Sandpaper and Cicadas
Chicago only had the one honky-tonk, and drinking there was equal parts whiskey, white trash, slide guitar, and sadness. For no reason I could discern, it opened at 9 in the morning, except on weekends, when that would run the risk of being a shade too respectable. And it cannot be denied, of course, that chronic alcoholism formed a central axis of its business plan.
But on Friday nights, the music was good, and no one would question you if you risked a two-step when you were feeling fancy, so we’d decided a few beers couldn’t hurt more than was warranted by the occasion. Well, Drew had decided, and I hadn’t been able to come up with a good enough reason to say no, so there I found myself, sidled up to the bar at Carol’s, nursing a warm beer that tasted like watered down lighter fluid.
Drew and I had been sleeping together for six months, so he’d decided it was high time I met his wife. I wasn’t worried she’d find out about the sex, because she already knew, but I was worried that she wouldn’t like me, or more accurately, that I wouldn’t give a shit about her. And as I stood there letting my beer go flat in the summer heat, all my worst fears were coming true.
I’d known Annie twenty minutes, and I knew two things: Drew loved her to pieces, and I was bored as hell. I got how those things could both be true, but I was running out of polite questions about tax auditing and cats. I really wanted her to like me. I wasn’t sure if it mattered, although I vaguely knew it had something to do with whether Drew and I could be Facebook friends. Which seemed a little out of order, but who was I to question it? So I tried hard to be nice and interesting (but not too interesting) and to deemphasize the difference between my plunging neckline and her frankly puritanical one.
I asked her about the weather and her commute and whether she’d baked anything recently. I told jokes that were too boring to be funny and too conformist to be offensive. I made my most interested face and put on my sweater, because she made me feel so comparatively naked. I nodded while she told a story about her book club, and I knew exactly why Drew loved her so much. I said a private thanks that she was married to him, instead of me.
A drunk down the bar provided a welcome distraction, in the form of kicking up a fit when Carol cut him off. By the smell of him, he was in the 9 o’clock club.
“What do you know, you fucking cunt,” he slurred.
“Just enough, sweetheart,” she said, “Get home safe, okay?”
“Fuck you,” he said inelegantly, and he knocked his bar stool across the floor.
The bouncer stood up, but Carol waved him back.
“He’s alright,” said Carol, “Just taking the long way to the door. You gonna be alright, darlin’?”
He snarled at her concern and scuffled his way to the exit, where I could hear him knocking over the trashcan and shouting at it.
“Keep an eye on him, will you, Buzzer?” she said to the bouncer, “Let me know if I need to call somebody.”
Buzzer nodded, sat back down, and pulled a paperback from the pocket of his jeans.
“You need anything, sweetheart?” she asked me.
I liked Carol because I was pretty sure she was the only woman in Chicago who used as many diminutives as I did, and like me, she meant every single one. She had a voice like an old cigar box and her hair was faded orange, permed all to hell and teased high. I wondered if she went to church.
“I could do another,” I said, tapping my bottle lightly on the counter, “Thanks.”
I pulled some ones out of my purse and passed them over, and she handed me the beer. It sweated against my hand, and my hand sweated back.
Drew asked me a question about a paper I was supposed to write, and I gave an answer vague enough for it to be believable, if you were in a mood to believe it, that I’d made a little progress lately. He asked me another, and I realized we were at the point of boredom that the research I couldn’t be bothered to finish was the most interesting topic at hand.
If Carol went to church, I hoped she’d pray for me.
Talking about my work was the first time Annie looked as bored with me as I was with her, and I felt bad that she had to be here, instead of being at home, knitting a cat or something. Then I knew that thought was mean, and I tried to have another one. I couldn’t.
The band came on stage to save me. Maybe Carol’s prayers had worked. Maybe it was just 9:30.
“Let’s dance,” Annie said, and I tried to fix on how I liked that she wanted to dance.
“Wanna come?” Drew asked, which was plausible as an offer because of the possibility of line dancing, except I knew for a fact that Drew didn’t know how to line dance.
“No, I’m good, you go,” I said, and I leaned on the bar as the bassist counted off. A few other couples ambled towards the floor to join Drew and Annie in some aimless side-to-side rocking. They were already laughing. They looked happy. Not even a little bit bored.
I wasn’t jealous, exactly, but watching them did make me kind of lonely. I didn’t want what they had, but it seemed easy and comfortable and predictable, and, for a minute, I let myself admit how bad I wished I wanted it.
In twenty years, they were still going to be doing this. Going out on a Friday night, not staying out too late, going home, falling asleep in the same bed. The same bed as always, with the same dumb cat asleep on the headboard. The same snoring, the same half-spooning, the same bending of one knee over the extra pillow. In the morning over coffee, planning weekend road trips to see ever more numerous nieces and nephews, and maybe a few trips a year to somewhere more exotic. Getting their excitement fucking someone like me every other Friday. Well, I didn’t know who Annie fucked on Fridays, but I assumed they were more like me than they were like Drew, apart from their physical qualifications.
It wasn’t that they were boring, or that I wanted to be. They were both poly, and Drew was bisexual, and they liked music and craft beer and weird festivals and making doughnuts. They were about as typically atypical as me. But they got to approximate normalcy in a way I wished I could. Not because I wanted the things that made you normal, but because I wanted normal itself. It was so temptingly quiet.
The things I’d been told I should want, all my life, rubbed up uncomfortably against who I’d actually turned out to be with a friction like skin on sandpaper. The friction abraded inside my head, whining like a cicada’s wings, not quite drowning out my thoughts, but almost always making them hard to hold onto.
I’d always hoped that things would break just right to make it go quiet, to smooth things out enough that I could get by, that I could think. That I could be bisexual but just happen to fall into monogamous, happily ever after love with a man. That I could not believe in marriage but could throw a party with a white dress and enough cake not to make me a disappointment. That maybe I could be non-monogamous but keep it in a box, cheating with permission, nothing too serious, just not feeling guilty if someone got too handsy on a dance floor, and that someone was me. That maybe I could be the opposite of everything I’d ever been told made you a good girl worth knowing, but just in ways nobody had to really find out about. That I could exist, in theory, but still be loved in practice, by everything and everyone I’d grown up trusting about what was right.
But none of it had worked out like that. I worked hard at being normal and at wanting different things, but you can’t turn a goat into a cow, no matter how much you milk it.
I watched them dance and the friction got loud, one half of my brain sick with dread for a life like that, and the other half sick with wanting, wanting the quiet, the comfort, the ease. Not with one another, but between them and the world. They glided along like they were careening on oiled castors, and I was skidding on sandpaper.
“You good, honey?” Carol asked me.
“Yeah,” I said, “As good as I can expect, I expect.”
“You let me know if you need anything,” she said, tapping the counter with all her fingers, the way a grandma might tap your shoulder when you were done crying, right before she let you be so you could clean yourself up.
“Do you go to church?” I asked her.
It was another thing I’d never managed to want, even though I’d tried.
“Lord, no,” she said, “And you should know, I don’t hold for prosthelytizing in my bar.”
“Now that deserves an Amen,” I said, and she laughed again.
“Why do you ask?” she said, “If you need to confess your sins, here’s as good a place as any.”
“Nah, my slate’s clean,” I said, “But it’s a shame that church is only for the faithful.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought, when I stopped going,” she said, “It’s not a bad place to gather your thoughts.”
“Quiet,” I agreed.
“Well, if you’ve lost your mind, you’re welcome to sit here till you find it again,” she said, popping the top off another beer and setting it beside my empty bottle, “Though I can’t promise you much quiet.”
“Maybe quiet’s not really what I need,” I said.
“That’s good, honey,” she said vaguely, her attention drifting down the bar, where a man in a filthy trucker hat was trying to light a cigarette.
“Sweetheart, smoking ain’t been legal in here since before I still had real eyebrows,” she said, “Step on out, now.”
He grumbled something and meandered past Buzzer at the door. The band struck up the Tennessee Waltz, and I sipped my beer and watched the couples spin.
Not quiet. But more than just noise.
Leah Gates lives and writes longhand in Washington, D.C., where maybe one day she'll actually finish her doctorate. She tweets about feminism, organizational sociology, and cute animals at @LeahLikeDogs.