“Abigail” said she likes bars that are mellow and have wine, so we decided to try 20 Spot, which has a reputation for a good cellar and a chill vibe. But after we walked in, we stood in the doorway, uncertain.
“It seems loud,” she said. The place was, in fact, packed and raucous for a wine bar, the kind of scene you get when a bunch of NPR listeners get drunk enough to say what they really think about tote bags. Seating would be hard to come by.
But I was more struck by the décor than the crowd. “I suppose,” I said reluctantly, “we should have expected a bar in a former record store to be this hip. Really should have seen that coming.”
20 Spot is lovely: a kind of abbreviated “L” shape, it has stained glass covering a widow, colorful album covers used as posters, and paintings of the undead interspersed along the walls. The wall behind the bar (which I’m told is reclaimed eucalyptus) has shelves with records on them, and quirky knickknacks. It was kind of perfect, in a way that I didn’t quite like. Too polished. The sort of place that has an “identity” instead of a “self.” Beauty is a tricky thing; maybe there’s an uncanny valley for interior design, too.
We grabbed some suddenly open spots on a couch, and eventually a waiter came by to take our order. Their menu by the bottle is far more extensive than the menu by the glass, but we live in a city where curation is far more important than variety, and 20 Spot lives up to that demand. We were in terrible moods, honestly, so we both retreated to our comfort drinks: Port for me, Riesling for her. Throughout the evening, the wines we’d order would all be first-rate, as were the deviled duck eggs and vegetarian pizza we tried. The service was painfully slow, but let’s be fair: They really were packed.
Abigail and I are both mourning for recently lost friends, and that grief comes in inconvenient peaks, hitting us when we least expect it. Refusing to stay pure and uncontaminated, it wraps itself around everything else we do, and squeezes.
Somehow, Abigail’s grief reminds her of a former co-worker who got away with incompetence because she was cute. “They hired the girl with the doe-eyes, and she was always late, and she claimed mileage reimbursement for trips she never took, and it was reaching the point where it was going to be her or me, and then she up and quits after just a year, and I’m actually disappointed because I wanted there to be some consequences,” Abigail said dejectedly. “Honestly, I really hate humanity right now.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. I had a poison email draft in my pocket telling people off in strong words, which I would almost … almost … send by the end of the night.
She sipped her wine, sweetness and fury mixing together. “I feel like I’m one of those monkeys in the zoo, where if anyone comes near my cage I’m just going to bare my teeth at them and hiss.”
“Oh yeah. I’m there.”
“And then fling my poo.”
“Well … okay …”
“Really go at them. You want some of THIS?”
“I … hmmmm.”
“And then turn around and show them my red butt.”
“You’ve, ah, really thought this scenario through.”
“Have I?” There was a long pause. “I think,” she said, at last. “I’m going to quit my job and go back to school.”
I nodded. “I think that’s probably a good decision.”
I liked 20 Spot more as it got darker outside. It took the edge off the place’s perfection, unwound just enough of its unbearable hipness of being. It was no longer screaming, “THIS BUILDING USED TO BE A RECORD STORE!” at me. It stopped shouting, “SEE! WE HAVE A THEME! YOU LIKE THEMES!” In the dark, it felt a little more like someone might say something provocative, and less like a business consultant was going to show me his collection of album covers. This is a good bar that has reclaimed eucalyptus where its rough edges need to be.
“Things with Todd are getting better,” Abigail said. “Although we just had a fight, where I almost burned down the entire relationship just to make him inhale the smoke.”
She is a small woman with a lot of violent images ready to go.
“Should I ask what it was about?”
“The only thing that really bothers me this much anymore is the girl he was seeing for the six months we’d broken up,” she said. “They were on some kind of accelerated timetable: He told her he loved her after a month and a half, and he tried to get them to move in together after six months, and all the while he’s still sleeping with me, and telling me ‘we’re not getting back together, and we’re only sleeping together because she’s long-distance.’ And … I’m honestly not sure what happened. Why we ended up together again. It drives me crazy.”
“Hmmmm.” I tried to think of something helpful to say.
“I don’t understand why he chose me, because she’s beautiful. She’s the kind of beautiful that society tells you to want. Tall and perfect. But he says he’s more attracted to me. And he tries to explain why we’re together, but they’re all reasons that could apply to her, too.”
I had to be cautious saying this. “I don’t think ‘why did you choose me?’ is a question that can ever be satisfactorily answered.”
“No. Beauty, attachment, compulsion … they don’t behave the way they’re supposed to, and they rarely have easy explanations, and the harder we push for one, the less we trust it if we find it. Asking that question means you’re almost never going to like the answer.”
“Oh,” she said. And thought about it. “Do you have a ‘one that got away?’”
“I do,” she said. And she told me a story about a boy she met in college. Nothing ever happened between them because she already had a boyfriend, but the chemistry was so intense that she never forgot him. In hindsight, she wishes she had dumped the boyfriend and found out what would happen if she kissed the other boy on the bus.
“Ah, chemistry,” I said. And I knew, I knew, that I had had many such people in my life, with whom I’d felt an intense connection for no reason, and never found out why. But in that moment, sitting on a couch, drinking port, I couldn’t think of a single one. I could only remember the lovers with whom something meaningful had happened. And just at that moment, I was grateful for it. Love is an uncanny valley.