Learning to Drink My Feelings
“Do you ever feel like life is just a movie?” Whiskey Sour, business pants. July, 10:15 p.m., Friday.”
This is a note I wrote to myself. It’s my handwriting, my spiral blue notepad, so I know it’s me. I can even picture the guy, but I don’t know why I wanted to remember what he said. As far as lines go, this one isn’t very original. It’s like something your college roommate might say, the one who owns a Himalayan salt lamp.
The man had a spray tan, capped teeth. He’d recently broken up with someone and was now in this restaurant bar, where my friend Arda and I served people like him weekend nights year-round, including all major holidays.
Arda’s Turkish. In this restaurant, pretty much all of us are, even though we advertise vaguely as a place of “fine Mediterranean dining” and have pictures of olive trees and the Acropolis on the walls. In the kitchen, the men who slam blood-red slabs of meat against a butcher block are unmistakably Turkish: from Urfa, from Van, from no-fly zones near the Syrian border. There are soft-waisted women back there too, and together they roll out baklava dough with long wooden pins, their round belly aprons dusted with flour.
In the front of the house, the vibe is different. Here, Arda and I serve our American customers with our American smiles, and we only talk Turkish under our breaths, when we’re sure no one can hear. We talk shit, mostly: a snarky running commentary that helps us bear the race back and forth, the pulling of pints, the running of cards, the serving of that man with the thick pink neck who tries to grab my hand over the counter every single time.
I like tending bar. I’m a waitress too, but I take home more money pouring drinks. Plus, I get better stories out of it, like this one time I served Chelsea Clinton a beverage. She was on a date. Her bodyguard sat, alone and alert on a stool closest to the door, a listening device looped around the curl of his ear. He ordered a diet Coke, extra ice, no straw.
The Quran didn’t even ban alcohol, I tell him — not in the beginning it didn’t, not in the first verses revealed.
The work here suits me. By nature, I’m more of a listener than a talker, so I don’t say much to my customers. I pay attention, collect details and fragments: a line here, a spray tan there. I write in my blue spiral notebook hoping to thread these things together someday, maybe spin them into stories once I figure out how.
Arda thinks it’s weird I’m a bartender because I don’t drink. He assumes I don’t drink because I grew up in Saudi Arabia. When he sees a picture of me in high school, wearing a burka, he starts calling me “Haji” as a joke.
“You think we’re all going to Hell, don’t you? All us sinners?” he says, but I don’t think that. The Quran didn’t even ban alcohol, I tell him — not in the beginning it didn’t, not in the first verses revealed. Just don’t show up at the mosque drunk, the Prophet said. Just don’t do the things that make you come undone.
Arda has a friend who works at the other location, the one downtown. One night when we’re closing, the friend shows up, a pencil balanced behind his ear, a folded black apron tucked under his arm. When he sees me, he grins: a smile that’s somehow crooked and honest at the same time, and I feel a sudden rush of liking.
“You must be the Haji,” he says.
That summer, the friend becomes a fixture, stopping by after work each weekend, helping us close, clean, roll silverware. He and Arda and some of the others go out after, but I never join them. I can’t say why I don’t. I just take the train home. It’s only two stops.
Arda’s friend is disapproving of my sobriety, too, and views it as a kind of professional failing, maybe even a moral failing.
“It’s like being a car salesman but you don’t know how to drive,” he explains. He asks if I don’t drink because I’m religious, and I tell him no.
“Then?” he says. He leans on the counter and I notice a small tattoo of the Turkish flag waving in black beneath his collarbone. By now, I know he’s only been to Turkey once: He was four, and flew straight out of JFK. His tattoo is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. He straightens up, and I stare down at my hands. “I wouldn’t buy a car from you, is what I’m trying to say,” he tells me.
Something inside me rises at his words, even though I can see he’s baiting me. He waits for me to respond, but I do not.
My best friend, Mindy, is skeptical about the car thing too, sees it as a kind of manipulation. She’s taking a psychology of women course in the Gender Studies department, and wants me to be certain I’m not making decisions against my better judgment: acting in hopes of acceptance, in hopes of love. This is a problem, apparently, for many young women. I spend a lot of time wondering whether or not it is a problem for me.
“It’s the motorized, three-wheeler kind. They provide the rickshaw. They’ll decorate it however you want. Ten days. A ten day fucking rickshaw race, dude.” — Shaved head. Khaki shorts. Patagonia zip-up. September. Sierra Nevada, times two.”
In life, there’s the person who keeps a diary and there’s the person who takes notes. Joan Didion says these two don’t belong to the same breed. Diary people are adorable innocents, earnestly invested in the enterprise of self-improvement. Note-takers are, by comparison, pathetic assholes. Anxious malcontents. People who, in childhood, were afflicted with some presentiment of loss and, as a result, feel the need to rearrange and control the world, to write the wrinkles out, to resist the basic joys of living.
These are Joan Didion’s words, and when I read them for the first time, I’m riding the train home after an especially bad night. I have my headphones on. I’m staring out the window, but not really because I can’t see out the window. It’s too dark to see anything but my own reflection. I look like hell.
It’s winter when it happens. Finals are over, Christmas is looming, and we’re all in the mood to celebrate. We will go out. I will go out. I’ve asked Mindy to come here, straight after her shift at the Cheesecake Factory. Some shot glasses have been lined up and Arda is pouring when his friend suddenly grabs another glass, and squares me with a look.
“Twenty bucks,” he says. “Twenty for a single shot.”
“I don’t — ”
There is some whooping. The busboy twins from Guatemala come closer, curious about the commotion. Someone translates into Spanish.
One of the busboys lets out a wolf whistle. My heart is pounding like a fire drum.
Arda’s friend digs into his pocket and pulls out a thick wad of bills, starts counting them off on the bar: fifty, a hundred, two. One of the busboys lets out a wolf whistle. My heart is pounding like a fire drum. “Three hundred and twenty-nine dollars,” Arda’s friend says. “Two fucking shifts. It’s yours, Hilal. Allah’s my witness, it’s all for you.”
I stare at the crumpled heap: my January rent, in full.
I don’t take the money. If there’s one lesson my dad has drilled into me, it’s that I should never take money from a boy, not ever. So I don’t take his money.
But I do take my first drink.
Inside my head, I say: “Siftah, Bismi’Allah,” as I down the shot. If I feel any guilt or remorse or sense of irony about invoking the name of God in a moment like this, I’m not aware of it.
The alcohol burns going down (it’s Jägermeister, unfortunately), sears my tastebuds, lights a fast path to my stomach. It heats my flesh from the inside, sparks my skin, charging it like shot lightning. I feel so much. I feel it all at once. I want to write it down, that’s my instinct, but the instinct is different this time. This time, I will write down what it is I am feeling.
When we tumble out of our cabs that night, pile into this one club, I pull off my sweater, tie the arms tight around my hips. My button-up shirt suddenly presses into my neck so I loosen there, too.
I squint across the club, at the air above, thick with haze, a million little mouths turned up like smokestacks. It looks beautiful, but it is difficult for me to understand where the beauty is coming from. I can see Arda’s friend in the crowd, arm raised, trying to catch my eye.
My body softens inside my winter shirt. I feel my pupils widen in the black. Ten days on a rickshaw. How would I even decorate mine? The Earth wobbles on its axis. Mindy tugs at my arm, offers me her hand.
“Don’t let go of me, okay?” she shouts over the music. I nod, and together we push through, sinking deeper and deeper into the guts of this place.