By Bobby Mattern
Early in the evening, before we all had dinner, Joe and Lily sat me and Marci down to talk. When were finished, Marci and I got drinks because Marci said I needed one. It had been Tuesday for about a half hour and it was a work night, but I was never one to say no to Marci. We ended up in a bar with a pretentious name in a safe, but seedy part of town. An underground cave of a bar with dusty jazz music playing from a jukebox and a busty middle-aged cliché of a bartender who wouldn’t acknowledge us until Marci rapped the counter with her knuckles and ordered a Johnny Walker Red for herself and an appletini for me before I interrupted and changed my drink to a beer. And it wasn’t until she ordered that I realized for all the hours we had spent in each other company, none of them had been spent sitting next to each other at a bar.
After our drinks were poured, I paid in cash and Marci opened a tab. “To men like you,” Marci raised her glass and pointed at me. “To the best of men.” She took a sip and as she dipped her head down, a section of dark hair fell over half her glasses, shielding the left side of her face. Her right eye remained fixated on me. “Because you’re the best man.” She sat up straight and brushed her hair back and spoke quickly before taking another sip. “You’re going to be the best man.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I get it.” I lazily pointed my mug in her direction. “And you’re… something.”
“I’m a servant,” she said. “I’m the very best servant. The most honored servant. You get to be the man and I get to be a maid. Despite you being the least manly man I have ever met.”
Marci took three quick sips in succession and I took in the bar as though it was a piece of Marci I had yet to discover. Half a foosball table was pushed up against the opposite wall. A lone man sat at it, a drink in hand, watching the day’s sports highlights. Occasionally, he would express his disgust in the day’s games to the blank space across the wall from him and I wondered if on the other side of the wall, the table continued and on that side there was another man agreeing with every incomplete expression. I stared at a mirror on the same wall and found myself, a tiny figure in the distance of the reflection.
“Did you know that I can’t be a child prodigy?” I asked Marci. “That ship has sailed. Even if I learned the piano tomorrow and was really, really good at it, I’ll never be young enough that it would be amazing. I’d just be some guy playing the piano.”
“Which reminds me,” Marci said. “We have to start looking for bands. Lily said she wanted us to look for bands.” She studied her glass before bringing it to her lips.
“What happens to the apartment?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Marci. “Lily moves out and Heather moves in.”
“You think so?”
Marci shrugged with one shoulder. “I think so. I can’t imagine that Lily would continue living in the apartment with me. It’s not really the kind of thing married women do.” She set her glass, now half empty, on the table.
“That’s not what I meant,” I said. I had been referring to the other end of the scenario.
“Heather moves in,” Marci repeated herself, this time more a commandment than a hypothetical. “We’ve been dating for five years, so of course she moves in.”
“Joe and Lily got to eight years without moving in together,” I said. With Joe moving out of his parents’ place and in with Lily, he would be the last of my friends to leave his childhood home. I would remain the only one still living in the room I grew up in. At two points in my timeline, two different versions of Julian—twenty years apart—both falling asleep reading comic books, both in the same bed. Rather than share this observation with Marci, I kept it to myself, holding it close and drowning in it.
Directly across from me on the other side of the bar was a woman with long, red hair. A strange looking woman—thin and angular, with shoulder, elbow, and chin coming to harsh points. Her harsh build seemed to be at as harsh a contrast to her girlish face. However, much of her was obscured by a large jar of pickled eggs that sat in front of her, so what I saw was in quick glimpses as she leaned away from the man in conversation with her. A pudgy sad sack too young and too inexperienced to know what to do.
“When Joe turned twenty-one, I brought him to a bar like this,” I told Marci. “Can you believe it? Joe in a bar like this?”
Marci finished her drink and pushed the glass up the bar. The bartender walked up and asked Marci if she wanted another of the same.
“I don’t really see the point,” said Marci. “Just give me a double of whatever your well whiskey is.”
“Anyway, he was really nervous,” I laughed. “Such a weird kid. He kept glancing around, convinced that every stupid sports fan in the bar was a narc who was going to pounce him, even though he was legal. He barely spoke the whole time.”
The bartender delivered and Marci took a generous gulp. “He drank quite a few Arnold Palmers tonight,” she said sarcastically. “I really hope Lily is the one driving.”
I had always seen Joe and me as opposite sides of the same coin. We held many of the same interests and had suffered through so much of the same brand of painfully functional upbringing. And yet we approached the world with two distinct outlooks—two possible permutations of the same product. Julian, the obnoxious overcompensater and Joe, the stunted introvert. And yet here I was, sitting so utterly on my own as Joe, the drinker of Arnold Palmers had outgrown me several times over. Another observation to keep private.
Marci’s drink was once again half empty. “Are you still good?” Marci asked, pointing at my beer. It was mostly full, as I had only taken a few obligatory sips. I swished my mug and gave her a thumbs up. “What does that mean?” she asked. “Do you want another one?”
“No,” I said. “I’m good.”
Across the bar, the angular girl with the girlish face was now standing at the jukebox, flipping through selections. The jukebox was in great shape, with a few artificial imperfections—a dimmed light for no reason, manufactured scratches. It was a new model made to look vintage. She made her way back to her friend at the bar, glancing at me before sitting down.
I quickly looked at Marci. “Joe and Lily were eight years coming, and it still caught me off guard,” I said.
“I don’t know how it caught you off guard.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It had just been so long since we all did something together—the four of us. And I was just excited to have dinner. I thought we were just having dinner.”
Marci looked at me, but also through me. “Heather is going to move in, right?”
“Sure. Yes. Of course,” I said. “Of course she’s going to.”
Marci took a big sip of her drink. “It’s a no brainer.”
As a jazzy song moved to a close, a new one came on. It was newer jazz—less fifties and more seventies. A happier beat compared to booze-soaked blues.
“Oh my god, I hate this song,” Marci groaned, finishing her drink. She looked at her glass in partial surprise and then tapped it. The bartender looked her way and Marci said, “Listen. A single, but on the rocks.”
The song was vaguely familiar. It was, at its worst, inoffensive musak. As long as I had known her, Marci had positioned herself as the opponent of inoffensive and the arbiter of culture. The first time I had met her was in my freshman year of college. She and Lily had been walking past me while I was sitting alone on a bench listening to music. Lily had recognized me and introduced us. Marci, not a second after letting me know she was pleased to make my acquaintance, picked my earphones from my head and listened. She made a fake polite expression, and handed my earphones back to me. “Well, that’s unfortunate,” she had said to Lily as they walked away.
And yet as time drew on, Marci and I found our collective worlds shrinking and Saturday nights became drinking at Marci and Lily’s apartment until one by one friends dropped away and it was Marci and me drinking and watching TV like a distanced married couple. Occasionally Heather would scoop her up and steal her away and I found myself at home in my little world—a world whose population was surely and steadily decreasing.
The girl across the bar was staring at me, moving her shoulders rhythmically to the sound and pointing at me. It was perhaps the second or third time in the history that a heterosexual female had given me any attention without arduous prompting, and the idea of this made me more nervous than the actual situation. I dropped eye contact and I started to draw on the bar using the condensation from my beer mug.
Marci was faced away from me, staring at something else, maybe at the idea of this song she hated so much. Or, I thought, she was watching the man at the foosball table and we were sharing a thought. “Do you ever think of the parts of things on the other side of walls?” I asked.
Marci didn’t answer. Instead, she stood abruptly and walked briskly to the restroom with no announcement and no look back. I wondered if she was upset, and I wondered what recourse I had to make sure she was okay aside from sipping my beer and hoping for the best. The ladies’ room was one place I could not follow.
When I turned around, the girl from across the bar was standing next to me. She seductively held the martini close to her face.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hello,” I replied, not sure what else to say. Maybe with Joe absent from his role in my life, I was now straddling both sides of the line, picking the finer parts of each. The obnoxious introvert. Beads of sweat appeared on my brow.
“I love this song,” she said. Her voice was concise and abrupt. Her statement was fact. She pointed to the jukebox. It was still playing the song Marci had decided to hate. “Don’t you love this song?”
“Yeah, it’s fine. It’s great.”
She took the seat next to me and I shifted over to give her space. “I was in here about a week ago. People-watching. I like to people-watch. This man played this song on the jukebox, walked over to his girlfriend, and broke up with her.”
“That’s awful,” I said.
“I guess,” she said, ignoring me. “The interesting part was that the he played the music first. This song is all about happy feelings, and he chose it for his break-up soundtrack. And so I asked myself why, why, why would he choose this song?”
“It was their song?” I offered.
“You’re really smart,” she said, grinning a wide innocent smile through her sharp, narrowed eyes. “Did you know that?”
I took the first actual swig from my beer and wondered how I looked as I did it.
“I like to think that maybe it was as simple as this—he wanted to cushion the blow. Isn’t that a lovely thought?”
I looked across the bar and watched Marci stumble toward the jukebox, fumble around for change, and then mash buttons.
“It looks like your girlfriend is going to play a song, too,” said the girl.
“She’s not my…” I stopped.
Marci hit the side of the jukebox. “I can’t believe it!” she shouted. “Hey, Julie!” she waved at me. “Did you know that this thing is capable of playing good music?”
“Yeah,” I said to the girl. “It looks like she is.”
The girl picked the toothpick out of her martini and slid an olive into her mouth. She chewed, and when she was done, she continued her thought. “I’ve been listening to this song over and over since then, thinking that maybe somewhere in those lyrics, I could feel the way he did. Or the way she did.”
“They were breaking up,” I said.
“But they were feeling something.” She let the something of her sentence trail off in a dramatic fashion, almost as if she was waiting for her song to end, but her song was much longer than she seemed to anticipate, so she just let her voice trail off awkwardly and taper into nothing. “Your girlfriend is coming back,” she said. “I’ll be on the other side of the bar. But you can always come and talk.” She let the k of her talk trail off too, but it wasn’t the kind of sound that could trail off so easily, so her invitation ended with an accidental breathy sigh and I watched her in feigned expectation as she picked herself up and dragged her martini back to the other side of the bar where she started talking to the sad man again.
Marci plopped down on the bar stool and ordered another drink. I tried to signal to the bartender to cut her off, but the bartender looked at me with a confused stare. When my no more pantomime failed, I was embarrassed and ordered another beer.
“You’re driving,” said Marci, pushing a finger into my chest. “Don’t forget that.”
The song changed to a new one. This one I recognized as a pop song from my youth. Marci threw her head onto the table. “Oh my god!” Marci moaned. “What is wrong with the world?”
The girl across the bar mouthed out the words to the song and winked at me.
“Are we getting to that age where we don’t have anything to say about ourselves anymore?” I asked.
Marci kept her head on the table as she turned to look at me. She wore her mess well. Her desperation was an endearing hat. “What do you mean?”
“I mean every adult I know hardly has anything to say about themselves. Anything we ever say is about other people. Like we have to validate ourselves through comparison.”
The look Marci gave was one of disappointed concern. “I worry about you sometimes.”
The girl across the bar was still looking in my direction. The guy next to her was a little more comfortable now, leaning toward her as he talked, and she was doing little to feign enthusiasm. Discomforted by her gaze, I gave her a little wave and she smiled warmly back and saluted me.
“Who is she?” asked Marci, sitting up.
“Some girl,” I said.
Marci laughed and shoved me a little too hard. “You should go talk to her.”
“I’m all right.”
“Julie!” she whisper-yelled. “I’m not going to do anything with you. I’m going to drink too much and then go home to my girlfriend or something.” Again, she bore her finger into my chest. “You should drink too much and go home with her.”
“I’ll pass,” I said, and the conversation was over.
A few songs later, the music changed again. Gone were the airy saxophones. They were replaced by a lone broken trumpet on top of a determined acoustic guitar. Marci tried to down her drink, but only got halfway through. She set her glass down and stared at the ceiling.
“Finally,” she said. “I love this song.” It was a mournful statement, but a thing she had to say. “Too much, I love this song.”
It was a song I hadn’t heard before. In it, a woman sang of rivers and love and fire. The woman’s voice was sad, but as the music continued, she pleaded optimism.
“Can I tell you a story, Julie?” she asked.
Sometimes Marci called me Julie. She called me Julie because she knew it bothered me. I had long since stopped responding to it and she had long since increased the rate at which she called me Julie in hopes of getting me to break. I never broke. But it was moments like these where Marci was calling me Julie in seriousness that stung the most. These moments where Julie was so ingrained in her perception of me that I became another person. A surrogate female into which Marci could pour her insecurities. It was in these moments that I knew without a doubt that Julian was not enough for Marci and Marci could never be enough for Julian.
“Yes,” I said. “Please tell me a story.”
“Once upon a time, Heather and I went to see these guys in concert. It was the last in a long line of failed concerts. We were looking forward to it, but it was at this terrible little venue. It wasn’t twenty-one and over so there were a bunch of idiot high school kids moshing—moshing to this—and when we were done, Heather said that she was done with going to shows. She said we were getting too old.” Marci steadied herself and slid off her stool. She spread her arms out to her sides. “I’m not too old for anything.”
She was loud. Just barely loud enough to make a scene. The girl at the other end of the bar was watching intently. When I looked over at her in embarrassment, she raised her glass-this time not so much seductively, but in sympathy.
“Hey,” I said quietly.
Marci pushed me again, this time in quick repetition.
“I listen to you all the time!” she exclaimed. “Now it’s your turn to listen to me!”
I folded my hands in my lap and watched.
“They were playing another show and Heather wouldn’t go—wouldn’t go—and so Lily went with me. They played this song and it was amazing. And the two of us would listen to it all the time because this song is amazing.”
The song was fine.
Marci extended a hand. “This is the part where we dance,” she said.
I gave one last look to the girl from the other side of the bar. She was engaged in conversation with the man next to her. She was facing him now, but her eyes kept wandering. She would occasionally meet his musings with a wow or an amazing.
I turned around, grabbed Marci’s hand, and let her lead me around a four-foot square of the bar floor.
She leaned into me a few times, but she was leading and it was hard for her to rest her head against me. “Lily told me a few years ago that she wanted to dance to this song on the big day. That this would be their first dance.”
“Well, yeah,” said Marci.
“I’m never sure of anything.”
“Anyway,” Marci said, stopping. “That’s my story. God,” she rested a palm against her head. “I’m getting to the age where I have plenty to say about myself, but none of it is interesting. Not even to me.”
“Marci, darling,” I said in a faux upper-class accent. “I think your stories are absolutely captivating.” It was a forced sentiment that barely fit the tone of the moment. I had reached across time and pulled in a Julian from a year ago. A Julian without context.
“Look at you,” she said. “You’ll never be a prodigy.”
I nodded. “I’ll never be president, either.”
The song was winding down. Across the bar, the girl was leaving. She had left her man at the bar with a slip of paper. I saw only her back as she left.
Marci’s song was long-ended and her eyes were watery. She compensated for this by running away from me. “If I can’t tell interesting stories anymore, and you can’t be president or a prodigy, then maybe it’s not too hard to think that I’m at a point where I’ve lost the capacity to change my direction. Maybe I’ve met all of the people who were going to be main characters in my life. Maybe, Julian.”
She looked at me for a second. For just a moment, I was allowed into that vulnerable space as Julian. She looked back at the ground.
“You have me,” I said. “You always have me.”
“I know, Julian,” she sobbed. “But what if I only have you?”
Marci’s face was naturally pale, but tonight she was flush. She had pushed her hair back
so much over the course of the evening that now it fanned out around her head. Her glasses magnified the tears welling around her eyes and one sleeve of her shirt had been pushed up higher on her shoulder than the other. This was Marci, my surrogate everything, showing me all that she had, letting me into a part of her that I hadn’t known existed.
I took her by her wrist, pulled her close, and kissed her. It was longer than it needed to be. I felt her joints lock and her muscles tighten. Her lips were shut and my cheeks dampened against her tears.
We looked at each other because we had to. I slid my right hand down her wrist, pried her fingers apart, and let mine intertwine with hers. Her eyes narrowed with tears, but she didn’t sob. She took the back of her left hand and ran it against my cheek before cupping my face at the chin. She made a playfully tough face—the kind of face a proud mother gives a child, but then it was gone and all the despair in the world replaced it.
I leaned in again, but this time she withdrew her hand from mine, gave me a hug, and left for the restroom again.
I sat back down. There was nobody on the other side of the bar now. People were paying their tabs. The man from the foosball table was on his phone telling his wife that he had a late night at his parents’ house and that he would be home soon. The awkward man across the bar was folding the girl’s number into his wallet.
On the opposite end of the room from the foosball table was a moose head. When I was younger, my grandfather had one in his house and it always scared me because I thought the rest of its body was on the other side and the moose was just a slight kick away from being free. But now as I looked at it, I thought about another moose head on the other side of the wall. Another dimension of unfinished things finishing our unfinished things. And maybe on that side, Julian was a different person making different choices. Or maybe Julian was Julie. Or maybe Julian had never entered the bar with the pretentious name in the first place.
The bartender asked me if I wanted another drink. I said “no” and paid Marci’s tab. And once again, unsure of whatever recourse there was to take, I waited for Marci so I could take her home.