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19th Street
sara seinberg

i hadn’t walked through those doors in over a year. i stood outside for a while smoking a cigarette and petting the dog. i pretended like i needed to calm him down. even though it was only gus’s fur that kept my hand from trembling. i knew why i was there. i was sure of it. i bet he even knew why i was there, looking at me with sad brown eyes begging me to just make a phone call instead. i stared at the blinking green neon of the palm tree and the pink miami text of blown glass and chemicals. the last resort. i grew up in that bar. or at least i aged there. threw up on the bathroom floor under the watchful eye of pleading dyke graffiti telling all its filthy stories across the wall like a diary. there was the night me and grit crawled under the pool table to fuck but were too drunk to get the travesty of buttons figured out. dezi found us there later and called us a cab. she never mentioned it again. would never embarrass a girl that way. the next time i walked through those doors, she had a jack and ginger sitting there waiting for me before i could even say hello. i got in my first brawl there. got busted shooting crystal in the can. fell in love a hundred times. fell out at least ninety-eight.

it was early. six. me and gus walked in and there was dez, wiping down the counter and getting ready for the gaggle of girls to descend upon the barstools and tables mixing up the air with more sex than you could imagine. some nights you walked into that place and you could feel it. have you ever been on a college campus during finals week, where the desperation hangs in the air like morning fog? you know what i mean? it’s contagious. you don’t even gotta be in school to feel it. well some nights you could walk into the resort and sex would hang in the air like that. everything smelling like beer and pussy. everything begging you to either open your throat or open your legs. if you played your cards right, you’d usually get to do both. in fact, you didn’t even have to know how to play cards on nights like that. all you had to do was sit down at the table and plenty of people would be right there to show you a royal flush at the drop of a hat. you walked in looking for a compassionate ear and walked out with your future ex-wife. you’d even pass that u-haul place on the corner of valencia and mccoppin on your way home to the studio where it’s only you and gus now thinking i’ll never do that again. dividing up the cd’s is the worst. all you’ve done is left the bar with someone and in the back of your head, you have already had the divorce. but that’s not the point. the point is the feeling in the bar. nazareth is pouring out of the jukebox screaming about how love hurts and all the dykes know that just as well as any idiot, but they don’t care. they can have all the safe sex in the world, but no one can protect their heart. even those shut down girls, their faces curled up like hobgoblins needing space from the first drink. they hand you a schedule of their alone time along with their phone number and a photo of the cat. a business card that might as well say and you drink and you drink and you wonder, can anyone just crawl through the trenches anymore? do we give up too easy in the name of health? do we get our tattoos covered up before the scabs have even fallen off?

who cares.
let’s fuck.

that was some nights. there were the awful ones too. where some kind of terrible social thing was happening. some famous couple trots into the bar with their harem. there are photos of them on the wall fucking in a dog pile. huge grainy black and white numbers, everyone wearing beautiful leather straps and garter belts peeking out of strange angles through fishnet over a lens. it’s all cool. the femme even wrote some guidebook about the myth of jealousy. but when her fella picks you up, all hell breaks loose. then her friends who used to be your friends all pick teams by who has the best uniforms and it’s the cold war. you watch the door all night, every night for months, sipping whiskey hoping you’ll be drunk enough to stay calm when that terrible thing happens. oh god, she’s here. and what’s she doing with her? jesus fucking christ, this town. my ex is your ex and i just gave up and went to pick up some boy for fuck’s sake. and wouldn’t you know it? he’s your goddamn brother. it’s enough to drive a lady crazy. which it finally did. there wasn’t enough dope or whisky in town to fix it. is that why i left? who knows. but i left all of it. hopped into gloria with the dog and ain’t been back since the last time.

this was the great return. there i was petting the little man, breathing in the air snot of nicotine knowing it would just be a few more minutes. me and gus grabbed a barstool. there was only one other lady in there, sitting by the jukebox reading camus. the myth of sisyphus. joey loved that book. he had this quote from it tattooed sideways down the inside of his left arm. on the vein that leads to the aorta. it said the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. when we were together i would lay with my head in the crook of his arm and i felt like the strength of those words alone could tie us together. i’d run my fingers over the script and cover his arms with a billion tiny kisses trying to ease all the struggle from his brain. every new diagnosis brought some new medicine and every medicine brought some new side effect. the people in the coats finally settled on bipolar and joey came home and said

see, hester. i really am crazy. then i watched him hold himself and rock slightly forward and back on the bed for an hour. i tried to say all kinds of things i thought were supportive or some such crap. things like
well, now at least you know what it is.
the meds will help.
see you were just self-medicating all those years.
i’ll be here no matter what.

and he finally brought his glassy eyes down from the ceiling and one tear ran down to his mouth and he said i have to take these pills every day for the rest of my life. they eat away your thyroid. hester, i’m so sick it takes chemicals that will munch away an entire gland, the endocrine emperor, to feel fuckin’ better. what kind of choice is that? do you blow your head off or do you walk through every day knowing that at the base of your neck a mass of tissue is being devoured with no guarantee that you’ll ever even be happy. what the fuck is that? what the fuck is that?
it’s what you have, joey. it’s just what it is.
fuck that. he said and he grabbed his jacket and left. when he got back there was the bandage on his arm. and so every night, with every pill, with every piece of thyroid, there was camus reminding him that this was the hand he had to play. and he was going to play to win. even if it wasn’t pretty.

i stared across the bar at that book, a little lost. the last five years shuffling through my head. how i was a mess and when joey and me fell apart i lost it. wandering around jacked up twenty four seven and stoned and drinking cooking sherry when i couldn’t make it to the store without a nip of anything first. then grit came and played with me in the mess and even the king of fun herself had enough after a while. and then it was just poor gus waiting at home alone when it would take me all day to score and find my way back. it was even worse when i would take him with me. it’s so embarrassing to have a dog more composed than oneself. a little humiliating during the five minutes a day i was thinking clearly.

hey beautiful… haven’t see you and gus in a while. heard you were driving a cab. you look great. there was dezi around the bar in a second, throwing her thick arms around me and rubbing her hand up and down my spine.
dez… how ya been?
i been real good. i missed your face, girl. even with all the trouble that followed you around. i missed your face.

thanks. you know… i missed this place more than i thought i would. when your safe spot turns into a cage, you forget that you loved it.
she smiled. god could she smile. teeth like a thick rope. like a girl could almost want to live again. almost. she fished in her pocket and pulled out a couple bucks. why don’t you go play me some songs, hester. i took the money and headed to the jukebox. i played every sad song i could find. sam cooke, otis redding, elliott smith, old bruce springsteen, neil young, waycross, brenda lee, concrete blonde, spoke poker, and caught myself just in time to save a slot for cheap trick. i wandered back to my stool where gus was curled up on the floor by a bowl of water dezi had put down.
so what’ll it be pretty lady?
jack and ginger, dez.
she stopped washing the glasses and looked at me for a second. then she filled one with ice and poured in ginger ale all the way to the top, pulled two napkins off the pile and plopped it down in front of me. she put a pen next to then second napkin and turned her face from me as she said it’s on the house. with absolutely no tone at all.
i stirred the soda around and picked up the pen.
dez… i didn’t order a pen, i ordered a whisky.
how long you been clean hester? she asked, her back still turned away from me.
bout a year and a half.
that’s great. you gotta be real proud.
actually, i don’t really give a shit, dez, i want a fuckin’ drink.
she leaned down and opened the cooler, turned around and cracked a beer. she pulled a good long swallow out of the neck, swished it around her mouth and swallowed hard. well, you ain’t gonna die in my bar on my time. if you really wanted to call it quits hester, you woulda gone to the store where nobody knows you. you wouldn’t put otis on my jukebox and sit there gulping down whisky in this bar.
you got a beer.
well, i’m not you hester. i’m not an alcoholic and while that probably doesn’t seem so fair, that’s that way the prom queen fucks. whether you like it or not. and if you wanna go back to where you came from, puking in my bathroom, leaving me to find syringes on my floor, scraping you off the tarmac twice a week, you do it somewhere else. i’m through with that shit. now drink your fuckin’ ginger ale, write me a poem on that napkin and shut the fuck up with your stupid shit. she took a deep breath and paused. then she slammed the beer down on the counter and all of a sudden she yelled. you don’t throw away a year and a half over some asshole like jimmy. you love her or you leave her, you don’t die over her. i never heard dez yell.
how do you know about jimmy?
girl, i own the only dyke bar in this town. i know about everything.
and so i started pushing the pen across the napkin and four napkins later, this is what i handed over the bar…

she came to me, alright? i don’t care what you read in the papers or what you saw on the teevee, she came to me. she came and she says
will you keep me company
will you feed me for a while
will you take up this little space i’ve made
will you show me where to turn?

i say
turn back
i say
go home

okay, that’s not true.
the little space she made... that’s true. have you been there? it’s the space between losing the beautiful thing you had, and trading up for the thing you really want, which i suppose is lovely too, except that i don’t care. but you know how it is, the people, they come and they need you. and so you go to the people and they paint targets on your throat in the dark and they cover them with poems and they fix an eye patch to your stupid face and they tell you that you’re beautiful. they sit you between what was and what will be and they tell you it matters. they insist. they lie.

not because they mean to
but because sometimes
we all have to.

i lied too.

i didn’t say
turn back

i said
will you keep me company
will you feed me for a while
will you give me what you don’t have
will you get the paint off my throat, cowboy
cuz red just ain’t my fuckin’ color.

my friend anna, she says
love is a smirking hydra
i say
love is the shortest distance between two points
and the place the salt spills over.

i say
get in line
i’m not so young today

i say
i keep forgetting i forgot you.

hey dez… here ya go… i say and push the napkins back at her.
you know, i got a box full of your napkins downstairs. i used to save ‘em after you left.
yeah.. they’re really good. you want ‘em?
ummm… actually can you hold on to them for me?

and then there’s that smile. yeah. i can do that.
we sit there a second and i say so what do i owe you?
how ‘bout a dance?

well, sir, i would absolutely love to dance with you.

she comes out from behind the bar and we spin slowly with her hand on my back as neil young looks and looks for a heart of gold and i stand spinning with one right there in my arms while gus circles us and jumps and jumps and the girl reading camus smiles at me from across the red red room on 19th street.




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