Strangers in a Bar

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We decided to meet in a bar, one where old men gathered for their daily brew and crepuscular women exchanged knitted secrets in the shadowy corners, around time-gnarled tables. I knew you instantly: the Celtic heritage of your red hair, unkempt even now; the cream-coloured Aran sweater, too warm for this time of year—though you were thinner perhaps and therefore colder. Half-way across the bar I could smell your cigarette smoke. I could feel the way it was before, in your fingers, stale and yellowing, chemical; the ash splintered deep beneath your nails, the black clot in your lungs which throbbed as you coughed. I remembered it, the way you would sit up in bed in the middle of the night as if struck by lightning, the thrust of it right up your spinal cord. I would bring you glasses of water; I would stroke your arm as if my fingers were falling leaves.

A pint of Guinness sat in front of you, barely sipped. You were reading a book, wearing glasses. I had never seen you wearing glasses. What was the book? I try to recall it. Frank O’Hara, perhaps, a handful of scattered street poems; maybe something by Whitman. You always had a thing for the Americans. It was part of your mythology, the dream of the road, the need to leave the homelands. You hated this city, but still you were here. You had returned.

I pulled up a barstool and for a moment you didn’t even notice me; didn’t blink once from your reading. I grabbed the glass and swilled some Guinness down me, the froth of it coating my lips. It came back to me, old friend: that black, hoppy, toffeeish stout. There were all those nights: the sticky surfaces of bars, voices that rung cacophonies, inane words snatched from strangers. Outside, the brisk March wind that billowed my hair in your face as you smoked and smoked. I tried to deny the way I loved your smoke. I could’ve sucked it in all day, like you were giving me wisps of your soul. Sometimes, when I pass a smoker in the street, I have to cross the road—the tarriness smarts my eyes.

I suppose I was hyperaware of everyone around us. What would they think? Would it seem strange now, to see this thinness of a figure stealing their way to a table and taking a man’s drink? Would they notice at all? We were always conspicuous: it was the black lines drawn thick beneath your eyes, the fox-coloured shock of your hair; my silence, my obvious adoration. The swirling limbs and all the dancing, the clubs we were thrown out of for being violent. You wouldn’t see it now. If someone took a picture of us, we would be two strangers in a bar. They’d have to pick out the way I turned towards you, hoping for your notice. The drink would seem my own, anonymous. How could they know of our entwinement on any number of sofas, the graffiti of our names we sketched on the tables of trains, the countless coffees and cokes and sticks of gum shared as if mouth-to-mouth in our indivisibility?

I watched your eyes follow left to right along the page, so engrossed; as if looking for treasure beneath the lines, behind the lines, at the end of the line, the final line. Maybe you were waiting to finish a chapter. I longed for you to acknowledge me, to make my interruption.

How could they know, the way we would meet every day, in bars like this, and our spirits were the same? The spirits we drank and sank and raised? How could they know?

Just then, you folded the corner of your page. You reached over the table and clasped my hand, the one that still touched the Guinness. I saw your lips raise a smile, the eyes the same, sea-green aglow.

You said: “Hello.”

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