I have something on Laura. A year ago, on Christmas, I came over to her house and we spent the holiday drinking whiskey, with no brakes on. Eventually something happened. Something much more interesting than what you’re thinking. Something profound. But by then Laura had blacked out, and had no idea where the evening went.
Eventually, she admitted the blackout to me. “Was it bad?” she asked. “Was I terrible? I say really terrible things when I get that drunk …”
No, I said. It wasn’t bad, you weren’t a terrible person. You didn’t do anything you should be worried about or ashamed of. But I will almost certainly now hold the fact that you don’t remember what happened over you, because that is the kind of person I am.
“Okay … ” she said, thinking about it. “But … no, you know what? I don’t even want to know.” And that was that.
Now Laura and I are sitting in The Royal Cuckoo Market, talking about transitions we have coming in our lives as we approach the New Year.
“Honestly?” I told her. “It doesn’t feel exciting. It doesn’t feel exciting at all.”
“Are you frightened?” she asked.
“Yes. Terrified, with a sense of failure running through it.”
We had been wandering through the Mission, loosely aiming for a bar that both of us knew but neither of us really cared about. When we’d passed by The Royal Cuckoo Market we’d looked at each other and walked right in. It didn’t matter that the tables outside were bare and the inside was empty. The small room — which is actually a liquor store with an even smaller bar in it — has a wonderful feeling, like a vintage record shop or antique bookstore too old to care what you think of its derelict housekeeping.
Which is interesting, because a number of bars in San Francisco try to present the “old record store” and “old book store” vibe — some of which even are converted record stores — and fail utterly. I suspect it’s because they’re derivative of the things they’re trying to imitate, whereas The Royal Cuckoo Market actually seems like it has someone behind its decorations who is following his own Muse. That Muse may have a head injury, but it’s real. The room is full of odd images of colorful doves and black and white bullfights painted on wood, books, glassware, Christmas lights, wooden shutters, devotional candles a glowing globe. It wasn’t trying to convince you of anything — it just was.
“I feel like I’m in my grandparents’ basement,” Laura said approvingly. “This bar definitely found us.”
The menu is decidedly off-beat, and I suspect it’s really just to showcase the different liquors for sale on the walls surrounding you. Based on the bartender’s recommendation, I ordered a Sargent Sadlers Rebjito (sherry, cava, mint, lime, agave, angostura bitters), which was an effervescent blend of savory and minty flavors.
I followed it up with a Chico and Alpi (Elixir Novasalus shaken, orange peel and chocolate tile), which was an incredibly bitter drink that at first was only saved by the chocolate, but which slowly mellowed with time and ice into something strangely appealing. (“Elixer Novasalus is like the granddaddy of Fernet,” the bartender explained.) I sat inside while Laura took numerous smoke breaks, in between which she explained that she and a group of friends are all taking Chantix and quitting together at the end of next week.
“We figure it’ll all be easier if we’re all miserable at the same time,” she said. “This either makes perfect sense or is really self-destructive. It’s hard to tell, sometimes. But I’m trying to care for myself.”
She ordered a “big bowl of soup” (that’s what it’s listed as on the menu), which today is Chicken Enchilada. It arrived to rave reviews (“This IS a big bowl of soup! And it’s delicious! And the soft brown bread it comes with is great!”) so I ordered one too, and happily dug in. Vinyl records were playing old-school blues. This was turning into a very good night.
This year has, in many ways, been an improvement for Laura. She got out of a terrible housing situation in Oakland and into an honest-to-god too-good-to-be-true miracle house in San Francisco. I’ve never been there, but she showed me pictures on her phone.
“It’s not crapsville!” she said happily. “It’s spacious … clean … fixed up … it has a beautiful backyard … with a hot tub … I’ve gone from a small West Oakland shithole, literally under a bridge, to THIS! And I can afford it! This isn’t supposed to happen! It reverses the flow in San Francisco real estate!”
Truly, there are miracles in this world. I celebrated with a Lindisfarne mead (served chilled, with honeycomb).
“You really don’t remember Christmas?” I asked her. Even though I knew she didn’t.
“Ooof,” she said. “That was probably my worst hangover in 26 years. It lasted three days.”
“Damn,” I said. “I’m sorry about that. But … I have to tell you … I was so grateful you called. That pretty much got me through the holiday. It was exactly what I needed.”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “I remember everything leading up to the end of the night, and I really needed it too. It was either really smart or really self-destructive. And I think it was smart, but I hope I don’t have a hangover like that for another 26 years.”
“My worst hangover … ” I said, wondering if I should even tell the story. “I was at a party, I‘d been drinking before, and we were all drinking a lot, and I woke up the next morning knowing two things with perfect clarity. First, that my head was going to try to kill today, and that I would be lucky if I could make it out of bed. Second … that I had made out, for a pretty long time, with a friend’s fiancé.”
“Yeah. And … it was weird, because in my drunken stupor the night before, I remembered thinking, ‘hey, I handled this really well. Everything’s fine! Good for me!’ But then, the next morning, I realized … ”
“You had not really handled that so well?”
I shook my head. “I really had not. And I had to spend all day, in searing pain, wondering if this was something we were going to have to talk about and if I was going to lose a friend.”
“And did you?”
“No. No one ever brought it up. It fell below the waves, never to be spoken of again.”
“Yeah, I think that’s best sometimes.”
I nodded, and we were quiet for a while.
“I didn’t do anything really terrible?” she asked again.
“No, I swear, you do not have to worry about that.”
“Okay. You ready to go?”
“Yeah. It’s time.”