I saw my old babysitter in the bar tonight. It's been almost twenty years. It's been so long that the last time I saw her, Eifel 65 played on the radio practically on repeat. I knew I'd run into her one of these days. It's not that I ever tried too hard to find her – who goes out trying to find their old babysitter? I just figured sooner or later she'd end up coming back to town and we'd run into one another.
Gina. She'd show up to watch me, piercings in her eyebrows and all over her ears, sporting huge black headphones around her neck, a cord running into her backpack where she kept her Discman. On the side of her head were these sort of Princess Leia buns but small, dyed a bunch of colors but faded. One time she told me she'd go to these parties in the woods where people danced all night. I shouldn't tell my mom, she said. My mom was always putting me to bed too early so I totally got it. She let me put her headphones on and I'd turn them all the way up so they were blasting. When I asked her if she liked Eifel 65, she said they were okay but there was better stuff. The songs on her CDs were longer and would always go between building up and dropping down. She told me that it was to get all those people at the parties excited so they'd dance more. I asked Gina to show me how to rave dance. I couldn't understand how they could do that all night.
In our apartment, we had two couches that formed an L in the corner of the living room. I was sitting on the shorter one while she sat on the longer one. I can remember the soft and rough, kinda scratchy fabric of the couch. My hand was wedged between the cushion and the side of the couch and I moved it just to feel the way it scratched and tickled my palm. Mom wouldn't let me eat on the couch or even in the living room at all but there were still crumbs all up inside the cushions. I grabbed one and squeezed it until it broke into smaller crumbs. I used to do this all the time. That was probably why there were so many in the couch. Maybe there was only one big crumb to start with, a single slice of staling bread that the couch and I had just worn down and broken up and spread all over the dark cushion cavern squeeze by squeeze.
Nowadays I get the same sort of feeling when I rub my face the day after I shave. Right around my chin gets way good and scratchy and I rub my palm on it just to feel that same sensation. There aren't any crumbs so much, but if I haven't showered in a couple of days my face is all dried up, and when I scratch it all these little flakes of skin break off of me and fall onto my shirt. Ever since I started shaving, which must have been only a few years after Gina left for college, I've been breaking little by little from a big crumb into smaller crumbs.
I think I was rubbing my face when I saw her tonight. I probably was, anyway, because I was reading a book at the bar and that's what I do when I read. Sometimes I think that's the reason I read there. People don't seem to mind me rubbing my face so much when I'm reading. I have to be careful not to stand out more than I already do – I'm the only one that reads at the bar near my house. The regulars are used to me by now but I can tell they find it odd.
Especially since I don't drink. I mean I do drink – just not what they drink. While they drink their cocktails and beers, I drink seltzer with some lime. Whenever I look up from my book, I check their drinks. I've made a game of it. I like to rub my chin like I'm really thinking about the book I'm reading and scan the room for drinks. Now I'm pretty good at memorizing all the drinks that people are having, counting how many they've had, and then, if they're a regular, I compare this to the type and number of drinks they had last time I saw them.
This was around dinnertime so people were showing up. The bar is on the side of a diner named Carly's and we just order our food from Corey. On the right when you walk in, there's a line of bright-light gambling machines along the wall that bring you to a pool table in the back. It leans a little on one side and some of the regulars use this to their advantage when strangers come wandering in, looking to play. Sitting in the middle of the floor, four tables run parallel with the machines.
The bar even has its own entrance and most of us don't even go to the restaurant part. I never eat in the diner. The staff is always hurrying, trying to turn their tables no doubt, and I don't know the customers. I don't like being around the families that come in. Being alone in there stands you out like you're raising your hand. In the bar, I usually try and grab the chair at the end near the sink where the light's alright. Corey knows my drink and he leaves me to my books.
Susan had three gin & tonics tonight. Usually, she only has two after work. Her husband gets the same drink. He usually has three but he wasn't with her tonight. She was sitting at the other end of the bar and staring at the fancy tequila bottles on the shelves up top. John, who talks to himself at other people, had an extra IPA before he went up and spoke to her. Sometimes he speaks to her husband, but never Susan. After glancing toward the door, then at Corey, and then at a few tables, she gave John a polite smile and he took the stool next to her. Each time I looked over at them, I made sure to be extra discreet.
Susan's husband, Steve, loaned me the book he was reading while I did some yard work for him last week. He sees me at the bar and thinks I must be some deep guy who appreciates good literature, which I think is how he wants me to see him. People are always putting up some presentation or another for everyone else. They think if they're like characters, then they must be part of a story. People write their whole lives day by day. Susan and John were writing a story with every drink, while I pretended to read Steve's book.
The door opened and a woman walked in. She stopped and scanned the room. She held a brown leather coat slung over her purse. I'd never seen her in the bar but somehow I knew her. Whoever she was meeting wasn't there, so she picked the table closest to the door and hung her coat and purse on the chair. She fixed her dress before sitting down and pulling her phone from her purse. It seemed a little early in the year for her to be wearing a summer dress, but she looked nice in it. It was the color of the sky between May time clouds and had soft yellow flowers. I thought about the irises that mom put in the vase on the coffee table every spring at our old apartment. She'd go and pick them around the apartment-complex right when they'd bloom. They were always dead in a week. This ran through my mind while I stared at her, probably more than was polite, trying to place her. I don't think she noticed.
It took me a few minutes of glancing in her direction before I remembered who she was. Her hair, the same color as her coat, touched her shoulders now, but it was totally Gina. Her eyebrows were still faintly pierced but held no jewelry. From her ears dangled thin silver ovals, holding opals that matched her dress. Sitting on the table were some white earbuds plugged into her phone. I missed the big earmuff ones but what can you do? It had been a while.
I held my book up closer to my face, hoping she wouldn't see me. I doubt I even needed to do this though. It's rare that anyone looks in my direction. This is partly because of where I sit, but sometimes it feels like there's nothing to see. Like I'm nothing to see. Even Steve hardly looks my way, let alone talks to me. With him though, I think it's some sort of fellow-reader-respect-of-space. Who can say? Without Corey's occasional drink check-ins, it'd be easy to forget I'm even in the room.
I don't think John even knows who I am. But I see him almost every time I go in, which is about two to three times a week. He doesn't notice a whole bunch though. For instance, he didn't notice me watching while he was checking Gina out. Susan saw that too, I think. She was still nursing her third when John ordered them some fresh rounds. Corey poured hers light. Corey's a good guy.
Even though there were open seats at the bar, Gina had picked a table. Part of me wished she'd have sat next to me, but she was obviously here to meet someone. Her drink looked like vodka and cranberry. Gross. I used to drink way too many of those. Maybe when she'd have a few she didn't act like I used to. Lucky thing is that I've never drunk at Carly's. Corey's never had to put up with me rambling on about things no one cares about, keeping him close because I'm always about ready for the next.
Actually, Gina took her time. Time passed while she sat with her first. She had a rhythm: every few minutes someone would come in the door and she'd crane her neck while pretending it wasn't that important. After seeing who'd walked in, she'd glance at her phone and then take a small sip out of only one of the two skinny straws sitting in her drink. Next, she'd switch which leg she was crossing and start reading the happy hour menu until the door opened again. There were only five items on the happy hour menu. After twenty minutes, I figured she must have memorized each one.
I wanted to give her my book. It's not like I was reading it anyway. Maybe Gina would get something out of it. When Steve gave it to me, he went on about how it's a good book for getting lost in. He said the characters feel like friends. I don't think Steve has a lot of friends. He's always asking me over on weekends to help with stuff around the yard. He knows how mom is sick and we need money. But he says he really needs the help and that as he gets older his back yells at him almost as much as Susan. He says I'll understand someday, but I can't tell if he means when I'm older or when I'm married. Usually, the yard work just turns into him telling me about books and cars. The only time I get any work done is when he goes inside to argue with Susan, or to roll another spliff.
I'm not sure that Gina would even be interested in reading it though. I wrote her an email once. I think she read it but I don't know because she never wrote back. This was years ago, back before I switched to soda water. If I'd been sober, I doubt I would've been so bold. She gave me an email address when she left for college and I saved it. After a few drinks one night, I wrote to say hello. When too many years go by though, and the ice gets harder to break. Besides, what was I to her anyway?
Watching her read the menu, I figured maybe I should say something to her but I didn't know what. What would I say? Hey, remember me? I used to be a bigger crumb…Did you get my weird email? I decided to hold off, at least for a while. What would it look like to her date to walk in and find her talking to some dude that brought a book at the bar?
Corey came over at the five and ten-minute marks to check on Gina, and both times she gave him a little smile and a casual wave of her hand. He stopped coming over after that but he still made sure to keep his eyes on her drink just in case.
John got up and he walked by me on the way to the bathroom. Not even a glance. This is for the best. I don't think Corey even likes him that much. He's had to send John home for getting too sloshy. The last time I can remember, probably three or four weeks ago, these women half John's age were playing pool and he tried showing them how to play. They didn't want him around but tried being polite. After all, it's not easy being honest with a guy like him. Just as he started to reach over to help one of them shoot a bank shot, Corey pulled him aside and handed him his coat. The women looked relieved but I haven't seen them since.
On his way back to Susan, he put a song on the jukebox. It was some bluesy rock song and he played an invisible guitar while he walked back to her. I saw her see this for just a second but then she looked back at her drink. It was near empty then.
I looked over at Gina. Did she remember dancing that night? It was just before school got out for the summer. It had to be because Gina moved out right after she graduated. I remember moving the coffee table over to make room and setting the irises in the kitchen. She put one of her CDs in the stereo. As it started, she walked over to the cleared area and we stood there together. She closed her eyes and started to sway as waves of sounds washed the room. The waves were dark and smooth and bright lines ran through them all parallel. From underneath, this little keyboard began playing the same melody over and over and Gina picked her pace up just a little. Then a beat came in louder and louder and she swayed like she could feel a sea current pulling her first one way then the next. But out of nowhere though, right when it was getting loud, the music just stopped all except for swirly wind sounds.
I asked her why it'd stopped. She smiled and opened her eyes just a little. The noises were pulling me out into them. She asked me if I was ready. I was confused. I started to ask what she meant but then, with an explosion, the song crashed into us with a loud beaty splash. She threw her arms up and started waving them over her head like kelp in the ocean. I jumped. Up and down. It was all I could think of doing. I bounced around the room like a pogo stick and I'm sure the neighbors downstairs were pissed but the cd kept playing and one song morphed into the next one until we both fell into the couches like floppy fish.
I tried to imagine her smiling like that now but she looked too tired, and the music in the bar wasn't the type to turn people into kelp and pogo sticks. John had put on Free Falling after singing all he'd remembered to Susan. Corey came to Gina's table again with a fresh drink and a plastic basket of chips and dip. He didn't ask her for any money. Like I said – he's a good guy. She smiled a bit when he brought it over, and when he returned to the bar she looked down and sighed at her phone.
Poor Gina. Whoever was standing her up really didn't know how cool she was. This was almost too much for me. I should've said hi long before, but at that point, having a drink with the kid she used to babysit after getting stood up would just be salt in the wound.
Gina said goodbye with a short note. Just something about how she'd miss me, and how I was a really cool kid. One day my mom was going out and she'd hired someone new. The note came a week later. I think half the reason mom used to go out was so I'd hang out with someone else. Twelve-year-olds don't really need babysitters anyway. It wasn't until I was in high school and began drinking that anybody ever invited me anywhere. When I was twelve, I lived underwater where it was quiet and cold. Only Gina and mom ever swam deep enough to find me.
I closed Steve's book and set it on the bar. I didn't even get through a chapter tonight. When Steve first gave it to me, we had just finished with the yard work. A squirrel was chasing another squirrel around the trunk of the tree that shaded us. We'd just got done eating some tuna sandwiches Susan had made.
He told me that we'd gotten a lot done that day. We were sitting on the retaining wall by the sidewalk. Dramatic soap opera music was floating out from the living room window where Susan was watching tv. He said he was glad that he was able to turn the mower on that day. He said he wished he could say the same for his wife, then cackled and hit my arm with the back of his hand. His breath was tuna and Pabst.
I told him I didn't get it. I did but I didn't.
He said, in that case, I should never get married. Then he laughed a piece of soggy tuna bread out of his mouth and it landed in a crack in the sidewalk. I don't think he noticed that part. He took a spliff from behind his ear and lit it.
He set the book down between us on the mossy cement. I asked him if that's what the book was about, about bachelors. When I seem dumb, he doesn't get offended at my not laughing.
He picked the book back up and looked at it with an 'oh this?' manner. He handed me the book and said no. He said that it was a book about people, who are people for no reason. Just people. He asked if I knew what he was talking about. I didn't but I did.
I remember the mowers buzzing throughout the neighborhood and everything was fresh lawn clippings. He took a drag of his spliff, held it, and then let it out. He said that he likes how good stories make sense of the senseless, and unsort the rest. Then he offered me some of his smoke.
I told him, no but I thanked him too. I told him like I've told him every time I did yard work for him, that weed made me antisocial. He laughs every time I say this. That's when he handed me the book.
You'd think Susan and I'd never met the way she avoids me in public. I looked down the bar at her. John was in the bathroom again. Did she eat tuna too or did she just make them for others? I couldn't see what she was seeing in those tequila bottles she was staring at. She doesn't even drink tequila. Corey threw some empties in the bus bin under the sink and Susan looked up at the noise. She met my eyes. I looked down at the book.
Awkward moments like this happen too often. They used to happen more before Corey mentioned it to me one time. It was nice of him to say something because I didn't realize I stared so much. It's easy to forget that I'm actually in the room too and that someone can just look over and see me as I see them. Maybe someone there watches me while I read. Maybe I've just never noticed them.
After a few paragraphs, I checked on Gina. She pinched one chip piece after another, breaking each down into more little chips. I rubbed my chin. There had to be something I could do for her. I considered going up and pretending like I couldn't quite place where I knew her from and asking if she was from town. I could pretend like I didn't remember sending her a drunk email and that her leaving for college wasn't when I first realized that my only friend had been paid to spend time with me. I could go up to her and be her friend for free. I could break chips with her and talk about music. I could tell her that I work at home with mom. I could tell her about mom. I could tell her about taking care of mom and how all my time is taking care of mom. I could ask her how college went and what she studied there and why she was back in town now. Gina taught me how to dance, after all.
I've never been to a rave before but if I ever went I'd know what to do. I wouldn't do the kelp hands. She never even really said that was the way to do it anyway. When I started jumping around the room, she just kept on letting me. It was why I danced more than how. I don't know why, but this made all the difference. It made me feel better about being down in the deep sea.
I finished my soda and paid Corey. He kept our exchange brief. I don't think he likes me much. He sort of just leaves me alone, which is fine, because I never know what to say to him anyway. I feel like I know him too well. You can learn a lot about someone from watching them interact with others.
On my way out I went up to the jukebox. It's one of those digital ones that costs so much but you can find almost any song. I put a song on for Gina and walked toward the door. Eiffel 65 came on the speakers as I walked outside. I hope it helped her feel a little better.
I think if I was walking around out in the woods tonight and I heard some beat pulsing in the dark, I'd go find it. I would run until I saw all the people glowing like algae in the ocean. I'd plunge into it and jump up and down like a big scruffy 12-year-old until we all crumbled apart together.