| Most days, the best seats in the house at Aoife’s are at the corner booth one off the Southside front window, right underneath the sign that reads Alcohol will change the world! I don’t know how, but it will…
The booth’s location on the periphery is secluded enough from the rest of the bar crowd that you can actually hold a proper conversation, near enough to the windows to catch whatever hint of a breeze might roll past on Second Street, and about as far away from the washrooms as you can get. Sure, they set up a speaker behind there on Fridays that means the house band will shatter your eardrums before they’ve finished tuning, and you wouldn’t want to be anywhere on Saturday mornings except up at the bar watching the games and betting pints, but I like to think perfection would’ve robbed that booth of its charm (or at the very least, invited competition from the other regulars). But last night was a Wednesday, so after Drew and Colleen got off of work and I got out of class and Tommy got his ass off of his dad’s couch, that was where we were for a while, trying to wash away the drudgery of our goal-oriented lifestyles with Happy Hour specials and the company of our dearest friends.
Tommy drained the last of his Guinness and set his glass down contentedly. With a slight chuckle to himself, he looked across the table at me and asked, “So, how was class today, Pigfucker?”
I ignored the jibe. “Nothing special, just Donovan going on and on about how great Kant is, almost like he was that girl from sophomore year who never returned your calls…”
Colleen’s laugh came out in a gasp and Drew clinked glasses with me approvingly. Tommy winced. Okay, maybe I hadn’t ignored his shit talk entirely.
Tommy sighed and shook his head. “Well played, Pigfucker. Can I have your notes now?”
As I reached down for my backpack at the side of the booth, Drew finished off his Kilbeggan and asked the table, “Should I be concerned for the safety of the future public that an aspiring doctor is ditching the entirety of his Ethics class?”
Tommy just laughed. “Take it up with Columbia, dude. My med school acceptance package just said I needed to pull decent grades this semester- not a word about showing up to class.”
“Surely it was implied, though?”
“Reading between the lines has never been one of my strong points.”
I came up with my notebook and went to pass it across to Tommy, but Colleen’s arm came down between us like 1990 Berlin. “Besides, Nate, enabling him to coast along like this,” she said, pausing for a beat. “Do you really think it’s ethical?”
I stared blankly at her, as did Drew. Tommy had an expression like she’d just asked if we wanted to see her toenail collection.
Drew, the whiskey drinker at our table (and de facto person of greatest fortitude), broke from the stupor first. “Colleen Elizabeth Neville, was that a joke? Were you trying to be funny just then?”
“You really shouldn’t try to be funny.” I chimed in.
Tommy just patted her on the head. “Seriously, Colleen. It’s not just that you’re not funny, it’s not just that women aren’t funny, but you’re a paralegal- you’re an unfunny female paralegal, probably the least funny type of person on the planet!”
Colleen punched him in the side, a cheap shot honed from countless brawls with her little brother over the course of his twenty-two years. “Fuck you, Brother Dearest,” she replied. “We can do anything men can do, and that includes comedy, kidney shots, and being a sexist jerkass.” She hit him again on the “jerkass”, and it got him groaning. Despite the grimace of pain, Tommy’s eyes kept laughing, still gloating over a line he believed well worth his present discomfort.
“Right,” I sighed, “As much I can appreciate a jerkass being brought to justice and as much as I like seeing gender equality defended, saying ‘Fuck you’ to your brother is all kinds of incesty. I’m not at all comfortable with this.” I looked at Drew, and he nodded an assent.
Colleen rolled her eyes. Then, after a few seconds of putting up with our nonsense in silence, she turned to Tommy and casually asked, “So, wanna make out?”
The brilliance was in her nonchalance. I choked on a mouthful of cider and spat it back into my drink with a hacking cough that climbed arpeggio into a pitchy wheeze. Tommy just let his head drop slowly to the table, while Drew’s tilted back in laughter like a howl. Between breaths, he slammed his fist down and sent the whole table (and Tommy) shaking. Given my state, it must’ve been a solid twenty seconds before I thought of the spectacle we must’ve made and looked up to see half of Aoife’s watching us. To this, I managed an apologetic “I’m fine, thank you for your concern, I’m sorry about my friends” wave, and our fellow patrons went back to their own lives.
Drew brought his hand to his face and wiped his eyes. “Now that, Miss Neville,” he said, grinning, “That was funny.”
Grinning back, Colleen raised her thumb to her nose and wiggled her fingers at us. Trying to hold back a smile of my own (which is exceptionally hard to do while one of your best friends delightedly thumbs her nose at you), I told her she was disgusting.
“You love it” she countered.
“Well, yes” I quipped, “But I’m a sick man.”
I peered carefully into my cider glass, half-expecting to find half a lung floating in the backwash. “And on that note,” I said, rising, “I need another drink. This round’s mine, so what’ll you have?”
Colleen’s eyes lit up at the thought of more free liquor. Sweet as a Girl Scout with a box of Thin Mints, she almost sang, “Dark and Stormy, please!”
Drew lifted his empty tumbler. “I’ll stick with the Kilbeggan, thanks.”
I looked back to Tommy, who still hadn’t found the strength to lift his head from the table. “Beer” he mumbled. “Lots of it.”
Laughing, I shot Colleen a glance of feigned rebuke. She winked, and I shook my head.
“Right, then: one Heineken, one Kilbeggan, two Dark and Stormies.” I started to leave, then turned back. “Dark and Stormies? That can’t be right. Two Darks and Stormy, maybe?”
Drew snorted. “Yeah, sure, I like that.”
Colleen, unamused by the kind of wordplay that delayed her refreshment, just waved a hand toward the bar. “Don’t care,” she said sharply. “I just want to drink it, Nate, I don’t need to decline it. Now off with you.” I rolled my eyes and acquiesced.
Weaving between tables, I made it through to the empty dance floor and crossed for the bar. With the usual weeknight crowd, it was easy enough for me to find a place just right of center and signal the bartender. She came over and started to speak, but paused to wipe away a water ring in the bartop between us with a rag. Then, with a smile that seemed more genuinely interested than professionally courteous, she asked, “What can I get you?”
I returned her smile and answered. “Can I get a Heineken, a Kilbeggan, a Dark and Stormy, and, um, a ginger ale?” The back of my neck went hot, and I rolled it in an attempt to shake the feeling off. When I came back up, I tried smiling harder to compensate for my obvious discomfort, and she looked back at me like any sane person confronted by a stranger smiling hard at them would- like she didn’t know any possible happy explanation for what she had just seen.
To her credit, she rebounded quickly. “Sure thing,” she said. “Is that a single or a double for the Kilbeggan?”
I swallowed and urged my face to soften. “Oh, a single. Neat, please.”
She seemed relaxed, so I think it worked. “Okay,” she said, “That’s one Heineken, one single Kilbeggan, neat, one Dark and Stormy and one ginger ale.” The cadence of her voice took an awkward upswing there- we silently agreed to ignore it, and I forced myself not to look away in shame.
“Yeah, thanks” I replied, coolly as I could.
“Okay,” she said again, “I’ll be right back with that for you.”
As she went to fix the drinks, I let my eyes wander around the room, starting to hum “One of These Things is Not Like the Others” to myself as they went, suddenly recalling the innumerable hours I spent as a toddler sitting in front of the television, mystified by Sesame Street and the vast wealth of knowledge its residents possessed about letters and numbers and things that didn’t belong. Toddler Nate was in awe of such wisdom- and feared its judgment.
Noticing something odd on the empty barstool next to me, I stopped humming. A piece of lined paper that had been folded in half again and again, it was just sitting there, angled like a place card. The front read For You, blue ink in an unadorned script, and there appeared to be more writing- a lot more writing- inside. I surveyed the bar again: the only person anywhere near the note was directly next to me on the other side, seemingly oblivious to the world outside of his pint glass and the bartender filling it.
I decided not to give the man or the note any further thought and turned my attention to our booth at the back. Catching Colleen’s eye, I waved, and she got up to help me take the drinks. The bartender got back to me right as Colleen did, smiling at her before pointedly turning to me and saying, “That’ll be seventeen dollars.”
I withdrew my wallet and laid a twenty on the bar, telling her to keep it and earning myself another genuine smile. Grabbing Drew’s whiskey and my ginger ale, I thanked her and headed back to our table, sliding Drew the Kilbeggan and then taking my seat next to him. Colleen followed soon after and, pressing her advantage, she made Tommy apologize before he got his beer. As she took a long sip of her drink, I stirred mine aimlessly.
Removing her lips from the straw, she wrinkled her forehead and stuck out her tongue. Perplexed, she set her drink down and said, “This is awful. It’s like there’s no alcohol in it!” Silently, I cursed myself.
"Really?” I asked, mustering an expression I hoped could pass for curiosity. “Here, try mine.”
I handed her the drink that was actually hers; skeptical, she took a smaller sip this time. Colleen’s smile returned. “Better” she declared.
Sliding the ginger ale back to my side of the table, I slumped back in the booth. Colleen slipped out of her seat and, after pausing for another sip of her Dark and Stormy, headed off to the washroom. Drew and Tommy started fighting about Czech beer and Belgian beer, then about Arsenal and Spurs, but they eventually made up over a joint decision to blow next week’s wages on front-row seats to Kanye West’s show at the Garden in June. With their eyes wide like children, they looked at me.
Drew and the Nevilles are trust fund babies, and I, for lack of a pride-preserving turn of phrase, am not. Generally, though, this wasn’t a problem: I had enough to get by, my friends usually had considerably more than that, and we were all pretty generous with each other. However, concert tickets are expensive, and the guys knew I didn’t even have a job. Doing the math quickly in my head, I managed a shrug and a smile and a “Sure”, taking another sip of my ginger ale as they clinked their glasses in celebration.
Noticing Colleen as she came back across the dance floor, Drew clapped me on the back, pointed dead at her with his drinking hand and said, “Tell her!”, the rush of anticipation in his voice carrying pure satisfaction out to her. When Colleen paused for a second, he switched his Kilbeggan to his off hand and gave her a large, emphatic wave. Accelerating slightly into an intrigued powerwalk, she bounced down into the booth, jostling Tommy slightly with her elbow to claim some more sitting space.
Raising a hand, she pointed back at Drew. “What?” she asked. “Tell me what?”
Tommy took another swig and set his bottle down. “Coll” he said, “what would you say if I told you that you two proper adults will be joining Nate and me in commemoration of our undergraduate graduation with front row seats at Madison Square Garden for the most insane concert of the year?”
Colleen swiveled to face him, right index finger still in Drew’s face. “You don’t mean…” she gasped. As she turned back to Drew and me, she let her hand fall to the table.
“Is he serious?” she asked. Drew grinned. I reprised my shrug and smile from earlier.
Both of her arms flew up again as she shouted, “Yeezy be praised!” I laughed and extended a hand for her to slap, smiling at the sting of her palm crashing against mine. We raised our glasses again for another round of clinking and sipped long. Savoring the tingle of the ginger over my lips, I let myself fade into the bar scene background as my friends started to actually plan the thing. We sat there for another twenty minutes, finishing our drinks and talking about somethings else that I really don’t remember much of- I do remember smiling a lot, laughing at jokes without listening to the punchlines and kicking people under the table when necessary, but I was lost in my own head the entire time.
Tommy lifted his Heineken. Finding it empty, he offered to get the next round and asked Colleen to let him by. Instead, she raised her hand to stop him, and the way the corners of her mouth twisted into a roguish smile told me that she was up to something. Jerking a thumb at me, she said, “You should let Nate buy this time.”
I didn’t know what to say- aside from her suggestion clearly violating the sanctity of buying rounds, I thought it seemed particularly in bad taste to pick on the unemployed scholarship kid. Thankfully, Tommy found no charm in this particular brand of his sister’s nonsense.
“No way,” he replied. “It’s true that there’s no sweeter nectar than a drink you haven’t paid for, but I owe the man a round. Come on, let me up.”
Colleen rolled her eyes, muttering, “Nimrod” into the aisle beside her. Drew tilted his head, waiting for an explanation. Colleen mimicked the gesture, turned herself to look at me, then looked back at Drew when I didn’t say anything.
“Guys, seriously?” she asked.
When that got no response, she laughed. “The new bartender- the pretty redhead” she explained, “She likes him. She was clearly into him when we bought the last round, and why else would she keep looking over here?”
As the rest of us immediately shifted our focus to the bar, Colleen’s hand shot out to catch my left wrist. “Not you” she whispered, locking her gaze with mine. “She’ll see you lot all staring at her and freak. Take a deep breath, count to ten, and then you can look.”
Humoring her, I shut my eyes and inhaled slowly. Feeling the pressure of Colleen’s grip slip away, I let the breath go, tapping seconds out against the table. On the count of nine, I twisted out to my left, panning over the room until I found her. Fixing a lime on the rim of a glass, she set it in front of a customer at the end of the bar and brushed a copper bang out of her face. As she lifted her head to seek out another thirsty patron, I ducked back into the booth.
From the opposite corner, Tommy winked at me. “Well done, man” he said, “She’s a stunner.”
Drew nodded. “Not as pretty as Nate” he replied, “But then I suppose so few people in this world are. I approve, Coll.” With this, he stretched a fist to the center of our table.
Colleen bumped. “Thank you, thank you” she gloated, “and remember, all I ask for my matchmaking services is the right to name your firstborn sons.”
My palm met my temples with a resigned thap. “You guys are ridiculous” I said. “All three of you, equally. Colleen, we’ve been over this: there is no way in Hell that I’m calling my kid Matthew Damon Coleridge!”
She was indignant, or at least pretended to be. “But it works so well!” she whined. “And he’s so dreamy!”
Ignoring her, I turned to Drew. “You” I stammered, “I don’t even know where to start with you!”
He swallowed the last of his whiskey with a smirk. “Damn straight.”
“Yeah, yeah” I replied, rolling my eyes. With Tommy, I just asked, “And don’t you have a girlfriend?”
“Speaking of girls who aren’t good enough for our friends…” Colleen muttered.
I kicked her under the table, and she glared at me. I smiled wide back at her and decided to keep talking anyway. “Really, dude- how’s Lisa?”
Tommy gave me a weary grin. “Lisa’s good” he said, turning his emptied Heineken in his hands and setting it down to balance on its neck. “The time difference is brutal, but she’s good. Stanford’s good, grad school is good, she’s going out, she’s meeting people. She’s just been crazy busy lately…”
As his voice trailed off, he stared vaguely westward out the window. I was content not to say anything more, but Drew and Colleen had a different idea.
Drew sighed. “That’s rough, man” he started, to which Tommy mumbled some kind of agreement. “Would you say that she’s-”
I clapped a hand over his mouth, and he shoved me. Watching us struggle, Colleen placed a comforting hand on Tommy’s arm. “Little brother” she said softly, “I hate seeing you like this. Long distance relationships can be brutal, and it just seems like she-“
As Tommy realized what they were up to, I managed to muffle the rest of Colleen’s sentence with my other hand. Tommy tensed up and withdrew further into his corner of the booth. “Oh, Goddammit” he said under his breath. “You assholes…”
“It’s okay, dude” I assured him, keeping watch over our other friends with my peripheral vision. “I’ve got this under control.” Colleen responded by biting me, but I held on, and Tommy seemed relieved.
Then, making sure Colleen could see, I turned to Drew and mouthed “On three.” Drew nodded, and Colleen’s eyes sparkled. After a silent count, I yanked my hands down, and together as one terrible Tommy Wiseau impression we wailed, “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”
As we burst into laughter, Tommy barely reacted, merely sitting there slumped and wondering if it was even worth the manual exertion to flip us off. “I never should’ve let you take me to The Room” he groaned. “Tell me, will you three ever stop making that joke?”
Colleen shrugged. “When it stops being funny” she replied.
Drew held up a hand to correct her. “If it stops being funny.”
Tommy sighed and checked his phone, then bolted upright in his seat. “Shit!” he said, tightening his grip around its plastic case. “I was supposed to call her at seven.”
I turned around to inspect the clock on the wall behind me. Seven twenty-one. I shook my head. “Seven here or seven Pacific?”
Tommy paused, staring intently at some reminder he’d scrawled in red on the back of his hand. “I honestly don’t remember.”
“You need to go” I told him.
“I need to go” he replied. We all stood, and Tommy gave Colleen a quick hug and Drew and me a quick nod before he bolted for the door.
As I slipped my bag onto one shoulder, Colleen stared out after her brother. “It’s actually good that happened” she said. “Drew and I need to head out anyway and finish some research for a brief, and you know how terrible I am with goodbyes.”
“Yeah” Drew added, “Back to the grind.” He looked to the bar for a moment, then back at me. “Someone should bus our glasses- think you can handle it, Nate?”
“That’s not all he can handle!” Colleen said, winking at me.
I laughed and waved her away. “No worries, guys. Go win some overpaid ambulance chaser’s court case, you unsung heroes of the legal system!” Then, for the sake of their defendant, I suggested to Drew that he find Colleen some coffee before they started working. He responded with a salute and followed her out into the night.