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We're All Damaged(2)
Matthew Norman

“Here you go, man.”

It’s the bartender. He slides a new drink in front of me. Short of a tail or maybe horns, it’s probably the last thing I need.

“Maybe she’s caught in traffic,” he says. “The subway could be messed up, too. That happens all the time.” He walks away, off to pour some shots. There wasn’t a ton of conviction in his voice, but I appreciate the effort. I take a sip of my new drink, which is painfully strong. I’m a bartender, too, at a place a few blocks over called the Underground. In the bartending business, we call this a “sympathy pour.”

The subway is a possibility, I guess, along with any number of traffic-related Armageddons that can happen here. However, what’s equally possible is that she arrived, took one look at me sitting here, and bolted. I can talk to this guy for the next few hours, she could very well have thought. Or I can go home and put on some Crest Whitestrips and watch The Bachelorette.

“The worst part is, I didn’t even want to go on a stupid blind date!”

I’m pretty sure I meant to say this to myself—a soliloquy or maybe an inner monologue. But it ended up being more of an announcement, like something you might shout at a crowd of ill-behaved toddlers, and now everyone at the bar is looking at me. “Sorry,” I say. “But it’s true.”

The bartender reappears. “You good, man?” he says. “Everything all right?”

I recognize his tone—it’s the one bartenders use when someone is on the verge of being stupid. I could point out that I’m not the one who’s been pouring me drinks strong enough to send a DeLorean back in time. Instead I say, “Can I ask you something?”

He glances over at some guys holding twenties at the other end of the bar. “Yeah, man,” he says. “Shoot.”

“Objectively speaking—and I want you to be totally honest with me here, OK?”

“All righty.”

“If you were a woman . . . Would you sleep with me?”

He laughs, which is borderline hurtful, and then, just like that, my drink is gone, replaced with a cup of coffee. There’s a sweaty little creamer beside it and everything. Professionally speaking, it’s impressive.

I watch the mirror across from me for a while, and in the reflection I see that the place has filled up. People are laughing. Groups are mingling. People are meeting, looking interested and interesting. People are wearing shirts that are way nicer than mine, if I’m being totally honest with myself. I picked this place because it seemed fun—cool, trendy, but not too trendy. I thought maybe she’d like it, which is funny, because I have no idea who she is or what she likes. In fact, it dawns on me that I can’t even remember her name.

“Is this seat taken?”

I turn, and it’s a guy. He’s good-looking. He’s wearing a black suit jacket with jeans, which makes it tough not to hate him a little because it’s a look I could never pull off. I almost tell him that it is—thank you very much, for Christ’s sake—but I notice that he’s with a girl. She’s in a nice dress and she’s pretty, and I’m not prepared yet to be the type of person who snaps at innocent, perfectly pleasant-seeming people in bars.

For a while now, I’ve had to keep reminding myself that I’m a nice person. Like, nice-nice. Midwestern nice. Half the people who signed my high school yearbook told me so—it’s documented. A few of them even mentioned that I should never change, never ever. I once helped a blind lady walk across a grocery store parking lot in the rain. I used to run 5Ks on Saturday mornings to fight cancer and juvenile diabetes and all of that horrible shit.

“No, not anymore,” I say. “All yours, man.”

He smiles and thanks me because it’s the last seat in the whole place. He tells his date to sit, and when she does, she’s right next to me, and I see that she’s not his date or even his girlfriend but his fiancée. Her ring catches the light. A princess cut, not terribly big, but just right for her small hand. Cut, color, clarity, carat. The four Cs of engagement ring shopping. For some reason, that all stuck with me.

“Is this good?” the guy asks the girl. He’s eager, happy to be making her happy.

“Yeah, yeah it’s great, babe,” she says. They kiss, but when their lips meet, she’s looking at the list of wines written on the chalkboard above the bar, and I wonder if this is a sign that she will eventually fall out of love with him.

When she looks at me and smiles, I’m startled. “Is that your phone?” she says.

“Excuse me?”

“Your phone? That. It’s . . . ringing. Well, vibrating.”

She’s right.

My iPhone is buzzing away on the bar top. I forgot it was even there. Maybe it’s my blind date. Maybe she’s calling to tell me about the traffic or the subway or the mugging or the locusts or the zombies or whatever else has happened. But that’s impossible, because she doesn’t even have my number. My screen is cracked and a little damp. My phone buzzes one last time and says “Missed Call.”

“Shit,” I say.

The girl who will almost certainly hurt the poor, unsuspecting bastard in the cool jacket someday looks concerned for me.

“It’s my mother,” I say, as if that explains everything.

It’s barely after 11:00 p.m., early by New York standards, so the street is busy.

I’m still not used to living here. I’m not used to the crowds and the constant noise and the weird hours. I’m not sure exactly what it feels like, but it doesn’t feel like home—more like a strange, wildly expensive sleepaway camp for pseudoadults. I step across the street and am nearly run down by a pack of skinny men on bicycles.

“Heads up, bro!” one of them shouts. I hop back onto the sidewalk. They pass in shimmering skin-tight Lycra suits.

My phone makes its voice mail sound. There’s no need to listen, though. I know why she’s calling, which is why I’m taking my time calling her back. I lean against a pole and watch the city. A line of girls walks by on the other side of the street. They’re in heels and dresses, laughing on their way to the subway. God bless their optimism.

When I finally hit “Nancy” on my screen, I hear my name from halfway across the country. “Andy.”

“Hey, Mom.”

She starts to say something, but stops. “Where are you? It’s loud.”

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