I push the heavy curtains aside to enter the bar but stop short upon taking in the scene: three, maybe four people in a space that could easily fit 100. I’d expected to blend into the crowd—East Village on a Saturday night is notorious for its lack of elbowroom. Instead, faced with the prospect of bouncing from bar to bathroom and back like a forlorn pinball, I do what anyone would: order a beer, climb to the second level (the venue boasts two bars, one on the ground floor and another up a flight of glass stairs) and speak to the first person I find.
“Is it cool if I’m up here?” I ask the guy hunched over a Styrofoam cup of coffee on a leopard-print settee.
“Yeah,” he says, “of course.”
“Long night ahead?” I ask—a nod at the coffee.
“Yeah, and a loooooong night last night.”
Some of his friends are visiting from California, he tells me, and he stayed up way too late—6 a.m.—worrying about one of them, who’d gotten too drunk and popped like a pimple, puking everywhere. He didn’t mind the mess, or even the back rubbing and sandwich-making that came after. He was just concerned for his friend’s well being. See, I’m one of the good guys.
From my perch on a bar stool a couple feet away, I notice that he looks a lot like the best friend of the girl who drove me off a cliff this summer and then moved on. He tells me he’s Mexican, but has recently spent some time in Argentina, in Buenos Aires mostly, with a side trip to Mendoza. He compliments my leather jacket, and I tell him something a friend recently pointed out: that I am exceptionally good at going to a thrift store and spotting the perfect leather jacket for someone who has bemoaned a leather-jacket-shaped hole in their life. I show them the jacket, they try it on, it’s perfect, and they buy it, indirectly memorializing me in the process—my record is 3 for 3.
“Maybe you can find one for me next,” he jokes, fetching his brown suede jacket from behind the bar and shrugging it on to show me his size. He’s showing off. He’s taller than that girl’s best friend, come to think of it, and slightly more debonair, hair slicked to an oily shine.
In case it isn’t obvious, he’s the bartender. The conversation turns to the venue—“it’s really cool,” I say, because it is—and he lets me in on a secret: there’s yet another bar, on a third floor hidden from view. “Come on,” he says, “it’s dead in here. I’ll give you a tour.” He slings the invitation like a brush-off, like he isn’t trying to silo me, to flatter me, to impress, like he doesn’t care whether I agree or equivocate. But I know he does because a minute later he robs me of the choice altogether, starting down the stairs and looking back, expectant: “We have to go outside and around.” I haven’t had the chance to slip in a benign joke about how I’m “so gay, dude” (“Didn’t you notice the short hair? Ha-ha!”) or how I’m seeing someone, or how I’m so glad to have found such an interesting friend to chat with until the show starts. I have not had time to gauge his reaction to said joke, to watch what the flash of his eyes gives away, to perform the sort of mental jiu jitsu that always falls to the more vulnerable party and that, in public a space, ensures our survival. For a beat, I panic. But more people are beginning to file in, I have my pepper-spray keychain, I have gotten so, so much better at saying “no.” I follow.
He takes me out through the curtains again, and then up a side staircase I hadn’t noticed that’s cut off halfway by a metal gate. He presses a buzzer once, twice. The gate swings open. Another set of stairs and we reach another door and I’m glad I’m in front because I push it open it myself, forestalling his chance to do so for me. Did you catch that? The space is incredible: a loft with 20-foot ceilings and furniture straight off the set of Inherent Vice and floor-to-ceiling posters that look like Renoir painted a Lichtenstein. He leaves me to circle the place and walks up to the massive bar, chatting up his co-worker, comforting me with his overt steps away. But a few minutes later he asks me if I want a shot. I say sure, tequila. My unease returns as he pulls down a bottle from the top shelf.
On the way back, he tells me yet another secret: while he lived in Argentina (for three months, he says, the same duration as my own short residence there), he dealt drugs. Again, a throwaway delivery, again a covert attempt to impress, to shock this time, to thrill. I don’t know how to respond, so I laugh. “No way.” He bows his head in mock shame. “I’m not proud . . . everyone’s gotta live.”
After an encore, the two-person band walks offstage to whoops and cheers. They’d gone on late to give the place time to fill up, which it eventually had, albeit with people who were clearly devoted fans. They’d danced, I’d swayed, slightly removed like I imagined was befitting of a concert loner. Now I’m dithering, trying to decide whether to stick around or to begin the trek back to Brooklyn.
Trek, I decide before casting my glance upward, dreading the inevitable goodbye to the bartender, who might then steer the conversation in a variety of uncomfortable directions: a dodged kiss, a request for my number, a pointed, “I hope I’ll see you again.” He’s blocked from view by a line of people who have finally ascended to order drinks, and I realize with a jolt that that means he can’t see me either—I am invisible. I’m free. I owe him nothing. A little parcel of joy explodes inside my chest, and I turn and walk through the curtains without a backward glance.