Paige brought me out. I realized how old we’d gotten somewhere along the crowded subway platform, filled with kids out of college, dressed up for a Saturday night. How did that happen? Paige looked great as usual. Same as the day I’d met her, really. I felt like hell, wearing khakis that pushed the fat of my sides and gut over the top of my belt. And yet those pants were a good six inches wider than any of the jeans worn on this overflowed alley, where everybody slowly meandered up the staircase to the street level.
“What is this place that we’re going to?”
“It’s down the street. The bar’s an old barber shop.”
Of course it was. Paige’s friend Melinda was always taking us to these Brooklyn events. She was even older than we were, pushing 40 in a few years. But she was single and looked like an 18-year-old, and even if she wanted to get married, she just couldn’t help herself when she saw a project in his early twenties.
Paige forced my arm around her shoulder, gracefully reminding me to be a gentleman. I looked down at my sweater. My dad pants, even if I hadn’t become a dad just yet. My glasses. Glasses were in style, but not mine. Not on my face. On my face I was aged a decade, into a weak middle aged man. And even older when standing next to these kids. Dumb shits who dressed in loud shirts and acted drunker than the could have been after a few beers. People who if they didn’t find somebody to hook up with tonight, would wake up broke, in a shitty apartment that they shared with a roommate somewhere in Queens or Long Island, or maybe on a couch nearby if their friend who was a lawyer or something and got his act together already.
We were swept past the bouncer into the bar. Paige had been half right. Part of this place had been a barbershop, but they must have bought the next property over as well, because the space extended further, with only a few loadbearing beams holding a roof over our head. Live music made everything deafening. They band was a big, gaudy quasi folk group with a blond playing a mandolin and more than one member in overalls. We pushed past the thickest part of the crowd, toward the bar, where Melinda and her friends were sipping Moscow Mules in copper mugs. I ordered a beer, and gave them a hug.
One of the friends had started dating somebody from out of town. He introduced himself, but I couldn’t hear a thing through the sound of the music and the crowd. Paige moved right in and kept screaming over the noise, but I was content to quietly drink my beer off to the side of the group. We’d be moving to another bar quickly enough. I’d catch up then, once we were outside.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t notice a few of the girls in the bar. More than a few that I’d have never had a chance with back when I was in my prime and dumb enough to hope for miracles. I’d never had much luck at bars. Never knew what to say over the noise. Never knew how to give off a first impression that demanded their attention. But it just wasn’t the same standing there ten years older than most of the crowd, drinking my beer and knowing exactly who I would go home with.
I started to sweat. The warm shirt was a bad idea, crammed into an overcrowded box of drunk people screaming and dancing. I ordered another beer. A guy in a black t-shirt and a greasy beard walked over with his girl. They started dancing, though there wasn’t any room. Drunkenly grinding on each other, completely offbeat to whatever music had been playing. He stumbled and stepped back into my hip. I waited for him to realize what he’d done, but he kept gyrating on his woman, and in the process, grinding his ass on my khakis.
I took a step back, irritated that I had to move around this person who still hadn’t looked back in my direction. If I were smart, I would have tried to sneak my way in to Paige and Melinda’s conversation to forget about the whole thing. But I stayed against the wall, and watched while the two dancers slowly took up more and more space. Once again, his sweaty back was rubbing onto my sweater, while he drunkenly tried to make out with his shorter partner.
“Hey man.” I said it with my hand out, but the dancing idiot didn’t look back or even acknowledge me. He just kept dancing, pressing back against my hand until I fought through the crowd to get a little more space.
“Can you believe this asshole?”
Paige looked confused, but realized what I was talking about when he kept pressing closer to me.
“Tell him to knock it off.”
“I tried. He didn’t listen.”
She laughed and shook her head.
I wanted to leave. I couldn’t hear anything and the beers were costing me $7 a bottle. I didn’t have any room, and could count down the seconds until the inevitable happened and the dancer was back with his ass unwittingly pressing into my side. He was practically wiping his colon with my pants. I waited. I thought that since I couldn’t go anywhere, so if I stood my ground, he’d have to eventually get the point and correct himself, but no. He just kept on grinding away.
In a calmer moment I might have tapped the guy on the shoulder and explained casually myself, but all that came out was my shoving him in the back and yelling, “Hey man, what the fuck?”
He spun around and shook his greasy hair, shocked and outraged that I would bother him in the middle of a song with his girl.
“Oh fuck you, bro.”
His immediate anger surprised me. I wanted to punch him so badly. “You’ve been rubbing your ass on my pants for twenty minutes, you stupid piece of shit.”
“Fuck you.” He shoved me back, and I saw his friends huddle around behind him, one stupid ogre who didn’t say a word, but stared at me from over the group. Another two who didn’t look like much in a fight, but still added up to a group of four.
Ten years ago, I would have taken a swing. But ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been out with my wife and her girlfriends. I would have been with my friends out causing trouble. I did the math, with my blood boiling, knowing that I couldn’t throw a punch. I called him an asshole and before I could walk away, Paige stepped in between us and called him a loser, and pointed out how embarrassed his girl looked.
“I feel sorry for her. Good luck impressing her, you greasy dishrag.”
We left the bar. They wanted to go to a lounge down the street anyway. Her friends did a commendable job lying to me.
“I didn’t really see them, but I’m pretty sure you could have kicked their asses.”
“The first guy definitely.”
“Oh, without a doubt. That’s probably why he hangs out with those guys. He needs protection.”
I nodded. I smiled. I forced myself to let go of my fist. I used to fight people in bars. Not all the time. But in smaller towns where everybody knew everybody, and grudges bled into Friday night drinks, everybody got in a fight eventually. Those moments where you feel your body pump up and time slow down. You learn that taking a punch to the face doesn’t hurt as much as hitting somebody in the wrong part of the head. Sometimes somebody loses the fight, but most of the time both people get a few hits in before the fight gets stopped. And even if you do take a few shots, you never really feel it until the next day.
We went to that rooftop lounge, where everything was quiet enough to hold a conversation, but the beers cost $15 a bottle. They’d forgotten all about the incident at the other place. Most of them talked about vacations, or work, or somebody’s birthday. I sipped on my beer, trying to nurse it, thankful for every second that I could use with the neck bending toward my mouth so that I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody. I pretended that I wasn’t still upset with myself.
I wondered what we were doing out with Melinda, while she tried to relive her early twenties. When was this going to end? If we decide not to have kids, are we getting dragged out to Cancun for spring break with drunk 19 year olds from Big Ten schools?
Melinda wasn’t the problem. I was the one who was too old for the bar. I was the one trying to deal with the wrinkles and grey hairs that I thought I’d never get so long as I didn’t settle down, and kept drinking until three in the morning. I used to be terrified of missing a good night out, and desperate to have the craziest story. I was hardcore. A real drinker who’d flirt with girls going shot for shot until they kept accidentally lighting the filter of their cigarettes.
“Are you having a good time, honey?”
“I’m getting tired, to tell you the truth.”
I could have killed Paige for stepping in between me and that punk in the bar.
“You’re not still upset about that thing?”
“What, that… Honey, it’s the furthest thing from my mind.”
“I know how you get.”
I was fine. I didn’t know that guy, and I’d never see him again. I got up to get another drink, and thought back to those insecure college days, and realized that I wished I was still that guy, no matter how uncool that sounded. Because that kid always believed. He almost never walked home with a strange girl, but he went out there not knowing who he was going to meet, or what was going to happen. And when all the elements lined up perfectly, the nights unfolded in strung together bursts of excitement. Anything was possible, and the reasons for hitting somebody who got in the way of your destined good night always outweighed the reasons to walk away.
I realized that I’d fought all the noble battles already. From this point on my fights were going to be internal, and I’d probably lose more of them than I’d win. I took a drink at the bar, looking out the glass window at Paige and Melinda and her friends, laughing on the roof deck, seemingly free of trying to lift my spirits.
I should have punched him.