We’d lost count of the bars. Nine? Thirteen? It was impossible to say. At first we had a pint per pub, but then there were shots. And now mayhem.
I’d piggy-backed a man who had run shirtless through a parking lot, and dumped both of us onto the highway. We had bicycles somewhere. Hopefully nearby.
Our numbers multiplied through the night. Where had all these people come from? I bled from road rash on my leg and shoulder. The shirtless man had fallen on his face and looked like a battered cherub.
“I feel amazing,” he told me, one arm slung over my shoulder.
Whose shirt was I wearing? The night cooled around us, as someone pushed the cherub and me into a truck, and told us they’d gathered our bicycles into the bed.
“Who are you?” we asked, but apparently we’d asked before, and now they were tired of answering. When had we secured a driver? Whose fucking truck was this?
We pulled out onto the highway, and drove four blocks into an industrial park, finding the ramshackle bar under an overpass.
“Hurray!” we shouted, and poured from the truck. The pool here cost a quarter a game. Four people managed to ride their bicycles. A new contingent had saved a huge round table in the front room. More shots in spirals on the table. We were like terrible Vikings: rowdy, injured, and beside ourselves with joy.
When I remember what it was like to be twenty-three, this is my memory. That final bar. A series of women with first aid kits patching me up, and bestowing kisses to my face as though I were a small child. I remember how they smiled as they worked on me. Long-suffering smiles. As though I would always require this kind of tending.
I found myself on someone’s lap. I looked down at her. “When did you get here?” I asked, elated. I kissed her for a long time.
“I drove you here in my truck,” she said.
That explained everything. We were sleeping together. This woman with the truck who had put one of the bandages on my leg. But it was a secret. I remembered it was a secret while I was still kissing her. Another round of shots and more pitchers of beer. We’d spilled into more tables and more rooms. It seemed like the entire graduate program had squeezed into this bar.
I looked up and noticed the small woman staring at me sadly. When had she arrived? “You’re here,” I said.
She nodded. “Your arm is still bleeding, but we’re out of band-aids.”
“Nothing hurts,” I assured her.
She looked even sadder. “You’ll never like me,” she said.
And all at once I was sober.
“You’ll never like me. Not really.”
I was still sitting on the secret woman’s lap. I opened my mouth to argue, but I worried that I might not be capable of liking anyone. That I might be stuck on a beach in a wind storm for the rest of my life, not able to shake the first girl. That bone-crushing love.
I worry that I only know love stories, and that all of them end badly. That glorious night when we rode our bicycles into the darkening sky with our arms raised like soldiers resolves, each time, into the sad woman’s face as an entire bar stills to her single expression: “You’ll never like me. Not really.”
It was true, and a lie, all at once. Her beauty mark at the edge of her top lip rose as she smiled at me. They loved me in the same way, all of them. They loved me like a disaster. Something they couldn’t avoid. Something with magnitude.
Workmen in Carhartts weave in and out of her old apartment complex downtown. More condominiums. I walk past five or six of the bars we visited that night on my commute into work. She’d had a studio on the top floor, and let her birds fly loose everywhere. She slept on blankets on the floor. She had doves and love birds and her parents had died. She was twenty-six and wrote the most beautiful poems. She told me my stories felt like a bruise.
She’d had a lisp as a child and they taught her a British accent to correct it. She sounded like Diana Rigg. When she held her cigarette, her fingers curved outward as though she might start dancing.
I only know love stories. That’s all I know. They never end.