internships with the UN and they had a different vocabulary for getting to know one another. I felt hideously inadequate and, strangely, I missed the feeling of power that comes from leaning across the bar to share a laugh with someone.
What I longed for then is what I find myself longing for now; those unexpected nights where a man sits at your bar and orders a gin and tonic and, as you slide it across the bar, you ask him if he’s just visiting. He tells you he is, that he’s visiting from Hawaii where he lives up on the side of a volcano and it’s cool there and sometimes damp. You think about his solitude, traveling for work, and he tells you about his children and his wife and you ask him about altitude sickness and cooking times, whether you need to make adjustments to your measurements, and whether bread rises at the same rate that high above sea level. You lean over the bar, hands clasped, your shoulders relaxing down your back as you breathe out.