Drinking Alone – James Chatham

We meet for drinks at the local “hip” bar. You order an Old Fashioned and I get a beer,
something dark. A porter maybe? You mention that you think beer should be consumed at
home, preferably in the company of men with relaxed blue collars. I tell you that you’re
pretentious and that anyone who orders a drink that comes with fruit shouldn’t be passing
judgement. We agree to disagree.

We’re here on poetry night but we’re really here to drink with purpose. After all, who can
question our drinking habits in a bar full of people? As long as we keep snapping for the poetry,
we can keep knocking ‘em back. The poets aren’t very good. Most of them have written long,
overwrought pieces that veer too far into melodrama to be of any substance, though I imagine
they think that’s all they have. You enjoy the poetry, commenting on the “soul” of reading, how
precision falls by the wayside in the wake of true emotion. I tell you that you’re full of shit but
hold on to your comment all the same.

We decide on an order of cheese curds, opting for a marinara-based sauce as opposed to the
typical white sauce. This is something we agree on, although you manage to sour the moment
with an aside about the imminent cholesterol we’re about to put in our body. I say something
about dying your way and dying my way but you’ve already turned back to the poets on stage,
downing the last drop of your third Old Fashioned.

I offer to get the next round and find myself faced with the inevitable dread of having to push
through the wall of people at the bar. It is later in the evening and the locals have poured in,
edging the college students closer to the stage and leaving me with no familiar faces with which
I can conveniently strike up conversation to grab a seat at the bar. I try to get your attention to
express my irritation but you are fixated on a girl who appears to be reading poetry about a time
she never lived in. I imagine you’ll say something about her being an “old soul” and that it’s
probably a metaphor for something important in her life. I hate you for making me consider this.

I eventually wedge my way between a visibly tipsy girl staring listlessly into her drink and a man
with a face tattoo. He slides to the right to give me some room. The bartender is frantically
making drinks, her backup nonexistent, and I decide then to give her a nice tip. You are typically
more generous than I am in this department but I’m starting to pick up on your idea of karma
and decide some money in the bank can’t hurt. When she finally gets around to where I’m
sitting, I order you an Old Fashioned and a Screwdriver for myself, unsatisfied with how slowly
my beer is performing its intended job. She checks my ID and looks me square in the face,
eventually deciding that I’m not lying about our age. She delivers our drinks, yours in a glass
and mine in an unimpressive plastic cup. I guess I’ll have to stop giving you shit for the night.

You see me returning and say something obnoxious about how I must have gotten lost. I hand
you your drink, ignoring your comment and ask about what I’ve missed. You go on about some
poet who reads all her poems from the perspective of different people that pass by her on her
way to class, each stanza representing a new perspective. I tell you that sounds tiresome and
useless to which you respond with a face that says “Can’t you just like anything?”

You start to wonder if maybe I’m cynical because I resent myself for never mustering up the gall
to write and perform on stage. You have, after all, seen me agonize over never writing and then
watched me immediately pour myself another beer. You’ve wondered for a while if maybe I’m
holding out for a “brilliant idea” that will never come because I’ve simply given up on the idea of
good, original ideas. You feel sorry for me, and then feel a twinge of irritation at yourself for
being presumptuous.

You turn your focus back to the poets on stage, watching me rolling my eyes out of the corner of
your eye. You like the next poet because he doesn’t take himself too seriously and you think that
might be the key to creative success in the modern world. You guess that jumping on the idea of
creative irony now will pay its dividends in the near future, maybe even vaulting you into what
people will call the “voices of our generation” someday. You hope that you can remember to not
be pretentious the next time you write.

I’m sighing frequently and loudly now, picking at the dwindling crumbs of our once warm cheese
curds in an effort to not seem too interested in the disaster happening up on stage. There’s a
new poet and he’s trembling from head to toe, green in every sense of the word. You’re doing
your best to remain still, hoping that your lack of motion will encourage him. But you’ve started
snapping at the wrong times and it’s throwing him off his game, causing him to tremble even
more and fuck up his lines.

I decide now is a good time to go to the bathroom, draining the rest of my drink and walking
behind the audience, careful to avoid fucking up this poor guy’s performance any more. The
bathroom is blessedly quiet and I take a moment to savor it, checking my face in the mirror
because it’s there, an activity you’ve scolded me for in the past. You’re looking back at me now,
your face softer than mine ever has been. All the taut rigidity and tension normally reserved for
our interactions with others sheds in favor of a genial, if somewhat sad, expression of honesty.
None of the self-loathing is present, instead replaced by a sense of numb optimism, hoping for
the best but placing it on the back burner for now.

I take care of business and return to our table where you’ve struck up conversation with a friend
of ours. She beams when she sees me, noting how long it’s been and how we should catch up.
We agree and make vague plans for “the future” and “lunch.” You’ll want to go and I’ll want to
find an excuse not to. I worry that she feels sorry for me for drinking alone. You say I shouldn’t
worry so much.

We’re nearing the end of the first round of poets and I’m itching for a cigarette. You say we have
three left and we agree to share one. When the last poet finishes his piece, we hurry out the
front door, nabbing a seat at one of the wooden tables. We’re joined by a few friends who have
been watching the show on the other side of the room and you’re rapidly discussing which poets
you liked and which poets you thought “needed work” while I slowly drag on our cigarette. By
the second drag, you’ve become a voice in the background. By the sixth, you’ve reduced your
voice to a whisper. By the tenth, your throat is closing up. You barely acknowledge the burning
end nearing the filter and by the time you look my way, it’s already finished.