The dim glow and tight pathway between the high-tops and the bar were still familiar after all these months, and it felt like home. The stools were uncomfortable, unbalanced, in other words, just right. The table was sticky and the bartender was cute, punk rock and great at polishing mugs while she took orders. But the bar had just opened and I couldn’t smell any booze.
We were three, waiting on four. I was sober, they were not. The girl who’d be joining us I didn’t know too well, but she mentioned she liked scotch on our first date. She didn’t order a drink yesterday, maybe it would be the same tonight. She had invited me to this private comedy show on Christmas Eve where Jewish comedians would spend hours telling Bubbe jokes and making fun of the Holocaust. “Not a date” she had told me, “bring some friends since I’ll be hanging out with mine” she warned.
My friends ordered beers, and they grabbed some of the free Chinese food the $8 cover charge helped buy the whole place. My eyes couldn’t stop gravitating towards how full their pint glasses were, watching the foam leave its residue with each swig like the rings of a tree. One minute old. Five minutes old. Eight minutes old. I was listening to them talk but I was more interested in how fast they would drink. I couldn’t smell the beer, just the general tso’s chicken and egg rolls.
She got there late. I wished I were drinking, it would have at least taken away all the doubt that she didn’t even want to be there. Anything to stop the reminders that I hadn’t done this kind of thing in years. That I wasn’t supposed to be doing this kind of thing so early in sobriety. She said hello but stayed focused on the room. This was her scene, these were her people.
A few minutes after her arrival her fiery blue eyes finally focused on me and she asked if I wanted a drink, finishing my sentence as I answered, “soda water with lime.” She had remembered. She came back with two cups, hers filled with coke and I only assumed whiskey or rum, or maybe my old friend vodka. But I couldn’t smell the alcohol. We drank, laughed, and cringed as one after another comedian shared in the holiday spirit that wasn’t.
After the last comedian drunkenly tripped while coming down off the stage, we left for a quieter venue to get to know one another. At midnight we counted down Christmas Day as if it were New Years and annoyed everyone at the diner we had picked, the only open restaurant in Wicker Park, as we sang in the birth of Jesus Christ. She added creamer to her coffee. I drank decaf instead. When my friends left, we stayed up and watched the sun rise over the quiet streets of Chicago, neither of us having family or friends to go home to. I’d never been up this late sober. I thought that this is what normal people must live like.
We caught up on sleep.
The next night she asked me if I was worried about kissing her after a drink, this after I told her it’d be okay if she ever needed one before a show. I paused. Told her I’d like to be honest. Took a deep breath, then admitted that it was something I’d been hoping to do. How selfish I felt for wanting to take advantage of her like that, but how badly I wanted to taste it through her. It wouldn’t be cheating, it wouldn’t be drinking, it would just let me feel what I’d been craving for so long. We were sipping on hot cocoa and the smell of chocolate warmed us in the freezing night air, our truths hanging so heavy on our breath you could see them as we exhaled.
I thought of telling her that “I knew a guy” who was sober that dated a woman who wasn’t. I instead told her that her taking me to bars wouldn’t be a problem, just to never offer me a drink because I wouldn’t be able to turn it down. I told her it was “as simple as that.” I said I didn’t even like the smell of wine or bourbon anymore, so there was nothing to worry about. She watched me shift in my chair, listening to my voice rise and fall as if I were reciting a eulogy for an old lover.
We walked into an Irish pub as a last stop that night. A place where people knew her name. They rushed up to her, excited to see her for the first time in days. Was that because of me? She kept her arm in mine, introduced me to her friends, and told them we couldn’t stay long. I could feel the humidity of every whiskey on that bar filling the air and sinking into my coat. I could see the ecstasy in the patron’s glossy eyes as they stumbled over their words, excited to tell her what they did for Christmas, too drunk to remember details. I could smell the beer on their breath. It made me dizzy.
She pulled me out the door. She let me walk her home. She didn’t talk about what just happened. She didn’t need to. I was wrong.
I’m not clever. I’m not strong. I’m not a good liar. I’m just broken. And want something I cannot have. And am childishly trying to manipulate my way into getting it. And surrounded by people who are way smarter than me.