That night my car had a temperamental engine that was threatening to quit, and the rain was a drill as we drove up 101. We were going to the bar so Hailey could tether herself to the bartender, Rebecca, whom she’d met a week before. Rebecca had wound strands of Hailey’s hair around a finger while she snapped back shots of cheap vodka and fed Hailey lime wedges and salt. I’d been bored out of my mind but afterward I wanted to go back to that bar, more than anyplace else, more than my parents’ house, more than my crappy office job. I was working something out about who I was supposed to be, and the bar seemed like the wrong answer, but I couldn’t tell yet. Hailey was my ticket in.
The bar was the Jukebox, which everyone, I would learn, just called the Box, and like all good lesbian bars it had capitalized the second half of the word, just to drive the point home. Every flier it ever plastered around on the telephone poles of the city had some 1950’s pulp-themed photograph of a woman popping out of various containers—always the same woman, with a different themed piece photoshopped over the original cake for each new flier, each new night. My favorite was a flier that declared, “Get Your Box Set this Sunday!” and had her leaping out of a turntable with vinyl record pasties. Everything about the place was a little trashy and a little over-the-top and it sold the cheapest liquor you could get just about anywhere. If you didn’t understand the name’s reference, Ellis, the bouncer, was there at the door, to remind you. I liked the sign out front because it felt like the old west, like we’d taken over the local brothel, or something, which maybe we had. Ellis was another story.
As it turned out, Ellis wasn’t at the door. The rain had lowered the chances of a police check, and Ellis was “feeling out of sorts,” Rebecca told us.
“You mean she’s not here tonight?”
“She stepped out for a little while. I told her I could handle it. You think I can handle it, Helen?” Rebecca smiled and passed me a shot. I shook my head.
I amused myself looking at the fliers while Hailey and Rebecca leaned in close at the end of the bar. The latest parties had been boa night, and fairy night, and butch night, and skater night, and flannel night, and kitten night, whatever that had been.
“You need a game, or a girl, or something,” Ellis said behind me. She slid onto the adjacent stool and helped herself to a beer from the tap, which she poured, neatly, with only a thin layer of foam.
“You’re back,” I said. “Shouldn’t you be working?”
“Where’s Hailey?” She nodded at Hailey’s empty chair. I shrugged.
“Take my advice,” she said. “Be the first one to leave next time. Girls like that, they’re a void.”
“I can’t leave, I’m driving. What does that mean, anyway, a void?”
“I mean she’s not a friend, not really. Would she show up if you got stuck somewhere, at some girl’s house, with her boyfriend knocking on the door and you had to duck out the window like some kid on the lam? Could you call her?”
“Have you done that?”
“Have you not?”
“No,” I said. I didn’t say, I’m not that macho, I’m not that suave, I’m not that kind of girl. I’m not goddamn Paul Newman, is what.
“Ok. Well imagine you got yourself in a fix. So, what about it? Would she?”
“What do you care, Ellis?” I said, which is what you say when you don’t have an answer.
She stretched out to her full height, which, aside from being a foot above me, I realized, was indeed cat-like, especially when she unfolded from the stool she’d been sitting on and yawned. She went back to the door, and I followed.
We stood and gazed down the block. It was foggy, and there wasn’t much to see.
“Once, the most beautiful woman in all of San Francisco walked through here.”
“Oh, come on,” I said.
“God’s honest truth.”
A voice, in my head, said, you don’t believe in God, but don’t bother her about it. I had that feeling I was slipping, words swirling around the rough edges of my mind that I couldn’t round out into sounds that made meaning. I was left with the precise shapes of the bar, the smell of things–the viscosity of gin, the sweetness of the well drinks, the pulpiness of dried-out slices of limes. Why could I never say: I have the feeling, Ellis, of being pulled in too many directions. I want to put my hands across your shoulders and feel below the surface, the fibers and threads of muscle in your skinny bicep, the rounded shape of the cap of bone that is your shoulder blade. I want to feel for cracks and knots and pulls. If I could focus on you with such attention, if I could feel your shape below all this, all these hanging bulbs and Christmas lights and the grand mirror over the bar, if I could detect just the point at which your elbow is fitted at your joint, and how much cartilage is there, and what stresses have aggravated the central and banded nerve, then I could speak to you. But I do not know how else it is that a person should communicate with another person. I do not know what Hailey is, except that she smells like laundry detergent and rain and sometimes cooked onions, that her feet are funny and duck like, and that no, she would not come and get me from a scrape, because she is jealous and guarded of her own beauty, and whatever it is I might hold over her, it is not beauty, and so she cannot touch it.
“This beautiful woman,” I asked Ellis. “Did you speak to her?”
Ellis chuckled. “Sure. I’m the bouncer.”
“But not like that. You know what I mean. Like for real.”
“Honey,” Ellis said, “I sang to her.”
“You what? Like serenaded?”
“I stood out on the curb while she was leaving, and I sang.”
“Did it work? I mean did she talk to you?”
Ellis laughed. “What do you think?”
“I think you never saw her again.”
She looked straight at me then, the saddest I’d ever seen a stranger’s face. It shook me. She was sad for me, or at least for my lack of imagination.
“You’re not much for romance, I guess,” Ellis said.
She was wrong. All I wanted was romance. I wanted the story to be real, I wanted it in my gut. I just didn’t believe in it. “Did your serenade work?”
Ellis was quiet. She had a far-off look, like she was watching the scene play out in front of us, along the narrow street, the chain link fence, the yellow fire hydrant. I had no idea what the woman had looked like, and realized I’d plugged in the infinite cutouts of women in black heels and large sunglasses of my magazine reading existence against the grubby backdrop of the street.
“You’re pretty strange, you know?” Ellis said.
“Sure, I know.” It was the only thing I knew. It was the only thing I ever knew all the way.
I thought after that Ellis wouldn’t want to talk, and in fact she did go brush me off to do her job and check ids. I was glad to be ignored for a minute, so I didn’t have to think about Hailey. Instead, I went and played pinball, until I kept losing, and then I looked for something to do, some way to restart the story of my evening. I plucked a cigarette off a girl who seemed ready to drop her whole pack in the gutter, swaying as she was to the music, in a button-down shirt that was oversized enough to be a dress, but wasn’t. She wore it like a cape. Someone outside was popping a string of firecrackers. The rain had ceased, and the music had cranked up; Rebecca had reappeared, sleeveless and tattooed and wearing Hailey’s baseball cap like it had been made for her, a flick of red hair curling up through the hat’s back strap that stretched across her forehead. I still didn’t see Hailey. Beer and cheap gin filled tumblers around the room, on tables, along the bar, on the pinball machine, on the floor outside the bathroom, among discarded smashed quarters of lime and maraschino cherries and stir straws and tiny rainbow parasols. If anyone had flipped on the lights it would have looked a mess. But in the dark, it was something else. There were glistening, dancing bodies everywhere and I felt like I was watching heaven through a glass bottomed boat, coasting on the water’s skin.
Hailey grabbed my arm.
“We need to leave,” she said.
“I’m enjoying myself, for once,” I said. I shoved her a little. It was so easy to do, and then I realized it had surprised us both. I also realized, looking at Hailey, that she was crying.
“Give me the keys, then.”
I held them back. “You’re too drunk. And you look a mess.”
I knew I shouldn’t have said it when she was in that kind of mood. But I wanted to be the exciting impulse, the trigger that got her heart rate up, the thing that made her want to move fast and dance and tear up the night. I wanted too much. I loved how we could be our own pulsating twin stars as the night swirled around us, as the world kept on its sleepy jog through the hours, and here we were, red hot, right at the center of things, because the center was wherever we were.
“If you don’t get in that car and drive,” she said, “then I’ll go home with whoever asks first.” I knew she meant it, and I knew I’d never hear the end of it if she did.
I drove. I did what my father had done when we used to visit San Francisco, which was to find the biggest hill and go a little too fast over the top, so that your stomach bottomed out and you weren’t sure if you should laugh or puke. No one else was around. It was nearly midnight and the bars always closed at two so everyone was in them drinking as fast as they could.
We ended up at the beach, down the coast. There were fires out along the sand because there always were, until the cops came and put them out and told everyone to move along.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could swim?”
“If you didn’t die from hypothermia. Or sharks. Or drowning.”
“But wouldn’t it be great. Sometimes I wish—”
“You were going to say something, though. What was it?”
“I wish I knew how this was going to end up. So I could get it out of the way in my mind and stop worrying about it so much.”
I supposed she meant Rebecca, and whatever they were doing. But I didn’t clarify, because talking about that for me at the time was like asking someone what money meant, or why someone would lie, or how you took a lover. I just didn’t know. And I didn’t know what to say to her, not then, not now, when I think about it.
We stood around for a while, looking at the water slam itself against the rocks, peering into the fog for boats, and then got back in the car.
“Hey, Helen,” she said.
“Don’t get pulled over.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t,” I said, and turned the key.