“When in doubt, fuck it. When not in doubt, get in doubt.” – Principia Discordia
Our relationship was like the smoke from her cigarette framed against neon light. It glowed and wavered and drew your attention for just the briefest moment before disappearing. Unable to be caught or contained we drifted through the night air, unpredictable.
I promised her I wouldn’t describe it like that—she did her best to disabuse me of my pretentiousness—but I can’t help it. That’s how it felt to me. That’s how it still feels to me.
Every guy, wherever he is and no matter his intentions, picks one anonymous girl from the crowd and keys on her. That might mean different things to different people; it could be that he finds her beautiful, or the way she catches his eye signals some mutual interest, or maybe he’s just drunk and horny and thinks this particular girl gives him the best chance at getting laid. It doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t immediately mean danger, it doesn’t mean anything except that society doesn’t teach boys that women aren’t objects to be stared at, and if they don’t stop they’ll grow up to be creepy men.
Despite my best intentions (or lack of intention, really, being as aware of my own creepiness as I am), Amy became the girl I keyed on. I found her shortly after my friends and I had entered, the four of us crowding around two empty stools at the bar, Jack the bridge between the furthest of us and the bartender. She was sitting at a high-top beneath a red and blue Labatt’s sign, smoking a cigarette, surrounded by people but totally alone. She saw me seeing her and winked. In hindsight, that’s what cemented my attention. I had never been winked at by a stranger. I thought that was something that only happened in movies. Perhaps it is, considering everything that happened that night.
“What kind of shots are we doing?” Pat asked, grabbing my shoulder and pulling my gaze away from the girl. Pat was big, athletic and strong, so when he grabbed you, he had your full attention. In his eyes, I was just checking out some random girl in the bar. Not silently communicating with a stranger.
“No shots,” I said. “I’m done with shots.”
“C’mon…” Jack began. It was obvious what he was going to say. It was my bachelor party. My last night as a single man. The first time we’d been together as a group in years. All the boring, clichéd excuses we used to get shitfaced. “For old times sake.” I had to give him credit, he said exactly what I thought he would say, just more concise.
“I don’t drink like that anymore. My body can’t handle it,” I said.
“That’s because you’re out of practice,” Bill chimed in while passing me a tall beer. It looked darker than I liked. Probably an IPA. I hate IPAs.
“Not to worry. You’re with three drinking experts. We’ll get you back up to speed in no time. Cheers to the groom!” Pat toasted. We lifted our beers. I took a small sip from mine (the iron taste confirmed my suspicion), Pat and Bill chugged theirs until empty, and Jack drank a quarter of his. He was designated driver. While I waited I assessed the exits. An old habit, but an important one. Being in a loud bar with so many people spiked my anxiety.
Jack got serious. “What’s up with you? Aren’t you having fun?”
I shrugged. This wasn’t my idea of fun, anymore. Getting drunk in a loud bar surrounded by strangers no longer interested me. I preferred a quiet, nostalgic night with people I cared about or, if not that, then forging new memories by exploring the nooks and crannies of the city that raised us. Of course, I couldn’t expect them to know that. Considering when I left home I wasn’t surprised we had reverted back to what things were like in our early 20s. “Nothing. Is this all we’ve got planned for tonight?” I asked, hopeful.
My three groomsmen looked at one another. “We thought we’d just bounce around town. Hit up our old haunts. Reminisce a bit before you take the next step into full-blown adulthood,” Jack said. “Keep it loose, ya know? Did you have something specific in mind?”
Of course they didn’t have anything planned. Why would they? “No,” I said. “That’s kind of your job.”
I could see by Jack’s expression that I had hurt his feelings. As my best man he was in charge of festivities. When I had called to ask him, I could tell he was taken by surprise.
We had kept in touch over the years, but we both knew the closeness we felt as teenagers had dissipated with distance and time. Part of me hadn’t wanted to ask any of them. I felt the distance between us deeply—on an elemental level—especially when I considered how long it had been since anyone had come to visit me. But I didn’t have any close friends in DC and I felt like our histories made the ceremony inevitable. I had pictured them as my best men for a long time, and without any other options I saw no reason to edit that picture.
Regardless, he had accepted the responsibility. Now, he seemed to regret it.
“Alright,” Bill said, checking his watch. “Get that beer down. I’m putting you on a strict schedule of one beer every twenty minutes. You’ve already lost five nursing that one.” I took a defiant baby-sip. Bill smiled, then swapped places with Jack to personally summon the bartender.
Jack sidled up to me. “You don’t look happy.”
“This isn’t really my scene, anymore,” I admitted. I wasn’t sure Jack could understand that drinking didn’t interest me, loud music annoyed me, and standing side-by-side with sweaty strangers grossed me out. These things were fun and interesting when I was young, single, and my body didn’t punish me so harshly for introducing it to poisons. That felt like a lifetime ago.
“Then tell me what is. It’s been while since we’ve hung out. I just thought it’d be fun to relive our glory years, ya know?”
A tight frustration rose into my throat. Been a while since we’ve hung out. I wanted to ask why that was. Why he hadn’t come to visit me in Virginia, or how he hadn’t been available the last few times I’d visited home, as infrequent as that had become. A conspiracy theory formed in my brain that Jack didn’t actually like me, anymore. Maybe he found me boring. I wouldn’t blame him, if I’m honest. I was boring, and I was bored. My life consisted of work and Laura. I didn’t mind it, the stability was nice, but I understood why that would turn someone like Jack away. And maybe this imaginary Jack in my head had a point. That comfort I had built around myself—my cocoon—also felt like a trap. To his point, reliving our glory years didn’t feel much more exciting. In our early 20s we wandered from bar to bar every weekend. By the time I had left Buffalo for DC it had gotten old. Now that we were ten years on, it still felt that way.
With all of this in my head, I smiled.
“We’ll see, right? I’m just not used to this sort of thing, anymore.”
“With a few drinks you’ll get back into it. Finish that up and we’ll find a more chill bar to hang out. Ease into it.” Jack raised his glass. I clinked mine against it and we sipped. I didn’t want to ease into it. I really felt like I didn’t want to be there, with them, at all. I missed Laura and wondered what she was doing.
I glanced back to the girl at the high-top. She caught my gaze and beckoned me with her cigarette. Being beckoned is an interesting thing. It narrows the infinite number of decisions we might make at any moment into a binary—yes or no. Go or don’t.
I had every reason to turn back to my friends, to ignore her, to continue with our night. It was my bachelor party. My wedding was only two months away. Embarking on a side journey to some strange woman could only complicate my life.
Still, without saying anything to Jack or the others, I crossed the room to her table. I felt my friends’ eyes on my back. I rationalized that they would understand my talking to a beautiful girl. Maybe even give me some sort of accolades. Bill definitely would. I wondered if I could trust them not to tell Laura about it. It’s not like I would cheat on her. This was just a bit of attention that I wasn’t accustomed to receiving.
I posted up across the high-top.
She matched my gaze without saying anything. Her cigarette smelled vaguely minty and it reminded me of the kinds my friends used to smoke when we were younger, before we lost our rebelliousness and quit. I put my hands on the sticky high-top and immediately regretted it. I tried to hide my discomfort by removing them in a single motion, but it was written on my face, anyway.
“I didn’t know there were any places left in Buffalo that allow smoking,” I said.
“There aren’t,” she replied, taking a drag. “But they don’t know that I know that, and no one’s asked me to stop.” Smoke drifted from her nose, floating up into the blue glow of the neon beer sign above her. Like her, it was transfixing. The dim, neon bar lighting obscured most of her features, but I could tell that she was the type of girl who would give my imagination fits. Her hair was short and framed her features. Her face wasn’t perfectly symmetrical; she had a high forehead and her nose was a bit crooked, like it had been broken when she was young. Her smile was like an open door to a dark room, inviting and mysterious. Maybe it was the freckles that got me. Each constellation on her skin was a myth that I desperately wanted to learn.
“You’re not worried about getting kicked out?”
She shook her head. “What I’m looking for isn’t here, anyway.”
“No? What are you looking for?”
She tilted her head, the right corner of her mouth curving upward like fabric under pull of a needle. “Do you find me interesting?” she asked.
It felt like a trick question. “I find you attractive,” I answered honestly to my immediate regret. If Laura found out I’d said something like that to another woman she’d disembowel me with her fingernails. It was one of the many reasons I loved her.
Her knowing smirk became a full smile. “Oh darling, it’s so much more than that.” She leaned in closer. I did, too. “What’s your life like?” she asked.
It was a direct question, but I didn’t understand what she was looking for. “Sorry?”
“What’s your life like? What do you do day-to-day?”
I shrugged. “I go to work. Come home and have dinner. Go for a run. Go to sleep. Why?”
She shook her head, like she was disappointed with my answer. “Doesn’t sound very interesting.”
“I never said it was.” I felt offended, like she had made some judgment based on twenty words about my life.
“You don’t want more?”
Something inside me tightened with a sensed danger and still I stood there answering this strange woman’s questions. “We all want more. But there’s nothing wrong with appreciating what you already have.”
“Sure,” she said, taking another drag. “But what’s the point if you’re not happy? Let me rephrase—the only point is to be happy.”
It wasn’t a question, but I answered her like it was. “I am happy.”
“Ok,” she said. “Then there’s no reason for you to join me on what I promise will be a capital ‘A’ adventure.”
If she had used any other word I like to think I’d have been able to walk away. If she had stopped at ‘me’ instead of ‘adventure’ I could have turned around, a new story in my pocket to entertain my friends about some weird woman I met. But the way the word came off her tongue—capital “A” adventure—pulled me into the night with promises of something I desperately needed.
“What’s the plan for this capital ‘A’ adventure?” I asked.
She considered me with narrowed eyes. I wondered if I had already said something wrong. Somehow disqualified myself.
“I’m going to five more places. You’re welcome to join me for all of them, one of them, or somewhere in-between,” she said.
“Where?” I asked. “To do what?”
“Not here and to tell you what we’re doing would ruin the fun,” she said. “But if you’re afraid you can go back to your friends over there and continue looking bored and irritated.”
She was observant. And I was too easily read. “I’m not afraid. I just…” I looked back toward my friends and a new irritation swept over me. With them was more of the same things I had grown out of, with people I somehow knew too well and not well enough. This woman was something different. Probably not better, maybe much worse, but different nonetheless.
Her cigarette was nearly to the filter. She dropped it on the floor and smashed the embers underfoot as she stood. She gathered a large book bag that was sitting on the floor, needing some effort to sling it around her shoulders. There were multiple patches and stickers from pop punk bands. “Pleasure meeting you,” she said. I felt the sting of an opportunity walking away.
“I’ll get my friends,” I said, turning away from her, hoping that they might be able to offer me protection. I clearly wasn’t able to protect myself.
She grabbed for my arm. “No,” she said. “The more people there are the slower we’ll be. I just need you.”
It frightened me to think that I couldn’t enlist my friends’ help, but I liked the way she said she needed me. I liked it enough that her aggressiveness only made me consider the fact that she might be pulling me away to rob or murder me for a half second before it slipped from my consciousness.
She leaned in close. “In fact, we’ve already been too conspicuous. We should leave now.”
She disappeared into the crowd. I glanced back at Jack, Pat, and Bill. They watched me, bemused. My eyes caught Jack’s. He tilted his head a bit to ask what I thought I was doing. I knew the smart thing would be to go back to them, get through the night, and then go home to Virginia. Home to Laura.
Instead, I shrugged an apology and hurried after the strange girl, barely able to keep her in my sight through the crushing herd of drunks. When I finally caught up to her, she was waiting near the kitchen door. “Exit’s up front,” I said.
“They’ll be expecting that,” she said. “We’re going through here.” A waitress exited from the swinging doors carrying a tray of deep-fried food. The strange girl grabbed my hand and pulled me through the doorway. Without looking back, she led me through the exit and into what would become the weirdest night of my life.