You’re Never Better Than Your Neighborhood Bar

Trivia night, addicts, and glasses that never empty keep me coming back for more

You’re never better than your neighborhood bar, and mine was full of addicts. Alcohol, mostly, but opioids, too. They were the kind of men (and they were almost always men) who knew all about injections and ingestions, and were willing to pay the price. They were tougher, smarter, and softer than I was.

But we had one thing in common: obsession.

Mother May I is a bar in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Its owners oversee the formation of a back-porch igloo at Christmas. They list it on Airbnb for the very reasonable price of only $60 a night. There is no heat, and no running water, but the ad promises unlimited PBRs, brunch, and the use of the downstairs bathrooms.

Kate, who lives two blocks away in a refurbished apartment, says we should consider renting it, because of “what we could save on booze alone.”

We take everyone to “Mother’s,” as it's called locally; roommates, pets, parents. Nobody loves it like we do: stupidly, and with too many stories. That same winter, I drag my old high school friend to Brooklyn from New Jersey, after her wife serves her with divorce papers. “Dress like you’re a 2,000-year-old vampire,” I tell her. I am obsessed with fantasy as a distraction. “I’ll do the same.” She arrives wearing jeans, a button-down, and a bolo tie with a silver snake design. I kiss her on the forehead. Days later, we consider having sex. It seems only natural. Boris, who runs bar trivia on Tuesday nights, and who went through his divorce almost six years ago, bristles when I tell him that I did not fuck her.

“Big of you, I guess.”

Johnny, our beloved bartender, is tall and affably Canadian. He adores Saanvi, Kate’s roommate — and who wouldn’t? He says over Facebook that she is “one of his favorites.” Months later, he tells Kate that he wants to date women his own age. He is 40. The next time Kate sees him, he walks hand and hand with a woman who is our age. They are at a movie theater. “I think it’s notable that the only place I ever see anyone from Mother’s is at the movie theater,” she says.

Of course. It’s the stories.

On New Year’s Eve, during the day, I tell Kate, “I want us to be better than spending tonight at Mother’s,” and cite a passage from King James, Isaiah 14:11: “Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee,” which is a fancy way of saying, “we are all equals in hell. She laughs, and says, “They should put that on the front door.” Johnny pours us a drink without asking. We stay the whole night.

Before we leave, he wipes half our charges clean.

While watching football projected over the Mother’s stage in February, Mike tells me, “I fall in love once a day. Want to kill myself once a day.” Mike is covered in tattoos, knows more than I do, and is from New Jersey. I am wearing my tightest shirt. I tell him that I decided to take mood stabilizers to protect my brain. He nods. “I used to be on everything, but I hated the side effects.” I tell him about my hair loss. He runs a hand over his buzzed scull. “Men hate it just as much.”

Oh yeah? Try being a woman.

Kate and I drink at the side of the bar while Johnny pours us more drinks than we order. We play a question game. “What do we both have in common?” She asks. I knew Kate when she was 18 years old. “We both romanticize obsessive men,” I say. “Oh,” she replies. We both think of her high school sweetheart, a boy she dated for five years through college and in her first year of Brooklyn. He heard voices, worked as a dishwasher. I think of Boris. Mike is nearby. He tells us that his New Year’s resolution is not to overdose.

I want to put my tongue down Boris’ throat and suffocate him. I think about what his eyes would look like rolled back in his head.

“He told me that same thing last year,” Kate says to me on the walk home.

I write in my journal that Boris is a demon. Or else, he is sent by God to exorcise the demon growing inside of me. Whatever the case, he is magic. He pays too much attention to me. I feel a portal opening up between us. I pull too many tarot cards. The Emperor. The Hermit. The Star. Judgement. The Lovers. My bones are on fire. Eight months earlier, a soothsayer in New Orleans told me that I will find a “big love” in October. After that, I broke up with my boyfriend in August. Then, in late October, a different tarot reader tells me that this “big love” is myself. I want to believe him. At the end of trivia in early October, Boris gifts me a pin of the tarot card Strength. That night, I pull The Tower.

My therapist tries to convince me to go back on medicine.

When I tell my parents in Virginia that everyone at Mother’s is an addict of some sort, there is a long pause. “But not you.” No, not you.

During the manic episode, I drink too much and order too many nachos. I am on fire. My therapist asks me to write a mantra. She suggests, “I am capable of tolerating my own feelings” or the equally spiteful, “My feelings do not define me.” I finally settle on, “Life is long.

“I actually really like that,” she says. “For me, it brings out some feelings of hope — ‘life is long’ so we have time to figure things out. We realize that this too shall pass, and that in time the thing we were upset about will likely not even matter.”

Sure.

Boris and I eat lunch one Saturday morning in November. It is the only time we see each other outside of Mother’s. We both order eggs. He is wearing a blue shirt, khaki pants, and combat boots. I forgive him because he was in the Navy. Boris talks seriously about libertarianism, mutants, and a video game we both played eight years ago. At one point, I reach across the table to say, “You’ve been talking for 10 minutes. You have to ask me a question about myself or I will leave.” Multiple women throw me hard, concerned looks. I want to tell them, “No, no, we’re not dating. We’re just friends.” I know better.

I do not know better.

Boris and I text each other every day. He tells me how much he dislikes my disdain for him. I say, “That’s a red flag.” Only, I type it, in all caps through a direct Twitter message. “THAT’S A RED FLAG, Boris.”

“If there were any activity, sure,” he writes back. “But I’ve maintained my isolationism. This is basically a weird pen pal situation.” I remind myself that I do not find him attractive. “I can’t handle the upper third of your personality,” I text. I want to put my tongue down his throat and suffocate him. I think about what his eyes would look like rolled back in his head.

I do not go to trivia for months.

I offer to pay Boris $10 to hit him in the face on the Mother’s stage. “It’s only the price of two and a half fancy coffees in Brooklyn,” I tell Johnny. Boris, for his part, is thrilled. “You’ve wanted me to hit you since you met me,” I tell him.

“That’s irrelevant,” he says.

“I’m interested to see what effect it has on you. Very interested.”

I ask my roommate, Jack, who is from the Bronx, to coach me. We hit books for days.

“How tall is he?” asks Jack.

“My height, maybe a little taller.”

Boris is six feet tall. I hit him in a sweeping arc. He smiles. He bows. We wrap our arms around each other, briefly.

On the day the portal closes between us, Boris says, “If you’re done convincing yourself that you think I have feelings, I’ll see you around.”

“I can’t handle trivia right now,” Mike tells me in February. When he was unemployed for three months last year, he took out half of his IRA savings to survive. He went to trivia four days a week. Alone. Like a gambler. A few months ago, I saw Mike try to hug Boris at intermission. “I get it,” Mike says. “He’s a bitter divorcee, but I am too.” I wonder, seriously, if there was ever anything romantic between them. I regret not noticing sooner, not knowing to ask. The night of that big football game, Johnny tells me, “Come out to trivia on Tuesday.” I tell him, “I can’t handle much of Boris anymore.”

Johnny lets out a long, hard breath, as if to say: I only work here.

Boris finds a protégé to take his place at Mother’s on Tuesday nights. He moves across Bushwick to a new bar, one I have never heard of. I go to trivia at Mother’s for the last time in early March. I win two lightning round questions back to back. Boris does not acknowledge me. I am too loud. During the written portion, he asks the crowd to translate the phrase Mare Nostrum.

Our sea.” Kate says, “You should get a jacket that says that.”

Whispering my own name: Mari. Mari. Our Mari. Boris leaves, and we do not say goodbye.

I am devastated.

I do not tell him.

Editor and poet. Bad at math. maripack.com

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