It’s my last night in town, and my childhood best friend and I are drinking at my ex-boyfriend’s rival bar. Although maybe it isn’t proper to call it his rival bar now that he’s shirked off all responsibility and his parents are running it. Anyway, I feel fairly assured that he won’t show his face here. I order a Whiskey Sour; it comes in a plastic pink cup with a lime green straw and tastes neither like whiskey nor like lemons. A watered-down version of both. No house spin on the classic. Certainly no egg whites.
Holly orders a Moscow Mule, and her drink comes in a cute copper mug.
The bartender informs us that he stops with glass glasses and starts with plastic at 9 o’clock; otherwise, drunks tend to break ‘em or run off with ‘em.
I sip my drink over the next hour—not because I’m savoring it, but because I’m actively trying not to get drunk. Drunk like I was two weeks ago, at this very bar with my cousin. I’d had my third beer here, as well as a shot of tequila, and a surprisingly civil conversation about politics. After which I excused myself to use the bathroom and ended up engaging in a profound struggle with the bathroom lock: is this lock seriously jammed, I asked myself, panic filling me like a decanter, or am I really this big of a lightweight?
My second and final beverage is a rum & coke. It is more rum than coke, but Holly used to work here and doesn’t hesitate to reach across the bar, locate the soda hose, and top my drink off with more coke. Better. I excuse myself to use the bathroom now, and I resolve to use the same bathroom I used the last time, even though I now note that it’s marked Unisex, while the other door is marked Women’s.
The door locks and unlocks easily enough. Mystery solved.
On my way back to my seat, a middle-aged white man stops me. “You just used the men’s room!” he exclaims, floored. “I couldn’t believe it! I saw you across the bar, and then I saw that you opened that door! I guess you never know. A buddy of mine . . .” he recounts a story of his buddy who’d spent some time checking out a woman at the gym only to end up next to them at a urinal in the locker room.
I listen uncertainly, waiting for the story to turn transphobic and mean. It doesn’t.
“You do realize the bathroom’s unisex?” I ask him.
I have a moment where I experience the same relief I’d felt at the airport when I’d been called up to the counter at my gate and handed the ID I hadn’t known I’d left behind in a bin at the security checkpoint.
We have a friendly fifteen-minute conversation in which he tells me his life story and I parcel out details about myself: I’m from here originally, but I live in Seattle; I’ve been back visiting family and riding my bike around town, hoping no one thinks I have a DUI; and I don’t have a Facebook.
Then we shake hands, exchange names, and I go back over to Holly.
When I get to my seat, I see that Holly is immersed in conversation with Charles fucking Scott*. The thing about Charles Scott is that he’s one of the last people I expect to see in CC, Iowa. He isn’t an ex-boyfriend. He isn’t even an ex-friend. He isn’t really anybody to me. Except.
You know how there are people in your life and you know things about them without actually knowing them? You’ve been around them without actually spending time with them? And therefore you have all sorts of ideas about who they are, what they’re like, and what they’re going to do? And you really like the ideas you have about them?
It’s like that. He’s more than an acquaintance but less than a crush.
Now that he’s here, I think he’s who I would be if I stayed in Iowa. Or the best-case scenario for what kind of guy I’d have dated.
I eavesdrop on the next two sentences that come out of his mouth: something about quitting a glorified secretary position at the Charles City Press. I remember hearing that he got that job. I remember thinking: maybe that’s what I would’ve done.
When Holly heads to the ladies’ room, Charles plants himself on a barstool next to me.
“I hear you’re out in Seattle now,” he starts.
“I have a flight back tomorrow,” I confirm.
He asks me what I’m doing back here, and I tell him: I’ve been visiting family for the past three weeks and working on my book. I’ve hopefully finally finished it.
We start talking about writing, just like I hoped we would. Charles Scott has always struck me as the writerly type. This is partly because his dad is an eccentric high school English teacher. It’s also because in one of the only conversations we’ve ever had he told me about making up his own language.
Little nuggets of information like this had convinced me that Charles Scott was going to get out of Iowa long before me, and Do Things.
It did not matter that he was a grade behind me in school.
Apparently his dad invited him to class to talk about The Great Gatsby. Charles asked him if he was sure, because aren’t English teachers supposed to be the experts? And his dad had said something to the effect of, “I know a lot about Gatsby, but you know it. You live it.” And I guess what he meant by that was: drinking and debauchery.
Charles asks me if I write any poetry, which I don’t. He tells me he does sometimes. When he’s drunk. He’ll wake up with no memory of having written and read what he wrote. And it’s beautiful.
He also tells me about the many character sketches and hundreds of pages of outline he’s written out. He has everything written down. Everything but the prose.
I ask him if he’s ever heard of NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month.
He hasn’t, so I tell him about it.
And he says, “It’s too bad you’re going to back to Seattle tomorrow. Especially now that we’re talking writing.”
“It’s hard to find good writer friends,” I say.
But we won’t exchange numbers. We won’t keep in touch.
I learn as much as he’s willing to show and tell me in just one night: that he smokes fair-trade cigarettes and that he’s jumped onto moving trains. That he actually has a DUI, which limits him to walking around or riding his bike. He’s done ‘shrooms with my senior prom date. He had a random sexual encounter in the bar bathroom where I once watched my ex-boyfriend try to punch out his own reflection in the mirror. The woman Charles had been chatting up at the bar had followed him into the men’s room stall. He let her. Eventually somebody knocked on the door, told the two of them to come on out. The barroom applauded Charles for his experience.
Never in all my wildest ideas . . .
Now I know: even though we share roots and a history of overlap, had I stayed in Iowa, I wouldn’t have been Charles Scott.
We just have stories set in the same spaces.
I have no idea who the hell I’d be.
*Charles Scott is a made-up name; I don’t assume that people who drunkenly tell me personal stories in bars want those stories shared with the Internet.