Warning:  This may look like a long story, but it is not, really.  It is about miscommunication and if you read the whole thing, you’ll understand.  Unless you don’t understand, and I guess that would be a point in and of itself.


Once, I lived near a big city – let’s call it Urbanopolis – and I visited it occasionally for work and pleasure.  I was in the habit of drinking, and my friend Horndog, with whom I’d had the pleasure of drinking for a few years, lived in Urbanopolis, so it was decided that I would join him for a long weekend of drinking and pretending to absorb the local culture.  There was, of course, much obligatory talk of museums and afternoons enjoying famed parks and monuments, but with the tacit understanding that we would spend our nights in the pubs and assorted after-hours venues, and our days sprawled on the couch, moaning.  


Rewind:  I fell in love once, ten years ago, and it was one of the worst things to ever happen to me.  I floated from boyfriend to boyfriend in the time since, some serious, but with the inherent knowledge that I am not the commitment type and that some sections of myself are locked down behind barbed-wire fencing, insurmountable.  While I’ve loved fiercely and honestly in the years since Him, I’ve yet to reclaim the dreamy-eyed vulnerability of being “in love” and have accepted that it may never happen.  After all, I will never be that young again.


Play:  So it happened that Horndog and I were down at his local one night, a cozy spot with flatteringly pinkish lighting and indoor picnic tables that could almost make you believe you were near the ocean and not in the swarming center of a filthy city.  Satan’s Elbow has a large local clientele, all loosely acquainted and involved in each other’s business, like the post office or hairstylist or tearoom of a small town.  Horndog ran with a group of guys who regarded me as some sort of totem or sex object or intense article of fascination, and the way they fluttered around and vied for my attention was soothing balm for the ego.  I felt prettier, wittier, and stronger than I had for some time and decided that if I owed these guys anything, it was a big round of something alcoholic, preferably on fire.


We’d been sitting in the cool night air, smoking and generally talking a lot of shite, so I went into the bar to order the drinks, laughing off their protests.  A few steps in the door and I locked eyes with one of the bartenders and the feeling was of slamming full-fury into a brick wall.  How to describe him?  Better to describe the sensation: fear, lust, awe, and the desperate need to vomit, with the knowledge that my guts had turned to liquid.  I could not have been caught more off-guard if I had walked into the swung-end of a baseball bat.  When was the last time this had happened to me?  It had been a couple of years, I was sure, that the mere sight of someone had stopped my breath and nearly dropped me to my knees.  He could have had a glowing halo of light around his head, like a sainted painting.


Gradually, the moment unfroze and time resumed, as it always does.  Fainting or throwing up on my shoes seemed a little extreme, so I ignored these impulses.  I strode confidently to the bar, ignoring the flush in my cheeks and my shaking hands.  I ordered the drinks from a different bartender, refusing to look in the direction of the guy who had flattened me with his eyes.  Even without watching him directly, every nerve in my body was conscious of the way his sleeves were rolled up his forearms, the back of his shirt smooth against his muscles as he leaned down to retrieve a chilled glass from the fridge, and his hands uncorking a bottle of wine for another customer.  He was the opposite pole of a magnetic field I was hopeless to resist and the air was hot and thick as a sauna.  Clearly, he was Satan and I was in metaphorical hell.


The shots ended up costing $50 and were more than I could carry back to the table.  I had finally sobered up enough to notice that the bartender who served me was a lithe South American guy, not unattractive, but essentially a dust mote to me, comparatively.  He said he’d have someone bring the drinks out to the table for me to light them up.


I walked back outside to find that the group had dispersed, as several people had made for a nearby alleyway to snort cocaine.  It appeared that my expensive goodwill gesture would not be met with the rallying cries of gratitude I had anticipated.  I couldn’t summon up the disappointment or annoyance I might have experienced otherwise, as I was still reeling.  Horndog had stayed behind for me, and was puffing on a smoke and giving me a funny look.


I lit up myself and took a seat to clear my head.  Just then, the devil walked out carrying my tray of shots.  He looked at me and smiled and my stomach flopped like a dying fish again.  He placed the tray carefully on the table and started to hold a flame to the liquid.


“Wait,” I said.  “It’s no use lighting them now.  Everyone’s buggered off for the moment and I want to wait for them to get back.  Can you hold on for a second?”


He could.  His name was Johnny and he was from Colombia.  Of course, he had an accent, of course, and a slightly foggy voice.  He was a student, getting his master’s degree in business.  I rolled these few facts around in my head, savoring them.  Johnny.


We spoke briefly but I can’t remember any more.  People had started to return from their drug deals and the shots were being consumed, unlit and untoasted.  Johnny had to return to work.  I grabbed two shots for myself, one for Horndog, and pulled him over to me to whisper an urgent declaration:  I, Tailfeather, am in-fucking-love.


“What?”  Horndog was understandably confused.  “You don’t fall in love.  You fuck.  And sometimes you have boyfriends, but you never fall in love.  What are you on about?”  So I explained about Johnny and the brick wall and the feeling and it was different, it was new, and it was crushing and exhilarating and I felt like I was floating to the moon and words could not encompass it and clichés were not enough and this is something.  This is really something.


But Horndog’s friend liked me, he explained.  His very handsome, successful, rich banker-friend had been making a play for me all evening.  Oh, right, I remembered.  We had a solid bit of banter going, me and the Banker, and I had tentatively been interested, though suspicious of him.  Any flicker of intent I had previously was smothered now, and as the bar shut down and we drifted to a neighbor’s house to carry on the party, the Banker picked up on my dreaminess and redoubled his efforts.  I found out later that my rebuffing of the Banker, a consummate favorite with the ladies and rarely rejected, had achieved the status of minor legend and only increased my popularity with the rest of Horndog’s pack.


We stayed up until 6:00 am that night, dancing and drinking and drugging.  The after-party was in a loft that was more like a club, with a deejay station and a group of about twenty.  Horndog took off his shirt and screamed along to Guns n’ Roses, as he is prone to do after a few.  We wandered back to his place with dawn creeping up on us and slept.


When we woke up later, I was curiously without a hangover, which was not appreciated by Horndog.  I brought him a glass of water and bounced around on the bed, and the first name on my lips was Johnny.  Johnny Johnny Johnny.  I hugged my knees to my chest and repeated the slim knowledge I had of him to Horndog, bubbling over with glee.  Horndog took a long swig of water and said he had some bad news for me.


“Listen…  I know you think you’re in love with Johnny, or something, but he has a fiancée.  He told me about it a few weeks ago.  Apparently it’s a girl in Colombia and she’s coming over here to be with him, and they’re getting married as soon as they can.  It’s some great love story, triumph over the odds and all that.  I’m really sorry.  Are you okay?”


Was I okay?  I did not know.  It was like the air being let out of a balloon.  I drifted back down to earth slowly, where love does not happen at first sight – how could it?  It’s a patently ridiculous notion.  I felt foolish, obviously, and I also felt a sense of loss.  The world had seemed glittering and full of potential the night before, and I thought that maybe things were going to be different for me, for the first time in a long time.  But you can’t pin your hopes to your friends, much less to strangers, and it seemed that what might have been my Great Love Story was, in fact, someone else’s Great Love Story, someone with a right to it.


“It looks like I should have taken on the Banker,” I said, and Horndog understood that we weren’t to discuss it again.  I had a headache.


Fast Forward:  It’s eight weeks later and I’m in Urbanopolis for an extended stay.  It’s been a trying visit and I’ve been working hard.  The city is dirty and congested and the commuting has been bringing me down.  Two weeks has felt like two months or even years, some nights, and I scrub my body in hot water every day and still feel stained.  Exhaustion is constant and I feel like a pod person wandering the city, not myself.  Even the thought of home is not comforting, because I feel like a transient.  I know where I live, but I don’t know where home is anymore.  Life is wearing me down and I keep getting older.


Casually, over lunch one day with Horndog, I bring up Johnny.  Is he still at Satan’s Elbow?  He’s not, says Horndog, with an obvious look of disgust.  In fact, the fucker borrowed 200 bucks from me because he was skint last month and swore he would pay me back in a week.  Now he won’t return my calls and I need the money.  I paid all my bills here but I have a car bill at home and I’m completely broke.  He got fired from the Elbow because every night he worked there was money missing from the till.  They finally caught on, but this was after I loaned him the cash. 


As numb as I’d been recently, this news still upset me.  How could I have been so wrong about someone?  I feel that I have good instincts for first impressions, but this was so far off-base I was appalled.  How could Johnny, Johnny with the eyes that drilled me to the core, be such a…  fucking loser?  This, I thought, just goes to show you.  You can’t even trust yourself.  Life is a dreary grind and books and booze are the best company.


That weekend, I went back to Satan’s Elbow with Horndog.  My spirits were generally low and a night with the admiring pack couldn’t hurt.  We had a couple of drinks outside, the weather warmer now that it had been previously, and I volunteered to go to the bar and pick up the next round, feeling mellow.


It was with some shock, then, that when I approached the bar, Johnny stepped up to serve me and locked me in with his eyes.  I gripped the bar with both hands.  He said hello and asked how I was; clearly he remembered me, though it had been some time.  I ordered the drinks, my mind whirring.  And I watched him drawing pints, twisting the cork out of the wine, the pull of his shirt and his pants against his body as he moved.  My mouth was dry.  When he set the glasses down in front of me, I asked.


“I thought…  You didn’t work here anymore?”  He was perplexed; no, he has been there.  Grasping, I explained that I had asked my friend Horndog about him before, and Horndog had said that Johnny had a fiancée coming over from Colombia, and that Johnny didn’t work at the Elbow anymore.  It did not seem necessary to bring up the charges of embezzlement.  Johnny laughed.  No, he had no fiancée, and I was thinking of John, who had been fired and, in fact, owed Johnny some money.  How funny, I said, and paid for the drinks and carried them outside.


“Horndog – you are in for a world of fucking pain.”   


It transpired that Horndog had misunderstood, and thought I meant the other South American bartender called John.  I vaguely recalled the dark-haired guy who had taken my order for shots two months previously.  When Horndog and I later went up to the bar together, he and Johnny compared text messages from John promising to repay the money lent – one in English, one in Spanish, the message the same.  When I looked into Johnny’s brown eyes, I still melted into a puddle by the bar, but the impact was less violent.  Two months older, two months more beaten down and cynical.  But hope was blossoming in my chest again.  That face.  Oh, Johnny, I thought.  Maybe I will be validated yet.


In something of a drunken haze, I wandered to the restroom late in the evening to find five sullen, edgy-looking models doing lines off a pull-out mirror that one snapped sharply into her purse after I walked in the door.  They glared at me and I showed them my teeth in a parody of a smile.  They were beautiful but unthreatening.  After they slunk out the door, twitching their skinny hips, I tore a piece of paper out of the notepad in my purse and scrawled my name and number on it.  I approached the bar cautiously, and waved Johnny over. 


I wonder now if he asked for my number, and I reached into my pocket and produced it, like serendipity, or if I just handed it to him.  It’s funny how two people can have different recollections of the same event.  How I remember it, anyway, is that he asked for my number, and I passed him the torn sheet of paper, embarrassed that I had just gone to the restroom specifically to write it down for him.  I did not ask for his number.  I knew he would call me.


He texted me that night.  It was a simple text, just a hello, but I read it several times.  There was promise there, and the knowledge of it warmed my whole body.  I slept more calmly than I had in weeks.


Coming Next:  Part II – The Date.