I made you the anchor / I made you the weight.
You hear that lyric issue from the speakers, drifting over the dim chatter of the late-afternoon bar crowd. It is sung in a quavering baritone by one of those sensitive, bearded troubadours that likely recorded the entire album in an ice fishing shack in Minnesota during a bleak midwinter following a protracted breakup with his girlfriend, all while playing every instrument himself, from marimba to accordion. Even so, it strikes you as appropriate, despite its easy-to-mock plaintiveness.
I made you the tether / to hold me in place.
You need to see Nate again before leaving town, for the same reasons everyone who is slinking away with the whiff of failure trailing behind needs a kind word, a small absolution, a godspeed for the journey. You assume you can cash in the last of your goodwill, though it’s been awhile. If Nate may be counted on for one thing, it’s that he can be lured out for a cocktail (or two, or more). He is late, but you anticipate this. He always operates on his own timetable.
[Inaudible]… Cracked mirror / A cruel twist of fate.
It is one of those nearly unbearable humid summer days, but Nate has chosen to ride his bike to the bar. He squints, eyes adjusting to the low light as he enters the room. A strand of his blonde hair lays pasted to his forehead with sweat. After he catches sight of you, you wave him over to the table , where two neat Manhattans wait.
“I took the liberty,” you say as you stand, gesturing to the drinks. You hug limply. The temperature of your friendship is tepid of late, lukewarm. At some point, between your first meeting and the time you confessed you were falling for him—which was followed by the delicate aftermath of that announcement and of having to walk your encounters back to a neutral space—well, it was shortly thereafter that the omnipresent green glow of his Gchat light permanently dimmed. You’d either failed to hold his fascination, or …
Nate is one of the few people you’ve yet to completely burn through. You met because you had mutual acquaintances and mutual interests. You remained friends, in part, because you were someone who was acquainted with someone who was a “someone,” and maybe that meant you were destined to be a someone too? Being someone that matters doesn’t seem to matter now. It’s part of the larger reason for leaving, that glitter of promise that has always failed to materialize. You suppose it’s time to settle the tab, so to speak.
You raise your glass to make a toast: “In vino veritas, in rye regret.”
“Well that’s mawkish,” Nate says, dabbing at his sweaty forehead with a napkin. “I hope you didn’t lure me down here for a drink just to cry in it.”
You tell him you are leaving the city.
“Oh,” he says, caught off-guard for a moment but not in the way you had hoped or envisioned when you played this particular meeting out in your mind. “For how long?”
“Likely for good. But that’s never certain, is it?”
You’ve had this hypothetical conversation with Nate many times before, drunk and feeling adrift, addressing the question of where precisely one goes after New York. That conversation. Down, lateral, across the Atlantic. Where? There’s never a satisfactory answer; nowhere feels precisely right.
“Where to?” Nate asks.
To your sister’s, you tell him. “In Georgia.”
“Georgia.” The name catches in his throat, like he’s trying to swallow sand.
You put on an antic air: “The house sits on a few acres of land, there’s a spare room and two dogs and a rangy tomcat,” but the energy flags before you complete the sentence.
“The prodigal returned. I’ve certainly seen that film before,” Nate says. “What’ll you do for work?”
“I’ll get by.” You catch yourself. “Christ, do I sound like a Tennessee Williams heroine?” Nate sips his Manhattan in lieu of a response.
It is past time to leave the city, though for too long you refused to acknowledge the fact. You’ve forgotten how to look people in the eye. You blurt rude things at tourists who block the sidewalk or subway entrance. You only walk down the middle of the subway platform, not that you’d take a plunge in front of an arriving train, but better to avoid temptation. You look for temporary monetary salvation in the New York State lottery. You’ve amassed debt and have run out of phony voices and accents when dodging bill collectors on the phone. You are living a life in decreasing increments, the less settled-for, the less received. A winnowing. A shrink-wrapped life, like those storage bags As Seen On TV, the air vacuumed out until the contents—bulky sweaters or puffy winter coats—are stiff and tight, a kind of fabric jerky. Everything of late has been an exercise in diminution, even how little you allow yourself to love. You had been searching too many faces, and when Nate’s appeared you latched on and were not able to move past it. It became the litmus in how far you’d fallen in your own estimation to harbor this one-sided affair. Even now, you are making Nate the last obstacle, the confirmation in a game of magical thinking: if he says … if he offers … if he argues or pleads with you to … You know it is unfair, the burden. But you have grown tired of fairness. You twirl the stem of your empty glass, a signal.
“I was only planning to have one, but since this has become a sendoff …” Nate says. He slides out from around the table and moves toward the bar, returning in a few minutes with two more Manhattans, which you drink before you agree to step outside for a cigarette. You wish Nate would be mean. You wish he would punish you for your poor choices, call you out on your weaknesses. You want to solicit him to take you away and fuck you, in a way you haven’t been fucked since that first teenage time when the mystery of sex broke open. Instead you take simultaneous drags and exhale as a candy-orange sun melts into the Hudson. Have you always had so little to say to each other?
Back inside, you motion towards the bar. “Another?”
“I have my bike,” he says by way of a weak dodge.
“Maybe just a beer, then?”
“That seems doable,” Nate says, checking his cell phone.
This time you go to the bar, returning with two pints.
“Oh, here’s your book, by the way,” you say, digging the hardcover out from your satchel. “I thought I should return it rather than absconding with it to the South.”
“So?” Nate asks.
“It could have used more sex. That used to be his hallmark.”
“Obviously. Though I don’t believe he really gets laid as much as his characters, do you? Fiction is fiction, life is life …” Nate follows this line of inquiry, and you nod your head. This is what you will miss.
You are near-finished with your beers, and the sight of Nate checking his phone has become unbearable. “Keeping you?”
“Peter is in town.”
You nod in recognition.
“We’re meeting up soon. Soon-ish.”
Peter from Seattle. Peter, the one you’ve often heard of but who never fully registers as real. You conceive of him as some rival, some invisible nemesis. You imagine you cannot occupy the same space or time, a science fiction premise that makes his existence easier to stomach. Nate is hopelessly in love with Peter.
“You could tag along, maybe?” Nate says, but you know he isn’t sincere. He does not, as a rule, cross his social streams.
“No,” you say, “the minutiae of leaving town needs to be addressed.”
“We’re too alike,” you told Nate once. He immediately and vehemently disagreed, which only bolstered your hypothesis. You have become too familiar to him, and familiarity is the enemy of desire. That’s the danger in falling for someone so similar—they tend use your own tricks against you. The compartmentalizer becomes compartmentalized.
You imagine yourself as Nate must see you in the moment: a distraction. The obstacle. There is a conflicting tug of desire and duty; you’re like some elder relation to be visited and chatted with, humored and then packed off to nap. You have always confused friendship and love. There has always been a boy, real or imagined, between you and Nate.
“Don’t keep Peter waiting,” you say, hoping the brightness of your voice masks the hollowness of the line.
He places his hand atop yours. “Safe travels. Let me know when you settle.” You observe how delicate his fingers are, how slim. You will miss these too.
If ever there came a moment you wanted someone to tell you to stay, to unpack, to quash any lingering doubts, it is now. But of course these moments only happen in films, the earnest entreaties sputtered out over a sorrowful score. You anticipate his response in that dramatized scenario: “I don’t want that kind of power over anyone else.”
He calls you by a nickname you abhor, but it breaks your heart a little nonetheless as you press together in a clench: the last goodbye. This final moment of camaraderie stings. Sliding back down in your seat, you cup the empty beer glass as you count five beats, waiting for Nate to return. He does not. He is not able to keep you in place.
Then the song cycles back. Have you been here so long, or is the bartender’s playlist so limited? Once again, that refrain, I made you the anchor / I made you the weight. If anything, this is your sign. The waters tested. The mooring severed. The departure a matter of course.
Mike Dressel is a writer and award-winning educator living in New York. His work has appeared in OCHO: A Journal of Queer Arts, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Promethean, Chelsea Station, and elsewhere. He also co-produces the nonfiction reading series No, YOU Tell It! Selected by Ahsan Butt.
Image © Guilherme Nicholas via Flickr Creative Commons.