Megan Dreisbach
Megan Dreisbach
Love in Absentia

The head bartender, Kenny, had a special talent: the ability to attract and repel a customer all at the same time. This was how he’d managed to work fifteen plus years at the same bar without making enemies. On that first morning of my training, he was trying to teach me how to do it, too. We were leaning against the back bar, waiting for customers to come in. I was worried someone would want a drink I didn’t know, like a Harvey Wallbanger, and when I told Kenny this, he laughed, took my copy of Mr. Boston, and flung it behind the register. Then he grabbed my shoulders and squared them to his—or tried to. Kenny was a small guy, and I am tall. The effect this had was only to highlight my awkwardness behind the bar.

“Forget the drinks,” he said. “All you need to learn is how to talk to your customers.” As he said this, I realized I was closer to Kenny’s face than I had ever been. I took the opportunity to examine his eyes, which were light blue, deep-set, and surrounded in dark circles. He looked tired, junky tired. I wondered why he looked tired. Then I wondered about Harvey Wallbangers. What were they? Galliano and orange juice? Kenny continued talking—something about not getting too close, not sharing personal information with customers, not inviting stalkers. “Customers know where to find you every day,” Kenny said finally. “Just think about that.”
Well, I didn’t.

My first stalker was a haughty, unpopular regular named Francois. We’d fallen into a conversation one night about an article he’d read. I thought the article might help with a paper I was writing for grad school, so when he offered to send it, I gave him my email address. Then I forgot all about it. Several weeks later—I rarely used email in those days—I logged in and found a dozen messages from Francois, each one creepier than the next. “I saw you in your regular clothes before work today,” one of the earlier ones said. “You look so beautiful in your jeans.” And, later: “Oh this cruel game you are playing. Seduction in the act of no reply!”

To be fair, these “stalkers,” like Francois, were more annoying than they were dangerous. Still, one never knew. Take Diego, the Salvadorian guy who, in size and head gear, looked like a jockey. Every single night, Diego, in his large, starchy baseball hat, the kind with the panel of mesh in the back, professed his love for me.

“Meggie,” he’d say, reaching for my hand. “I love you.”

I had to stop giving him my hand after a while because he wouldn’t give it back. Diego seemed harmless until one night after work. Kenny and I were walking through the back alley toward the parking lot when, suddenly, Kenny held his arm out, stopping me. He pointed down the alley. “Look!” he said. There, under the glow of a streetlamp, a man’s head poked out from around the corner and snapped back. I jumped.

“It’s Diego,” Kenny said, recognizing the hat. He walked ahead. I followed, at a distance. Sure enough, when we reached the end of the alley, we saw a very drunken Diego making his teetering getaway down the sidewalk.

I remember when Felix first started coming to the bar. He was a compact guy, soft-spoken, about fifty, Puerto Rican, and Brooklyn-bred. His wife was always with him then. She was a petite, curvy woman with thick, dark hair. She was shy, slightly taller and rounder than her husband, but Felix himself was just over five feet and narrow as a ruler—not at all the type of I imagined might take a romantic interest in me. Like all of my regulars, Felix and his wife were creatures of habit. They always sat at a high top table in the lounge. At the table, they’d sit and talk quietly for about an hour. Several times during that hour, Felix would come to the bar for their usual drinks, Coors Light drafts for him, Pinot Grigios for her.

They seemed happily married. I noticed a certain amount of emotional distance between them I thought was healthy, which is to say that they didn’t lick, grab, or swat one another the way most couples did at the bar. After a few weeks of seeing them regularly, I began to say things like, “Nice to see you again.” Otherwise, I avoided engaging them. They were, in my mind, the best possible customers, the kind who gave me money and wanted only drinks in return. Soon, all I had to do was lean over the bar and say, “The usual?” to which Felix would respond, “Yes, thank you,” while his wife smiled, waved, and tilted her head down, disappearing behind her lovely hair.

A few times a year, I’d buy them a round of drinks, and they always thanked me politely. But aside from that, neither of them took much interest in me until two years after their first visit, when I changed my hair.

“You changed your hair,” Felix said one Sunday.

“Yes,” I said. “I got a haircut.”

“It looks great,” he said. “Gosh,” he said. “Gosh, you look so great. You’ve really gotten so much better looking over the years.”
This was supposed to be a compliment.

“Thanks,” I said.

That was our first conversation. I still didn’t know his name, or anything about him, except that he drank Coors Light, and that he liked my hair and formerly thought me unattractive. From then on, Felix and his wife were friendlier with me. Occasionally, they would sit at the bar, though even they still kept to themselves, speaking to me only when they needed drinks or change for the jukebox. The rest of the time, they continued to sit in the lounge. Now, when

Felix ordered drinks from me, he’d ask how I was, what I was up to, and point out my hair.

“The hair looks great,” he’d say. “I mean, it’s really amazing. You’ve really re-invented yourself.”

I thought all this hair business was strange, especially since it seemed to me that his wife did, too. I sensed she was embarrassed by the attention Felix paid me, and I began to feel uncomfortable when they came in. Each time, I hoped he wouldn’t start again with the hair, but he always did, even if it was just to point at his head, point at my head, and give me the thumbs up.

For six or seven years it went on like this, Felix praising my hair, me and Felix’s wife pretending Felix wasn’t praising my hair. Eventually, she stopped making eye contact with me. I was sorry for this. I felt like I’d been broken up with. Some of my regulars had died, quit drinking, gone to jail, or moved away, but not one of them had up and decided they didn’t like me. What had I done? I’d seen a hairstylist, but that was well within my rights. True, I wore a miniskirt and smiled at her husband, but I wore miniskirts and smiled at husbands all the time. In my mind, this was my job: to seem available while remaining unavailable. Flirt too much with a customer, and sooner or later he’d ask me out. Say no, and he’d stop coming in. If I wanted to be like Kenny, that is, if I wanted to sustain big business week after week, year after year, I’d have to build relationships with customers that couldn’t end.
Around that time, Felix began to come in more frequently and alone. He was also sporting a new look, showing up at Happy Hour in black bicycle outfits that looked like scuba suits. When not in biking gear, he wore loose, worn khakis and half-unbuttoned shirts that afforded a view of his tan, shiny chest, making him look like a miniature version of Jacques Cousteau.

During one of these Happy Hour visits, Felix sat at the bar, ordered an expensive Belgian beer, and startled me by saying, “So, Megan. Tell me about you.” Seven years later, Felix wanted to know me. I recognized this as loneliness. I had been there all along, but Felix hadn’t been lonely all along.
Now, he was lonely. I began to talk, giving Felix the abbreviated version of my life: I taught writing at a nearby university; I was in school myself, working toward an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing.

I watched Felix while I talked. I could tell he was thinking about something else, like the next thing he was going to say, or something I had said earlier. In conversations like these, I didn’t mind that the people I was talking to, Felix, for one, didn’t really want the details of my personal life. What bothered me was that I had to stand there and talk about myself even though neither of us was interested. As I talked, I’d sometimes watch my customers’ faces, trying to guess which detail they’d ask me about afterward in a weak attempt to prove they’d listened. With Felix, this was easy. When I mentioned teaching, his eyes darted to one side. After I finished talking, he said, “So you’re a schoolteacher. What grade?”

“Well it’s college,” I said. “So they’re freshmen.”

“Oh,” he said, nodding. A few minutes later, he asked, “So you must really like children.”

“I love children,” I said. “But my students are eighteen. Some are actually a lot older. I have one student who is forty-nine.”

“Wow,” he said, looking puzzled. What was a forty-nine-year-old doing in elementary school, he probably wondered? “You know I’ve always wanted to write a novel,” he said.

He began to tell the story of his experience as a Puerto Rican kid growing up in Brooklyn. He’d entered our school system without knowing the language, and it had been a horrible experience. His own elementary schoolteachers had ridiculed him for struggling to speak English. I thought it was a good idea for a novel, and I told him as much. It occurs to me now that I’d accidentally bonded with him over his lingering childhood sadness.
In later conversations I’d remind him where and what I taught, also that I was writing essays, not a novel, but he continually got it wrong, preferring his idea of me over mine. In his mind, I taught elementary school and was writing a novel. He was very resistant to reality, Felix. No matter how many times I corrected him, I was a sweet schoolteacher and a novelist, his boyhood dreams come to life.

I knew it was only a matter of time before Felix would ask me to read his favorite book. It would change my life, he would say. Sure enough, during one of our Happy Hour conversations, which I was now trying to make as short as possible, he mentioned Gabriel Garcia Marquez, asking if I’d ever read Love in the Time of Cholera. I said I hadn’t, and knowing what was coming next, added that I wished I could read everyone’s favorite book, but the truth was I didn’t have time. I reminded him of what I had said just two or three sentences before, that essentially I had three jobs, that I was quite literally reading, writing, or teaching all the time that I wasn’t bartending. For added effect, I sliced the air near my neck to illustrate how high the stack of books was that I had to read, and then I formed two zeros with my hands to represent my lack of free time.

Still, nearly every conversation that followed went the same way: Felix would ask me about my novel, my elementary school students, and what I was doing with all my free time.

“How are your kids?” he’d ask. “What are you doing on your days off?”

After a while, I stopped correcting him. It was useless. I’d created a monster, it seemed, and now the monster was creating its mate. I knew I should have told Felix about my fiancé. I could have at least worn my ring at the bar. But I knew if I did I’d lose customers. To build business, we bartenders put on shows of friendliness; to maintain that business, we strung people along. This is, after all, the lie of the bar. Not everyone goes there for company. Many go to feel anonymous, to escape the company they normally keep.

As for Felix, the company he normally kept was by small degrees turning out to be me. I decided to implement the human tape recorder strategy, which I’d had luck with in the past. Each time I saw Felix, I repeated the same things I said to him the time before. I’d say, “You should write that book,” for example, over and over again. By doing this, I hoped to deliver the message that this was as much as I ever wanted to know about him, that this was as far as our relationship would ever go. Inexplicably, the message this seemed to send to him was that he ought to buy me a present. It was Love in the Time of Cholera, gift wrapped, and a card shaped like a lady bug.

I wonder which cards he’d rejected before settling on the lady bug. There aren’t cards reading, “Dear emotional captive,” or, “I like to think I like you.” The lady bug was perfect—a little sweet, a little creepy-crawly, a bug landing randomly on people and things.

“Thank you,” I said to Felix. “But I don’t have time to read this book.”

He nodded, smiling.

Inside the card, he’d written: “Maybe when you have some free time we can go get some coffee.”

From then on, I decided to ignore Felix as much as I could. This actually seemed to encourage him, and he came in more and more. Worse was that I still liked Felix. He seemed like a good guy, if a little dense. Whether I wanted it or not, we were in a relationship. He must have known we’d end abruptly if he vocalized his feelings. The only way to keep us going was to pretend, as I had, that we were friends.

I couldn’t believe there had ever been a time when I had wanted him to sit at the bar. Now, when he arrived, I’d literally run away, inventing some reason to go to the kitchen or the basement. But I could only disappear for so long—ten, fifteen minutes tops. I had to come back. Felix knew this and waited.

“Hey Megan,” he’d say when I returned. “Read the book yet?”

“No,” I’d reply. “I told you, I’m not going to.”

“Oh,” he’d say. He looked so dejected every time I told him that. Each time I did, I thought I’d hurt him sufficiently, that it would be the last time I’d ever see him, but he always gathered new strength, and a few days later, reappeared for more. It got so bad that the whole time he was there I’d sweat and feel nauseated. We were masochists, both of us unwilling to end it.

“What happened between you and Felix?” Kenny asked one day.

I told him about the book, the card, the human tape recorder strategy—everything. To my surprise, he was sympathetic.

“The human tape recorder strategy,” he said. “You’ve really tried everything.”

“Everything except that I’m engaged,” I said.

Kenny offered to tell him for me, but I declined. As much as I liked Kenny’s protection, I wanted him to think I could clean up my own messes.
Just when I decided to give it to Felix straight, two weeks went by with no Felix at all. It was odd. Wasn’t Felix hopelessly in love with me? I started to feel guilty then, like maybe I had misread the signs. Maybe my head had grown big from all the attention I got from male customers. I asked Kenny if he had said something to Felix. He hadn’t. At last, at the end of the second week, relief set in. He’d finally had enough.

Then, at the beginning of Happy Hour one day, Felix returned. He was lugging a huge duffel bag. His face appeared smaller and tanner than ever, punctured by the sunken eyes of a tired, old man. There were no other customers at the bar. Felix hoisted the bag onto a barstool, sat down next to it, and said, “Hey Megan.”

“Hey,” I said, placing a cocktail napkin in front of him. “Coors Light draft?”

He paused, and then nodded. “Thank you.”

I walked to the other end of the bar, grabbed a cold glass from the chiller, and positioned myself in front of the Coors Light tap, pulling the handle toward me. As I drew the beer into the glass, I noticed it looked flat, which meant that the keg was low. I hoped it would kick so I would have to go to the basement to change it. It didn’t. I set the beer down on the napkin in front of Felix. He thanked me, picked up the glass, and took a long drink. I wanted to walk away but didn’t see how I could. We were alone. There were no glasses to wash. I had nothing else to do. I stood about a foot farther from Felix than I normally would from a customer and picked up a crossword puzzle. Felix smiled at me. I smiled back. I looked at the duffel bag. He followed my gaze.

“I was in Puerto Rico,” he said.

“Oh yeah?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. Then he saddened. He looked into his beer. “My nephew was supposed to get married,” he said.

“Supposed to?” I said, training my eyes on the crossword.

“Yeah, supposed to,” he said. “The bride left him at the altar. I’m really close to my nephew so I had to stay and do damage control.”

“That’s awful,” I said, putting the crossword down. “What happens when a bride backs out like that? Do the guests stick around and have fun, or does it turn into a big anger fest?”

He smiled and said, “Both.”

“Figures,” I said. Then he started to tell the story. Mainly, it was a showcase for Felix’s gentle wisdom. He’d pulled his nephew from the depths of despair. The story went on and on. As he talked, my attention wandered. I was mad at myself for getting sucked back in. My thoughts strayed to the books I had to read, the work I had to do. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the servers eating and talking in the back, killing time before the dinner rush. Then I saw Kenny arrive, plunk his work bag down behind the bar, and open the register to see if the manager had left enough change in the drawer. He looked at me and at Felix.

I’m OK, I mouthed. He pointed to the floor. He wanted to restock the keg room. I gave him the thumbs up, and he disappeared.

The next thing I knew, Felix was saying, “But the whole time, all I could think about was you.”

For a second I thought I’d heard him wrong. It made no sense.

“Me?” I asked.

“Yes, you,” he said, resting his hands on the bar as if preparing to play the piano.

“Felix—” I said, shaking my head. “Are you trying to date me?”

“Definitely,” he said. Then he came clean. “Remember when you changed your hair?” he asked me.

I nodded. Downstairs I heard the thudding of kegs against the cement floor. I wished Kenny would hurry.

“God, you looked so amazing,” he said. “Ever since then I couldn’t stop thinking about you, and in Puerto Rico I had an epiphany in this dance club with nephew.” He went on to describe his dance club epiphany, which went something like this: “Go after what you want, even when what you want wants nothing to do with you.” So he’d gotten off the plane, boarded a train to Morristown, and came right to the bar to see me.

“I haven’t even been home yet,” he said, patting his duffel bag.

“You’re married,” I said, struggling to keep my voice down.

“I am,” he said. He looked down at his hands. He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. “Understand,” he continued, “It hasn’t been easy. I live in Manhattan. My wife lives in New Jersey. That’s when you see me, when I come out to visit her.” He paused and breathed deeply. “I’m very lonely.”

“I’m engaged,” I said. “I thought you knew that.”

“No,” he said. He looked shocked.

“I thought one of the regulars told you,” I said.

“I don’t talk to your regulars,” he said, his voice suddenly dripping with bitterness. “But I see you talking to them. I see how smooth you are with the men.”

“Smooth?” I asked.

I never thought of myself as smooth before. Maybe that was my problem. Maybe I ought to have. According to Felix, I’d lured him in like I had all the rest, a fat spider in a thick web, gloating over her victims.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Felix. “I feel like I did something wrong.”

“I carried this from the train station for you,” he said, pointing to his duffel bag.

“I wish you hadn’t,” I said.

His eyes searched my face. It was as if he no longer recognized me.

“I’m sorry,” I said again. “Does this mean you won’t come in anymore?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” he said, reaching for his wallet.

He took out a five dollar bill and slapped it down on the bar. I took the bill to the register and counted out his change, two dollars and seventy-five cents. My hands were shaking. I put the money in front of him and said “I’m sorry” again. Then I walked away. Downstairs, Kenny was rolling the last keg into the cooler. I told him what happened, and we walked back upstairs together. When we got there, Felix was gone. He’d left the three quarters on the bar. Kenny looked at the seventy-five cents.

“Wow,” he said. “Seventy-five cents.”

“I know,” I said. “I didn’t even earn a dollar.”