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From opposite ends of the Lone Star State, we came to the city at the same time and wound up in the same neighbourhood where, on the same train home, we first met. I was asleep when the train jerked and he tumbled onto my lap. He liked to joke that I was erect. I was. A consequence of deep sleep, I suppose. He worked as a bartender in our neighbourhood and left me with an open invitation. “I’ll take care of you,” he said.
We connected as artists, both of us desperate for acknowledgment, our aspirations a lottery ticket, with numbers just as good as anyone else’s. A writer and an actor, the rejection so anonymous and unsympathetic we drowned our dreams in alcohol in order to stay afloat during his nightshifts. Friday nights were always a blur, and I hated Saturday mornings because of it. Hung-over and alone, the day felt endless, and by the end of it, despair. In an effort to take back Saturday, I broke the third wall and invited him over for brunch at my place. I was going to make frittatas. He swore by his Bloody Mary. He ended up sleeping through the day and didn’t show – no call, no nothing. To make it up to me, he didn’t charge me for another drink. I let him off the hook because I liked to drink. And I liked drinking more with him.
The late nights we kept ultimately caught up to me. I was irritable and got into a fistfight. Depression loomed, forcing me to dial it back. His nights got longer, as the neighbourhood got younger and demanded more of his time. Then came marriage and a baby. Mine. Although not quite in that order. He met my wife the night I did, but he never met my daughter. He always asked to see pictures, though. My kid seemed abstract to me in that context. Which was something I couldn’t reconcile, and I soon fell out of touch.
At our closest, we were like vampires, unafraid between the hours of four and seven in the morning, when the rest of the world had given in to sleep and obligations. It was a relationship he habitually repeated with others, adoring regulars mostly, girls who sat front and center at the bar, gushing, positioning, dumbing down, ego stroking – the longest of these relationships being with his drug dealer.
I ran into him one morning while on an early run before work. It wasn’t a coincidence that I was on his street. I was feeling sentimental. He was just getting home, and the natural light addressed him with brutal honesty. Hair thinned, with weeds of grey. Skin porous and blemished. Teeth stained. But the smile in his eyes could still bring out the whimsy in me, and I asked him to lunch. My treat. He said he’d get back to me. “If not today, then definitely this week,” he vowed. I had no illusions.
Two years past until I saw him next, prompted by an unexpected text. “Miss u buddy lets hang soon,” it read. His message came like a life raft, and I dropped everything and stopped in early after work. It was just the two of us, and we were both so exhausted we yawned our greetings.
“So how’s the fam?” he roared, placing my beer down.
“Good,” I roared back. “What about you? Like the haircut!”
Right then, three vaguely familiar faces from the past entered the bar, and he sprang to life. “Be right back.”
He strolled back over to me after I’d finished my beer and asked if I wanted another. “Let me take care of you,” he offered, with the added incentive of the bar’s best whiskey. I wavered, weighing possibilities against responsibilities.
In the end, it was winter and daylight savings had me on the run. Bath and bedtime stories were expected of me. I had overnight diapers for my youngest in my backpack. She’d pee through the sheets without one on. I was also drinking less and writing again – trying to at least – early in the morning before everyone was awake, from four to seven.
I left all that out and told him I was coming down with something, which I was. “My house is a Petri dish this time of year,” I said.
He winced sympathetically and suggested I get rest; then led by a handshake, we leaned over the counter for a one-armed hug. “It was good hanging out,” he said, his gaze warm with nostalgia. “We let too much time go by.”
Before I could respond, he asked what I was doing Saturday night? I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say beside laundry and TV and said I wasn’t sure. “Why?” I asked.
Beaming, he told me that he was having an opening for his paintings in the backroom. He had twelve pieces. Surprised, I remarked that I didn’t know he painted, and he raised his leg and placed his foot on the table to proudly show off drops of acrylic paint that had set onto his black Converse. “There’s going to be food and booze and a DJ,” he boasted. “Everybody will be here.”
One after the other, as if on cue, ragtag members of Everybody strolled into the bar and sat spread apart at the counter, independently together. He gave each a hardy welcome by name and bobbed his head to the music while pouring their usual. I caught a candid glimpse of him in the mirror behind the cash register as he stole a moment to check himself out before making change. In disagreement with his mirror self, he mugged and preened, but little changed. Out of the corner of his eye, his mirror self noticed me watching and we shared a knowing smile.