Carly Sachs teaches writing and yoga at Kent State University. She is the author of The Steam Sequence and the editor of the anthology, The Why and Later, a collection of poems women have written about rape and assault.
It’s crowded for a Wednesday night and a man with headphones slips into the only open seat at the bar. “Sauvignon Blanc,” he says, without taking off the headphones. I drop a napkin in front of him and nod. When I return with his drink, he still hasn’t removed them.
Occasionally, I’ll joke with some of the after-work patrons who are on their Blackberries, that I should just get their email addresses and ask via mobile device whether they want another drink. That comment usually gets a chuckle, until their phones buzz and it’s a call, or email, or text that ends our conversations. Once, I approached a woman on her cell phone and offered her a drink menu. She held up one finger and stared hard. I backed away and made myself busy wiping down bottles.
Sometimes I wonder what our world was like before we were all online all the time. And I know I can’t judge because I keep my phone behind the bar. I tell myself it’s so I can look up restaurants and directions for the hotel guests. But really, I know it’s so I can keep up with my emails while working, and text friends who may be in the neighborhood.
I smile at the man with the headphones when I catch him glancing over at me. It’s a bit late for work, but maybe he’s listening to a book on tape. Some people love to read at the bar: a newspaper and a martini; a novel and a glass of wine. Perhaps it’s a signal: Don’t engage me in any useless chatter. I’ve come here to be by myself. So I leave him alone.
I was working a cocktail shift when I found out that my cousin Meredith had passed. She had been in the hospital. I read the email about it before I heard my mom’s voicemail. I was sitting in the stairwell where I kept my purse, the marble steps cold against my bare legs. What was I thinking, wearing a skirt in January?
Along the back of my thighs, I could see the veins, the same purple-indigo, Meredith’s favorite color, that swirled into the marble. When I told my manager about Meredith’s death, she told me to go home, but I finished the shift. What else could I do? I moved glasses from bar to table, brought more when needed. This is how January feels, I thought, looking at the few patrons and the candles flickering. Most of the velvet chairs were vacant.
It’s March now and there are tiny green buds forming on the trees along the avenue. Only a few months ago, they were lit up in white. We were getting emails every day about Meredith’s condition. I know that because they would arrive around four o’clock, one hour before opening. I’d look out the dark windows in the quiet moments during the shift and think about my cousin, how much I knew and didn’t know about her. I’d wonder how her parents and sister were doing, sitting around in a waiting room while I was making drinks. I would ask, up or on the rocks, and pretend like it mattered. I convinced myself that if I could just move from one end of the bar to the other, for ice or scotch or wine, things would move along for Meredith in the same manner. Over the weeks, different people went to visit Meredith in the hospital. The names of family friends and high school acquaintances turned up in the emails. We’re lucky, her father would write. When I said Cheers to the patrons, I was thinking Go Meredith, which is how cousin Billy closed his email updates. Most days, I wrote something small to her father, noticing something witty about his writing, or expressing my gratitude for taking so much time and care to keep us all informed when every day he slept in a strange bed and looked at his daughter hooked up to IVs.
I’m putting ice in the shaker, feeling that something is about to happen. The patrons next to the man with the headphones are trying to inch their stools away. He’s singing “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.”
I skate over and make eye contact, “James Taylor, right?”
He looks up at me, amazed for a second before a wave of embarrassment hits. “I was singing,” he says.
“You were,” I smile.
He puts his headphones back on, holding one finger up to his lips. The other patrons relax a bit and go back to their conversations.
I want to tell him that James Taylor was one of my cousin’s favorites, but I know better than to talk about Meredith. People come here to meet friends and unwind before their commute. Talking about my cousin wouldn’t be fair. Besides, I’m the one who is supposed to wear sheer black clothes, pour what is asked of me, and do all the listening. I look out the window and watch clouds roll across the sky.
The next time I look over at Headphones, he’s twirling a wedding ring on one of the long black straws he plucked from the napkin caddy. I move over and touch his arm. “Hey, James Taylor,” I say, “you okay?”
He sighs and takes off his headphones but keeps on spinning the ring. “You would have liked this one,” he says. “It’s a good one.”
For the first time he looks directly at me. The ring lands on the bar’s inlaid glass top. “Not you,” he says, “my wife.”
I don’t know if I should play along.
“Remember when,” he says, and I know he’s talking to his wife again.
“Will your wife be meeting you this evening?” I say, hoping to reel him in a bit.
He stops twirling the ring and tosses it up in the air, trying to catch it in his hands. When he misses, he leans back on his chair and tips over. By now everyone is staring as the man recovers himself and gropes the floor in the dark.
Luckily, he finds the ring. I move away, letting him regain his composure and offering some time for the heaviness of the moment to pass.
But in a minute, he’s flagging me over, pointing to his empty glass.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “but I don’t think – ”
He drums his hands on the bar, “You know, my wife died. A year ago today.”
“I’m so sorry. My cousin – ” I start.
He looks down at the bar. “Breast cancer.”
I nod. I don’t even know his name.
“Can I get another one, dear?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. You see, I think maybe you were drinking before you got here, and since I’m the last person who served you.” It just doesn’t feel right – explaining dram shop laws to a grieving and already somewhat intoxicated patron.
“What I mean is,” I try again. “Is there someone I can call for you, to get you home, or maybe a cab?”
He puts a ten on the bar and turns up the headphone volume.
After he leaves, I think of all the things I could have said to him, or to Meredith’s husband Brian at the funeral, and I wonder if anything would have made a difference. As I’m walking to the train after the shift, I look for Headphones in the windows of the bars on 36th street, hoping that I’ll see him and be able to say the right thing. I see men my age drinking with their friends or girlfriends, and I think about Brian, home with his infant daughter and most likely asleep by now. I zip my jacket a little tighter.
When my best friend Suzy lost her baby the weekend of her wedding, everyone surrounded her and her husband Eric asking how they were, what they wanted or needed. I was the one who cut fruit, cleaned the kitchen. Years later, I apologized for not doing the right thing, for maybe not connecting with her enough.
“But you did,” she said, “you were present.”
Riding the train home, I wonder about Headphones and think of him waking up tomorrow in sheets tangled by another restless night. I wonder whether he’ll notice the light coming through his window and feel less shaky. Maybe his feet will meet the hardwood floor of his apartment, gently landing him in a quiet but budding present. I think of Suzy and her husband back in Ohio, and Brian in Minnesota, and wonder if any of the trees there have begun to show the first signs of a new season.