March 15, 2009

The bartender

Nietzsche says, as he weighs the world in the last dream of the morning, Sex: only for the wilted, a sweet poison; for the lion-willed, however, the great invigoration of the heart and the reverently reserved wine of wines.

As I learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance—one cannot fly into flying, I search. And yes, there was a bartender.

The bartender doesn’t drink. He knows good wine and orders me good wine that I usually pay for. I am better able to pay than he or so I think. He is short with big hands. He polishes his finger nails with clear polish, beautiful hands that are larger than they should be for his frame. His hands draw me. He is short and he walks with a limp that also draws me—this last he doesn’t know.

When I dream asleep—I say this because I dream awake—I dream my father, more often since my husband left me, more often since I began internet dating. Here’s a weird glimpse: I see in front of me my father’s fingers curling up behind the towel rack in my bathroom, his disembodied fingers. I am not frightened. I am comforted. His hand. Not my husband’s hand. My father’s hand that reaches out of the cosmos, out of the unconscious mind to me.

It was May and my separated-over-two-years-then husband sends me this e-mail, breaking my heart:

“Tony Soter is the philosopher-winemaker we talked with on the patio of that great little B&B in Napa (the one run by the guys who knew my uncle in their hometown of Denison, Iowa).

P.S. You don't have to comment about breakfast. I've thought it for you.”

He’s referring in the postscript to the fact that he wouldn’t make love in the morning: didn’t want to miss that great breakfast. You and I (and he) know that a big refrigerator, not the one holding the eggs, milk, syrup, not the cornucopia Napa refrigerator but the metaphorical one (Oh, sure, call it the elephant if you like) sits inside the P.S. What I mean: When your girlfriend yells at you when you come home on the anniversary of the day you met, the day she expects you’ll have flowers or will take her out for dinner and says, “You left the top off the milk again!” there’s a refrigerator in the room that has nothing to do with milk.

The bartender took the free class I taught at the Martin Luther King Library. When the class was over, we met by chance at the Dana Gioia reading there. I’d told the class about it. The bartender wanted to chat when he arrived, the way he’d often seemed to want to chat when I’d seen him where he used to tend bar—a tony restaurant full of people from the Hill though it is not on the proverbial Hill.

Dana Gioia read and I bought Interrogations at Noon. I was struck throughout the reading how many times he mentioned his wife who was not present. She is a presence. I don’t recall if he read these lines that evening, but the poem “Voyeur” lies next to the title poem in the book. I read it now:

… and watching her undress across the room.
oblivious of him, watching as her slip
falls soundlessly and disappears in the shadow. …

The opening ellipses are his. The following are mine as are the ones at the end here as I take you to the last stanza:

But what he watches here is his own life.
He is the missing man, the loyal husband.
sitting in the room he craves to enter …

After the reading, I suggested to the bartender that we go over to Zaytinya for a drink and he managed to get me a free glass of wine (bartenders do this sort of thing for each other). A little alcohol and I told him about my heart.

My husband didn’t watch me undress. He had not wanted to make love to me for the last decade of our marriage. He had kissed two women over two years in front of me. I don’t mean a quick kiss. I mean the proverbial “making out.” I did not, as I now know he wished I had, hit him over the head with the also proverbial frying pan. Yes, I am stuck in the kitchen of metaphors for absence of sex. But I did finally have to ask what was going on. And he did finally have to tell me that he wanted to live by himself. I had little other information. And I don’t feel betrayed by the disloyalty for after all it was more about humiliation than about sex for me, the watcher, the voyeur.

When I read Dana Gioia, I wanted to give the understanding in that last stanza to my husband. Perhaps he craved to enter. I know he did and I shall never know why he could not.

I don’t recall how much of this I told the bartender, but I do recall that it was more than I should have. And in telling whatever I told my heart ached with the betrayal I committed and that I commit here with shameful impunity. The writer lives in the shame of the betrayal that sets her free.

The bartender is kind.

There’s an edge of anger underneath that I now know comes out of a privileged and brutal childhood. His father beat him. He was the oldest and he got beaten the most. He doesn’t drink for good reason. I don’t know exactly the reason, but I know he’s seen a troubled world, saved a woman and her child only to end up in jail falsely accused of abusing her. He got out but not because his wealthy mother bailed him. He was in jail longer than was fair: innocent and jailed. What can make up for that?

My father was an ugly man. His nose and his ears were way too big for his face and his thinness when young made both flaws more prominent. Plastic surgery after he married my beautiful mother and had me and my sister, made him not handsome but close.

The bartender limps because he has had one hip replaced. The other hip must wait for his strength to build. He is strong: a beautiful upper body even if the whole body is not in proportion. I am attracted to the flawed body—not the yellowed teeth (cigars and who knows what), those teeth, too big for the handsome face. He is a mixed bag.

He writes me:

“I sat on the train tonight amongst the post New Year’s Eve revelers. The air was redolent with alcohol and the intermittent sounds of slurred conversations. I caught a couple of glances and realize I appeared a sad case stoically reading my book alone while multiple groups and couples were continuing their festivities and going to places where, no doubt, with the lubrication of alcohol and the enhancement of narcotics, astronomically bad decisions would be made. I did not look like a guy who had spent an evening full of joy, stimulation, great food and sex—albeit in a censored form but no less erotic for that—and tenderness with a beautiful woman who really wanted me in her bed. How appearances can deceive. A quick inventory of the car: More than a few of my fellow travelers’ evenings would end badly—breakups and brawls, lost keys and wallets, ‘You have the right to remain silent,’ strange beds and ER rooms in the offing; but yours truly was going home to savor the memory of your body, the taste of your lips, the down of your sex in my hand, and the look in your eyes that told me you were, once again, better than okay. My evening was priceless and perfect; and I knew in my heart I would feel great about it in the morning.”

Yes, he touched me, the bartender who will write his own book. Oh, let me live to see that.

I reject him, ultimately, because (do I know for sure?) because I fear the anger inside him, because he doesn’t handle dating with panache and shamefully that is important to me, or more likely, the closer he got, the more I wanted my husband and my father. He is neither.