In the Mission District
When I think about it now, hindsight being what it is, of course Ben and Val were old enough to get married. Who was I to say anything? I’d never really loved anyone. And besides, I’ve always believed in young love. Forget all that calculated stuff.
After he’d rung up my apartment, I went to meet him on the street.
“I know you’re tired,” I told him. “You’ve got to be. But let’s get you a drink first. It’ll help you sleep better. Not that you’ll need the help.” I didn’t buzz him in.
He stood in the doorway to the building with a blue duffle bag slung over his shoulder. It weighed his entire body down.
I said, “You about to fall over?” and he looked at me like I was crazy, which, sure, whatever, it was midnight—I was tired too. I grabbed his bag and threw it bag back in his car and told him we’d go get that drink he needed.
“Is it far?”
I pointed to the dive across the street and patted his back. “We don’t even have to drive.”
“Fish, listen, I’m exhausted,” he said. “Do we really have to go out?”
“I’m doing this for you.”
He looked puzzled.
“You’re getting married. So, yes. We do. We absolutely do.”
We started walking. Ben’s car sat next to the curb, its engine still clinking, sending steam from under the hood to dissipate in the cool, black air.
I pushed the door to the bar open and the familiar stench of dried beer and cleaning chemicals hit me so quickly, so forcefully, that I expected a K.O. But we recovered and pulled some stools up to the bar.
Typical for the Mission, the place was packed, even though it was midnight on a weekday. For the most part, we fit in. Of course we didn’t, not really, but I couldn’t have known why yet.
Ben couldn’t stop fidgeting; he was constantly looking over his shoulders and wobbling his chair.
“So this is what a bar looks like.”
“Yep, a crappy San Francisco dive bar at its finest.” I tried to get the attention of the bartender. “I haven’t actually been here before.”
“I meant any bar.” He flipped a cardboard coaster over to read the back.
The secret to getting a bartender to serve you before the rest of any liquored-up crowd is to have your money out and ready where they can see it. They’re greedy that way. Or maybe it signals you mean business. Either way, it works. They rush right over.
I put my twenty on the table and focused on the bartender while she poured a beer from the tap straight down into a glass, no angle at all. I watched it foam and felt bad, like she wasn’t a very good bartender, but she didn’t know any better and neither did anybody else there.
“What’s that again?” I asked Ben.
“I said, so this is what a bar looks like. Any bar.”
I didn’t want to lose my focus. Bartenders know when you’re not serious about ordering a drink. “What do you mean this is what a—or any—or whatever bar looks like?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, finally turning to look at him, “you’re not making any sense. Are you saying that you’re twenty-two years old and you’ve never been in a bar? I mean, Jesus, seriously. How does that even happen?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Not even a karaoke place?”
“Not even any place.”
He rolled his eyes. I guess he was more comfortable with himself than I was with him.
An older woman, entirely out of place, was staring at us.
“God, I would’ve taken you somewhere else if I knew.”
“Yeah, well, when I turned twenty-one we were all separated. Jake at his college, you up here, and Ellie had that job. Val’s still only twenty, and it seemed weird to go without her.”
“So, what, you just sat in your room at your parent’s house as the clock struck midnight? Sang happy birthday to yourself?”
Ben laughed and perked up, more awake now. “Actually, funny story: I went to 7-eleven after my family was asleep and bought a Heineken. I think they call them grenades. I opened it in our driveway so nobody would hear and drank it all there. I don’t even think I got out of my car. That was probably really illegal.”
“Should I laugh? I never know when you’re joking.” I watched his face drop. “Jesus, buddy.”
“It was fine.”
Just then the older woman slammed a bottle between us on the bar, sloshing warm Rolling Rock on the both of us.
“Why aren’t you singing, damn it!” she yelled, her eyes red and puffy. “What’s up, pussycat?” she screeched, sending vibrations of cheap alcohol and notes so off-key, she made the roster of people I felt bad for in the bar.
She took a quick swig and stared at us briefly, trying, apparently with great difficulty, to stand still and look menacing. She was in her mid-fifties, balding and wearing a blue sweater with the hoodie cord pulled almost all the way out of the left side. The cord slowly rocked back and forth as she stood in a daze. Tick, tock, tick, tock. She finally gave up and leaned against the bar. With her free hand, she wiped the sweat off her face and stared deeply at us. Disgusting.
“Lady, we haven’t even gotten a drink yet,” I said.
She sighed deeply and shook her head, pointing at us with her green bottle that was almost empty.
“What’s a matter with you two anyway? You a couple of faggots?”
Ben laughed and stood up to head for the door.
“Hold up,” I said to him. “This isn’t what these places are normally like. I swear. Well, no, scratch that, dive bars are always like this. And this? This is a dive bar.”
I turned back to the woman, her head drooping towards the floor.
“I don’t have to justify anything to you, but no, we’re not. This guy’s getting married in a month. He just drove up from Orange County, so can you do us a favor and leave us the hell alone?” I said. “Sit down, Ben.”
He said, “Count this as my bachelor party then.”
The woman perked up. I think she was drooling. “Why didn’t you say so? What’s up, pussycat? Woah…” And then to the bartender, “Let’s get us a round of Jaeger over here!”
“Wow, getting fancy,” I said, trying to lighten the mood.
“I really, really, really don’t need to do any shots right now,” Ben said, waving the bartender off.
She placed three empty glasses in a row in front of us, and in one long motion poured the drinks.
“Ben.” I picked up one of the glasses and handed it to him. The smell of anise passing my nose instantly brought me back to so many bad decisions made in the military, both on and off base, years ago. “This is happening.”
I clinked my glass to his and said cheers. Contractually—as a “cheers” implies—he couldn’t skip out now. We threw the shots back and I turned to look for the woman but she was gone.
Ben coughed and covered his mouth. His eyes were red. “Well, that sucked.”
“You’ll get used to it.”
“I hope not.”
“So, what are you really doing for your bachelor party, anyway? Jake got something planned for you up in Portland tomorrow? I bet it’ll be crazy. You can even go to your second bar.”
“No, I just want to hang out with him again, once more before the wedding. Before Val and I leave on our honeymoon and then come back, and move in together and things are different. For old times’ sake. It’ll be like a bachelor party in a way, I guess.”
“That’s not a bachelor party.”
“Not like the ones you’ve been to. Anyway, he can’t come to the wedding. Those recording industry people treat him like a slave.”
“Well isn’t your brother planning something? He’s the best man, after all.”
“I don’t really want one, to be honest.”
I tried to hold back my disappointment. “Why?”
“But really, this can count.” He was dodging me, but that was okay.
“Okay, that’s fine then. Let’s get to it if we only have tonight. What do you want to do?”
“Well.” He sat, mulling this over. I couldn’t tell if he actually cared about how depressing this was to me, like somehow the situation didn’t have enough gravity. “I’d like my first ever beer in a bar.”
“Alright then!” So we were on after all. I started my usual routine with the bartender: money out, eyes locked. She was serving someone else. There was a row of people beside us with empty glasses, all trying to do the same.
“Do they have Heineken?” Ben asked.
The bartender smiled and came over. I placed the order and she said, “Two Heinekens coming up.”
“God,” I said to Ben. “Your first drink in a bar was Jaeger. That’s rough.”
She brought two cans over. They were short and squat with green beads of condensation running down the can, onto the counters and our hands.
A Journey song came on and I turned around to see the drunken woman from before standing at the jukebox with a couple dollar bills. She mumbled the words and put in more money.
“Jake would know more about this than I do,” Ben said, “but he told me about a Hemingway line one time that I liked. He said something like, ‘Don’t bother with tourist attractions,’ or something like that. Then, ‘If you really want to get to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.’“
I laughed. “That makes a lot of sense. But please, don’t judge San Francisco based on a place like this.” The woman was singing with much more confidence now. “We have a lot more to offer, you know.”
Ben’s face was getting red. I told him that and he said his cheeks felt funny too.
“That’s just the beginning,” I said.
The bartender came and asked if we wanted anything else and before I could say anything Ben ordered up two more Red Stripes.
“I’ve never been drunk before,” Ben said.
“You want to take it easy for a while?”
“What for? Anyway, my parents don’t drink. I haven’t really had an excuse to be drunk.”
The bartender brought the beers.
“Listen,” I said. We were both feeling pretty good. “How do you feel about getting married? Aren’t you worried?”
“That you’re too young? That’s she’s not the one? I don’t know, that your life will be over?”
He didn’t say anything for a while. Did I go too far?
“Everyone worries,” he said, and took a sip of his beer.
“But what about you, specifically?”
“Everyone worries,” he said again.
I didn’t say anything. He was dodging again. The song wrapped up but then started from the beginning again and everyone in the bar cheered.
Finally he said, “It’s crazy, though. You spend thousands and thousands of dollars, and go through months or years of planning, all for a four-hour party. So much goes into it, but then it’ll be over.” He snapped his fingers. “Like that.”
I nodded. “Are you ready for it?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be. There’s always last minute details. Who knows.”
He polished off his beer and set it upside down on the counter, where it sat balanced for all of two seconds before falling over and crashing on the floor. Shards of glass splintered twenty feet in every direction. If I remember correctly, the jukebox jolted and stopped playing. That can’t be right.
Christ, I felt drunk. No point in telling Ben; he looked worse.
The bartender ran over and asked—no, yelled at—us to leave.
“Yeah, we’re going anyway,” I said. I looked at everyone sitting and standing around, with their saggy eyes, their sadness and loneliness.
“Are we really that much worse?” I screamed.
We both bolted for the door, which I slammed (okay, it didn’t really slam at all; it was on a revolving hinge that sent the door flapping in and out). I heard some laughs inside as we walked away.
“Fresh air feels good,” I said.
Ben’s cell phone started vibrating in his pocket. He pulled it out, looked at the screen, and put it away. “She doesn’t know I’m here.”
“Why the hell would you do that?”
“I’m going home in a couple days. It’s fine. Just needed some fresh air.”
I pondered that. I didn’t know enough to say anything. For once, I didn’t want to say anything out of place. Though at that point in the night, after a few drinks, it was getting more difficult to separate the boundaries between right and wrong, but I knew I had to be there for my friend. “Okay.”
We walked down 18th street in between Mission High School and Dolores Park. The clouds had cleared and the sky was clear. The stars were white and numerous above the bell tower of the high school.
Ben sat, or rather, fell clumsily on the curb, holding his head in his hands.
“You okay?” I said.
He didn’t say anything, just kept sitting and staring at the floor, eyes half closed.
I prodded. “Spinning?
He nodded and coughed, finally looking up. “Why the hell do these kids need such a nice high school? Who are they trying to impress?”
It stood towering above us, lit blue by the moon. “I don’t know. But I’m sure no one regrets building it.”
We both sat and stared at the school until the sprinklers in the park shot up and shocked us sober with cold water.
“Christ, one a.m.” I held out my hand and lifted Ben to his feet.
He dusted the grass off his jeans.
“We should start that book club we’ve always talked about,” he said.
“Yeah.” I laughed. “Let’s do that.”
We walked home in the cold.
Brett Arnold (@BrettSArnold) is the author of the novella Avalon, Avalon, featuring Ben and with an appearance by Fish, and his fiction has been featured on the “Stuff You Should Know” podcast. He’s worked with several local literary nonprofits, including 826LA and ISM: A Community Project.