Ten years ago:
Isis and I were heading for a bar in Grand Rapids called "The Deuce". It was some kind of sports bar, only a few blocks away from the Van Andel. I tried to dress myself up for a night out, but I probably looked like a giant dork as usual. I was nervous and worried about what might happen, certain that I would do whatever I could to completely fuck this up.
"You know that I can't dance at all, right?"
"Oh, I'm sure you can. All you need to do is try."
"No, really. I'm very clumsy. I will trip and fall on you."
Reassuring laughs. Patience.
"And I might have a hard time finding something to drink."
"You can have beer. It won't kill you, right?"
"Yeah, but I probably won't like it too much."
"They taste better as you go. Trust me."
I wanted to trust her, but I'm not sure she understood.
We arrived in Grand Rapids just as it was getting dark. I had only been up here three or four times before, so the city was still entirely unfamiliar to me. It was another strange world I was putting myself into. The bar was loud, and after getting our drinks I instinctually tried to maneuver us into some corner so we could talk and have our drinks. But there was no way to have a decent conversion over the noise, and her ability to humor my skittishness was eventually overcome by her desire to do something besides sit in the corner. She pulled me up from my seat, and dragged me off into the crowd.
Some friends of hers found us almost immediately, and then I was sitting at a table being introduced to all of them. They were largely our age, locals out for their regular Saturday night. These people reminded me of the Long Island kids I went to school with in Cortland, so I spent most of the time at the table trying to overcome some outrageous preconceived notions of their lives. These kids also indirectly drove home the point that I was tragically under-dressed for this crowd. Isis left with some of them to go dance, and I was stuck at the table with the remainder. I told them that I was from New York, and once again encountered the city/upstate problem a few times:
"So, what is the scene like in New York?
"Um, I don't really know. I've never gone out in the city. Where I'm from, it is kind of like here."
"But you must have been in the city all the time."
"I went down a bunch when I was kid, but I haven't been there in years."
"I would be there all the time if I lived close."
And then Isis would come back and save me from explaining further. They were nice kids, but we were coming from two different mindsets. I knew that I didn't belong in the city for a variety of reasons, but I only knew this because I had been there and I knew people who had grown up there. New York as a concept is very different than actually being on the ground there, and I'm not sure that is something that can be conveyed in a simple conversation.
They tried to get me to dance there, but I was much too self-aware and nervous. Instead I had them order me drinks that they thought I might like, and I choked them back like a trooper. I tried my best to participate in their conversations, but I only felt more isolated the more I tried.
After an hour or two, Isis pulled me aside and suggest the two of us head off to another place nearby. I was very happy to go along with her. As we walked the few blocks from one to the other I told her about the conversations we were having while she was gone, attempting to alleviate some of the anxiety I was feeling. She said that so much of their lives revolved around going from one club to the next that it was not too surprising that they would grab onto that as a conversation topic.
We went to the B.O.B., which is this building with a bunch of bars and restaurants inside. It became a bit of a maze as we worked our way inside, with one place slowly blending into another. She was leading us toward the nightclub in the basement, but the line was rather long and we waited a while on the staircase. We talked while we were in line, and our flirty dynamic from the previous weekend resurfaced very quickly. She was a stair behind me, and once when I was facing down the staircase she put her arms around my neck and rested her forehead on the back of my head. I stood there afraid to move, wondering what I should be reading out of it.
And then we were at the bottom, acquiring more drinks and trying to find a place for ourselves. The basement was divided up into a bunch of sections, and she brought us into one that wasn't too terribly crowded. We stood against the wall for a quick moment, working to overcome the sobering wait in the line with a quick refresher. But then she was pulling me back out on to the dance floor, and I was once again confronted with making a fool of myself.
"I'm not going to bring you here to dance all by myself."
"But I'm going to look like a fool. You'll be dancing with an embarrassment."
"That's the way everyone does it. You'll be no different than everyone else."
She was probably right, so I went out there with her.
I was stiff and clumsy, trying to figure out how to get my body to move like there was some kind of coordination within it. Despite the screaming in my head, I tried to persist with it in the hopes that I'd be able to figure something out. I kept my eyes on her, tracking her through the flashing lights and movement of other people. Sometimes I would lose track of her entirely, and I would bounce there like a moron until she managed to work her way back over to me, both of us laughing. In those moments somewhere, the inhibitions finally fell off, and I found myself embracing the moment. I knew that I was acting foolish, and it didn't matter to me so much anymore. I was there with her in that place, and that was the only reality I allowed to exist. Sometimes life provides an opportunity to detach and go with things, and I am happy that I was able to have one of those moments then.
I wore myself out, so I went over to the bar to get us some drinks. She noticed I was gone shortly thereafter and came over to me just as the drinks arrived. I laughed at the coincidence and handed her drink over. And there we were, alone but surrounded by people on all sides; the world boiled down into a single moment, a single gesture. I tried to soak up as much of it as I could.
It was snowing when we left, and the roads had iced over just a little bit. We held onto each other as we walked down the sidewalk, trying not to fall over and kill ourselves. She started the car and let it warm up for a few minutes, both of us trying to fight off shivers. I was drunk and hot from dancing, and I curled up with my knees almost to my chest, facing her. And then she was right there with me, her face very close to mine. Did I have fun, she asked. Of course I did, I said. I looked into her eyes, and knew that I should be kissing her right then. I knew with every part of myself that this was the invitation to kiss her and let that be what it was. But I was thinking about how kissing other people's girlfriends isn't really the right thing to do, so I tried to work my way back out of that spot.
I saw a look in her eyes in that moment that backed away. It said many things: disappointment and embarrassment, but also understanding. I know that I have had that look on my face many times in my life, but it was the first time I had seen it in someone else in many years. I felt like shit, freezing my ass of in her car and having stupid feelings and making things complicated. She was more artful than I was, completely disregarding the previous moment and trying to bring back the evening we had been having. And we made that work through force of will. We drove back to Holland, and the snowfall picked up almost exponentially as we went. I watched out the back of the car as we threw flakes high into the air, leaving two parallel lines in the highway behind us. She turned up the radio to a distracting volume, and we both sang along to whatever song happened to be on. We were laughing again, leaving that silly little moment behind in a trail of flakes.
It was late when she dropped me off, and I barely managed to get out of my clothes before I passed out. I didn't wake up with my alarm clock; I woke up to Allie pounding on my door.
"Are you ready?"
"Okay. Are you decent?"
"Can I come in?"
She laughed at me, asking if her sister had kept me out too late. She was right to chide me, so I put up with it while I ran back into the bedroom and tried to get dressed for work. I grabbed the first shirt I saw, threw on some pants, and ran out the door to open the store.
It wasn't until I had thrown the gate that I noticed that I was wearing the same shirt that I wore last night. I spent the rest of the day surrounded by the smell of last night's cigarettes, and the perfume that Isis had worn.
Notes on a life in exile: A retrospective
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