I pay the guy no mind the first couple times he comes up. Young man, kind of conceited-sounding, typical. He sits toward the back of the bar with a couple acting like they are on a date. But as the night wears on, he becomes a problem. He begins to linger at the bar, chatting up whoever is nearest. He acts in a way that forces us to watch him. But he isn’t the only distraction this night.
My coworker, Emma, always has stories about people who come in. She knows everyone. Who’s with who; who they used to be with; which one is stepping out on their significant other; which ones are trying some sort of open arrangement. It makes the shifts better hearing her stories. I rarely can reciprocate. But tonight’s an exception. H. comes in with her boyfriend and takes a booth as usual. She doesn’t acknowledge my presence. That’s been her way the last few years, but it wasn’t always.
Five years ago, when I moved to Bridgeport, H. and I had a brief fling. She was an arts journalism grad student and interviewed me for a class. That’s how it started. She was half my age, it was as clichéd as all get out. The troubles began when I told my ex about it. She worked where H. went to school. It never crossed my mind it would be a problem. It was a big problem. My ex took my being with H. as a personal affront, like I was doing it to hurt her. The truth was much worse: I didn’t think of her at all when I went home with H.
I broke it off after a month because H. wanted a boyfriend and I wasn’t boyfriend material. It was just nice to be wanted for a change. She didn’t take the breakup well. She started taking Tinder dates to the bar on nights I worked and making a show of making out with them. It was a different guy every time. I was amused and wondered how much of it was for my benefit. If any of it was, H. didn’t know me very well. We live in the same neighborhood so we’d run into each other occasionally. It was usually cordial but awkward. Then, a year or two ago, she started showing up with the same guy: a dorky mustachioed fellow, much younger than the ones she used to go with. He looked to be her age. I was happy she found someone.
I tell Emma all this as we watch H.’s boyfriend tuck his napkin like a bib into his shirt collar like a senior citizen before wolfing down a basket of tater tots. Meanwhile, our problem customer is firing questions at a woman sitting by herself and obviously not looking for company. She politely answers him when he asks what she does for a living (cosmetics rep) and even asks what he does (used to sell suits, now works some office job.) But she barely makes eye contact, doesn’t swivel her barstool his way, and keeps scrolling her cellphone. He talks and talks, forgetting the round of drinks he ordered and was supposed to bring back to his table. The couple back there is practically making babies now, so I don’t entirely blame him for staying away.
He wobbles his way to the bathroom and the girl he’d been talking to immediately bolts out the door. Then he’s back with his friends, with his shirt off. I ask Eber to tell him to put it back on. Apparently he is showing off a new tattoo. Eber reminds him our bar is not clothing-optional.
Next time he comes up for a round he’s having some trouble focusing. I pour the two beers, then instantly regret it. He takes a sip, then spends fifteen to twenty minutes close-talking a guy at the bar with the same persistence he did with the girl. His target humors him the best he can, though he’s obviously uncomfortable. Then the guy wanders away, forgetting his beers. I empty them in the sink.
He’s back half an hour later to order more, but I tell him he’s had enough. He’s confused, but stumbles away without a fight. He sits back down and watches his friends make out. Then returns to ask for beer again, forgetting he’s been cut off. It’s last call now and I make the first of three trips back to where he’s sitting to ask him and his friends to go home. On one of my visits, after I thank them for coming in, he shoots back, “Thanks for what?” I hesitate a second but walk away. When they finally leave, the whole area where they’d been is covered in shredded coasters, M & M’s lodged in the seat cushions, as if they were squirrels or birds scattering materials around a nest.
On my bike ride home after closing the bar, I see him sitting on the sidewalk by an underpass. His phone is by his side, lit up, blaring music. His head lolls back and forth. I almost stop to see if he’s okay, but keep pedaling.