Kelly’s in the corner talking to some guy and I’m at the bar sipping a martini next to two older men cursing at the TV. I didn’t want to go out tonight—this, right now, is why. It’s not that I’m necessarily antisocial—I’ll talk to you, be friendly-like, if you talk to me. I’ll even go to parties, go to bars (like the loud one I’m sitting in right now), and socialize. If people socialize with me. But if nobody has anything to talk about with me, well, then I have nothing to talk about with them. It’s a rather simple logic, really.
Kelly assumes that I just want to get laid. That’s why she takes me to these places. But it’s usually her that wants to get laid, and get laid she does. We’ll go to a place with lots of cute guys, she tells me. You look really cute tonight, you’ll have no problem finding a guy. Well, Kelly, where are we now?—you and I, at this bar; or rather, me at this bar and you in the corner flirting with that crew cut army jacket tight jeans leather boots. And a nice watch on top of all that.
His name is Ben, I believe. That’s what he said at least when he came up to us. He had suddenly appeared on Kelly’s side and was looking at her the whole time, so I assumed he only wanted one of us and I therefore continued to sip on my martini in what I hope was amused silence. In truth, it was a kind of aggravated boredom. I didn’t want to be here. I had told Kelly that a few times, in different ways. I’m tired. I need to work a bit more. I have some reading to do. I’m not feeling like it tonight. I don’t want anyone. I don’t want anyone. I really don’t want anyone.
Those last three I didn’t say, by the way.
I take a sip of my martini and hold the frilly little glass between my thin dainty fingers. I like to make an impression, even if I’m not there to impress anyone. Leave me alone, it’s just the way I am.
Besides the two middle-aged pot-bellied geezers next to me, the guys in the bar are rather good-looking. They’re comfortable, fresh, in their twenties, college grads, creative, good jobs, probably. They’re not drowning in a dissertation. Or wishing more than anything that they could get out of here.
Too bad Kelly drove.
I throw back the rest of my martini—gracefully, so that just a slip of hair tumbles from my shoulder—and set the empty glass on the bar. Glancing around, I tug up the top of my poor-excuse-for-a-cocktail dress. Mother would have said I looked like a slut--if only. Nobody’s looking at me though. I pull out my phone, tap the screen, look distracted. Nobody’s looking and I stop caring.
“Wouldja like anything else?” the bartender asks. The sides of his head are shaved and his black shirt looks three sizes too small—I can see his nipples poking through.
“Another one of these,” I say, pushing my glass forward. I notice the scuffs on the bar, the tiredness of the wood, the circular water stains left by a million glasses over the years, by people I will never know that sat exactly where I am sitting. And maybe thinking the same thing.
This is what happens when Kelly leaves me at the bar to talk with some new guy, in her red little skirt and perky earrings and soaring stilettos. I start thinking silly thoughts, and then start thinking about--oh no, let’s not. Let’s not even think about the word dissertation, about that thing that seems to stalk me wherever I go, reminding me how much I don’t really want it.
The bartender brings my third—or fourth?—martini and I look out over the room (loud) and then into the mirror behind the bar (surprised at how convincing I actually look). Maybe I’ll just call a cab—Kelly won’t want me around much longer anyway.
I take a large gulp of martini and as the warmth is spreading in my chest a young man sits down next to me. I only catch a glimpse: flannel jeans sneakers. Dark hair. Not dressed for the occasion, not dressed for this place. I look at my phone.
The bartender takes his drink order: some dark beer I’ve never heard of. The two old men next to me erupt in a profanity-laced tirade at the TV.
The voice is quiet and for a second I think it’s just someone behind me talking to someone else. But no—it’s the young man, the poorly dressed young man, sitting next to me. I look over, he’s looking over. I give a nice little nod and cute smile. Or maybe it’s cute, maybe it’s not—sometimes I think I’m looking cute and then I look in the mirror and almost jump back in terror. This is probably one of those times.
“Megan,” I say. My legs are crossed, long, the hem of my skimpy dress revealing just how untanned they are, how unprepared I am for all of this; my scuffed heels just barely hanging on to the tips of my toes and my body swanning over the bar in a kind of precarious balance—I thought it looked sexy, mysterious-like, but maybe not.
Mark—or Mike? or Matt? didn’t it start with an M?—is sitting with his legs spread, loose tired jeans stretched, his flannel probably unwashed, elbows resting wearily on the bar, his hand clasped around the bottom of his glass, his eyes—having just looked towards me—now staring deep into the frothy contents of his dark beer, his mind perhaps thinking about the pussy he’s gonna get tonight, or maybe about the fact that his pick up line—“I’m Mark”—is about as cock-blocking as they come.
“You here with anyone?” the voice is soft again, and he smiles sort of weakly.
“Yes, my friend. She’s talking to that crew cut over there.” I gesture, he laughs.
“We can’t all have perfect hair,” he says. He looks surprised at his own wittiness.
“How about you?” I ask. “You come with anyone? Any worthy bloke who’s up and left you for some hot piece of ass?”
“No,” he says. “I just came to drink.”
“Well. Mission accomplished.” I raise my glass and he reciprocates. Our glasses clink, inaudible in the noise of the bar. “What do you do, Mark?”
He sets his mouth in a kind of tired grimace. Thin lips, I notice.
“I basically help edit scripts for video games. Or rather, I get coffee for the people who help edit scripts for video games.”
“Oh,” I say, taking a sip of martini. “Well you have to start somewhere.”
“Yeah well it’s something.” He takes a big gulp of beer, takes a moment to swallow, and then glances over at me, at my eyes.
“And what do you do, Megan?”
Ah, and now we’ve come to the conversation killer.
“I’m a Ph.D. student at the university. Currently writing my dissertation. And, I think, slowly dying in the process.”
He nods, raising his eyebrows, takes another swig of his beer. “Shit,” he says. “Wow. What’s your dissertation about?”
“Orientalism in the eighteenth-century,” I say, brandishing my glass about; it twinkles in the dim light. “Specifically the reception of the Arabian Nights in England. Something entirely meaningless.”
He smirks. “Is that why you think you’re ‘slowly dying’?”
“I’m ‘slowly dying’ because I have nothing to say about it, and my dear supervisors have nothing to say about me. I suppose the feeling is mutual.”
“What got you interested in that topic?” he asks.
“Good question. One I’ve been trying to answer for the past three years.”
“Do you like to read that kind of stuff?”
“Well, I don’t particularly like getting coffee for interns, so I guess we’re virtually at the same place.”
“Virtually,” I say.
I can feel the martinis now—words are coming out with less censor. I try to adjust the top of my dress again—self-conscious (for whatever reason) about the cleavage that miraculously (as though it has a mind of its own) keeps trying to show itself—without him noticing. He does notice, just a glance over, caught in the act—aha!—and I feel just a bit satisfied.
“Do you have a boyfriend or something?” he asks.
I’m not used to this, these questions, from a guy (my own age, no less) who’s not drilling me with theoretical hypothetical metaphysical nonsensical inquiries about eighteenth-century religious and moral philosophy, or what kind of patterning was popular on a petticoat in 1710. Is he trying to hit on me?
“No, I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“So you’re just waiting here for some guy to pick you up.”
Well that seemed a bit rude.
“No, actually. I’m waiting for my friend to finish talking with that guy so we can leave.”
He takes another long drag of his beer. I finish my martini, looking deliberately at something (anything) in the corner.
“They look pretty content over there,” he says.
They do. But I’m not letting this guy say anymore. I’m about to get up, go over to Kelly, and tell her that we have to leave--now, let’s go—when he says something else.
“I’ve never wanted to do that, you know. Pick someone up at a bar, get their number, maybe go home with them. I’ll come out, lonely with myself, intent on finding someone like everyone else—you know, a good old-fashioned night out on the town, and then I’ll get there and realize how much I don’t want that. How much I just want to go back home again. Is that weird?”
I was almost intent on ignoring him—I almost didn’t hear the first part of what he said; me, about to get up, checking the time on my phone, about to make some excuse about how late it is, how I’m not interested (I don’t think I could have said something like that sober, something so heart breaking): but then he spoke, and I heard him, and I decided, let Kelly keep talking.
Is that weird? he asked me. No, no it’s not weird. That’s exactly it: exactly how I feel, right now, this moment, every moment, every day. You’ve said the words I’ve always wanted to say, and you’ve said them out loud to someone else, someone with ears who can hear you and a mind that can judge you. I understand you, Mark.
Is that weird? he asked me.
“It’s a bit antisocial,” I say. “But, you know, everyone’s different.”
I think I hate myself sometimes.
He smiles oddly. “Yeah, that’s for sure. And it’s strange, that I want to be alone. Or at least that I couldn’t care less. I don’t think any of us want to be alone. You know, when I’m by myself I want other people, and when I’m with other people I want to be by myself. Doesn’t make sense, but hey that’s life, right?”
I don’t know much about the whole world of flirting, but neither does this guy apparently. He’s staring at the bottom of his glass again. Then looks over at me.
“Can’t disagree with you there,” I say, and look over the bar. No one is looking at us, they’re all absorbed in their own conversations, their own worlds; the bar, at this moment, doesn’t exist for them anymore.
“I mean, do you ever feel the same way?” His eyes look a bit lost. I’m wondering now how many beers he’d had before sitting down next to me—what kind of courage, if any, to say this. I realize that I don’t know this young man sitting next to me. I’ve never met him before, never seen him before in my life. And I’ll never see him again, mostly likely, after tonight—one of those fleeting encounters, brief, almost a memory as it’s happening.
Do you ever feel the same way? he asked me.
“All the time,” I say.
There’s a man in the corner by the window facing the street wearing a brown leather jacket I’ve seen before, but on someone else. This someone else—oh, I remember him now: Ray, Ray from Econ—looming now out of that shadowy place where we keep things that we know we must remember but don’t want to. Ray, in that jacket—a big man—that party, that music, the floor littered in empty bottles, the hazy weed-scented air, the people laying about the couch or dancing in the kitchen or yelling in the corner—and Ray, coming up to me, saying something: words, words that wanted something (I can’t remember the details), words I wasn’t used to, words that made my spine stiffen and my face freeze and my heart hammer and stand still all at the same time. He took my hand and pulled me—me, holding that half-empty beer bottle, not sure (absurdly) what to do with it, where to put it—pulled me into a bedroom (belonging to someone I don’t know) and suddenly his lips are on mine and his tongue is pulling at mine and his breath is everything I see and hear and taste: what am I doing here, who is this man, this man from Econ, whose hand is grabbing my ass, reaching up under the hem of my skirt, tugging--ripping?—and suddenly I’m on the bed and he’s on top of me and my hands are pushing at his shoulders—big shoulders, hard shoulders—and I’m trying to say something (stop, stop please) but his mouth won’t let me. I feel it now, feel it against my leg, the throb that is just waiting to be released from its holds, and I’m trying to squirm away from it, from its pressure—but I can’t. His arms are big, strong (arms that I might have liked at another time, another place, another world), and I can’t get out of them, no matter where they are on my body. I’m about to give up; I can’t breathe, I’m suffocating, he’s huffing, I think I’m sobbing--
Someone’s shouting—a loud high-pitchy voice I know—and then she’s there, Kelly (in that skimpy shiny ridiculous thing she loves to wear), over him, pulling at him, struggling, and then scratching his face--get off her, get off her, she’s saying—he’s turning around, his face is scratched, bleeding--what the fuck you bitch, what the fuck is wrong with you—and then he’s leaving, sweeping us away with one of his massive hands, cursing and swearing, and then he’s gone and the door slams shut.
“You okay?” Mark says. “You kinda zoned out there for a bit.”
The man in the brown jacket by the window is small, skinny, with a wide friendly smile.
“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
I’m not, by the way.
I look over towards where Kelly is sitting and catch her eye. She looks at me, glances at Mark (who’s facing away, oblivious) and winks. I roll my eyes back—it’s not like that, I’m trying to say—then turn back to Mark.
“I feel like I’m good by myself,” I tell him. “I can do it, you know? That’s the thing people don’t understand.”
Mark nods, but seems to think. “It’s also the thing we don’t understand. I think that’s why we’re here, at this bar. Trying to figure out why we’re so good alone.”
This is all, of course, at this point, drunk talk. Spouting our half-baked philosophies of the self.
“I’m here because she asked me to be,” I say, gesturing to Kelly.
“Looks like she’s fine on her own at this point,” Mark says.
“Yeah. I guess I’ll just have to call a cab. It’s my bedtime.” It’s only been a short conversation, but I’ve had enough of it and I think Mark has too. I stand up and dial the cab service. Mark glances over at me and then looks away.
“It was nice talking to you,” he says.
“Likewise. I hope people start getting you the coffee soon.”
“Thanks,” he says, a dumb smile. “And good luck on your dissertation. Make it matter.”
We have an awkward lingering goodbye look and then I’m walking towards the door. I glance towards Kelly—we exchange some looks, she’s happy: go home, she says, I’m good.
I step outside, the breeze picks up under my dress and I wrap my arms around my chest while holding the phone to my ear. The phone is ringing and I look back inside, towards where Mark is sitting, staring at the countertop. He’s not bad looking, from this point of view. He knows only my name, my first name, and nothing else—well, he knows that I study at the university, that I study the European reception of Oriental literature, that I’m drowning in a dissertation, that I feel no sense of purpose, that I don’t often go out, that I like being alone, that I can be alone, that (maybe) I want more than this loneliness.
He can find me in the university directory if he really wanted to.
About the Author: Dillon lives, works, and writes in Southern California where he spends most of his time avoiding sunlight. He studied English literature at the University of California, Irvine and the University of Oxford. His previous work can be found in 34th Parallel Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, New Forum, and The Exhibit.