[Image Credit: Konstantin Malakhov]
The wind is more abrasive than usual or the rain is colder than usual or someone just exited your life so abruptly that you gravitate towards the human noise that dominates the street. The bar patrons are familiar (some of them seem to know your name?) but swallowed by voices you feel more energized than you did when the noise was periphery and faceless.
The bar patrons sit close to one another—so close that some of them know other patrons’ mothers or what someone else ate last night for dinner or what recurrent hairdo someone had in puberty—but still there is all sorts of yelling and something that is maybe above you or below you or coming from within you that moans like masturbation. A fairly good-looking man keeps taking selfies in the corner while patrons on barstools cheer him on and say things like, “WOW” and “HOT” and “OMG LOOK AT YOU,” compliments that make the good-looking man bow and repeatedly blush in disagreement.
You don’t smoke unless you are drunk but one drink in and already you are blowing smoke so close to the bartender’s face that she nearly turns ghost. The bartender doesn’t seem to mind—everyone is blowing smoke in her face and turning her indecipherable or invisible or otherwise irreversible. Yet it is the toleration or the reception in her stance that frightens you, and with this fright you begin to feel your body again molten to the earth. You run your hand down the barstool and summon the most damning fright and vow to finish your beer and settle your tab and never return to this bar again, but your vow vanishes as the scenery abruptly changes.
Someone you can hardly see is covering their eyes with a bandana and pretending they are no longer there. Someone older than you is crying. In the bathrooms three couples get married and five get divorced. Four give birth to one baby rather quickly and give away their strollers before they can birth another. Someone in the corner dies (you don’t know him but it is tragic), yet instead of a funeral the bar patrons write things like “FUCK CANCER” and “YOU GOT THIS NEXT LIFE” on the floor around him, outlining his body with their loss.
As you order another beer a racist joke echoes through the bar as if everyone is repeating it. Then another joke (also racist?) consumes it and someone fires a gun that sounds like a gumball machine ajar. The noise isn’t destabilizing from a distance but on its own volition your fright returns, and you feel compelled to leave your barstool and walk towards the hatred and determine its shape.
As you do a baby elephant tumbles through the front door and makes a face that is immeasurably human. Then a baby panda scales the balcony and sits between the quietest teenage girl in one chair and her pencil sketches of disembodied feminine figures in another, figures that the bar patrons hardly see or study at all because the noise is once again on the floor, and the bar patrons have no choice but to turn their bodies and cheer as a famous singer pours himself a beer as a regular human would pour himself a beer. The bartender could cut off the famous singer or tell him to sit down yet you watch from a safe distance as the bartender tries to hug the famous singer instead. The famous singer is a private person, though, and won’t hug the bartender back, and eventually a person who’s had a bad year hijacks the bartender’s attention.
You are now so far removed from the bar itself you are unsure if you can make your way back to the noise’s center or if you even belonged on a barstool in the center of the noise in the first place. Now in the dark recesses of the bar someone beside you is coming out to their family, and the person beside them is excitedly wheat-pasting notices of melting polar ice and Ebola vaccines and stores to boycott on the tables and walls where they are more or less demonstrative but overwhelming to read as a score. In the darkness you are more comfortable with yourself and your thoughts but are unsure who to talk to or what even to say about yourself if given the chance. You stand erect and move only once to run your hand over the wheat-pasted flyers, and as you do a woman sees you and somehow knows what you are thinking.
“Everyone will be here again tomorrow,” the woman says without looking directly at you, a skill you immediately know took years to master. The woman is chewing gum and drinking a blood orange cocktail at an empty table with four chairs. She’s been here for eight years, she says (she got a late start), and the honest trick to being here is that no one ever leaves. The woman sips the blood orange cocktail from the rim but her mouth unbelievable turns no more orange.
Behind you someone whispers that you’re invited to another bar, that they can take you there if you consecutively blink your eyes four times. Before you can answer or crowdsource your answer someone behind them begins singing an unfamiliar song with a foreignness that arrests you. Before long they repeat the song, once without you asking and then again when you request them to sing it again. Again and again you listen to the song, turning it over in your head until its strange melodies sound like something you already knew.
All the while you cannot take your eyes off the blood orange woman, who is maybe turning slightly orange now, or slightly blood (the light is terrible), and all at once in a voice you don’t recognize or didn’t know you had you are the one singing. You sing the strange song somewhat clumsily at first, but soon it’s if it was yours, as if it was in your pocket or your bloodstream all along, as if the song was the thing that walked into this bar looking for you, and that now moving in you and through you and with you the song is the thing that now has a vessel, a human body that will move about the bar as if it’s not turning circles at all, only erecting a single path that is its own way forward.
Michelle Dove is the author of Radio Cacophony (Big Lucks Books). Recent writing appears in Chicago Review, Hobart, and DIAGRAM. She lives in Durham, NC, where she works and teaches in the English Department at Duke University.