A Girl Walks into a Bar

A Girl Walks into a Bar

A girl walks into a bar.

I’m the girl, and the bar is called Fort Defiance. It’s the place where I’ll try a Bloody Mary for the first time, goaded on by my brother’s soon-to-be ex-wife. The drink is spicy and thick, like a slightly scary snack, and it’s speared with pickled okra. It’s my second time visiting New York City, the first time since high school. I’ll live inside my brother’s breaking marriage with them for a week, too selfish (or maybe too young) to understand why the air in their apartment feels like pain, but perceptive enough to know that he and I both feel better when we’re at the bar, not at home.

A girl walks into a bar.

It’s called Sunny’s and this is my last night in New York. Luckily, it coincides with the night there’s live music at the neighborhood’s favorite bar. I want to buy my brother a drink for hosting his college kid sister all week. He wants a Makers on the rocks. I’m 22 and I’ve never even had whiskey yet, but I order it too. I hate it, but keep drinking while the music starts. If there was a night when I realized I wanted music to be my life, it was when the unassuming fiddler took over and played a joyous, samba-infused rendition of King Sunny Ade’s “365 Is My Number.” I listened to Ade’s version on the entire redeye back to LA, where I began ordering whiskey on the rocks to keep myself from missing New York.

A girl walks into a bar.

I walk in because I need a job. I just moved to New York post-grad school and rent has become a very real concern. I walk out grinning, because K. gave me one. Or at least, she gave me a shot at hostessing that weekend. Several weeks later, after I’ve learned to commandeer the door at DuMont, she’ll offer to train me as a bartender. My day shifts are boring and cumbersome, but the exceedingly hot, exceedingly gay waiter dubs me “baby princess” because I’m too flustered and spoiled to get much done, and defer to him for the difficult stuff. I’ll leave the restaurant for a full-time writing job just when my night bar shifts are about to begin. About a year later the owner will kill himself. A coworker will holler the news aloud in our office and I’ll go home in a heap, realizing how much I loved working at his restaurant, and how much I hate my current job. A couple months later, I’ll leave that office in a heap again, this time because I’ve been fired.

A girl walks into a bar.

I need a job, again. I assume my career is destroyed, and recent revelations indicate my family life is too, so I try to break up with my boyfriend to achieve a holy trifecta of despair. He stays, for now, listening with mounting worry as I explain how the owner of this new bar screams at us for any tiny mistake, or makes up new ones if we do everything perfectly. But I come home with a cool $300 every single night, so I wince at the verbal abuse, slurs and cursing, and cry it off in the bathroom. I quit at Christmas, heading home to face family trauma. If I don’t find peace in Oregon, and least I trade heated anguish for cold resolution. I take the bus past this bar often, to visit my brother, and still wince every time I see the tall windows and big gold lettering.

A girl walks into a bar.

I took a substantial pay cut after leaving MTV, but vowed that a renewed sense of delight in my work would be enough. Emotionally, it was. Financially, it wasn’t. No matter how much I loved being a staff writer, I simply couldn’t live off the salary. So I took L.’s advice and began cocktail waitressing at The Narrows, a tiny but decadent bar in Bushwick kept so dark it feels like a holy secret to be inside. I lit candles and paced the slim, tiled hallway between the bar proper and my secluded (usually empty) room full of booths. I nibbled too-hot chicken fingers or snuck iced negroni in a plastic cup. I practiced my favorite yoga pose—the half moon—along the skinny pathway between the booths, tilting toward the sky and opening my heart as wide as it would go. I did just about everything except make much money. I was earning something important here but it couldn’t be liquidated for rent. I knelt at the cash box on my last night and felt the urge to kiss the lock, like a talisman. Whatever else, this place had been a sort of temple for me—a sanctuary.

A girl walks into a bar.

Had it been nearly five years since I first walked into this place? Once formidable, now I call it Fort, affectionately, like the nickname of a sibling or darling pet that stumbles out of my mouth even in public, even when talking to those unfamiliar with the simple magic of the place. When I walk in tonight it’s for summit. E. is behind the bar, gazing adoringly at F. while she captivates customers. C. comes up to me with her usual coltish charm. Z. told her about the news and she wants to know my decision, but even I don’t know what it is yet. Z. shows up and we sit outside at the windowsill, splurging for oysters before our burgers and weighing possibilities. E. makes faces from inside, stirring and shaking difficult, obscure cocktails for us because it’s slow. At the end of the night, I hug Z. goodbye and begin to walk toward the bus. Cait, he yells after me, so I turn back. I think you should take it. Take the magazine job, he says. I smile because I think he’s right. It’s almost as if the bar decided for us.

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