I was alone at one of those bars in the Mission that ten years ago was probably a real dive but now displays velvet art on the walls and serves Pabst Blue Ribbon ironically. The bartender was showing so much hardware and ink, it was like getting served by Lisbeth Salander. She wasn't my type, but underneath the body graffiti she was pretty and honestly I was so far beyond type I had trouble even making eye contact. So I'd sat there for the last hour, taking sips of my beer and obsessively checking the phone hidden in my lap in an attempt not to appear desperate. But I wasn't fooling anyone. What non-desperate person keeps looking at his own crotch?
I'm an analyst at one of those banks that took a ton of bailout money and then acted like it was the government being the jerks. I got the job because my uncle, a managing director there, passed over more qualified candidates. And I'm living rent-free in the garden apartment of his house in Pacific Heights. I realize I'm the walking embodiment of white male privilege, but I'm trying to be a good person despite my circumstances.
Another you should know is I'm lonely. I worked a lot so that helped, but I was slow making friends and my romantic neediness was an effective female repellent. Download Tinder, you say? I swiped those who swiped me not. In the last few weeks, my loneliness had gotten so overwhelming that if I went for a chunk of time without distraction the feeling that, even if I was surrounded by people, I would be alone for the rest of my life, gnawed away at the little bit of well being I had left.
My aunt and uncle were out of town and the long weekend I'd acted so pumped about Friday afternoon was stretching out like open jaws before me. That's why I'd broken down and texted John and Fig about meeting up. They weren't my real friends; they'd considered me uncool in college and we'd stayed in contact only because we'd been the three who came to San Francisco after grad. The few times I'd met up with them, they'd had their inside jokes and I bought more rounds than my share. I'd sworn I wouldn't hang with them again, but I couldn't stand another Saturday night alone on my bed streaming Netflix. I mean how sad is it when you watch a movie so much that your favorite scene--the one where everything changes--becomes something you pause to get a snack?
From the back of the room, I heard my name. It didn't look like Fig or John, but I couldn't tell. I had misplaced my glasses and contacts irritated my eyes, making them red and watery. Nothing hotter than a desperate loner who looks like he's been crying.
"Ben," he said, closer.
It was Wage Slave.
Wage Slave was the mail guy at the bank. Our clients were tech companies, but we still paid someone minimum to push a metal cart office to office. Despite the mailroom being a mythical ingredient of the American dream, Wage Slave didn't see his job as a path to something bigger. He took long breaks, hung with the bike messengers, smoked for God's sake. One day he wore a sign around his neck with "Wage Slave" in block print. It was as much a joke as a bitter salvo against capitalism, but HR made him take it off. That happened on one of my days at the office, and although I'd heard his name since, whatever it was hadn't replaced Wage Slave.
"I thought it was you," he said taking the empty seat.
"Waiting on friends." I answered, checking my lap again.
He swigged his beer. "You want to head over to another place?"
He looked around like he was going to tell me something important, leaned forward and whispered "All women."
I worked at the wet label on my bottle. "No bars are all women, unless they're women who won't want to talk to us."
"This place is different. A sure thing."
"Not interested in that," I said, thinking I had never been more interested.
"Nah, not that. They wear signs."
He was kidding me. He was the sign wearer. I told him as much.
"I got the idea at this place."
We sat drinking for a minute in silence.
"The sign says what they'd answer if a reasonably attractive guy propositioned them."
"It's an app?" I asked.
"No. A sign. String and everything."
"Why would anyone do that?"
Wage Slave shrugged. "They get in free. Their drinks are free. Most of the guys that go there have money. No sweatpants, you know what I mean? Anyhow, if they lie they're blacklisted."
A sign around your neck. I thought about how Ariel, my college girlfriend and constant Take Back the Night marcher, would be outraged, how completely she would lose it at this concept. She'd say it was men who should wear signs. That it was men's intentions that should be on display. She liked to flip things, which was one reason I liked her.
If I had a sign it might say, "I only look like a tech bro" or "I'm seriously going to get my own place."
"What have you got to lose?" Wage Slave asked.
Fig and John thought I'd wait no matter how much time they took. But what if I wasn't here when they arrived? What if I got a spine?
"Let's go," I said, covering my tab.
"Bye, Joe," Lisbeth called from the bar as we walked out. He turned and blew her a kiss, which she caught and pressed against her cheek.
- - -
Joe said he could take us, and I said ok, thinking he had a car, but what he had was a moped, one that couldn't make it up the backside of Franklin Street loaded with two passengers. Twice I had to get off and walk. I thought about heading home, letting Joe go on, but the night was writing its own set of rules and I decided to stick it out. Or maybe I didn't want to go home so badly I was willing to take humiliation to its end point, who could say?
Our destination was in Pacific Heights. I couldn't imagine that any of the fern bars I'd passed on the way to get groceries for my aunt could be the place, but Joe seemed sure. And just off Fillmore, I followed him down an alley. A few steps below street level there was a black steel door, The Upfront in faded gold script, a peephole. Joe buzzed.
The room we entered was pitch dark and I realized that I had made a huge mistake. My hand went to my wallet, and I turned to go, but the door had locked behind me.
Joe parted a curtain, and I realized the dark room was just an entryway. Low-lit velvet waited beyond.
A bouncer in a tuxedo working coat check pointed to the sign. Cover: $100 Coat: $50.
I paid cover --I'd been mugged anyhow.
"I'd rather keep mine," I said about my coat. My phone was in the pocket.
"You can't," the bouncer said. "No phones, no photos." He held out a basket. Joe, who'd already turned over his windbreaker, put his phone in, and got an orange ticket.
"But what if someone needs to get a hold of me?" I asked.
"If you're here," the bouncer said, "and you're interested in something not here, then you're in the wrong place."
On the counter I saw the makings of the signs: white poster board strips, strings attached by masking tape, black Sharpies to write. I stretched, trying to peek inside the velvet room. There were a lot of women in there. And they did all seem to be wearing signs. I couldn't make out any but the one closest to me. A girl, not my type--but as I said, I was way past type--wore one that said, "In the dark I'll do anything."
I gave up my phone.
Joe and I ordered whiskey at the zinc bar. I drank it like a shot, ordered another, and turned to survey the place.
Women stood in small, tight circles at the room's center. Men stood on the periphery, scanning signs. Some guys leaned against the wall, as if the girl they were staring at might come to them. I realized I was at the most expensive junior high dance ever.
In the group of women closest to us, there was a girl. Irish looking. Red hair, scattered freckles. The contrast between her auburn ponytail and her pale skin was something that needed my attention. I wanted to know what color eyes she had. What her voice sounded like. Her name. I wished my second whiskey would come, because I couldn't walk over there without a drink, and if I didn't get there soon I was sure someone else would.
And then I remembered why I'd come. The way Irish was standing, I couldn't see what her sign said. But she was wearing one.
I paid for my second drink with my last twenty, nudged Joe and tilted my head toward the group that included Irish. Joe did one slow nod and, with me finally understanding what wingman meant, we made our way over.
I downed the whiskey halfway there, felt emboldened by my buzz and magically the circle of three parted and let us in. Another guy had been hovering and tried to ride our slipstream, but Joe blocked him and started talking to the brunettes that made up the rest of Irish's trio.
Irish's sign hung on her chest. I had trained myself for years to not look directly into the sun ("eyes up here, Romeo" Ariel would say) so I looked at Irish's face instead, what she'd written just outside my periphery. Her eyes were green. Even with the whiskey, I looked away.
Irish, however, didn't have a problem with eye contact. I could feel her gaze on me like a like a searchlight. Her drink was on the small table beside her, barely touched. She wore a knee-length skirt and a cardigan buttoned up. Her clothes didn't matter—the curve of her neck where it met her dark blue sweater was about as mind blowing as I could stand—but the formality of her outfit made it seem like she was here for jury duty or a lunch interview rather than a night out.
Joe was already getting a laugh out of the two other girls. I could easily read the sign of the one facing me. "I'm up for whatever," it said. But Joe seemed equally interested in the other one. I couldn't see her face or her sign, but it must have been really good.
I turned my attention back toward Irish, glancing down long enough to read what her answer would be.
"But I Barely Know You," she'd written in perfect, tiny script.
She saw me read her sign and took a breath, awaiting my verdict.
I extended my hand, a reflex, but it wasn't reaching for hers, it was reaching for her sign. I wanted to pull it off, get Irish out of here, and take her somewhere fun, with hamburgers or maybe just coffee in case she was vegan. But the part of me that tended to blow it in the clutch hesitated. And I saw a twinge of doubt cross her lips, then her forehead.
The other brunette turned to me, and I saw NO! Written boldly with a smiley face after. Joe, who had to have paid every cent he had made in a week to be here, was telling jokes and NO! and Whatever were laughing so hard they were almost in the snort zone.
I heard a delicate sigh come from Irish. And I realized it was an easy sound to hear because the gnaw of loneliness had gone quiet. But what should I do? Attempt some witty comment? Pretend detachment until I found out more?
She reached for her drink. This time, I met her fingers, taking them in mine.
"Wait your turn, dude," said the guy we'd blocked before. "I saw her first." He put one drunk arm around Whatever and reached for Irish, tangling her hair in his sweaty paw.
I played with the speed bag at the gym waiting for the treadmill, but had never thrown an actual punch. Joe saved me from finding out what it would be like by knocking the guy to the ground. Before drunk guy could get up and collect his friends, I got lifted from behind, carried out of the club and heaved to the ally. I heard the crack of my phone screen hitting the asphalt and the soft thump of my jacket landing nearby. Joe lay next to me, a trickle of blood coming from his nose. He was quickly surrounded by NO! and Whatever who ministered to him, using tissues from their purses to apply pressure and clean him up.
I was lifting my phone up to check for damage when I heard "Hey." It was Irish.
"I think you landed on your forehead," she said, kneeling down beside me in the kind of thick wool coat you needed for summer in San Francisco. "It's already bruising."
My head hurt but I didn't care. "What's your real name?" I asked.
Joe's moped cranked live. NO! was on it, getting ready to ride away.
"Wait," I said, sitting up.
"It's okay," NO! said. "I'm riding it to his house."
Joe nodded. "They're taking me home," he said, and despite the bloody nose he did not look unhappy. "See you Tuesday."
Whatever helped him into a cab. The wind blowing the fog in whipped her long pink cape, it's satin lining folding in on itself as the door closed like an elaborate sea creature protecting its delicate insides.
I stood and zipped my jacket. Katherine faced me and we both held phones at our sides while we looked at each other. Mine buzzed. Maybe it was Fig and John, maybe it was my aunt reminding me to water her orchid, maybe it was someone on Tinder finally swiping right. Without looking at the screen, I couldn't know. I put it in my pocket. Katherine did the same with hers.
"Coffee?" I asked.
"Don't you need to get home? Get some ice?"
"I'm fine," I told her as we crossed the street toward a cafe. "I've never been better."