The Things We Miss

I sat there, leaning over the bar, a half shot of Jack Daniels swirling in my hands, punching in the numbers of my cell phone into a small solar-powered calculator.  Sunlight and bars aren’t usual bedfellows, but the bars on Bourbon Street in New Orleans have huge doors and windows that are always kept wide open to allow as many drunken people to stumble in as possible.  It’s a different kind of system, one I admire for its openness and acceptability of drinkers, sots and alcoholics of all sorts.  In Los Angeles bars are kept behind dark windows and dim lighting, opting to hide the drinkers in the guise of sports, swank and greasy chicken fingers.  But not in here, not in this little NOLA blues bar across the street from the hotel that my mother and I are staying at.

What drew me to it was the live band that was playing there.  It was a simple band of aging rockers, one of whom played a mini-accordion, and another a back-up singer that seemed to do more dancing than singing. The music wasn’t great, or very good really, but fuck it was live.  A live blues band in a blues bar in New Orleans and like hell I wasn’t going to go and have a shot and drink it up along with the music, the atmosphere and that beautiful goddamn city.

The bar was mostly empty.  A few people sat near the stage, obviously friends of the performers, singing along with the band.  In another time or place this transparency would be sad and pitiful, but they were all having such a good time that no one seemed to care.  Behind the bar stood a young, attractive brunette with a large bust and her hair pulled back.  She was the kind of girl that I fantasized talking to, flirting with.  Not for any ulterior motives or in hope of getting some action (although it wouldn’t be unwelcome), but because she was beautiful; a pretty girl pouring whiskey in a small dive trying to block out the inane blues band wailing away in the corner.  I wondered what her laugh sounded like and imagined being the sort of man that would, that could, talk with her and make her smile.

I ordered my shot and paid with cash.  Instead of gulping down the shot in one go, I weighed the inherent loneliness of sitting in a bar without a drink against the awkwardness of sipping Jack from a shot glass for five minutes and decided to take my time.  It was my vacation after all; not so much a period of time when you never feel awkward, but simply a period of time when you stop caring if you do.  I drank my shot over eight minutes, listening to the longest rendition of “Proud Mary” I had ever heard.

“You want another one?”

I looked at the bartender who had placed her hand on the shot glass, waiting to move it until she heard my answer.  Her eyes were hazel.

“Sure, why not?  It’s only 2:30 on a Friday.”  She filled my glass, and I took out my wallet.  I gave her my credit card this time because I wanted to save some of my cash for the rest of the trip.  When she passed me the check and I gave my usual gratuity and my signature.  My actual signed name is quite normal: a lot of loops and swishes and squiggles that leave an undecipherable moniker.  But along with my signature I always draw a little stick figure, holding up a glass with a straw and a lemon wedge in it, with a huge open grin on his face saying, “Thank You!”  I do this in the hope that one day I will be known across the country as the “Stick Figure Drinker”, but also because I enjoy doodling and I figured that a little more gratitude never hurts.

I drank my Jack Daniels like a normal man this time, tipping my head back and letting the bourbon fly down my throat.  I shivered a little, placed the glass on the bar and slipped my copy of the bill into my wallet.  The band finished playing “Proud Mary” and I was about to get up and walk out before they started their next song, when the bartender laughed out loud.  I looked around to see her smiling widely, one hand on her chest and the other holding my bill.  She looked at me and held up the bill, still laughing.  “This is the best tip anyone has ever left me.”

I sat there dumbfounded for a moment.  I had never seen a reaction to my “Little Man” before.  I always imagined servers smirked at him, but I never thought they actually laughed.  Understanding that she had paid me a compliment and I was getting dangerously close to being silent for too long, I said thank you and turned back towards the bar.

She walked over to me and asked, “Do you do this on every bill?”

“No, not really,” I lied.

She raised one eyebrow.  “Just for me?”  Her tone had turned to one of playful sarcasm, and my heart melted.

“You’re just over there all by yourself.  The place is pretty empty.  Seems like a boring Friday afternoon, so I thought I’d try to brighten it up.”

She giggled.  “Well, this certainly brightened up my day.  I’m just sad that it has to get turned into accounting, so I can’t keep him.”

She looked straight into my eyes and I knew it was my turn to say something if we were to get past the pleasantries and onto the real flirting, and yet I was speechless.  The speech portion of my brain has been slightly damaged by drugs, liquor and spinning in my chair fast far too many times, so I brought out my wallet from my back pocket and took out the receipt.  I picked up the pen that still lay on the bar and drew the Little Man again, adding more words to say, “Here’s an extra doodle for your personal use, brought to you by Nic.  Thank You!”  I handed her the receipt.  She read it and smiled again.  She put her hand out and I put mine out and we shook.

“Hi Nic.  I’m Rebbeca.”

“Howdy.”

“So do you have any other day brighteners to share?”

“I can also make an origami piano out of a gum wrapper, and create large, unstable sculptures from the things on the bar.”

“Can’t that get a little dangerous?”

“Tell me about it.”  I pointed at a tiny scar on my wrist.  “Johnny Rockets, 2007.  The result from a valiant piece labeled, “Sharp Utensils on a Napkin.”

She laughed for the third time.  She had a good laugh.  She asked me what brought me to New Orleans.  I explained I was on a vacation with my mother.  We were going to go on a week cruise and the boat sailed out of the New Orleans port, but I had never been to New Orleans and so we decided to spend a few days taking in the city.  And because I know talking about your mother can kill the mood about as fast as if your mother actually walked in and forced herself into the conversation, I turned the questions around.

“What about you?  You work in a bar directly on the famed Bourbon Street.  I’m sure you have learned a few bar games.”

“You’d think so, but no.”

“No drunk magicians sharing a few tricks with the pretty bartender?”

“We just get a lot of wasted college kids.  No one so charming as you.”

So this is what flirting is like, I thought.  I was not only surprised about how it was exactly what I imagined it would be, but also that I was doing so well at it.

“I do know one thing.”  She reached behind the bar and brought out a calculator.  She placed it in front of me and turned it on.

“Is this one of those math jokes where you plug in some equations, press equal and turn it over to find a word spelled out?”

“Nothing so lame.  Here –“

And she proceeded to give me the following instructions:

– Take the first 3 numbers of a phone number
– Multiply by 80
– Add 1
– Multiply by 250
– Add the last 4 digit of phone number
– Add the last 4 digits of phone number again
– Subtract 250
– Divide in ½

I followed her instructions, using my cell phone number, and what I ended up with after I pressed enter was my full cell number laid out (so 123-4567 turns into 1,234,567).

“That’s crazy,” I laughed, “Where did you learn that?”

She said an older student had taught it to her in high school in a boring math class.  I asked her to write down the instructions for me, and then we started to talk about how you learn the most random things during high school classes: how to braid hair, how to cover your text book with shiny gum wrappers, how to make weird noises with your mouth, how to turn any pen into a projectile weapon.  After that we talked for another half hour but I can’t remember what about.

At some point, I looked at the piece of paper she wrote the instructions on and asked her, “Does this work with every phone number?”

“Yeah. Try it with mine.”

She told me her number and I followed the instructions, reaching the exact same conclusion.  I looked up at her.  “Yup.  There’s your full number.  All that’s missing is the area code.”

She didn’t say anything.  She looked straight into my eyes again and smiled.  This is the moment, I thought, this is where you ask.

Suddenly, a loud group of young men stumbled up to the bar and called for drinks.  Rebbeca looked at me, rolled her eyes, and then went to take their orders.  I glanced at my watch and saw it was getting close to the time I had said I would be back at the room.  I folded her instructions and slipped it into my wallet where the receipt had been.  I looked back up to Rebbeca, who was getting beers and pouring Hurricanes, and waited until I caught her eye.  I mouthed, ‘I have to get going”.  She nodded, I waved, and she smiled her sweet smile and waved back.  I walked out of the bar and back to the hotel room so my mother and I could figure out where we were going to go next.  Had there been sadness in that smile as well?  I like to think so.

I have wondered many times what would have happened if I had asked for her number.  It’s not like I had my own room, or my own car, or even a whole lot of time; my mother and I were having dinner in an hour or so, and then we were set to embark on our cruise the next day.  But it would have completed the realization of my fantasy – that I was a guy who could flirt with a girl who was far more attractive than I, ask for her number and then actually get it.  I would have become who I wanted to be.

About a year later, I was emptying out my wallet to purge cancelled cards and expired Starbucks coupons when I came on Rebbeca’s instructions, folded and tucked away into a corner.  I took it out and read through them.  I went through the instructions (by long hand since I didn’t have a calculator) because I had forgotten what the trick was.  As I did, I relived the forty or so minutes I spent in that bar, talking with the pretty brunette pouring whiskey.  By the time I got to end to see my cell phone number written on the paper, I remembered my regret for not having asked for Rebbeca’s number.

As I sat there staring at the instructions, it suddenly dawned on me that I had gotten her number; she had given it to me when I plugged her number in to see if the instructions worked on every phone number.  Without me even asking, she had given me her phone number.  I never wrote it down because so inexperienced was I at the game that I didn’t even know what was going on.  But I realized that on that day I hadn’t become the guy who could get numbers when he asked for them, hadn’t become who I wanted to be.  I had become some else, something more.  For that forty minutes (and those forty minutes alone as I have not been able to reproduce the result), I had become the guy who could get numbers without having to ask.

The instructions are still in my wallet to remind me to not get so caught up in who I’m trying to be that I miss who I am.  And to remember to take notice of everything that is around me.  And also as proof that doodling stick figures can get you women, if the figures are cute enough.

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