I am not a priest or a rabbi but chances are good that just as many people look to me for absolution of their sins. Hell, probably more because I get the agnostics and the atheists too.
Don’t ask me to tell you when it started or how bartenders got a reputation for being the person you can spill your guts too because I don’t know and if I did it is probably not something I would talk about either. It would be like a magician telling you how he saws the girls in half- some things are trade secrets.
What I can tell you is a good bartender is more than someone who knows how to make the best Martini or the latest cocktail fad drink. A good bartender knows how to listen and when to speak. Sure, alcohol helps loosen the lips of the customers and makes it easier for them to tell us about whatever is on their minds, but that is not all.
They share with us because we don’t share what we hear and we don’t judge. We are like the Swiss bankers except our currency isn’t traded on Wall Street.
I suppose it is only natural for you to ask why I am writing this book about the stories I know. I suppose that after the sort of introduction I gave you wonder how I can break the code of silence and share what is supposed to remain sealed and I would say you are right to ask.
The answer is simple: Some stories need to be told. Some need to be shared because that is how we learn and we grow. It is what people have always done and always will do: tell stories.
Stories are what we use to relate to each other. Stories are what make us feel and remember what we have lost, what we have gained and what we have. Sometimes stories are the things that break us apart and sometimes they are the magic wand that heals the damage and repairs the broken shards.
That is my story about why I am doing this and I am sticking to it. If it makes you feel good to think otherwise you are welcome to do so. Otherwise make yourself a cup of mint tea or whatever your favorite drink is and pull up a stool. I am just getting started and it would be my pleasure to take you on this tour.
I can’t tell you when he first showed up at the bar but I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t there. I don’t mean for that to sound like he is the kind of bar rat that takes over a stool and never leaves because he is not.
This guy doesn’t show up every day and never has. Most of the time he comes in once or twice a week, orders a beer and sits in the corner watching the people come and go. He wears black and rarely speaks. You don’t have to be a shrink to see how he uses the black and the silence to blend in but you would have to be blind not to notice him.
He is of average height, with broad shoulders, big hands and hazel greenish eyes, but that is not why people notice him either.
Can’t really say what it is that gives him such presence, just know that I am not only one to notice. The best description I have is that he is “solid.” There is substance and depth there and I get the sense that those hands have been used for things other than holding hands, but I am just guessing about that.
“She still loves me, but she holds onto her anger and to the past. She keeps me at arm’s length because she is afraid to do more than that.”
I have heard that same story a million times from a million different men and women. They all talk about the one who got away. Sometimes it is because of something they did and sometimes it has nothing to do with them. Doesn’t really matter because the tale is still the same one of loss and unrequited love.
But this one caught my ear because of who was speaking. He never said much of anything. Most of the time he would show up, order a beer and sit in that corner watching the people and thinking about whatever it is he thinks about.
“I tried to get her back. I tried to do it, but when she decided to walk she kept going and it didn’t matter what I said. It was devastating. I thought she was different. I thought i was different and I thought we were different.”
I was just as surprised by my reaction to his voice by my lack of surprise regarding his story. I wanted to know more and that threw me. After twenty years of this I rarely find myself truly interested in learning more.
Some of my customers might be surprised by that. They might tell you that I am the most caring person they know, that is not entirely true. A bartender has to be a good actor and a good listener. It is how we make our money.
“We got lost in a sea full of crap and got crazy. I didn’t give her the apology she wanted and she took that to mean that I didn’t care or that I didn’t understand. Meanwhile I got crazy because she didn’t accept that I was sincere or believe what I was saying. So we got angry and did things…”
Several moments passed and I realized he was giving me an opening so I asked him to share a bit more. He told me one of those stories about how the two of them had never loved anyone else the way they loved each other and explained what had happened or at least what he thought.
I nodded my head and listened to him tell me about how she broke his heart over and over and then asked him if it wasn’t fair to say he had done the same to her. That was the second surprise of that night.
A good bartender doesn’t take sides like that. My job was to listen, console and pour more booze, not ask him if she had been hurt too.
“For a while I didn’t believe it. She was so hard and so cold about things it made me think she hadn’t really cared at all. Made me feel like a notch and made me question myself. Wasn’t used to that sort of thing. It is not because I am so hot or have so many women, it was just different.”
I snorted, they always think they are different. Everyone of them is certain they are different and for that matter they always say whomever they are pining for is different too. Usually it is punctuated by some curses about them, but they always say they are different.
“After a while things snapped back into place and I saw clearly again that she was hurting and I realized it was just a front. Realized that she was pretending to be tough and that she would say/do things to try to make me think she didn’t care. It was a control issue. So I took the collar off of my neck and started living again.”
That pause lasted long enough for another couple of questions including one about what he meant about a collar.
“I was being figurative. I didn’t get a collar or tattoo, just carried a torch for a woman who kept pretending she wanted me to blow it out. When I realized she still loved me I took the collar off and started doing what I needed to do to get on with my life.”
I asked him if that meant he had given up on her and he laughed.
“Nah, I haven’t given up on things any more than she has. I just turned my focus in a different direction. She doesn’t want weak. She wants strong and I don’t like weak either. It is not who I am or who we were. We were solid together and maybe we will be again.”
He laughed and took a long drink.
“The last time I talked to her I told her I wanted to sleep with her and dared her to kiss me. I knew she wouldn’t.”
Sounds to me like you are scared but I don’t know if you are scared of it happening or not happening.
“Nah, I am not scared like you think I am. I am curious to see what would happen and if it would feel like I think it would. I suspect we would pick right up but be stronger than before. But it is not going to happen real easily, if at all.”
I couldn’t let that go so I asked why.
“She is a woman. She won’t come right out and say she wants to or admit any real interest. She’ll make me work for it and the whole time she’ll be watching to see what I do and how I do it because she’ll question herself. She can’t just sleep with me and pretend it doesn’t mean anything, but she’ll be concerned that I can. She’ll want to know that I don’t just want to get laid and she’ll want to know it is not something stupid between us.”
“In short it is a really complicated situation that should just be boiled down to our agreeing that the past is the past and the future is the future. What happened then doesn’t have to be ignored but it doesn’t have to be seen as a template for the future because that can be whatever we make it out to be.
I told him that the timing would be good for his moment. New Years Eve is in a couple of weeks.
“Yes it is and I hope she’ll think of me and wish I was the one she was kissing. I kind of suspect that to be the case, but I am not going to say or do more than that right now. Got my own stuff to deal with. Thanks for the drink, I’ll see you later.
I watched as he walked out the door and wondered when he would be back, if he was coming back. After all this time I can’t tell you his name which I suppose proves I am not as good a bartender as I thought I was. Didn’t realize that I never used it, which is kind of bizarre because it feels like I must have.
It has been ten days since I last saw him, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t all that long a time. If I never hear from that guy again life will go on and there will be other stories to listen to and other people to talk to.
Still I have to admit I am really curious. I hope he comes back because I sure would like to know what happens.