Photo by Brian Bilek
I was not where I wanted to be. This was because I was out. I was out at a bar called the Narrows in Bushwick–or East Williamsburg if you’re a real estate broker. The bar is called the Narrows because the building is very narrow. But really every building in New York City is narrow. Space is at such a premium that everyday we squeeze our bodies to fit inside the expensive claustrophobic cement and brick landscape we call home.
On this night, I was sitting on the patio in the back of the bar on a metal rocking chair that squeaked with my every movement. Across from me was my good friend Sarah. She’s all dimples and brunette ringlets. We get along mostly because we dislike the same people. Between us sat a ten-dollar cocktail that I already regretted buying. Despite the pretty garnish and fancy tumbler, the drink tasted like the vodka I would sip out of Poland Springs water bottles at high school dances.
A few hours earlier, I had been sitting on Sarah’s couch watching a documentary on Netflix about a man’s multiple continent-spanning quest to enlarge his penis. By watching, I mean the documentary played in the background as I did various, inconsequential things on my laptop, and Sarah painted her nails with black glitter nail polish. Halfway through the lackluster film screening, Sarah had an epiphany:
–We should go out!
Out is one of my least favorite concepts. If ‘in’ means a comfortable evening spent at home on the couch, then ‘out’ is never preferable.
–We should meet people!
It was then that I burrowed deeper into the massive comforter I had bound myself in.
We should, we should, we should.
In this apartment we had everything we needed to survive the night: leftover Chinese take-out, a roof over our heads, beer, a TV, numerous smoking apparatuses, and a rather bountiful supply of weed.
I knew that I didn’t want to go out. I also knew that I would end up going out. This is because I am a pushover.
This is also because I was currently staying with Sarah rent-free while I looked for a place of my own. As a semi-permanent houseguest, I felt a pinch of obligation to be her wing-woman for the night.
And finally, also because Sarah promised to buy me French fries on the way home.
So there we were: ‘out’ and ‘meeting people.’
I sat on my creaking rocking chair and sipped the drink I did not like but did not want to waste. I would get my money’s worth out of every drop of overpriced well liquor. It was a chilly May night and my legs were covered in goose bumps. Shorts had been an optimistic choice. I looked around the patio.
There’s the Bushwick dad. Bearded, thick-rimmed glasses, tight d.i.y. jean shorts.
There’s the art girl. Long center parted straight hair, stick legs, clunky boots.
There’s the overgrown frat bro. Polo, pomade-encrusted hair, boat shoes.
Sarah was looking down into her lap at her iPhone. She was talking to a guy on OkCupid, which she had recently joined out of a mixture of genuine curiosity and forced irony. OkCupid operates by teetering somewhere on the edge of artifice and authenticity. Twenty somethings using the site can’t seem to decide whether the whole thing is just a joke or some cosmic device to find their soul mate.
As is customary for OkCupid users, Sarah suddenly thrust her phone in my face.
–Pretty cute, right?
The guy’s profile revealed an average looking bearded man who seemed to exclusively wear flannel button-downs. Standard Williamsburg fare. In fact, there were a dozen of this man’s doppelgänger surrounding us on the Narrows’ patio that night.
I handed back Sarah’s phone and proposed that we end the night early and seek out some French fries. In my mind, I silently visualized the route home. About a fifteen-minute walk. In fifteen minutes we could be back on the couch, a slight buzz the only evidence we had ever left.
–One more drink! Come on.
I’m a pushover. We ordered another round and retreated to our corner of the patio. The night air was getting cooler and I let my head swim in the charge of my citrusy cocktail.
The bar was filling up but something strange had happened while we bought our drinks. It seemed every customer was a half of a whole. It was then that I realized what had changed. Suddenly, we were entirely surrounded by couples.
Sarah’s gaze was still directed at her iPhone. Apparently she had decided that this OkCupid guy was in fact “pretty cute” and was doing some internet flirting. Her thumbs flew across her keyboard, oblivious to the coupling off occurring in every direction around us.
We had gone out to talk to in-real-life people and leave the internet at home. We had gone out to take a break from computer screens and start mingling. But this bar had wifi.
About a fifteen-minute walk away from ‘in.’
Surrounded by strangers and one close friend preoccupied talking to strangers online, I threw the rest of the drink down the back of my throat. It burned with a nice distraction. I listened to what sounded like a first date on my left. The male voice—British, or maybe South African—giggled nervously between sentences while a female voice dripping with vocal fry loudly complained about her boss. They spoke on top of one another, seemingly afraid of the silences between each word.
As far as New York clichés go, “feeling alone surrounded by people” is pretty much a classic. But maybe it’s even more relevant now. Sitting here in this bar didn’t seem any more intimate than sitting at home alone awash in the glow of a Macbook screen. We had left our apartment to go out. But was ‘out’ all that different than ‘in’? Was ‘out’ just a concept we had devised as a delusional antidote to some nagging sense of loneliness? Here we were, alone surrounded by people.
–We’re meeting up for drinks tomorrow night!
It was Sarah. She looked up from her phone triumphantly. Tomorrow this mystery OkCupid suitor would be sitting in a seat just like mine across from her. Big sip. Burn of vodka. Had the couples surrounding us also met on OkCupid one night when they too found themselves distracted by social media in crowded bars? Technically Sarah had gone ‘out’ and ‘met someone’.
She rested her phone down on the table between us. Just like that she had extinguished any ember of isolation that may have infiltrated her thoughts. And yet we hadn’t spoken to anyone but each other and the bartender throughout the entire night. Alone surrounded by people.
–Aren’t you glad you came out tonight?
Sarah looked at me expectantly. I looked down at my empty glass and forced a smile to appear on my face. I excused myself to the bar.
I slid my twenty across the smooth wooden counter and bought a stronger drink.
Alexandra Wuest is a Brooklyn based writer. Her home on the internet can be found at bagelcat.tumblr.com