I didn’t like liquor but my girlfriend loved the bars, and when she came to visit she’d ask around. “Where,” she’d ask the sky cap, the cabbie, the bus driver, “can you get a drink in this town?”
She’d buy a pack of cigarettes from the corner grocer and linger at the counter, picking at the seal, tugging the red strip embedded in cellophane, and unfold the silver origami paper to reveal a row of blind white filters, in no rush. The Gas Lamp, The Duet, The Past Time, The Come-On-Inn.
She’d say, “Let’s go there.”
The bar would be dark, patrons swimming through the gloom-hovering light, neon letters spaghettied across the lacquered walls, blue smoke drifting tributaries above the heads of those who had just stepped in out of the rain or out of the too-bright sun, out of the wind or a stagnant heat. They were all there for the same reason, to stare into the foam of a cold beer, a dark rum and coke, a clear-as-glacier-water martini, sucking pimentos from the bodies of green olives one by one.
We’d enter like strangers in a matinee western, everyone turning on their stools to glance at us standing in the open door, the light of the world streaming in around our shoulders, falling in motes from our hair. It was a movie set: the long mirror resting sideways in its gilded frame, the sepia strains of Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett, the shallow donation baskets of pretzels and nuts. I ordered one drink and sipped at it, but my friend ordered a beer back and three of something strong, straight up, tipping her head and throwing them down while she laughed.
Shot glass after shot glass lined up like spent shells next to her blown open purse. She would talk to anyone then, about anything: politics, religion, sex. Drink made her fearless and flirty, and because this was in the early years of her drinking, gorgeous. By midnight she was ordering bread sticks or French fries with catsup saying “Let’s stay a little longer.”
I loved her. Anyone sitting at that bar could tell you why. Even in the locked bathroom where she leaned over the toilet and the night poured from her throat in a gold gush. I held her heavy hair back while she fumed and retched, stroking wet strands from her forehead. I pulled her off her knees and helped her stand, held a folded paper towel under the dripping faucet and blotted her face, the nape of her neck, helped her find her lipstick, her hairbrush, stood beside her while she cupped a palm full of water and swished it between her teeth. She was ready for anything now, refreshed, newly coherent, dazzlingly alive. Her skin, pore-less, fragrant, smooth as the sink she leaned against to apply her mascara, glowing under the violet fluorescent light.