A Bar Called Denial

by

10/06/2004

Grand St & W Broadway, New York, NY 10013

Neighborhood: SoHo

It was my last few hours in New York City, enough time to swig several drinks with a friend before catching a shuttle to La Guardia.

I was booked on a red-eye flight back to San Francisco, so with soliciting a few gin and tonics foremost in mind, I headed straight to the bar.

Denial was a darkened, narrow den wedged along Grand Street. Inside, it offered the deafening obscurity typical of Manhattan watering holes. I squinted, moving slowly through the shadows until I spotted my friend, deeply enthralled by an Italian beauty, who nodded his head towards the corner.

There was a birthday party in progress—one of his colleagues, it turned out. I picked my way through dozens of cellophane-wrapped presents and sat down, eager to strike up a conversation—hopefully with someone with deep pockets.

I had flown to Manhattan on impulse a week earlier. Just days after being laid off from a writing gig at a local Bay Area magazine, I had been offered a job with the mother publication in San Jose. I accepted, realizing that saying “yes” would change the direction of my life, and immediately jumped on a flight to New York. This was a spontaneous, unprecedented decision because I hadn’t been to New York in over a decade. I had visited only twice before, and the city’s enormity, its infinite, thriving landscape had always overwhelmed me. Still, with a last shot at vacation, I hopped the plane.

My vacation was soon over, and as I sat there in Denial, I realized I wasn’t ready to go home. Not yet. My friend was still seducing his potential conquest so I toyed with the idea of walking up to the bar when a voice, thick with an odd clip that could only be South African, distracted me.

“How do you know the birthday girl?”

I looked over to see an incredibly sexy, boyish face before me. That face—that of the birthday girl’s brother—would change my life in half an hour, when it was pressed against mine in a stinking back alley. It was just a kiss, but like Judas’ own brief caress, its delivery would alter the course of history.

He bought me a drink, and sat down, quickly enticing me with the details of his life—one gauged on risk, adventure, charting spans of ocean, jumping continents—and his wit, drier than an expert martini. I said little, only begged him to continue. “I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t interested,” I purred back, wondering why—of all nights—I had to meet him.

As he told me more, the room receded. I forgot about my friend, forgot about the hour, immersed myself in his charisma and then, suddenly, remembered my flight. “Listen, I’ve got to get to the airport,” I told him.

“Dats alroight,” he clicked back. “I’ll find you a cab.”

With hundreds of cabs in sight, we didn’t try hard to flag one down. I wasn’t paying attention to the road, and he wasn’t looking at traffic either. Our conversation was minimal. A cab finally pulled over but as I started toward the door, he kissed me. I kissed back and the car drove away, leaving us enveloped and oblivious. After a few minutes he took my hand and led me to a back alley, a sepia-hued narrow space, strewn with trash.

Aside from a few stray garbage cans, there was a huge potted planter filled with dry soil, which he leaned against, pulling me to him. We kissed longer this time, our urban privacy interrupted by the odd straggler who needed to urinate quickly. After twenty minutes, I pulled away. I had to go. “Don’t walk away from this,” he said, softly. “I have to,” I said, not wanting to, but my new job, a new opportunity, beckoned. He said nothing as I turned on my heel, just sat in the alley, hovering next to a dead plant.

I got on the plane that night, but his face had already wedged itself into my every blink. Sooner, not later, it would lure me back to the city, to revisit denial head-on. Only this time, it wouldn’t have a liquor license.

Flash forward a year, when I began my arduous assimilation to life in Gotham. I quit my job and flew to New York, unwittingly arriving on the South African’s birthday. But I wouldn’t know this until we met weeks later to have coffee. I hadn’t called because I had problems of my own, but eventually—so inevitably—I did.

He cut a smart figure, suited up for his Wall Street post, as he sat across from me. He immediately quizzed me on why I decided to move—even though he had called months earlier, enticing me to visit. We had emailed and phoned each other a dozen times over the year, with references to the alley saturating each conversation. He had almost come out on business, but never made it.

Once, when I relinquished all hope of realizing our long-distance flirtation, he called within hours, perhaps sensing the connection weaken. We were psychically tied to each other, or so I thought. I lost all interest in my work—I wanted a life, too. So as spontaneously as my last impulse to visit New York, I decided to embrace fate and move here.

He asked why I had come. My heart fluttered with a sickening burst of adrenaline as I told him, half-believing, that Silicon Valley’s salad days had rapidly wilted and I was ready for the big time. But I couldn’t mouth the real reason—such a tantalizingly thin hope—that made naïve romantics like me bank their futures on a one-way plane ticket: the kiss, which had morphed into a grandiose reverie with each allusion. And the chance it wouldn’t be the last one.

Perhaps my heart hadn’t revealed itself in my eyes because he told me about his new girlfriend, removing a picture of her that he kept in his wallet. Only there was no face—just her hands resting on his shoulder—which left me half-relieved, half-intrigued. Still, I imagined those hands softly tracing the hairs on his arm, and how they felt, tightly wrapped around his waist.

I’d obviously been wrong—he’d met someone else. Geography and time had cheated me of the opportunity. But then again maybe, just maybe, I told myself, he’d eventually dump The Hands.

My denial kicked in immediately, an innate defense mechanism with all the jolt of an espresso shot.

We didn’t speak again for weeks. There was the odd email, “How are you? Hope everything’s cool,” he’d write. But I couldn’t answer. I often wandered the streets of Manhattan alone, feeling displaced, but I was determined to make something of myself, of this mistake.

Eventually I succumbed to his invitation for drinks—no girlfriend, just friends of course—a tacit understanding. Perhaps it was his accent, that slight click that hinted at savage skylines I’d never seen, or perhaps it was the way he mispronounced my name, making the vowels uniquely his. But I said yes, and he gave me the address.

We sat in the subterranean bar, bathed in amber light, drinking expensive, fruity martinis. Our mutual friend was there and an assortment of European twenty-somethings who were discovering New York—and themselves—for the first time. They smelled of freshly scrubbed, youthful expectation, whereas I, a confused, love-forlorn thirty-something, had had mine trampled. I felt I didn’t belong, but I sat, stuck with the need to put on a good face. I wanted him to pierce the illusion, so I wouldn’t have to pretend. But he’d only seen the mask and what lay below the surface would have proved completely unrecognizable.

We drank. We talked politics. We drank more and as his voice rose with excitement, it held a high pitch hum that resounded with smug entitlement. He knew, of course, his opinions were right. Perhaps it stemmed from years of apartheid, when polarities suffused every thought and nuance, but his confidence was foreign to me.

I continued to drink, the vodka strangely helping me see more clearly. I watched him slowly lick the side of his glass, eyes firmly set on mine, and I understood that his sense of entitlement wasn’t limited to politics.

My naïve, though dogged, devotion, had fueled the fire. I’d somehow belonged more to him than myself. “What do you think, D—?” he said, stretching my name absurdly again.

I averted my eyes and stared at the menu, where the restaurant’s name lay emblazoned in bold letters at the top. It caught my eye and despite the growing pit in my stomach, I immediately appreciated the irony. Of all the places he could have suggested we meet, of all the thousands of restaurants and bars, we were firmly seated in Pravda—which in Russian, means Truth.

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§ One Response to “A Bar Called Denial”

  • Farid says:

    Great story.

    … the kiss, which had morphed into a grandiose reverie with each allusion.

    What a great line. Thanks for sharing your story.

    PS. Your name in Farsi means wealthy (both financially and emotionally.)

§ Leave a Reply

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