The Royal Cuckoo was dark, almost too dark, and it felt so, so, good to be in a stupidly dark bar again, even if I flinched for a moment at all the people who weren’t wearing masks.
“This is weird,” I told the bartender as I sat down at the bar. “I haven’t done … this … in ages … ”
“Me too,” she said.
“How are people handling it?”
She shook her head. “This is only the second day we’ve had a bar in our bar. I’ve basically been a cocktail waitress for the last year. It feels really good to be back here, but … I don’t know how people are handling this yet. It’s too early to tell.”
In fact, a sign hand-written in marker proclaimed “Order At Bar (Table Service Ending … )” so people still needed to get the message.
It was too dark to actually read the cocktail menu on the wall behind the bar in any detail. I remembered, back in the olden days, that I enjoyed their Honey Shrub Julep, so I ordered one on faith, assuming there was something good in it. She got to work, and I tried to take in the scene.
There were small little tables and chairs available out front, which there never used to be, and somebody was out there, drinking al fresco. There was the patio out back, which was the most crowded part of the bar. The inside had people but was far from packed — it would have been a slow night for an ordinary Thursday — but most people were unmasked and it looked and felt like a bar.
My drink arrived, and I contemplated trying it. It is uncanny when something so normal feels so weird. As I stared at the tall glass in the dark, Cat came in.
“Hello my darling!” she said, sat down, and held her purse up to show me that it was broken again.
Her purse has a full-size circular wall clock attached to its side — a real working one, the kind they used to affix to gymnasium walls. I’ve only known her a few weeks, but the story, as I understand it, is: She got the purse about two years ago, and loved it instantly. A year-and-a-half ago, it broke. She had to find a replacement clock, and the pandemic slowed that down considerably. A few weeks ago, she finally got a new one, attached it, and had her favorite accessory telling time again.
Over the weekend, however, she went to a party and, “against my better instincts,” put the purse on a pile in the room where she was told to leave it. Later that night, at 10:03 p.m. (“I know the exact time it happened!” she said, gesturing at the bag) someone broke it again.
“I’m trying not to make this a catastrophic metaphor about how I left something important to me unguarded and someone damaged it,” she said.
“As a metaphor, stopped clocks pretty much catastrophize themselves,” I said, agreeing sadly.
“This especially hurts, because my clothes, my style, are my armor,” she said. “It’s how I control how people see me. I want it out there that yeah, I’m the kind of woman who has a functional purse clock, so that I own it, rather than people thinking I’m weird but don’t know it. I like to wear my metaphors, generally.”
“I admire that; it’s something I need to work on.”
The Royal Cuckoo bartender came over. “Oh my God,” Cat said to her, “IT IS SO GOOD TO BE BACK HERE! This is one of my favorite bars.” I nodded. I would have gotten back here eventually, but Cat was the one who suggested it be now.
She looked around the bar and sighed contentedly. “This is the first time … the first time I’ve been in a bar with people … at the bar, and it’s dark, and the stools are black leather … oh, this feels so good.”
We all took a moment to savor that. Then she asked the bartender “Do I remember correctly that you make your own pastis? Do you still do that?”
Yes, the bartender said. That’s still a thing.
Cat ordered one straight until the bartender offered to mix it in a specialty cocktail.
“You do that?” Cat asked.
Cat blinks. “You can?”
The bartender blinks back. Why is this surprising? “Yes.”
“Is this a new thing you do?”
“ … no … ”
“Are you telling me that all this time I’ve been drinking it straight when you could have mixed it into something delicious for me? How did I not know you do that?” Her first time back and she’s discovered something new and obvious about a favorite bar. Of course she ordered one.
We caught each other up on our weeks. When Cat’s drink arrived we clinked glasses, celebrating this moment.
Then I decided to go big. “Can I ask you a question? Can we do this? Will you tell me your story? Will you tell me the story of Cat?”
You can tell a lot about a person by how they react when you say “tell me your story.” Often you learn more from how they react than from whatever it is they end up telling you.
Her breath caught for a moment. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, but … I can do this quickly … I want to listen tonight, too, and I’m actually prepared for this because the other week I was on a trip with some friends and one of them asked a similar question of everybody but she wanted us to keep our answers to under five minutes, and I was the only one who was able to. I actually got right up to five minutes and ended with ‘Any questions?’ So I’m going to keep this quick so you can talk too.”
“Okay, let’s do it.”
She began: She was born in Michigan, and lived in a religious community whose members would periodically insist that “it is not a cult.”
Instead of skimming, though, she started going into fine detail. About being homeschooled, about working multiple jobs, about how puzzled she was when she finally entered into the public school system, about how she ended up going to college only because a customer at a gym where she worked said “wait, you’re not going to college? Oh no no no … ” and the conversation stuck.
I was enthralled. Delighted. So was she — her story came pouring out of her in a long surging wave, and neither of us wanted it to stop. She was incredibly successful in college, and went to Europe after she graduated … wandering around Paris and not checking in with anything from her life before … then came back to find a letter from her college saying that because she’d done so many independent studies, they’d calculated her credits wrong, and she hadn’t graduated after all.
(At that moment, someone started to play the electric organ in The Royal Cuckoo. We were experiencing live music again. Holy Hell.)
She endured. She pressed on. She created community centers, she bought a house in her 20s, she got into local politics, never stopping for a moment … “I realized that a fundamental flaw in democracy,” she told me, “is the assumption that everyone cares. And if we want democracy to work, some of us have to make up for that” … until she shattered her elbow in a stupid accident and it was the catalyst that made her realize, lying in her hospital bed, in terrible pain, tended to by her father, that she was desperately wounded and unhappy and had reached her breaking point.
It took years, but she pulled herself out of that. She started working in tech. She went to San Francisco, on a whim, with a co-worker she’d been dating for just over five days. She’s left San Francisco a lot since then, but she always comes back.
When she finished, we sat in silence for a while, just looking at each other. Then we hugged.
This was real. Life was real. We each ordered another pastis cocktail. In this moment, nothing was a metaphor for catastrophe.