He reminds me that he really does have brain damage. It’s true. He hit some black ice two winters ago; the concussion that followed made him unpredictable, unable to control the slightest mood swings. We had been trundling towards something not necessarily intimate but friendly. The accident derailed that. Some days I know he can’t quite remember my name, or how I connect to that dwindling formerly bearded fellow that appears by my side on occasion. Same body moving around, but the guy inside it – not the same. Not totally different, either. Maybe kind of dented.
Tonight we’re both in a mood to mend fences without talking about how they got broken. I acknowledge him from my seat at the bar. He sits on the stool beside me. I realize as he talks that he makes eye contact with me – something we have not done in a very long time. I shift my body toward him; he mirrors me. I can tell he is doing this consciously.
I am mellow, quieter than usual. Endorphins from my workout an hour prior mix with the cooling nature of the absinthe. I am riding the edge of a migraine, dehydrated.
He speaks to me in a lower-speed, lower pitched voice. This is not Persona Guy, semi-celebrity guy. This is Real Guy. I am too tired, too close to the edge of pain, with the lights glowing just that bit too brightly before it hurts to open my eyes and look at anything.
We are the same age, and show about the same amount of wear and tear. He smokes, so I bet on him to wrinkle first. Blues music comes on – we both like it. I mention engineering for the blues show at the radio station I worked at in college. He went to the equal and opposite college, where he was also a radio station deejay. I’m pretty sure he got more air time. “There was nothing I was doing that they couldn’t do themselves,” I tell him about the engineering gig. “I think they just wanted a twenty something to look at.”
“How do you mean?”
“You know – like, why are you looking at me?”
He gets it. He may have in the first place, but I just don’t have the impulse to get worked up about the subtle insult. Seconds before I compared his poetry to Vogon literature. Unfavorably.
“I saw a picture of myself from my 20s,” I told him. “Now I get it.”
He smiles at that. He turns his shoulders – we are side by side. “If we knew then what we know now, we could have taken over the world.”
I pat him on the shoulder. “Sure you coulda.” I would have used the knowledge to get more sex. World domination is for the frustrated.
Real me and real him are slipping away. Now we’re just doing a bit. A funny bit, but it loses something. I do not have the battery charge necessary to maintain Persona Self.
Something about him combined with alcohol brings out the unfortunate confessional side of my nature. I wish it didn’t. I mention Thanksgiving. “There’s a guy I know from high school that moved up here recently. He got sick and couldn’t make it home…It’s weird having him here.” I want to say more, but I don’t. I really don’t want to attribute meaning to the event that isn’t there.
He knows about the effort I’ve put into divorcing myself from my past. He has attempted to do the same thing, for much the same reasons. “That has got to be weird,” he agrees. In that moment, I’m hyper aware of the differences between Minnesota and what was once home/prison – the body language is different. The use of eye contact is different. The language choices are vastly different.
“As a teenager, I was somewhere between brainwashed and broken out.” I stop and ask the bartender for water. He is attentive tonight – no prettier women at the bar to distract my service.
“In my twenties, I had finally broken free. In my thirties, I finally realized it’s all about claiming my agency – in the literary sense. That my need for agency is what has driven every single part of my life.”
He gives me a look of naked delight, one I can only ever get from Real Guy, not the Persona that happens when he takes the microphone. The last time he looked at me like that I had proposed running a canned food drive. I wonder for a moment if I’m a character in one of his projects. It’s happened before, other writers chasing me with a metaphorical butterfly net.
I don’t ask. The last thing I ever want to know is how someone else really sees me.
He changes the subject. He screwed up with his girlfriend. This is our fallback topic, end of conversation ritual, the one where he asks me something he already knows. I see it coming.