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photo by E Price

There is a man who has been shuffling around the bar, teetering and whispering in people’s faces for the entire three hours that I’ve been here. He seems harmless enough, taupe skin and yellow-white hair, khaki jacket, nose flushed with blood vessels on the brink of bursting, incomprehensible, making his way around the perimeter but never lingering too long. The bouncer knows him, my friend B knows him, everybody gives him a rough, atta-boy pat on the back and watches him as he pivots and dance-lurches across the floor.

It is October and the daylight is fast fading and I’m sitting by the windows at the end of the bar. The bouncer sees me reading, looking up to laugh at B and his girlfriend S as they dance far more capably than the old drunk guy.

“You’re an introvert huh,” the bouncer says. He’s an older, wiry thin black man in a thin leather jacket. He knows everybody too.

“Yeah,” I tell him. “I’m just taking a break!”

“I ought to hire you,” he says. He is holding a frayed paperback book. Looks like something cowboy. “You’re sitting here like I am anyway.”

“I’d be a natural!”

He smiles. I have to yell over the music, which S put on. It’s an old man bar, diverse and working-class and one of the few left in the rapidly hipsterizing area, but she has elected to blast N’Sync with my encouragement. Despite the demographic mismatch, the old-man clientele is blase, and the drunk guy remains dancing, even as B and S take the floor.

She, S, is lanky and glamorous, with dark eyes and a strong brow. She’s pressed tight into a flouncy purple dress that sometimes gaps at the buttons, revealing a flash of her chest. She’s aware of this and a little self-conscious, but struts around the floor with all the competence and confidence of somebody far less put-upon than she actually is. All I can do is stare at her, singing along to the words, locking eyes when she will let me, briefly caught up in the drama.

B has been going here for years upon years, has been absorbed into its culture, and somehow registers as more working-class, mustachioed Chicagoan than yuppie Indianapolis transplant, which is what he actually is. He wears the same tattered jean jacket and flannel shirt all winter long. His boots are sensible-looking but expensive. He rolls cigarettes.

B has forever been depressed, until S. We have always been depression buddies. I know that I can trust him with my most fucked-up thoughts because I have seen him cry, and he has seen me withstand abuse, and has been there, and has confessed his own suicide attempts to me. Most of that happened many many years ago, but it still keeps us close, even if I venture out to the old man bar with him but rarely.

But S has drawn joy out of him. She is radiant, and glamorous, and encourages him to dance no matter how poorly he matches her. She brims with self-assurance and wit dribbles out of her effortlessly. Later on she and I will dance to Man! I Feel Like a Woman and she will lean in, place her hands on my face and chide me, it’s your prerogative to have a little fun! And instead of singing it, she will say it, as if begging me to become as airy and effortless in my movements as her.

But that will never happen. Perhaps because I am not psychically connected to Shania Twain, as S is; I love the song, remember how my dad used to sing it in front of the TV, but I cannot resonate with it. Unlike S, I do not feel like a woman, whatever the fuck that means, and I certainly am not aware of any prerogative to have a little fun. Watching her sway and dance and smolder, I feel inadequate, but also like I know myself. This, her, is what a woman looks like. This is what somebody fully inhabiting their recognized self-hood looks like. This is how self-love shines and asserts itself. And for the first time, what I am in contrast to her rings like a brass bell that’s been struck by the mallet of my own awkwardly thudding feet.

I try to dance with her. Really, I do. She is so kind to me, and it means a lot that she is, since I know she has the capacity for scathing cynicism bordering on cruelty. But now she is in love, and overflowing with gratitude.

She takes me by then hand and says she is so thankful to meet me, and to get to know me, because she knows how much I mean to B. And how grateful she is that B’s friends have all been so kind to her, and what a relief it is that she likes them, all of them, likes me, so much.

And I remember that she is always on shaky ground. Even here, where she is known, there might still be a new patron or unfamiliar “friend” who could ruin the sacred, unexpected safeness of this place.

We are dancing. Man! I Feel Like a Woman has ended and Spice Up Your Life has replaced it. She is strutting like a model down the length of the bar and I’m swaying out of rhythm, smiling at strangers, trying to be fun enough to be worthy of her friendship. The drunk man steps into the fray. He is swaying and his hands are darting in the air.

I think, no big deal. He’s a regular. He’s been blotto for hours and nothing has come of it; we’re all safe. But then he sidesteps into the middle of the floor and grabs S by the upper arm and pulls her toward his wet, sour mouth.

“GET YOUR HAND THE FUCK OFF OF ME.” she says. She pulls back. Squares her shoulders. Points a finger at him. She knows what the ground crumbling beneath her feet looks like. She knows what to do. It doesn’t scare her after years of this shit.

The man lurches forward.

“YOU GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME. DO NOT FUCKING TOUCH ME.” Her voice is measured, confident, attention-grabbing loud.

I run over. I go to step in between him and her. Before I get there, he throws a punch. The bouncer has the drunk man in his arms, pulling and screaming at him, and I stand in between them and S, feeling impotent. S turns. She pulls a sip from her drink. We continue to dance.

Later the bar is crowded with people and my bad dancing is less visible. Some college aged kids are clotting up the space and screaming lyrics until S picks a song that’s unfamiliar to them, a little Dusty Springfield that prompts B to join her in a swaying slow-dance. I’m nearby, trying not to be annoying. We pose for a picture; S pulls me in close and makes a vampy, funny-pretty look and gives the photographer money for the Polaroid.

Then S walks away, throws on a coat and goes out for a smoke. A tall, older man whom I haven’t seen before grabs me by the forearm. I ought to struggle against it like S but it’s not aggressive so I don’t. It’s flirtatious, in that way that older men can be. Not the scary kind. The sad kind.

He looks down at me, smiles and says, “You know your friend is a man, right?”

I jerk away, standing tall for the first time in the night. “No, she’s not.”

He sighs and shakes his head like he’s pitying me. “Your friend. Is a man.”

“No,” I tell him.

“But he like– you know, he like–”

“NO.” I tell him. “She. is. a. woman.”

“But you’re a woman, though, right?” he continues. “I can tell. You’re a real woman, I can smell it on you or something.”

He’s smiling still. Utterly patient. This man is not like the drunk, who turned violent the second S pronounced a boundary. This guy thinks he’s funny, and he’s a little bit confused, and so my opportunity to be there for S is impotent, symbolic, useless as my feet on the dance floor.

“My friend is a woman,” I tell him, declarative words yell-whispered while the music plays and people chatter on the dance floor around us. “And I’m not.”

I could go in to a whole dissection of his wrongness, try to explain things in terms he would understand, but he does not deserve this and it would be less precise than the simple truth. So then he’s gone, shrugging, lips pursed into a Cheshire-cat grin as heads for the bar and I head for the door. It’s time for me to go.

I find S and B out on the patio smoking. He’s bouncing on his feet, jacket flapping, and she’s chatting up the other smokers and making playful fun of B. When I say goodbye they both hug me several times.

And it seems selfish, to feel good that she likes me, when all I had to do was not be a bigot. And it seems selfish to try and protect her when I know she has, since time immemorial, stood for and protected herself. And worst of all, it is selfish and self-absorbed to look at her self-possession and awareness, envy it, covet it, and then use it as a chemical bath in which to develop my own sense of self.

— — –

I wait for the bus across the street from them, shivering. S is hanging off of her boyfriend, laughing at something. She walks over to me.

“I would offer you my jacket,” she says, “because I think it’s cute and sweet when girls share jackets with each other. But I really am freezing.”

“Oh, yeah of course! No, stay warm!” I tell her. I reach into my bag and retrieve a dopey-looking pleather bomber jacket that S wouldn’t be caught dead in. “You’re in that skimpy dress! Take care of yourself!”

Her brows raise. “Skimpy?”

“In a good way!’ I bark. I am waylaid with just how much I suck. “In a good way! I mean that in a completely skimp-positive sense! It’s skimpy and flouncy and fun!”

And then, thank God, she smiles at me again.

“It was great to see you again,” she tells me, and I am effusive in my expression of same. I feel forgiven and bashful when the #74 arrives and finally carts me away.

I will never be able to handle things gracefully or at the right time or with tact. But I am lucky enough to be in the right place, and on the right side. And it’s a whole cadre of better, other people I have to thank for that.

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