“To two of the three or four people left in the world that I can still fucking stand,” I said, making the first toast of the evening. I clinked my gin and tonic with the light beers of my companions, the two most beautiful women I work with. Colleen, a year or so younger than me, drank from her Bud Light. Jude, 27 and therefore over a decade younger than either Colleen or I, was drinking Miller Light. We were sitting too close to the speakers in a cramped bar in upstate New York, having just claimed a table after walking in and getting our first round of drinks. I’d had a shitty couple of days, primarily because it was my birthday the day before and I was profoundly disappointed my wife did nothing of any consequence at all to mark my 42nd birthday and (thus the beginning of my 43rd year traveling around the sun), and in this manner I found myself listening to country music in this tiny bar with the two most beautiful women I know.
“Jude and I are going out tomorrow night,” Colleen had said to me the day before. I had been venting to her about how lousy I had felt my birthday had been, and she asked if I wanted to come along. It was nice of her to offer to include me in her night out with Jude; it would be a strange combination of personalities, but with a lot of recent frustration in common. I suppose that’s what brought the three of us to this little bar as much as my spoiled birthday or anything else.
Colleen had called me about 6:30 in the evening to lay out the plan. Jude was heading over to Colleen’s spacious, amazing house in a few minutes and I could join them for a pre-bar drink or I could wait and meet them at the bar sometime around 7 or 7:30. I don’t have my own car anymore, and my wife had taken hers to go to her sister’s house with our kids (on this day that was supposed to be the day we observed my birthday, I’ll remind you just this once, and with no trace of bitterness at all), so I told Colleen I’d love to be part of the pre-party, as it were, but I’d need a lift. I rung off with Colleen and found Jude in the contact list in my cell phone, and she agreed to swing by and pick me up on the way to Colleen’s. “As long as you don’t mind that I have to stop and pick up some wine,” she mentioned, and of course I didn’t mind that at all. In fact, I told her there’s a liquor store right around the corner from where I live, and I gave her quick directions, and she hung up after saying she’d finish up her makeup and be on her way in a few minutes.
I had little idea what the evening might entail, other than country music and alcohol. I am not a fan of the former, but the latter can go a ways toward making me more agreeable on the subject. And after a couple days of disappointment and conflict, I was happy to have the opportunity to get out of the house.
I pulled on my overcoat and kept an eye on the window while waiting for Jude to arrive; once or twice I opened the door and stepped onto the porch into the darkness and frigid winter air to see if there were headlights approaching from the direction I expected her to arrive from. The second time I looked, my cat Chloe, operating in stealth mode, zipped between my feet and out onto the porch and its false promises of more fun and freedom. As is my usual reaction, I rattled an old folding chair and its scary creaking noises sent my no-longer brave (or warm) white-and-grey cat racing back into the safety of the house. I did have to give Chloe points for making it past me without making a sound, but I was glad the chair trick worked; if she’d made it into the piles of junk in the eastern corner of the porch, it would take some time and effort and possibly the jaws of life to extricate her and get her back in the house. How embarrassing that would have been, if Jude had arrived as the cat was once again getting the better of me in the ten-degree cold.
About ten minutes later, Jude’s car pulled to the curb in front of where I live, and I walked down and got in. It was the first time I’d been in her car, with its futuristic barrage of bright digital readouts, and I noticed it had a standard transmission. “Of course it does,” I thought. Jude seems determined to do everything on her own, even switching gears in traffic. It was one of the things I had come to admire about her in the few short months I had known her. Also: her taste in music, her taste in movies, and the funny little dance she does when she is happy, and sometimes I think when she is sad, as well.
She navigated the short course to the neighbourhood liquor store as I described it to her, taking the shortcut behind the supermarket four doors down the street from my house and admonishing me to put on my seatbelt. Not because of safety concerns, she noted: “Although I am concerned about your safety,” she started, and I finished by correctly guessing that “The car is going to start beeping at us.” It did, but only once before we reached the liquor store, which was really within walking distance of where we started (take it from me).
Jude was dazzled by the selection of wines in the small store, which I noted to her “is the only liquor store near my house to recently have been held up by armed robbers.” I love throwing out little historical nuggets like that, probably not thinking too much about what someone new to the area might make of it. Well, it had never stopped me from visiting the store, and really, don’t you think that’s an interesting fact?
Jude asked the clerk, a plump young woman in her 20s, if the store stocked a wine known as “The Seven Deadly Zins.” “This is only my second night here,” the clerk responded from the counter, I suppose by way of apology for not in any way trying to determine the answer to my friend’s question. In the fullness of time, though, Jude chose a bottle of red, I think as a gift to Colleen for her expected hospitality this evening, and the clerk, feeling dutiful at last, asked to see both Jude’s ID and my own. “She’s a flatterer,” I noted to Jude in a stage whisper, feeling every minute of my now-42 years and thinking the clerk was just observing procedure. Jude might look like she could possibly still be under the legal drinking age, but I really don’t think I could pass for 19 or 20 under any circumstances whatsoever. Judging from the clerk’s reaction when she saw the year on my license, though (1966, the same year the original Star Trek debuted on NBC, A Desilu Production), she really did think I was younger. If she wondered what Jude (1980) and I (1966) were doing buying a bottle of wine together on this cold, upstate winter evening, she didn’t ask. “Imagine if I’d bothered to shave,” I noted to Jude, feeling giddy with my presumed youth and its concomitant piss and, presumably, vinegar.
Wine safely in hand, we got back in Jude’s car and headed in the general direction of Colleen’s house. I’d been there twice before, once as a drive-by on our lunch break when she first moved in (“Look, there’s my house!”) and once to help her carry in some bar stools she had bought for her kitchen (“You want these old ones? Some of them aren’t even broken!”). But finding it in the dark turned out to not be as easy as I had expected. So it took us two loops around Colleen’s street and a quick cell phone call and its attendant mockery (“Alan, you’ve been here twice!”) before we safely arrived. In fairness to me, it had been in the daytime when I previously had visited.
So, Colleen welcomed us into her home, a beautiful two-story house the renovation of which she is currently putting the finishing touches on. She fixed Jude and I each a White Russian and gave us the tour of the home, which she shares with her boyfriend and their four combined total children. It’s a sort of Brady Bunch On A Budget kind of arrangement – Colleen is a lovely lady with only two very lovely girls, and Steven was currently in Vermont with the two, not three, boys of his own. The tour did not include Greg’s radically groovy attic bedroom, but now that I think about it neither of the boys is actually named Greg. But the stairs do kind of seem like they were designed by architect Mike Brady, I shit you not. She also gave me a funny birthday card and a gift card to my favourite bookstore, which went a long way toward making me feel better on my long, mostly-disastrous birthday weekend.
Somewhere in this pre-bar fellowship, Colleen drinking a beer and Jude and I our White Russians (my joke about Eastern European men, based on the fact that these were really big White Russians, went nowhere; chalk it up to the fact I watched Eastern Promises earlier in the day), we began sharing our laundry list of complaints about our current work environment. It was agreed that it is, indeed, a bunch of bullshit, and there was no new business and after a short time the meeting was adjourned in favour of the bar.
We all piled into Colleen’s very large and very expensive SUV, and she told us how one of the members of the band that was playing tonight was one of her former boyfriends. It seemed more complicated than that, with various dates being bandied about, but she seemed to feel it had more or less come to an end about a decade and a half ago. Soon enough we entered the bar, which was fairly crowded, and we ordered our first round. As we received our drinks, but before we could sit, the band broke into the national anthem, noting it was something they did “at every show since 9/11.” I mentioned to Jude that “Never have my politics been so profoundly threatened so quickly after entering an establishment,” and she seemed to laugh in recognition of the rather right-wing nature of the moment, dramatically punctuated by an overweight woman at the bar looking grim and determined in her grey sweatshirt, as she held her hand over her heart during the anthem. “I’d put my hand over my heart,” I mentioned to Jude, “But there’s a drink in it,” I said, switching my gin and tonic to my right hand. The band wrapped up their heartfelt polemic and if the stern, dumpy woman with her hand on her heart noticed how much of a Communist I and my companions were, nothing was said and thankfully we were not dragged to the parking lot for disrespecting the brave American soldiers the song had been dedicated to (“And no doubt to our Muslim brothers as well,” I mentioned to my companions with only a tiny bit of liberal sarcasm and a great deal of not being terribly loud).
Shortly thereafter we took the only table that seemed mostly unoccupied (only an empty beer bottle and coat on the back of a chair indicated the table might be taken) and watched the band perform some country and southern rock-style songs. They had an accomplished fiddle player on hand, and come to find out the bottle and the coat both belonged to him, but when Colleen offered to move us somewhere else, he told her she was fine where she is, perhaps observing that, just in general, Colleen is fine and I realized in this moment (and not for the last time this evening) that there are real benefits to going out to drink with two beautiful women.
Colleen had bought the first round of drinks, having earlier promised me “A birthday drink,” and I paid for the second, and Jude the third. I was trying to nurse my gin and tonic, realizing that I was probably the most likely to be the designated driver, but somewhere in there Colleen snuck in a fourth round, and I politely sipped at my new drink while being deafened by the speaker that sat directly in front of me while we sat at our tiny table.
The music was well-performed and not all of it was as annoying as I usually find country music. Somewhere in my second drink the band did a genuinely moving love song that made me feel sad for not feeling anymore, at 42, any of the feelings the singer so movingly described about the girl in the song. I wondered if Jude and Colleen were feeling at all as maudlin as I was becoming, but soon enough we were joking around and in the fullness of time my ears wearied of the non-stop assault (the music was well-played but over-modulated) and I mentioned to my companions that a change of venue might not be out of order.
Colleen had earlier asked if Jude had ever been to Sandy’s Clam Bar, and was astonished when Jude said no. “Me either,” I noted, and Colleen was really amazed then. “I’ve successfully avoided it for 20 years,” I told her, although upon reflection it might be 22. Sandy’s is a very popular bar known for having good bands on the weekends, but something about the location (in the worst part of town) and the name (clams? Really?) had always made me leery. But the promise of ten minutes of quiet in the car while we drove from our current location to Sandy’s was too much to resist, and we pulled our coats on and headed out into the cold and the snow.
“It’s fucking snowing?” Colleen asked no one, or maybe God, and I was surprised as well, in that way you can only be surprised after an hour or two inhabiting the universe-unto-itself that is a loud bar on a weekend night. You forget that such things as weather or being able to hear normally even exist, you know?
There was some argument about what radio station to have on as we drove to our next stop: Jude wanted hip-hop, Colleen most assuredly did not. I suggested the independent new music station from Vermont, and Jude enthusiastically agreed to that, and there was some discussion as to whether The Beatles are old or not. I explained to Colleen that they will always be five years ahead of their (and our) time, while she feels they are just old and her kids can’t stand them, although to her frustration they do enjoy the same sort of hip-hop as Jude. Colleen: “Ludacris is ludicrous!” Well, yeah.
Sandy’s must have been as busy as Colleen had told us it would be, I thought to myself, as we circled the parking lot three or so times with no luck at all. Finally I pointed out spaces in an adjacent lot to Colleen, and she parked, and we walked the short distance through the insistent snow flurries to the bar. Packed, it was, and noisy as hell, but at least the noise wasn’t distorted like it had been in the other bar. Colleen led the three of us, and soon was talking with great animation to a woman she obviously was already well-acquainted with. Jude headed to the bar and for a moment I didn’t know which one to stick close to, as Colleen was staying with her acquaintance near the entrance and Jude was disappearing into the crowd. At first I tried to stay sort of equidistant to both of them, but in the end I followed Jude, figuring somebody needs to keep track of her.
She asked if I wanted a drink and I asked for a Diet Coke, which raised one of her eyebrows in that delightful Jude manner, but I knew only one of the three of us had a chance to stay sober enough to drive, and I knew that one of us was named “me.” She handed me my soda and we pried back through the crowd, Jude leading (another benefit of being with two beautiful women – I was learning a lot, here), and soon enough we were near Colleen, although not really with her. She was deep in conversation with her newfound old friend, and Jude decided variously in the next few minutes that she wanted to play Ms. Pac-Man (“the best video game ever!”) and she wanted to smoke. Smoking seemed like a good idea, cancer aside, because that meant we’d have to go outside, where it would not be as noisy. My ears were still recovering from the distorted noise at the previous bar, so I told her I would join her. The cigarette machine did not take bills, though, so she studied it with determined despair until a kindly gentleman of perhaps 50 offered her a loose cigarette in an off-hand, never-really-even-stopped-walking-by-us-as-he-did-it kind of way that just fascinated me. I’d never seen such a thing before, but I bet it happens all the time. To girls like Jude, anyway; probably not to guys like me, but, I don’t even smoke.
Then we were outside in a small crowd and Jude was smoking her borrowed cigarette and the guy who had given it to her stared talking about the band, maybe to me, maybe to no one. He mentioned that the singer used to be in another band, the name of which I recognized, and then I realized that I had worked with the singer last year and the year before on a commercial for a local charity event, when he had been with his old, and locally popular, band. I didn’t notice much about the band at all, except that they were quite good with the classic rock, and that the drummer had blue t-shirt with Captain America’s shield on it. It always comes back to comics, sooner or later.
Some young guy about Jude’s age tried awkwardly to strike up a conversation with her, but his IQ was clearly in the double digits, and he could get no traction at all. His best conversational gambit was something obvious about smoking in the snow, I think.
Eventually, and not at my behest, we went back inside. Colleen found Jude and I standing by a deer hunting video game, and also the bouncer, and asked where we had been. I responded “We were outside smoking,” feeling quite satisfyingly cosmopolitan as I did so. The band, at the far end of the bar from where we stood, launched into a Rolling Stones song, the singer doing a good imitation Mick Jagger strut, and Colleen noted at this moment both that she wanted french fries and that she wanted to dance. For a horrifying moment she mentioned the latter while looking at me, but thankfully she then asked me to watch her and Jude’s bags while they danced together. Bullet: Dodged. Dancing: Just Not My Thing.
Jude and Colleen were out of my line of sight while they danced, I am sad to report, but soon they came back and took great joy in the recorded version of “Dancing Queen” that came on after the band took a short break (“The second set is the naked set, folks, clothing optional!”), and then there was more talk of fries and we bundled up our stuff and Colleen handed me the keys and we left Sandy’s Clam Bar for good.
Colleen handed me the keys and told me I was driving, something I already knew, thank you very much, and even though I was never really drunk and had stopped drinking an hour or more ago, I wondered if one of the police cars patrolling the lot would stop me. Not so much for being drunk, as for being unfamiliar with driving Colleen’s gigantic SUV, which come to think of it, may be the same as being drunk, you know, in a legal sense. Sandy’s is often in the paper as the last known stop of sometimes prominent local citizens arrested for drunk driving, and I was fairly certain we’d at least be watched by police as we pulled out of the lot.
But no one stopped us, and with Colleen criticizing my driving (“You’re a mean drunk,” I told her, at least 75% in jest), we made our way to the only 24-hour restaurant that we could find open, Denny’s, and I ate french toast and sausage and bacon (sharing the sausage with Jude) and they both ate Moons Over My Hammy (a sandwich of some kind) and we talked of our sexual histories (Colleen has a super-hot threesome story, I have one that will make you throw up a little in your mouth; Jude’s is funny and whimsical and doesn’t actually involve sex, but rather two aging hipsters inviting her into their bedroom when she was an 18-year-old waitress serving them dinner, and again she did that neat thing with her eyebrows).
The conversation did briefly turn to our dysfunctional childhoods, and when I described my own family situation there was general agreement that I won the Fucked Up Family Sweepstakes, although we all had sad stories to share, and share them we did.
Finally, full of food and full of what had been an entertaining and most unusual evening (for me, anyway, and also for Jude, who has not gotten out much socially in recent weeks), I took my lovely companions home, driving Colleen’s SUV, and borrowing it with her permission or possibly at her insistence to get my own self home.
The next morning I awoke at 6 AM and did some writing about the evening and then called Colleen a little before 8 to see if she was up (she said she was, but I think she lied) and ready to get her car back. As I approached her house I heard a thumping inside, as if someone was racing up the stairs, and she asked if I saw her through the window. I told her I didn’t, which was true, and she said she had been wearing only a thong when she realized I had arrived, and had run up the stairs to get her robe. Of such missed moments is the stuff of my life, selah.
She asked if I thought Jude had fun last night, and I told her I thought she did. As she took me home, I told her I had fun as well, and Colleen said she did too, and it’s a little amazing to me that three people could come together in this way, on a night such as this had been, but I suppose such things do happen from time to time and in this way we feel a little more connected and a little less alone, if only for a night, despite the cold, despite the snow.